Sunday, August 7, 2011

Do We Read Too Much Into Our Entertainment?

The first day of my Intro to Sociology class, my professor warned us that we'd never see our entertainment the same way. For better or worse, she was right.

When you're consumed by social consciousness and academic theory, as I am, it's sometimes difficult to kick back and enjoy media without tearing it to pieces. Sometimes, admittedly, it deserves to be torn apart. But what if it doesn't, and we do it anyway?

I've been re-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I love that show, but, like all shows, I tend to analyze it. Maybe it makes it harder to stop because it's supposed to be ultra-feminist, which leads me to scrutinize it more heavily than shows that don't lay that claim. When you put something on a pedestal, it becomes very easy to knock it down.

Frankly, I'm sick of doing that. There was a time when I was able to analyze shows critically and yet still enjoy them. I was able to recognize that nothing is as simple as we like to make it.

I suppose it's timely that I re-watched the end of Season 6 last night and read Em McAvan's “I Think I’m Kinda Gay”: Willow Rosenberg and the Absent/Present Bisexual in Buffy the Vampire Slayer this morning.

A lot has been said about the way magic in the series was both a metaphor for lesbianism and magic. And a lot has been made of the fact that Willow turned evil following Tara's death.

But as a writer of fiction as well as a feminist academic, I'd like to pose the question: When is it okay just to try to tell a good story?

There are times when I, as a writer, want to make a social impact. I want to weave social consciousness into my stories and make people think. But other times, I'm not thinking like an academic. I just want to be creative and tell an interesting story.

In McAvan's notes, she writes "Bodger, on the other hand, suggests that magic is “a metaphor for female deviancy in the series. It comes to represent both the lesbian relationship between Willow and Tara, and later Willow's (and by extension woman's) inability to handle power as she becomes 'addicted' to magic in a sustained witchcraft/drug analogy.”"

Is this the case? Perhaps it is a metaphor for female deviancy. But does this metaphor universally insist that said female deviancy is wrong?

Willow and Tara's relationship was handled beautifully. It was never suggested that this deviancy was destructive. I'd argue that a reading of Tara's death that suggests that her lesbianism was her downfall ignores the broader context of the Whedonverse, in which characters are prone to dying just as they've entered a much anticipated relationship--gay or straight. It's a great way to rip the viewer's heart out, and does so effectively, but I don't believe it is or was meant as more.

And should the fact that Willow's magic elevates her to a (good) goddess-like level in the series finale change Bodger's reading of Willow's addiction to magic as female inability to handle power? Could we read Willow's addiction not as a warning to women about obtaining power, but as a more generalized, gender-non-specific comment on the dangers of the abuses of power?

Moreover, is it even fair to read the two metaphors of magic (lesbianism and addiction) as being part of the same thread? For instance, does it suggest that lesbianism is dangerous and addictive?

I believe that would be a stretch. Was it was ill-advised to change metaphors mid-way through the show when magic had originally stood for positive female sexual deviance? Perhaps, simply because of societal context. But, by the same token, could we just as easily read it as a plot device? A simple change in the metaphoric meaning of a supernatural phenomenon to fit and drive forward a plot?

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