S4’s Hush is widely acknowledged to be an awesome episode of Buffy. The acting is wonderful, the arc and writing are strong, and the non-verbal characterisation and communication are both brilliant. As villains, the Gentlemen are not only hugely creepy, but iconic – so much so that, as I was watching, I came to the belated realisation that two of Steven Moffat’s original monsters in Doctor Who, the Silence and the Whispermen, are inarguably Gentlemen knockoffs. (He’s even copied Whedon’s trick of the fake-creepy nursery rhyme to describe them.) It’s definitely one of the strongest episodes overall, and one that I still really like.
(You knew there’d be one.)
Two things really bothered me in this episode – jarringly so, because I’d never noticed them before, and because they were both unequivocally sexist.
Firstly, there’s the issue of Anya. Ever since she turned human in S3, something about her characterisation in general and her interactions with Xander in particular has been really bothering me, but it wasn’t until Hush that I was able to pin it down: she’s a sexist caricature. Though her directness, socially inappropriate behaviour and greed are all played as quirky demon-turns-human traits, they overwhelmingly manifest as exaggerated and stereotypically negative female behaviours. After going with Xander to prom, which constitutes their one and only date, she forms a disproportionately strong attachment to him, demanding to know about the state of their relationship and in all respects behaving like a clingy, obsessive stalker – which is played for laughs at her expense. Immediately after sleeping with Xander, she says ‘I’m over you’, then penalises him for expressing the same sentiment, thereby conforming to the stereotype of women who say the opposite of what they mean – which is played for laughs at her expense. And then, in Hush, when she once again asks Xander about their relationship, he turns to her and says, ‘You really did turn into a real girl, didn’t you?’ – confirming the fact that her commitment anxiety, irrational mood-swings, demands that Xander buy her things, and nagging, attention-seeking behaviour are not only deemed to be inherently feminine traits, but are also viewed as negative because they’re female. Which, as ever, is played for laughs at her expense.
And I just. This skeevs me out and pisses me off so much, because even though Anya develops into an awesome character, these basic elements of her personality are always there to some extent, and they’re invariably painted as grounds for someone to mock or laugh at her. There are plenty of ways to portray her misunderstanding of human convention that don’t hinge on exaggerated sexist stereotypes, and given that Xander – Xander, King of Nice Guys and Insecure Masculinity, whose issues I’ll be blogging about in the future – is the one who helps her grow into a Real Human by socialising and correcting her, frequently by belittling her in front of other people? This is a serious problem.
Secondly: this is the episode where Willow first meets Tara at her Wiccan group, whose other members are portrayed as being anti-magic and generally ignorant. And… OK. It’s potentially a very cool idea! But here’s where it doesn’t work for me: the Wiccan group, instead of being about magic, is very clearly shown to be a feminist, pro-sisterhood organisation – or at least, they are on paper. They talk about empowerment and getting the word out to the sisters, and when Willow brings up the idea of actual magic, she’s chided for buying in to negative stereotypes. So, feminism, yes?
Only, no. The girl who rebukes Willow does so very passive-aggressively, in a way that portrays no sisterhood at all. But her treatment of Tara is even worse: despite the fact that Tara is visibly shy and stutters when speaking, the Wiccan group-leader mocks her, calls for quiet so Tara can speak (which is clearly a silencing tactic, designed to make her back down – which she does) and expresses sarcastic amazement at the idea that Tara might have anything to contribute. It’s clear from the way this is done that she – and, indeed, the others, who laugh along with her – have a pre-existing dislike of Tara, though we’re not told why. And I get what this scene is meant to do: in the Buffyverse, magic really exists, so the idea of Wiccans who think it’s fake is obviously comic. But here, in the real world occupied by the audience, there’s no such thing as magic – so what we’re left with is a scene that not only mocks as ignorant an overtly feminist group, but portrays its members as catty and cruel. Which, I’m sorry, but no.
And lest someone make the argument that, well, not every episode in the season was written by Whedon personally, so obviously some sexism still squeaked through? No. Hush is written by Joss alone; and believe me, as uncritical a fan as I used to be of his stuff – and even though I still love the vast majority of it – man are there some serious issues with what he does. UGH.