Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Buffy vs. Her Very Mind Itself!

WJ's Web Editor, Kristen Romanelli, participates in the Whedony chats on Twitter that occur every Monday night for two reasons:

1. She knows how Twitter works and I refuse to learn until I see that it's got a valid business model; or, I'm an old man.
2. I'm in class, teaching Images of Disability on Monday nights.

So, she told me when I got home after 11 p.m. that the chat had been about madness in the various Whedonverses. She was happy that she got to talk about her experiences at the Slayage Conference this year.

I actually have taught the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, "Normal Again", in that class on representations of disability. I usually pair it with Charlotte Perkins Gilman's classic short story, The Yellow Wallpaper. (I also assign a history of the Mad Pride movement and contexts from the asylum reform movements of the 1800s and early 1900s.) For lecture notes, however, Caitlin Peeling and Meagan Scanlon's excellent conference paper, "'What’s more real? A sick girl in an institution… Or some kind of supergirl...': The Question of Madness in “Normal Again,” a Feminist Reading." I'll talk about some of the things that I find notable about the article, then end with my own fannish take on the episode.

Scanlon and Peeling remark upon the ending of the episode, in which it's difficult to discern whether Buffy's confinement in an asylum is an alternate reality, the dominant reality or a hallucination due to the final objective shot, unframed by shots that would indicate it was a mindscreen of Buffy imagining the asylum from Sunnydale. They then proceed to frame that choice with another choice with how to read madness itself in two feminist readings.
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar pioneered the feminist tradition of reading female madness as a challenge to patriarchy, drawing on representations found in 19th century women's literature in The Madwoman in the Attic. (And, to be frank, if Joss Whedon didn't read Gilbert and Gubar at Wesleyan, I'd be a bit surprised due to their iconic status.) And Marta Caminero-Santangelo questions the subversive power of the madwoman in her 1998 book The Madwoman Can’t Speak, Or Why Insanity Is Not Subversive by arguing that Gilbert and Gubar underestimate the marginalization that results from being labelled insane. (Since "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a classic that both books deal with, you can now see why I assign it with Normal Again.) I'll paraphrase Peeling and Scanlon's reading below, with my observations in parenthesis:

Gilbert and Gubar argue that for Jane Austen, George Eliot, Mary Shelley, Emily and Charlotte Brönte, literary culture is so profoundly patriarchal that the literary creativity is strictly a male quality. The "metaphor of literary paternity" dominated Western culture to such an extent that for a woman even to “attempt the pen” was considered almost insane; hence, you know, Mary Anne Evans' pen name,
George Eliot. Buffy articulates the anxiety female authors face when female creativity (read: literary power) is monstrous or impossible when she says, “Cause what's more real? A sick girl in an institution... Or some kind of supergirl ... chosen to ... fight demons and... save the world. That's ridiculous.”

Because women had for so long been the objects of male writing, it was extremely difficult for them to take up subject position of author and creator. These women writers “almost obsessively create characters who enact their own, covert authorial anger ... [T]hey project what seems to be the energy of their own despair into passionate, even melodramatic characters who act out the subversive impulses every woman inevitably feels when she contemplates the ‘deep-rooted’ evils of patriarchy ... [It is] as if the very process of writing had itself liberated a madwoman, a crazy and angry woman, from a silence in which neither she nor her author can continue to acquiesce.” As Whedon had to navigate a new way between the helpless blonde of horror films, the traumatized final girl of slasher films and the male figure of the warrior hero, these authors had to write a new way between the dominant male-authored stereotypes known as the “angel in the house” and the “monster woman”.

The “angel in the house” is “the eternal type of female purity”. These “women are defined as wholly passive, [and] completely void of generative power." In the metaphysical emptiness their ‘purity’ signifies they are, of course, self-less. Such a woman “has no story of her own” as they exist only at the service of others. (Joyce serves as this figure in the Buffyverse at times, but she gets stories of her own in Gingerbread and season five.) The monster woman threatens to replace her angelic sister. She embodies intransigent female autonomy and thus enacts male dread of women and, "specifically, male scorn of female creativity.” Unlike the angel in the house, the monsterwoman has her own story.

For Scanlon and Peeling, Buffy can serve as a monster-woman. Buffy is a powerful young woman and the story of her life is her own and she is its author. She rejects the patriarchy of the Watcher's Council and her second death in "The Gift" comes at her own choice. They then note that Buffy "loses the pen" in season six. After her return from heaven, Buffy is less and less sure of herself. Willow and the other Scoobies essentially revoke Buffy’s authority over her own life by bringing her back into the world – into her story, which she felt she had definitively finished – without her consent. Warren, Jonathan, and Andrew stand in for the dismissive men that Austen and the others face, angered by their loss of traditional power, making her believe that her own life story is ridiculous. For Scanlon and Peeling, in choosing the antidote Buffy regains authority over her own story.

Scanlon and Peeling note, however, that from Gilbert and Gubar's perspective, Buffy is still a subversive feminist figure even if the asylum is the “real” reality. Buffy is the author of her own delusion. She has created a world based on, to quote Joss Whedon, a “very simple concept, that this silly woman no one takes seriously is actually the most powerful woman in the world”. Inside her delusion — and her fiction is obviously very, very real to her — she has felt, until her moment of clarity in Normal Again, empowered and respected. Her insanity is indeed an experience of “authority” for her, as she lives by her own standards and on her own terms. Her parents labelling her insane and having her committed is an attempt by patriarchal society to silence her and infantilize her. (As in The Wish, nightmare Joyce is the female face selling patriarchy.) Buffy’s clear choice to live in her delusion can be viewed in this light as a rebellious and subversive act.

Scanlon and Peeling note that contemporary responses would find this to be rubbish. Caminero-Santangelo argues that by celebrating madness, Gilbert and Gubar “duplicate the essentialist thinking that identifies women with irrationality.... Madness is not rage or even hate but hopelessness — not a challenge to constraining representations but a complete capitulation to them.” Scanlon and Peeling note that Buffy lost the ability to communicate effectively with others and thus her ability to transform her societal surroundings. The madwoman offers only the “illusion of power” for in her moment of madness she is denied both credibility and agency. Buffy’s hallucinations are debilitating and they undermine her ability to communicate with others. (Buffy can say only “Dawn, I... I didn’t mean” before Dawn leaves in a huff over her absence from the “ideal reality.” Oh, Dawn! And Buffy's unable to respond to Spike’s ill-timed relationship ultimatum.) Buffy explicitly equates being institutionalized with being forced into silence: “[T]hey completely freaked out. They thought there was something seriously wrong with me. So they sent me to a clinic. [...] I was only there a couple of weeks. I stopped talking about it, and they let me go.” There's an important distinction between the madwoman and a female author, which hinges on the woman’s ability or dis-ability to “produce representations recognizable as meaningful within society.” The author is able to respond to patriarchal discourses and “counters representation with representation.” The madwoman lacks that power. Asylum-Buffy lacks both credibility and agency. Asylum-Buffy’s decision not liberating from this viewpoint, for, if liberation is the recovery of agency, she has fully retreated from the social order. Retreat can be considered resistance, they observe, but “when the social order leaves no alternative but madness, the next logical step is to assert that the social order must be changed.” Rejecting asylum-Buffy as a subversive figure, however, does not, for them, deny the show’s potential to communicate to viewers the necessity for social change.

My own take as a fan? Honestly, when I first watched it, my mouth dropped open from the first scene in the hospital. These alternate reality episodes are very dangerous, precisely because they derive their power from an alienation effect. And the links between the psychological processes of Buffy in the episode and the audience outside the episode are extremely disconcerting. And yet, since I know some of the history of the representation of female madness as a subversive response to the constrictions of patriarchy, the presence of the nuclear family and the comforting male doctor itself testifies to the series' productive ambivalence towards such treacherous and tempting normalcy. It was like pieces of a puzzle snapping into place or keys in a lock.

I feel that this episode played a role in supercharging the fan revolt surrounding Tara's death. After all, its central premise is that there is a peculiarly close connection between faith in the image and madness. That death depended for its effect on an erasure of the usual safe distance offered by mainstream media and it occurs immediately after this episode. The final episodes of season six, dealing as they do with hitting bottom, draw a link between the temporary madness of addiction, fandom, and theater. (As did the Greeks, actually, as Dionysus was the god of madness, wine, and theater.) And madness, after all, is very close to the frenzy of creative inspiration.

There's a greater punch to the sense of the uncanny here than in The Wish or Doppelgangland, the prior Capra-inspired alternate reality episodes, which is not to slight either episode in the least. This episode is a natural extension of those two episodes, which take the viewer off the hook with their neat closed endings. (Or is it?) Long-running series that work hard to create an active viewing experience are peculiarly able to exploit such narrative techniques. These characters are not real, but they're more than fictions after 118 episodes (by that point).

I think there's something ultimately healthy about that, actually. It might be a necessary step for artists towards the production of meaning. For joining the community of authors to have the kind of importance necessary to motivate people to deal with the disappointments and humiliations of the art and media worlds, you have to first know the worth of belonging to that community of culture producers. I think of it as one step along the road to thinking, "you know, I could do that."

Besides, the experience of the series was an ongoing fight to justify its meaning, with disbelieving friends and dismissive students (let alone the online battles over the meaning of the ending of season six or Restless). It actually takes a great deal of poise and grace under fire to speak up for the merits of the series. After all, I'd just had two of my best students in my intro class dismiss the series because of its title and because of the prettiness of Sarah Michelle Gellar. The battle for your understanding of the series in the face of light entertainment like ER and Friends was pretty much a constant pressure that Buffy's psychotic break provided an apt metaphor for. I can't tell you the number of times that a student's said, "Are you nuts?" when I've argued for the merits of this series.

1 comment:

  1. Extremely well written, and, while you crystallize thoughts on storied madness with as much eloquence as knowledge, I’m even more struck by your, “These characters are not real, but they're more than fictions after 118 episodes (by that point).” What an interesting take on fiction, widening our understanding of stories and their characters, giving them such life – and perhaps even this goes back to the cyclical look at the “realities” of fiction. In any event, as I say, extremely well written. I remember watching this episode when it first aired thinking, “If we were ever going to get a ‘Buffy’ movie, this would be it.” Alas.