September 10, 2007

Angel (television)

Some time back, I wrote a glowing post about how Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the most feminist thing I'd ever seen on television. I hold to that position. However, Buffy creator Joss Whedon is not beyond reproach when it comes to the portrayals of women in his work. And boy howdy does his Buffy spin-off show, Angel, prove it.

Unlike the nuanced and powerful women we are treated to in Buffy, Angel basically serves up two varieties of female--the virgin and the whore.

On the virgin side, we get Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), who turns from a feisty capital-B Bitch on Buffy to a boring saintly sap on Angel, and who is punished appropriately for her brief sexual forays (two of them in five years) by not one, but two demonic pregnancies. Following up on Cordelia's lead, there's Fred (Amy Acker), who is even more sweetness and light, and who also has the unfortunate luck to have her body taken over by demons more than once in her tenure. Though Cordelia is shown training with Angel a few times in the third season, I can count on one hand the number of times either she or Fred actually defend themselves physically. It's a far cry from Buffy. Mostly, Angel's "good girls" exist to be possessed/get pregnant/get kidnapped, get rescued, serve as moral foils and thwarted love interests for the male characters, and eventually die martyr deaths. Blech.

The whores don't do a whole lot better. Over five seasons, the show serves up some fairly formidable female villains, from Angel's vampire-turned-human-returned-vampire sire Darla (Julie Benz) to Cruella-esque super lawyer Lilah Morgan (Stephanie Romanov, who I just loved on the show), and culminating in season four's big bad super deity Jasmine (Gina Torres) and season five's morally ambiguous resurrected god Iliyra (Amy Acker). However, unlike male villains, female ones on Angel are neatly pigeonholed into villains-who-are-really-victims of a big bad male machine (Darla, Lilah) or odd body-snatching deities (Jasmine, Iliyra). That the show's two female regulars had to die in order to give birth to the goddess villains seems to speak volumes about how many female characters are allowed at any one time in the Angel-verse.

My favorite female characters, and oddly the ones that seem to be the best developed, are those who appear for only a handful of episodes, including Julia Lee's Anne (a crossover from Buffy), who runs a homeless youth shelter, and Gwen (Alexa Davalos), an electricity-channeling super freak who has the nerve to use her freak powers to make herself some cash and throw in the occasional helping hand to Team Angel (plus makes time to seduce Gunn) without needing to sulk and brood about it for several years. These characters, as well as guest appearances by Buffy women Faith (Eliza Dushku) and Willow (Alyson Hannigan) only served to show how little the permanent female members of the Angel cast were given to work with.

While Angel stacks up very poorly to Buffy when it comes to gender, it does better on race. To begin with, unlike Buffy, Angel has a permanent black character, Gunn (J. August Richards). Gunn's role as the show's only black character is neither ignored nor trivialized. Being black is an essential component to Gunn's character and to what he adds to Angel Investigations, but every story line in which Gunn is involved doesn't have to be about race, either. Gunn is my favorite character on Angel--I think he's the most self-aware of the whole tortured lot of them.

Another interesting use of race on Angel is Jasmine. Jasmine is the physical representation of a god, and the body she is in is African-American. Neither of her "parents" (Connor and Cordelia) is black, and she's born in a full adult form, leaving the viewer to assume she somehow chose her own shape/color. She's looked upon by all who meet her as a great beauty. It is interesting, and positive, to my mind, that the show's casting staff chose a black woman to fill this role.

None of which is to say Angel gets a completely winning score when it comes to racial issues. The Mexican wrestlers episode in season five was just bizarre, but the episode when Spike and Angel go to Italy ("The Girl in Question") was undeniably racist, drawing on pretty much every Italian stereotype in the book. So while I think on a whole Angel does a better job than Buffy with race, it still behaves much like a typical American network TV show.

All in all, for the fan of Buffy, Angel is a very distant second place. I still think it's worth watching--it has a few characters I truly dig (Lilah and Gunn chief among them, along with Lorne and, once he makes his appearance, Spike), and boasts the occasional brilliant episode. Sadly, though, none of the groundbreaking cognizance of and occasional finger towards traditional gender roles that makes Buffy so great moved over to Angel with the many crossover cast members. At the end of the day, Angel is a show in which a white dude runs the plot, makes the calls, and saves the girl. And we've seen that before.

4 Comments

Was pointed here by Celluloid Sally's off of Hathor. I think you're right that Angel didn't break as many gender stereotypes as Buffy. Cordy did get truly messed up in many ways. Felt weaker. Made more comic relief/support. And demonic pregnancy... ugh. And a lot of the nice damaged girl too on Fred's part (made explicit with the scene where all the guys had to rescue Fred before she died. Very male stereotypical.) Both of those concepts were briefly fought in certain episodes, but I'm not sure they were reinforced enough (as you said, you can count the fighting backs on few fingers.)

I think that this is a case where the overarching structure (W&H Conspiracy as Super Big Bad) inherently made the concept of 'male power structure manipulating everyone' front and center, which gave a lot of bad possibilities (as any woman that appeared would inherently be controlled by the evil males.) But I think there's a lot of good and worth in the use of that structure as well. And a twist or two in the process.

1) All the protagonists fight against the clearly patriarichal-minded power. And explicitly identify the fight as 'good' even if the foe is almost impossible to take. An inherent message of the series is that part of being good is fighting the impossible (male) foe. Even if you use their tools. The last season was an explicit soul-search of 'can you use their tools'. (And strangely, the answer was 'It'll cost you.' And the cost was female. Part of me thinks that isn't just a throw away punishment, but another part knows that women are always used as the cost to provoke emotional reaction.) I think, had Angel been a female protagonist, people would have really seen this more (alas, male on male violence.) Buffy's closest fight to 'fighting the patriarchy' was the Initiative, and they were sorta... uh, weak.

2) A thought I'm not sure the meaning of yet is that it is explicitly presented that the female big bad, Jasmine, is the big manipulator. I'm not sure about it because there's th stereotype about women not being fighting villains, and being sneaky, but at the same time, the overarching 4-season bad isn't presented as male (just as she is presented as colored.) I can't decide which way that cuts. (And the fact that the 5th season bad's faces are both male and female and neuter, but on the overall still male... not sure how that cuts either. Part of me thinks this keys back to the concept of just how the patriarchy may be male, but the true 'power people' can feel almost... sexless.)

3) Lilah's final appearance, to me, is one of the most powerful rebukes to the concept that she was the poor little abused by the patriarchy woman. Every time someone gave her the chance, showed her the score, she didn't redeem herself. Didn't go soft. Wesley was the emotional one, she was the realist. Was she owned by a big evil (male) machine? Yes. But she made every action she ever took her own, and never backed down. In her final appearance, she made it clear that there was no escape, and she knew the choice. We, on the outside, see her as a victim, as we see almost every 'evil person' as a victim, but she didn't think of herself that way, and I don't think that was the message that was meant to be sent. (The contrast to Lindsey, however, is sometimes annoyingly unflattering, as Lindsey _did_ escape. Mostly. At least he gets it in the end. They were explicitly foils, and I don't think that you can respect Lindsey in the end. But if someone don't respect Lilah... well, I dunno what they missed.)

In the overall, Angel has a very strong 'rejection of power/inevitability' mindset, which is in itself presented in a subversive manner. It does seem to leave too many of the female characters behind in that quest, though. That's all the thoughts I can put together on it at the moment.

-Mecha

The selection of Gina Torres most likely had a lot to do with her role on Whedon's show Firefly. She wouldn't have needed to be cast through regular channels.

Yeah, Angel is far more problematic from a gender perspective.

But...

- Fred takes the intellectual powerhouse/authority role after Wes is expelled, and that's damn cool and transgressive. And while she is fluffy and sweet a lot of the time, I never got the feeling that the brainy badass was worth less than the brawny ones. Without Fred to figure out who to beat up/kill, a lot of problems don't get solved. And I l-o-v-e-d the part where she's the one who figured out how to get Angel clued in to Jasmine's true identity. She was like Willow without the intensely annoying magic addiction crap.
- Gotta say that the long-running biracial couple of Fred and Gunn made me sigh with pleasure.
- I wish Fred weren't so goddamn skinny. But I like that they show her eating. A lot.
- I do like how they set it up that violence changes you, that there's a price you pay for it - cf. when Fred finds out that an old mentor betrayed her and goes for revenge.
- There's a lovely bit in the last season about Fred's loving acceptance of Lorne.
- Lorne fucking rules. I just adore him.
- I have to say, I like Angel's moral universe a lot better than Buffy's. It has so much more room for complexity and choice. By season six, I found Buffy herself pretty insufferable. Fer chrissakes', stop WHINING all the damn time, and for damn sure stop thinking that the fact that you're (one of) the slayer(s) makes you Queen of All. I thought the Faith arc in Angel was fantastic and a much-needed screw-you to Buffy the high and mighty.

I think you're a bit harsh in your assessment of Angel. Cordelia and Fred were perhaps not the greatest physical warriors but they were strong characters and strong females.

Fred is comparable to Willow in that neither was physically strong but their strengths lay elsewhere. Willow grew to be a powerful witch and Fred was a scientific genius.

Cordelia's character was ruined in season 4 in one of the worst plot turns I've seen. Especially since I loved the show. That being said she had one of the greatest character developments I ever saw until then. Cordelia and Angel were the emotional anchors of the show. But until season 4 she was the emotionally stronger of the 2 who never lost focus on their mission even if Angel did. I can't see how anyone who does not see her final episode, You're Welcome' in season 5 could not say she wasn't one of the strongest, funniest most capable and complex female characters.

On another positive note for expanding the racial diversity of the Whedonverse. Don't forget that when we are first introduced to Gwen it seems like she will be a potential love interest to Angel. On her last appearance on the show she ends up sleeping with Gunn. It's rare to have a biracial romance but I think its even more rare to have a biracial one night stand depicted on tv. Including a one night stand done with such cool eroticism.

"At the end of the day, Angel is a show in which a white dude runs the plot, makes the calls, and saves the girl. And we've seen that before."

The show is a lot more than that. There was no epic final victory over evil nor any great reward of redemption of Angel. If there are other show like this I haven't seen it and if there is I don't think it's ever been done so well.

As Angel said "If there is no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. 'cause that's all there is. What we do, now, today. - I fought for so long. For redemption, for a reward, finally just to beat the other guy, but... I never got it... All I wanna do is help. I wanna help because I don't think people should suffer, as they do. Because, if there is no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world."

I don't think a character who takes that line should be dismissed as a stereotype or some retread just because he's white

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