Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Evil Dead... Lesbian Edition

In keeping with my theme of being as outdated as humanly possible on this blog, I finally read the Willow and Tara as Evil Dead Lesbians article by Stephen Booth (a man of mystery who is either a cricket player, a Berkley English professor, a crime writer, or some dude with a website and an opinion). The Abigail has been trying to get me to read this article for a while, but I've been too busy. Actually, I'm still too busy, but I finally read it anyway.

Booth's basic premise is that Tara's death in Season Six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a prime example of the evil/dead lesbian cliche. Apparently there's a long, shameful history of this in hollywood. Gay characters are generally introduced as weak, insane, and victims (or some combination of the three). In older works, the message was that homosexuality is bad and will lead to your destruction, while in some newer films, it's more a matter of token gay characters being introduced and then killed off because their sexuality (in the eyes of the authors) stops them from becoming major characters with wide appeal. Culminating their affections with physical sex tends to lead to the death of one or both partners. Booth cites a huge list of films which feature (or even center on) this plot device. I won't reproduce it here - read it for yourself - and suffice it to say that I am basically convinced. Booth goes on to say that Whedon's decision to kill off Tara was hurtful and unnecessary, bad for the show and for people who idealized it, and reveals secret and/or unconscious bigotry or a tendency to fall prey to the allure of the ratings stunt.

Booth also condemns my favorite scene in Buffy - the Yellow Crayon Speech - as just a man saving the world from the "crazy lesbian." That I can't forgive. The Yellow Crayon Speech will live on in my heart as a perfect literary moment. I don't cry at television shows often, but the Yellow Crayon Speech made me seriously moist.

In every other way, however, Booth is pretty much right.

I don't think Joss Whedon is a bigot, but as I've said before (and will say again) I do think he's kind of lazy. A lot of his world building is pretty suspect, from Buffy's schizophrenic attitude about what it means to have a soul to the inconsistent motifs of Firefly and Serenity. Sometimes this laziness manifests in ways that are racially charged, like how the supposedly chinese-dominated future of Firefly lacked asian main characters for no good reason or how nonwhite Actives in Dollhouse are vanishingly rare and never more than secondary characters. Or, for that matter, how Buffy's Sunnydale, supposedly a Southern California town, contained few blacks and no latinos. And at least once, as in Buffy, this laziness manifested in a abrupt descent into a deplorable homophobic cliche.

The Abigail is strident about this, and over the years I've come to agree: when you write for adolescents, you have a responsibility to help them grow. I'm not going to talk about how to help them grow. Someone who writes Christian young adult novels about the evils of sex and spiritual experimentation has as much a responsibility as someone who writes sex-positive pagan propaganda; the difference is only one of content and point of view. The only sin that I'm willing to condemn here is laziness. Kids are all our responsibility, and cash cows, rating stunts, and unwitting anything has no place in fiction created for their consumption. Sell your ideas and let adolescents decide who to follow, but don't abuse your audience.

I won't go to far in decrying Whedon's laziness, however, because when push comes to shove I still like his work. After this post is done, after all, I'm going to take a nap - because I'm a teacher and therefore the first to be infected with whatever terrible disease is sweeping through Oakland this flu-and-cold season - and then watch the latest episode of Dollhouse. I sometimes just wish the man would pay a little more attention.

Anyway, read the Booth article. It's long, but you won't regret it.

* * *

  • Bitch session: what laziness have you noted in Whedon's world-building, character-developing, and word-writing?
  • Bitch at session: where have you seen Whedon be absolutely brilliant? Let me know (and be sure to tell me I'm a bad person for forgetting it)!
  • The Yellow Crayon Speech really was perfect, wasn't it? How depraved do you have to be to criticize it in the slightest?
  • Remember, I'm still taking suggestions about which of my two competing ideas to pursue this NaNoWriMo. Check my last post to read (highly imperfect) synopses and comment with your opinions.

8 comments:

Nick Pilon said...

You missed what I consider Whedon's most objectionable case of lazy writing: the ending of Dr. Horrible. It was entirely predictable and cliched.

Mark said...

I'm not sure I'm with you 100% on that one. On the one hand, it was quite cliched: "pretty girl dies, boo hoo, tragedy tragedy." I do see your point.

On the other hand, Dr. Horrible's descent from mild unpleasantness to true, real, darkness was fascinating.

While the ending was predictable... it also wasn't. Sure, everyone knows the pretty girl is going to die, but do people really die in cute musical videoblog poking fun at super heroes? Not really. I didn't... except for the fact that it was Whedon, who always does this sort of thing.

If anything, what was predictable about it the very premise. The story that pokes fun at superheroes by pointing out their foibles is what's overdone. Reversing that trope at the end by killing the pretty girl was...

Well you're right. It was predictable. Because we all know that Whedon is going to kill someone at the end.

Al Bruno III said...

I'm not sure how I feel about the whole Evil Dead Lesbian thing.

In interviews Joss has said he planned to bring Tara back to life but Amber decided to keep the character dead.

And it isn't as though Joss hasn't wreaked havoc on each of the protagonists' love lives over the course of the series. In fact the one thing about Buffy is that no one was allowed to have a happy ending.

I do believe you can have a happy love story and still have a great adventure series - The love stories within of Babylon 5 and Farscape really meant a lot to me.

As a writer I do have to wonder if the kind of complaint voiced in this essay means that writers should second guess themselves. Should only WASPs be bad guys or doomed protagonists for fear of upsetting someone?

I don't know truthfully - I do feel however that when the show lost Amber Benson it lost something special.

Scattercat said...

I rather thought that Tara died because she and Willow were the only happy couple left in the show. I think interpreting this as the "Evil Gay" meme is wrong-headed, though "lazy" is possibly a good descriptor. Joss Whedon doesn't seem to be particularly stuck on standard sexuality memes, but he DOES have a real hate-on for happy relationships. Go ahead. Name me a Joss Whedon piece that ends with at least one character in a committed, stable relationship with another.

I'll wait.

You can criticize Tara's death as being lazy writing, going for the easy tragedy, whatever, but it really really wasn't some kind of latent anti-homosexual message. Reading that into it sounds kind of shrill. I mean, for pity's sake, it was a three-season-long romance that budded from confused hesitant uncertainty and sexual identity crises into the shows primary model for stable commitment. Tara and Willow were "Mom and Mom" in the Buffy-house for a long time, with Buffy being pretty much Working Single Parent personified and Giles playing at Absentee Dad.

(Ironically, I was prevented from reading this update for the past week because the hotel's computer claimed "lesbian" was an evil and bad word and I should be protected from viewing anything related to "lesbian." I maintain this is probably not Joss Whedon's fault.)

Stephen Booth said...

Add misguided to outdated. It's my site but I didn't write the article, I'm hosting it for the original authors (it was a collaborative piece by a number of people). The first paragraph explains the provenance of the piece.

The rest of the site gives more information about me, including my Livejournal blog and my Curriculum Vitae.

Tim Brannan said...

Thank you for posting this to your blog. It has been years since we (the Kittens) have had to delve into topic, but it is something we did and do feel very, very strongly about.

A few points to make:

1. As Mr. Booth pointed out above he did not write it, it was written by the members of the Kitten board after Tara's death. You can see the original with discussion and an apology by Steven DeKnight here:
http://thekittenboard.com/board/viewtopic.php?t=2539
Read the entire thread, it is old and the anger is raw but it says a lot.

2. Amber Benson was not asked to come as a live Tara.

Please let me repeat that.

Amber Benson was not asked to come back as a live Tara.

I worked with her on Ghosts of Albion and she was never asked to come back as a live Tara (she was asked to come back as a First Tara) and no contract was ever drawn up to have her come back. I will say this very plainly; Whedon lied.

3. Even if she did come back it does not invalidate the message of "have same sex relations you are doomed to die." That is the message Whedon sent. Intentional or not that is what happened.

4. The Yellow Crayon speech stands for most Willow and Tara fans as the single lowest point in the show. The message is "you don't need the woman you loved, there is a man here to save you". It might be hard for some to see it that way, but I have spent YEARS with this topic in particular to know it is true.
You don't have to be depraved to see that, you simply need to be told your entire life you are inferior and then see someone like yourself murdered on screen for a money shot.
As a straight male, i saw the speech as rubbish, ham handed and frankly insulting to the character of Willow. I stopped watching Buffy then and I have never once watched another episode.

As for what writers should do, please read the essay by former "You Can't Do That on Television" writer and current YA author Robert Black, "It's Not Homophobia, But That Doesn't Make It Right"
The original is posted in the same thread as listed above.

Mark said...

Thank you for posting this to your blog. It has been years since we (the Kittens) have had to delve into topic, but it is something we did and do feel very, very strongly about.

This is the Burning Zeppelin, where we're always happy to dredge up old pain! But seriously, I'm very happy to bring up an issue you feel strongly about and I'm glad you took the time to comment.

You've got me on a few points, but there are also a few where I disagree with you.

1. As Mr. Booth pointed out above he did not write it, it was written by the members of the Kitten board after Tara's death...

Thanks for the link! I hope my readers follow it, and I will, too, when time permits.

2. Amber Benson was not asked to come as a live Tara.... Whedon lied.

Good point.


3. Even if she did come back it does not invalidate the message of "have same sex relations you are doomed to die." That is the message Whedon sent. Intentional or not that is what happened.

True again.

4. The Yellow Crayon speech stands for most Willow and Tara fans as the single lowest point in the show. The message is "you don't need the woman you loved, there is a man here to save you". It might be hard for some to see it that way, but I have spent YEARS with this topic in particular to know it is true.

You don't have to be depraved to see that, you simply need to be told your entire life you are inferior and then see someone like yourself murdered on screen for a money shot.

As a straight male, i saw the speech as rubbish, ham handed and frankly insulting to the character of Willow. I stopped watching Buffy then and I have never once watched another episode.


If Willow had abandoned her gay identity after that point and gone off to have happy, plot-rewarded heterosexual sex with, say, Xander, I would agree with you here. In my opinion, however, Xander's heterosexuality and maleness don't come into this scene. Xander and Willow's long-term friendship and history are contextualized by the entire series so far. Having Xander talk Willow down from her apocalyptic intentions makes sense. In my mind, the yellow crayon speech is about love - not necessarily romantic love, but love nonetheless - and not about sex, sexuality, or romance.

So, I guess, to turn around what you said, the message isn't "you don't need the woman you loved, there is a man here to save you," but rather "you don't need your romantic partner - and you don't need your self-destructive rage - because your friend is here to love you." I won't insist that my interpretation is the sole interpretation of that scene, but I will argue that anyone who has ever lived through the loss of an important relationship can see how that's a valuable lesson.

Tim Brannan said...

Haha and thanks for the comment back.

Old pain. Yeah that about explains it. But you can see all of that at the link I gave. The pain and emotions were still rther raw then.

Ok, let get to the meat of the matter.

I think age has mellowed me a bit. I can see your point. Xander as Willow's best friend talking her down.
It does not have a fraction of the emotional impact to me as it does for you (obviously), but I am prepared to say that you very well have a point here.

Still I think we agree on the vast majority of what you have to say. I just wish I had been following your blog back when posted this.

But you have prompted me to post something about this to my own blog, I just want to come to it from a new direction.