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The Feminist Filter: Some Assembly Required

Let's get our feminist on! Some Assembly Required actually provides a lot of interesting material to analyze from a feminist perspective. This one is a long one, so let's fix up some tea and hunker down for some awesome discussion. :)

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.

2.02 Some Assembly Required

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 5 counts

  2. Deaths:
    Dead boys: 1
    Dead girls: 3

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: After resurrecting his dead brother, Chris attempts to Frankenstein together a girl to be his companion.

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? Yes.
If Cordelia were taken out of this episode, would events occur in much the same fashion? No.
If Jenny were taken out of this episode, would events occur in much the same fashion? Yes.
If Mrs. Epps were taken out of this episode, would events occur in much the same fashion? Yes.

  • Decisive Buffy: Buffy's discovery of the snatched body prompts the subsequent Scooby investigation. She's the one that sets out the plan to check out the other girls in the accident. As the episode goes on, she continues to drive the investigation.
  • Decisive Cordelia: Cordelia plays the passive victim in this episode. She damsels several times, and her main decisions involve cheerleading. Her relevance to the plot is in how it affects her, not how she affects it.

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, Angel, and Jenny)

    1. In the teaser, Angel gets cranky about Buffy's dance with Xander in the previous episode. He says: "'Danced with' is a pretty loose term. 'Mated with' might be a little closer."

    Looking back at it, it wasn't an egregiously provocative dance. However, women (and girls) are the sex class and so anything they do - from smiling to bending over to scratching their arm - becomes sexualized in the perspective of society. Buffy's little sexy dance suddenly becomes full-on intercourse in this case.

    Buffy does call him on it: "Don't you think you're being a little unfair? It was one little dance, which I only did to make you crazy, by the way. Behold my success."

    Of course, this rebuke plays into another gender stereotype in which girls play head games with guys, going out of their way to manipulate and make them jealous. This is seen as the sexual power that women have (that supposedly gives them a leg up in society). In reality, it's a passive power that some women utilize at it's one of the few avenues of control open to them.

    2. During Act One, the Scoobies are ribbing Giles about his attempts to woo Jenny. Buffy attempts to explain how the dating thing works: "Mexican. Food. You take her for food, for which you then pay."

    Traditional dating falls along traditional gender ideologies, of course. The man is expected to display his financial success to attract the woman.

    3. A few lines later, Xander explains how he knew Giles was planning on asking Jenny out: "Simple deduction. Ms. Calendar is reasonably dollsome, especially for someone in your age bracket. She already knows that you're a school librarian, so you don't have to worry about how to break that embarrassing news to her."

    This is meant in a humorous fashion, but it speaks to the heavy emphasis placed on a woman's looks that the first thing Xander mentions is that Jenny is "reasonably dollsome". It's not that she's intelligent, capable, interesting, or witty. In fact, nothing that he lists speaks to her actual personality.

    Buffy follows up: "And she's the only woman we've actually ever seen speak to you. Add it all up and it all spells 'duh'."

    Again, humorous. Again, indicative of what society values in women. It reminds me of this post at The Good Men Project about the sexualization of young girls. Let me actually pull an excerpt from there:

    This sexiness has very little to do with sex, and everything to do with the craving for validation and attention. While all children want affirmation, princess culture teaches little girls to get that approval through their looks. Little girls learn quickly what “works” to elicit adoration from mom and dad, as well as from teachers, uncles, aunts, and other adults. Soon—much too soon—they notice that older girls and women get validation for a particular kind of dress, a particular kind of behavior. They watch their fathers’ eyes, they follow their uncles’ gaze. They listen to what these men they love say when they see “hot” young women on television or on the street. And they learn how to be from what they hear and see.

    This doesn’t mean that good dads shouldn’t let their daughters dress up as princesses. It doesn’t mean that good dads, good big brothers, and good uncles should never, ever tell a little girl that she looks “cute” or “beautiful.” It does mean that those good grown men need to make sure that they’re also giving her plenty of compliments that focus on her other qualities, like her intelligence, her kindness, or her athleticism. But something else matters just as much: how we look at and talk about other girls and women.

    Obviously, this is discussing a different topic from the one at hand, but it touches on the effect that this narrow emphasis on appearance has on girls. This emphasis is something we see repeatedly in how people evaluate women like Jenny. Even going back to Teacher's Pet, Natalie was foremost regarded for her looks rather than her sizeable knowledge.

    4. Willow's about to do some computer research in Act One. She says: "This shouldn't take long. I'm probably the only girl in school who has the coroner's office bookmarked as a favorite place."

    It's an interesting (and ultimately ambiguous) use of the gendered pronoun. The only "girl" in school as opposed to the only "person"?

    5. I also find this comment by Buffy interesting: "So, we should see if the other girls from the accident are AWOL, too. Maybe we can figure out what this creep has in mind if we know whether or not he's dealing in volume."

    The show often defaults to the male when discussing the villain, even before said villain is identified. In this case, though, the gendered nature of Buffy's assumption is interesting given the central plot involving the objectification (and dead bodies of) teen girls.

    6. An interesting bit of gender reversal shows up when the Scoobies go grave-digging.

    Buffy: I couldn't believe Angel. He was acting all jealous, and he wouldn't even admit it.

    Willow: Jealous of what?

    Buffy: Of Xander.

    Willow: Because you did that sexy dance with him?

    Buffy: Am I ever gonna live that down?

    Willow: No. (munches a doughnut)

    Buffy: Anyway, he was being totally irrational.

    Willow: Love makes you do the wacky.

    "Irrational" is a coded gendered word used against women to dismiss them for being "hysterical" or "over-emotional". Buffy turns this around and uses it to describe Angel's jealous reaction to Xander.

    7. Later in the scene, Xander and Giles complain about doing all the work. Buffy comments: "Sorry, but I'm an old-fashioned gal. I was raised to believe that men dig up the corpses and the women have the babies."

    This is a play on the gender stereotype of separate spheres. Buffy pays light-hearted reference to it, backed by the fact that she and Willow aren't helping dig up corpses.

    8. Perhaps in an inversion of the earlier emphasis on girls' looks, we get this exchange between Buffy and Willow:

    Willow: Daryl Epps. Chris' older brother. He was a big football star. All-State two years ago. He was a running... He was a running... Uh, someone who runs and catches.

    Buffy: Was he a studly?

    Willow: Big time. All of the girls were crazy for him.

    Willow does introduce Daryl as being skilled at his sport, but Buffy's first question is on his attractiveness.

    9. Cordelia is leaving cheerleading practice when she senses she's being followed to her car. She panics and says: "Xander Harris, if this is some kind of joke..."

    Couple things going on here. First, we have the rape culture aspect of Cordelia being hyper-aware for her safety while walking to the car, and her absolute panic upon noticing that someone's following her. Then we have her latching onto the idea that Xander might be playing a joke, illustrating the reality that boys/men often don't understand this hypervigilance that women feel. It's something to be played with or made fun of, even though they often help perpetuate the need for it.

    Finally, we get the reveal that it's Angel who was following her, not concerned to let her know that it's him to ease her concerns (even to the point where she jumps into a dumpster to evade him).

    10. In Act Two, Cordelia's feeling yucky because of the whole "dumpster with body parts" thing. She wants to go home and bathe. She says to Angel: "I don't wanna go alone. I'm still fragile. Can you take me?"

    We're getting Cordelia, as usual, playing up to gender stereotypes of the helpless, fragile female who can't make it home by herself. It's interesting in thinking back to the scene earlier where Angel was following her and she was terrified. Now he's the protector.

    11. The Scoobies have some downtime to ponder the motivations of the baddies. We get this exchange:

    Buffy: Why would anybody wanna make a girl?

    Xander: You mean when there's so many pre-made ones just laying around? The things we do for love.

    Buffy: Love has nothing to do with this.

    Xander: Maybe not, but I'll tell you this: people don't fall in love with what's right in front of them.

    Xander talks about the appeal of constructing a girl from dead bodies parts because of the supposed lack of "pre-made ones". Xander talks of "falling in love", but, as Buffy says, that's not what this is about. Reanimating a mish-mash of female body parts doesn't make a girl. That makes an empty body in the shape of a girl (forgive the Bjork quoteage). It think it's interesting that Xander speaks of a desire to attain this type of girl as if he sympathizes with Eric and Chris.

    We get Willow jumping in to contribute: "And for Eric the unattainable would include everyone. That's alive."

    We're hedging on the Nice Guy phenomenon of male entitlement to female companionship. So much to the point that a boy can create-a-girl out of body parts (not that Willow is advocating this, but her comment gives reference to this mindset).

    12. Jenny plays on gender stereotypes in her conversation with Giles: "Oh, no, please call me Jenny. Ms. Calendar's my father."

    13. We get another example of the emphasis on physical attractiveness when the Scoobies learn that three heads were found in the dumpster, apparently rejected by Eric and Chris. Xander says: "Heads must be no good. Huh. I found 'em attractive enough."

    He does receive a look from Willow and Buffy, and replies: "Well, obviously I'm not as sick as Chris and Eric."

    14. The final scene between Buffy and Angel presents some interesting material. Buffy starts out by sympathizing with Chris:

    Buffy: God, the whole thing was so creepy. Well, at the same time, I mean... he did do it all for his brother.

    Angel: Sounds like he took it a little over the edge.

    Buffy: Love makes you do the wacky.

    Even though Chris was doing something heinous, Buffy is wont to make excuses for him. Chris' crime against girls becomes halfway justified because he was doing it on behalf of a boy. This tendency to trivialize violence against women is a product of larger rape culture, as is the tendency to want to prioritize a man's desires or "needs" over the well-being of women.

    More on this scene in the Points to Consider section.

  • Antagonists (Eric, Chris, Daryl)

    1. When Eric is introduced in Act One, he's snapping pictures of girls. After taking one of Willow, he gets sidetracked: "Oh, look at those legs!"

    Perfect example of objectification of women, actually. "Those legs" are attached to a girl, presumably, but all Eric sees (or cares about) is the disconnected body parts that appeal to him. The girl, herself, doesn't matter.

    We get the danger of this as the episode progresses and shows this objectification associated with the literal death of these girls. Suddenly, I'm thinking of Killing Us Softly by Jean Kilbourne (link goes to an excellent YouTube video).

    2. Later in the scene, Eric takes a picture of Cordelia.

    Eric flashes a picture of Cordelia.

    Cordelia: Stop it! What are you doing? (Eric takes another picture) We are under florescent light, for God's sake.

    Eric: The camera loves you!

    Cordelia: I didn't think yearbook nerds came out of hibernation till spring.

    Eric: (snaps another picture) It's for my private collection. (winks)

    Cordelia, the designated gender enforcer, protests not to having her picture taken but to it being taken under less-than-ideal conditions (under florescent light). She ostensibly doesn't mind the objectification. Eric comes across as even more creepy by mentioning that it's for his "private collection". This likens it to porn with the implication that it's gonna be used for masturbation material. Eric apparently feels that it's appropriate to openly say this to the girls he's photographing.

    Chris does rebuke him: "Eric! Will you quit it?"

    How much of that is because of the misogyny and how much of it is because he's worried that Eric might give away the actual purpose behind the pictures?

    Perhaps we get something of an answer by Eric and Chris' closing exchange.

    Eric: Cordelia's so fine. Y'know, she'd be just perfect for us.

    Chris: Don't be an idiot. She's alive.

    Again, Eric's showing an evaluation that places high importance on Cordelia's appearance. The personality doesn't matter. Chris doesn't mind this objectification so much. He's annoyed that Eric's thinking in the wrong direction for their project: he should be thinking of dead girls.

    Of course, that's what objectification metaphorically is. By viewing Cordelia solely as an attractive body, the boys are essentially killing her. This becomes literal later in the episode.

    3. Near the end of Act Two, Chris worries about atrophy and such. Eric stresses the importance of getting a head now, but Chris doesn't want to, you know, kill a girl. Eric responds: "The crash with the girls was lucky. But we can't just keep waiting around for another lucky accident to drop a head in our laps. You know what we have to do. Hell, it's just one lousy girl."

    Explicit misogynistic statement? Check.

    4. Continuing Eric's creepiness, Act Four has Daryl sneaking a peek at the body about to be reanimated. Eric furthers the gender theme by telling him: "No! It's bad luck for the groom to see the bride before the wedding."

    Not only are we dealing with gender roles and the objectification (and subsequent metaphorical killing) of women, we're tying it into how marriage has enforced and perpetuated these roles.

    5. Later in the scene, Eric assures Cordelia: "But don't worry. When you wake up, you'll have the body of a seventeen-year-old. In fact, you'll have the body of several."

    Putting aside the last sentence, he is telling Cordelia, who's probably supposed to be 16 or 17 here, that she will have the body of a 17 year old. I'm honestly not sure what to make of that.

    6. At the very end, when the constructed body of the girl is burning, Daryl reinforces the objectification theme by running after her:

    Daryl: She's mine!

    Chris: Daryl!

    Buffy gets up and stops Chris from running into the flames after Daryl.

    Chris: Daryl!

    Jenny watches, stunned as Giles comes back into the room behind her and looks on as well.

    Daryl: No. We'll be together always. No! Mine!

    By declaring her as "his", he furthers the objectification metaphor in showing his view of the would-be girl as a possession.

IV. Objectification Watch

  1. We get the inevitable through-the-camera shot of Cordelia when Eric's photographing girls at the beginning. She does put her hand up to block the view, though, cutting off the male gaze.

  2. We get a view of the patched-together-woman drawing in Chris' locker. As objectification of women is central to the plot, it's not surprising that it would be depicted at various points.

  3. Near the climax of the episode, Daryl watches Cordelia cheer from under the bleachers. We're treated to several shots of her from his viewpoint.

IV. Points to Consider

  1. As noted, this episode deals a lot with objectification of women. How well does it handle this theme? What do we make of the Nice Guy vibe incorporated throughout and the entitlement Daryl feels to have a girlfriend. What about the portrayal of Chris as sympathetic despite the fact that he's actively objectifying girls for the sake of his brother? Is it useful to have such "creeper-decent dude" dichotomies such that we see here with Eric and Chris?

    And how do we connect all this with Daryl's zombie-fied state? What statement is this making that Daryl feels compelled to make a girl like him because he's ashamed to go out in his condition?

  2. Jenny takes the initiative not only in asking Giles out on their first date but in setting up their second one. She's establishing herself as a progressive character who doesn't feel bound by traditional gender roles.

  3. The crux of the plot is that Chris and Eric must construct a girl for Daryl because a normal one would not stay with him. From the climax:

    Daryl: And when you're finished you won't go out. You won't run away. But we can hide together.

    What does this say about traditional expectations for women to, in essence, trap them in a relationship? Does it reflect on the institution of marriage in anyway? And how about the fact that Daryl is, likewise, trapped? Does this enhance the metaphor or detract from it?

    Taking this further, but the final scene between Buffy and Angel applies this resonance with Buffy/Angel:

    Buffy: I don't love Xander.

    Angel: Yeah, but he's in your life. He gets to be there when I can't. Take your classes, eat your meals, hear your jokes and complaints. He gets to see you in the sunlight.

    Buffy: I don't look that good in direct light.

    Angel: It'll be morning soon.

    Buffy: I should probably go. I could walk you home.

    Angel, like Daryl, is confined to the shadows due to who he is. Unlike Daryl, he's not to the point of killing girls to have one stay with him, however, Buffy volunteers to confine herself to be with Angel. "I don't look that good in direct light." Not only do we get a reference to her own appearance and attractiveness, Buffy shows herself as a self-sacrificing girl who is willing to, in essence, be that patchwork girl to her own Daryl.


Aug. 13th, 2011 05:57 pm (UTC)
Even Buffy - who has more power than most people, due to her superpowers - resorts to sexual power at times. She's not immune to the gender socialization.


If that's the way it was intended, it's rather icky that he's using GUYS WHO CUT UP DEAD GIRLS to make a dig at Buffy not wanting to date him. It's like, "See what happens when you reject a guy? They gotta go off and make their own girlfriend."

Heh. Yeah. Xander has some residual creepiness in this ep.

It's weird to me that, although everyone comments on the create-a-girl plan, no one actually mentions how creepy it is that Chris zombified his brother in the first place! (Though the resurrection by science is an interesting contrast to Buffy's resurrection by magic.)

Yeah, I mean...yeah...


The One Who Isn't Chosen

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