Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Incoherent Metaphysics of the Buffyverse

[Originally posted at Bitch Flicks.]

Contains spoilers for Buffy and Angel. Not the comic books, though. Those never happened. 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was famously asking the question: what if, in a typical horror-movie monster-chases-girl scenario, the girl turned around and kicked the monster's ass? But it's also, perhaps less wittingly, asking the question: what happens when an atheist – someone who disavows the existence of all things super- or preternatural in the real world – writes a show about the supernatural?

Of course, American TV, and especially the WB in the late 90s, is perhaps not the best forum for a nuanced discussion of faith and religion. Even so, it's striking how one-dimensional the perspectives on the supernatural are on Buffy. Maybe I know too many seminarians (I know a lot of seminarians), but it seems very odd to me that nobody we know in Sunnydale reacts to the presence of demons and vampires by turning to religion. Especially once the show's mythos expanded to encompass an elaborate lore of gods, resurrection, heaven and hell, and de- and re-ensouling, the big G remains notable for its total absence. Even after experiencing a heavenly afterlife, Buffy's only comment about God's existence is “Nothing solid” (S7E7, “Conversations With Dead People”). And I for one would find this profoundly unsatisfying. Once you have come across the First Evil (as worshiped by an ex-priest, no less!), would your first question not be: So is there an equivalent primordial good?

On a metatextual level, of course, this all makes perfect sense. The premise of the show is not God, religion, or Manichean dualism fought on a cosmic scale. Metatextually, we know that the Buffyverse is a world where the supernatural forces of evil operate, but the question of God is moot, and the source of goodness is people's love for each other and their willingness to make sacrifices for the sake of what's right. From the perspective of a viewer looking in on this world, we can accept this, but once we try to imagine ourselves truly inside the Buffyverse, the cracks in its metaphysics begin to appear.

These cracks show themselves most clearly in late-period Buffy, when the series starts to sink under the weight of its own mythos. The show, which had once so brilliantly and wittily allegorized the trials of growing up as horror-movie monsters, lost its focus and its direction in the final two seasons. Buffy tries not to simplistically equate soul with good and soulless with bad, attempting to explore gray areas and moral ambiguities, but this winds up pulling the show in hopelessly contradictory directions: if vamps and demons have the potential to be good, if they are redeemable to the point of being able to want a soul, then how is Buffy justified in constantly staking them? Add what we learn from Angel, and things get even less coherent. If ensoulment and goodness/evilness are, as Angel the supposedly more grown-up show would have us believe, much more complicated than that, how come Angel yo-yos between Good, ensouled Angel and Evil, soulless Angelus with, frankly, comical facility?

Come on, it's a bit silly.
 When Darla, staked as a soulless vampire, is brought back as a human, the soul question gets even more inexplicable. If, as established very early on, “When you become a vampire, the demon takes your body, but it doesn't get your soul” (Buffy S1E7, “Angel”), then why does the resurrected human Darla even remember her life as a vampire? Is the vampire a new, evil creature occupying the formerly ensouled body, whose soul is now at peace (as that line of Angel's would seem to suggest); or is it the same person, the same consciousness, with some fundamental part removed? Is the soul the individual's consciousness, their moral compass, an ineffable that somehow endows humanness? What, finally, is a soul?

This is, of course, a hugely complex question, to which I do not expect a coherent real-world answer. In a TV show, however, where the quality of ensouledness apparently determines whether you deserve to live or die – whether or not it's morally acceptable for our protagonist to kill you – we damn well need our terms defined.

This is... what a soul looks like?
 Perhaps this kind of moral and metaphysical incoherence is simply an inevitable result of the Chosen One narrative. (I'm reminded irresistibly of Harry Potter, and of the fan critiques that read Dumbledore as a nasty, manipulative figure who deliberately programs Harry to do his bidding, rather than as the wise and kindly mentor Harry sees. There are counter-readings of the Bible that find traditional atonement theory similarly abhorrent, arguing that only an abusive God would sacrifice his own son.) Noting the Powers-That-Be who guide events on Angel, I wonder to what extent it's possible to engage questions of Chosen Ones, prophecies, destiny and so on without resorting to a Calvinist determinism.

Naturally there is a metatextual Calvinist element – it's called the writers' room – and Whedon occasionally nods to this. Of Buffy S6E17, “Normal Again,” he has said: “the entire series takes place in the mind of a lunatic locked up somewhere in Los Angeles, if that’s what the viewer wants.” In that same interview he admits that the role of the soul in the Buffyverse is often simply a matter of narrative convenience; and that, I think, is kind of cheating. When we watch a show, our assent to its premise is a kind of contract: we will accept this premise, provided that the show does not flout the narrative rules on which it is predicated. If a show flouts its own narrative rules – say, retconning an entire season as a dream – audiences tend to feel that the contract has been violated. Altering something as crucial to the show's whole premise as the function of the soul according to narrative diktat is, I think, a similar violation.

As a lover of Buffy and a theologian, I want Buffy to be theologically and metaphysically coherent. I want it either to establish one metaphysical system as true for the world it portrays, or to represent a believable variety of beliefs among its characters. The former is an entirely lost cause; the latter is frustratingly undercooked. Willow's Judaism is wholly Informed, and her turn to Wicca is entirely to do with magic. There is no sense at all of Wicca (or any other religion) as an ethical code, as a way of making meaning, as a way of personally relating to the world and others in it.

Ultimately, this is the same problem I have with the show's self-professed feminism. Joss Whedon is a proud feminist, and yet in the course of Buffy some very unfortunate tropes appear – Bury Your Gays, Psycho Lesbian, No Bisexuals, Token Minority, general racefail – which cumulatively suggest a writers' room that just didn't necessarily see the implications of everything it was doing, perhaps because it lacked the diversity of viewpoints necessary to provide checks and balances on overwhelming privilege. Established metatextually, the show's feminism is taken for granted by all characters in-universe, and it requires extra work on the part of the viewer to critique its problematic elements. Perhaps this fundamental incoherence of Buffy's feminism is tied to its fundamental metaphysical incoherence. Both seem to stem from the same failings.

But also, there were really really awesome things.

Monday, August 20, 2012

A Special Occasion

It was 366 rotations of the earth ago today, give or take, when I first stepped foot on Californian soil (okay, airport floor).

Oh my GOD, you guys, it's my one-year Caliversary!

And what a year it has been. I'm not sure I have the brain capacity to process all the literally gazillions of things that have happened in this past orbit of our little blue orb around its slightly less little yellow star. Luckily I have no real interest in the things that have happened to Andorra, Henry Kissinger, paramecia, and many, many other subjects that also survived this great 940-million-kilometer journey through the vast emptiness of space.

Still, even processing all the things that have happened to this particular subject in the past year is a little overwhelming. The discovery of a field of study to which I want to devote the rest of my life, the diagnosis of a mild mental illness, the whole trans* thing... those are all Major Life Things. I kind of feel as though, in the course of the past year, I have leveled up three times over in this great RPG campaign we call Life. (It makes the math behind my saving throws a lot more complicated, but I've unlocked some boss new feats and skills.)

Of course, all the challenges would have been a lot more, well, challenging, if I hadn't had a totally amazeballs crew helping me pilot the USS My Life (to switch to a different, yet no less geeky, image). I <3 everyone. Cheers. Here's to the future: steady as she goes.

Monday, August 13, 2012

For F---'s Sake, Watch 'The Thick Of It'

Cross-posted at Bitch Flicks, where I will be blogging every Monday for the foreseeable future. Awesomeness.

The fourteen episodes of Armando Iannucci's brilliant BBC show The Thick Of It appeared on Hulu a couple of weeks ago, and the upcoming fourth season will stream there as well. I am having a bafflingly hard time convincing even my most devoted Anglophile friends to watch it. Maybe the pace and intensity are off-putting: it's a show that demands your full, rapt attention to decipher its rapid-fire dialogue (and British accents, if that's a difficulty for you). Maybe the unrelenting cynicism is discouraging for my starry-eyed friends (I know a LOT of Aaron Sorkin devotees). Maybe the Westminster setting is daunting to Americans who assume that familiarity with the ins and outs of UK politics is a prerequisite, when in reality all a non-Brit would miss are throwaway jokes about odds and ends of British culture (Mark Kermode's flappy hands, anyone?). Whatever it is that's giving people pause, I wish they'd overcome it, because this is a really, really good TV show.

As a cynical comedy about the relationship between a hapless government minister and a Machiavellian civil servant, The Thick Of It is naturally a spiritual successor to excellent 1980s sitcom Yes Minister – but it is a very 21st-century successor. The archly satirical wit of Yes Minister isn't wholly absent from from The Thick Of It, but it is rather overshadowed by, well, the gloriously colorful and endlessly creative obscenity. A viewer conducting even the most casual compare-and-contrast of the two series will notice two interesting trends:

1. Twenty-first-century Westminster is no less white than 1980s Westminster. This, unfortunately, is a reflection of reality: people of color currently comprise 4% of MPs (a figure that was significantly lower when The Thick Of It began in 2005), and Parliament's own website admits that even though “[t]he House of Commons is more reflective of the population it represents than ever before […] it remains the case that more than 400 MPs, 62% of the total, are white men aged over 40.”

2. There is a far wider variety of accents, and a hell of a lot more swearing, in the newer show. This is something that cannot be explained without a brief discussion of the deeply complex question of class in British politics, so please bear with me. UK politics has always been an old boys' club. The traditional track to Westminster runs through a private school, ideally Eton, and a top-tier university, ideally Oxbridge. That same Parliament webpage notes that over a quarter of current MPs went to Oxbridge, and over a third went to private schools. This is vastly disproportionate to the general population – but it is an improvement over the past. In 1982 Yes Minister could include lengthy rants about Greek and Latin quotations and jokes mocking a minister who attended the LSE; one suspects that that simply wouldn't fly today.

The delicate subtleties of regional accents in the UK are far beyond my capacity to explain; suffice it to say that, first, regional accents are historically the marker of a working-class background, and, second, they are much more acceptable in politics and media today than they were 30 years ago. There is, then, a more or less explicit class dynamic at play in The Thick Of It between the RP-accented ministers and the very Scottish Peter Capaldi, who stars as very terrifying government spin doctor Malcolm Tucker.

Good God this man is terrifying.
Malcolm is the core of the show, and he is a wonder to behold. In creating Malcolm Tucker, Iannucci seems to have drawn from both his own Scottish heritage and from the well of “terrifying Scot” archetypes that populate the British imagination: from Wallace bellowing “FREEDOM!” to Miss Jean Brodie to Professor McGonagall to the monstrous Manda in Alan Warner's The Stars In The Bright Sky (get a copy; you'll thank me later), echoed in US pop culture through figures like Groundskeeper Willie and Shrek. An explosive hurricane of Caledonian fury, Malcolm tears through Westminster, bullying, threatening, effing, blinding, and occasionally punching anyone unfortunate enough to oppose his will. He's the kind of villain who's an absolute joy to hate, reveling in his own evil machinations and spouting quotable profanity like it's going out of style.

Not that the other characters lack for memorable quotes. The writing for this show reminds me of Oscar Wilde (in a potty-mouthed, 21st-century kind of way): all the characters essentially speak with exactly the same voice, but it's such a very funny voice that nobody really minds. And, of course, a great strength of this style is that the women characters sound as though they were written to be characters first, women second. Our culture is swimming in female characters who sounds as if they were written by someone who, at best, has never actually interacted with a woman, and, at worst, genuinely believes women to be a completely different species than human beings. Armando Iannucci's women are not like this at all, and it's depressing how refreshing that is.

In my opinion, The Thick Of It only really hits its stride with the introduction of Rebecca Front as Nicola Murray, MP, in the third season. (The first two were only three episodes each, so that's still more than half the show that she's in.) This was a matter of necessity, owing to Chris Langham's ignominious fall from public grace, but it gives the show a dynamic it really needs. When Langham's Hugh Abbott was the hapless minister struggling to hang onto his job in the face of mockery from special advisers Glen and Ollie and relentless terrorism from Malcolm, the cast was just too homogeneous. Nicola has to deal with not only the pressures Hugh faced as an overworked, underprepared, perpetually outgunned minister trying desperately to be relevant; but she also has to cope with the specific challenges of being a woman in a job that is still 78% male-dominated. Dubbed a “glummy mummy” by the press, Nicola is caught in the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't position of the woman in the high-pressure job – expected to prioritize her work while simultaneously being the World's Greatest Mother, in a way that men are simply never expected to do. Being at the nexus of such impossible expectations never overwhelms Nicola's character or turns her into a straw person of any kind, but it is a constant presence in the dynamic of her interactions with others, to the point that even the ferocious Malcolm appears to have a little sympathy for her.

Poor Nicola.
Iannucci seems to have recognized how interesting this dynamic is, and attempted to replicate it this year in his HBO show Veep, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a (once again) hapless vice president. Veep is an intriguing attempt to transplant the magic of The Thick Of It to a US context (foreshadowed to some extent in the transatlantic hijinks of 2009 alternate-universe spin-off film In The Loop), but I'm not yet convinced that it's a fully successful one. For one thing, the US televisual landscape is so prudish that even on HBO the swears don't roll off tongues as organically as on British TV. For another, the lack of a truly nefarious Malcolm Tucker figure, while an understandable artistic choice to create distance from The Thick Of It, in my opinion undermines the show's cohesiveness. And I question the wisdom of choosing to piss away a potentially really interesting pregnancy subplot offscreen.

My reservations notwithstanding, I will be watching Veep's second season, because it's pretty funny, and because I trust Armando Iannucci. But I'm much more excited for The Thick Of It season four, and it would be nice if the rest of America cared too.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Three Dreams

I dreamed that I was back at the conservative evangelical church I used to attend in London, visiting all the people I used to know there for some event. When people greeted me as "Anna," I explained that I'm not using that name anymore and I now go by Max. Then I had to use the bathroom, and went to the Gents'. When I got out, I found that everyone had piled into a coach and left to go elsewhere. Only D, my old mentor who used to do one-on-one Bible study with me, had stayed behind, to explain to me that everyone at the church found my trans*ness unacceptable and would no longer be able to associate with me. I was gutted. Their transphobia really hurt me, even though I knew there was nothing I could do about it.


I dreamed that I'd come out to my mother. She wanted me to perform in a piano recital, even though I protested that I had nothing performance-ready, and she forced me to wear a dress. I managed to escape to the men's restroom, which was an endless corridor with urinals and stalls on both sides. I walked through the vast men's room in my dress, looking for the perfect stall.


I dreamed that my old high school was having an alum event, for which you were required to wear your old uniform. I still have mine, but I only have a girl's uniform and I needed pants. I don't have any smart pants, so I thought I'd borrow some from one of my brothers. But my younger brother's school uniform pants were far too big, and my older brother's were nowhere to be found. I realized I would have to buy my own trousers.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Fictioneering: The Turbulent Term Of Tyke Tiler

[Fictioneering is a very occasionally occasional series in which I say pretentious things about the novels that were monumentally influential on my developing psyche. In other words, blame these books.]

N.B. I'm going to spoil the crap out of this book, because nothing I'm about to say will make any sense unless you know the twist at the end. If you care about remaining unspoiled for a 35-year-old children's book, find a copy somewhere and read it stat; otherwise, consider yourself fairly warned.

I loved this book. At age ten or eleven, I checked it out of the school library (because, in the course of five largely friendless years at a school with a fairly small library, I read most things in the school library), and I loved it so very, very much that I needed a copy of my own. However, I didn't dare ask my parents to buy it for me, for fear that they might ask me just why I loved it so. Inspired by my also-beloved copy of Chinese Cinderella, I ended up copying the entirety of Tyke Tiler by hand into an exercise book with a magenta cover.

Of course, my situation was in no way similar to Adeline's in Chinese Cinderella. Abused and neglected by her stepmother, Adeline finds hope in a friend's copy of A Little Princess. She copies it out by hand of necessity, because she knows her stepmother would never buy her anything that might give her pleasure. My parents, on the other hand, encouraged my obsessive love of reading and kept me well supplied with novels. In retrospect, there is absolutely no reason why they wouldn't have bought me a copy of Tyke Tiler if I'd selected it next time we went to the bookstore: it's a Carnegie medal-winner, and, even if they'd never heard of it, they knew that my taste in literature has (unlike my taste in film) never run to the trashy. They had seen how dog-eared with rereading my copies of The Hobbit and Anne of Green Gables and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry became. They knew of my disdain for Goosebumps and Sweet Valley. A few years later, they would witness my first feeble attempt at teenage rebellion sputter and die when I discovered, much to my disappointment, that the reason they disapproved of my reading Interview with the Vampire was not because it was eye-openingly salacious and grown-up, but because it was not very good literature.

My parents trusted my taste in books. They would have bought me a paperback of Tyke Tiler if I had only asked for one.

The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler is a very British school story, chronicling the fairly episodic adventures of Tyke and BFF Danny as they get themselves into and out of various scrapes. As such, though it's entertainingly written and the child's-perspective narration is pretty convincing, there is nothing too remarkable about it – until the very end.

Throughout the book, there is a running gag that Tyke's real name is unbelievably terrible. Tyke runs around with Danny, climbing all over school buildings, fighting bullies, pestering older siblings, and refusing to disclose the dreaded real name. Then, right at the end of the book, Tyke is climbing on the school roof, about to ring the old school bell, when hated teacher Mrs Somers shouts: “Get down at once, Theodora Tiler, you naughty, disobedient girl!”

I loved that. I loved that. The revelation that Tyke, headstrong and physical and with male best friends, was actually a girl, was really, really important to me, and I had no way of articulating why. Of course, it overturns the reader's assumption that a character nicknamed Tyke, especially one who acted in this way, would be a boy; and it's a sadly rare instance of a gender-non-conforming girl who doesn't have an in-text femme counterpart.

Those are things I could, even at the age of eleven, probably have at least attempted to articulate. But there was something else going on – something I instinctively knew must be kept secret from my parents, my peers, and even to some extent from myself. And, since I've already been kicked out of feminism for violation of Internet Feminism Bylaw #5712, “everyone is cis unless explicitly noted,” I might as well just say it, and yarbles to the haters: the text does support a reading of Tyke as trans*.

(You don't have to agree, a cis reading is just as valid, blah blah covering my ass trying to appease the unappeasable.)

And no, I don't think that every character who ever acts in conventionally masculine ways must be a guy (and believe me, if I ever find a reason why I think I might be one other than “I just kind of do” I will surely let you know); but the framing of the narrative sets up the gender revelation as an unexpected twist, and at the very least that should invite some Deep Thoughts about the nature of gender (for those of you who haven't been having Deep Thoughts about gender every single waking moment for the last twelve or eighteen months). (And, while Tyke's appearance is never described in the book, have a gander at the androgynous moppet who stars in the rather charming mini-series.)

One of the weird things about trans*liness is how you find yourself recalibrating what you believe about gender to align with what you need. A website that default genders you as male doesn't anger you quite the way you know it should, because you spend so much of your time trying to get gendered male. You suddenly find that you have a use for some of the traditional gender roles you've so long rejected, because they're a societal shorthand for your embryonic masculinity. And you infuriate the Internet Feminist Hivemind by reading gender-non-conforming characters as trans*, because you need the fictional worlds you so dearly love to reflect and affirm you, and unless you project that onto them they just don't.

But I think I've always read Tyke Tiler as a trans*man, years before I had the words or the processes or the self-confidence or the independence to know what I was doing. I think that's why I loved this book so profoundly, and I think it's why I had to keep it a secret.

I believe that magenta exercise book is still in a drawer in my old bedroom in my parents' house. Through all the years, the transcontinental moves, the periodic Throwing Away Of Old Notebooks, the later-regretted donations of Childhood Novels I Am Too Grown-Up For, I hung onto my handwritten copy of The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler, keeping it safely squirreled away in a messy drawer. Now, finally, at the age of twenty-three, I am opening it.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Muggle Jesus

[A Potterverse/Jesus crossover fic. JKR owns the Potterverse. Nobody owns Jesus.]


“Jesus! Jesus!” Breathless and starry-eyed, the tousle-haired boy raced toward his cousin. “Look!” He thrust the parchment at the other boy and grinned expectantly.

“You know I can't read that,” said Jesus, not putting down his hammer. He did stop pounding, though, and scrutinized John's face. Written characters may have been chicken-scratchings to Jesus' eyes, but human faces and bodies sang to him more clearly than the temple cantor. He knew John's next words even before John had drawn breath to say:

“I got in! It's my acceptance letter.”

Jesus positioned the nail with painstaking precision, and struck it one sharp blow with the hammer. Only then was he able to look up again, a warm smile of genuine pleasure beaming forth from his face, and say, “That's great, John. I'm really happy for you.”

John beamed back, and for a moment the two boys dwelt on the shared understanding. Then the grin faded from John's face, and gravity entered his eyes. Jesus hastily turned back to his work, pounding nails into the smoothly sanded wood.

“You, uh...?” John asked awkwardly, over the pounding. Jesus shook his head without looking up. He had had a long time to get used to the idea that this day would come eventually. His mother was a muggle, and he could hardly have been unaware of the cloud of rumors that had been swirling around his patrilineal parentage since his conception. As his childhood progressed, and he had witnessed the little outbursts of uncontrolled magic from his cousin, while himself consistently failing to produce anything at all unusual, he gradually came to reconcile himself to the self-evident facts.

John was a wizard. Jesus was a muggle. That was just the way it was.

He had known that, rationally, for many years now; and yet a part of him, he now realized, had never stopped hoping deep down that perhaps the letter from Jerusalem would arrive after all, that perhaps he was a late bloomer, that perhaps he and his best friend wouldn't have to be separated, even before the age of manhood, by miles and ability and social standing. Today that fragile hope was entirely quenched.

He drove the nails into the wood, trying to quell the tightness in his chest. “You'll be a great wizard, John,” he said firmly. “The greatest.”

Twenty Years Later

The Chief Wizard gazed down on the rooftops of Jerusalem. “The trouble began,” he murmured, “with John, and I had hoped it might end with him.”

The members of the Wizards' Council exchanged glances, but no one dared speak.

“You have all, I think, heard the rumors. A muggle who can do magic – a plebe, a Galilean – stealing magic from pureblood wizards and giving it to lepers. Running around the country with his merry band of muggles, squibs, and fisherfolk, walking on water and curing blindness, and filling their simple minds with all manner of seditious mendacity. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Fishermen are better than priests. Muggles are better than wizards.

The Chief Wizard whirled around to face the Council, fury contorting his features.

“Filthy lies! The man couldn't cast a Wand-Lighting Charm if his life depended on it. He's nothing more than a cheap trickster, preying on the weak-minded with his pathetic illusions and his disgusting lies. Demagoguery, sleight of hand, and a credulous populace are his only magic.”

He glared around at the Council, as if daring them to contradict him; but still nobody spoke. Presently the Chief Wizard continued, in a more level tone:

“In isolation, he would perhaps be no more than a mild nuisance. However, in the wake of that unfortunate nonsense with John, I am forced to conclude that the Galilean is a threat to the very fabric of society. Those who were fool enough to believe that a sane man would willingly and knowingly reject his magical heritage, in order to voluntarily live the pitiful half-life of a squib – the followers of one dangerous lunatic have simply pledged their allegiance to another. The muggle leaders report talk of revolution. This man is a danger not only to the general order of society, but to the delicate coexistence of the wizarding and muggle worlds.”

At last the oldest member of the Council, wizened, white-haired, and sunken-faced, cleared his throat. “You wish to have him dealt with.”

“No,” said the Chief Wizard. “Not in the usual fashion. That would accomplish nothing, except to create a void for the next silver-tongued malcontent to fill in turn. The Galilean must be made an example of. Publicly.”

“Ah,” said the old man. “I see. Discourage imitation. And if he is a wizard, he will save himself, no harm done.”

“He won't,” the Chief Wizard said coldly. “He's not a wizard. He's the biggest muggle I ever saw.”