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Monday, April 18, 2011

Embodied Gaze: Final Thoughts

There is so much more that can be said on the topic of vampires, sex, our media, and our culture. Any discussion of how the patriarchy/kyriarchy is depicted in entertainment media must focus some attention on spoken language--partially because media such as books and television shows rely on dialogue to communicate and partially because spoken language is a significant tool in the hand of anyone wanting to gain or keep power. The concept of voice has always been important to feminism, and most other radical movements emphasize the voice as a tool of power, often a tool that has been taken from or denied to a certain populace. Buffy, Hex, and Twilight all use dialogue and voice to characterize and philosophize--and in the cases of the male characters, to patronize and terrorize (is that enough -izes for you?).

Angelus is the most obvious mouthpiece, with Azazeal a close second. The pivotal Angelus/Buffy conversation occurs just after their night together, before Buffy realizes what has happened to her boyfriend ("Innocence"). Angelus' dialogue is rife with trenchant misogynist language carefully constructed to show him as the dregs of a woman-hating society. A sampling of their conversation yields such gems as "Like I really wanted to stick around after that;" "You got a lot to learn about men;" "Let's not talk about it. It happened;" "I thought you were a pro;" and "I should've known you wouldn't be able to handle it." All of these lines are pulled, unfortunately, from the every-day--their oomph comes from the fact that viewers recognize them, have heard them from ex-boyfriends and husbands. These are things that abusive men say to the women they try to use and control. These words infantilize, accuse, mock; they shove women's feelings, desires, and needs to the side.

Azazeal, as we saw in the last installment, also knows how to talk--or rather, exactly what to say to make Cassie either strike out or crumple. His flippant "What else are you for?" is the shit icing on a truly grotesque cake constructed of seemingly offhand lines of dialogue here and there--gently mocking, needlingly cruel. He refers to Cassie as "hormonal" when she is pregnant with his son, tells her what she's feeling instead of asking her. He tells her that she "looks a mess", "looks awful"; says disparagingly that she's "not being very friendly," asks why she is repulsed by him. His attitude and words, too, are pulled straight from life and ring uncomfortably true for many women viewers. This is how we are spoken to and perceived: not in control of our own minds, emotions, and reactions. There is a reason the word is patronize. Cassie refers to Azazeal on several occasions as "arrogant" but the key to Azazeal is that he, as a demigod, literally does not care about human lives or emotions: in his worldview, the humans he encounters are for using as needed and discarding. He makes overtures to Cassie in order to ensnare her, intimating that he cares about her, but Cassie and the viewer know he does not, made evident by the way he toys with her. His pretense of casual male obliviousness (the "I'm just a dumb man" cover) does not disguise the fact that he enjoys outraging and disgusting Cassie. She provided him with what he needed--a son--and when she is killed in the second episode of the second series, he gives her little more thought for the rest of his time onscreen, generally only referring to her as Malachi's mother.

Edward at first seems almost innocuous compared to the forthright evil of Azazeal and Angelus. However, from his first appearance in Twilight, his dialogue tags tell the reader everything we need to know about his character. Throughout the four books there are about fourteen uses of some form of the word "mock"--in Twilight, all eight are attributed to Edward; in Eclipse, four are attributed to Jacob; in Breaking Dawn, one is Jacob's and one is Emmett's. A few more uses of "taunt" occur, all attributed to Jacob. Bella surely does enjoy men who make fun of her. Jacob aside, Edward kicks off his "courtship" of Bella by making fun of her, talking down to her, and infantilizing her.

And then there comes the issue of race, inextricably intertwined with issues of kyriarchy. For all its virtues, Buffy is notable for having very few characters of color, specifically African-Americans, and those that do appear are generally stereotyped and usually end up dead--Kendra is the first, a Slayer who appears in season two and is killed; Mr. Trick, a vampire who appears and is killed in season three; Forrest, the angry soon-to-be zombie Initiative member killed in season four; Sweet, the singing demon of "Once More, With Feeling" vanquished in season five; and Principal Wood, a rather badass freelance vampire hunter appearing in season seven (you can also count his mother, Nikki Wood, a Slayer killed by Spike). Of these characters, one survives the destruction of Sunnydale: Principal Wood. The core cast is unfailingly white and able-bodied. One of the lone Asian characters, Chao-Ahn, is used for comic relief as the Scooby Gang attempt to communicate with her throughout season seven; another Asian character, Chloe, kills herself in S7. There are more demon characters throughout the show than there are characters of color.

Hex does not fare better. The core cast are all white and able-bodied. There is one supporting character of color--Medenham's headmaster, David Tyrel. He IS quite a good character, supportive of and concerned for his students' welfare, intelligent, and unwilling to kowtow to the abuses of Jez Herriott, a demonic priest. But his status on the show smacks of tokenism, and the show itself is certainly not representative of the state of the UK currently, with its exceptionally multicultural society.

Much has been written about the state of race in the Twilight series. A follower of the inimitable Cleolinda Jones Tweeted recently to Cleo concerning the newish The Twilight Saga: The Official Illustrated Guide and its paragraphs on vampire pigmentation--a choice excerpt from the "Pallor" section:

Pale vampire skin is a product of vampire venom's transformative process...regardless of original ethnicity, the vampire's skin will be exceptionally pale. The hue varies slightly, with darker-skinned humans having a barely discernible olive tone to their vampire skin, but the light shade remains the same.

So Meyer's vampires are never black, or Asian, or Native American (notably, there IS a black vampire in the Twilight movies--Laurent is portrayed by an African-American actor. Zafrina, a vampire appearing in Breaking Dawn, will be played by a mixed-race actress. I have to wonder what Meyer thinks about this). Once they are turned, they are as white as white can be. This, coupled with the portrayal of Native Americans in the books, reads horribly familiar to those knowledgeable about LDS cosmology. Much has been made, deservedly, of the "white and delightsome" passages of the Book of Mormon (now changed to "pure and delightsome") as well as the LDS church's history of institutionalized racism. The Twilight books reflect this easily, though it can be argued that after 1976 the LDS church was no longer racist. Pardon my giggles. One of the most striking ways for me in which Meyer's religion bleeds into her writing is in her naming. The main vampire characters have strictly European names--Jasper, Edward, Alice, Laurent, Carlisle, Esme, James, Jane, and so forth. The Quileute werewolves have names pulled from the Bible and Book of Mormon--Jacob, Leah, Seth, Jared, Sam, Paul, Ephraim. It seems almost not worth pointing out where this is deriving from, but the underlying--and in some cases overt--racism of the LDS church cannot be overstated. LDS doctrine states that Native American peoples are descended from Jews straight out of Israel, who fell into wicked ways in the New World and were cursed with dark skin (this part is often played down these days, for obvious reasons. However, as recently as the late 90s, when I was a kid in church, this was taught and understood by most everyone). If this sounds an awful lot like the "Children of Ham" bits in The Handmaid's Tale, well, they're surely kissing cousins. The goal is to become "white/pure and delightsome" once more; in Twilight this reads as "vampires good, werewolves bad," particularly given the "eternal family" of the Cullens with Carlisle the Joseph-Smith-lookalike as patriarch, with juuuust enough nuance on either side to keep the audience generally unsuspicious. But there it is. Once noted, it is difficult to ignore.

Ultimately, the worlds of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight, and Hex are OUR worlds. They are peopled with characters who reflect aspects of US. This is why they are so compelling and so frightening. The media in which they are found are often considered sentimental or reserved exclusively for women; Culler notes in "Reading as a Woman" that "sentimental" movies, books, and television, while superficially playing to women's tastes and interests, simultaneously courts men's visual pleasure via beautiful women in subjugated contexts. With the advent of feminism, more and more entertainment is being made BY women FOR women, including romance and sentimental novels and films, with stories being created around the fantasies and desires of women, rather than being aimed at the fantasies of men. Pop culture IS important. What our brains imbibe affects us deeply. Being as this is a geek blog at heart, I feel comfortable quoting Grand Admiral Thrawn: When you understand a species' art, you understand that species. Our art has for so long reflected the dominant theology of Christianity and the dominant sociology of kyriarchy and the dominant cultural pastime of trampling upon minorities. Buffy and Hex challenge the dominant, with varying degrees of success; Twilight all but revels in it. Each instance has flaws, of commission or omission, particularly in terms of race. Each is a scintillating view into the way US culture demonizes female independence, sexuality, and autonomy.

For far more scholarly and incisive commentary than mine, I recommend the following reads:

This is a teeny sampling of the thoughtful body of scholarly and popular work on these topics. I certainly encourage you to explore beyond what I've written and linked here to find out more.


BoredLizzie said...

Whew! I just read through your "Embodied Gaze" series of posts, and I have to say, they are delicious. Helps that I'm a Buffy fan! Plus I really dig horror/ supernatural stories and themes. Never heard of "Hex," but it sounds fun in a fucked up sort of way.

It's interesting how the story of Dracula has evolved so much and yet stayed the same over the years! I see connections to the characters you describe with others: incubus/succubus myths, old stories by E.T.A Hoffmann, and of course, good ol' Wuthering Heights :P

You have applied feminist critique to these three franchises beautifully, with carefully articulated theories and citations. Sometimes, in reading analyses like this, either the theory is too heavy to stomach or too light to have a decent affect, but I think you've struck a good balance here.

Carry on being smart and awesome! :D

Diana said...

Oh gosh! Thanks so much! I think you're one of the few to actually have read through the entire shebang. If it wasn't obvious, I miss writing academic papers and occasionally have to go all out. :B

Hex...is interesting. I wrote these posts just about a specific chunk of the show, but as I watched the rest of the second season, I wanted to write more. The other two main female characters, Thelma and Ella, definitely deserve their own analysis. Maybe when I get my second wind...

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