Buffy, Harris, and Lots of Thoughts about the Appearances of Good Guys and Bad Guys

Darla doing her
innocent school girl
I posted this in 2006. I am moving it up because I will be discussing Charlaine Harris in my next Authors A-Z post (I discussed Kerry Greenwood in the last A-Z post).

In Seven Seasons of Buffy, a book of essays about the television show Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (ed. by Glenn Yeffeth), Charlaine Harris (of True Blood fame) writes, "The monsters [in Buffy] are all evil. The good guys are all pretty" ("A Reflection on Ugliness"). Whedon, she argues, "uses physical attractiveness to signal moral decay."

I disagree; I also consider Harris reveals a far more obsessive regard for appearance in her books than Whedon does in his work. I'll deal with the first point, then the second.

It is true that the demons in Whedon's universe transform before they attack, gaining vamp faces or serpents' bodies, etc. However, Harris's reasoning that Whedon uses these transformations because he equates ugliness with evil (or wants to make evil obvious) is unreasonable.

Here's why:

1. Harris sees the Buffy demons as ugly; that doesn't mean everybody does. Granted, the vamp faces in early Buffy are a bit cheesy, but the make-up improves and, if anything, vampires in eat-mode achieve the same coolness level as the Wraith. Okay, I happen to think the Wraith are the coolest looking bad guys ever on television, so . . . maybe not. Still--Whedon's vampires have their own cache of wowness as do the other bad guys: I'm not too hip on bugs ("Teacher's Pet"), but I do think serpents are very awesome (Glory, "Graduation Day: Part 2").

I also happen to be a big fan of Armin Shimmerman, whom Harris cites as an example of an ugly bad guy. Really? He's about as adorable as a principal can get--and he has all the good lines. ("There are things I will not tolerate. Students loitering on campus after school. Horrible murders with hearts being removed. And also smoking.")

Harris attempts to use Count Dracula as a counter-argument--sure, he's cute, but he isn't THAT cute. Dracula, by the way, is Rudolf Martin who would look drop-dead gorgeous if he were dying of plague: not much of a counter-argument.

In addition, although humans may regard demons as ugly (though that's inconclusive), that does not mean the demons do. To borrow an example from the first season (before Whedon became "sophisticated," Hollywood help him), the Master makes it clear that as far as he is concerned, humans are annoying and whining and just so darn pudding faced. He and his loyal Luke, of the lovely deep voice, never change to look human; they are too advanced for that.

I would agree that Oz's werewolf is disgusting, but I think that's more bad make-up and the inability to hire REAL wolves (which are probably more expensive than human actors) than any specific statement about ugliness and evil. In any case, nobody but Kane ("Phases") considers Oz a bad guy in his monster state, and Willow doesn't seem to have much problem adjusting to his "other" self.

There are at least three other indications--one of which Harris brushes over, the others she misses--that the "good guys" on Buffy don't always find demons disgusting: when Buffy kisses Angel while in vamp face, and when Giles confronts Buffy's come-alive nightmare of being a vampire. Buffy is ashamed, NOT because she is ugly but because the vamp face reveals one of her deepest fears. With no revulsion whatsoever, Giles looks at her and says gently, "Why didn't you tell me?"

Additionally, when the swim team morphs in "Go Fish," not one of our good guys judges the changed team members as intrinsically evil. Buffy is downright sanguine, putting their animalistic behavior down to their animalistic state. Harris appears to have made the leap from ugliness to evil when no such statement was intended by the writers, but Harris' faulty assumptions are hardly Whedon's fault.

I also must mention that I consider one of the truly good guys, Sid ("The Puppet"), to be thoroughly disturbing (not exactly a "pretty" good guy).

2. Harris argues that Whedon should have recognized that "evil is not so clearly denoted in the real world." She asks, "Wouldn't we learn a more graphic lesson if the monsters retained their more attractive aspects even as they showed their most monstrous behavior?" Yes, we would learn something, especially since that's exactly what Whedon did.

Now, I have my own problems with Whedon regarding Buffy (namely, Seasons 6 & 7), but I don't see any point in accusing him of something he hasn't done. The first episode of Buffy opens with sweet-faced, pretty Darla luring a teenage boy into the deserted high school. Eh hem, Harris, she certainly didn't do it in vamp mode. True, she changes to vamp mode when she is about to feed, but I'm afraid her victim doesn't have much time to react. The evil has been accomplished long before Darla changes.

Likewise, bad Angel stalks and seduces women with his "golly, gee, whillikers shucks" act multiple times and his friendliness on those occasions is terrifying precisely because the viewer knows that this is bad Angelus but his victims-to-be do not. Likewise, Ted ("Ted") is far more terrifying before we--and Buffy--learn he is a robot who can be smashed to bits. Granted, the wonderfully slimy mayor transforms into a reptile at the end of Season 3, but there is such a thing as making a show exciting. Besides, who can pass up a huge snake going, "Well, gosh" over a pile of dynamite?

Over and over again, the villains of Buffy use prettiness to obtain their ends; they also, I would argue, commit more depraved acts in their pretty states than as demons (the mayor's seduction of Faith is far more vile than anything he does, briefly, as a snake). This is backed by the fact that Buffy can sense vampires long before they change (by their bad clothing in one case but intuitively in many other cases).The transformations, quite frankly, appear to be more for the sake of fun than for the sake of making moral declarations.

After all, this IS a show about the supernatural; although I agree with Harris that Warren, Season 6, who never transforms into anything, is the worst of the bad guys (Harris perceives this as a sign that "Whedon's view is growing more sophisticated"), multiple seasons of Warren would make Buffy . . . what? One Tree Hill?

In any case, Whedon's view of evil in the early seasons is quite sophisticated (if sophistication is required) because he doesn't confuse cause and effect. Evil isn't simply evil because our heroes got hurt/bitten (outcome). Evil is directly tied to motive and process, why and how the outcome occurred.

3. Harris contradicts her premise in her books.

This brings me to the end of my problems with Harris' essay. I would still have disagreed with her essay if I hadn't known her name. As it is, I have read several of Harris's Sookie Stackhouse books. In fact, when I first opened Seven Seasons of Buffy, I wanted to read Harris' essay because I had read her novels.

I was somewhat surprised by her essay. After reading the fifth book in the Sookie Stackhouse series,  I realized Harris may not realize how completely at variance her criticism of Buffy is with the messages of her own work.

To back up: I do understand where Harris is coming from psychologically. I happen to find negative discussions over appearance rather distasteful. I was one of those unfortunate weedy teens with bad acne, and it took me a long time to realize that although teens and some adults will make fun of bad acne, even teens will respond to the unfortunate's sense of personal authority. If you act coy and ashamed, people will pick up on it. If you don't, they tend to respond to your sense of confidence.

Still, I've never shaken my distaste for discussions about people's clothes or skin care or weight. Which is all to say that I understand where Harris is coming from in her essay. It also explains why I stopped reading her books: I found her obsession with appearance distasteful.

To return to Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series: Sookie is a nice, average looking (pretty but not glamorous), normally weighted young woman who encounters vampires in her neighborhood near New Orleans. She is telepathic but otherwise fulfills the respectable role of so many suspense/mystery heroines: the good girl next door who finds herself in extraordinary circumstances.

Extraordinary circumstances that involve her being ogled by a truly stunning number of men.

Before I continue, I should state that the books are great examples of modern fantasy writing; they combine an underground world of vampires and fairies, etc. with the everyday work-a-day world. One reason I stayed with the books as long as I did, other than the ebullient Eric, was the layered society created by Harris--something I find extremely difficult to do in my own writing and always admire in other people's work.

In book 5, however, Harris begins to head Sookie down a path that so many female suspense/mystery writers seemed compelled to take: the Road of Multiple Suitors. I can only surmise, based on the Twilight series' existence and success, that female writers and their readers enjoy fantasizing a princess-quest allotment of suitors for their heroines. Too many female-written mysteries contain if not several suitors, at least two who vie, unceasingly, for the heroine's attention. I have no very high opinion of the heroines and almost no opinion of the suitors (get a life already, people).

At least Buffy's two obsessed suitors occurred at different times! Sookie, however, Sookie belongs to that echelon of female heroines who don't believe in their own prettiness. When dealing with glamorous women, said heroines (1) befriend them, thus rendering the glamorous women clawless; (2) despise them because said glamorous women are also snotty; or (3) feel dowdy in comparison at which point a suitor's ogling will reassure our heroine that she is quite attractive.

My feminism rebels!

Scully being herself!
Give me an indifferent heroine or a heroine who knows her attractions and flaunts them over a heroine who isn't into her appearance but happens to be pretty anyway and whose writer never lets you forget the fact. Give me Samantha Carter or Seven of Nine or Teyla (all completely unapologetic gorgeous women). I'll take Captain Janeway, who is largely indifferent to her appearance (except her hair), or any of the doctors from House. Give me Scully, who is so wonderful to watch, being so fastidious in her dress and so consumed with her personal interests (and Mulder). Give me Buffy who worries about her appearance but doesn't try to tuck it away! Give me Pam Ferris as Laura Thyme who doesn't let anyone, including her ex-husband, get her down!

Spare me the heroine who will say she isn't pretty but has plenty of supporting cast characters to show/tell her exactly how sexy they think she is.

In Book 5, Dead as a Doornail, Sookie goes to clean out a dead relative's apartment. While there, we, the readers, are presented with 2,000 reasons why Sookie MUST, against her own inclinations, wear skin-tight lycra pants (those pants people wear to gyms). I don't remember all the reasons--something about the cousin being a smaller size and not owning any sweats and Sookie not having a car or the wherewithall to call a cab (perhaps she doesn't have any money either; I forget) let alone time to go to Walmart and buy some sweatpants. We are presented with a trillion excuses--that any reasonable adult would be able to circumvent with reasonable ease--that force Sookie into wearing the lycra pants, which, we are assured, isn't typical of her. She doesn't usually go around showing off her body like that, gasp gasp, not because she is old-fashioned and modest, you understand, but because it isn't how she sees herself.

But *oh, a woman's burden* she puts them on anyway and then proceeds to go out into the apartment's main living area where two of her current oglers, sorry, suitors are stationed and, presumably forgetting they are there, she bends over to put her hair into a twist or a ponytail or something. And when she straightens up, well, wouldn't you know, they are staring at her. Obviously, those horny men were checking out her . . . wink wink nudge nudge.

But Sookie isn't the kind of girl to flaunt her stuff, because, you know, she doesn't think she's, like, all that gorgeous or stuff, and Harris certainly isn't totally, like, obsessed with people's appearances. (Sorry, the whole thing is just so . . . teenagerish.)

I finished the book; I've never picked up another.

Talk about pure Victorianism; the idea of the devouring gaze is tied to medievalism. But the linking of coy physicality and ogling men is pure Victorianism. The medievals, at least, didn't make it so creepy.

I considered the modern, female mystery/suspense version of the devouring gaze creepy. Not the lycra pants, you understand. I would have applauded a Sookie who put them on because she didn't want to run to Walmart and didn't care what she wore OR a Sookie who thought, "I've got a darn fine body. I'm gonna go flaunt it!" In the Regency romances I read, the heroines often dress up to impress their rake husbands; they never pretend that isn't what they are going!
Speaking of Victorians, here's a species that knows
how to flaunt its stuff!
That's Steve, by the way.

What I find creepy in Harris's and similar type mystery series is the heroine's Victorian-like ingénue innocence. She never actually engages with the impact of her appearance--it's all happening to somebody else. Look, the reader is constantly being instructed, look at how much she doesn't care about appearance. She isn't shallow and trite like those snobby glamorous bimbos. She doesn't know she's pretty at all. But notice how often other characters comment on her hair, her face, her body. Oh, wait, here's another conversation where her looks are praised . . . oh, my, she's so terribly, terribly surprised. She can't believe that anyone noticed her boobs in that push-up bra she was forced to wear! 

Because she's an idiot? Or because women have a double standard?

Case in point: I recently (2006) picked up a Kerry Greenwood novel. Kerry Greenwood is an Australian writer who produced the Phryne Fisher mysteries, an interesting series (and great television show!).

Greenwood has come out with a new series with a heroine, Corinna Chapman, who is an unrepentantly size-large baker. She certainly isn't into all that model-type starving that her assistants practice. Nope, that's not her style. Take her as she is.

And I respect that. I like that attitude in people. Except Corinna has a handsome boyfriend with a washboard stomach about which the reader is reminded incessantly.

No reason why she shouldn't have a handsome boyfriend with a washboard stomach except it fits into my beef with Harris and all female mystery writers who play this particular game. For instance, in the mysteries with two suitors, one suitor will sometimes be a bit homely (the best friend the heroine grew up with), but the other suitor will always be a hunk; neither suitor will be especially nerdy or especially plain or an especially bad kisser or especially plump.

So, the heroines of these series aren't obsessed with appearance, but can the writers truly claim they are not?

Doesn't look like it.


Eugene said...

The "ugly = evil" equation is one of the many gripes I have about George Lucas's "big bads." As a counterexample, I point to Whedon's Sunnydale Mayor Richard Wilkins (Harry Groener), the epitome of cool, calculating evil. The coolest, most calculating thing about Mayor Wilkins? He got elected. And Shaw on Person of Interest is a great example of a female protagonist who knows what her assets are and doesn't mind using them. The same goes for the weird rapport her character has with Amy Acker's Root.

Joe said...

Writers writing criticism is a dangerous game since it so easily exposes their own failings. Steven King and Orson Scott Card come to mind as people who have written very good "how to write" pieces, yet violate their own principals, sometimes (often, in Card's case) so egregiously you wonder if they are reading their own writing.

Kate Woodbury said...

Yeah--like Stephen King criticizing Twilight. I totally see his point of view. I think he IS a better writer than Meyers. But it's not good for a guy who gets criticized for writing populist trash to criticize someone for writing populist trash. (Like Community College professors who criticize lowly adjuncts: Really? Do you KNOW how far down the totem pole you are already? Ah, but then even poor people invent status symbols.)