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.

But.

(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.

Comments
  1. T.L. Bodine says:

    Perhaps I have a difficult time getting too worked up about these issues because in both cases, they feel real to me. I’m not saying that *every* woman acts like Anya or *every* feminist space is like that Wiccan group — but I have met people exactly like both of those things. It reads authentic, true to those characters.

    • fozmeadows says:

      I’m not saying it’s unrealistic; I’m saying that the decision to include those tropes/depictions uncritically in the narrative is problematic, especially from a writer who both identifies and is praised as a feminist.

  2. Foxessa says:

    Partly this particular problem with Anya as a character is that nobody writing knew how much of Anya was going to be in the series. Nobody even knew if there was going to be another season. It’s not like writing a serial novel for the newspaper or a magazine like Dickens did: when you published the work as a novel, you could dash backwards and connect dots and correct detours and so on (though how much Dickens, for instance did that I’m not sure — but there are academics who have studied this via microscopic examinations of the serial publications and the three part novel publications, but I’ve never had the patience to dig into that).

    Under the circumstances Anya’s character got lots of redemption(s) along the way. Yeah, she goes under in the Final Real For Good Apocalypse, and Xander’s almost patronizing eulugy, “That’s my girl,” grates. He left “My Girl” at the altar for pete’s sake!

  3. Willow Wood says:

    Very interesting points raised here. I haven’t watched Buffy in years but this will be something the think about if I ever look at it again. I always think of it fondly and as having well represented characters, but that could be my rose-tinted glasses. All your points seem obvious now that they’re mentioned, and that upsets me – I may have to revaluate some of my perceptions of Buffy. Thank you for posting this.

    • I think Joss Whedon an interesting writer with regards to female characters, who does things *generally* pretty well in the broad strokes, but can and does do things that are really, really problematic on a micro level. This also applies to his treatment of queer characters as well, which is something that I kind of want to write about myself.

      For example, it’s great that Buffy and other female characters get to have sexual agency, but am I the only one who thinks Buffy sometimes gets punished a bit too much for having sex? I mean I can see the story about Angel turning into Angelus being an expression of how certain men exist who will act all charming and whatnot and then run off/turn evil once they manage to sleep with the person their chasing. And this creates some great storytelling down the road. But the episode where Buffy and Riley get addicted to sex and Bad Things Happen? Come on! I mean my perspective could be based on my opinion that Riley was the worst thing to happen, ever but that episode just bothered me.

      • //”but am I the only one who thinks Buffy sometimes gets punished a bit too much for having sex?”//

        Very much NO. I don’t know much about WordPress fandom but I can provide links to some interesting past discussions on the matter on LJ (where I mostly hang out.) Gabrielleabelle’s meta “Buffy’s bad sex life” is a great summation of the issue. It’s actually become an active topic of conversation (or complaint) again because of the treatment of Buffy and Dawn’s bodily autonomy in the comics (which I don’t recommend reading if you haven’t already.)

        basically that issue has been clearly identified, and is part of what keeps Joss from being the “feminist” that he wants to be. His fear of female sexuality (probably unconscious) is entirely engrained in our Judeo-Christian culture and he hasn’t examined it all the way through.

        At the end, Buffy ends up in a “chaste” relationship; she starts the series as a literal virgin and ends up a symbolic one. the message is still – good girls don’t. Or shouldn’t. Faith gets more of a pass for her sexuality; but Joyce dies after the only date she has in the series and the FIRST TIME in the series she’s expressed her sexuality of her own free will (not drugged or bespelled); Jenny is more sexually assertive than Giles and initially pursues him, then ends up dead in Giles’ bed; Tara – we all know about that. Darla ends up staking herself in AtS to give birth to Angel’s baby. (Don’t even want to think about that.) The stereotype of Anya and the way her frank sexual expression is played for laughs and as something that must be tamed, fits with her death – the only character at the end who isn’t allowed to embrace her “demon side” and become whole. She’s constantly shamed and belittled.

        the one character I’d single out off the top of my head is Drusilla, who never gets a “complete” arc of her own but is never “tamed” either.

  4. ERose says:

    I would agree that Anya’s character only becomes less problematic when considered over time – especially given the marked difference in treatment between her and Cordelia. Cordelia had a similar personality in broad terms, but her flaws were in many ways part of her strengths, which made her hard to dismiss, where Anya’s were usually pretty basic punchlines. Every other character was forced to learn and grow by confronting their assumptions about Cordelia, especially Xander.

    You kind of get the impression that you’re supposed to dismiss Anya for a worryingly large percentage of her time in the show, shown partly by the ways the other characters are allowed to treat her and talk about her without questioning it. You never really see Buffy or Willow or even Tara do more than tolerate her and coexist. And yes, the things that we are supposed to dismiss her for are those elements of her personality that amount to a sexist trope.

    I bring up the contrast because it seems especially inexcusable in light of the fact that the same writers did a rather good job (in my opinion) of making some of the same character traits and flaws part of a far more real and nuanced female character.

  5. Great observations and I really can’t think of anything intelligent to add except “yes” on both counts. the way that Anya’s assertive sexual expression – something that men take as their right and due – is constantly belittled is troubling, especially coming from a creator who calls himself a “feminist”. I think Joss is still a product of his culture and judging from the evidence deeply uncomfortable with female bodies and sexuality. the failure to deal with that core issues compromises his “feminist” deeply.

    And total agreement on your observations re: the Wiccan group. I did dabble in Wicca a bit in college – the idea of The Divine Female was revolutionary to me at the time (the ’90’s) and the people I met involved in it were some of the kindest people I’ve ever known. That scene dismisses a movement (feminist theology) that’s been very important to a lot of women and men;

    the show does something very similar in S6 when Halfrek questions Anya as to whether Xander is abusive to her (does he belittle and correct her? etc) those are very real signs of abuse and control issues in relationships, and again it’s being played for a laugh and dismissed. Which is a very convenient way of letting Xander off the hook for what is oftentimes patronizing and dismissive behavior. (don’t get me started on his pity-party in Never Leave Me, or his “that excuse gets old really fast.”)

  6. […] Collado; What I Learned From Buffy About All The Versions Of My Queer Girl Self from Autostraddle; Buffy Rewatch: Hush from […]

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