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Thursday, June 22, 2017


I got asked by some readers on the Reddit Buffy board about a paperback version of the book. I'm generally willing to create one, at least in theory since I have no idea what Amazon requires. However, I thought I should ask for comments here on whether people think it's a good idea.

The advantage to a paperback is that it's easy to take places, simpler to underline and mark up. The disadvantages, though, are inherent in the way I structured the book: it's very reliant on hyperlinks for citations and other information. That's all lost in paperback. In addition, I continue to update the book by trying to clarify passages, fixing links, etc.* I'm unlikely to add anything important at this point, but it's easy to update an ebook, not so with paperback.

I'd appreciate comments either way.

*You can always get the updated version by asking Amazon for it. The downside is that you'll lose any underlining or bookmarks in your own copy.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

20 Years Later, Are You Still Buffy?

I assume everyone reading this knows that Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered on March 10, 1997, 20 years ago. I thought it would be worthwhile to review how I think the show still speaks to us.

This may seem redundant, since I wrote the essays here and the whole book to demonstrate that the show provides timeless themes. What I want to do in this post is to distill its core message, not just for reference, but for inspiration. SPOILERS for all episodes and for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

We begin as individuals: “You are the center. And within you, there is the core of your being ... of what you are.” It’s that core from which you draw the strength you need to face the challenges of the world:

Angelus:  So that's everything, huh? No weapons... No friends... No hope.

Buffy closes her eyes and steels herself for whatever's coming.

Angelus:  Take all that away... and what's left?

He draws the sword back and thrusts it directly at her face. With lightning-fast reflexes she swings up with both arms and catches the blade between the palms of her hands. She opens her eyes and meets his.

Buffy:  Me.

You were not born with that core. You were not given it by someone else. You created it by the choices you’ve made in your life. Those choices were never entirely unrestricted. Our abilities have natural limits and we make choices within those constraints. Others make choices too, and those may constrain us as well. Past choices may affect the options available to you now.

Don’t mistake those constraints as traps. “You have a choice. You don't have a good choice, but you have a choice!” The choices you make going forward today can reinforce or even redefine the kind of person you are. I wish there were a pithy quote from the series to highlight this point, but it’s implicitly shown throughout almost every episode. Instead I’ll quote from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (edited for brevity, my bold):

“Professor Dumbledore….. Riddle said I’m like him. Strange likenesses, he said.”
Did he now? And what do you think, Harry?”
“The Sorting Hat told me I’d – I’d have done well in Slytherin. Everyone thought I was Slytherin’s heir for a while…. The Sorting Hat could see Slytherin’s power in me, and it – ”
“Put you in Gryffindor. Listen to me, Harry. You happen to have many of the qualities Salazar Slytherin prized in his hand-picked students. … resourcefulness – determination – a certain disregard for rules. Yet the Sorting Hat placed you in Gryffindor. You know why that was. Think.”
“It only put me in Gryffindor because I asked not to go in Slytherin.”
Exactly. Which makes you very different from Tom Riddle. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Not every choice defines your life all by itself. Most choices are small ones, though their cumulative impact may be large. It’s hard to know, though, at any point in time, which choice will prove to be critical; that’s why we need to make every choice a deliberate one. “There's moments in your life that make you, that set the course of who you're gonna be. Sometimes they're little, subtle moments. Sometimes... they're not.”

What is it that you do afterward? That’s when we remember that we are Buffy:

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Out of Mind, Out of Sight

Local max made some typically insightful comments recently on OoM, OoS. He caused me to think through the mechanics of the metaphor in OoM, OoS in more detail than I did in the original essay. I think my response to him outlines the more detailed analysis, and since you can read the comments here I won't change the essay. If anyone thinks the comments need more explanation, say so and I will add to them.

However, I did modify that chapter in the book. As always, you can get the modified version of the book by asking Amazon for the latest version (this update will take a few hours from now to process). Getting the updated version is free, but you'll lose any bookmarks or highlights from previous versions. I do updates a few times per year, but most of those are fixing some links and modifying the wording slightly. This edit was more substantial, and while it doesn't change the basic analysis, it does add some important detail so I thought I should mention it here.

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Passion of the Nerd

I've previously recommended his video reviews of Buffy episodes, and this seemed like a good time to repeat that recommendation. He just put up The Zeppo, which may be his best yet. His site, with links to all videos, is here.

Updated October 5, 2016: He's now completed S3 with a terrific review of Graduation Day.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Seeing Red-ux

This post contains MAJOR SPOILERS for BtVS Season 6, for book 5 of ASOIAF, and for S5, E6 of Game of Thrones.

I chose the post title for the obvious reason that I’m going to discuss the attempted rape scene in the episode Seeing Red and the actual rape of Sansa Stark – she of the red hair – in the GoT episode Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken. The hyphen splits the word "redux" because I can't resist a pun and "ux", in Latin, is a common abbreviation for "uxor", meaning "wife". As I discussed in my post on Seeing Red, that episode was extraordinarily controversial, and the rape of Sansa Stark has generated a similar level of controversy. I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to read the various reactions to Sansa’s rape and to formulate some ideas of my own, but my thoughts here will necessarily be incomplete because the consequences of the rape have yet to play out.

I’ll begin with a point that seems to distract some viewers, namely whether it’s proper to call Sansa’s experience “rape”. The argument against doing so is that the sex took place after her wedding, and the law/culture of the fictional universe (and the actual Middle Ages) would therefore not consider this rape. This strikes me as technically accurate but too narrowly focused. Yes, at that time and until fairly recently, a husband could not legally rape his wife. But the fact that the legal system wouldn’t hear a charge, doesn’t mean people living in those times would have approved any and all abuses by the husbands. Ramsay’s behavior towards Sansa was unusually cruel even by the standards of the show, because he forced Theon to watch and was then very rough to her. Since in my view the people of that fictional world would have disapproved of his actions, though they might not use the word “rape”, I have no trouble calling it that and I’m going to use the term throughout. Bear in mind, though, that the specific term is not crucial to my argument; if it bothers you that much, just mentally substitute the word “abuse”.

The bigger dispute I saw on line was whether the rape was gratuitous. At the point I’m writing this I think that conclusion is premature, though it could be proved true depending on what happens in the remaining episodes. My judgment is that “gratuitous” – which I understand to mean “without purpose except to shock the audience” – will prove to be the wrong term. In the books, the treatment of Jeyne Poole, whose story has become Sansa’s in the show, served to motivate Theon’s attempted redemption (“attempted” because his story isn’t over yet). I think it’s likely that the rape of Sansa will have at least this effect on Theon.

If that turns out to be the only impact of the rape, I’ll be extremely critical. In my view, it’s dubious, to say the least, to use the abuse of a female character as the motivation for a man’s redemption arc. It’s not that this doesn’t happen in the real world – it might very well – but (a) it’s an old trope in literature (see the rape of Lucretia); and (b) it subordinates the female role to that of the male’s. The latter is less of a problem in the books, where Theon is a much more significant character than Jeyne Poole, though I still found it problematic. But switching from Jeyne to Sansa, in turn a much more important character than Theon, changes the dynamics of the situation entirely. While it's hard to justify using the rape of any female character to further a man's arc, there’s no justification at all, in my view, for using the brutal rape of a more important female character for the sole purpose of motivating a less important male one.

This brings me to Seeing Red. Spike’s attempted rape of Buffy was introduced in the episode for the express purpose of motivating his decision to reclaim his soul. If you review my post, I had lots of criticisms of the scene, but not that one. I don’t think Seeing Red deserves that particular criticism because it resolved when Buffy exercised her own determination, agency and strength to stop the assault. So while the attempt did motivate Spike, it also reinforced Buffy’s superior character.

It’s possible, of course, that the rape in UUU will further Sansa’s own arc in an important way. I’m skeptical that the show will pull this off successfully; certainly nothing of what we saw in that scene demonstrated any particular strength by Sansa, not even the strength that sometimes comes from yielding. The trope that “being raped makes you stronger” is both factually dubious and pretty much a cliché at this point. In my view, it’s not much better than a purely gratuitous rape, as long as there was some other way to demonstrate the woman’s character development. I think there was an alternative in this case, which I’ll offer below.

I saw some arguments on line that there had to be a rape because nothing else would have been consistent with Ramsay’s well-established character. Without debating the details of that assumption, it rests on the further assumption of the immediate wedding we saw in the show. As book readers will recall, the wedding of Ramsay and Jeyne Poole (a fake Arya Stark) included the invitation to all the Northern Lords to attend. The book doesn’t explain the reasons why the Boltons would do this, but it’s fairly easy to identify the most important: Fake Arya was supposed to carry the Stark heritage and legitimize the Bolton claim to Winterfell. The Boltons needed witnesses to the validity of the marriage in order to assert that claim. Getting all those Lords to Winterfell takes time.

Now, let’s suppose that instead of the rushed wedding we saw with Sansa, she had convinced the Boltons to postpone the wedding until the Northern Lords could see for themselves that she was voluntarily committing herself to the Bolton cause. Her case for the delay would be much stronger than that for the actual delay we saw in the books: Fake Arya was given to the Boltons by the crown, conforming to Medieval notions of wardship, whereas Sansa came to Winterfell via Littlefinger, who had no right to control her marriage; Sansa had previously married Tyrion, so everyone, including especially the Boltons, would need assurance that her marriage to Ramsay wasn’t bigamous and therefore incapable of conveying the Stark claim; the Boltons have a, um, reputation in the North and the other Lords would need to see that Sansa’s commitment was free and voluntary in order to accept the Boltons as successors to the Starks.

I think this sequence is both more consistent with the books and gives Sansa agency in the whole process. But there are more benefits. Sansa could use the delay to exercise her burgeoning talent and pit Myranda against Ramsay and Ramsay against Roose. She could rally her supporters in the North, including Brienne and perhaps even Stannis. This could probably be written plausibly to make any marriage unnecessary, but if it were, Sansa could agree to it in order to motivate a rebellion against the Boltons.

Well, we all like our own ideas best, but I think my story line grants agency to Sansa, coheres better with the books, and eliminates the problematic aspects of the rape.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

200,000 Thank Yous!

It's pretty amazing to me that this blog has gotten over 200,000 page views. I never would have imagined that essays about a show which ended 10 years before I started writing could have generated such interest. Thank you all for visiting, and special thanks to those who've commented.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Katniss, Buffy, and the Cost of Heroism


I’ve now had the chance to see Mockingjay 1 twice, and as I mentioned in my last post, I re-read the Hunger Games Trilogy before seeing the movie. I have a number of thoughts about the book, the movie and about more general issues, all of which I’ll try to organize here. I’m going to tie those thoughts to Buffy and make some comparisons to HBO’s Game of Thrones too (no spoilers for GoT).

A number of reviews of Mockingjay 1 expressed disappointment at the “lack of action” in the film. I didn’t find this to be a problem, but I can see how it might appear that way to others, so I need to start by talking about what I think Hunger Games is “about”.

Each reader will emphasize different aspects of the books, of course. As I see it, there are 3 dominant stories playing out in tandem: Katniss’ heroism both in the Arena and outside it; the love triangle between Katniss, Gale, and Peeta; and the cost, physical and mental, paid by Katniss in the course of the Trilogy. When reviewers mention the “lack of action”, they’re clearly talking about the fact that Mockingjay 1 contains little of the gladiatorial-style combat which formed the basis of the first two books, and which many viewers obviously find the most interesting part of the books. Leaving aside whether this is good or bad, it’s faithful to the third book, where the only such “action” occurs in the second half and will be the subject of Mockingjay 2.

I’ll talk about the “action” issue more below, but I want to digress by saying that it may very well be that the Trilogy would have been better suited to an HBO series like Game of Thrones. It would have been pretty easy to set up at least 4 seasons for such a series, possibly 5 (a magic number for series generally because of re-runs, though this affects HBO less than it does network TV). In general, I’m a fan of the way HBO has translated George Martin’s series to television, though I have some specific criticisms of individual scenes and characters.

The big advantage HBO has over movies is time: it can devote 10 hours or more to a book, rather than 2-4 when each book has to be made into a single movie (two for the finale). This extra time allows all of the dominant themes to play out, which is likely to make all the readers happier.

HBO has other advantages too. There’s a good deal of graphic violence in the novels, though it’s stated rather than described in explicit detail. The movies need to downplay this in order to maintain a PG-13 rating, but the cost of that is that this de-emphasizes the horror of the Arena and over-emphasizes the adventure aspects. HBO certainly does not understate graphic violence, and that would inevitably change the impact of the Trilogy on screen.

Similarly, the books actually contain a great deal of nudity and people dressed only in underwear, something I didn’t really notice on first read but did on re-read. The nudity is all stated rather than described; it’s not salacious and it’s not sexual, but it’s there constantly and it can’t be shown in a PG-13 movie. At the risk of the understatement of the year, I think we can safely agree that HBO wouldn’t find this a limitation.

Both graphic violence and nudity are controversial, and I’m generally of the view that they are both overdone in books and on screen. That said, there’s a place for both when essential to the author’s point, and I think that’s the case in both Game of Thrones and Hunger Games. Both authors are (IMO) trying to dispel the romanticism so often associated with war; the violence and nudity in the books are designed to drive home this point.

Nudity in The Hunger Games emphasizes the fact that the Capitol holds the 12 Districts in what amounts to slavery (a point made often throughout the books). Slaves traditionally have no personal privacy – they are stripped of dignity among other rights. In the American South, slaves were often displayed naked at auction and poorly clothed by their masters, who used them for sex the way Finnick was used and, as suggested, Katniss herself might have been. Nudity in preparation for the games demonstrates the tributes’ lack of autonomy. Nudity in the Arena titillates the Capitol audience but doesn’t violate any norms because the tributes aren’t “real people”. The books are making a serious point here, but it gets lost in the movies because of the restrictions and assumptions of the medium.

I’ll give one relatively minor example to make this point. Catching Fire, the second movie, includes the scene of Johanna stripping at the elevator, but it gets the scene completely wrong. It’s played as sexual, with Peeta and Haymitch obviously looking at her and enjoying the sight; Johanna then winks at Haymitch. That’s what we in the US commonly associate with nudity. But in the book there’s no sexual vibe at all. To the contrary, Johanna is using her own choice of nudity to emphasize that the Capitol can’t hurt her, can’t embarrass her, can’t make her vulnerable by stripping her clothing.

I want to emphasize that this is NOT any sort of rejection of Mockingjay or of the previous Hunger Games movies. Generally speaking, I think they’ve done very well in their adaptations, helped by the fact that Jennifer Lawrence is (IMO) so good and can express such a wide range of emotions. I have some criticisms of Mockingjay 1, mostly of the way they handle the rescue of Peeta, where I personally would have preferred that they spend the time on Katniss’ issues. Overall, though, I think the movie is a reasonable compromise for viewers with different tastes and I liked it better than most reviewers.

The fact that I liked the movie better than most reviewers despite the lack of “action” scenes brings me back to where I left off above. For me, the most important theme of the books is the internal cost paid by Katniss, not the “adventure” of gladiator combat or the choice between Gale and Peeta (though all 3 themes are connected). You can see that cost as realistic – think of all the news reports of PTSD and other issues faced by troops returning from combat – or as an anti-war message (my own view), but there’s no doubt that book 3 spends the vast majority of its pages on Katniss’ mental state and not on her ability to shoot an arrow or which boy she’s kissing.

At other times of my life, I was more attracted to the adventure aspects of fantasy and SF. Even in LOTR, for example, while the cost paid by Frodo was explicit, I focused on that far less than on his struggle to destroy the Ring and I could imagine myself in such an adventure without the unpleasant traveling conditions or risk. I think we all find that part of the attraction of these kinds of stories.

At this point in my life, though, I’m more interested in considering the cost paid by our heroes. It was, of course, Buffy which brought me to this point. The fact that there would be a cost was expressly stated in Welcome to the Hellmouth:

BUFFY Prepares me for what? For getting kicked out of school? For losing all of my friends?For having to spend all of my time fighting for my life and never getting to tell anyone because I might endanger them?

By cost here, I mean the impact of being the Slayer on Buffy's psyche, not the external injuries she suffers along the way. The show, probably intentionally, diminished the effect of those because "accelerated healing comes with the Slayer package." (FFL) The Trilogy solves this problem with the advanced medicine which restores Katniss physically even as she continues to suffer mentally.

Buffy pays psychic costs all along, but those costs don't become the focal point of the show until late in S5, and they continue in S6-7. Even the loss of Angel in S2 -- which is less a cost of being the Slayer and more simple bad fortune -- gets mitigated with his return in S3. Writing the episode essays for the later seasons forced me to confront the internal costs Buffy paid in a way that I never really had before. Maybe that alone, or maybe that in combination with current events caused me to reassess my assessment of the relative importance of the price of being a hero.

I'll just briefly list the costs Buffy pays so I can compare her to Katniss: flashbacks; nightmares; self-loathing; the deaths of numerous people whom she, in her own mind, failed to save; her episode of catatonia after she failed Dawn in Spiral; her own life, which she sacrifices for Dawn; a long period of depression after she's pulled out of heaven by her friends; isolation from her friends and mentor. As Andrew puts it in Storyteller, Buffy's is "a story of ultimate triumph tainted with the bitterness of what's been lost in the struggle."

So what costs does Katniss pay? All of the above, basically. The Arena gives her flashbacks and nightmares which she never loses. She suffers guilt from her failure to save first Rue and then Peeta. Depression and isolation are constants in the later books.

Another cost is her friendship with Gale. At the start of the books, he's her best -- only? -- friend and an obvious romantic possiblity. At the end, he plays no role in her life, at least in part because he re-creates a mine cave-in very similar to the one in which her father died and which has caused her nightmares ever since. She gains Peeta, but that's partly because she comes to see him as essential to help her deal with the costs in a way that Gale never could. When I first read the books I thought Gale was the obvious choice for her, only to be corrected by my daughter who assured me that Peeta was the right one. I now see that she and Katniss were right.

Another cost is her mother, just as Buffy lost hers, though in neither case was that loss directly related to the actions as the hero. Katniss had a difficult relationship with her mother from the beginning of book 1 because her mother suffered such severe depression after Katniss' father died that she nearly let Katniss and her sister starve to death. Katniss comes to understand that depression intellectually in Catching Fire, but only really recognizes the emotional core of depression when she herself suffers it on two different occasions in Mockingjay. Compare the cathartic effect of Katniss finding Buttercup back in District 12 to Willow's breakdown on the hilltop in Grave.

Speaking of fathers, Katniss lost her father in a mine accident, but began to see Haymitch as a surrogate father at some point because of the way he helped her survive. She lost that affection when she learned that he'd used her as part of the rebel plan (compare Giles in LMPTM).

That brings us to her bitterest loss: unlike Buffy, Katniss loses her sister Prim, the one person she loves most in the world and, like Dawn, a metaphor for innocence. The whole "adventure" of the Games begins with her heroic decision to volunteer as tribute in place of Prim. Katniss didn't set out to save the world, any more than Buffy set out to save the world in Prophecy Girl or The Gift. In both cases Buffy focused only on saving first Willow and then Dawn; saving the world was a by-product of that.

But as a direct result of the Capitol's defeat, Katniss loses Prim. And the reason she loses Prim is that both sides used Katniss as a pawn in a larger struggle -- that's one meaning of the mockingjay, a bird that sings songs given to it by others -- a struggle the Katniss herself always resisted joining. I see this as similar to the way the Watchers used the Slayers over the years. Katniss finds love and hope at the end not because of her roles in the Arena or the revolution, but in spite of them, when she and Peeta find them in themselves rather than in the larger cause. To me, that's a very Buffy message.