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(Meta) It's About Power

14th June 2007 (14:47)
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I used to think Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a metaphor about growing up. It’s now becoming increasingly clear to me that it's (also) about something else:

WILLOW: I get it now. The Slayer thing really isn't about the violence. It's about the power. ('Two To Go')

BUFFY: It's about power. Who's got it... who knows how to use it. ('Lessons')

THE FIRST: You still don't get it. It's not about right. It's not about wrong. It's about power. ('Lessons')

AMY: This isn't about hate. It's about power. ('The Killer In Me')

When the show repeats a message so often, I think it may be trying to tell us something. :-)  This essay is a look at the theme of power throughout its run. In particular, it shows how season 8 fits into the overall picture but gives us a new angle on it. I also hope to demonstrate how the villains of 'The Long Way Home' fit within this scheme, and how they hold up a disturbing mirror to our heroes...


For many viewers, 'power' codes as something negative. Authority must be opposed or avoided. Some people even claim that the emphasis on power in the show’s later seasons is evidence of its growing fascist tendencies (!). The fake-out at the end of ‘The Long Way Home’, where Buffy sees that General Voll is older, male and military and therefore immediately leaps to the conclusion that he’s opposed to her because he’s a representative of the Patriarchy, is an amusing comment on this view. However, General Voll quickly disabuses her of that notion.  The show’s views on power are more nuanced than that, and change as the show develops and our characters grow up.



Early on, when Buffy and her friends are still children, authority is an outside force: it represents the grown-up world that she is not yet part of. Sometimes this authority is, if not an actual enemy, still presented as an opponent: Principal Snyder in her mundane life, the Watchers’ Council on the supernatural side.  Even the more benevolent authority figures like Giles or her mother are often misguided and foolish; like the heroes of any children’s story, Buffy and Co must find ways to subvert or manipulate their parents in order to save the world.

 

As the Scoobies recognise their own power – symbolic of their coming of age - it's seen as the way they can now challenge the power of others and be themselves. It’s still an anti-authority message. In case of Buffy, that's generally presented as being a good thing, although not without consequences; it’s part of the growing up metaphor.

BUFFY: No review. No interrogation, no questions you know I can't answer, no hoops, no jumps...and no interruptions. See, I've had a lot of people talking at me, last few days. People just lining up to tell me how unimportant I am. And I finally figured out why. Power. I have it. They don't. This bothers them. ('Checkpoint')

Y'know, on the screen that's a really strong scene; but reading the words written down, it comes across as just a little teenage. "I'm powerful now, you can't make me!" That impression, of course, is even stronger once we turn to Willow. By season 6, she's all grown up and has started calling Giles by his first name, just to emphasise that they're (at least) equals now in her mind, and she doesn’t have to listen to his boring words about caution and responsibility any more.

By season 7, the emphasis has shifted again. Willow’s learned a little humility and maturity. As for Buffy, she’s not just defying authority; she's trying to become the authority herself, to be a leader. Perhaps because she hasn't had very good role models all her life, she's not very good at it. She cuts herself off emotionally, tries to be ruthless. All this is still giving the impression that power isn't a particularly good thing to have: it's just necessary to defeat the First. Buffy is bullying Willow into using her magic and bullying Spike into becoming a killer again because she has to, not because she thinks it's right.

All that seems to be reversed by the outcome of 'Chosen'. The new message is that power isn't wrong in itself, it's how it's used. Sharing power, enabling others, freeing other people to reach their own true Potential – these are noble actions.

Or are they? Plenty of people have objected to the apparent lack of consent involved in Willow's spell in Chosen. Fanfic where someone becomes a Slayer and accidentally misuses her unexpected strength to kill someone is a perennial favourite; and a few people mutter darkly about rape metaphors. Now, there’s an argument to be made that Willow’s spell would only affect those able to bear its burden (“Every girl who can stand up, will stand up”). Contrariwise, if becoming a Slayer is a metaphor for a child attaining adulthood, then a lack of choice is appropriate: try as you might, nobody can stay a child forever. It’s not attaining maturity, but what you do next, which is the moral issue.

Even so, Buffy and Willow's action in 'Chosen' is reminiscent of Buffy's actions in 'Get It Done' – they are forcing people to ‘act their age’ for their own good. And that's morally problematic, and seems to be the issue that season 8 wants to address.



As 'The Long Way Home' opens, we see clearly that Buffy has grown into her leadership role. (This is a good example of how the comics show us things instead of just telling us them, incidentally.) We watch Buffy lead her troops into battle, supervise a training session, interact with them. We see how they talk about her when she's not there. She's comfortable with them; knows their names, jokes with them, borrows their lip gloss. More importantly she understands their strengths and weaknesses, recognises the importance of good morale, and thinks about the best ways to maintain it ("Their first victims. Gotta get 'em past it."). However, she's not pally with them, the way Xander tries to be: she's the authority figure in their lives, and keeps a little distance from them. Both Giles and Xander present her in her absence as the role model, the one who's ultimately in charge.

In other words, Buffy has accepted her power, and is willing to use it. She's grown up. Her strength isn't used to challenge authority, but to be the authority, and use her powers for good.

Except that not everyone sees it like that.

GENERAL VOLL: God help us, if you win then you'll decide the world still isn't the way you want it and the demon in you will say just one thing: 'Slay!'

The danger here is not so much that those in authority will misuse their power. We know Buffy, we know how honourable and self-controlled she is even if the General doesn't. The real threat is that they'll use it in 'our own best interests', without actually asking us if that's OK. By trying to help us, they'll deprotagonise us, reduce us to children ourselves. Make the decisions and deal with the darkness so we don't have to.

With this as the theme, the choice of villains for 'The Long Way Home' suddenly makes sense. After all, Amy Madison probably doesn't think of herself as evil - certainly she never used to. She was once Willow's friend, and in many ways stands as Willow's dark shadow. Faced with similar choices, Willow looked where the path would take her and chose - at the very last minute, granted - to turn away. Amy closed her eyes and jumped straight in. In Willow's words, Amy is "As self-involved as your mom was." She only thinks about herself, and sees other people as playthings for her amusement. She's always used her power for selfish ends. Consider her past:

In 'Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered' she's using mind control or illusion spells on a teacher to get out of doing her homework. She helps Xander, but not willingly - he blackmails her into it; and of course her spell involves playing with people's minds and turning them into helpless love-puppets. Arguably, it's more harmful, if less of an intimate betrayal, than what Willow did to Tara in 'All The Way' and 'Tabula Rasa'.

In 'Gingerbread', when she, Willow and Buffy are being burned at the stake, she uses her magic in an attempt to escape. You'll note that she makes no effort to save the other two: she changes into a rat and makes her own getaway, abandoning them to burn. It's possibly karmic justice that she then ends up stuck as a rat for the next three years.

In 'Smashed', the newly de-ratted Amy can't be bothered to go see her father (who, remember, hasn't seen his daughter in three years). She thinks that would be boring. Instead she manipulates a reluctant Willow to go out clubbing with her. And then, almost her first action is to use a mind control spell on an unwilling victim to make her sexually interested in her companion. Hey, isn't that almost exactly the thing Warren did to Katrina in 'Dead Things'? Maybe Amy and Warren have something in common after all...  After which, Amy goes on a rampage of using her magic to transform and manipulate other people, just for fun, and Willow follows her example readily enough.

In 'Wrecked', Amy continues to lead Willow down the path to perdition. Her final appearance in season 6 is in 'Doublemeat Palace', and although it's a short scene it's a significant one for our theme.

AMY: So this is it, huh? This is gonna be your life from now on? But you're never gonna do it again.
Ever. You're never gonna feel how it made you feel... Hey, Will. It's your birthday... It's a gift. It's magic and it didn't come from you. It came from me. Completely legal. Enjoy.

Here we have Amy meddling with other people's lives again, messing them up... and expecting them to be grateful. Mind you, I'm honestly unclear whether she really believes that she's doing Willow a favour, or if she's being deliberately malicious. Maybe both at once. She wants to shake Willow up - and is probably resentful of her turning away from her after the events of ‘Wrecked’ - but perhaps also feels that Willow would be a lot happier if she forgot this "giving up magic" stuff.

Now compare that to the Slayer Empowerment spell at the end of 'Chosen'. Just like Amy in 'Doublemeat Palace', Willow is giving an overwhelming dose of power to a bunch of other girls, without asking them first or explaining what will happen. Of course, we can argue that Willow had totally different motives; and I think it makes a big difference that the first concern she and Buffy had after the closing of the Hellmouth was to find the people affected by the spell and help them come to terms with it. Even so, to an outsider looking in the similarities between the two are damning. They're both playing with other people's lives without their consent, for an objective they see as a good thing and therefore worth the cost.

Season 8 has another good example of this: Amy's 'rescue' of Warren. (Warren himself being a good example of a character who's completely self-absorbed, incidentally. Although by the end of his season 6 arc he's started seeing himself as playing on the Evil team, hanging around in demon bars and so on, he didn't start out that way. He was just using his powers - technological rather than magical - to serve his own self-indulgent whims without caring too much about the people (and robots) he violated doing so. Just like Amy, in other words.)

It's clear that Warren himself is grateful for his 'rescue', and sees it as nothing but a good thing:

WARREN: If Amy hadn't been watching you, she would never have started watching me. Watching over me. [...] This is the girl.

A more objective observer might speculate that being reduced to a hideous, dripping, shambling monstrosity that horrifies anyone who casts eyes on him is not altogether of the good. As I've observed before, Warren's rambling, disjointed speech patterns also suggest that he's either insane, in constant pain, or maybe both. Amy stepped in and 'saved' him - not necessarily, at this stage, because she wanted to spend the rest of her life with him, but because she knew it would mess with Willow's mind. She may even believe that she was doing Warren a favour - or she may be just using him. We don't know yet. Either way, to an outside observer the implication is interesting. Amy saved Warren's life (sort of) when he was about to be incinerated by an evil witch. That makes her a hero, surely? Just like Buffy...

But she's not the only example of someone interfering in someone else's life "for their own good". Nope. We've got Ethan. He's rummaging around in Buffy's brain, prying into her deepest secrets and hidden sexual fantasies, and she feels violated and nauseous at the thought of it. But he's not doing it to hurt her; he's not even doing it for his own self-gratification, although I won't deny that his motives are ultimately selfish. Like Spike in 'Becoming' whom he so resembles here, he's willing to ally with Buffy to beat the bad guys because doing so will be of direct benefit to him. Even so, it can't be denied that he's acting as a force for good in this episode. Nor can it be denied that in doing so, he's still acting in Buffy's best interests without her consent or approval. Just like Buffy is acting in humanity's best interests without our consent or approval...

On a side-issue, if Amy is Willow's dark shadow, Ethan is Giles's. Both pairs come from a similar background, have similar powers and abilities, and were faced by the same temptations; but while Willow and Giles chose one path, Amy and Ethan were self-absorbed and selfish enough to choose the other. Of course, the question is, are such choices irrevocable? (Well, Ethan's is now, since it's difficult to seek redemption with a bullet through your head). The answer seems to be no they're not (except in Ethan's case, of course)... after all, Buffy had a dark shadow of her own, someone who was to her what Amy was to Willow and Ethan to Giles… but she’s now back on the good team and getting her very own multi-issue comic arc in three months' time.  (I was tempted to continue the analogy with Xander and Warren, but despite their shared geekdom they're not really parallel. If Xander has a dark shadow at all, it's Andrew - who's not particularly dark or shadowy, more of a mirror reflecting whatever's next to him).

In conclusion, Buffy is no longer fighting against authority; she is authority. That's not a bad thing; without the power to change the world, goodwill and the best intentions are useless. The problem is, do we have a moral right to affect other people's lives without their consent? Even if we honestly believe we're acting in their own best interests?

Or does that make us as bad as the people we're fighting?

Comments

Posted by: Beer Good (beer_good_foamy)
Posted at: 26th June 2007 18:30 (UTC)

Finally got around to reading this, and it's excellent as always. You bring up the good ideas of s8 - which is always commendable, as clunkily told as they are. ;-) You do have a point about Amy and Warren, though I'd argue it's not the only point that could be made about them, and that they're far from the only way to make that point...

Here's a question (which may have come up in other comments, I didn't have time to do more than skim those) and which blueanddollsome pointed out to me: Doesn't Voll sound a LOT like Mal Reynolds in Serenity (assuming you're familiar with Firefly)?

MAL: Sure as I know anything, I know this - they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten? They'll swing back to the belief that they can make people... better. And I do not hold to that. So no more runnin'. I aim to misbehave.

VOLL: God help us, if you win then you'll decide the world still isn't the way you want it and the demon in you will say just one thing: 'Slay!' We're not waiting for that to happen. We will wipe you out. Not just monsters anymore. It's you against the world. You're at war with the human race.

Both Whedonverses follow the same structure here, with shadowmen and power that is given for one purpose and used for another. The evil powers-that-be (as opposed to the actual PTB) turn a girl (Buffy/River) into a powerful tool for their needs, girl revolts and uses powers for better purposes, ptb try to make her fall in line, girl and her friends fight back, discover a big secret (scythe/Miranda) and overturn everything. Yet Firefly takes a different approach; anarchic where BtVS ends up being socialist (in the widest of terms). Mal and the general sound alike (and I'm wondering if Joss realizes just how MUCH alike) because they are both refusing to be corrupted, yet we'd brand the one the hero and the other the villain. There's something to be made of this, methinks... Hmmm...

Here's an idea. The basic difference between the hero's and the villain's viewpoint here is: mankind is fucked up vs mankind is good as it is. Whether it's a question of making the best with what we've got to influence those around us as opposed to viciously guarding what we have from outside influences. A dynamic vs a static viewpoint, if you will.

Should probably have thought this through. Now I don't know where I'm going. Oh well.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 27th June 2007 09:03 (UTC)

I definitely think we're supposed to wonder whether Voll or Buffy are really the villain here. Or at least - we have privileged insight into Buffy's inner thought processes and we know her history, but to an outsider who doesn't have that level of access, it would be a genuine question. As far as Twilight's concerned, they're defending humanity against a self-elected elite of demonic-powered killing machines.

The parallels with Firefly are interesting, although I'd not really considered the specific link between Voll and Mal. Although in that context, it's worth saying that Joss has said that if he met Malcolm Reynolds in real life, he'd probably hate him and detest his politics.

ETA: found the actual Joss quote:
"Mal was supposed to be the hero, but in the loosest sense of the word, everything a hero is not, and everything by the way that my hero is not, because he's something of a reactionary, he's a conservative kind of Libertarian guy. I've often said that if Mal and I sat down to dinner, we'd have a terrible time. I don't actually agree with most of what he says, but he's the person who has to be unutterably tough and sometimes cruel in order to survive, and that to me is a fascinating character, whether or not we'd get along."

- so from that perspective, a parallel between Mal and Voll is a good one, even if it seems unlikely that an army general would be a libertarian...

Posted by: chianazhaan (chianazhaan)
Posted at: 13th July 2011 13:54 (UTC)
Doesn't Voll sound a LOT like Mal Reynolds in Firefly/Serenity

I can see the similarity. But Mal fights to get the truth out. Voll just goes directly to the genocide option.

So long term, Voll has a point. What happens when none of the slayers alive remember what it was like to have only one slayer in the world. It doesn't take much. Buffy, Faith and the Sunnydale slayers die and the world is left with stories. Stories that will change over time. One charismatic slayer later and anything could happen.

But I don't need someone like Voll to be reminded about that possibility. Just the opposite in fact.

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