Discord in the Buffyverse

Twiddling around the intertubes, I happened upon this blogpost entitled, “Joss Whedon is a mysogynist homophobe.”  Now, I’m a fan of Buffy, as I’ve made clear before, and seeing this, well . . . I just had to read it.

Needless to say, I strongly disagreed with just about every point ol’ Clint here makes.  And since he invites responses to his post I thought I’d get a few of the things I disagreed with most off my chest.  So I emailed him.

I have yet to hear back from him.  I’d like to think that the awesomeness of my arguments struck him dead, but, more likely, the last paragraph or so (in which the detached, academic mask slips and I unleash a little of my fury) was enough to convince him not to bother responding.  But I felt good writing it and it reignited my love for the show.

Anywaaaaaaay, if you care (and it’s long, so . . . really, only if you care), I thought I would share my response with you.  It might help to read his post first since my response is basically a point-for-point rebuttal of his, but it might not be necessary.  Needless to say, there be SPOILERS here.  So, without further ado, I give you my defense of Buffy the Vampire Slayer:

Clint,

I am writing this in response to your blog post entitled, “Joss Whedon is a misogynist homophobe.” I disagree with the sentiments as well as your reasoning for making them, as will prove very clear with the reading of what follows. I apologize off-handedly for the length, but I thought the best response to your post would be a point-by-point refutation of your reasoning. In nearly every case, you distort, misrepresent, or get just plain wrong the metaphors and story of the show.

I say “wrong” because I’m taking it for granted that you believe there are right and wrong readings of a cultural text. What I mean by that is that there are interpretations that encompass better (or worse) all the aspects of a text (in this case, the TV show). Obviously, one can pick and choose specific characters or moments and draw contradictory conclusions from them, but not without ignoring huge portions of the remaining work of art. Or, as Umberto Eco put it, “One can find everything in a text, provided one is irrespectful toward it.” Thus, I am saying your reading of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is more than just a different interpretation—it is, in fact, wrong, because it does not satisfy the evidence of the TV show as a whole work of art.

But let’s get to it, shall we?

Your first point deals with the overarching mythos of the show: that into every generation a Slayer is born and she alone must fight the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. But, as you put it, “The first failure of Whedon’s girl power is that Buffy has a watcher.” You ask, “Why a ‘watcher’ and not a ‘helper’ or a ‘teacher’?”  Allow me to explain.

There is something in feminist theory called “the male gaze.” It was first proposed by Laura Mulvey regarding film theory. I’m quoting here from the FAQ at www.finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com: “Mulvey states that in film women are typically the objects, rather than the possessors, of gaze because the control of the camera (and thus the gaze) comes from factors such as the as the [sic] assumption of heterosexual men as the default target audience for most film genres.” The concept has been broadened to encompass different art forms, advertising, even real life, but the concept can be boiled down to this: Women are denied their own agencies outside the framework of men’s uses. Women become tools for the gratification of men.

Perhaps you already see how this is relevant to Buffy. The Watcher Council was created to control Slayers, to deny them their own agency so they could be put to use as the Council saw fit. Quentin Travers even states in the episode “Checkpoint,” “The Council fights evil. The Slayer is the instrument by which we fight.” The Council wants to deny Buffy her agency to make her their “instrument” (a literal object) in their fight.

It is this framework that you call the “first failure of Whedon’s girl power,” but you completely ignore what he does within this framework. From the very beginning—the very first episode—Buffy resists the restrictive orders of the Council. She does things her way, which often proves to be the better way. Her resistance becomes even more pronounced when Giles is fired (“Helpless”), until finally she has had enough and quits the Council all together at the end of season three (“Graduation Day”). Joss places her from the beginning under this male gaze because that is the place from which any woman in today’s world must start. But Buffy fights against this gaze until she ultimately throws it off altogether. Thus, Joss creates a patriarchal framework to deconstruct it from within.

Who cares where she gets her power from? Police are given their power and authority from the State. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t use it to fight for justice because it doesn’t come from themselves.

You continue your analysis by turning next to the last living watcher of the Watchers (if you will). You cite her death by Caleb as the final piece of evidence of the show’s overarching misogynistic framework. But you misread it once again. This woman is sacrificed by Caleb on the altar of—not misogyny, but—exposition. Joss presented Buffy, in effect, with a walking encyclopedia of answers to all of her questions. The woman said her piece (and by the time Caleb gets to her, she’s said what she needs to say), and then she dies. She’s a plot device; it’s pretty simple to see that. But if you want a message, how’s this one: It’s not enough to have the answers; you have to fight for them, too. It feels tacked on because it is. This probably comes from Joss using the Watcher’s Council in the above (male gaze) metaphorical way, but wanting the ultimate message of the show (for the sake of the greater Buffyverse) to be securely on the side of the sisterhood. And, though Caleb kills this “all-powerful” (as you call her) woman, he also gets cut in half by Buffy (starting with a rather righteous scythe-blow to the nads).

Next you turn to Buffy’s love-life.

According to you, Buffy’s taste in men proves her “to be little more than the typical dumb, pretty blond who always falls for the bad boy.” You say Angel “represents everything Buffy fights against.” But . . . really, he doesn’t. Judging by the surface, I suppose, you could make that mistake. Angel is a vampire. But Angel is also a selfless defender of Good, a helper of the helpless, an honorable person who recognizes the pain and mistakes of his life and fights to redeem himself. Given those aspects, one could say Angel is, in fact, everything that Buffy is fighting for.

Also, it may be easier to take the points you make seriously in the future (as opposed to brushing them off or reacting to them with anger) if you don’t resort to childish sarcasm (e.g. “Angel is different, though. Angel is special. Don’t let those bad-boy good looks and dark trench coats fool you. Angel has a soul.”).

Angel losing his soul is a metaphor for the guy who becomes slime once a woman sleeps with him—which is a real-world phenomenon, by the by. Joss gave women a representation of that so they could experience a little cathartic empathy. But I guess I’m missing your point. Your point is that she “still maintains her tragic love for her tormentor.” Thus, she “becomes the classic abused enabler.” But your analysis misses the fact that, uh . . . no she doesn’t.

True: Buffy is unable to kill Angelus right away, because she still loves him. That’s called dramatic conflict, and it’s something that makes stories compelling. In your essay you illustrate your point with a series of inane and hyperbolically stupid quotations that you attribute to Buffy, besides the fact that they are your words, not hers. They are: “‘It’s not Angel’s fault he killed Miss Calendar,’ she seems to say. ‘Maybe she broke her neck on a door knob. Maybe she fell down the stairs. And anyway, it’s my fault Angel lost his soul. The foul Buff muff made him do it.’”

Point #1: Whenever you use the phrase “seems to say,” that means they literally did not say it. Which means you cannot (honestly, at least) use quotation marks—especially in anything approaching a “semi-academic” paper.

Point #2: It’s Jenny Calendar’s murder that finally sets Buffy’s resolve to do what she should have done all along—kill Angelus. Yeah, Calendar died. And her death was tragic and moving. Even superheroes make mistakes; that’s what humanizes them. A show where the hero never makes mistakes, never second-guesses herself, never experiences any setbacks, would be terrible and completely uncompelling. Drama—look it up.

I do, however, largely agree with your take on Riley. The Finnmaster-Blaster has a serious inferiority complex when it comes to Buffy, even the show gets confused about what metaphor it’s using. He is somehow both the addict (addicted to the danger) and the drug (his blood), which he shoots up (via junkie vampires) with whom he is also cheating on Buffy (as she refers to them as his “whores”). Meanwhile, the government basically enables his addiction by giving him one of the most dangerous, monster-killing jobs in the world (and that’s a good thing?). FYI: the episode title is “Into the Woods,” not “Into the Sky.” I do agree that Xander is an “idiot boy” and that the Riley-Buffy break-up is 100% Riley’s fault. My girlfriend and I both have a lot of problems with that episode but, at the same time, we’re both really glad to see Riley go.

I wholly disagree with you on the Spike front, though. Even you do, at least on some level. I’m quoting you here: “Perhaps Buffy’s cavorting with Spike in season six is understandable from a character standpoint. Buffy did die at the end of season 5, spend a summer hiatus in Heaven, and get pulled back into the hell of Sunnydale, after all. Unlike most of her friends, Spike seems willing to cut her some slack and understanding.” He’s the only person in the entire show who tries to understand what she is going through, so . . . yeah, maybe their relationship is a little understandable. Your response to your above evidence for the reasonableness of their relationship, however, is his . . . impotence? “Although one of the show’s most admired characters, Spike is its most pathetic. His is a worthless life of self-torture and self-loathing.” This conclusion comes from a deep misreading of Spike’s character. I’ll point out that you use the timeless present tense to describe Spike’s life, signifying to me that this is your final judgment given the totality of the series, in which case, you completely missed the point.

Yes: Spike is “impotent” in season four. The show even makes a couple funny jokes about his inability to “perform.” However: you completely disregard the journey—the change—that Spike undergoes. He goes from one of the most unforgivably Evil characters in the show to a self-sacrificing champion of Good. He damn-near gets tortured to death by Glory for Dawn (“Intervention”) and later by the First (“Never Leave Me,” “Bring on the Night”) for Buffy. He protects Dawn for months after Buffy’s death, so he isn’t only doing it to impress Buffy. He continually fights demons on his own. He re-ensouls himself at the end of season six. How much more redeemed can you get?!

Far from impotent and useless, from season five on, Spike is one of the strongest warriors in the show. Aaaaaaand: in season six, he realizes that he can hurt Buffy, making him—at least in terms of Buffy—not impotent at all. Quite the opposite.

The most important thing, however, about their season six relationship is that it is deeply unhealthy. It is. And Buffy is not immune to that. Superheroes have unhealthy relationships too (especially after they’re ripped out of heaven). I’ll also point out that it has been argued elsewhere (quite convincingly, I might add) that in their particular relationship Spike is not the abuser but the abused.

But, but, but: both you and Buffy misread Spike, because Spike really had changed. Buffy assumed he was only acting selfishly, that he couldn’t love, that he was capital ‘E’ Evil. You assumed that he was useless. And he proves both of you completely wrong at end of season six, when (as a demon, remember) he fights and wins his own soul back (something not even Angel would do!), a soul with which he will ultimately obliterate the Hellmouth.

Long story short: Spike’s far from useless. At least Buffy realized that by the end.

But moving on. . . .

You similarly misread Joss’s use of metaphor when it comes to Willow’s homosexuality. I agree with you that Willow’s sexuality is an example of black-and-white thinking. In my mind, she’s very clearly bisexual. But your conclusions are completely off-base.

First off, you correctly point out the hetero-centric bias of the TV universe but then attack Joss for sneaking homosexuality in through the (ahem) back door? You realize he had to do that, right? I mean . . . did you read the first paragraph of this—your own—section when you wrote it?

Second, you say, “Willow never actually says who she is and what she’s become. Encounters between Willow and Tara are hidden behind special effects, glowing lights and sparkles and levitations that involve no touching or intimacy but inevitably lead to simulated orgasmic response,” followed by, “they can’t just be two people in love. They have to be LESBIANS! Everywhere they go, they have to dance and sing and hold up flags—‘Hey, hey, look at us, we’re progressive, we’re open-minded lesbians, we’re all about the levitating oral, hey, hey, we’re lesbians!!!’” So . . . which is it? Is Joss hiding homosexuality behind metaphor or is he calling attention to it with a bullhorn? Or, how about this: He’s doing neither. Willow does acknowledge her sexuality (sometimes with flippant “Gay now” remarks that even you point out), their relationship was incredibly intimate (the spells . . . you know: the metaphor), she does come out to Buffy (in the episode “New Moon Rising”), and I defy you to cite one actual example where she and Tara “dance and sing and hold up flags” about their sexuality. Give me one good, concrete instance where they are in a public place and their relationship is that disruptive to the regular goings-on. Or back the fuck off.

And as a side note, if I could pull off some levitating oral as they do (in the privacy of their own home, as you blithely ignore), I’d be all about it too.

Third, you make the mistake that others have made before and that still others will make again. You equate the magic that turns Willow evil with the . . . what for lack of a better term I’ll call the good “lesbian magic.” This allows you to come to the ludicrous conclusion that the show is saying uncontrolled homosexuality can potentially destroy the world. It is so absurdly clear that it’s the magic that is the drug and not her sexuality in the season six metaphor that I would laugh except that it’s a premise from which you spew bile.

Exhibit A: Willow continues to be a lesbian after season six, even when she isn’t using magic, and the world doesn’t seem all that unstable.

Exhibit B: The show makes it childishly clear that it is Willow’s abuse of dark magic that leads to her psychosis—not the lesbian magic. See the exchange between the First and Willow in “Conversations with Dead People:”

The First: “You can’t use magic again—not ever.”
Willow: “Black magic, of course.”

Exhibit C: There is the English coven of powerful witches that rehabilitate Willow, whose power Giles describes in “Grave” as coming from the “true source of magic,” who use their magic and remain extremely powerful without destroying the world.

Exhibit D: Willow’s epiphanal moment at the conclusion of season seven when she does the spell to activate every potential Slayer in the world—during which she and the world are not destroyed, during which they are, in fact, unleashed in all their glorious potential—as illustrated by Willow’s clearly comic-book-Good white hair. So, I’ll simply answer your questions for you:

“Is this really what Whedon means to say by tying magic to homosexuality? Is Whedon really suggesting that in the end, homosexuality consumes you, destroys you and threatens the stability of the world?”

No.

But you’re not done. No, then you use the episode “Helpless” as evidence that Buffy is really just a scared little girl underneath all those man-made super powers, or, in your words, she “becomes a sobbing weakling, a pitiful, pathetic, simpering fool who runs to her bad boy lover for help.” Except that, I will patiently point out, she does not.

True: she sheds tears in the episode.
True: she goes to the man she loves for comfort.
True: she’s not as self-confident as she would be at full strength. But what the hell do you expect from a human being? How would you react if you were suddenly stripped of your powers for no identifiable reason? I’d be pissing myself and looking for comfort anywhere I could get it. Not to mention the fact (though I will) that in the end she is still able to face and best a truly demented vampire by herself sans powers after said vampire kidnaps her mother. Beyond stating these all-too-obvious facts here, I . . . I can’t . . . I shrug at what is so clearly ignorance and/or the manipulation of the episode on your part.

But then you give us the real coup de grace—that what the show is really trying to illustrate with its use of potential Slayers and girl power and strong female characters is that “equality isn’t possible in the real world.” Once again, I will merely point to what is otherwise a very heavy-handed metaphor: Inside every woman lies the potential (Get it? Potential. I’ll say it one more time: Potential.) to have the strength and self-confidence of a hero. Joss didn’t make every female on Earth a potential Slayer because, unfortunately, not everyone in the real world succeeds in realizing their full potential—or in becoming a hero. And, no doubt, he realized that he would lose the show to inanity if he finished the series with a fem-overthrow of the big, bad patriarchy (and be unable to continue it in comic book form). But I bet that little girl smashed the shit out of that baseball and that her parents were fucking proud.

The title of your essay is as trashy as the reasoning behind it. Not only that, it’s libel and it’s childish. That you insist on keeping it thus titled instead of changing it to something as provocative but not as insulting like, “Misogynistic and Homophobic Strains in Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” reinforces the trash. On behalf of Joss Whedon, fuck you. You can’t pick and choose episodes out of context and construct a vitriol thesis from that. That’s like holding an entire book responsible for the set-up of one chapter. The direction a narrative takes matters. The conclusions matter. The change in characters over time matter. And Dollhouse has no bearing on Buffy the Vampire Slayer what-so-ever. The judgment of one precludes the other entirely—though I’ll bet in Dollhouse Joss is using a similar tactic to explore the domination of patriarchy: setting up a patriarchal system so his strong female characters can tear it down. That you would judge the show after only two episodes does not surprise me; it sickens me. So, thanks for spreading misinformation about one of my favorite TV shows. I’m sure Joss appreciates it too.

Christopher Walsh

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Apocalyptica Hath Cometh

And they did bring the rock. Riding their cellos from the pages of Revelation, they stormed onto the stage, heralded by a roid-raging gorilla on the drums.

For those who may not know them, Apocalyptica is a Finnish cello quartet, first gaining fame by covering Metallica and other heavy metal favorites in a style that I will call . . . heavy cello.

But back to the awesomeness. And it was awesome—I mean that in the archaic, wrath of Odin sense of the word. The power of their playing was something to behold. Being surrounded by screaming, jumping metalheads certainly added to the experience as well. I was introduced to the band by Christina. She has a love for Metallica that seems unlikely to abate and, while I can’t quite share in that passion, that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate those who cover them.

The only bad thing about the show was that it was at the House of Blues. Man, does that venue blow. A two-story sweatbox with about seven chairs on each floor and wonderfully obstructive pillars, Christina and I were crammed into it with one thousand of our newest close friends. We managed to steal a view of the stage (I could see the right side at least) from around one of those wonderful pillars. Luckily, Apocalyptica thrust us into a euphoria far away from the crappy venue we were in.

There was a short lull in the awesomeness when Corey Taylor, a founding member of Stone Sour and member #8 of Slipknot, joined them on-stage. He sang three songs with them, I believe: “I’m Not Jesus,” the appropriately named “I Don’t Care,” and maybe some other song I can’t remember. It’s not that he was bad, per se—and granted, this genre is generally not my thing—but Apocalyptica by themselves was just so much more awesome that I found myself distracted by Mr. Taylor more than anything.

Oh, but Apocalyptica was sweet, sweet sweetness. They did a heavy cello version of David Bowie’s “Heroes.” “Heroes,” people! Played, as Perttu Kivilaakso explained with his heavy Finnish accent, “very sexually.” He and Eicca Toppinen even entertained the crowd with impromptu slapstick dialogue while their gorilla changed snare drums. An excerpt:

Perttu: How did you think to play the heavy metal onto the cello?

Eicca: *Gives knowing look to crowd* This is very new question, yes, that I have not heard before. I play the heavy metal onto the cello because . . . it helps for the children.

Perttu: When I am to grow up, can I become as beautiful as you?

*crowd cheers*

Eicca: Hope you don’t get the fat like me.

Perrtu: *raises a fisted hand and his skinny arm to crowd*

Oh, Perrtu and Eicca, you’re so good to us.

They really were, too. They played four encores. Contrast that with Explosions in the Sky, who I saw earlier this month, who didn’t even play one. I recognized four songs: “Heroes” (very sexually), “Enter Sandman,” “Nothing Else Matters” (a favorite (most of the time, the favorite) of Christina’s), and a delicious punishment courtesy of Edvard Grieg (the highlight of the evening for me).

Their musical dexterity was remarkable as well. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been. I knew they were classically trained. Maybe it’s just the cultural disconnect between seeing a man clad in black with long black hair, a huge skull impaled by a cello behind him, playing a melody that could have made Beethoven weep. And the head-banging—seriously impressive. It’s hard enough to shred on any instrument as it is, but to be able to do that while swinging your hair in continuous (sometimes synchronized) swirls, losing all manner of equilibrium: Inspiring.

I recommend you check them out, especially if you like rock or classical music. They’re at least worth a few watches on youtube. I will happily go see them again.