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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Beauty and the Beasts

[Updated April 29, 2013]

Buffy’s shadow self/dark side has been explored in a number of episodes to date. Beauty and the Beasts examines the dark side of 3 men: Pete, Angel, and Oz. Pete’s case is the most obvious, because the story of Jekyll and Hyde – the obvious inspiration for the episode, which Willow mentions at the end – is a metaphor generally for the dark side/shadow self (or “civilized” versus “animalistic” as a specific case of the general idea). The trigger for Pete’s transformation is his potion, a fairly thinly disguised alcohol metaphor. Some literary historians argue that Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was himself a cocaine user.

In previous posts I’ve mentioned Jungian theory, under which it’s necessary for every person to undergo a process of “individuation”, which means coming to terms with one’s shadow. Pete obviously failed in this task, to the point where the shadow subsumed the person. Here’s how the Wikipedia article explains it; note that it uses the Jekyll and Hyde example:
“According to Jung, the shadow sometimes overwhelms a person's actions…. 'A man who is possessed by his shadow is always standing in his own light and falling into his own traps ... living below his own level': hence, in terms of the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 'it must be Jekyll, the conscious personality, who integrates the shadow ... and not vice versa. Otherwise the conscious becomes the slave of the autonomous shadow'.”

In stark contrast to Pete, the episode portrays Oz as someone who has previously come to terms with his wolf and controls himself voluntarily. As for Angel, at the beginning we’re uncertain because he returned in a feral state. At the end he achieves control of his inner beast through his love of Buffy. One obvious lesson is that we can now accept that it is indeed Angel who returned, not Angelus. It’s an example of the ability to be redeemed because he wants to be (to paraphrase what Giles told Buffy).
I’ve seen a fair amount of criticism of Beauty and the Beasts on the ground that this exploration of the dark sides of these specifically male characters meant that the episode is “anti-male”. Part of this is criticism of writer Marti Noxon, and is retrospective based on things which happen in later seasons. I don’t agree with this criticism of the later seasons, but I can’t get into the details now because of spoilers. There’s also some criticism from the text of the episode itself which I think is also unwarranted and I want to explain why I disagree with that.
Best I can tell, the criticism is based upon (a) Faith’s comments, particularly her statements that “all men are beasts” and that “they’re only in it for the chase”; (b) the fact that Angel and Oz do, in fact, have monsters inside them; and (c) the harsh portrayal of Pete. I’ll take these in turn.
Whether it’s Buffy or any other literature, we should be very wary of taking the statement of a single character at face value. I can’t imagine, for example, that Shakespeare agreed with everything Iago said and did. You can’t quote Iago and say “as Shakespeare said…”. Shakespeare said no such thing; Iago, a character, did.
When Faith makes her comment, or indeed any comment, we have to decide whether her character is telling us an intended message from the show or just something about her particular character. It seems to me pretty clear in this case that it’s only the latter. Her statement comes just before the break and immediately after we see Willow and Buffy agreeing that Faith’s statement is an unfair generalization:
“Willow:  I don't think that's true, that every guy is in it only for the chase.
Buffy:  I know. It is an awful generalization.”

Faith’s attitude towards men is an issue that the series will explore in later episodes so I can’t say much here if I want to avoid spoilers. My point now is that we don’t have to take her word for it.
Turning to the second point, yes it’s true that Angel and Oz have monsters inside them, but that’s not the case for every man shown on the show. Xander and Giles are obvious exceptions (I don’t count Giles’ past demon, Eyghon, as still present, nor Xander’s hyena). The overgeneralization also misses the point that Angel and Oz demonstrate that some men can control their demons. Mr. Platt makes this explicit:

“Mr. Platt:  … Everybody has demons, right?
Buffy:  (averts her eyes) Gotta say I'm with you on that. (looks down at her hands)
Mr. Platt:  Excellent. So, the hope I bring you is: demons can be fought. (Buffy looks up at him in surprise) People can change.”

Angel and Oz may have demons inside them, but that’s not the point. The point is that they can control those demons and still be good.
In addition to the fact that not all men are shown as “beasts”, we need to ask whether the show portrays women as entirely lacking in internal demons. Again I can’t say much about this in the future because of spoilers, but it certainly has not to date – from S1 we have Catherine Madison (Witch) and Natalie French (Teacher’s Pet); from S2 we have Ampata (Inca Mummy Girl) and Drusilla. And as I’ve emphasized several times, Cordelia has served a metaphorical role as Buffy’s shadow self, putting Buffy in the same situation as the men here. The fact that the show has explored Buffy’s dark side makes it very unlikely that an anti-male theme was intended here.
That leaves Pete. Yes, he’s portrayed in a very unsympathetic light, but there’s a good reason for that – it’s pretty hard to justify abuse. That’s not the only reason, though. Pete is in the episode for a particular purpose, namely to contrast him with Angel. One major point of the episode was to distinguish between 2 types of monster. Buffy has just learned that Angel has come back and she doesn't know whether he's Angel or Angelus; neither do we. Giles explains how to make the distinction:

"Giles: ... In my experience, there are... two types of monster. The first, uh, can be redeemed, or more importantly, wants to be redeemed.
Buffy: And the second type?
Giles: The second is void of humanity, cannot respond to reason... or love."

At the end of the episode we're shown exactly these two types. Debbie (unwisely) demonstrated her love for Pete by saving his life and in other ways. Pete doesn’t respond to her attempts to reason with him or to her love; he kills her. Angel is presented in explicit contrast to Pete. He breaks his chains to find Buffy, protects her from Pete, and kneels before her. In those actions he showed both that he responds to love and that he wants to be redeemed.
I’m inclined to see Beauty and the Beasts as an episode which says redemption is possible even for the worst, if they want it. That's not "anti-male", Pete was just the example used to make the point.
Having said all this, I need to add that I think the whole discussion of Pete and Angel is secondary to what I see as important about the episode. As usual, I think what’s important is what an episode tells us about Buffy. For her the contrast is not with Pete, it’s with Debbie. Marti says in The Monster Book that "Young women have a tendency to be drawn to the darker side of man. To romanticize the bad boy. What is that about? And when does it become dangerous? When do you lose control?'" Debbie and Pete exemplify this. Note in particular that Pete tells Debbie that she’s the one who brings out his evil side:

“Pete:  When I drink it, nothing, Debbie. Nothing! (Debbie flinches) I don't need this anymore, okay? I am way, *way* past that now.
He slams the bottle back onto the shelf.
Pete:  You see?
He takes another bottle down and throws it to the floor, breaking it.
Pete:  You see?! (breaks another) No more. (breaks a third) You could pour out everything I made, and it wouldn't help. And you wanna know why?
He grabs her by the arms. She whimpers in fright.
Pete:  You wanna know why?! Because all it takes now is you, Debbie.” 

That, of course, also describes the situation with Angel and Buffy. Remember from Innocence? “So it was me. I did it.” And “The important thing is you made me the man I am today!”
Buffy lost herself in Angel once; does she now understand the risk that entails? Read her dialogue with Debbie and apply both their words to Buffy in light of Angel’s return, his ambiguous status at that moment, and her concealment of his return from her friends:

“Buffy:  You have to talk to us. (Debbie shakes her head) We can't help you until you do.
Debbie:  I didn't ask for your help!
Willow:  Well, when are you going to? I mean, if Pete kills you, it'll pretty much be too late.
Buffy:  Debbie, we're running out of time….
Buffy:  Where can we find him?
Debbie: I-I don't know.
Buffy:  You're lying.
Debbie:  What if I am? What are you gonna do about it?...
Buffy takes her by the arm again and pushes her up against the sink in front of the mirror.
Buffy:  Look at yourself. Why are you protecting him? Anybody who really loved you couldn't do this to you.
She takes a few steps away. Debbie turns around to face them.
Debbie:  Would they take him someplace?
Buffy:  Probably.
Debbie:  (shakes her head, sobbing) I could never do that to him. (Willow sighs) I'm his everything.
Buffy:  (disgusted) Great. So what, you two live out your Grimm fairy tale? Two people are dead.
Debbie just shakes her head and says nothing.
Buffy:  Who's gonna be next?”
 

Buffy’s playing a dangerous game here; the distance between her and her friends caused by her relationship with Angel is very wide and the wounds from Dead Man’s Party aren’t healed. There’s a real temptation for her, as we learned in her conversation with Platt:
“Buffy:  He was my first... I loved him, and then he...
Mr. Platt:  ...changed.
She looks up at him, surprised again.
Buffy:  Yeah.
Mr. Platt:  He got mean.
Buffy:  Yes.
Mr. Platt:  And you didn't stop loving him.”
 

That’s the story of Debbie in nutshell. She didn’t stop loving Pete even though he “got mean”. She “stayed lost” in Pete, to use Platt’s phrase. The question for Buffy – the one she implicitly asked herself in the conversation with Platt – is whether she will stay lost in Angel. The ending voiceover from The Call of the Wild nicely captures the ambiguity here: does the passage apply to “love’s dog”? To the animal instinct inside Angel? Could it even apply to Buffy herself, feeling the call of the wild in the form of Angel?
Finally, there’s yet another application of this episode to Buffy which I won’t discuss because of spoilers, but I will say that the theme of this episode fits right in with the most important seasonal theme. And there’s a very good reason why this episode appears at this particular point in the season.
I need to add that “Rules change” is a great moment.
Trivia notes: (1) Buffy read in voiceover from Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. If you haven’t read it, the story involves a dog raised in civilization but taken to a brutal environment in Alaska. The dog is able to survive only by reverting to its animal instincts. Apparently dogs have shadow selves too. :) (2) Willow carried her detective tools in a Scooby-Do lunch box. (3) Someone’s a Sound of Music fan. This is the second episode to use the phrase “the hills are alive”. The first was The Dark Age. Buffy seemed to remember that it was Jenny’s phrase because she trailed off when she used it to Giles. (4) Willow got the donuts from “Mister Donut”, which is now Dunkin’ Donuts. (5) I’ve Got A Secret was a TV game show which originally ran from 1952-67. (6) In comments, State of Siege correctly pointed out that I’m being very eclectic – that’s a euphemism – in my use of Freud and Jung. Guilty. In mitigation, I plead that I’m trying to get a reading which takes account of popular understanding, both of the viewers and of the writers. That will inherently lead to a less-than-scholarly treatment of the issues.

13 comments:

  1. A few thoughts, some spoilery, some not—

    First, to back up your refutation of the, to my mind,
    absurd claim that the episode is anti-male,
    something you imply but do not state directly:

    The idea that the darkness can apply to women
    and does apply to Buffy comes also in the words
    of Platt: the demon to which he refers is, most
    immediately, love itself, and it is its wildness that
    Buffy must resist, not the demon within Angel (nor
    Angel who must resist that demon, since Platt is
    not concerned, save metaphorically, with the
    "guy... [who] got mean").

    Second, and this is just, perhaps, a minor quibble
    —your use of Jung here makes me rather
    uncomfortable, for it is deeply incompatible with
    your extensive use of Freud: they don't mix, and
    given that your reading of Buffy across the 7 seasons
    is an integrated interpretation, the combination leads
    to theoretical contradictions. Perhaps I am being too
    much of an academic purist here—and in a spotty
    manner, given that I haven't said anything about my
    problems with your reading of Freud and don't intend
    to—but I think you can do what you need to with
    Freud, using the unconscious, and that that would
    make your interpretation, as a whole, less piecemeal,
    more consistent... End of my academic rant. And
    apologies if I sound condescending here—I don't
    mean to—I really love and respect your reading as
    a whole... Think of it as a professional deformation...



    SPOILERS, Fairly Large

    This may be where you are going, but...

    The demon inside is also the demon inside Buffy,
    no?—as will be revealed in Season 7?

    And even before that, it is the dark side that
    emerges in Bad Girls, first, and is exemplified
    by Faith?

    And we see its risk and manifestation in a more
    dangerous form in Graduation Day 1, when Buffy
    goes to get Faith for Angel, when Xander says
    "I don't want to lose you"—and he does not mean
    that he thinks that Buffy will lose the fight
    —but that she will win...

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    1. That's a nice way to phrase it on Buffy's "call of the wild". And yes, that's what I was suggesting.

      On the Jung/Freud point, you're absolutely correct technically. I could easily have gone with Freud's concept of the unconscious and almost did. Where I hesitate is in trying to piece together what the writers were thinking, and I suspect bits of both get mixed in.

      SPOILERS FOR ALL REMAINING EPISODES

      Yes indeed, Faith is Buffy's dark side and it's Bad Girls where see that clearly. I have some detailed discussions of that planned for BG and the succeeding episodes. And I also agree with you about the point of Xander's statement.

      As for S7, the First is definitely a metaphorical demon for Buffy. Whether that's the same as what we see in BatB specifically is tricky question. However, I do think that Joss took the inspiration for S7 from the events of S3 generally, and specifically from Amends and the Faith arc. So in that more general sense I'd agree.

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    2. I had a couple more thoughts on the Freud/Jung issue.

      At ATPO there were a couple of strong Jungians who posted regularly. One of them, Caroline (pre-Dollhouse, no reference intended), was very good. While I certainly don't consider myself a Jungian, it's possible that her posts subconsciously (heh) influenced me to look there first.

      MILD SPOILER FOR HOMECOMING

      In addition, it made sense to refer to Jung here because I'm going to do so again in Homecoming. I see that episode, consistent with my post on OoM, OoS, as another example of individuation.

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    3. Fair enough—I was more interested in your logic than anything else: you read more eclectically, while I don't, just as you read Freud through American Ego Psychology, while I read him through Lacan, which are differences that do not bother me (I think that this is one of the reasons I do not write on Buffy professionally...)


      RE: SPOILERS

      I will be interested to see how this all plays out...

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  2. StateofSiege: I don't see anything wrong with eclecticism either in literary criticism or clinical psychological or psychiatric practice. My own opinion is that both Freud and Jung are important figures in intellectual history, and each has said some useful...and some much less useful...things about human thought and emotions.

    Mark: One thing that continually frustrated me about fandom is the tendency of many fans to act as though they believed that simple allegory is the only mode of writing.

    Unless there is some evidence that the character is in fact supposed to represent all men, or all women, or all Hispanic adolescents or Asian senior citizens or some other group--I always wonder if there was some kind of representation election!--I don't think it's logical to say "Episode/writer/TV series is anti-Group X" merely because a member of Group X is depicted as having some bad characteristics or even being entirely a bad person. (Or other entity, depending on how close to Homo sapiens you stick for your definition of "person.")

    Mind you, if every female character does nothing except shriek, twist her ankle after insisting on wearing high heels, and leaving a place of safety so she has to be rescued, I'd say the episode/writer/TV series has some kind of issue.

    BTW, "J.Hills Is Alive" is an oft-referenced essay about the kind of character whom Carol Clover calls "The final girl", and I wouldn't be at all surprised if this were a shout-out to that essay.

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    1. I see the mistake regarding metaphor all the time (and have been guilty of it myself). It's simple concept in some ways, but it's easy to overdetermine it. I do think that, for example, Xander is a metaphor for Buffy's heart. But that doesn't mean that's his only role on the show; he's a character in his own right. Thus, whether he's serving a metaphorical role in a given scene requires actual analysis, not just plugging in the idea.

      You're right, of course, about the way some people jump to conclusions about the message. Of course, sometimes I don't jump, I just take a tiny step and there conclusions are. :)

      I'd never heard of the "J. Hills Is Alive" essay. Very interesting -- thanks for the reference.

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    2. executrix—

      I do and do not agree about eclectic reading: yes, Freud and Jung are part of intellectual history, but many of their ideas are firmly opposed to each other, so using them together, such as combining their ideas of the unconscious, leads to inconsistencies... bringing Jung's shadow self into a Freudian field, not so much, perhaps, not like using Adorno with Heidegger, but it is a dangerous process... In my professional criticism, I tend to be rather rigorous about such things—here, I am less so, since I am more simply interested in the ideas generated, the conversation produced, the pleasure to be had, less in theoretical rigor—as long as I understand the logic for the choices made.

      On another note, I like your analysis of metaphor vs. strict allegory—and yes, the "J Hillis" essay is a good reference...

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    3. Replying to Mark Field: I think that we can know Xander completely, not only because there's just one of him but because he's fictional and we can absorb all of his canon! in ways that we can't know a RL person--much less an entire RL gender! So I'm much more comfortable with a formulation like "Xander is a metaphor for Buffy's heart" than "Men are beasts" or "Women are mercenary bitches" or "Woman:Man::Nature:Culture" (or the other way around).

      Replying to StateOfSiege: "A Dangerous Process": already on my Netflix queue! More seriously, I think that in any attempt to understand a phenomenon, the phenomenon itself is occurring "on stage"--the describers may have tickets in sections that give a different view of the stage, or may have arrived late or spent part of the performance outside having a cigarette. Nevertheless, even a brief report from an obstructed-view seat may pick up details of the performance that are missing from other reports. And, in any case, what we really want to do is understand the performance, the reviews are just tools.

      One of the pleasures of online interaction is being able to reply off the cuff, so I'm glad people can talk without feeling the obligation to use the same standard of rigor in a blog post as they would in a professional reference.

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    4. Yes, I think that's exactly right on the interpretation of metaphors.

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  3. I really like how in the analysis of each episode, you give a general summary of the fandom's view on it: well-loved, hated, polarizing, etc. There's some episodes that I am surprised many are less than enthused about. Here, I was also surprised that some view this as anti-male.

    My simple take on this episode prior to reading the analysis was that we cannot buy into blanket statements or generalizations. Faith and Pete both make them along the axis of gender here. Faith says all guys are the same, Pete says "you're all the same" in reference to women when he beats up Debbie.

    Oz has made a conscious choice to control his animalistic self, while Pete did not. We learn at the end of the episode, that Angel as well made the choice to control his animalistic demons. This echoes what Mr. Platt said: that we can change, that the demons can be fought.

    So in some ways, maybe Faith and Pete were right, that we all have demons within us. That distinction does not exist on a gendered axis, but rather is a universal truth of humanity.
    Giles was also right then, in saying that we all also have the individual freedom to choose to control our demons. This nicely ties in with the existentialist philosophy that you've laid out well.

    Also Mark, I know you're probably sick to death of me chiming in with the gender-related ideas, but I think it is interestingly addressed, if only tangentially, here.

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    1. Heh. Not at all tired. After all, the show has a definite feminist slant. Gender is bound to be an issue. I may see the message in slightly different terms, as you'll see when you get to Chosen, but I'd never dispute that it can be read that way.

      The criticism of Marti Noxon really got out of hand in S6. Lots of viewers didn't like the season, and the issues then got retrospectively applied to episodes like BatB. I never saw it as anti-male, but lots of people do. I actually had to debate that once on a baseball board, of all places.

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  4. My problem with the Pete story is not that they portray Pete as unsympathetic but rather his story and Deb's is so damn cliche and obvious. It's writing on the level of a PSA. It was pretty cringe-worthy to watch and pretty much ruined any of the good the rest of the episode offered when I first saw this episode.

    The doorknob bit in particular is so typical of this kind of portrayal that it would end up in a joke in American Dad (which is where I first heard of it) a few years after the episode aired.

    There is also some criticism out there of Buffy's treatment of Deb and that it leans of victim blaming. I don't feel qualified to really go into it in full at this time but it is probably worth noting and doesn't help the preachy aspect of this subplot with Buffy telling the victim not to do such and such thing.

    As for Noxon in general the stupidity of Bad Eggs and the unsubtley of I Only Have Eyes for You weren't really making me like her that much (or him as I assumed at the time) so that plot did not really make me appreciate her writing. I was a bit more forgiving by S4 (though would go bad to having distaste for it after finishing the series and seeing discussion) but I think it's worth noting that the hate for this subplot wasn't really rooted in the stuff to come in later seasons.

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    1. I agree that Buffy's conversation with Deb works much better if you see it as her talking to herself. That said, the show has a pretty consistent tough love approach to emotional difficulties: "get over it" seems to be a common theme.

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