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The Feminist Filter: Halloween

Alright! Let's do Halloween! This one is particularly rich in the feminist text, so make yourself some tea. :)

Mission Statement:

This series is intended to outline the feminist text of each episode so as to provoke and encourage open discussion. It's not so much about making value judgments about events and/or characters but about analyzing the series from a feminist framework so as to see what patterns and themes emerge.


1. If you do not consider yourself a feminist or do not see the point of dissecting a TV show from a feminist perspective, this is not the meta series for you. I don't mean this in a hostile way, however the intended audience of this series is feminists who want to turn a critical eye to the show.

2. This meta series is written well beyond a 101 level of feminism. If you are new to feminism, I ask that you please take a look at this blog for an introduction to concepts that will be discussed heavily here.

3. If you begin to feel yourself getting defensive on behalf of a character (or the show), take a break from commenting. The outlines as posted are not meant to condemn either the characters or the show, but to contextualize the dialogue and events within the patriarchal cultural in which they reside.

4. BtVS is a constructed media. The characters are not actual people but are written, dressed, and directed by a team of outsiders. Criticizing a character for, say, having sex could be a sexist insult or it could be a legitimate criticism of the writers who chose to go that route with the storyline. There are nuances here when discussing a television show, and I ask that everybody be careful about exactly what's being discussed. A couple helpful terms are Watsonian and Doylist. "Watsonian" indicates that the discussion is taking place within the Buffy universe as if the characters are real people. "Doylist" indicates that the discussion is focused on the construction of the narrative and, as such, deals with the decisions of the writers and/or producers.

5. The key goal here is open discussion. I'm not presenting you guys with any brilliant insights; I'm just laying out what's in the episode. Feel free to discuss or disagree with me and others. Also feel free to answer other commenter's questions. The comment section is an open floor.

2.06 Halloween

I. The Tallies

Criteria for Bechdel Check: The episode must have a) two women in it b) who talk to each other c) about something besides a man.

  1. Bechdel Check: PASS on 6 counts

  2. Deaths:
    Dead boys: 0
    Dead girls: 0

II. Agency

Criteria for Agency: Do the female characters a) exert power or influence over the plot b) through decisions based on their own characterization? Agency means more than providing information or support that helps the (usually male) characters resolve the conflict.

The Plot: Ethan Rayne creates some chaos by turning people into their Halloween costumes. Spike takes advantage of the situation to hunt down Buffy.

The Big Question:
If Buffy were taken out of this episode, would events occur in much the same fashion? No.
If Willow were taken out of this episode, would events occur in much the same fashion? No.
If Cordelia were taken out of this episode, would events occur in much the same fashion? Yes.
If Drusilla were taken out of this episode, would events occur in much the same fashion? Yes.

  • Decisive Buffy: Buffy's first major decision rests in picking out her costume for Halloween. This inadvertently renders her the damsel for the majority of the episode. This doesn't afford her much in the way of agency, however her return to herself at the end allows her to fight Spike.
  • Decisive Willow: By contrast, Willow ultimately doesn't choose her costume. The cover-all ghost outfit quickly gives way to the more revealing outfit beneath. This inadvertently renders her the most capable member of the gang. She quickly takes charge and makes the plans. She's the one who gathers everybody together and gives them the 411 on what's going down. Then she tells everybody what to do while she gets Giles.

III. The Feminist Fine-Toothed Comb

Criteria: Do any of the characters engage in sexist dialogue or action, whether overt or subtle? Does it receive an explicit rebuke or does it pass uncommented on? Further, what can be deduced from the various gendered comments that are made by the characters?

  • Protagonists (Buffy, Xander, Willow, Giles, Cordelia, and Angel)

    1. In the first act, Cordelia is relating to Angel a story about Devon. She says: "So I told Devon, 'You call that leather interior? My Barbie Dream Car had nicer seats!'"

    Barbie Dream Car being a reference to the girls' toy, which is highly feminized.

    2. After seeing Angel with Cordelia, Buffy gets insecure about her post-Slaying look. She says: "Dates are things normal girls have. Girls who have time to think about nail polish and facials. You know what I think about? Ambush tactics. Beheading. Not exactly the stuff dreams are made of. "

    We get another example of Buffy's liminal status between masculine and feminine. With this comment, she's lamenting her lack of femininity due to her involvement with Slaying, the masculine.

    3. In Act One, Larry asks Xander if he and Buffy are just friends. Xander responds: ""I like to think of it less as a friendship and more as a solid foundation for future bliss."

    He gives voice to some Nice Guy tendencies in sticking with a friendship with the unspoken hope of more happening later. This usually leads to entitlement issues and possessive jealousy towards any other guys that the friend may be interested in (as we see in Xander towards Angel).

    4. When Xander confronts Larry about his slut-shaming comments about Buffy, he says: "I'm gonna do what any man would do about it: somethin' damn manly."

    The emphasis on "manliness" is pretty explicit. Xander is attempting to live up to gendered expectations of masculinity. This involves defending the "honor" of Buffy, his friend (and a girl, not coincidentally). As he says this, he makes the motions of threatening physical violence. Much like we got with Buffy in #2, we have the association of masculinity with violence as well as with protectorship of women.

    5. After Buffy rescues Xander from Larry, Xander rails against it: "Oh, I'll forget about it. In maybe fifteen, twenty years when my rep for being a sissy man finally fades! [...] A black eye heals, Buffy, but cowardice has an unlimited shelf life."

    In this case, being rescued by a girl is equated to cowardice, which is declared decidedly unmasculine. This point is important in that Xander's not labeling getting beat up by Larry as cowardice. Xander was facing Larry down and knew he was about to get pummeled. He preferred that to being rescued by Buffy. The act of being rescued by a girl socially labels him as cowardly.

    6. After Xander walks away in a huff, Buffy and Willow commiserate:

    Buffy: I think I just violated the guy code big time.

    Willow: Poor Xander. Boys are so fragile.

    Buffy references the "guy code". References to "guy code" or "girl code" usually act to essentialize the genders and maintain the socially constructed gender binary.

    Willow chooses to subvert common traditional gender roles by noting that "boys are so fragile". Presumably, she means emotionally fragile, a stereotypically female trait.

    7. Buffy and Willow take a look at the Watcher's Journals and come across a picture of a woman from 1775. They provide some commentary:

    Buffy: So that's the kinda girl he hung around? She's pretty coiffed.

    Willow: She looks like a noble woman or something. Which means being beautiful is sort of her job.

    Buffy: And clearly this girl was a workaholic. I'll never be like this.

    Willow: C'mon! She's not that pretty. I mean, look at her. She's got a funny... uh, waist. Look how tiny that is.

    Earlier, we'd seen references to Buffy's "job" being Slaying. Here we get the opposite: being beautiful as a "job". This sets up the dichotomy for later in the episode.

    Interesting to note as the conversation continues:

    Buffy: (sarcastically) Thank you. Now I feel better.

    Willow: (exhales) No. She's like a freak. A circus freak. Yuk.

    Buffy: (exhales) Musta been wonderful. Put on some fantabulous gown and go to a ball like a princess, and have horses and servants, and yet more gowns.

    Willow: Yeah. Still, I think I prefer being able to vote. (Buffy raises her brows) (smiles) Or I will when I can.

    While Buffy gets misty-eyed about the princess fantasy, Willow remarks on the lack of rights women had at the time.

    8. When Willow and Buffy tell Cordelia that Angel is a vampire, she responds:

    Cordelia: (steps over to them) You know what I think? (crosses her arms) I just think you're trying to scare me off 'cause you're afraid of the competition. Look, Buffy, you may be hot stuff when it comes to demonology or whatever, but when it comes to dating, I'm the Slayer.

    Cordelia comments, essentially, on Buffy's failure to be feminine, positioning herself as particularly good at it.

    9. Later, Buffy and Willow are picking out costumes. Buffy is less than thrilled with Willow's choice of a ghost. She expounds on the point of Halloween. "It's come as you aren't night. The perfect chance for a girl to get sexy and wild with no repercussions."

    The no repercussions, of course, implies that being sexy and wild normally has repercussions in the form of slut-shaming.

    10. At the costume shop, Buffy becomes enamored at a dress. Xander comments: "Too bulky. I prefer my women in spandex."

    It's interesting to note that Xander's initial instinct is to comment on how the dress appeals to him, sexually. It's not about Buffy thinking the dress is pretty or whether the dress is well-made or whatnot, but about how it satisfies his desires.

    11. The beginning of Act Two contains a lot of evaluation of how the girls look in their costumes. The end goal is obvious: attractiveness.

    Buffy, referring to Angel: "I'll show him I can coif with the best of 'em."

    When Willow emerges in her costume, Buffy comments: "Wow! You're a dish!"

    Then when Xander arrives, we get a prolonged commentary on her looks: "Buffy! Lady of Buffdom, Duchess of Buffonia, I am in awe! I completely renounce spander!"

    Buffy responds: "Thank you, kind sir."

    It's notable that no comment is made on Xander's costume or his attractiveness. Women are subject to a near-constant scrutiny and appraisal of their looks.

    12. When she's turned into her costume, Buffy takes a look at a picture of herself. She says: "I don't understand any of this! This is some other girl! I would never wear this, that low apparel, and I don't like this place, and I don't like you, and I just wanna go home!"

    The comment that modern!Buffy's outfit qualifies as "low apparel" is, of course, speaking to the cultural differences between the two times. However, it also speaks to the history of women's place in society in terms of appropriate dress.

    13. When Willow goes to find Giles, she instructs everybody to fight off anything that tries to get in the house. Buffy responds: "Well, it's not our place to fight. Uh, surely some men will protect us."

    Cordelia provides an effectively sarcastic commentary on that: "What's that riff?"

    Buffy's fully in her role as the regressed and disempowered women. See the Points to Consider section for more on this point.

    14. As Xander is securing the house, he mentions that he's doing what Willow told him to. Buffy replies: "You would take orders from a woman? Are you feeble in some way?"

    15. Later, when Xander discovers a picture of himself, he gets on board with Willow's "amnesia" explanation. Buffy rails against it: "I was brought up a proper lady. I-I wasn't meant to understand things. I'm just meant to look pretty, and then someone nice will marry me. Possibly a Baron."

    While Buffy's comment highlights the hyperfemininity of her costumed character, Xander's response shows a disregard for the feminine, overall: "This ain't no tea party, princess."

    16. Giles questions Willow about the nature of her costume. In discomfort, Willow points the finger at Cordelia: "Well, this is nothing. You should see what Cordelia was wearing. A unitard with cat things, like ears and stuff."

    In pointing out that her costume is "nothing" compared to Cordelia's, Willow's effectively saying that Cordelia is dressed sluttier than she is. She's trying to bring herself up to an acceptable status in Giles' eyes by giving an example of a girl whose transgression is even worse.

    17. During the final act, Giles is explaining Janus to Willow:

    Giles: Primarily the division of self. Male and female, light and dark.

    It's traditional to separate male and female as opposites. Unfortunately, this practice leads to all sorts of problems. After all, if men are strong and women are opposite men, then women must be weak.

    18. After the spell is done, Buffy explains to Angel why she dressed up in that particular costume:

    Buffy: (sits next to him) I just wanted to be a real girl for once. The kind of fancy girl you liked when you were my age.

    Angel: (ironically) Oh, ho.

    Buffy: What?

    Angel: I hated the girls back then. Especially the noble women.

    Buffy: (nods) You did.

    Angel: They were just incredibly dull. Simpering morons, the lot of them. I always wished I could meet someone... exciting. (looks her in the eyes) Interesting.

    Note that Buffy positions being a "real girl" as being feminine. Doing Slayer stuff doesn't qualify as being a "real girl" for her at this point.

    See more about this discussion in the Points to Consider section.

  • Antagonists (Spike, Drusilla, Ethan)

    1. While watching video of Buffy fighting, Spike comments: "She's tricky. Baby likes to play."

    "Baby" is an infantilizing affectation with which to refer to Buffy.

  • The Rest (Oz, Devon, Larry)

    1. In his first confrontation with Xander, Larry comments on Buffy: "I heard some guys say she was fast."

    Obviously, there've been some slut rumors going around about Buffy that Larry's picked up on.

    2. Later, in Act Two, Larry teases Xander: "Where's your bodyguard, Harris? Curling her hair?"

    This is an insult to women as much as it is to Xander, as it's positioning women bodyguards as absurd and worthy of mockery.

    3. At the beginning of Act Four, pirate!Larry spots lady!Buffy and comments: "Pretty, pretty!"

    There is the unmistakable threat of sexual assault against Buffy in his attack on her as he tries to forcibly kiss her. She is rescued by Xander.

IV. Objectification Watch

  1. The episode opens with a very literal male-gaze on Buffy: that of the vampire camera man. We get several video camera shots of her as she fights a vampire. We later see Spike watching the footage of this, complete with rewind.
  2. Willow's costume is revealing, which is the point according to Buffy. Despite Willow's attempt to cover up, she spends most of the episode with her midriff showing. Cordelia's costume is less revealing, but more form-fitting and spandex-y.
  3. We get a shot of Willow from Oz's viewpoint at the end.

V. Points to Consider

  1. The costumes of the kids we see seem to fall along gender lines.

    Little boys: A devil, 2 generic demons, a vampire, a doctor, a pirate, a...potato?, 2 knights, a football player, a Dalmation
    Little girls: 3 witches, a princess, a belly dancer, 2 fairies, a ballerina, something with a red polka dot dress
    Can't call: A pink bunny thing, a yellow flower

  2. In having Buffy turn into a eighteenth century lady, this episode proceeds to play it for humor and then uses it to damselize Buffy. Within the larger metaphor of the episode, this is a commentary on femininity, which Buffy is shown to be concerned about at the beginning. Does this episode end up denigrating femininity? What about Willow's comment: "She couldn't've dressed up like Xena?" Xena being a more masculine character, of course. In an effort to show how Buffy enjoys and benefits from her masculine (Slayer) side, does this episode swing too far in its depiction of femininity as weak, irrational, and incompetent?

    Furthermore, several of the characters have insulting reactions to lady!Buffy. Cordelia snarks at her several times. At the end, Angel goes to great length to assure Buffy that he "hated the girls back then" because "they were just incredibly dull" and were "simpering morons". With these reactions, is the show condemning the feminine in lieu of placing more value on the masculine?

  3. What about the sexual assault of lady!Buffy by pirate!Larry in this framework, with her subsequent rescue by manly!Xander? We have a character who's hyper-femininized and then left vulnerable to an assault, only to be rescued by a character who's been hyper-masculinized. What are we to take from this?

  4. On that same line of thought, what do we make of the fact that soldier!Xander, in all his masculinity, is completely okay following Willow's orders?


Sep. 18th, 2011 02:58 pm (UTC)
Willow: I feel like there's something a tiny bit almost post-gender roles about Willow here. She doesn't transform the way Buffy and Xander do. As doublemeat says above, she is conscious of gender roles in a way Buffy isn't. Buffy wants to be old-school femininity as she understands it. Willow would rather have the right to vote. She's happy with social expectations of femininity.

What I will say is that Willow's arc strikes me as more explicitly a female empowerment one than Buffy's -- because Buffy just *is*, Buffy already exists, and while she grows tremendously and becomes stronger, she still is already an icon at the beginning. Willow says she wants the right to vote, but to an extent she is someone who would rather not be heard -- she wants to hide away. She is passively pining away for Xander, which is a relatively feminine-coded position, but she takes a big step to move away from that. She is uncomfortable with her own sexual expression. In this episode, she "gets the right to vote" by actually acting as leader, and by acting as leader without having any particular strength or powers. In fact she has zero physical strength, in that she is completely unable to affect the physical world when she's in ghost form. So Willow's leadership in this episode is actually a bit of a non-masculine form of leadership, since it is completely divorced from anything like physical power (as represented by either Buffy's physical strength or Xander's military might with gun, or Angel's bit, or....).

But of course she does slut-shame Cordelia, so she's not actually post-gender; she definitely has a sense about female sexual *propriety*. She doesn't know how to express sexuality, and I think on a character level (pure Watsonian, because I don't think her sexuality was decided yet) that some of that is because her sexuality is non-normative. Buffy and Cordelia know the dating game very well because they are a) popular and b) want to make out with hot guys. Willow has always been outside the dating game and its assumptions, and while she's attracted to men to a degree, she doesn't seem to be sexually driven by that to the same extent.

(holy crap someone outside this coffee shop just passed on a unicycle!)

Anyway, this is sort of off to the side, but I wonder if it will be useful. Back in high school, I was pretty out of step with everyone else sexually in a way I think Willow is here. In my case, it wasn't because I was non-heterosexual, but I was younger than my grade (I skipped) and hit puberty particularly late even given this; and was also unpopular. So I really didn't get any of the dating thing or the sex thing or why people dressed in revealing ways, etc. And I think the sense of isolation that comes from being out of step with everyone else led to a lot of resentment about other people's sexuality. It wasn't until after graduating high school where I actually felt like I was in step with other people in my peer group enough to really feel like I understood them. And in retrospect realized that I used to be a jerk. Well no, I sort of knew it at the time, but it's hard to know how to deal with irrational resentment. Anyway. Willow's reactions to Buffy trying to sex her up, and to Buffy's own desire to dress up, seem to be something similar -- and same with her reaction to Cordelia here, and Faith later on. She slut-shames in a way that I think is specifically not understanding what their sexuality is *about*, and without actually understanding their sexuality -- because her own is so nascent, at this point -- their behaviour just seems extra weird and crazy.
Sep. 18th, 2011 02:59 pm (UTC)
Willow does have *romantic* fantasies, of course, and really likes talking about and thinking about kissing , but I think they are mostly pretty chaste fantasy-wise. She fell in love with an internet demon! She doesn't even quite want Xander to see her as a sexual being, even though she wants him to kiss her. So here Buffy introduces Willow to the idea of being an object of desire. Or rather, tries to convince Willow that being the object of desire -- being attractive and showing off her body -- will make things better; will make Xander freak. Buffy is not dressing Willow in ways that will actually express what Willow wants to express about herself -- because Willow, seemingly, has no say about it. So it is all about being attractive to others, which is something Buffy knows men value and knows is socially valued. We're two episodes after the Eskimo costume in Inca Mummy Girl. Willow has a side that likes sexual attention -- if we take VampWillow's domme outfit as any indication -- but it's not something she's willing to own yet, perhaps because she hasn't yet figured out what her own sexual desires are. I'm not sure if I read her unwillingness to go out in the sexy clothes as being about discomfort with her body. I think it's more that she doesn't want to be seen as participating in a sexual way of life. Don't be wild! I think the fear is of misrepresenting herself, of trying the wild thing and doing it wrong. And of course Willow doesn't like being exposed, in the metaphor -- she wants to hide! -- but I don't know how much that desire to hide plays in with the gender roles itself.

So at the episode's end, Oz sees Willow who has gained confidence in her abilities as a leader, and in a position where people do look at her, and notice her. What's interesting is that she hasn't had people be *attracted* to her -- well, maybe Giles! What I think happens that makes her confident in her outfit is that she doesn't seem anymore to care whether people look. It's like, she is able to deal with the fact that other people perceive her, and they can think what they want. She doesn't see Oz looking at her, and so isn't happy that he thinks she's hot -- but one expects that she'd be able to deal with the idea of being perceived by others. I guess it's all interesting -- does being a sexual person mean you first have to accept the idea of being an object of desire? Is this more true of women than of men? Willow is an object of Oz' desire and interest before she meets him. My feeling is that in terms of her character arc, she needs to pass through this point before she can be willing to enter into a real relationship (as opposed to the pining for Xander who probably won't return her affections).

But yeah -- I can't quite make it all work in a gender framework. I mean, it's obviously all about sexuality which is about gender and there are interesting things there. Obviously I should have taken more time to think about this rather than just writing this!
Sep. 18th, 2011 04:02 pm (UTC)
So Willow's leadership in this episode is actually a bit of a non-masculine form of leadership

She takes control of the situation in Buffy's house in order to go find Giles who actually saves the day. Her role, like in PG, is to be the ~voice~ and the spirit. She doesn't even get to be the one who figures out who's doing the dirty deeds -- she has all the evidence already in her mind, but it's Giles who pulls out the pieces from her through interrogation.

So it seems like Willow's form of leadership is limited. What if Xander hadn't taken Willow's orders? There's a comment above about how "you would take orders from a woman, are you feeble in some way?" is satirical -- but I feel it's pretty spot-on (if overblown) for how some men act when a woman's put in charge (and I've faced this sort of attitude myself). She might cause a nuclear holocaust with her ladyparts if she's in charge, you guys!

In-story, I think it's that Willow isn't used to leading, so she immediately returns to the library and offers up her leadership abilities to Giles as caretaker, adult, and man. Out of story, we might see this as conformity winning out -- Willow's not expected to lead, girls aren't expected to lead, but they are expected to seek help from men. So she seeks, the day is saved. During the crisis, Willow takes charge because her friends are bespelled and she's the only one with the knowledge to lead them through the mayhem, but she readily gives up the role of leader to Giles -- it strikes me as a commentary on how women are fully capable of leading, but have been generally socialized to submit to men as leaders.
Sep. 18th, 2011 04:14 pm (UTC)
Hm, I think you're right that I overstated Willow's empowerment here. Indeed, knowledge is explicitly denied to Willow -- she can't, physically, turn the page. Giles saves the day by enacting violence which is impossible for Willow both physically and, at this moment, emotionally. Your point about Willow and Giles is right on, and makes me think about the role he plays in her arc as the ideal and the goal. This is in the episode where she helps Buffy sneak in to read the Watcher's Diaries, so Willow is moving toward wanting access to that information, but she's still a voter and not a leader, except when she has to be. Part of the big central problem of the show too is that problems are all externalized which means that the skills that really matter are frequently physical skills -- not that moral judgment isn't important, I hope you understand, I mean skills particularly relating to demon-fighting -- and that leaves Willow in the lurch especially early on, as commander of information. I'm thinking too about how Willow as physical force only really happens in the Dark Willow eps -- that's physical force as, like, actually punching with fists, when she's very highly male coded.

Willow rolls her eyes at the way Buffy uses Giles' romantic interest in Jenny to distract him. I think it ties in with what she views as important, in a way -- she sees Giles as being more admirable and more relatable as book man than as romance man.
Sep. 18th, 2011 04:27 pm (UTC)
Jumping ahead here, the collision between Willow and Giles in Season 6 stems in part from Willow taking a page from Giles' handbook: she hoards her knowledge about the spell and deliberately keeps Giles out of the loop. Giles accumulates power through knowledge; it drives home his ineffectiveness (and reminds me of his upsets with Buffy when she fails to inform him about Angel returning from hell, Riley being in the Initiative, and Spike getting his chip removed).

she sees Giles as being more admirable and more relatable as book man than as romance man.

I think it also might show Willow not thinking much of performance because she's aware of the gender roles -- ooooh they're both being so cliche. Which is funny considering how she'll go forward. She begins to realize the need to ~perform in order to become (a la Spike), but she's always overly aware of her performance and afraid of being found out for her falsehood.

Dark Willow is when she's reveling in the performance -- look what I can do? -- and she's aware that it's false but that it's also true. She's caught between her ability to create and her need to conform because reality is determined by interaction with and the perception of ~others. If a Willow falls in the woods and no one's there to hear it, does she make a sound? If a Willow becomes superpowerful and there's no one to witness it, is she really any different than she was back in high school?
Sep. 18th, 2011 04:48 pm (UTC)
Good point -- there is a nice symmetry there. Willow becomes a knowledge hoarder later on. And indeed it starts from before the series begins -- she has already begun accumulating information about city plans, etc. Xander can't handle the idea of having a secret, but Willow knows very well what it's like to have a secret. Some of it is also personal: Willow has an entire secret internal world, which includes Doogie Howser fanfic (did she keep watching Neil Patrick Harris works? what would she think of How I Met Your Mother?), deliberately hidden from the world. Right now magical knowledge is kept away from her by Giles because she hasn't yet gotten the courage to accrue knowledge that is guarded by a person she actually knows -- it's so much less personalized when it's just city plans.

The switch in Flooded is big isn't it? Willow is so proud that she's done one better on Giles, too. Watchers get their slayers killed; Willow brings Giles' slayer back to life. She has better magic knowledge. It is a big usurpation of Giles' position as the mind, and Giles doesn't like it -- and it is true that it's a combination of legitimate worries, and the fact that his territory has been stepped on. I mean, it's mostly the former -- but maybe Willow's not *just* seeing things from her self-centred POV when she wonders aloud in Grave if he left because he couldn't stand that she was the one with the power.


Willow already does do performance art in season one (indeed, before we meet her), but I think she's not quite conscious of it. Willow is aware that performance is false; Willow doesn't quite realize that performance can also reveal reality. She thinks she's being true even when she's being fake, she thinks she's being fake even when she's being true. Maggie likes to say that Willow is much more truly herself in season five or whenever when she's more outwardly confident and sexually assured and so forth -- no stuttering! she knows that she's attracted to women! -- and I think it's actually not untrue. But is there even a true self?

I'm trying to think what the difference is between the Willow and Spike transformations. Willow's seems more gradual but it probably isn't, considering over how many years Spike's takes place. Both reject the nerd harshly; both are much more vulnerable than they make themselves appear. But I do think that Willow doesn't put on a show to quite the same conscious degree that Spike does -- and Willow also makes a show of her weakness in a way that Spike never does. Willow makes herself seem more nonthreatening than she is, when there's a chance people will hate on her. Spike doesn't do that much -- though he does have OTT displays of crying when he's upset! -- but he doesn't do the public self-effacing in the same way. Self-effacing, I mean...not self-criticism, not describing himself as a loser, but the actual effort to seem to disappear. And that is something Willow thinks of as her true self, but is also something that is partially constructed: she slips into "I'm just a poor nervous nerd girl!" at the end of her threat to Giles, for example, right when it's an appropriate time to try to make things seem okay again. She slips into that old identity even more post-Wrecked when it's time to establish that she's Willow the good but weak addict defined in harsh opposition to Willow the power-mad rapist. It's not quite conscious, but it's definitely performative, and I don't think Spike does the same, at least not while soulless. I wonder if that's a gender issue? *Willow needs to seem HARMLESS*, which I think is very gendered. Spike will sometimes plot to seem harmless, but it's more...calculated -- like when he's waiting in the wheelchair for the time to strike out against Angel & Dru. And he maintains his image of strength. Wow, long.
Sep. 18th, 2011 05:15 pm (UTC)
But I do think that Willow doesn't put on a show to quite the same conscious degree that Spike does -- and Willow also makes a show of her weakness in a way that Spike never does

This no doubt stems from gender expectations, too. Spike's performative show is hypermasculine. He only gives in to ALL MY CREYS when he's in private (after Buffy storms off in FFL, as he's storming off down the street after Cecily rejects him) or when he's too mentally exhausted and lost to perform (the end of Beneath You) and has given up all hope of wearing a costume convincingly.

Willow's self-effacement, I think, falls in line with the expectations that women not be ~smart or bossy. Even Willow's cutesy way of speaking softens her displays of intellect. The first time she snaps at Giles and Angel in Reptile Boy, it's immediately followed by a ramble that displaces the sense of authority she'd just commanded over the two men.

Actually, I think I disagree that Willow is more truly herself in Season 5. Season 5 is the era of cutesy baby talk with Tara -- which eventually devolves into actual baby talk when Tara's been mentally disabled by Glory. Like you, I'm not sure there's a ~true self here. I think in Season 5, Willow's is playing the role of the lover. It's weird, because the infantilizing language displays in a way both infantilize Willow and Tara. Or maybe Willow uses the baby language the way girlfriends use it with boyfriends, as a way to play the hyperfeminine role in the relationship in the showing of affection (Tara is the mother for part of their relationship) and this role gets reversed when Tara becomes the child Willow must care for.

There's so much performance going on in Season 5 for me to feel like it's true, I think. I think Willow in Season 7 seems more ~natural to me. She's been zapped of her need for overblown performance after the climax of Season 6, a performative nature that was building strength in Season 5. By Season 7, her identity seems more settled ("I'm over you, sweetie," and "gay now!") and while she may appear hesitant and even uncertain of her power, that's far more honest than overcompensating for her insecurities by saying she can ~totally~ handle all this magic which she has NO training to handle like in previous seasons.

Sep. 18th, 2011 05:21 pm (UTC)
I should say right now -- I don't think Maggie ever said season five; I just picked that at random because I was trying to think of what era she was talking about when talking about later-Willow. But yes, the cutesy baby talk/mutual infantilization with Tara is definitely Not Willow, or fake in a different way. Two victims of unloving home environments find love and WILL NOT RISK DAMAGING IT IN ANY WAY. LET US NOT ACKNOWLEDGE ANY PROBLEMS BECAUSE IF THERE ARE PROBLEMS NOTHING WILL EVER BE GOOD AGAIN. Sigh, they break my heart. I don't know why I said season five -- I think I was sort of trying to piece together what a good 'future Willow' time is. I do think that she's more 'truly' herself in 5 than in 1, whatever that means, but yeah, will the real Will stand up?

Season seven Willow is like a vector sum of all the previous Willows.
(no subject) - doublemeat - Sep. 19th, 2011 04:22 am (UTC) - Expand
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Sep. 18th, 2011 04:56 pm (UTC)

Dark Willow: part of what happens when Willow kills Warren is that she becomes Warren, including the hyper-masculine acting out, in some respects ("I'm just getting wood for the violence here!"). And she's revelling in the performative act, agreed. She also plays up (as Vamp Willow does) her cute little girl schtick so deliberately. One of my favourite moments is when she tosses the fireball in the air to go after Jonathan and Andrew: "Unless somebody, some how, can get there in time to save them! Oh well, fly my pretty, fly! See what I did there?" The gender stuff will be interesting to unpack, the performative masculinity and femininity she goes through.

Dark Willow is when she's reveling in the performance -- look what I can do? -- and she's aware that it's false but that it's also true. She's caught between her ability to create and her need to conform because reality is determined by interaction with and the perception of ~others. If a Willow falls in the woods and no one's there to hear it, does she make a sound? If a Willow becomes superpowerful and there's no one to witness it, is she really any different than she was back in high school?

Brilliant. OK, this is the best comment ever.

OK, I've got it. Willow's truth -- her perception of the world -- has *ALWAYS* been different from the social truth around her that seemed so easily accepted by everyone else. But she is unloved, and no one else shares her perception of the world -- so she becomes convinced that her own personal truths don't matter. Which means the only thing that matters is what other people see and what other people perceive. And so if people perceive her as a nerd, she's a nerd. And of course if a Willow falls in the woods and there's no one to hear it, it doesn't make a sound, because she only exists by virtue of an external world. Maybe if she's lucky a Willow can grow in Earth, in Tara and then can be a person.

So here is the converse: if a Willow falls and kills a deer in the woods, does it scream? Is there blood? If the truth doesn't matter, because it never has mattered, all that matters is the current state of the world. It doesn't matter what she does when she's alone, because she doesn't even exist alone. She kills a deer and no one sees it; she mindwipes to clean up her own mistakes, and as long as the world is presently the way it should be, does it matter how it got there? If a tree fell in the woods, but it's been magicked back into place, did it actually fall?

OK, this is getting OT again. Um, so, back to gender. I do feel like there is something in Willow about the idea that women need to be seen and not heard. And women as objects -- because if Willow only exists when other people are observing her, she is *perpetually* an object. And of course she is a subject, too; she has a POV, and she has desires, and she has distortions, and she doesn't understand what other people are thinking until she becomes psychic and even then. Maybe it's partly the social consequences of telling women they don't matter.

There's a guy in this coffee shop who looks like Seth Green.
Sep. 18th, 2011 05:29 pm (UTC)
RIGHT. This also fits with her need to actually re-shape the world through magic. Because that's the only way for her internal world to be acknowledged by ~others. She's tired of being ignored, so she changes the external to reflect the internal -- or sometimes to change the internal by creating an external she ~wishes~ were true.

Our analysis of Buffyverse relationships sometimes makes me feel cynical about relationships. Was Tara only Willow's greatest love because Tara helped Willow connect with herself more fully? But is that bad or is that just the reality that's romanticized into something else? Is Tara as much a person to Willow as Spike is to Buffy? (Have you read The Awakening? Because the protagonist, Edna, loves a man who connects her with her true inner self and awakens her sensual nature, helping her to live more fully as herself.)

It doesn't matter what she does when she's alone, because she doesn't even exist alone

She fears this is true, sometimes she believes it. But I think ultimately her story proves that her actions do affect her internally -- this shift towards darkness -- and she as an agent then affects and changes the external. She keeps trying to make it secret and unwitnessed, thinking that if it's all internal, she can keep it inside, but her belief system of thinking everything inside her is ~invisible to an extent -- it's flawed.

Willow-as-an-object makes me think of Willow feeling like a ~force~ in Season 6. It's like Willow's awareness of societal perceptions gets taken too far in placing all the power for identity construction onto ~outside forces. She's still unable to fully grasp her sense of self, not until she actually travels WITHIN HERSELF and finds the ephmeral is undefineably real. But she's unable to communicate this with others like Buffy and Xander and especially not Kennedy -- she's also unable to communicate the sense of loss when magic is gone. Magic made her insides real, gave her ephmeral internal identity literal shape and contour that she could understand. How can she know herself without being able to quantify what's within her?

Sep. 18th, 2011 05:48 pm (UTC)
RIGHT. This also fits with her need to actually re-shape the world through magic. Because that's the only way for her internal world to be acknowledged by ~others. She's tired of being ignored, so she changes the external to reflect the internal -- or sometimes to change the internal by creating an external she ~wishes~ were true.


I think that Willow & Tara have the same problems as Buffy & Spike, in terms of personhood. To an extent though, I think it's okay. Because Buffy and Willow are 21 in season six. That's young. And they're both emotionally damaged. Willow did know Tara as a person, and I think she loved her -- but she NEEDED her more than she loved her, if that makes sense. I think that it's somewhat mutual, actually -- Tara needed an escape from her abusive family, and Willow "brought [her] out so easily." Tara ultimately had a core confidence and sense of self that Willow didn't -- like Buffy, she has an ultimately positive mother -- though she ultimately submitted back to Willow in Entropy and died indirectly as a result (tear). I think Willow loved Tara as much as she was able...but, well, it's not complete love is it, if you *need* the person so much that they have to be the person you need them to be, and have to block out from either your perception or from their own mind aspects of them that you can't handle.

Obviously what Willow does alone affects her internally! I'm more stating what Willow's attitude is. Hm. Willow in season six seems to me to be someone furiously, and in a blind panic, trying to wipe invisible blood off her hands. I should read Lady M's lines before season six. But anyway, Willow is *guilty*, and I don't think that is just about consequences that have happened. And she continuously tries to change reality toward one in which those bad things didn't happen. Some of that is by wiping memories. Some of that is by changing her own self-perception -- she's an addict, *not* a bad person. Some of that is by projecting onto an Other, as she does with Warren, recognizing the evil in getting off on having power over other people. And some of it is just losing her identity entirely and just trying to *become* magic, as she does with Rack. She is running/hiding all season. But the assumption that underlies much of it is that *if* she can make the evidence disappear, she actually *will* be a good person again. It's not even, I think, a matter of trying to hide what she's done so that other people don't find out she's bad, it's about erasing the existence of her being bad.

And yeah, the material on being a force. Magic allows her to actually connect to the outside world in a literal meaningful way, and make the outside in and inside out. And suddenly that's gone and she's trapped in her puny body again.
(no subject) - angearia - Sep. 18th, 2011 05:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Sep. 19th, 2011 03:45 am (UTC)
Our analysis of Buffyverse relationships sometimes makes me feel cynical about relationships.

I am loving this whole discussion so much! I just want to say that.

Anyway: on the Willow/Tara stuff. I don't think it's cynical to realize that all human relationships have a degree of selfishness or neediness to them. It's just who we are. A mark of really good writing is that it doesn't try to deny that or gloss over it. W/T's problems explicitly stem from that selfishness, that conflict between them, rather than from external stuff. It's probably the most realistic of all the relationships depicted on the show; and yet it's also the most typically "romantic", with the baby talk, sweet gestures, dancing, making dinner together etc.
(no subject) - angearia - Sep. 19th, 2011 04:36 am (UTC) - Expand
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Sep. 19th, 2011 06:59 am (UTC)
Dark Willow is when she's reveling in the performance -- look what I can do? -- and she's aware that it's false but that it's also true.

This is a really interesting comment. I'm reminded of the part in "Grave" when Willow sends the fireball after Jonathan and "the other one" (hee), saying "Fly, my pretty, fly! See what I did there?" She's being very self-consciously Big Bad about the whole thing, quoting the WWotW.

But you're right, it's also true: Dark Willow is a part of Willow, the part that has realized the world is never going to give her what she wants, so screw the world.

Also, I think we can read Xander's speech to her at the end as, essentially, "You don't need to perform for me" -- he sees through the falsity of it, but without dismissing the genuine anguish she's feeling (as Buffy sort of did).
Sep. 18th, 2011 04:25 pm (UTC)
Ah! Also good point.

Sep. 18th, 2011 04:24 pm (UTC)
(holy crap someone outside this coffee shop just passed on a unicycle!)

You made me lol.

Good points, all of them. :)


The One Who Isn't Chosen

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