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Sunday, August 27, 2017

Of Art and Artists

I'm writing this post reluctantly. I'd prefer to ignore personal issues when it comes to discussing art (and oftentimes politics). I decided I needed to say something about Kai Cole's recent blog post about Joss Whedon for two reasons: (1) I'm quite complimentary about Joss in various essays here and in the book; and (2) some of her accusations touch on Joss' relationships with people involved in BtVS (I wouldn't care if he had an affair with someone outside his shows -- that's a matter between the parties).

Let me get some things out of the way at the beginning. I refer to "accusations" against Joss because that's the lawyer in me. We haven't seen the actual letter(s) to which Kai refers, nor do we know any of the actual details. I'm cautious about interpreting evidence as a professional matter. However, I'm going to write this upon the assumption that Joss had at least one affair with someone involved with BtVS.

I have to say that IMO the details do matter here as far as my personal judgment is concerned. I'm not going to try to define the precise boundaries of  what's acceptable and what's not, as if I were some arbiter. I'm not. I can only say that my personal view depends on the details. I started to explain with some examples, but decided that was unfair to individuals and distasteful to me. Moving on.

I'm going to assume that Joss had an affair with someone on BtVS which involved him being in a position of authority over that person, which is, to me anyway, the most potentially disturbing case. Note that I don't know if he did; I'm assuming that for the sake of discussion.

There are, in my view, two significant issues which arise from this assumed fact. The first is the question of Joss' credentials, if any, as a feminist. I'm not going to say much about this. I don't consider myself competent to discuss feminism as a topic generally, and I'm certainly not an arbiter of "true feminism" if there is such a thing.

The question I've seen raised is whether someone can be a feminist while having affairs, particularly affairs with someone over whom s/he has a position of authority. Notwithstanding the fact that some commenters, probably justifiably, noted my tendency to be judgmental when discussing, say, Xander, my answer is "sure". In my view, people aren't perfect. They not only make mistakes, they do stupid things. Failure to live up to your own professed ideals pretty much makes you human. That might irritate me (see Xander), but outside of extreme cases people don't have to be perfectly consistent. They can do good things and bad ones too.

The second issue, and I think it's related to the first, involves how we deal with artists who are unpleasant or even awful. I can't pretend that I have a perfectly consistent view on this. I'd never go to a Ted Nugent concert because I think he's despicable. On the other hand, I have no problem thinking that Chinatown is a great movie even though Polanski's conduct was horrific and I was one of the lawyers representing Polanski's victim.

If we ask how many artists do bad things personally or advocate for them publicly, my first guess would be all of them. Maybe more. We can't demand a test of personal perfection or else we could never enjoy any art. In some discussion with shadowkat on her lj page, we came up with 2 potential grounds for justifying my response to the Nugent and Polanski examples. One involves the distinction between personal conduct as opposed to political views. The other, the distinction between individual works versus collaborative ones.

The personal/political distinction kinda sorta works, as long as you're willing to agree that the personal isn't necessarily political (and that's a contested point). My view is that while behaviors that lots of people engage in are certainly political, not every private action is intended as a political statement. So, to continue with my examples from above, Polanski didn't intend his rape to be a political statement, whereas Nugent makes overt and obviously political comments. YMMV on this.

The other distinction is that a TV show, as I said in the essay on The Freshman, requires the collaboration of lots of people: actors, producers, writers, censors, et al. I have much less problem separating art from artist when "artist" is a plural. Even if Joss Whedon was the single biggest influence on BtVS, he was not the only influence, and the triumph of the show didn't just include others, it required them.

That brings me to the final point, which is that of hero worship. I'm not a big fan of hero worship, for exactly the reasons I gave above: people aren't perfect. Well, Willie Mays was perfect, but one counter-example just proves my point more generally. I gave Joss a ton of credit in the essays here, and I still do. That never meant that I accepted everything he did uncritically. That's evident, too (I hope), in the essays. It's not just that some episodes are weaker than others, it's what remained unsaid: as is obvious, I never sat down to write about Dollhouse, for example, because I don't think it's a great show. I respect and admire what Joss accomplished in BtVS, but I don't extend that any further than I think it's deserved. That's the flip side of my view that  I generally don't consider an artist's personal life to affect my evaluation of the art.

While I'm obviously disappointed that this issue ever even had to arise, it doesn't affect my personal attitude towards BtVS. But I don't think I have stated or could state a definitive rationale and I think reasonable people can reach different conclusions here.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Paperback?

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.