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March 08 2011

"Note to self, religion freaky": When Buffy met Biblical Studies. A paper that examines the ethnocentric, racist, classist and ageist charges against Buffy.

I've basically come to believe that people committed to ideological views on social issues (no matter where they're coming from) will see what they want to see in shows like Buffy. Just bringing up the issues will set them off one way or another. I know gay people who love Buffy, and some who think it's homophobic. I don't see it, but then I'm not gay, so what am I supposed to say? I know conservative Christians who *love* the show, and others who think it sets people on the road to hell.

All this demonstrates, I think, that Joss created something that a lot of people connect to, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively. And that people's comments about the show often say a lot more about *them* than they do about the actual content of the show.
This is just to bait me, isn't it? Come on. Admit it.
Yeah I agree that interpretation of the text comes from the individual more than anything. I am gay and I don't think Buffy is homophobic despite the way Tara died and the lack of gay characters in the rest of the Whedonverse. I'm also a feminist and a woman but I don't think Buffy was sexist. There are certainly debates to be had around both those ideas those and I love having them.

Have to be honest though I thought this guy's writing was pretty dense and I only read the first page. I dunno if it was the religion stuff that lost me but I think he just overstated his case massively.

Also, quick question to the mods, there's new essays going up everyday on this site I think, two yesterday and two today, are we gonna keep posting links to it all?

p.s. I'm totally stoked about this whole spotlight on Joss thing.
The links to the Spotlight are up to date through yesterday. Two new essays (one that I wrote) went up today. Sadly the typos continue - I'm suffering from a world historical case of eyestrain and while I can see well enough to write and edit, I am missing typos right and left. I actually went to the eye doctor yesterday and they said I should not use a computer or read for two weeks. Like that could happen. I have recruited some fellow editors at Popmatters to help proofread, so things should get better.

To echo something Ern said, my sister is a fundamentalist who was violently anti-Buffy, because, she said, it promoted demonism. But this is where the story gets interesting. Her son went with friend to see Serenity when it was in the theaters. He went crazy for it and asked for the Firefly DVDs for Christmas, which he got. My sister sat down and watched both Firefly and Serenity and became as big a fan as he was. He then went back and watched Buffy and she watched with him. Now she owns all of the Buffy and Angel DVDs and tells everyone that the show isn't about promoting demonism but about personal responsibility.
Yeah I was about to comment on all the typos actually, is anyone proof reading the essays before they go out?
Have to be honest though I thought this guy's writing was pretty dense and I only read the first page.


I think the second page is where the meat is. You could actually skip the first page completely.

are we gonna keep posting links to it all?


Not one after another. Probably pace them out over the day.
I'd say it is a very good essay with very good points.
@digupherbones. I'd say he doesn't even get close to overstating, it's just clear and academic.
I also agree with ern in that many comments about the show say a lot more about the commentators then about the show.
I'm the proofreader for the essays, but since I'm suffering from severe eyestrain I'm really struggling. I have three friends, two other Popmatters editors, and a relative who have volunteered to look at the essays from here on out for obvious typos.

I like the Religion Freaky essay a lot, though I agree the pay off comes mainly towards the end. I think that post-Foucault a lot of people think that the meaning of any text is disconnected from the activity of the author. I think his response to contrast work in interpretation of texts in Biblical Studies and the ways people have tried to read Buffy.

For those who find the first page heavy going, just skim it and get to the second page. I won't say the second page is necessarily better, but many will find it both more interesting and more accessible.
That started out quite well (i'm interested in the history/study of the Bible and though I couldn't see how, it initially seemed to be trying to relate that to Buffy) but by the end it had become a dry, academic treatise on the current state of cultural criticism in general using some examples from Buffy criticism to make its point.

To me it took a lot of words to say, basically, people bring their own biases to any analysis they perform (of anything but the humanities don't necessarily have the same systemic checks and balances - imperfect though they are - as readily available to them as the natural sciences do), people interpret the same things in different ways depending on their background (experience, knowledge, ideological position etc.) and not all analysis is equally valid. Which, y'know, maybe leave the presses running ;) - do many people disagree with any of those ?

Still, it listed a lot of essays about Buffy that i'll probably avoid (because of their "When all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail" problem) and the author certainly seems to know their stuff, can't take that away from them. Just a bit too academic for my tastes (which is obviously as much about my tastes as it is the essay - see above ;).
I think shoehorning in Biblical Studies (the author's specialty) was essentially irrelevant to what was otherwise a really good general point about textual analysis and television: STFU, people who attempt to claim that they can understand what they think the text is discussing without connecting it to the empirical facts surrounding its production. I've long hated the "redescribe something in negative terms and selective quotation" technique - deployed in that egregious "Brownshirts" essay as well as many of the "killing Tara makes the show homophobic" arguments - and it's nice to see someone take an axe to it.
On the other hand, Joss saying he didn't intend for something to be sexist doesn't mean it's not sexist IMO (or at least that interpreting it that way is totally invalid).

What happens outside the text is definitely relevant but at the same time I don't think it necessarily trumps what happens within the text for the exact reasons highlighted in the essay itself i.e. biases tend to creep in, consciously or otherwise and the way people see things is contingent on their background. That applies to Joss (or any of the rest of the people involved in making the shows) the same as it applies to the rest of us.
Count me in with Saje here.
Intentions only count for so much. Just because an artist isn't intending to cause offense, doesn't mean that the offended party is unjustified or "being oversensitive". I don't mean to be blunt here, but when a minority group makes a complaint about a work being offensive, they're justified. Simple as that. If they're completely missing a piece of the text that resolves the matter? That's one thing. But that isn't normally the case. I find it really problematic for anyone, especially an individual in 'the majority', to say "you're wrong for being offended by that thing that targets you, but doesn't personally offend me".
Kind of the clearest example I have at the moment: Lady Gaga's new song. It's all about being proud of yourself, and all "you're special, be who you are" and all those cliches....and it has derogatory racial terms in it. All of her good intentions don't actually wipe those away from the text. They're there, and no matter how much of a positive message she's aiming for, they're still slurs.
Effect > Intent

Now, I won't back the "Joss is a homophobe" complaints, given that there's enough in the show to indicate that A)he isn't, B)the show isn't, and C)it would have happened basically the same way if Willow had still been with Oz instead. The show runs on "anyone can die".
That said, the scenes in question committed basically every negative lesbian portrayal trope all at once. That's highly problematic and, if it had come from a show that hadn't already demonstrated plenty of pro-gay attitudes, and continued to do so after the fact, then it would be a whole lot worse. Joss doesn't get off simply because he didn't know about these tropes. Even he, indirectly, seems to have admitted that much.
Forgive me for being ignorant, but Tara and Willow are two of my favorite characters, and it makes me curious when you, trunktheslayer, say that "the scenes in question committed basically every negative lesbian portrayal trope all at once."
What does that really mean? (All I ever saw was: "Yay! They're happy again! No! In Whedonworld that means someone's going to die!" I would seriously love to know, though, if someone has the time to enlighten me -- (because if you don't tell me, I'll be blind or ignorant again, often and in public.)
Ok read page 2, was more interesting than the first page for sure and it was good to see someone suggest that analysis of the Buffy text ought to take into account more than just the writer's intent.

I can't decide whether to agree with trunktheslayer, I mean I'm definitely on board that in interpersonal relationships effect > intent, but I have a hard time saying the same for something like a television show.

I mean it just seems more complicated than that, maybe, as the author of this essay suggests, there is a way of looking at Buffy and establishing certain facts about it that will trump someone's interpretation. E.g. as the author says, the decision to kill Anya in Chosen has been said to be sexist but was motivated by Emma Caulfield's contract decision. I think this does have some validity and skews the effect > intent argument.

Carnelionne the negative lesbian stereotypes (as far as I'm aware) are to do with happy lesbians dying, interpreted to be a 'punishment' for transgressive sexuality, and then one lesbian going homicidally crazy with grief and vengeance after her partner dies. Personally I'd never even seen any lesbians on screen before Buffy so I was completely unaware of this when it happened.
Uh oh, as I read comments from saje and trunkstheslayer, it seems they are getting awful close to ***waitforit*** reader response...

;-)

(You just knew it was coming! Admit it!)

PS> carnellione, here is a link to a slayage paper on the "evil dead lesbian cliche."
http://slayageonline.com/SCBtVS_Archive/Talks/Wilts.pdf

[ edited by Dana5140 on 2011-03-08 19:26 ]
Yeah, it was just a matter of time ;).

(though to be serious for a second, i've said for years that i'm close to a reader response position i'm just not going to go to the extreme of claims like "Factual statements are impossible to make about any text due to reader response considerations". That still seems patently absurd to me ;)

I think this does have some validity and skews the effect > intent argument.

It certainly has some validity and empirical facts like that one are very much at the clearer-cut end of the spectrum (though even then of course, she didn't need to die, BtVS was ending anyway so she could've just walked off into the sunset if the creators had chosen - heh ;) - that ending for her. I say that BTW as someone who had no problem with Anya dying - on a meta level anyway - cos though I didn't like seeing the character go i'm fine with it as a narrative choice). I just don't think it's true in all situations and that it can be perfectly valid to read sexism (or racism or homophobia etc.) in something even if the author genuinely had no intention of being sexist/racist/homophobic/etc. (and says so in DVD commentaries, interviews etc.).

That is, if someone claims something in fiction is propagating (for instance) sexist ideas then it's not necessarily a refutation to say "Yeah but the creator is a really nice person who didn't intend to be sexist" - what's intended and what actually happens aren't always the same thing (owing to, as I - and the article - say, those pesky biases we ALL have).

(i'm using sexism because the article did BTW, not because I think Buffy has a particular case to answer to)

[ edited by Saje on 2011-03-08 19:26 ]
"Carnelionne the negative lesbian stereotypes (as far as I'm aware) are to do with happy lesbians dying, interpreted to be a 'punishment' for transgressive sexuality, and then one lesbian going homicidally crazy with grief and vengeance after her partner dies."


But nobody got angry when happy Jenny died and Giles got homicidally crazy with grief and vengeance... isn't it just selection bias from the viewers? I don't see how a writer could protect from that, since most characters are part of some minority.

[ edited by Ragondux on 2011-03-08 19:32 ]
I was turned off as soon as the author mentioned Spinoza. Anyone who thinks he's being genuine in his interpretation of the Torah, rather than applying strict literalism to a metaphorical work in order to show that religious texts shouldn't be respected, automatically loses my ear.
I don't see how a writer could protect from that, since most characters are part of some minority.

Yeah but not all minorities are equal. So to speak ;).

One perspective (which personally I find problematic) us that since there're so few lesbian relationships portrayed on TV then the creators have a responsibility to avoid certain outcomes, to present the relationship positively as a sort of fictional affirmative action.

There're definitely valid positions on both sides of that IMO.
I would agree that Tara's death does rule out the show as being actively pro-lesbian, but that doesn't make it homophobic. Just like it's neither pro- nor anti-British librarians.
I mostly agree but to some people not being homophobic isn't enough, they think because lesbians are both underrepresented and treated unequally in society "pro-lesbian" opportunities should be taken when they present themselves (sometimes at the expense of what you might call "narrative equality").

And that's a position I have some sympathy for too, it's difficult to know where to draw the line in that situation IMO - actually treat them equally as characters which means losing one of the most positive, well-developed gay relationships on TV OR apply "tactical equality" to the characters to try to bolster real (i.e. social) equality further down the line ? Or some mix of the two ?

I tend to come down on the side that a writer's first responsibility is to the story, not to society but it's not clear-cut IMO.
Ragondux, it is not that simple. The cliche is a cliche because it became a well-known trope in literature published in the 1940s and 1950s, when this was seen as a threatening and transgressive behavior. It became a stereotype that led the public to view the question of female homosexuality in a particular light. Look here: http://home.surewest.net/lcountry/cliche.html
I'm a major Willow and Tara fan. I cried when Tara died, and I didn't think it particularly out of character for Willow to go crazy and try to destroy the world, given what we'd seen her do when she challenged Glory. Willow had lost her "Always," a relationship that ran really deep, deeper than most people will ever know. Her reaction had nothing to do with any cliche, except perhaps that people are people and even smart ones occasionally do really stupid things.

That said, Joss is an equal opportunity give-it-in-the-chest kinda writer. He's not partial to any of his characters, whatever their orientation, political views, etc. Although he seems to be partial to chest wounds. Yep, big on the chest wounds. He might want to branch out and consider other body parts.

I agree with the title of this post. Religion freaky. My impression of religion: take reason and logic, roll them up in a ball of sticky tape and toss them out the window because you won't be needing them. The Magic Sky Bully will tell you all you need to know, and how to run your life. And other people's lives, too. Oh yes, and if others don't listen, the Magic Sky Bully commands you to make them listen, by whatever means necessary. The result? A very bloody and indefensible human past and present.

[ edited by quantumac on 2011-03-08 20:38 ]
I've read about that trope before, but I'm not buying it in that case. In the context of the show, Willow's reaction is pictured as normal, because most other good characters also did crazy stuff in similar situations. I do understand why lesbians might be hurt (and I'm not saying it was the right choice), but still I disagree with it being called homophobic. I would call homophobic something that can lead the unaware viewer to think that homosexuals tend to have some kind of bad property.

When I first watched the show, I was unaware of the trope, and I didn't care about subtext. What happened felt completely normal, in line with what happened in "Passion" and later when Tara was hurt by Glory. I felt for Willow and never thought that she was acting more crazy than Giles had been. The show never suggested that it might have to do with Willow being gay, so I just figured it has to do with her being in love, and in pain. At that moment, I identified with Willow.

My point is that, while it might bother people who have an opinion about the subject because they see a pattern, it is pictured as normal to the viewer who doesn't care. Which I think is a good thing as far as promoting equality goes.
Whoa there, Nelly! You have gone and immediately conflated two separate and distinct issues. One is the presence of the cliche, which stands alone as it is, and there can be no debate that Tara's death fits into the cliche. It does, not arguable. Tara was killed; Willow went evil- that sounds like the very definition of the "evil dead lesbian cliche." The second issue is whether or not it, or Joss, is or was homophobic. I myself have never believed that he is or that it was (though I have argued others have seen it this way, for they certainly have), though I am strongly against what he did as a writing decision and have argued extensively and ad nauseum about it. And I could argue how it can be perceived as homophobic, for it can despite whatever Joss might have wished us to see in Tara's death. Saying does not make it so, you know? This is sort of what saje has been saying.

And simply because you define homophobic in a particular way, does not make your definition true in and of itself. This is tautologic; it is true because you define it as true. Homophobia simply means a fear of homosexuals, taken at its root meaning. It does not imply "something that can lead the unaware viewer to think that homosexuals tend to have some kind of bad property." Islamaphobia is fear of Islam, you know?

But really, you make the point when you say "My point is that, while it might bother people who have an opinion about the subject because they see a pattern, it is pictured as normal to the viewer who doesn't care." It is the people who "do not care" that we need to worry about, for they are not thinking about the issue but are simply picking up influences from the culture that may affect their perceptions of others.
Seeing as how I am a lesbian, I can say that I knew about the trope before it took place on Buffy. However, it didn't feel like a trope as I watched it, because everything leading up to that point had shown that the writer's respected the couple and the relationship and treated it just as it did all the other relationships on the show. I was sad and devastated when Tara was killed off, I was sad that Willow was so grief stricken, I felt a lot of things when that relationship came to an end. However, the one thing I DID NOT feel was that Joss or the show was homophobic.

This relationship was treated the same as the others on Buffy, with both spectacular highs and devastating tragedy. Joss really loves the tragedy.

Initially I know some of my fellow friends thought it was homophobic and went on and on and on about the the lebsbian stereotypes of that story arc. But honestly, I think it was just a way to voice profound sadness over the end of a relationship that we had all invested in emotionally. These days, I think it is pretty much recognized by the community that the Tara/Willow relationship is the GOLD STANDARD for lesbian relationships on television. I don't think the community considers the show homophobic at this point.
To be clear, I was not claiming that I had the ultimate definition, but it seemed broad enough to allow the author to not really be afraid of homosexuals and still propagate that fear, by displaying certain trends.
Saje:
I mostly agree but to some people not being homophobic isn't enough, they think because lesbians are both underrepresented and treated unequally in society "pro-lesbian" opportunities should be taken when they present themselves (sometimes at the expense of what you might call "narrative equality").


Y'know, though... I find that's true of many different demographic groups, including a few whose perception of themselves as "underrepresented and treated unequally" is so far off the mark as to be laughable. Anything that isn't militantly pro-[fitb] must be, by definition, anti-[fitb]. (I got lots of experience with those kinds of conversations, unfortunately...)

I tend to come down on the side that a writer's first responsibility is to the story, not to society but it's not clear-cut IMO.

My take on it is : "In the Real World, Shit Happens. And the Real World doesn't much care to whom." Fiction doesn't always have to reflect reality, but if an author can't write something in a story the way it might happen in reality, we're kinda limiting our options there.
Y'know, though... I find that's true of many different demographic groups, including a few whose perception of themselves as "underrepresented and treated unequally" is so far off the mark as to be laughable.

Sure, delusions of persecution abound, "one/few against the world" is a romantic idea that also ties into the "unique little snowflake" narrative most of us have running in our heads. But in the case of gay people (among others) it's plainly true and that's when it becomes a legitimate consideration.

Just to clarify though, creators shouldn't be forced into it and not doing it certainly isn't homophobia (or racism/sexism/whateverism*) but I also think, right now, as things stand, it's at least not totally black and white (to me).



* very popular among teenagers apparently ;)
"I was turned off as soon as the author mentioned Spinoza. Anyone who thinks he's being genuine in his interpretation of the Torah, rather than applying strict literalism to a metaphorical work in order to show that religious texts shouldn't be respected, automatically loses my ear."

I had a similar thought, to be honest.

As to all this talk about Willow and Tara, I thought it was the way it was because Joss was more interested in showing a real relationship than making a statement about gay couples. That's the difference, of course, between writing a story about being gay and a story that happens to have gay people in it. I thought Willow's reaction was like just about everyone's reaction in the show. If it's a negative stereotype, it's not about gay people per se, but about humanity in general. It's not like Willow's the only one who has gone a little bit crazy when their loved one was killed.

"That said, Joss is an equal opportunity give-it-in-the-chest kinda writer."

Heh. I had to laugh at this, because A) you're right on a metaphorical level, and B) given all the impaling in Joss's work, it's right on a literal level as well.
Just a clarification: I don't think all, or even most, of the meaning of a piece of art is disconnected from the author. I think that's primarily true of people with an axe to grind. I believe there is a lot that can be said objectively about Joss's work, and that a lot of people here are saying those things.

What always amazes me about Joss's work is how many people of diverse backgrounds and religious beliefs and political commitments find something worthy in the work. It touches on universals, and that's rare in entertainment these days, which seems obsessed with wearing its ideology on its sleeve. That tends to turn people off who aren't already similarly committed. The work is open, and honest, and that draws people in.
So, I haven't got around to all the comments cause I'm lazy that way, but just to weigh in on the pro-lesbian bit, I don't think Joss or any other writer has any obligation to a character other than to treat them equally. Joss kills characters. If anything he showed equality by not giving Tara special treatment because she was a lesbian. Season 7 saw a new love interest for Willow, it's not like he made her straight all of a sudden. As someone mentioned, he did to Tara the same as was done to Jenny and Wash(Zoe went crazed and almost died afterward) and Ballard and will probably continue to do so because killing a beloved character mercilessly is pain. It proves that the character carried great meaning to the fans and the other characters. Tara's death is still felt even in the comics. It was no diservice to lesbians and in no way did it stop his portrayal of them. Willow is still gay.

And as an aside, I liked Kennedy from the start, I couldn't stand Tara til season 6 so I feel like Joss has continued to do a good job at representing lesbian characters.

In relation to the actual article, I love to read about the overabundance of Chirstian meaning/anti-Chritian meaning people find everywhere. Sacrifice is not copyrighted by Jesus, lots of people did it before and many will continue to do so.

[ edited by BlueSkies on 2011-03-09 01:45 ]
Oh boy, BlueSkies, I think I have to disagree. First is this- in Season 7, Joss had extensive discussions with Marti Noxon about whether or not they should return Willow to being with a guy. They ultimately decided not to, I think because the outcry would have been even greater than the one they had so recently suffered through. He very nearly did "make her straight all of a sudden." So I think it took him some time to realize the gravity of what happened- we can all sit here and defend the author's right to write the story they wish, but in the end, what happens when people respond in a way you completely did not expect and they are very much hurt? Do you just then walk away and claim no responsibility? There is little question they wrote Tara's death to hurt- they misled the audience, they had Amber Benson listed as a regular for that one episode, etc. They wanted to ramp up the emotion. To this day, I do not believe they understood, completely, what they did. They were successful beyond their wildest dream- and they have admitted as much.

ern: You say "As to all this talk about Willow and Tara, I thought it was the way it was because Joss was more interested in showing a real relationship than making a statement about gay couples." Ah, you know, you cannot have it both ways. Joss was more than happy to accept the accolades for presenting a realistic and loving lesbian relationship. It became and was always about more than just the story. So when it went wrong, I don't think it is fair for him to then step away and say, hey, this is not about them being gay, but about the story only. And really, did anyone else try to destroy the universe when their lover was killed? And have the means to do it? Only Topher might have done that to the earth, but he was a child in a man's body and did so out of hubris, not love. Until he realized the wrongness of what he did. No one else ever did this. Not Giles, not Zoe, not Angel, not Buffy, not Echo, not anyone. Just Willow, the lesbian.

And Joss killing people? Getting old and predictable. IMHO. But that's for a different discussion.
Tara's death really doesn't fit the trope at all. Punishment isn't really tragic or painful, it's "let that be a lesson to you." The similarities are all on the surface. Drew Greenberg wrote a nice explanation awhile ago. The key is not keeping the gay characters happy and alive, it's giving them full-fledged happiness and sorrows and death scenes people still fight over 9 years later. The surface reading of the trope here is unfortunate.
Dana, I do dimly recall something to the effect of Joss's discussions, but the fact is, he didn't. I'm one of the few who only accepts what I see and not what writers discussed as the fact of the show. What I saw was Joss creating a much stronger lesbian charcter for Willow to be in a relationship with. What I took from season 7's Willow was that she had finally met a match, Joss had grown with the idea of the relationship to be as forward as Kennedy in his display of lesbians.
And no, no one else tried to destroy the world, no one else was strong enough. Joss gave Willow the power to do things that no one else in that show could. If Giles could have ripped a new one outta of the world after Jenny, chances are he would have. Instead he almost got himself killed and did some property damage. But the strength Willow had came from Tara and their relationship. To me her loss of control was so correct, because Tara was her anchor. Zoe was a completely different character. She wasn't the type to indulge emotion out of place on the battlefield, she was a soldier and she too lost the plot and almost got them all killed/raped/eaten by reavers. Joss showed the huge vast degrees of grief that people feel through all the deaths. Willows was just one more step on the ladder.
Killing Tara and making Amber Benson a regular was actually one of the parts of season 6 I enjoyed the most. It was beyond shocking and to this day I can still remember watching that scene thinking; "Joss, you maniac! That was brutal and brilliant!" There was no rage at him having pulled the rug from under us. To me it was as shocking as the beginning of the Body with Joyce alive and well and then cut to her dead on the couch. Or killing Doyle after spending near half a season depicting him as a drunken lay-about stereotypical Irish ex-pat. The Irish didn't rise up and say he showed no respect for our nation. Replacing the character with a bumbling Brit didn't cause us to go Easter 1916 on him either. We all want writers to pander to our particular desires and the minorities that we support/are a part of, but in the end of the day, if he's killing a straight, white, American why can't he kill a gay, oriental, Brit?
And at the time that he killed Tara, wasn't the kill everyone you love still bit early. We only had Jenny, Joyce and Angel at that point in "Buffy". In "Angel" he had only killed Doyle. Now we can argue that maybe it's overkill(pun intended), but at that stage it was still early.
My biggest gripe with Ronald Helfrich's essay is his misrepresentation of cultural studies. No cultural critic worth their salt would "skip the close analysis of the text as text altogether in favor of a social and cultural contextualization of the text." Textual analysis and cultural theory go hand-in-hand; they are not diametrically opposed, and good scholarship combines the two.

Re: the evil lesbian death trope, it's important to understand that academic critique is not a form of prescriptivism. That is to say, pointing out the presence of the evil lesbian death trope in Buffy is not the same as saying "Here is what Joss Whedon should have done to make lesbians everywhere happy." Critique does not necessarily make a show "bad" or "evil" or its creators "malignant." Saje explained that the effects of one's acts always exceed one's intentions. Yes, Tara's death perpetuated a homophobic trope. Does that make Joss Whedon homophobic? Who cares? Intentions are ultimately unknowable and not worth speculating.

@BlueSkies: Rationalizing Willow's reaction to Tara's death does not somehow shield the event from critique. Tropes document recurring plots, images, or themes that may or may not be congruous with believable action.
As for Joss and Marti's supposed extensive discussions on returning Willow to a guy, it wouldn't have "made her straight all of a sudden". It would have made her bi. Which is why I and others who thought she was bi were disappointed and upset by Joss's choice. Then there are the people who were deeply upset by Willow becoming gay. Leaving aside the homophobes, whose feelings don't count I guess, there were some who thought it was an arbitrary decision based on Seth Green's departure and a betrayal of Willow's character up to that point. Shouldn't Joss realize that these people were hurt more than he expected and take responsibility for that? Silly question. Our feelings can't be as deeply rooted. Oh, and on the writers misleading people about Tara's death? They had misled and even lied to posters on the Bronze who were on to some plot development or other for years. Since the Willow/Tara shippers were so hurt, for some SOP became Betrayal.

I'd known that Bianca Lawson had been considered a prime candidate for Cordelia's role, but didn't know she'd actually turned it down. I would hope that fact in itself would demolish the claims that Buffy's lily-white main cast was due to an unconscious, but nonetheless real, racial insensitivity. But, unfortunately, I think the attacks would have just shown up in another form. Even if Lawson had accepted, I could see the early, bitchy, materialistic Cordelia being denounced as a covertly racist portrayal by some, and even the later, near- saintly Cordelia on S3 Angel would have been sniped at as an example of the Magic Negro. And then, when she died, it would have been, "Of course she died before the end, she's black!"

And, according to trunktheslayer, those critics would be right. Effect trumps intent. If black Cordelia had been written the same word for word as white Cordelia, some people would have felt injured by a portrayal that, to them, touched on historically hurtful tropes. I'm not denigrating that. But, to me, it's an unavoidable outcome in writing for a "mass" American audience, which is actually divided into a number of sub-groups, some of which are antipathetic to each other. Maneuvering through that minefield without upsetting some group is impossible - which is why I think intent does matter.

Take the "perpetuation" of the evil lesbian death trope and Joss's intent. When Tara died, I was shocked. When Buffy came into Willow's room and found a devastated Dawn watching over Tara's body, I lost it and choked up. I grieved for her, for Willow. This was Joss's and ME's intent, as Drew Greenberg wrote. You can look back through any comment board at the time, including the Bronze, and you will find that that was the general reaction. I am unaware of any, much less many, comments at the time about how her death was a natural consequence of her lesbianism, that she was being punished for her sexual proclivities. Which is what expressions of the trope are supposed to reinforce, are they not? The general reaction to the appearance of the trope was grief and sorrow for Tara, across the board. Even though Tara died the day after an evening of sex with Willow, which should have, according to critics, brought about at least some hateful expressions from the id that is the internet, like "how else would you expect a lesbian like Tara to end up?". These expressions don't exist, or if one or two can be found, are still miniscule compared to the sorrow that was expressed. The condemnation of use of the trope should come from its harmful social effect on a mass audience, NOT its mere appearance. And in this case, where the reverse was true, where people grieved for a dead lesbian for the first time in their lives, how is this problematic?

Okay, of course, for some, it's more than problematic. I left out the reaction of a specific subset of people, centered mainly on a couple of boards, but spread across all of them. They too were grieved by Tara's death, as we all were, but they felt deeply hurt, even damaged, primarily because the trope was touched on. Joss's intent didn't matter, the positive rather than harmful effects on a mass audience didn't matter. What matters is that a lesbian died, again. The trope, for them, has a totemic power to cause them pain by its very invocation which trumps everything else. I don't think they are close to a majority even of the lesbian fans of the show, but their pain is real. I don't deny it. But a side effect of Joss's ability to write hugely affecting, moving shows which people invest in heart and soul is that they can be deeply hurt. There are people who can't watch The Body, or Spike's attempted rape: it hurts too much. I understand their pain, having been stunned by my intense reaction to Wash's death, which ruined Serenity for me for a while. But Joss's ability to hurt me is part of the deal and not a betrayal of trust. Joss could have chosen to find a way around the trope he inverted, had he been aware of just how much pain it would cause, or he could have proceeded anyway. Considering his intent, I'd support the latter. Tailoring your writing to whether it causes pain to some fans is a mistake. The Tara/Willow shippers weren't owed anything because Joss had been praised and rewarded for his portrayal of Willow/Tara, no implicit contract existed that nothing displeasing them could happen. On a show where anyone could die, it's not having it both ways if Tara dies. I'd defend Willow's actions as solid character work too, but this post is huge, so another time.

[ edited by shambleau on 2011-03-09 10:29 ]
JOSS: "I killed Tara... Because stories, as I have so often said, are not about what we WANT. And I knew some people would be angry with me for destroying the only gay couple on the show, but the idea that I COULDN'T kill Tara because she was gay is as offensive to me as the idea that I DID kill her because she was gay. Willow's story was not about being gay. It was about weakness, addiction, loss... the way life hits you in the gut right when you think you're back on your feet."


-- from (fittingly enough) a PopMatters article regarding Tara's death back from 2002.


Also, while "Religion freaky" was a pretty interesting read and technically written very well, it did come off as a bit dry and to be honest, pointless. As Saje pointed out, it's basically saying "everyone is different, we view things differently", which... yeah. The Biblical Studies section were kinda irrelevant and it felt like Buffy was being used to make a larger point, which is a bit of a turnoff seeing as the series is meant to be about Buffy (Angel, Firefly, etc.) I'm all for breaking the ninth wall but it read to me like the majority of the article was just about itself.


As an aside I'm always curious why there's not a lot more discussion regarding race in the Buffyverse. I'm not discussing stuff like "Kendra died, is BtVS racist?" because to be honest I find that a little silly; and I'm certainly not accusing Joss of racism, because I think it's pretty clear he casts on talent and not ethnicity (and from what I understand of Hollywood, it's an industry pretty well dominated by white folk, especially in the time Buffy was on the air). But with that being said, it's interesting that of twelve series regulars (more if you count characters like Joyce and Faith), there's no one who isn't white. I'm Australian so I don't claim to have any expertise in the area (particuarly since most of my knowledge comes from, ironically enough, pop culture) but Southern Californian beach towns would at least have a pretty strong Hispanic population, yeah?

(As an aside, I've seen similar comments made regarding Firefly which I think in some respects is sort of a fair call - it's a little hard to take the idea of a world where everyone speaks Chinese and there's a huge Sino-American Alliance seriously when nearly everyone is white.)
And really, did anyone else try to destroy the universe when their lover was killed? And have the means to do it?


At one point, Buffy said she would kill anyone who tried to hurt Dawn, when she thought that killing Dawn was the only way to save the world. It was more passive, but equally crazy. Other than her, nobody had the means to do something of that scale.
it's a little hard to take the idea of a world where everyone speaks Chinese and there's a huge Sino-American Alliance seriously when nearly everyone is white


In our 21st century world nearly everyone speaks English; McDonalds restaurants are found in 119 countries; Hollywood films are shown all over the world. So by your logic, a show set in Hong Kong or Mumbai or Mombasa in which none of the characters were white Americans would also be hard to take seriously, wouldn't it?
Boy, and I just thought it was quite an entertaining TV show!
In our 21st century world nearly everyone speaks English...

No offence but that's quite a parochial (not to mention inaccurate) perspective. Nothing like "nearly everyone" speaks English in our 21st Century world although it might be true for the part of it called "the internet" or the part of it called "middle-class professionals". English may have the most global speakers of any single language but at around 1.8 billion it's still significantly less than half the world's population (not far over a quarter in fact).

And in the context of 'Firefly' it's not just about language anyway - the Alliance is an Anglo-Sino alliance and yet we see, what, one Asian background actor in the whole 'verse (let alone in a position of power) ? The most populated nation on Earth sure got the crappy end of that "alliance". There're loads of extra-textual reasons why it might be the case and many in-text ways to fan-wank it away but the lack of Chinese actors stands out.

As an aside I'm always curious why there's not a lot more discussion regarding race in the Buffyverse.

It's come up a few times (on here anyway, maybe other sites never stop talking about it) but maybe not as often as you'd expect, not sure why. Maybe because the discussion reaches an impasse fairly quickly ?

E.g.

Joss Whedon and Race

Dead Bro Walking: Characters Of Color In Joss Whedon's Buffyverse ...
So by your logic, a show set in Hong Kong or Mumbai or Mombasa in which none of the characters were white Americans would also be hard to take seriously, wouldn't it?



If the show made a point of mentioning that Hong Kong and American had merged into one supercountry and the 99.9% Asian cast spoke Cantonese while only pausing to swear in English? You bet it would be.

It's not about English/Western proliferation, it's about fitting the context that the show has established for itself.

ETA: Cheers Saje, that'll be some good reading at some point over the weekend =)

[ edited by Matt7325 on 2011-03-09 15:56 ]

No offence but that's quite a parochial (not to mention inaccurate) perspective.

I suspect it's just as accurate as the post I was replying to which referred to "a world where everyone speaks Chinese", though.

If knowing a few Mandarin or Cantonese swearwords or set phases, or sprinkling your English with Mandarin loanwords, or seeing hanzi characters written on advertisements, is enough to count as "speaking Chinese" then I think that rather more than 1.8 billion people today would "speak English" to the same degree. Which is to say, not much.

(And I'd also note that the crew of Serenity, given their background and occupations, are far more likely than most colonists out on the Rim to be familiar with other languages and cultures, so the show may give us an unbalanced impression.)

'Firefly' shows a world where Chinese culture has become hegemonic in the same way that American culture dominates our own world. Serenity's crew doesn't swear in Mandarin because they regularly interact with native Mandarin speakers (if they did, they might pronounce the words better), but presumably because knowledge of Mandarin has become pervasive due to the media, entertainment and government use. It's fashionable, high status, trendy, or just useful. Even, shockingly enough, among people who aren't of East Asian ethnicity.
Re: Firefly casting. I read something recently that said that 20th Centruy Fox did a "open casting call" for the show because they thought it would be a good idea not to specify what race the characters should be. Which would explain the eventual make-up of the cast. Now I have no idea if that is true but can anyone remember the casting calls for the show or if it got raised on a DVD commentary?
Just to put the Chinese swearing thing into perspective, in Japan most people swear in English if they swear at all. That's about the only functional grasp they have on English, so it's not entirely out of the way to imagine that the unschooled thieves that make up the Serenity crew only swear in Mandarin. So if we're all shocked that fictional characters don't portray a more realistic idea of a sci-fi future, it's not that different from reality. At least linguistically. And there is that tight pants craze...

[ edited by BlueSkies on 2011-03-10 05:41 ]
That's about the only functional grasp they have on English, so it's not entirely out of the way to imagine that the unschooled thieves that make up the Serenity crew only swear in Mandarin.

You (and stormwreath) raise a valid point that i've wondered about myself i.e. are they actually fluent speakers or do they just know bits and bobs in the same way many English speakers know a few phrases of e.g. Latin or French.

But at the same time, some of the swearing sounds made-up by them and is certainly more complex than the odd 'shit' - though that pops up - (e.g. Wash's "wacky nephews" phrase) and Mal for instance understands a (possibly subtle) distinction between 'small' and 'petty'.

And if the casting call was open that's commendable in some ways and in almost all situations I think it's better to cast on talent and particularly with an ensemble, on chemistry but what about for background actors with no lines or one-off supporting roles, why would it matter then ? To me it's just part of the world building that if you have a future where the ruling power is (apparently) a mixture of Anglo and Chinese ethnicities then you'd want a mixture of those ethnicities to appear, just as with e.g. 'Roots' you'd hire a lot of black actors.
The author writes:

1. The Biblical studies part irrelevant? Hardly. My point is that contemporary Biblical Studies and contemporary crystal ball textualism are similar in many ways. The irony? I doubt that most crystal ball textualists would not admit this. How are they similar? The JEPD hyppothesis is based solely on textual "evidence". So is most crystal ball Buffy Studies. There is little if any extra textual analysis.

2. Cultural Studies engages in textual analysis. Yes and no. They do not engage in textual analysis like that of the early Cahiers and Movie critics. Early Cahiers critics and those critics associated with Movie studied the text as text and tried to discern, in a variety of different ways including interviews with directors, authorial intent in the text. Crystal ball textualism is grounded in a reaction to auteuerism (the auteurism that dominated early film criticism), death of the author ideologies, and this notion that context is text and text is context (and in this it is rather like the Christian notion of the holy spirit, imminent in every text and transcendent to every text). It sees the text solely as ethnocentric, racist, sexist context and by and large jettisons auteurist and historical and ethnographic analysis (no archival research, no interviews, seeing themselves as exemplary in terms of how people read texts). That is one of my points. Compare early textual criticism versus the textual criticism that arises after the transformation of Cahiers and Screen and the rise of the "new" cultural studies.

I've been surprised by the tendency in fandom to ascribe motivations or prejudice to the text/show itself. Concentrating closely and solely on the text makes it easier to find support for a theory. Sometimes even weak and creative support helps illustrate fresh perspectives. But it's fair to have a go at some of the more myopic readings, especially when they are myopic out of necessity, because a larger context would undermine or demolish the theory.

I particularly appreciated the paper's brief description of the forces that shape a show. Production, actors, advertisers, characters, audiences, writers, fandomů There are a lot of ways a show can reflect on society. If you strip the show of all this context that gives it meaning you're left with an object. That object doesn't hold opinions, prejudiced or otherwise. To address social issues in the context of a show someone needs to link elements of the show to the behaviour, motivations, opinions of individuals and groups of people. That means looking at external sources and making more solid and refutable arguments.


Fiction writers aren't theoreticians; that's why they don't write essay. On the other hand, that's one reason the critc's work is legitimate; to uncover the hidden messages in more creative output.

Even if Bianca had been available to paly Cordy Joss would still have been accused of racism for "making the black girl the bad girl" and for "having her pathway into the group a romance with a white guy." Ditto if Joss had had Charisma play Cordy as Hispanic.
And face it Cordelia is per comics canon now an active Higher Being; however hard the road was (and I hated most of it myself) hardly the end of a "victim."

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