Last week s.e. smith and several other members of the disability community, including Alice Sheppard (a dancer with AXIS wheelchair dance company), TK Small (a lawyer and disability rights activist), Christine Bruno (who works with the advocacy group Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts), and Maysoon Zayidd (an actor and comedienne with Cerebral Palsy).
came together on the WBAI show The Largest Minority to discuss Glee and depictions of disability in popular culture. This particular episode of the radio show was inspired by s.e.’s post, A Very Glee Christmas.
The actual show itself doesn’t start until 3:52 in to the program slot.
It’s taken me a while to get the transcript of this done, for which I apologize. I did mean to get this up far faster than I did. I also should note that I had some difficulties always identifying who was speaking, and there are points in the program where the show’s audio cuts out terribly and I’m unsure what they’re saying.
I don’t have a t.v. at home so I don’t actually watch a lot of advertisements, but when I do, there’s one thing I notice: Unlike the rest of my life, advertisements only include people with evident disabilities when they want to make some sort of point.
I’m really bothered by this. I know, I know, it’s advertising. We also don’t get excited about brighter brights in our laundry and aren’t followed around by wind machines when we get new shampoo. It’s certainly not supposed to represent “real life” in any way, because it’s all fantasy to sell you stuff. But part of what advertising sells us is ideas about people. And part of what I think it sells us is that disability is a punishment, a novelty, a metaphor, or a joke.
As we’ve said before, disability never just is.
I think this does immeasurable damage to both our perceptions of ourselves as disabled people, but also people’s perceptions of disability and what it looks like.
Today I’ve pulled up a bunch of US-based advertisements (oh, wait, I added the Quebec advertisement after writing this paragraph – Canada & the US!) that feature people with disabilities. I’m curious about what people’s thoughts are when they watch these. What take-away messages about disability do you get?
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD): Disability as punishment.
The video is a bit grainy, probably meant to invoke “home movie”. It opens with tinkly piano music of sadness and woe. A male singer croons: Together…..
The video opens showing a young man sitting on a bench, reading a book. He’s labelled “Your Best Friend”.
The Singer croons: We’re meant to be….
The young man looks up! There’s a woman! She’s walking up to him, obviously excited to see him. She’s labelled “Your girlfriend.”
The camera pans back to show this scene as viewed through a hospital window. The couple – your best friend and your girlfriend – walk off together hand in hand.
The singer croons: Together! Forever!
The camera continues to pan back to show the back of someone sitting in an electric wheelchair, staring out the window. The hospital room is obviously very bleak. This person is labelled “You”.
The screen goes black, and then: “You have a lot to lose. MADD: Mothers Against Drunk Driving.”
That’s right, folks: Don’t drink and drive because if you do you’ll become a scary scary cripple and your girlfriend will leave you for your best friend and you will die alone and unloved!
[Of course it’s a terrible idea to drink and drive. But I’ve seen hundreds of anti-drunk driving ads, and they really can send the same message without implying ‘Don’t drink & drive because cripples don’t get no love’. It can be done!]
Berlitz: Bait & Switch
Camera is doing a gradual close-up on a man in a wheelchair. Behind him is a park. The music is the tinkly piano of sadness.
Man: Up until two weeks ago I always said “It will never happen to me.” But today, look at me. Listen to me. Now I speak English fluently.
The screen goes black, and then “Berlitz. In just two weeks.”
I really waffled back and forth on this ad. On the one hand: Hey! It’s a person in a wheelchair and they’re not presenting him as a sad story. On the other hand, the whole point is to “trick” you into thinking he is telling his sad story but it turns out Surprise! He’s not. I feel this falls into the trope of “Disability to titillate”. What do you think?
Michael J Fox on Stem Cell Research (US political ad)
[Michal J Fox has visible tremors from Parkinson’s Disease.] As you might know, I care deeply about stem cell research. In Missouri, you can elect Claire McCaskill, who shares my hope for cures. Unfortunately Senator Jim Talent opposes expanding stem cell research. Senator Talent even wanted to criminalize the science that gives us a chance for hope. They say all politics is local but that’s not always the case. What you do in Missouri matters to millions of Americans. Americans like me.
“I’m Claire McCaskill, and I approve this message.”
Pepsi Superbowl Ad: Deaf people tell jokes, who knew?
The entire advertisement is in ASL:
Woman: This commerical was created and performed by EnAble – a network in PepsiCo which supports inclusion, diversity, and the inclusion of persons with different abilities.
Two men are driving slowly down a residential street, looking around and obviously trying to find which house they’re going to.
Passenger: Hey! We’re going to be late. We’re going to miss the kick off.
Driver: Which house is Bob’s?
Passenger: I thought you knew.
Driver: I thought you knew?
Passenger: No I thought you knew!
Driver: I thought you knew!
Passenger: No! I thought you knew!
He shrugs and starts honking the horn.
HONK HONK HONK
Lights in all the houses start to come on. A dog starts barking. People look out their windows annoyed.
One house stays dark.
Driver: That’s it!
Passenger: Yeah, ya think?
They go up to Bob’s house and push the doorbell. The lights flicker. Bob opens the door. Across the street he catches his neighbour’s eye.
Creating an inclsive environemnt for people with different abilities.
Quebec Society for Disabled Children: Give children wings!
[An animated young boy walks onto the screen, looking sad.] It’s not always fun being a child.
[He sits down into a drawing of a wheelchair.] Especially when you’re disabled.
[A butterfly flies around him, and he begins to look happier.] Disabled children are just like any other children.
[The butterfly lands on his finger. He looks overjoyed.] When you open your hearts, you give them wings.
[The butterfly carries him up into the sky.] Please, help them spread their wings. Thank you for helping the Quebec Society for Disabled Children.
What are these advertisements saying about people with disabilities? What examples of people with disabilities have you seen outside of drug commercials? And what impact do you think these sorts of advertisements have on our perceptions of ourselves, and each other?
Like a lot of people, I signed up for automatic emails from the various political parties in Canada. Because I live in Nova Scotia, the main federal parties that run here are the Conservative Party, the Green Party, the Liberal Party, and the New Democratic Party (often just the NDP). (If I lived in Quebec, I would also have the option of voting for the Bloc Québécois federally.) I dutifully signed up for all four of these parties, so I could be informed about the issues they think are important.
One thing that seems to be very important: YouTube videos! Each of the parties maintains their own YouTube channel, and they stock these channels with videos. Every week or two, I get another email from a political party that really wants my vote (or at least my money), and they often include links to the YouTube channel, or even embedded video. And every week or two, I respond like clockwork, asking them to please provide captioning and/or transcription of the video.
So far, the response has been silence.
I wonder if the reason for this is simply because there’s the new Auto-Captioning service at YouTube, which attempts to automatically subtitle a video a video. Surely this will provide a good working set of subtitles, right?
Ha ha. Ha ha ha.
In alphabetical order, let me show you what the YouTube auto-captioning displays when I try to watch political messages from my current or potential political representatives:
The Conservative Party of Canada:
Image: Screen capture of a YouTube video, with subtitles that read “You don’t think that’s a whole group called american this country and you have to decide”
Actual quote: Voice Over: “Adopted Britain as his home. Called America his country.” Ignatieff: “You have to decide….” (This advertisement is discussing Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff’s past.)
Here is leader of the Green Party, Elizabeth May:
Image: Screen capture of a YouTube video, with subtitles that read “we’re on Friday evening breeze through across Canada will gather”
Actual Quote: Elizabeth May “…Where on Friday evening Greens from across Canada will gather.”
I will totally admit the Green example is not as terrible as the others. The Greens don’t have a lot of advertising at the moment. (Non-Canadians, this is in part because they’ve not got an actual member in the House. I count them as a national party because they run in all 308 Federal ridings, and May participated in the Federal Leadership Debate.)
The Liberal Party of Canada:
Image: A screen cap from a YouTube vid. Caption reads “the prime minister’s their lives for stroger’s we have a garden”.
Actual quote: “… The Prime Minister is there to inspire us to do our best, and we have a guy who….”
The New Democrats:
Image: A YouTube screen capture. The caption reads “costs are skyrocketing so why does is Stephen harper dead”
Actual Quote: “Heating costs are skyrocketing. So why doesn’t Stephen Harper get it?”
This is what I wrote in one of my last emails to my MP about this issue:
I know disability and accessibility are things you care about too, Megan, so I hope that you will pass along my concerns to the NDP Leadership: Transcribing and subtitling/captioning of video and audio content is an accessibility issue. Providing both a transcript and subtitling allows for more Canadians to be able to access the message of the NDP. As well, it shows a commitment to accessibility and to including Canadians who prefer or require transcripts and subtitling, for whatever reason. As this is something I believe the NDP values, it would be helpful for the party, at all levels, to provide transcription and subtitling for all the videos that they produce.
Of course, subtitling your video (and providing a transcript) are not only for people who are d/Deaf or hard-of-hearing. They’re also for people who have audio processing disorders, who have difficulties understanding spoke English, who don’t want to turn up their volume, or even don’t have speakers or headphones on their computer. They’re for people who just want a transcript or subtitling because it makes their lives easier today. (For example, I have an ear infection and subtitles are the order of the day.)
Every political party in Canada “cares” about “the disabled”. They really do. Each one has a little subsection of their website dedicated to explaining how they “care” about “the disabled”.
I think it would be awesome instead of telling me how much they cared, they’d show it. And one way of doing that would be subtitling their ads, so everyone can know what their message is.
Spoilers for Farscape: the third part of “Liars, Guns and Money” in Season 2 and, in Season 3, “Season of Death” and something you really really really won’t want spoiled for the second part of “Self-Inflicted Wounds”.
I like to keep DVD boxsets on hand for my study breaks, and my latest show is a 1990s/2000s Australian/US television show called Farscape. It’s a really fun show about an astronaut who gets sucked through a wormhole and is forced to align himself with a bunch of aliens in some far-off part of the universe – watch it, do! – but that’s not what I want to talk about.
Towards the end of the second season, a minor recurring character called Rorf loses an eye to an enemy, to put it in the least graphic terms possible. I started to get a sense of premonition, although I wasn’t sure what it was about just yet. Rorf is killed in battle towards the end of the episode. At the start of the third season, Zhaan, one of the main characters, saves the life of Aeryn, another key character, at the cost of her own health. She’s dying, she tells her fellow crew members for a number of episodes. No, they say, we’re going to get you to a planet, not too far away, where you can be healed. No, she says, I’m going to die. And, good as her word, she ends up sacrificing her life for the good of the crew before they can get her to a planet where she can be healed.
What I got out of these two instances is the idea that injury is a symbolic prelude to death. That, if you’re altered from what you have been, life isn’t worth living anymore, that you’re only good for giving up everything for those who are “whole”. That’s a pretty distressing message to be putting out there.
Have you found similar representations of disability or injury in popular culture?
The Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon (also known as The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon and The Jerry Lewis Stars Across America MDA Labor Day Telethon) is hosted by actor and comedian, Jerry Lewis to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). It has been held annually since 1966. As of 2009, the telethon had raised $2.45 billion since its inception. It is held on Labor Day weekend, starting on the Sunday evening preceding Labor Day and continuing until late Monday afternoon, syndicated to approximately 190 television stations throughout the United States.
On the surface this probably looks like a good thing, but digging a bit deeper: For many people, this is one of the few times they’ll see images of people with disabilities on their t.v. screen (and from a noted authority and beloved celebrity), and the entire thing is one drawn out pity parade.
Since 1991, protesters, including Laura Hershey and Mike Irvine, have tried to raise awareness about the way that the Jerry Lewis Telethon, and Jerry Lewis himself, treat actual adults with disability, and have discussed how these sorts of pity parades affect the public perceptions of people with disability. In 2001, Hershey wrote:
As we in the disability-rights movement keep trying to explain, our biggest problems come not from our physical conditions, but from a society that fails to accommodate us. Lewis’s telethon plays up the problems, without suggesting their sources or solutions. For instance, those sappy vignettes will make much of an “afflicted” person’s inability to wash his own hair, or get herself to the toilet, without any discussion of the urgent need for publicly funded personal assistance, or of the problems posed by the architectural barriers designed right into the layout of most private homes.
Trouble also arises from the fact that thousands of families dealing with disabilities in the U.S. and Canada are denied adequate medical care and equipment – necessities which should be basic human rights, not handouts accompanied by a drum roll and tally.
Many people with disabilities have written about their perceptions of these telethons, and the damage they do, as well as the issues with giving a humanitarian award to a man who treats actual people with disabilities with such disdain. Hershey’s most recent columns are Speaking Out against the MDA Telethon and Laura’s Labor Day Weekend Column. Liz Henry wrote last year about her dose of morning rage regarding the telethon, and there are many links there that highlight the issues around Jerry’s Kids. There’s also the 2007 Blogswarm, Protest Pity, which features more than 35 blog posts about the Telethon and the Protests. You can also read From Poster Child to Protester, which may be the first thing I ever read about the protests and the Issues with Jerry Lewis.
Sometimes, though, the best way to combat the pity parade is to show people with disabilities talking about their lives, and their lived experience. Laura Hershey made this video as part of the “It’s Our Story” Project. Transcript follows:
The ‘It’s Our Story’ titles roll while tinkly piano music plays. White symbols of sign language and a person in a wheelchair flash against the background, which is suggestive of a US flag, with the continental United States in the blue square instead of the usual 50 stars.
The video opens on Laura Hershey, a powerchair user wearing a nasal cannula and glasses. The title of the video is “Jerry’s Kids”, and I believe she’s referring to the group “Jerry’s Orphans”.
Laura: That’s actually a group that was started in Chicago by Mike Irvin, Chris Matthews, and several other people. And I worked with them a lot organziing these protests nationally. I think what the name says is that Jerry Lewis doesn’t have the right to claim us as his quote “kids”, especially as he’s not interested in our perspective. He completely trashes people who question or challenge the telethon approach. He’s attacked us in the press, calling us ungrateful, claiming that he bought us our wheelchairs which is, you know, completely untrue.
You know, whatever ego trip he gets thinking of himself as our saviour, or our daddy, or whatever it is he thinks, we reject that.
We’re not his kids, we’re adults, and we’re our own people. We don’t belong to him.
I’m watching “Dating in the Dark,” an ABC show in which contestants, yes, date in a completely dark room. They go on some number of group and individual dates – all in the dark room, all displayed to us with night vision goggles or somesuch – and then decide whether or not they will date each other. It will totally show us whether or not true love is blind! And force people to focus on personality rather than appearance!
Well, not so much. First, all the relationships are of course hetero and all of the contestants are conventionally attractive. Conventionally very attractive, actually. And then they spend the entire time speculating about what the other people look like and outlining, definitively and without a sliver of compromise or doubt, their exacting requirements for the physical appearance of their potential mate. One man talks only about weight, saying that a previous girlfriend “blew up like a tick” and so he had to dump her. (This is what he’s saying to a potential girlfriend. On a “date.”) One of the women is thrown completely when her beau is revealed to be a chiseled lifeguard male model looking guy and wearing a small earring that she finds wildly objectionable.
All I could think, over and over again, was that at least they hadn’t cast anyone with a visible disability to serve that topic up for clearly well informed and considered discussion by these contestants. This is one show on which I’m more than happy to accept the underrepresentation of people with disabilities.
You know, if you’re into the Gregorian calendar (also, Friday 13th! Spooky!). Why hello there, gentle reader! This is my first Recommended Reading. This is very exciting for us all. While this should be a time of celebration, be cautioned: comments sections on mainstream media sites (and it’s all MSM articles in this edition of RR!) tend to not be safe and we here at FWD/Forward don’t necessarily endorse all the opinions in these pieces. Let’s jump right in, shall we?
Photo by Louise Dawson. From the photo’s Flickr page: ‘Participants in this Outward Bound group, with a variety of physical disabilities, had just tackled a ropes challenge course as part of a 9 day program.’ The photo was taken in November 1996.
Vice President John Dramani Mahama on Wednesday announced that 50 per cent of buses expected from Brazil would be friendly to persons with disabilities.
He said the constitution of the National Council on persons with disabilities was the beginning of the educational programmes that would help to redress their challenges as public institutions noting that the transport system still lacked facilities for them.
The news that Channel 4 is going to spend millions on the London 2012 Paralympics and give it 150 hours of coverage is a landmark moment. The BBC did a fantastic job of increasing the Paralympics’ profile, but it usually ended up on BBC2 – second fiddle to the Olympics. I only found out about the Paralympics when I was 14 – before then I didn’t know it was possible for someone in a wheelchair to compete in a global sports event.
The system ensures security by sending each registered voter a pin number by mail; that number can then be used to access the electronic ballot either online or on the telephone.
If you’re on Delicious, feel free to tag entries ‘disfem’ or ‘disfeminists,’ or ‘for:feminists’ to bring them to our attention! Link recommendations can also be emailed to recreading[@]disabledfeminists[.]com.
If you ever want to confuse people, tell them glasses are assistive devices that assist people with lower-level vision impairments, and then compare these assistive devices to such things as arm crutches or wheelchairs. In my experience, they’ll often insist that people who wear glasses are normal. (Not like people who use wheelchairs or arm crutches or any other type of assistive tech, no no, those people are disabled. And everyone knows you can tell who has a disability and who doesn’t just by looking at them, right?)
I’ll often introduce people to the idea that our image of what “disabled” looks like is constructed by talking about glasses as assistive tech, just assistive tech that is generally accepted by society. For a lot of people I interact with every day, getting glasses is routine, and you’ll see glasses everywhere on the street – advertisements for fancy glasses frames! and for new types of lenses! Glasses for everyone! (For certain definitions of “everyone”.)
At the same time, media & pop culture still use glasses as “code” – either for This Is Serious Work, or This Person Is A Nerd/Geek (and a particular type at that) or a scientist/doctor, or a Serious Scholar. This is true whether the person uses glasses all the time, or if they just use them for certain things. On Leverage, for example, when “the bruiser” character Eliot puts on his glasses he suddenly becomes totally sexy and I’d totally hit that because I’m shallow it’s usually an indication that his persona for the episode is Egghead/Nerd or Expert on something. Neal, who is a “recovering” con artist, does something similar in White Collar when he’s doing close-up nerdy-type work on his forgeries, or when his persona is “doctor”. I also clearly remember Elle Woods putting on her Serious Glasses and getting into her Serious Clothes for when she wants to be taken seriously as a lawyer in Legally Blonde. Glasses = Smart!
What brings this back to Glasses As Assistive Tech is that glasses are very normalized to people watching the shows, and yet glasses aren’t all the common as just a Thing The Character Wears in the show. I know why this is – glasses cause light-reflections, glasses make it harder to read someone’s expression on the screen, glasses can be dangerous in fight scenes, if they have lenses they can get scratched up and cause more problems, and if you’re not someone who wears glasses all the time I’m betting they’re distracting.
But, of course, movies and television aren’t the only media we consume. Comics, novels, and video games don’t have these problem. You can give every character in a novel glasses if you want, and it doesn’t really matter. And yet, when I was reading romance novels & chick lit all the time, I can only remember one heroine who wore them, and she went through the whole “Oh, but no one will find me pretty! Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses!” (And, despite her glasses being a huge thing in this novel, the cover art didn’t show her with them. Not that this is surprising, but still.)
So what does this have to do with anything? Well, glasses are assistive tech that is very normalized, and yet doesn’t appear very often in our media. When it does appear in our media, it’s often a code for something. This person is Smart. This person is Studious. This person in Playing A Role. This person is Eliot and his glasses make him really really hot omg why are there not more episodes of him wearing glasses and being friendly? And if we can’t see this incredibly common type of assistive tech in our media being used as just a Thing That People Wear, it’s no wonder we so rarely see people using assistive tech in our media just because Some People Are Blind or Some People Uses Arm Crutches or whatever.
Commenting Note: Sadly, I am still on Thesis Time, and likely will be until the end of the calendar year. Comment-approval/responding to will be slower-than-usual on account of this.
Director Matthew Galkin’s documentary Kevorkian (aired on HBO on June 28th; also available on YouTube; ETA: as codeman38 points out below, the YouTube version is, unfortunately, not closed-captioned) is one of those documentaries that I felt nervous about watching, mostly because I was extremely skeptical that it would be anything other than a massive apologia for the man colloquially known as “Dr. Death” in the U.S. news media and among much of the North American public. I was also concerned that my own complicated views on physician-assisted suicide would impact my feelings on whether this documentary was worth the time and emotional energy spent watching it. Like many documentaries, it is a difficult film to watch. It is not uplifting by any means. Parts of it are brutal. Parts of it are frightening. That said, however, I am ultimately glad that I watched this film — not because it “humanizes” Jack Kevorkian or acts as an apologia, but because it deftly explores issues of ethics, law, the power of the media, and legacy.
The entire film is framed by Kevorkian’s ill-fated 2008 bid for a congressional seat representing the state of Michigan — his platform, as the film shows it, leans heavily on the Ninth Amendment — but his congressional hopes are not the most interesting or thought-provoking part of the film. Almost paradoxically, the most interesting part of this documentary is the fact that Kevorkian does a pretty excellent job of not coming across as particularly sympathetic, something that a viewer might not glean from the film’s trailer.
Here, Kevorkian comes off as one majorly self-aggrandizing guy, and it seems like the director does not have to work very hard to make viewers see that Kevorkian can be difficult to deal with. He often seems so enamored of his own ideas, and his own legacy, that he focuses on these things to the detriment of his friends and allies — and, ultimately, his cause. This becomes most clear in one sequence late in the film, where a longtime supporter of Kevorkian’s publicly disagrees with him at a small town hall-style meeting; Kevorkian responds not by answering the man’s questions regarding the Ninth Amendment, civilly discussing his differences of opinion or why he feels the way that he does, but by yelling at him and then forcefully spitting, “I wish you weren’t here [at this meeting]!” Kevorkian’s behavior during the Thomas Youk case is also ethically questionable, as he videotaped Youk’s death in part with the aim of bringing more publicity and media attention to himself and his cause, even though the videotape would most likely put him (Kevorkian) in prison for murder; as one journalist phrases it, Kevorkian wanted to start a “national debate on [physician-assisted suicide]” by appearing on 60 Minutes with the full tape of Youk’s death. The 60 Minutes footage, both of the Youk tape and Kevorkian’s interview with correspondent Mike Wallace, shown in the film is nothing short of chilling; when Kevorkian intones, “Either they go, or I do,” one may pause to consider that a potential “win” of this particular fight would be built on the bodies of those he has “assisted.”
Unfortunately, no one who opposes Kevorkian’s views on assisted suicide — or his political platform, for that matter (with the exception of the former supporter mentioned above) — gets any screen time whatsoever, and this ends up making the film as a whole seem extremely one-sided. As a viewer, I would have been interested in seeing people who oppose Kevorkian’s method and message, particularly since Kevorkian’s former lawyer simplifies the opposition to him, and physician-assisted suicide in general, by casting any opposition as right-wing religious reactionism versus “enlightenment,” thereby erasing the many disability activists who have criticized Kevorkian and his methods. And while Kevorkian certainly does an admirable job of not coming across as anything other than a guy who overestimates his own importance, or gives any consideration to the reasons why some might oppose his methods or message, the film’s lack of any substantial exploration of opposing view(s) was disappointing.
Despite its flaws, Kevorkian is an interesting, thought-provoking and disturbing documentary. As someone who has complex personal feelings about physician-assisted suicide and its ethics, I am of the opinion that this documentary provides a riveting look at the life of a man whose actions have, for better or worse, managed to galvanize the discussion of physician-assisted suicide, and related issues surrounding medical ethics, the media’s role in medical issues, life, death, and quality of life in the United States.
Commenting Note: This is NOT a thread in which to debate the “rightness” or “wrongness” of physician-assisted suicide in general. Please keep your comments to either the issues discussed here, those brought up by the Kevorkian case/media coverage/related topics, or those illuminated in the film. The entire film is available in 9 parts on YouTube [trigger warning for in-depth discussion of PAS, and accessibility warning for lack of closed-captioning].
Moderatrix Note: This is a post from my “Summer of Buffy” series (or “Season of Buffy” for my Southern Hemisphere friends, who want to be MONSTERS and have different seasons and ruin my pun, but you are my favourite people EVAH and I love you!), which I thought was appropriate for cross posting, due to the subject matter. I hope you enjoy it, or find it worthy of discussion if nothing else. You may read more of that at random babble… where I frequently blog about and critique pop-culture.
When Buffy Season 1 ended with “Prophecy Girl” we saw a lot of things happen.
The Hellmouth actually opened, for the first of what will be many times (I really hope that isn’t too much of a spoiler for many of you), Cordelia drove her car through the school, and Buffy faced The Master and died. For a minute or two (Hey! It’s TV!).
Also through the miracle of TV, Xander (who can never do what he is told, ever, and it always works out to a convenient plot device) and Angel showed up just in time to revive her and send her on her way to be the prettiest Not Zombie ever (that was The Guy’s thing, OK).
So when Season 2 picks up and Buffy is returning from a summer with her dad we have a whole new Slayer who comes back as a whole new, shall we say, snarkier Buffy with a better haircut.
So here’s the part where Joss is gonna get some shit from me: Buffy is so incredibly obviously dealing with Some Issues. She is having flashbacks while training. She is having some really shit-tastic nighmares where Giles tries to choke her to death while her best friends watch, Giles actually being The Master in a Giles mask. To me the most disturbing part of the dream is that Buffy dreams that her friends are asking how she is doing… something that isn’t happening in real life, and that in a way she dreams that Giles allowed her to die, which I think she might actually believe…
So she is lashing out at her friends. Full scale snark at Xander and Willow and Giles. She mocks Willow — something she dropped Cordelia faster than Kid drops food under the table on a clean floor for doing. She pulls Xander out onto the dance floor at The Bronze and proceeds to do what was henceforth known as her “sexydance” that made both Angel and Willow jealous. In fact, if you mention Season 2 Ep. 1 “When She Was Bad” to some vaguely familiar with Buffy, the first thing they remember is “sexydance”. She romps about with a new personae that manages to get Cordelia to pull her aside and ask if she was running for “Bitch of the Year”.
If Cordelia is up in your shit about your “Joan Collins ‘tude”, then it is time for a deep inward assessment.
But what no one did was try to actually talk to Buffy, which is what bothered me about the writing of this episode.
See, Buffy died, and I am pretty sure that upset her a bit. I know it might peeve me a bit, if I was 16 and had to deal with that. That might have been something she had to work through a bit, the way she felt about dying. So, instead of anyone talking to her about how that felt, Joss wrote everyone doing the logical thing and talking about her. Instead, it kind of felt like her friends just … got annoyed with her and didn’t try to understand what she was dealing with. Sure, Buffy was behaving in all the wrong ways, but her friends weren’t exactly the pillars of strength she needed to get through her situation, either. But, of course we will see that this becomes a theme.
The only person who tries to reach out to her is Angel, the one person most closely associated with the thing that has caused all of this pain, and the one person most likely to elicit the most harsh reaction from Buffy. She brushes him off, is harsh with him, even though we see peeks of her emotionally reaching out to him at the same time (cue heart wrenching music to imply the Cosmically Forbidden Relationship)… Angel is the personification of all that went wrong with her life. The Slaying, the Vampires, and ultimately death. He couldn’t even save her life before or after her death…
The harsh reality of the weight of her responsibility, the painful truth that even her life is fragile hangs on her weary shoulders even as life doesn’t stop to allow her to mourn her own death. Buffy is obviously angry, hurting, and possibly confused about her future. We see this theme again throughout the series, as she has to decide if she should bother planning a future in her life: career, love, even just graduating or getting through tomorrow. The fragility of her role in the world crashed into her path of vision, and she had to face that in the 60 seconds of clinical death (and later with the appearance of another Chosen One).
This stings close to home for people who deal with real life depression, over loss in their lives, or any of the other reasons that mental illness comes crashing down or tries to suffocate us. Often, the people around us give up trying to support us, and withdraw, leaving us to lash out or sometimes give up.
Perhaps Joss didn’t fail as much as I first said.
Perhaps, in Buffy, he has attempted to personify the utter helplessness and angst that people in a deep depression sometimes feel. Perhaps, he has done a perfect job of showing what it feels like to not be able to yell out exactly what is going on inside, how it feels to have suffered what you have suffered because no one really can truly empathize, no one can truly feel your pain…
If only defeating your demons was as simple as smashing a set of bones with a giant mallet.