Friday, February 29, 2008

Campbell's Misogynistic Soup

For those of you who don't have time to do all the assigned reading before tomorrow's class because you are too busy cruising Facebook, I present my conclusion, which in some circles is also known as an abstract:

Buffy: Tasty humanism with feminism on the side. Delicious and good for you!
Heroes: Joesph Campbell with diarrhea. Certainly grabs your attention, but ultimately the same old sh*t.

Buffy and Heroes fans please note there are spoilers ahead.

Heroes looks cool, sporting a manga-inspired aesthetic with Actual Japanese Characters speaking Actual Japanese, and it sounds like it's saying something profound about fate, power and individual responsibility, particularly in the lamentable early-season monologues by (surprise) the Indian Character speaking Actual Queen's English. And yes, it's entertaining, primarily because it works the cliff-hanger element so effectively that when a four-episode installment arrives from Netflix I sit down on the sofa and hit "play all" and don't get up for the next three hours. Intellectually, however, Heroes is what happens when someone puts Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces in the blender and mixes it up with a generous dollop of good old fashioned Freudian-style misogyny. Which might also make it a lot like most Hindi film, come to think of it, but we can forgive Bollywood because Shah Rukh Khan is hot.

We'll just ride right on by anything we might want to say about the two Japanese characters attempting to save New York from a nuclear blast (it's either really trite or really offensive; possibly it's both) and get right to the disturbing heart of Heroes, which seems to be the idea that all the problems in the world are your mother's fault, or, perhaps, The Mother's fault.

Skylar, the Arch-Villain of season one, was a humble watchmaker who simply longed to be "special." Upon learning that in fact he is not special in exactly the way that he was initially led to believe, Skylar embarks upon a campaign to steal and incorporate into his DNA the DNA of all the emerging Heroes, a process which involves removing their brains but, remarkably, no lab or lab equipment. What could have made Skylar so bitter and needy? Well, we learn in episode nineteen the obvious answer to the question: his pushy, overbearing mother, of course! In the scene carefully crafted to lend a little last-minute humanity and tragic gravitas to Our Villain, Skylar, who has temporarily abandoned his quest for brains to visit his mother, pleadingly asks Mom why she can't just accept him as "ordinary;" her reply is, of course, that she knows he could be so much more! And so, deprived of that vital maternal love, our Villain gets into an unfortunate scuffle with his mother, accidentally-on-purpose driving a pair of scissors through her heart, after which he has no choice but to return to his brain collecting ways, seeking the brain that will give him the capacity to generate nuclear blasts with his bare hands.

And then we have Nathan Petrelli, the compromised NYC politician running for Senate, largely manipulated, it seems, by the billionaire gangster Linderman. But wait! Linderman is not working alone after all. In the pivotal episode where Nathan decides that allowing a nuclear blast in New York is the only way to unite the world against the obvious threat that the mutant DNA humans with superpowers comprise to law-abiding humanity, it is none other than his calculating, all-knowing, perfectly and coldly manipulative mother who in another pivotal scene pushes him forward, convincing him that allowing the blast to happen is the Only Way to Unite Humanity, and that the eventual series of "coincidences" that will lead him to the White House will give him the chance to lead humanity in its War on Heroes (here the blender-esque element of the manipulation of symbols is particularly in evidence).

And then there's the only mother of a young child in the series, the split personality sexy assassin Jessica/nurturing non-violent Nikki. Jessica/Nikki's superpower was precipitated by both mutant DNA and the sexual abuse and murder of her sister (named, duh, Jessica) by their Father. So her superpower is linked to her sexuality, which pretty much destroys any hope of developing her as a full character: she's not an integrated, full personality but rather, two highly distilled aspects of femininity. In a pivotal scene, Linderman explains to Jessica/Nikki, her husband DL, and viewers at home that all women really want is security, and for Jessica, security means money. So Linderman offers Jessica/Nikki a lot of money to kill DL. Jessica/Nikki refuses; DL gets shot, kills Linderman with his superpower, and then, with his dying breath, assures Jessica/Nikki and viewers at home that the real powerful one is Nikki, the loving mother, not Jessica, the bad-ass black leather pants-wearing assassin. So there is hope for Nikki and DL's young superpower-wielding boy - he may be the lucky one to have the perfect super-human love of The Mother, Nikki. The world may be saved. But shouldn't we be a little disturbed that the "ideal" woman, the one who may save the world by being an inhumanly perfect loving, nurturing mother, derives from one half of a bifurcated feminine personality? Yes, we should.

Buffy, on the other hand, a show which creator Joss Whedon pitched and developed as a story of a female hero, is not a smarter and better meditation on power just because it's all about girls kicking ass and all the facile girl-power associations that go along with that image. Rather, it's better in part because Buffy's power, and indeed the power of all the characters, does not derive from sexuality; sex is used by Whedon to move characters and plots forward; sexuality builds both narrative and personality. Buffy is a hero in the satisfyingly cliched sense of that word: a fully-developed character, set apart, driven, possessed of a fatal flaw.

Buffy also kicks Heroes' ass because in its otherwise shaky final season, it actually manages to suggest that the notion of a hero as "one" is, as Buffy put it "something a bunch of men made up," and to propose an alternative paradigm. An episode of the final season describes the creation of the first slayer as the process by which men seeking protection from demons harness a demon and merge it with an unwilling girl, forging the first slayer. When that girl dies, a new slayer is called and given the power of the demon, and so on, until Buffy becomes the slayer. And so, with the help of the recovered witch Willow, in the series finale Buffy conceives of and executes the plan of making all the potential slayers of the world actual slayers, with Willow performing the advanced white magic necessary to take that demon force and make it communal, wielded by all potential slayers. Thus we see that a hero need not act alone - there is no reason that it has to be that way just because that's how "a bunch of men" originally decided to protect themselves from demons.

There's a revolutionary meditation on gender and power here: when Buffy takes a mystical journey to see the men who made the first slayer, they offer Buffy an extra helping of demon power to make her capable of fighting the extremely bad legions of demons who threaten apocalypse in the final season of the show. Buffy correctly recognizes this as something that will make her "less human," and she rejects it for this reason. Here Buffy rightly concludes that while men very well may think they need one super-human female to protect them from demons (this would be the fantasy or archetype of the Mother, obviously), neither she nor any woman should sacrifice their full and fully-developed humanity to be what "a bunch of men" think they need for protection. And so, at the end of Buffy, there are many slayers, not One, each developing her heroism as part of her fully realized humanity. Compare this to Heroes' valorization of Nikki as The Mother, not human at all but rather one half of a bifurcated caricature of two common, sexuality-derived tropes of femininity and female power. We can only conclude that there is no comparison.

Plus, with the glaring exception of the leather pants Buffy breaks out in season 6 (not to be confused with the leather pants she wore in Season 3 when she went to kill Faith - those were worn for symbolism rather than fashion), Buffy has better fashion sense.


Brittany said...

Are we forgetting the Season of the Awful Coats?

knitcrit said...

Fair enough, but can't all those coats (even the leopard print one)be forgiven when we consider the awesome jacket worn for the series finale?

Brittany said...


chelle said...

Gosh, and I just thought Heroes was fun. Now I might have to watch Buffy after all.

Ashley said...

Shah Rukh Khan IS hot.