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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Out of Mind, Out of Sight

[Updated April 29, 2013]

Out of Mind, Out of Sight rarely gets trashed like Teacher’s Pet or IRYJ, but I don’t get the impression it’s anyone’s favorite either. It’s just a standard, average S1 episode, a satirical look at the way high school cliques and cruelty can devastate outsiders.

It won’t be a surprise that I think there’s another reading, but it took me a long time to find it. I couldn’t figure out what the larger point was, or if there even was one, nor could I understand why it’s located just before the season finale. I now think I can explain it.

As I see it now, the point of the episode is to reconcile Buffy with Cordelia, her shadow self. I mentioned this shadow self view previously in my post on NKABOTFD, but I’ll go into it in more detail in this post. Here’s an explanation of the concept in Jungian psychology from Wikipedia (see link above):
“"The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself"…. If and when 'an individual makes an attempt to see his shadow, he becomes aware of (and often ashamed of) those qualities and impulses he denies in himself but can plainly see in others — such things as egotism, mental laziness, and sloppiness; unreal fantasies, schemes, and plots; carelessness and cowardice; inordinate love of money and possessions….”

This is an uncharitable but roughly accurate picture of Cordelia as we see her in S1. If I’m right that she’s in part a metaphor for Buffy’s shadow, then these are qualities which could be characteristic of Buffy if she let them, and we saw in Witch and NKABOTFD that Buffy does share with Cordelia similar desires which turn out to be shallow: to be a cheerleader or to date Owen or Angel. There’s additional evidence here: Buffy, like Cordy, was May Queen at Hemery. Willow and Xander, her metaphorical heart and spirit, immediately say, “Well, you know, you don't need that anymore. You got us!”. Buffy can’t accept this yet because Xander and Willow proceed to share memories which leave her feeling like an outsider. She later looks on wistfully as Cordy is being fitted for her dress. Some part of Buffy wants what Cordelia wants.
There will be more evidence for this in later seasons, so let’s assume it for now and consider what it means to reconcile one’s shadow self. We first need to understand why this is necessary. The basic answer is that we can’t really avoid our shadow selves; they’re part of us, like it or not. Accepting that is part of growing up. In fact, we may need some of those less pleasant aspects of our character to function as grownups. That would be regrettable in a perfect world, but it’s a fact of life in this one.
Under Jungian theory, the process of becoming one’s true self – what I would somewhat loosely call becoming an adult – requires a merger of the conscious mind with the underlying dark impulses. Quoting from Wikipedia again,
“… the struggle is to retain awareness of the shadow, but not identification with it. 'Non-identification demands considerable moral effort...prevents a descent into that darkness'; but though 'the conscious mind is liable to be submerged at any moment in the unconscious... understanding acts like a life-saver. It integrates the unconscious' - reincorporates the shadow into the personality, producing a stronger, wider consciousness than before. 'Assimilation of the shadow gives a man body, so to speak', and provides thereby a launching-pad for further [growing up].”

Now let’s see how this plays out during the episode. It takes a while, but Buffy connects the dots and realizes that Cordelia is Marcie’s target. Buffy then realizes she has to protect Cordelia, which is inevitable given the metaphor because Cordelia is a part of Buffy. Cordy is the one who approaches Buffy for help. Consider her words: “I know that you share this feeling that we have for each other, deep down...”
Buffy then has her conversation with Cordelia and begins to understand her:

“Cordelia: (stops Buffy) Hey! You think I'm never lonely because I'm so cute and popular? I can be surrounded by people and be completely alone. It's not like any of them really know me. I don't even know if they like me half the time. People just want to be in a popular zone. Sometimes when I talk, everyone's so busy agreeing with me, they don't hear a word I say.
“Buffy: Well, if you feel so alone, then why do you work so hard at being popular?
Cordelia: Well, it beats being alone all by yourself.
She continues down the hall. After considering that for a moment Buffy quickly follows.”

Buffy and Cordelia are then both rendered unconscious – heh! – and brought together under the word “Learn”. Marcie threatens to make Cordy visible in a way no one will ever forget, which is a metaphorical way of calling everyone’s attention to Buffy’s flaws.
If you see it this way, the focus of the episode is not Marcie; she’s just a mechanism by which Cordelia’s (and Buffy’s) faults are made visible (pun intended) so that Buffy is forced to confront them. Buffy recognizes the need to take control. She first tries to reason with Marcie (“I just want to talk to you”), but eventually concludes that she has to assert control more forcibly (“You're a thundering loony!”). In order to defeat Marcie she tells Cordelia, her shadow, to shut up so that she can hear. Only then can she at last “see” Marcie – “I see you,” Buffy says – and bring her under control. At the end of the episode, Cordelia and Buffy have reached a new understanding and Cordelia seems to have accepted Buffy’s special role – in metaphor, the shadow (Cordy) has accepted its limits and will now work together with the conscious mind (Buffy): “You really helped me out yesterday, and you didn't have to. So, thank you.”
I’ll explain my understanding of the reason for the placement of OOM, OOS at this point in the season when I post my Prophecy Girl essay on Monday.
Trivia notes: (1) I won’t always mention the classroom lesson, but the study of The Merchant of Venice seems pretty obvious in its connection to the episode theme. (2) Buffy’s description of demons as “crush, kill, destroy” comes from the ‘60s TV show Lost in Space. (3) Marcie’s line “I see right through you” is not only ironic, it expresses the theme of the episode: that same loneliness which Cordelia just expressed causes all of us to feel invisible. (4) Cordy’s reference to Helen Keller is also, of course, consistent with the theme that people don’t see others. (5) Willow wore a Scooby Do shirt in this episode. This will be relevant later.


  1. I tend to think of the school where Marcie ends up as Blue Sun's prototype of The Academy in Firefly/Serenity, and they probably took some early steps toward the Dollhouse architecture too.

    But it's probably also a lot like the school of which Wesley was Head Boy.

  2. I can see that. Given how Joss views schools generally, it's not surprising.

  3. I always thought it was (SPOILER) the Initiative. I was always disappointed they never brought Marcie back, especially as I like Clea Duvall.

  4. I like that idea. It would have been a great callback.

  5. Great writeup, as always.

    Quick note on the Jungian interpretation you brought up: the confrontation and acceptance of the shadow is only the first step in Jung's ideas of self-realization. Ideally, it's followed by the acceptance of the anima/animus, the representation of the opposite gender within one's own mind. For Buffy that would mean a confrontation with the animus, the male archetype connected with violence (among other things; this is heavily simplified due to my limited understanding). It's arguable when she comes to terms with that part of herself, but male violence certainly becomes more important as the series goes on, starting with (VAGUE SPOILER WARNING) Angelus. The First Slayer could also work well in that role, despite being a woman.

    I'd be interested in hearing your take.

  6. Ah, that's a bit more nuanced take than what I was able to find on line. As I understood it, the process of individuation -- what I loosely called "growing up" -- was one that never really ended. It was always something to work on.


    Based on this understanding, I had Faith in mind for the next iteration of the process. She's not male (duh), but that certainly fits with the violence part. What do you think?

  7. The individuation process definitely has no end; Jung talked about the confrontations/acceptances of the shadow and anima/animus simply as key landmarks. They're things that have to happen but aren't necessarily ends or even permanent. So you're right on that one.

    Faith is a good option (that I hadn't actually thought of), especially since her and Buffy have so many conflicts that get played out in dreams/visions. Spike was my second choice, personally, but I haven't really figured out how that would work in context of the show itself.

    Come to think of it, Buffy really doesn't seem to accept the violent, murdering aspect of her self until the last season, does she?


    She spins "Death is your gift" into a gift of life, which is feminine/maternal/nurturing and therefore unattached to the animus. Warren may be a good option for the epitomized animus... or maybe even Spike.

    It's remarkable how nuanced this kind of thing can get once you think about it enough. Kudos to your blog for making me read this deeply into Buffy.

  8. Interesting suggestions; now I'm thinking more about S5 and S6. Thanks.

  9. The "crush, destroy, kill" line reminds me an awful lot of Faith's "want, take, have". Maybe it's the violence in both mottos, or maybe its just the fact that it's a three word phrase.

    1. It's a similar philosophy in both cases. It would be hard to "want, take, have" without the willingness to "crush, kill, destroy".

  10. I am rewatching BtVS and made a trivial catch about this episode: the final shot of the textbook at the FBI school features the lyrics of “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, under the subheading “RADICAL CULT LEADER AS INTENDED VICTIM”. Hilarious.

  11. (local-max)

    I agree it is important for Buffy to start to accept her "inner Cordelia" shadow before "Prophesy Girl" and for Cordelia to start to accept her place in Buffy's life, and the necessity of having Buffy to protect her. I think that there's something else here too, though I'm not sure what the best way to put it is. I think that maybe Marcie also represents Buffy. In some respects, Marcie is more akin to Willow and Xander, or (even more so) a someone like Jonathan, as the ignored and neglected one. But Buffy is also sad that she *used to be* the May Queen in her old school, and no longer is. Recognizing that Cordelia has the trappings of social power and popularity that Buffy once had and does not any more *could* lead to her either attempting to be Cordelia -- which would be giving into shallowness -- but also giving into resentment and becoming like Marcie, where she is defined entirely by *not* identifying with the shadow. This is akin to Nietzsche's critique of Christianity, where people decide not to indulge their baser appetites, but rather than it being truly for the good, they do it because they enjoy the feeling of superiority, and become bitter as a result. Marcie's whole identity is eventually based around the fact that she is not Cordelia, and does not have what Cordelia has, and that is entirely destructive and leads to her literally disappearing.

    Marcie is definitely a victim when she starts out -- disappearing as she does. And I'm hesitant to blame her for what happens to her, because I don't want to blame the victim. But if we look at it metaphorically, Marcie disappears because *no one* can see her, and it seems to me that means she is unable to see herself. Whereas Willow, e.g., was bullied by Cordelia and prevented from using the water fountain and had her life restricted, she at least did seem to have some sort of inner life independent of Cordelia, in her friendship with Xander, in her time online, etc. Maybe Marcie disappears because she really specifically requires other people to notice her in order for her to function. We know that she actually does want Cordelia's approval -- c.f. her trying to insert herself into the conversation about the teacher's toupee in the bathroom. This reminds me of Jesse who really wanted Cordelia's approval.

    So part of what Buffy has to do is not just defend Cordelia, but to let go of her desire to define herself by the approval of Cordelia, or, I suppose, to define herself by her "failure" (rather than choice) *not* to be the May Queen, which would eventually lead to her disappearing as her own person and being overcome with resentment. Given that SPOILERS her May Queen, pre-series self is about to die in "Prophesy Girl," it's important she finds a way to deal with losing that part of herself without the rest of her disappearing. And also defending Cordelia's right to exist as well as engaging with her as a person -- and learning her own vulnerabilities and ways in which Cordelia is unhappy -- presents a maturity wherein Buffy is willing to allow other people to have the lives that she herself is rejecting, rather than being consumed with jealousy that they "get to have" what she's turned away from.

    Along those lines, that Angel identifies with Marcie -- "looking in the mirror and seeing nothing" -- clues us in to Angel's total failure to integrate his own shadow, which manifests in him on some level being jealous of the vampires who do "get to" kill without remorse, which is part of why he is so strongly tempted by Darla's offer in "Angel," SPOILER draining Buffy in "Graduation Day," at many points in his own series, etc. Willow's name is right next to Marcie's in the yearbook (Rosenberg, Ross) and it hints that this is a risk for her, too.

    1. Also, I think Marcie's flute playing luring Willow, Xander and Giles into a trap is a play on the Pied Piper, though I don't have a deeper significance to that.

    2. I've always been uncomfortable with where I left the analysis of this episode. I like your suggestion of Marcie as an object lesson for Buffy; I'm going to think some more on the mechanics of this.

    3. Yeah. I don't feel I quite have it. Buffy also identifies with Marcie in that she, too, feels invisible, not just because Cordelia refuses to see her worth (until she needs Buffy) but because Willow and Xander fail to recognize Buffy's wistfulness when she's pondering her own May Queen period.

      I guess the other big lesson is the one that Marcie really does try to communicate -- "look," "listen." Cordelia is defined by *only* seeing the surface and only seeing herself. Willow and Xander have that flaw to a much lesser extent, but it's there (they failed to see Marcie, they fail to see Buffy's pain). Buffy runs the risk of both failing to see Cordelia as a whole person and failing to see what's wrong with Cordelia's shallowness (and wanting that shallow life for herself). Marcie *thinks* that she's enlightened, and she has correctly learned that people only see part of the truth, but actually she's entirely obsessed with Cordelia, showing that she also can't look past the surface, so that she has really adopted Cordelia's values, just a twisted form thereof. Marcie *could have* become a "friendly ghost" and tried to help other lonely kids like herself and tell them that they are important, but her actions show that she also only really sees Cordelia. But Buffy has to pay close attention, listen, and look -- see who Cordelia really is, see what Marcie has really become, be aware of her surroundings. Willow also "listens" to Marcie's flute playing. I am not sure how all this plays with the season, but I think it's very important for Buffy's (and everyone's) growth to be able to look clearly at both oneself and others and look beneath the surface. I guess this matters for *this season* because SPOILER it is Buffy's ability to see and pay attention to Willow's suffering that is the driving force between her acceptance of her calling.

    4. Ok, I think I have a reasonable reading. Let me know what you think.

      What we see in the episode is that Buffy is feeling left out. At Hemery she was May Queen and the yearbook was "like the story of me". She lacks those things at Sunnydale because she doesn't have time for them -- she's the Slayer.

      The source of her discomfort is Cordelia. It's not just that Cordy has what Buffy (thinks she) wants. It's that Cordy tends to rub it in, to flaunt her triumphs. Deep down, Buffy resents that.

      Our resentments come from our dark side. They urge us on to acts we shouldn't commit, to desires we shouldn't try to fulfill. It's Cordy who, in a real sense, creates Marcie.

      Marcie therefore becomes the metaphor not just for Buffy's feeling that her classmates don't appreciate or even notice her, but also for Buffy's resentment of Cordelia.

      What Buffy needs to do is not let her dark urges take over. She needs to control them, which she does when acting as the Slayer enables her to rescue Cordelia. By controlling her resentment, she's able to reconcile with Cordelia (her dark side).

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