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Monday, March 19, 2012

Gingerbread

[Updated April 30, 2013]

What appears to be the principal message of Gingerbread – tolerance versus tyranny – comes across as lacking in subtlety. There are, I think, two more significant issues raised in the episode which get lost because of that heavy-handed treatment.


First, there’s a point being made about parents who get too involved in their children’s activities, to the point where they spoil it. Think of the stereotypes of Little League parents or those of child actors (a comparison that probably had real resonance to cast and crew). Joyce begins the episode by tagging along while Buffy slays, though she has no real business being there. She then disrupts Buffy’s ability to do her job by inducing hysteria in the rest of Sunnydale.
Second, Joyce raises an issue for which Buffy doesn’t really have an answer (yet):
“Joyce: I mean, you patrol, you slay... Evil pops up, you undo it. A-a-and that's great! But is Sunnydale getting any better? Are they running out of vampires?
Buffy:  I don't think that you run out of...
Joyce:  It's not your fault. You don't have a plan. You just react to things. I-i-it's bound to be kind of fruitless.”

Joyce’s conclusion sets up the remainder of the episode in her attempt to do better than Buffy: the formation of MOO, the raid on the school, the attacks on those who are different, and the near murder of Buffy, Willow, and Amy. As I said in my post on Amends, I believe that Gingerbread fits in with the absurdist themes Joss was developing at this point in the season, so let me explain the connection between those and Joyce’s actions here.
At the end of The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus introduced the idea of what he called “rebellion”. What he meant by that was an individual’s method of opposing the injustice we see in the absurd world. He elaborated on this idea in his book The Rebel: “The Rebel begins with the kind of revolt that rejects oppression and slavery, and protests against the world's injustice.” (All quotes from the link.) I think we get a verbal clue to this theme in Willow’s declaration: “I’m a rebel. I’m having a rebellion.” I think there are other clues as well, but those involve spoilers so I’ll mention them later.
What’s interesting about The Rebel, and what makes me see a connection between it and Gingerbread, is that Camus actually spends most of the book discussing the wrong way to rebel. There was a good historical reason for this emphasis. In 1951, when the book was published, the issue of Communism and revolution was a major political dispute. Camus hated the idea of revolution (and Communists demanded revolution), so he wanted to distinguish it from rebellion, which he considered the proper course for someone who recognized the absurdity of the world:
“In The Rebel Camus takes the further step [that is, beyond The Myth of Sisyphus], which occupies most of the book, of developing his notion of metaphysical and historical rebellion in opposition to the concept of revolution. Applying his philosophical themes directly to politics in the years immediately after the Liberation of France in 1944, Camus had already concluded that the Marxists, and especially Communists, were guilty of evading life's absurdity by aiming at a wholesale transformation of society, which must necessarily be violent.” My emphasis.

The difference for Camus was not that rebellion is individual and revolution involves many. It need not be that way. The difference, rather, is that rebellion accepts the absurdity of the world – which, per Camus, is inherent and cannot be changed – while revolution insists that absurdity can be overcome. There is an irresistible human impulse: “faced with absurdity and injustice, humans refuse to accept their existence and instead seek to remake the world.” That effort to remake the world is what revolution attempts to accomplish. It means that revolution functions like religion in Camus’ eyes – it’s an evasion of the actual state of the world.
“Revolution emerges when revolt seeks to ignore the limits built into human life. By an “inevitable logic of nihilism” Communism climaxes the modern trend to deify man and to transform and unify the world. Today's revolutions yield to the blind impulse, originally described in The Myth of Sisyphus, “to demand order in the midst of chaos, and unity in the very heart of the ephemeral”. As does the rebel who becomes a revolutionary who kills and then justifies murder as legitimate.”

Now let’s take a close look at Joyce’s reaction to the injustice she experiences (or thinks she does) when she discovers the bodies of the children. In the passage I quoted above, Joyce insists that Buffy can’t solve the problems through her individual efforts. Joyce proceeds to organize the adults of Sunnydale to remake the world, which is precisely the goal Camus rejected. Joyce and Sheila “demand order in the midst of chaos and unity in the heart of the ephemeral.” They become willing to justify murder as legitimate. In short, they become revolutionaries.
We can contrast Joyce with Buffy and Angel. When Buffy mentions her mother’s criticism to Angel, he gives her back an elaboration on the answer she gave him in Amends, and their dialogue demonstrates that they both understand and accept the absurdity of the world:
“Buffy: My mom... said some things to me about being the Slayer. That it's fruitless. (shakes her head) No fruit for Buffy. [Buffy’s striving is pointless]

Angel:  She's wrong.
Buffy:  Is she? Is Sunnydale any better than when I first came here? Okay, so I battle evil. But I don't really win. The bad keeps coming back and getting stronger. …[I keep having to roll that damn rock back up the hill]

Angel:  Buffy, you know, I'm still figuring things out. There's a lot I don't understand. But I do know it's important to keep fighting. I learned that from you. [She told him that on the hilltop]
Buffy:  But we never... [get the rock to the top of the damn hill]
Angel:  We never win.
Buffy:  Not completely. [Because that would remake the world into something it’s not]
Angel:  We never will. That's not why we fight [roll the rock up the hill]. We do it 'cause there's things worth fighting for.”

This conversation completes the journey which began in Lovers Walk with Angel reading La Nausee. He read there of the meaningless nature of the world, the kind of world we saw in The Wish. This realization led Angel to an existential crisis. The ending of The Wish explored one way out of the crisis, but it’s not a way that’s really available to Angel, him being a demon and all. In the throes of that crisis he contemplated suicide on the hilltop in Amends, where Buffy gave him the key to the existentialist answer and the miracle snow granted him the opportunity to walk down the hill, like Sisyphus, during which journey he could recognize that Buffy’s answer was right. Angel has now internalized, if I may coin a phrase, that if nothing we do matters, then the only thing that matters is what we do. Sisyphus and his rock.
Gingerbread makes certain that we know that Buffy knows it too. Unlike her mother, she accepts the absurdity of the world, which means that Buffy can still solve the problem her mother posed. Joyce tried a revolutionary response, but this not only failed, it was disastrously counterproductive and ended only when the monstrous nature of it was revealed (hey, look: a metaphor!). There is a different solution to the evils which plague mankind, but it’s one we won’t get until Buffy adopts it in Graduation Day 2. If you have a sneaking suspicion that I believe Camus is involved in that solution, there’s a clue in the speech Joyce gave after the Mayor.
Fairy tales are real. That’s not just absurd, it’s horrifying. Makes you wonder what, say, Red Riding Hood might look like in real life.
Trivia notes: (1) Snyder’s “I love the smell of desperate librarian in the morning” plays off the famous line from Apocalypse Now, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”. (2) Giles referred to the cops taking his books as “Marauders”. This may be a reference to the villains of the X-Men comics. (3) Jack traded in his cow for some magic beans in Jack and the Beanstalk. (4) Cordelia asked Giles how many times he’s been knocked out. By my count it’s now up to 10: Witch, Never Kill A Boy On The First Date, The Pack, Prophecy Girl, When She Was Bad, Passion, Becoming 1, Homecoming, Revelations, and Gingerbread. He was also shot with the tranquilizer gun in Beauty and the Beasts. (5) Hecate is a goddess associated with many things, among them witchcraft. (6) Diana was the goddess of, among other things, wild animals. Both goddesses were also invoked in Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered.

12 comments:

  1. What would a real life Red Riding Hood look like?

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/laura-prudom/once-upon-a-time-recap-re_b_1338281.html

    Like this.

    So sayeth Jane Espenson, so it shall be.

    If you haven't checked out Once Upon a Time on ABC, you should. It's pretty cool, slow to get started(I blame the extended 1st season) but halfway in it's really been heating up. Espenson writes and executive produces, and all kinds of Whedon alum have shown up, Emma Caulfield(criminally underused IMO) and Amy Acker(with the possibility to return, YAY!)

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    1. Shadowkat also liked last night's episode of Once, so perhaps I should give it a try.

      But maybe I think there are other ways that story might look. :)

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    2. Well, the story in question was incredible and riveting, with that wonderful bit of humor Espenson is so good at. Plus to top it all off, Granny is quite the badass.

      Haven't seen last night's ep yet, the Spawn and I always watch it together on Hulu on Monday or Tuesday night. I prefer to watch at my own pace, IOW I want to be able to pause but you gotta wait til the next day. Red's story was last week, my daughter is so engrossed and she is so good at picking up all of the small references, hints and misdirections, but then she was trained on Buffy. :D

      Last weeks ep finally started having movement on what I believe to be the overarching plot of the season after several weeks of coasting, so I am looking forward to it.

      And as for the other ways that story might look, to each their own, but I personally can't find much to complain about in Meghan Ory. Her makeup as Ruby was atrocious, but Red has a "natural" beauty. Honestly, the cast is about the best thing about it. It was hilarious for me, after several episodes of OUAT, finally watching Thor and discovering the sad and noble Prince Charming was also the dashing and carefree Fandral. If you're shallow and like that sort of thing.

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  2. BTW, I've been reading all your posts on Buffy, they've all been great.

    Unfortunately whatever I've felt like adding to the discussion has been coming out all rambly(witness above), but when I get my thoughts together, I'll go back.

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    1. Thanks. It's no problem at all to go back to earlier posts. If something strikes you, go ahead and put up a comment.

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  3. I noticed something kind of funny related to your points about revolution and Communists. If Joyce had gone with the more traditional naming scheme of "Mothers Against ______" rather than "Mothers Opposed to ______", the acronym would have been MAO rather than MOO.

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    1. I'll bet Joss wishes he'd thought of that. That would've been pretty funny.

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  4. This episode also reminds me of Camus' The Plague. We see hysteria over the communicability of dangerous ideas, some zealots capitalize on the panic, and there's even a rat. :)

    Oh, and I agree with the suggestion above about Once Upon a Time. I watched the whole season and found it well done. I watch Grimm too, but I like OUaT better. (Although, Fringe is my favorite prime time drama right now.)

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    1. Heh. You'll appreciate the essay on Graduation Day, then.

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    2. Hey, you're right! I just jumped ahead to see what you mean. I'll likely have some comments after reading it more thoroughly.

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  5. One thing that I like about this season is that, on the surface at least, it plays with ideas that may seem to the average adolescent: parents that care too little, parents that care too much, as well as more internal anxieties like the ones in (vague spoiler) The Zeppo and Earshot. However, as you clearly spell out here, it raises some pretty intense philosophical themes.

    I wonder if there's any connection between "Band Candy" and "Gingerbread," as they both require the teenagers to be the more reasonable people than the adults in order to save the day.

    Additionally, Buffy tells Willow, "this would have never happened if I had never-" and Cordelia interrupts. This further continues your analysis of "The Wish," as here Cordelia interrupts Buffy's thought that things would be better if she had never come to Sunnydale. Cordelia learned this first hand in "The Wish." Also in that episode, Buffy's arrival displaced Cordelia. Here, Cordelia displaces Buffy.

    Very cool the way you tie the episodes to Camus. I read "The Stranger" by him, and thought it was amazing. I'll have to revisit some of his work after completing this season, I guess.

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  6. I've said it before and I'll say it again the fact that the Scoobies realized that nobody actually knew the names of the kids who died is the best part of the episode and is possibly even more relevant today. people become so pumped to fight for a cause against a travesty that the people who suffered at the hands of that tragedy become meaningless. they're merely a poster child for your intentions. this episode might have issues but that is a valuable point (a little more than the sports treatment thing in Go Fish) that definitely says a lot more about society. plus it doesn't sink to terrible domestic abuse dialogue so I still wouldn't even call it the rest of THIS season.

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