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Mixed-up metaphor--magic in BtVS season six - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Mixed-up metaphor--magic in BtVS season six
We kind of got into this on stakebait's journal, and I've been thinking more about it, particularly as I'm watching the end of season two on FX and the real beginning of Willow's magic use.

There are parts of season six I like quite a lot, including the final trilogy, but the "magic addiction" subplot always felt off to me, and I've been thinking about why (of course; I can't just leave well enough alone).

Reason the first: It's clunky
The first test any symbol has to pass is the aesthetic test. If it fails here, it doesn't matter if anything else works (as it happens, this fails two other tests as well, but I'll get to them soon). The Powers-That-Be decided to make an addiction plot, and apparently just said, "Wow, we've sure got something powerful going on in magic, so boom, Willow's addicted to magic, which is like a DRUG, get it???? GET IT????"

Yes, all right, already. Please just stop now. Either do an addiction plot or do a symbolic addiction plot--put her on cocaine or have her possessed by a demon--but don't do a normal afterschool-special level addiction plot and then pretend you're doing symbolism by having it be magic. That's just irritating. The theme was used better in season four, when Willow did go off the deep end after Oz left, but that wasn't portrayed as addictive, just as a bad choice of how to use power--kind of like Buffy and violence. There was no indication that it did anything to Willow other than attract D'Hoffryn. Therefore, the addiction metaphor was never brought up until the moment they decided on it, and then it was introduced clumsily by pretending it had always been so. Which brings us to...

Reason the second: It's not a logical extension of what came before
We're introduced to witchcraft in season one, when Amy's mother uses it to switch places with Amy. This is a bad thing--a misuse of magic. There's no indication that Amy's mother ever tried to stop, or that she would have found herself addicted if she had. She was just vain and started using magic to get her way. We then meet the good Jenny Calendar, who uses magic to save Willow from Moloch, and whose spells ultimately lead to re-ensouling Angel. Willow picks up Jenny's magic, and as she learns it, she learns more about herself and her inner strength. It's a voyage of self discovery, and is, as she informs Buffy, about emotional control of herself.

Ahem, repeat. Emotional control.

Magic in the series is about discipline, not lack thereof. It can be misused, but it doesn't misuse the user. You could set up a universe where that's not the case and magic is a drug that saps the person of self-discipline, but, um, that wouldn't be the Buffyverse until season 6. Magic as a drug isn't a logical extension of magic as used in this universe prior a plot requirement for it to be so.

Reason the third: The metaphor already had an assigned meaning.
Beginning simply as Willow's growth arc, her understanding of her own strength and uniqueness and her own self-knowledge, by the time we reached the end of season five, magic in Willow's life had taken on a much more specific symbolism: her sexuality. Now, I'm not wild about the reduction of self-knowledge to only knowledge of one's sexuality, but it's a logical development of the metaphor, as it is very much still involved with self-understanding. When Willow pairs with Tara, both of them become much more powerful as witches, and the magic they do together is specifically symbolic of their sexual life.

I've heard that there were loud complaints about Tara's death as some kind of stereotypical punishment scenario (this surprised me, as I've never heard of the scenario and, more than that, the archetypical revenge arc was the ultimate in radical norming of the relationship), but I have yet to hear the complaint that occurred to me very early on (and it's not an issue that normally occupies my mind): The season six arc took a metaphor that had the assigned meaning of Willow's sexuality and made it into an addiction that involved being possessed by demonic forces and needing to break free of it in order to be herself again.

Now, I know that's not what they meant at Mutant Enemy, because the direct text of the episodes doesn't support it. What they actually did, in the technical sense, was to say, "Oh, let's make this metaphor mean something else."

But you can't do that. Building a symbolic structure is something that takes place over the course of a story's arc, and the symbol acquires its meaning(s) slowly, growing with each new use, going from a simple element to a core image. It doesn't lose that symbolism just because a writer has opted not to use it anymore. It can acquire new meanings as it grows, but those meanings then attach to the older meanings. Ergo, when magic became linked with Willow's sexuality, her sexuality became linked with the self discovery and emotional discipline that had been linked to magic before. And in season six, logically, the notion of demonic possession and loss of self have also glommed on to Willow's sexuality and self-knowledge. This would be a rather bad message. Of course, it's not what's meant, which means that rather than being a bad message, it's a horrid metaphor. Except that even horrid metaphors mean what they mean, and...

So why was the outrage directed at Tara's death and not the betrayal of the symbol of their relationship?

Shrug. Just random thoughts.
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ide_cyan From: ide_cyan Date: September 28th, 2005 07:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
but I have yet to hear the complaint that occurred to me very early on (and it's not an issue that normally occupies my mind): The season six arc took a metaphor that had the assigned meaning of Willow's sexuality and made it into an addiction that involved being possessed by demonic forces and needing to break free of it in order to be herself again.

It's been said before.


even Willow's magic, which for the last two years has been used heavily on the show as a metaphor for lesbian sex and love, has been portrayed this year as addictive, dangerous, and even insane. The unintended message of this storyline: Lesbian love is an intense, dangerous thing. Death and destruction awaits.


A problem with the connection between lesbian desire, witchcraft and magic within the Buffyverse, is that magic and witchcraft are fluid signifiers in this series. These metaphors have been used to deal with a variety of themes including female narcissism, jealousy, lesbian desire, drug addiction and revenge. Witchcraft and magic are therefore unstable signifiers that constantly change in the Buffy verse, but they nearly always represents signs of female deviance. By assertively associating the lesbian characters with magic and witchcraft, the show still aligns lesbianism with supernatural powers, moral deviance and unnatural desires.


How can Whedon not see the direct connections between Willow's story of "weakness" and historical stereotypes of homosexuality as congenital and/or psychological defect, or how her "addiction" dovetails easily with prejudices against queer sexual pathologies and excess?


And I argued this before: "If magic is lesbianism, and magic leads to addiction in the only lesbian relationship on the show, that's a very negative message."
danel4d From: danel4d Date: September 28th, 2005 07:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
I really don't think it was what they meant... but still, it was pretty darn lazy of them. I think they went a bit over board on the idea that, since, they'd been building up that Willow was going overboard on magic, rather than being simply a metaphorical addiction - it would probably be better to say that she was addicted to power, and magic gave her access to this - they made it a literal addiction - with a skeazy pusher, thoroughly implausible peer pressure - when, exactly, was Amy Madison, Rat!Girl since Season 3 and apparently having no problems prior to that supposed to be doing the MagiCrack - crying in the shower scenes and everything. They even threw in the idea of Buffy apparently being addicted to Spike, which is just weird. They really didn't think it through - still, it does serve as proof of the fact that messages not intended by the author can still be very apparent in the text. But damn, I never followed that whole theory, seeing it as semi-representative of that strand of academic liberalism which upsets me as an otherwise liberal. Darn.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: September 28th, 2005 07:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ah... this shows that I'm not a big fandom person. ;)

That said, I really don't think it's what they meant, but I agree with danel... it's LAZY symbolism.
ladyaeryn From: ladyaeryn Date: September 28th, 2005 07:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
I agree. This was where season 6 started to go off the rails for me. (For all the flak season 6 gets, it's actually pretty decent up until Smashed/Wrecked. Heck, two of my favorite episodes of the series - OMWF and Tabula Rasa - come from there.)

There was no indication that it did anything to Willow other than attract D'Hoffryn. Therefore, the addiction metaphor was never brought up until the moment they decided on it

Yes, yes. This was a big part of why this storyline irked me. We'd visited this territory before, and the addiction idea wasn't remotely touched on as a possible implication, when BtVS was generally good about foreshadowing. (The jokey "gay" comments about Willow in seasons 1-3, for instance.)

The botched "addiction" metaphor was a big problem in season 6 in general, it seems - Willow with magic; Buffy with Spike. Both of them TPTB apparently intended to be interpreted one way, which jarred with the interpretation a significant part of the audience ended up coming to. (Like with the Spike/Buffy AR scene in Seeing Red, which has never quite stopped feeling - no matter what it apparently led to for his character - like the TPTB trying to heavy-handedly prove to the audience once and for all just how So Very Bad that relationship was.) Both came off feeling like heavy-handed attempts at showing that Addiction is Wrong, when BtVS had usually done remarkably well in most of their various Life-Really-*Is*-Hell metaphors without turning into an after-school-special kind of deal.

stereotypical punishment scenario

Ahh yes, the "dead lesbian cliche." *eyeroll* If Joss is targeting/punishing lesbians for having sex, I have to wonder how these people explain away Buffy and Angel's storyline in the latter half of season 2. (Or hell, any ill-fated relationship in the Jossverse.) Or that the one pairing to apparently see a happy ending on the show was a lesbian couple. *stops before she gets into a W/K rant*
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: September 28th, 2005 07:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
What I don't get about a cliché is how it can be a cliché if no one knows about it except for the people writing papers... I'd never even heard of such a pattern until I saw the complaints that Tara was just one more example of it! Heh? I thought of that storyline as pretty much the most radical normalization of their relationship that had occurred so far--no one questioned Willow acting like any other vengeful, bereaved lover, and the tacit expectation that the audience wouldn't question it either is genuinely radical on prime time, where one might have expected some soapy scenario where Willow bemoans having given up everything she valued for this and now she's lost it and whatever shall she do now? Instead, she starts taking names and kicking ass, like anyone else would in that situation.

The addiction question was a lot more troubling on that front.
ide_cyan From: ide_cyan Date: September 28th, 2005 08:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
What I don't get about a cliché is how it can be a cliché if no one knows about it except for the people writing papers...

Depends where you look, doesn't it?

The Kitten message board has 1228 registered users. The The Dead/Evil Lesbian Cliché FAQ was written by members of this board. See this 24-page long thread on the old board.

I'd never even heard of such a pattern until I saw the complaints that Tara was just one more example of it! Heh?

With all due respect, straight privilege comes with its own set of blinders, and you've described yourself as "not a big fandom person".
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: September 28th, 2005 09:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, looking at that list, it looks like most of those cases are cases of gay couples being treated the same as straight couples... the L&O case about the gay fathers was a pro-gay episode and the whole thing was tied into the homophobic attitude of the child's natural father. It hardly seems fair to put "Dead" on a blame list for a show about homocide detectives... there's always someone dead! The fact that in some cases, it's a gay person who is either the victim or the killer is just part of normalization--how many times do we see one-off killers/victims who are straight and whose crimes are involved with their love lives? That hardly supports it as big negative cliché.
ide_cyan From: ide_cyan Date: September 28th, 2005 08:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
...the links at the end of the FAQ might interest you.

This item, for instance: Evil and Dead Gay and Lesbians: The cliche lives Brief list of some of the lesbian and gay characters who have met untimely ends or been depicted as evil/insane in a variety of popular television shows and films.

And After Ellen is a good resource for information about the presence of lesbians in US media.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: September 28th, 2005 09:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think my problem with the argument is that very few of the characters listed--at least those on the shows I know--seems to have been "punished" for being gay, nor does it seem to be a cliché in the sense of "Oh, for G-d's sake, not this again!" You know, like, the two children of feuding families fall in love and you just know how it's going to end. Or "apparently nerdy girl meets cool boy, and he makes her beautiful and falls in love with her." When a gay or lesbian character appears on TV, you have no idea which of the stock plots you're going to get, or which role the person will play in it. (Given that it's TV, you can pretty much assume it's going to be a stock plot. But will the person be the victim? The avenger? The justice seeker? The survivor? The martyr? The manipulative jerk? The innocent?)
sonetka From: sonetka Date: September 28th, 2005 11:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
The way I saw it, by having the relationship end tragically and violently, Willow and Tara were being punished for living in the Whedonverse. I mean, really, which major Buffy character doesn't have at least one dead-by-violence ex-lover? Buffy killed Angel - OK, he came back but she didn't know that would happen. Jenny Calendar was murdered and left in Giles's bed by Evil Angel. Xander has not one, but two dead exes - granted, he wasn't dating either one at the time they died, but he was still at least getting along with Anya when she was killed, and of course Cordelia went off the rails in a major way on "Angel." We don't get to see Xander's reaction to this, but considering that he had goodwill towards her at the end of season 3 Buffy (buying her prom dress) we can assume it distressed him to hear the news. Willow was previously a bit of an odd woman out in that her ex, Oz, was still alive and functioning, albeit without her :).
super_pan From: super_pan Date: September 29th, 2005 11:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, I saw one of the Buffyverse writers(I think it was "Buffy Bites" that they do on FX during Buffy reruns) saying that they pretty much punished love in general. Hey, Spike never lost a lover to death by violence, but, he still suffered enough to count!
sixth_light From: sixth_light Date: September 28th, 2005 08:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
The Willow/addiction plot made no sense to me whatsoever - come to that, neither did the Buffy/Spike one. Up until Smashed, season six seemed to be heading for some interesting plot arcs that were different to the ones we got. Willow's problem was wanting to control everything, and a logical plot arc would have had her meddling more and more severely with the gang in an effort to make their lives go "right". Buffy and Spike were, until Smashed, heading for if not a relationship then at least a solid friendship, given the fact that they were shown as being clearly comfortable with each other. Even the Xander/Anya breakup seems odd in light of the fact that in OMWF, when their true feelings were revealed, they were evidently very much in love, despite their (pretty minor) problems. Actually, this was like the season of breakups. Did the makers have a problem with long-term relationships, or what? Is it truly unbelievable that out of all the various relationships the Scoobies had pre-season seven, not one would make it to the end of that season?

Actually, what this brings home to me is that the sixth and seventh seasons were...sort of unnecessary. By the end of the fifth most of the major plot arcs had been covered; Buffy and Dawn were a family, Glory was defeated, Buffy had realised the meaning of her gift to the world. There were loose ends, of course - Willow's use of magic, Giles staying or going, Xander and Anya engaged but not married, Spike still with the chip. But none of them desperately needed to be continued. When they did, it kind of faltered, because they had to untie a lot of the tied-up ends to make it work (e.g. Spike going from undergoing torture to save Buffy pain to...trying to rape her.) This does seem to be a case of a show not knowing when to stop.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: September 28th, 2005 09:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think that following up on the Buffy-Spike relationship in some way was an interesting way to go (and I have to admit, I hated season 5 more than season 6, despite the more obvious flaws of season 6--I just plain did not like season 5, and it was fundamental to the overarching plot, not anything that could have been fixed by paying more attention to details--so I was glad it didn't end there), and a living Buffy learning to understand her gift was more interesting to me than a dead Buffy, but I do see what you mean. It looked like they were flailing around a lot about what they meant to do.

As to the Spike/Buffy arc... I have to agree with the WTF school of thought. They were heading in an interesting direction, and the ensouling was a great culmination of it, but the whole addiction/abusive thing was just... weird.
sixth_light From: sixth_light Date: September 29th, 2005 12:29 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh, I'm glad they followed up on it. I love the ship. But in some ways, Spike's speech in "The Gift" would have been a better ending because it validated the idea that love can be important, and redemptive, without being reciprocated or consummated. Both Spike and Buffy had learned to accept the fact he was in love with her, without demanding a return from her that she didn't necessarily feel. And that, to my mind, is a better - or, at least, more novel - way to finish than just "and then she decided she did like him" or "and then it turned out he was still evil and it didn't matter."
veryshortlist From: veryshortlist Date: September 28th, 2005 11:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
The thing that irks me most about the Buffy/Spike plot is the complete turnaround of attitudes regarding Spike in S7. In S6, he tries to rape Buffy, and runs away to Africa. Then he comes back and Buffy tracks down a killer worm and seemingly forgives him. WTF?

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: September 29th, 2005 12:16 am (UTC) (Link)
Well, she's pretty leery of him, but the point is that she found out he got his soul, which in the case of vampires, literally makes them different people than they were before.
sixth_light From: sixth_light Date: September 29th, 2005 12:35 am (UTC) (Link)
I think the point there is, not only that he was, as said above, literally a different person, but that the demon - the evil part, if you want - had chosen to essentially sacrifice what he was. He hurt Buffy, but then he went and made himself a better person to try and find some redemption for that. And it went insane because of it. It's not exactly a small thing. Compare that to Angelus sans soul, and I think it's fairly obvious why she'd forgive him. (You could equally ask why he never called Buffy on treating him as badly as she did.)
veryshortlist From: veryshortlist Date: September 29th, 2005 04:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yes, Spike was not as unabashedly evil as Angelus was. Angelus was perhaps more interesting than years of the good Angel out together.

On the other hand, Spike had his mind-altering chip to help him be a better person. He couldn't kill random people, so the only alternative was to help Buffy kill demons and vampires. (This subplot was very well done I think) Angel had no such device. Who is to say that he wouldn't have changed drastically as well.
sixth_light From: sixth_light Date: September 29th, 2005 07:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
Possible, but I've seen it pointed out that just because the chip stopped Spike hurting people directly didn't stop him, e.g., setting Buffy's house on fire, cutting brake lines in a car, or several hundred other indirect methods of murder. Spike didn't do any of this because he's all about the fight. Angelus and his whole death as art mindset would have adapted very well to evil with chip, I think. Give Angelus Drusilla and a few minions and I don't think you'd see much of a change from the way he operated in the second season. That's not to rule out a change over time, but it's less likely. Besides, can you ever see Angelus going to the Scoobies for help?

Totally agree about Angelus being more interesting, though. Definitely my favourite Big Bad.
From: (Anonymous) Date: September 30th, 2005 04:21 am (UTC) (Link)
This reminds me of one I thought was odd about Willow earlier.

In the Thanksgiving episode, a vengeful Indian spirit wrecks a little havoc. This was evidently to avenge a massacre of Indians in Sunnydale. However, the story seems a bit confused about whether this massacre happened under American, Mexican, or Spanish rule. It happened about a hundred years ago, which would be American control of California. However, references are made to diseases that would have been brought in with the Spanish. Important records were in the hands of an Hispanic priest. I assumed those were church records, which suggested either the Mexican or Spanish era. Also, a massacre of the type described fit better before the 1890's.

Partly because of this, I began paying attention to who the vengeful spirit targeted and why. The conclusion I came to was that he didn't care whether these people were descendants of the ones behind the massacre or even if they were part of the same nation. They all came under the same, general, western European cultural umbrella.

So, when Willow, who's Jewish, expressed sympathy for his POV, it really creeped me out. Check me on this, but weren't several centuries of antiSemitism based on about the same argument? Holding all people of a general religious/ethnic group responsible for crimes attributed to a specific group of long dead individuals? I suppose it was just me but I was seeing some pretty obvious connections at that point.

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