Tuesday, July 29, 2008

4.8 and 4.9 "Silence in the Library" and "Forest of the Dead"


I think that may have been the most flawless piece of genre TV I have ever seen.

...was what I said to myself after watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 5 episodes 16 and 17.

Buffy completely passed me by at the time. I've been working my way through the DVD boxed sets and I have to say that the Great Big Plot Development in Season 5 hit me like a bolt from the blue. Whether this would have been the case if I'd been watching them on the telly, I can't say. I know the Beeb censored the scary and violent bits: maybe they also felt the need to print "JOYCE DIES" on the front of that week's Radio Times?

It probably wouldn't have mattered very much if they had. "A surprising twist" is a twist which has the quality of being surprising – not necessarily one which you didn't know was coming. "Surprise" is a function of how well the writer wrote it, not how much the read knew in advance.

Joss Whedon handles the Great Big Plot Development like a master. Half a dozen episodes back, there'd been a soapy plot in which Buffy's mother had suffered from headaches, gone to hospital, had a brain tumour removed and been given a clean bill of health. Several episodes have been allowed to pass. We have been given time to forget that she ever had an operation. No Chinese mystics from parallel universes have popped up and said "Someone close to you is about to die, and when I say 'die' I mean 'suffer amnesia and be transferred to a parallel world with Zeppelins and Cybermen and stuff which they can't every come back from until they do.' "

In fact, Whedon sets up the tragedy with a rather a clever feint: Joyce (a divorcee) has been on a date with a new boyfriend. The last time she appeared, her daughters had been simultaneously teasing her and encouraging her about it. We probably expected that the boyfriend would turn out to be a robot, demon, vampire, or at the very least, under a gypsy curse. That's the short of thing which happens on Buffy. When she walks in (in the cliff-hanger from ep 15 and the pre-cred recap from ep 16) Buffy's attention is on the flowers that the boyfriend has sent: neither she nor the viewer initially sees that her mother is sprawled out (in plain sight, but out of focus) on the sofa. We're surprised becase Buffy is surprised. Her reaction ("Mum? Mum? Mummy?") may be the best single line of script ever to appear in anything, ever.

If one takes two steps back from "The Body", we can see that Whedon is engaged in some clever structural games. How far can you go in producing an episode in which nothing actually happens? The first "Act" (i.e up to the first advert break) pointedly contains no action : we see Buffy calling an ambulance; trying ineffectually to give her mother mouth-to-mouth; waiting for the paramedics to arrive.."Act" 2 begins with Buffy's sister Dawn crying in the girls' room at her school, which Whedon describes as a "classic misdirect": she hasn't yet heard the news and is crying because another girl has been mean to her. This is pretty much the first time we've seen Dawn as an independent character, among her peers, out of the context of Buffy: it's monumentally cruel of Whedon to show us Dawn as a normal, happy little girl at the exact moment when he's going to emotionally destroy her. The whole of Act 3 – perhaps 12 minutes of screen time - consists of Buffy's friends engaging in pointlessly inconsequential dialogue while preparing to meet her at the hospital.

The answer to the question "Can we have an episode of Buffy in which nothing happens?" turns out to be "No": but the brief intrusion of a supernatural element fits perfectly into the structure of the episode. The set-up is the episode's one weak point: it isn't really believable that an unaccompanied 14 year old could find her way into the hospital morgue. But the scene is absolutely necessary. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has always been mock-gothic. Coffins, graveyards and dead bodies are part of the paraphernalia of the setting: cool, stylish and spooky if you are a goth of a particular age, but not remotely frightening. But this time, when we see a corpse in the morgue come to life – in the background, with no scary music to signify what's happening – we perceive it as a horrible desecration. Vampirism isn't just a fashion statement but something appalling and blasphemous; a monster stealing the remains of someone's loved one. When Buffy comes along, in the nick of time, to save the day, as she always does, a much more mundane point is made (but not hammered home) about the banality of bereavement: only a few hours after her mother dies, Buffy has had to go back to work.

But however admirable these structural pyrotechnics may be, they aren't what the story is about. It's about characters, a set of well drawn – not necessarily realistic, but eminently believable – people. They've been developed over around a hundred episodes, and now they're given free rein to respond emotionally to this crisis situation. The episode is happy to show us, rather than tell us, at some length, what they are felling. Willow (the nerdy gay witch) fusses about what to wear; Tara (her girlfriend) humours her; Xander (the base-line normal guy) randomly directs his anger at "fricking doctors" and ends up making a fool of himself. Anya, the reformed demon, takes her accustomed role as the group's Spock: she doesn't understand bereavement and asks inappropriate and unanswerable questions about the nature of death. When they reach the hospital she blurts out "I wish your mother didn't die, because she was nice" which is, of course, the kindest and most helpful thing that anyone could possibly have said.

The follow-up episode, "Forever", re-asserts the supernatural element of the series: Spike (an imperfectly and unwillingly reformed vampire) introduces Dawn to a demon who he thinks may be able to bring her mother back from the dead. This is a rather brave attempt to confront head on an important problem in this genre: what does the death of a loved-one mean in a world in which ghosts, vampires, demons and magic are an everyday reality? (It's a question which J.K Rowling completely and repeatedly fudges). Dawn has to steal a magic book from Giles; and there's a rather cute scene in which she and Spike have to steal the egg of a rather unconvincing dragon that just happens to live in a convenient sewer. The monster is pretty un-threatening, but the scene is played with just enough conviction to make the point that "magic is hard: Dawn has to work quite hard to cast the spell." (Had Spike said "Oh, didn't I bloody mention? I have the power to bloody resurrect people using the bloody big red button on my bloody magic screwdriver," the message would have been "resurrection is easy; death is trivial; nothing in this universe really counts for very much.")

We understand, of course, that within the rules of this magical universe, bringing people back from the dead is a very bad idea. The obvious resolution would either be for Joyce to come back as a vampire, or for Dawn and Spike to inadvertently raise some terrible demon who Buffy would defeat in the nick of time. In fact, the episode's climax is another character-piece. Dawn's spell appears to have worked. We hear footsteps coming from the graveyard to Buffy's house: a rare example of a ghost which is genuinely uncanny and therefore frightening. When Buffy realizes what Dawn has done, they have a very realistic sisterly fight – not about the misuse of demonic forces but about how Buffy is so wrapped up in her own grief and responsibilities and the practicalities of funeral arrangement that Dawn feels she's being ignored. When Dawn undoes the spell, it's a perfectly satisfactory conclusion to the Monkeys Paw storyline: but it's much more importantly and convincingly "about" the internal development of the character: a young girl accepting the permanence of death and that her mother is gone for good.

And when it happens, we feel it is precisely what Dawn would have done under those circumstances. At no point while watching these episodes did I have any perception of characters being manipulated by the writer; of events occurring because of their impact on the Buffyverse - let alone because of their capacity to generate tabloid copy or sell action figures. I felt that I was observing people who I knew quite well, not watching puppets having their strings yanked. When Buffy hangs up on the paramedics and makes another call, I did not find myself thinking "I wonder what clever point Joss Whedon is going to make here?" I thought "I wonder who Buffy is phoning?" Each event is linked to the next by a believable chain of cause and effect; by characters doing what those characters would, in fact, do, granted what we know about them. Spike liked Joyce; Dawn has a crush on Spike; Spike wants to get off with Buffy; Spike likes being evil; Dawn is slightly irresponsible, so of course Spike and Dawn are the ones who try to make a Faustian pact to raise the dead.

What does Buffy have which Doctor Who lacks? The smart answer would be "good writing". But I think the truth is that Joss Whedon is always, at all times, trying to tell a story about a set of characters. Russell T Davies is only ever seeking to manufacture a product.

Oh, and Firefly rocks. Obviously.







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36 comments:

Salisbury said...

Andrew: Are you deliberately getting the titles wrong, as a way of showing you're way too old for all this? If so, I think 'Forest of the Death' would have been funnier.

'The Silent Library' was fine, apart from Alex Kingston, who looks set to bring down the property values on many future episodes of Doctor Who. 'Death in the Forest' was rather hopeless, for obvious structural reasons which Mssrs Davies and Moffat between them should have caught. We begin the episode knowing that Donna's world isn't real, so the dramatic impetus for the folks at home is to get her the hell out of there. ('Come on, Donna, can't you see it's all a dream?') Unfortunately, Steven Moffat wants to write a story about Donna hanging onto her world. It takes a fine writer to pull the audience and the audience's point-of-view in opposite directions. Kafka could do it. I don't think it needs to be said that Steven Moffat isn't Kafka.

Eric Spratling said...

Reading this, I realized that for a long time now I've been unconsciously wanting Andrew to write (at length) about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Seriously: this bit of commentary about a seven-year-old piece of television pulls off the remarkable trick of articulating things I'd never quite realized about the episode(s) while simultaneously giving a thorough refresh of all the emotions I went through when I first watched it air over here in the States.

Thanks for following through on our unstated desires, Andrew. Now all you "owe" is comparable essays on Firefly, The Dark Knight, Iron Man, the Prince Caspian movie, Veronica Mars and every other significant genre product that comes out. It shouldn't be too hard if you just quit your job.

Julius_Goat said...

Rilstone on Buffy? Fantastic!

Since we're demanding, my vote would be for a "Lost" essay.

Sylvia said...

Yaaay!

Sam Dodsworth said...

Andrew:
I know the Beeb censored the scary and violent bits...

IIRC the BBC showed each episode of Buffy once at around 6 o'clock with mild censorship and once late at night uncensored. Which I thought at the time was quite a good choice.

ZZ said...

Good episodes, definitely. Buffy's reaction to her mom's death made me want to weep.

clarrie said...

"Her reaction ("Mum? Mum? Mummy?") may be the best single line of script ever to appear in anything, ever."

If I my co-opt this to talk about a particular pet peeve, it's also one of the very *very* few times that 'mummy' is used in the same emotive way that 'daddy' is lazily thrown into absolutely everything.
Rather than being used, as the word usually is when put in the mouth of an adult, as a short-hand signifier that the speaker is weak and unsympathetic.

I know 'Joss Wedon: King of the feminists' is a bit of a tired trope, but it's small things like that which for me bring home the casual, and to be fair I imagine largely subconcious, misogyny* of most writing.

And (pedant) it was Angel that was cut to buggery, Buffy was just regularly cancelled for the snooker. (/pedant)



*By misogyny I don't mean a literal hatred. But I just could not bring myself to say 'disempowerment' despite it actually being a fairly acurate term for what I wanted to describe. Because Dude.

Andrew Stevens said...

Really, though, I must protest. Buffy is American. What she actually said was, "Mom? Mom? Mommy?"

And, to quibble a little with Clarrie, it is generally okay in America for a grown woman to call her father "Daddy." "Mommy," however, is considered an infantile expression for both men and women. Whether this is due to misogyny or society's desire to disempower, I have no idea. American screenwriters, for this reason, virtually never use the word "Mommy" at all. (I cannot think of another example.) The power of the line was to show Buffy's infantilization at the death of her mother, so I have no idea how feminist it was.

Joss Whedon's reputation as a feminist has always puzzled me a bit. The man is famous principally for shows about hot women kicking butt and making out with each other. It's hard to get more male fantasy than that.

Andrew Rilstone said...

It's probably due to the German influence.

Andrew Stevens said...

By the way, while I mostly agree with you about Whedon, there are many points in Season 6 where the characters act completely out of character for the sake of drama. Xander, Willow, and Buffy all act in ways completely inconsistent with what we've come to know about them. Partly this is just Whedon making a point about the difficulty of early adulthood and the only one I really object to is what he did to Xander, a complete betrayal of the character's definitive moment in Season 5.

Sylvia said...

The characterization in S6 was--I think "problematic" is about as generous a description as I'm willing to give it. I have the impression that Joss was less involved because his attention was divided between BtVS and Angel, and that he tried to repair some of the damage in the final season? But I was not really paying much attention by then.

Joss Whedon's reputation as a feminist has always puzzled me a bit. The man is famous principally for shows about hot women kicking butt and making out with each other. It's hard to get more male fantasy than that.

I think his work has some Skeevy Gender Issues m'self, but I can take a stab at this:

1) His reputation is, I think, boosted considerably by his working in a field that is so generally disrespectful of women that merely demonstrating some concrete awareness of feminist issues--and creating any work that passes the Bechdel Test--can be enough to earn a male writer significant feminist cred by comparison.

2) BtVS is the only Whedon show I'm aware of in which any women make out with each other, which they do in the context of a committed relationship. (And even in "Once More with Feeling" they don't get as much onscreen action as Buffy and Riley did.)

3) There aren't women who want to see attractive women kicking ass and making out with each other, eh? News to me. :)

4) But also, if a female character is an action hero/superhero, or if two female characters are gay, surely this doesn't inherently associate them with "male fantasy"? Those things can be packaged for the male gaze, and in practice often are, but to call it male fantasy is to assume that treatment out of the gate--to assume that e.g. lesbian fictional characters are by definition written to titillate men.

Andrew Stevens said...

Sylvia, good points. I wasn't actually saying that Whedon isn't a feminist, by the way, just that I think a reputation as "King of the Feminists" is a bit over-the-top.

1) His reputation is, I think, boosted considerably by his working in a field that is so generally disrespectful of women that merely demonstrating some concrete awareness of feminist issues--and creating any work that passes the Bechdel Test--can be enough to earn a male writer significant feminist cred by comparison.

It is also, I think, boosted by the fact that he calls himself a feminist over and over, which most men don't.

2) BtVS is the only Whedon show I'm aware of in which any women make out with each other, which they do in the context of a committed relationship. (And even in "Once More with Feeling" they don't get as much onscreen action as Buffy and Riley did.)

There's Firefly of course (see "Our Mrs. Reynolds"). Also, Whedon just wrote a comic in which Buffy herself has a lesbian one-night stand, so I'm not willing to give him a complete pass on it. (That comic incidentally will also see Willow disrobe.) Also, lesbianism came rather out of the blue for Willow. It had very much a "lesbians are cool" vibe to it. Had Willow begun as a lesbian, I'd have had much less problem with it.

3) There aren't women who want to see attractive women kicking ass and making out with each other, eh? News to me. :)

I'm sure there are. Any differences between men and women, socially constructed or otherwise, are on a continuum with overlapping bell curves. (This is what Dave Sim hasn't figured out.) I know women who love watching American football and drinking beer. I know a whole lot more men who love it though.

However it is also a fact that I know a great many women who love Buffy (my wife was the one who convinced me to watch it and is the reason we own all the DVDs), so I certainly concede that Whedon knows how to write for a female audience a whole helluva lot better than I do.

4) But also, if a female character is an action hero/superhero, or if two female characters are gay, surely this doesn't inherently associate them with "male fantasy"? Those things can be packaged for the male gaze, and in practice often are, but to call it male fantasy is to assume that treatment out of the gate--to assume that e.g. lesbian fictional characters are by definition written to titillate men.

"Hot" was a keyword in my argument. Had Joss Whedon written a show about an ugly woman who killed vampires, then color me impressed. Had Whedon written two plain-Jane lesbians, I'd agree that this is probably a feminist writer. As it was actually constructed, you cannot tell me that titillation of men (and, to a lesser extent, women) wasn't intended.

Salisbury said...

Andrew Stevens writes:

It is also, I think, boosted by the fact that he calls himself a feminist over and over, which most men don't.

I think the current fashion is not to. I recall telling my current girlfriend a year or so ago that I was, which brought howls of derision, as though I'd told her I knew what it was like to be a lantern fish. I tried to explain that this meant I supported the various things feminists generally supported, but her response was that as I was a man this was simply not possible. I said fair enough and told her to go cook dinner while I checked out some lesbian football porn.

Sylvia said...

It is also, I think, boosted by the fact that he calls himself a feminist over and over, which most men don't.

That too. (And I think we don't disagree about much here. Joss's feminism isn't mythical, as some critics would have it, but his reputation is exaggerated.) (As I was recently reminded by watching Dr. Horrible...)

There's Firefly of course (see "Our Mrs. Reynolds").

Ah yes. In my flu-addled state I couldn't remember whether there were any actual gay lip-locks on Firefly or just the occasional suggestion thereof.

Also, lesbianism came rather out of the blue for Willow. It had very much a "lesbians are cool" vibe to it. Had Willow begun as a lesbian, I'd have had much less problem with it.

Hm. I would say my issue with that character development was not so much the introduction of a female love interest as the "gay now!" angle--falling for Tara apparently voided all previous attraction that Willow had toward men. Sunnydale has magical human-possessing hyenas, but no bisexuals.

I do remember, at the same time, how exciting it was to see an openly queer character in the main cast of a prime-time drama (and a character who wasn't somebody's perpetually single gay brother or whatever, at that). The landscape was pretty barren for GLBT characters on TV--still is--and the Willow/Tara romance was both an important development and one that they could've done better.

"Hot" was a keyword in my argument. Had Joss Whedon written a show about an ugly woman who killed vampires, then color me impressed.

...I understand your point, but I also wonder whether "hot" is any more specific to BtVS than it is to, say, basically all American television. I'd love to see some non-conventionally-attractive women get cast in, well, anything. (Ugly Betty and The Golden Girls don't count.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

Maybe it's just an observational point. I think women are more inclined to use diminuitives than men; and I think both men and women are more inclined to use diminuitives when addressing their mothers than when addressing their fathers. I muster remember to ask my mater what she thinks.

{Obviously, this is because deiminuitives are a snare of the Demiurge: after all, for centuries, the Jews were unwilling to write it's true name down, and always abreviated it. So she's responded by forcing all women to use shortened nick-names at all times. Gosh, it's easy.)

What's the status of "Mamma" and "Momma"? I think if Elvis had been English, he would have said "on a lonesome grey chicago morn tum-tum-tum-te-tum-tu tum and his mummy cries."

I am pretty certain that Carol Thatcher refers to her mother as "Mummy." But then the little princes called Prince Charles "Papa." I thought St Bob was being facetitious in refering to his father as "my Da" but that seems to be the Irish Way.


Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I'm through.

Phil Masters said...

Nitpicking: as I recall, in an early-season episode which featured a vampire version of Willow from an alternate history, said Vampire Willow acted in a somewhat, well, vampish way towards women, including the non-vampire Willow. The latter naturally found this somewhat unnerving, but when someone reassured her with some comment about the vampire not being really her, Giles muttered something about vampires actually tending to amplify existing tenden... before getting his ankle kicked.

At the time, this looked like (a) Vampire Willow being written as indiscriminately slutty in standard evil-vamp style, and (b) a small throwaway joke about Giles's tactlessness. But it might actually count as deep foreshadowing, if one is of the Whedon-is-God tendency.

Nick said...

If we're talking Weedon then what did you think of Dr Horrible's Sing along Blog?

I thought it rather splendid. The songs were much better than Once More With Feeling, or at least (with one exception) largely much more fun, and Firefly's Captain Mal made the most annoying superhero in the history of the genre.

Andrew Stevens said...

I do remember, at the same time, how exciting it was to see an openly queer character in the main cast of a prime-time drama (and a character who wasn't somebody's perpetually single gay brother or whatever, at that). The landscape was pretty barren for GLBT characters on TV--still is--and the Willow/Tara romance was both an important development and one that they could've done better.

But, but, I wonder if Whedon would really have had the courage to make Xander gay, instead of Willow. Given the number of jokes about male homosexuality Whedon makes (and I'm not criticizing here - many of my gay friends find them funny too), I cannot help but think that Whedon may be, at least subconsciously, in the "lesbians are hot/gay guys are gross" mindset a lot of men, feminist or no, find themselves in.

...I understand your point, but I also wonder whether "hot" is any more specific to BtVS than it is to, say, basically all American television. I'd love to see some non-conventionally-attractive women get cast in, well, anything. (Ugly Betty and The Golden Girls don't count.)

In my view, Whedon should be held more responsible, though. For one thing, he is aware of the issue. In the final episode of Season 7, there is a very, shall we say, "not conventionally attractive" potential Slayer shown (played by Jenna Edwards, she is being beaten up by somebody and stops the punch when she's "activated"). Whedon therefore was clearly thinking about the issue and yet he never had the guts to cast one, not just for Buffy or Willow or other big Slayer roles like Faith or Kendra, but even for one of the potential Slayers who got a lot of screen time in Season 7, always choosing conventionally attractive actresses for those roles. (The single exception might be Amanda who isn't conventionally attractive, but who a substantial part of the audience will find at least "cute.")

Maybe it's just an observational point. I think women are more inclined to use diminuitives than men; and I think both men and women are more inclined to use diminuitives when addressing their mothers than when addressing their fathers. I muster remember to ask my mater what she thinks.

I was just pointing out culturally that no American adults call their mothers "Mommy" though occasionally you will hear women, or even men, talk about "my mommy and daddy." And you do hear grown women call their fathers "Daddy" on occasion. I have no doubts that the rules are different over there and that sometimes grown adults do call their mothers "Mummy." By the by, I would regard "mummy" as the diminutive of "mum" not vice versa, though that's certainly an arguable point.

What's the status of "Mamma" and "Momma"? I think if Elvis had been English, he would have said "on a lonesome grey chicago morn tum-tum-tum-te-tum-tu tum and his mummy cries."

Mama is okay, especially if you're a Southerner. It does not have the infantile connotations of "mommy."

The word actually began as "mamma" and crossed over to America in that form. In the early 19th century, the English adopted "mum" and then "mummy." In the late 19th century, America (still only using "mamma") changed the spelling to "momma." Very shortly after it adopted "mom" and then "mommy." (One of the reasons I regard "mommy" as the diminutive of "mom" is both because "mom" came first and because "mommy" is considered a "baby-talk" version of "mom." Danny, for instance, is a diminutive of either Daniel or Dan.)

Sylvia said...

But, but, I wonder if Whedon would really have had the courage to make Xander gay, instead of Willow. Given the number of jokes about male homosexuality Whedon makes (and I'm not criticizing here - many of my gay friends find them funny too), I cannot help but think that Whedon may be, at least subconsciously, in the "lesbians are hot/gay guys are gross" mindset a lot of men, feminist or no, find themselves in.

Oh, I can't take issue with that. His track record with male homosexuality (cf. the character of Andrew, that vaguely gay antagonist whose sexuality is always a joke) is noticeably weak. I remember how the fanfic writers squealed when Joss revealed (ex cathedra) that Spike and Angel probably once had a little something-something, yet he'd never have involved it in an actual plot on the show.

Without claiming a direct comparison, I do keep thinking about the remark Pam Noles once made about sex in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Let's see if I can track it down--yes, here it is:

"Thematically in the League so far, all indications are Moore cares and has thought a lot about sex and gender. His *approach* to the story so far lends evidence to an argument that he cares and has thought a lot about the sexual liberation of heterosexual white people, particularly white women of a certain level of economic comfort."

(I'm still too congested to come up with useful commentary, but I also notice just now that Joss talked to AfterElton about gay storylines on Dollhouse; interesting post, equally interesting comment thread.)

Mike Taylor said...

Sylvia wrote: "I'd love to see some non-conventionally-attractive women get cast in, well, anything."

I think the Dr. Who Series 4 final two-parter deserves some credit for using not one but two middle-aged women (Sarah Jane and Harriet Jones) among the protagonists. Three if you count Jackie Tyler. Name me another sci-fi show that's done that?

Bristol SF Group said...

"In my view, Whedon should be held more responsible, though. For one thing, he is aware of the issue."

It's a side point, and by no means one that I'd automatically assume people would know, but the actress who played Willow in the pilot would definitely come into the category of 'not conventionally attractive'. I don't recall the actresses name, but she was a very average, normal looking, slightly overweight girl. Not a *brilliant* actress, unfortunately, but physically she was very, very, believable as a shy, slightly isolated and bookish, teen computer geek.

My point being that it's as easy to picture Whedon repeatedly making casting decisions along those lines only to have them overruled before eventually giving up on that particular fight as it is to assume that he's subconsciously casting conventionally attractive actresses because he enjoys seeing conventionally attractive women.

Louise H said...

There's another slant on the attractive lesbian thing. While the male fantasy lesbian may be conventionally attractive, there is another convention that makes the "real" lesbian distinctly unattractive- the hairy butch lesbian image. I'm not sure that Joss could have avoided the one without falling into the other.
As it was the Willow/Tara relationship did mostly manage to avoid the aspects that were most likely to have people crying "male titillation"; there was not much in the way of physicality on screen, for a start.

Jacqueline said...

Delurking for the first time after having lurked for years (possibly brought here via a "the problem of Susan in Narnia" post on slacktivist, but it's been so long that I don't quite recall anymore).

Re the attractiveness, conventional or otherwise, of the female Buffy cast: First, it must be noted that the original unaired-pilot Willow was atrocious: physically interesting, but dear God that girl could not act. Not only could not act, but made poor inexperienced Nick Brendon actively worse in his scenes with her. She wasn't just dire, she was infectiously, corrosively dire; non-standard body type or no, she desperately needed to be replaced.

Which is really a trivial, parenthetical footnote to the fact that USian TV is so monolithically visually bland and rigid that, believe it or not, the entire female cast of Buffy is unconventionally attractive by Hollywood standards.

Sarah Michelle Gellar has a microscopically crooked nose and lovely but slightly asymmetric features generally; Alyson Hannigan has a snub nose and a round face and a very, very slightly weak chin; poor Amber Benson, who by report from all my friends who've met her at cons is short and slim but very mildly curvy, was incessantly hated on by dimwit fanboys throughout the show's run for being such a hulking fatty cow. As best I can recall, Emma Caulfield and Charisma Carpenter were the only two cast members who totally ducked any bludgeoning by the Beauty Police.

Whedon certainly could have done better, as could any mere imperfect human, but within the brutally tight boundaries of the industry within which he was working, he actually did manage to cast at least a tiny bit outside that industry's comfort zone.

Greg G said...

By the way, while I mostly agree with you about Whedon, there are many points in Season 6 where the characters act completely out of character for the sake of drama. Xander, Willow, and Buffy all act in ways completely inconsistent with what we've come to know about them.

When Whedon had pretty much handed the show over to Marti Noxon.

Season 5 is a good place to stop, actually.

(And I'm halfway sure season six is when Russell T. sat up in his chair and said, "Finally this show is going places!")

Pandora Caitiff said...

With all the discussion of LGBT characters in Buffy, I'm surprised Larry the quarterback hasn't been mentioned.

What we originally took to be stereotyped jock behaviour was later revealed to be over-compensating. And although his outing was played for the laughs at Xander's discomfort, he never played into any of the gay stereotypes we are used to seeing on American television.

And he got to be all heroic at graduation.

dagonet said...

Oh dear, Rilstones jumped on the modern dark fantasy bandwaggon as well?!

Sylvia:
"What’s wild is that Haggard’s Quartermain walked the line between xenophobic colonial imperialist of the Great White God In Africa variety and almost-progressive-for-its-time racial awareness/critique. While Haggard/Quartermain is not quite an example of what scholars call dual masking, a literary approach of white authors often seen in Faulkner, Adams and the like, he comes close. Moore could have, though Quartermain, busted out on poking at the Victorian attitudes toward race as he has done so abundantly with sex and gender. Instead, he avoided the entire topic by emasculating Quartermain and retreating from his source. (Which is why every time Ayesha is mentioned in the League it pisses me off.) In Moi opinion, Quartermain is the *only* character through which Moore could have easily done this. Once I finished the Dossier, I wondered if that could have also dovetailed into race/sex and set up whatever he has in mind for the Golli down the road."

is a very good point.
The answer, one should say, is "self - ironic Mary Sue"
Noles does, however, seem to not have read the additional material in "Leauge" Vol. II, in which Capt. Nemo flirts outrageously with a couple of english schoolchildren.

Oh, and speaking of dark fantasy, Rilstone seems not to have covered the issue of mr. Sims rather surreal approach to black people yet?

Gavin Burrows said...

Andrew Rilstone said...
It's probably due to the German influence.


I was thinking more of the Demiurge.

Andrew Stevens said:
"Hot" was a keyword in my argument.


Well in England we would say “a right cracker.” Except we don’t get to say that often, as the prevalence of right pea-soupers impedes our vision so.

Andrew Stevens said...

I think the Dr. Who Series 4 final two-parter deserves some credit for using not one but two middle-aged women (Sarah Jane and Harriet Jones) among the protagonists. Three if you count Jackie Tyler. Name me another sci-fi show that's done that?

All three of whom are, of course, still attractive women. (Elisabeth Sladen looks remarkably good for a sixty year old. I wonder if she would have been invited back had she not aged so well.) Battlestar Galactica has a middle-aged woman as a main character (also very attractive). None of the women you mention were ever main characters on the new Doctor Who.

to assume that he's subconsciously casting conventionally attractive actresses because he enjoys seeing conventionally attractive women.

I don't think I'm saying it's because Joss Whedon enjoys seeing conventionally attractive women, but because he expects his fans to enjoy it.

Sarah Michelle Gellar has a microscopically crooked nose and lovely but slightly asymmetric features generally; Alyson Hannigan has a snub nose and a round face and a very, very slightly weak chin; poor Amber Benson, who by report from all my friends who've met her at cons is short and slim but very mildly curvy, was incessantly hated on by dimwit fanboys throughout the show's run for being such a hulking fatty cow. As best I can recall, Emma Caulfield and Charisma Carpenter were the only two cast members who totally ducked any bludgeoning by the Beauty Police.

I'll concede Benson, who is much more full-figured than is typical of Hollywood, though, as you say, she apparently actually is conventionally attractive in real life and perhaps doesn't film so well, which lessens some of the credit. I might be willing to concede Hannigan. However, when you say Sarah Michelle Gellar is "not conventionally attractive" because she has a "microscopically crooked nose," I think you've gone completely off the rails. Only a fashion designer with a truly exacting aesthetic sense would claim that Sarah Michelle Gellar is not a beautiful woman. It's far, far easier to criticize the beauty of, say, Julia Roberts or Cindy Crawford than Sarah Michelle Gellar.

As it was the Willow/Tara relationship did mostly manage to avoid the aspects that were most likely to have people crying "male titillation"; there was not much in the way of physicality on screen, for a start.

Oh, I don't know, Howard Stern has made a career out of titillation with beautiful lesbians and he's on radio.

Lost in all this talk of homosexuality and lesbianism is that I was mostly criticizing Whedon for "hot women beating up monsters," which strikes me as a male fantasy, not a feminist one (though actually there is a particular type of feminism which probably loves it). I know Uma Thurman thought "Kill Bill" was about female empowerment, but I doubt there were a lot of feminist fans of "Kill Bill." But even "Kill Bill" wasn't afraid to make Uma look ugly with a black eye and other disfiguring results of physical damage, which Buffy never did.

In my opinion, the most feminist character in Buffy, by far, is Joyce. I don't know what kind of feminist statement Buffy herself makes. You too can be a heroic woman as long as you can go toe-to-toe in a fight with any man? (Parenthetically, I also think shows with kick-ass female heroines are a bit dangerous. Women who learn self-defense should be, and usually are, taught to cause enough discomfort and pain so they can run to safety, not to try to bludgeon an attacker into submission. In the long run, size and strength win out even over fairly sizable skill disparities which is why boxing, wrestling, etc. all have weight classes.)

Andrew Stevens said...

When Whedon had pretty much handed the show over to Marti Noxon.

Season 5 is a good place to stop, actually.

(And I'm halfway sure season six is when Russell T. sat up in his chair and said, "Finally this show is going places!")


I had a good laugh over this comment. I also agree that Season 5, written to be the final season of Buffy, would have worked great as its actual final season, with Buffy's heroic sacrifice for Dawn (who was pointless for the rest of the series).

I would also say that I question Marti Noxon's feminism far more than Joss Whedon's. The whole BDSM thing between Buffy and Spike can clearly be laid at Noxon's feet. Now, personally, I'm in the whatever floats your boat camp, but it's passing strange in a show ostensibly about strong women.

But I think the worst subplot was Xander leaving Anya at the altar, completely spoiling his dramatic commitment to Anya at the end of "Into the Woods" (episode 5.10). Of course, I suppose this subplot could be classified as feminist in a misandrist sort of way. (Even good men can't be trusted because of men's natural fear of commitment.)

The whole Willow "magic addiction" plot was ridiculous, as well. Had Whedon not entered Season 6 to write "Once More with Feeling," the season would have been a complete loss. (Season 7, by the way, wasn't very good either, except in comparison to Season 6.) The funny part about "Once More with Feeling" is that Buffy's despair at being brought back from the dead could be construed as Whedon taking a shot at himself for bringing back the series.

Greg G said...

Season 7 was Season 6 part 2.

"Oh, you hated the nerds did you? You hated Lestat/Mr. Darcy Spike? Well, here they come again and again and again."

Marti Noxon's (and other latter Buffy writers') feminist credentials are of far less concern to me than their lack of ability to write human characters or logical narrative.

Sylvia said...

I know Uma Thurman thought "Kill Bill" was about female empowerment, but I doubt there were a lot of feminist fans of "Kill Bill."

Well, that could be because, for all the samurai fighting and what-have-you, the heroine of "Kill Bill" is ultimately defined by her relationship to a man. (QT was considerate enough to put it right there in the title.)

Now, "Death Proof", there was a Tarantino movie that made a serious feminist statement. Pity that a) nobody saw it and b) its feminism was probably about half intentional and half accidental.

Parenthetically, I also think shows with kick-ass female heroines are a bit dangerous. Women who learn self-defense should be, and usually are, taught to cause enough discomfort and pain so they can run to safety, not to try to bludgeon an attacker into submission.

Thus if women and girls see Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who is the mystically anointed One Girl in All the World who can defeat the vampire demons and the forces of darkness, successfully subduing an enemy with physical force, we'll simply have to consider her our only model for how to be a strong woman and we'll get ourselves killed in an alley because we think, hey, if Buffy can do it, I can do it?

I realize that this cannot be your intended implication, but I am really not quite sure what is.

Andrew Stevens said...

Some time around 1998 or 1999, I was chatting with a young female overnight convenience store clerk. I had been an overnight convenience store clerk myself for a couple of years, so I happened to ask if she was ever concerned for her safety. She responded, "I'm as tough as any man." (I swear I said nothing which would have prompted such a reaction, but there it is.) I was, frankly, a bit horrified. I'm no giant and I'd have to be nearly twice her size. It is quite possible that she may have been more skilled in self-defense than most men, but I'd still be betting on virtually any man in reasonably good physical condition to beat her at fisticuffs and I'm certain she wasn't armed.

Buffy, of course, is not really the problem. As you say, it's an obvious fantasy; I think most kids and teenagers watch it and assume that while Buffy can beat up the vampires, it's very unlikely that Sarah Michelle Gellar could actually beat up the stuntmen. But the larger cultural zeitgeist is, I believe, something of a problem. There is a certain class of middle class white women, in this country at least, who seem to be brought up without a proper appreciation for the fact, not only that women cannot compete in physical combat with men, but that men aren't just women with slightly different physiognomies. (Women from poor or minority communities rarely make this mistake.) Men are 50% of the population and commit 93% of the murders and 80% of all crimes. Men, particularly young men between 16 and 25, are dangerous. (Whether this is due to biological differences or is just a social construct is irrelevant.) This isn't to say that women should fear all men or anything. The majority of crimes by men are committed against men and most men don't commit crimes at all, but I am astonished at the number of young women who don't seem to have any fear of being alone with a man they just met.

To get back to my example, the young woman in question certainly has every right to work a dangerous job overnight at a convenience store if she wishes. I'm just not quite sure why she wished to. When I did it, I always wore biker boots, black jeans, and a leather jacket, purely for intimidation purposes. Even so, I was assaulted at least twice (fortunately, both times with no weapons and to no ill effect). Had I been a woman, the money it paid wouldn't have been remotely worth it for the risks I'd have been taking.

I am of course very aware of the fine line here. It is clearly an error to teach young women that they're nothing but victims who need men to protect them. The classic horror movie cliches that Mr. Whedon was undermining in Buffy are, arguably, worse than the unreality that Hollywood is currently peddling. Still, it's hard to read newspaper stories about various incidents on college campuses and not think, "What exactly are we teaching these women?"

Jacqueline said...

However, when you say Sarah Michelle Gellar is "not conventionally attractive" because she has a "microscopically crooked nose," I think you've gone completely off the rails.

Dude, come on, be a little fair to me! I'm just pointing out how SMG is perceived by the Hollywood Establishment, which I cheerfully acknowledge to be totally off the rails. She is blonde but demonstrably not Cameron Diaz and not Scarlett Johanssen, and to the Hollywood Establishment that's enough to pin the "unconventional" label on her. IIRC, she even got some minor flak from studio muckety-mucks during the first season or two of Buffy for being insufficiently bone-thin.

And I have among my personal acquaintance at least one equally stunningly gorgeous but even more non-conventional friend, who could tell stories about well-meaning advice given to her by more successful people deep inside the industry that would make you rend your garments in helpless fury.

I'm just pointing it out. They're the ones gone off the rails.

Lost in all this talk of homosexuality and lesbianism is that I was mostly criticizing Whedon for "hot women beating up monsters," which strikes me as a male fantasy, not a feminist one (though actually there is a particular type of feminism which probably loves it).

Re this and your later comment about the "cultural zeitgeist," it should be pointed out that part of the U.S. cultural zeitgeist at the time that Whedon first imagined the character of Buffy was the American slasher film, in which the cute, hot, blonde and obviously sexually active girl walking down an alleyway alone was the first to be killed; the prettier and more sexually active she was, the more gruesome her murder would be.

Whedon has articulated in numerous interviews over the years that his choice to make Buffy, well, Buffy was specifically as a reaction against that trope, played out over and over and over again in eighty billion teen movies throughout the seventies and eighties, punishing one teenage girl after another for daring to be pretty, to enjoy her own face and her own body and her connections with boys.

He became absolutely entranced with the idea of starting a movie off with that image, of the small hot girl with VIOLENT VICTIM written all over her, wandering into the dark alley where the monster lurks, and taking the monster down with brutal efficiency. (The actual series starts out with another twist on that trope, the overly-sexual idiotic bimbo turning out to be a bigger and cannier monster than the boy who thinks he's luring her to her ruination.)

"Hot girls fighting monsters" can lead to a whole other set of troublesome tropes, but it's well documented that in this case it was a very deliberate reaction against what was at the time a much more pervasive and blatantly woman-hating trope.

Andrew Stevens said...

Dude, come on, be a little fair to me! I'm just pointing out how SMG is perceived by the Hollywood Establishment, which I cheerfully acknowledge to be totally off the rails. She is blonde but demonstrably not Cameron Diaz and not Scarlett Johanssen, and to the Hollywood Establishment that's enough to pin the "unconventional" label on her. IIRC, she even got some minor flak from studio muckety-mucks during the first season or two of Buffy for being insufficiently bone-thin.

First, let me apologize for the term "off the rails." I didn't actually mean any offense. But you have gravely misunderstood me. I'm saying that your perception of how beauty-obsessed Hollywood is, is what's off the rails. We can all agree that their standards are ridiculously high, high enough that they could easily disqualify Amber Benson, high enough that they might occasionally disqualify Allyson Hannigan (though I note that she received plenty of work both before and after Buffy), but they are not nearly so high that they would disqualify Gellar. If she ever got refused a job because of her looks, I'm betting it was her height that disqualified her (at 5'3", nobody mistakes her for statuesque), not her weight. I have no doubt that you heard what you say you've heard. It's the sort of thing near-anorexic actresses often say when they're insisting they don't starve themselves. ("And there was this one guy who thought I was way too fat.")

I can name literally hundreds of actresses currently working in U.S. television who virtually nobody would claim are better looking than Ms. Gellar.

Jacqueline said...

Her height is actually just about right for Hollywood -- lots of the men are smaller than you'd think, and I've heard stories of people being flatly refused auditions for things like 90210 because at 5'6" they were too close to the height of the male leads.

And, nope, the actresses I know are not deluded anorexics, but perfectly normal people who wearied of being told that they'd get nowhere unless they lost the ethnic name, fixed the nose, fixed the boobs, lost 15 pounds on a ballet dancer's frame. One now works almost exclusively in voiceover; one, probably the brightest and most alarmingly gifted actor I've ever worked with (and also a striking, elfin/Pre-Raphaelite beauty who was told to fix her nose, ass and name before darkening anyone's doors again), left the industry altogether and is now an accountant in Northern California.

I wish to God my perception of Hollywood's perception was skewed. If SMG is mainstream-beautiful now, it's at least in part because Whedon pushed her as a strong and beautiful lead actress.

Andrew Stevens said...

Yes, it's fine for men to be short in Hollywood (in fact, it's almost preferable). It's not true that therefore it's fine for women to be short as well.

And the "near-anorexic" I was referring to was purely SMG, not your friends. I have no idea about your friends.

However, it takes no insider knowledge to know what Hollywood's standards of beauty actually are. All it takes is eyes to see.