One Day, One Thing More

Everyday observations

Category: television

Buffy: Now and Forever

The ways my life has changed since the election are endless, it seems—the level of fear I walk around with (lots), the things I make space in my life and schedule for (a lot more protests and writing, fewer long runs and lazy afternoons), how much money I give away (wow a lot), the frequency with which I wear feminist t-shirts (minimum once a week) the number of fucks I have left (none). But one thing I didn’t see coming was the way that my relationship with fandom has shifted.

I’ve been writing about fandom forever, it seems. Star Trek fans were the topic of my senior thesis in college, and my dissertation (now being revised into a book) is also about fandom. So I guess I’m an expert? But (like most academics, I suppose), I’ve used that expertise as a shield. I went to Star Trek conventions, but as an observer, collecting funny stories. I creep on the comments section, but rarely add anything to the discussion. In college, I read a bunch of slash fiction, but for scholarly purposes.

And my own experience of fandom has always been surprisingly solitary, considering how much I have praised it as a collective experience in my academic work. For instance: in suburban Minneapolis in the 1990s you could watch a three-hour block of Nerd Heaven every night on channel 23 (the original home of MST3K!): back-to-back episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation followed by back-to-back episodes of the 1980s reboot of The Twilight Zone. I loved it so much—and if my memory is anything to go on, I never ever did my homework, because my strongest memory of that period is smoking weed alone in the parking lot of our local Blockbuster video and going home to watch three hours of this sci-fi dream. These shows felt like a way out of adolescent loneliness, but even though I was excited when I found like-minded fans, that wasn’t the point. The point was the hyper-awareness that came with being high, the total immersion in a dys- or utopian futurescape, one that was as far from Minnetonka as possible. The experience of escaping into the fictional world itself was a solitary one.

I wrote my thesis about Star Trek jumping off my high-school love of the show, but Buffy was my real entrée into communal fandom. I became obsessed with the show in a more solitary manner, when I was living with my parents and getting sober immediately post-graduation. Real life was in this weird holding pattern—I hadn’t made many real friends in AA, and I didn’t really believe that sobriety could be any kind of long-term choice. Real life was listless and unreal, but Buffy felt honest, vibrant, true. I dreamt of Sunnydale almost every night. It was when I moved to Vermont that I finally did fandom right: I was living with my best gay boyfriend from college and Tuesday nights were sacrosanct TV time. When I finally moved out of his tiny apartment (kicking and screaming) a year later, I still came over every Tuesday, or he and his boyfriend taped the show and we’d watch it later that week. As I got deeper into recovery, my life kept changing, but Buffy with my best boys was a constant. I repeated this collective viewing practice with later friend groups as well. From Buffy to Lost to Battlestar Galactica, my twenties and early thirties were oriented around appointment television with my besties.

But even then, my experience of fandom was about my individual relationships. I’d watch collectively with friends, but I didn’t form new relationships based on the shared experience of fandom, I didn’t participate (except passively) in a fannish counterpublic. But since the election, I’ve been hungry for community. I’ve always been a “joiner,” but these days solidarity feels more important than ever. At the same time, the escape into fandom has also given me a kind of comfort I haven’t needed since my nightly dreams of Buffy and Angel back in the day. Buffy isn’t a perfect text, not by a long shot, but its basic premise—feminist demon fighter—resonates for me these days in a way that is bone-deep.

It was when I discovered what has become my favorite podcast in history that I truly went off the deep end. Buffering the Vampire Slayer is some seriously deep fandom. It’s hosted by a delightful couple of queer women, one a musician and the other an activist, riffing on each episode of Buffy in order, and then every episode ends with an original song that recaps the episode they just talked about. They started the show in September of 2016, but I wasn’t introduced to it until this summer. I was transfixed immediately, and tore through one or two episodes every day, listening as I biked to work, while I walked across campus to buy lunch—pretty much any time I had a free moment, I spent it with Jenny and Kristen. While my previous forays into fandom had led to me spending my free time with fictional characters in an imaginary universe, the reality I was projecting myself into this time was the cozy basement of two funny queer hipsters, whom I like to imagine I’d be friends with if we met in real life. When I knew I was really lost is when I started listening to the songs all the time, playing them for my kids through my phone’s speaker while I biked them to school because I couldn’t bear even that long away from the Buffy-verse.

I got to the episode they released the night of the election about a week into listening, and it was brutal. I heard these voices to which I’d become so attached sound deflated, small, frightened. By summer, I had clawed my way back from that place, but hearing it happen again reminded me how much the world—and I—had changed. I was biking home from work and had to pull over to weep, heartbroken again over lost hopes, shattered illusions.

But I was also able to hear my new imaginary friends—and by extension, a whole imagined community—slowly make their way back to the world. In the wake of the post-Trump world, their railing against the patriarchy, their refusal to let Xander off the hook for being a shitty, shitty guy, their insistence on calling out and rejecting the show’s racism while still holding on to its ability to rally people together felt like a game plan for building solidarity. I listened to the episode for the finale of Season 1 just as news of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville and the murder of Heather Heyer broke. The song was (and remains) my rallying cry:

What will come, what will come
If our world belongs to them?
What will come, what will come?
Just keep fighting, just keep fighting
That’s what I’m supposed to do
Just keep fighting, just keep fighting
And maybe I’ll believe it too.

I listened to it on repeat as I went to join my friends for the counter-protest in Boston. I taught it to my daughter, and we sing it together. I sing it to myself when I’m scared walking by myself, a reminder that I’m never truly alone. There’s art and music that fuels resistance and that art and music makes more art and music, like an endless set of Russian nesting dolls, one that I can be part of too if I want to.

As an “expert,” I argued that fandom offered a model for community and for critical engagement, but I saw it as more metaphorical than anything else. “Real” fandom with all its excesses was a bit much—an object for study, a source of inspiration, but I couldn’t fully align myself with that much excess. In my dissertation, I wrote that “Fans have found a way to rally around an abject relationship, but still fully invest themselves in the experience of pleasure and love. … The shame of serial reading is, of course, that Dickens or Joss Whedon or Ron Moore never cared about you the way you cared about him, but the endlessly productive interpretive energy of fans helps us to see the possible pleasures of a love that is always unrequited.”

Typically, I’d focused all my attention on the voice at the top of the heap, obsessing over my relationship to the author, wondering how to wrest authority away from the text. But I’d missed the point—it was in the connection between the readers that mattered, and what we are able to create together. New models, new spaces, new songs. The strength and hope to just keep fighting.

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So much scope for the imagination!

I was extremely wary going into Anne with an E, the new Netflix adaptation of Anne of Green Gables. Reviews called it “darker,” and I had a hard time imagining how that would be possible, given the almost relentlessness sunniness of the source material. Anne is a classic “plucky orphan,” and my memory of the book is of her being welcomed in by the town in a pretty uncomplicated way—the same qualities that made my social life unbearable day to day (an overactive imagination; endless, uncontrollable emotional reactions; a deep knack for saying the wrong thing; preciousness) seemed to reap only rewards for Anne, and the world of Avonlea felt generous and good. I was so closely identified with Anne that in the sixth grade, in a classic Anne Shirley move, I changed the spelling of my name to include an E. I was Anne, but my weirdness never won me her social acclaim, and I didn’t have a Matthew and Marilla with whom I could start anew. It’s the perfect stuff of fantasy projection: she’s like me, but everything’s a little dreamier.

The thing that distinguishes Anne with an E from the book and from the previous adaptation is its willingness to take Anne’s backstory as an orphan seriously, and to give it space and energy in the text itself rather than leaving her trauma between the lines, in the un-narratable background. Anne is explicitly positioned as suffering from PTSD, and all her central qualities—her imagination, her garrulousness, her embrace of affectations—are posited as coping mechanisms, not just general charms. Until the show veers off into melodrama, its depiction of Avonlea builds on the insights about trauma that form the unspoken foundation of the novel.

As a viewer, this causes an unexpected break with my childhood experience of the text, and maybe demonstrates one of the things that a successful adaptation can accomplish. Instead of wanting to be Anne, I want to protect her. Texts about trauma serve different purposes for us, depending on our position vis-à-vis that trauma. As a kid, I needed fictional worlds I could reside in: Anne of Green Gables offered me a vision of what might be possible if a provincial community made a decision to open itself up to a needy weirdo. As an adult, though, what I need from stories about trauma isn’t a way out—time and years of therapy have provided that—what I’m looking for is a way to see my former self with perspective and compassion.

In the first few episodes of the season, we see the people of Avonlea attempt to reconcile themselves to this girl who doesn’t follow or understand the social rulebook. Ultimately, they get to a place of generosity and open-heartedness, but it doesn’t come automatically or even easily. Her weirdness and her socially outré background has the effect it so often does in real life: the girls at school mock her, parents forbid their children from befriending her, she remains lonely and shut out. Anne is eventually welcomed into the community, but it feels earned.

This early commitment to realism is part of what makes the second half of the season’s foray into high melodrama feel disappointing. In the book, the action is resolutely located in the domestic and the everyday: Anne falls off a roof playing with friends, she bakes a cake using medicine instead of vanilla, she dyes her hair green. These small-scale, feminine conflicts don’t seem exciting enough for the adaptation. Instead, everything has to have more explicitly life-or-death stakes: it’s not enough for Anne to be barred from going to the church picnic, she has to be sent back to the orphanage and nearly abducted by a child molester. Matthew and Marilla get tragic backstories, and the story goes truly off the rails when Matthew threatens suicide.

While this does build on the Gothic undercurrents that the books have always had (Anne’s House of Dreams is particularly bananas, with its dead babies and secret twins), I feel like the shift here isn’t so much about embracing the Gothic as it is about rejecting the domestic as too boring to motivate narrative action. Puffed sleeves, in and of themselves, aren’t interesting enough for the breakneck pace of contemporary TV narrative, it seems. We still get the story where Matthew sneaks away and buys Anne an expensive dress, but then he also has to meet a former love interest, and then sells the dress back when the fate of Green Gables hangs in the balance. The emotional pitch of Avonlea matches Anne’s overactive imagination, rather than being outpaced by it.

Ultimately, I find the shift of focus away from the “small” concerns of the domestic sphere to be frustrating because it loses sight of one of the central experiences of trauma: its location in the mundane. There’s this great phrase in Alanon, “if it’s hysterical, it’s historical,” which captures the weird delayed timing of trauma, and also how much the ongoing effects of trauma are felt in unexpected, boring places. One of the central facts about trauma, especially early trauma, is how it breaks down our ability to make meaning. We think we understand how the world is supposed to work, but then something happens which breaks down that understanding: home is not safe, our bodies stop working, protector becomes threat, etc. Signification gets slippery. And as a result, spaces or things that are dangerous feel safe and vice versa; everything’s either imbued with too much meaning or not enough. The way that the puffed sleeves work in the book is a great example of this: the object itself (the dress) is insignificant, but it gains the hysterical energy that Anne imbues it with because it’s a physical sign of the social acceptance Anne craves, and then for the care Matthew offers her. It’s funny because it’s just a dress, but the truth underlying it all is that when it comes to trauma nothing is “just” anything.

When the show veers into melodrama, then, that slippage stops: the drama isn’t heightened—it hardly needs to be, with all the house fires and suicidality. It’s fun, and it does seem like a story that Anne herself would like, but the explicitness of the drama means (here, anyway) that it no longer highlights the connection between Anne’s “scope for the imagination” and her own internal struggles. At the end of the day, that feels like a missed opportunity.

Finding a better word than “progress”

So I know I don’t need to explain myself, but if I did, I’d tell you that the reason I haven’t been writing here lately is because I’m working on a Very Important Paper. That is due in January. However, the stakes feel pretty high (I’m presenting it at MLA!), and it turns out that I have far less free time than I think I do. So a lot of the free time that I do have which might usually be devoted to, say, the pleasures of Proust, is now spent either watching, reading, or thinking about Mad Men. Specifically, I’m thinking about the relationships among addiction, recovery, and serial time, as it connects to Mad Men‘s relationship with history. (Got anything else you want to see thrown into the pot? I’m apparently open to any and all ideas!)

My argument is this: all serials cause us to engage with the narrative along a double timeline, looking forward (toward the end of the series, the resolution of its mysteries, etc.) and backwards (for characters’ motivations, for clues, for callbacks, etc.) at the same time. This makes time work in a really cyclical way in serials–Mad Men might be the best illustration ever of that relationship, especially in this last season, which returned so insistently to the first one even as it demonstrated the momentum of historical change more than any season to date. I’m thinking abut this in terms of recovery as well, which seems especially appropriate for Mad Men, since it’s so concerned with alcoholism (if not recovery). And the cyclical nature of this last season is particularly preoccupied with addiction, I’d say–there’s Don’s drinking spiraling out of control even more than it has in seasons past, obviously, but there’s also the compulsive nature of his behavior writ large, especially his relationship with Sylvia (that opening line when we first see them in bed together, “I want to stop doing this,” even as we know full well that he can’t.)

This all becomes particularly interesting when we’re looking at the show through the lens of its relationship to the question of historical “progress.” Most of the critical takes I’ve seen on the show’s relationship with history tend to fall on one of two sides: either the show’s real purpose is to make contemporary readers feel good abut how much the world has changed since the 1960s (aka how much better we are now than we were back then), while still getting to enjoy (and even revel in) the style that characterized the era. So the complaint is that the show allows us to have our cake and eat it too. On the other side of things is the idea that the show’s real purpose is to show us how little progress has in fact been made, and perhaps how the idea of progress itself is the same kind of sad fiction that we see Don handing himself all the time.

(It’s quite possible that these two perspectives aren’t so much the “critical consensus” as they are my dueling reactions to the show, for the record).

But the thing that’s struck me lately as I’ve been trying to cobble my thoughts together for this paper is that neither of those responses fully account for the show’s complicated relationship to history, and I think a lot of that is because of the way that both readings are limited to an understanding of historical change that works on a strictly linear model. In popular discourse about social justice, words like “progressive” and “regressive” are thrown around a lot, but that doesn’t really account for the way social change works. In my observation, change follows more of a quantum model than a linear one. Something happens, and suddenly everything looks different, and I’m reevaulating everything that came before.

Mad Men seems to lend itself to this understanding of social change in particular since so much of its plot hinges on these massive seismic shifts–even as it’s constantly reminding us of the differences between Now and Then (the pilot is particularly intense along these lines, if you haven’t seen it in a while). Since the way we experience time is linear, it only follows that we’d understand social change along a linear model, but one thing following another in time doesn’t also indicate “upward” or “downward” movement (or forward or backward or whatever model makes more sense to you). It’s not that things get better or worse, they get different.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that I don’t think that social changes don’t impact groups of people in significantly positive or negative ways–it’s just that these changes don’t break down in as binary a fashion as the idea of “social progress” would indicate.

I’ve been thinking about this a ton lately in the wake of the recent devastating nature of the news. Each of the branches of the US government seems devoted currently to pulling the rug out from under any understanding of the forward movement of history as “progress.” And I’m not excluding the overturning of DOMA from that analysis. Obviously, I’m glad for myself and my family that my marriage is now federally recognized, and I do think this will make a big difference down the line re: gay and lesbian families being seen as equal and legitimate, but I also think that gay marriage is an issue for “winners” in the LGBT movement–people who are in a position of relative privilege especially re: race and class. With the judiciary rejection of the Voting Rights Act, the defunding of food stamps, and the obscenity that is the Trayvon Martin verdict, I am finding myself more skeptical than ever that the arc of history tends toward justice. At the same time, I’m more motivated than I’ve been in years to work toward social justice in whatever way I can. I can feel, though, that if I keep my focus on a concrete definition of “progress,” I’ll get even more disheartened–to the point of despair. The “cost of knowledge” of an intersectional understanding of social justice is that there’s always something that counterbalances any progress that does get made.

And this is where I come back to Mad Men (I’d wager you were wondering how I’d get back here). The shape of the plot over the years often revolves around huge and unexpected shifts, and then following the fallout of the characters’ reactions to those shifts. The clearest example of this is the creation of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, of course, but I think it extends to their reaction to historical events as well. When it comes to Big Historical Moments, characters on the show are often blindsided by events that we’ve seen coming, or even been anticipating–singular ones like the Cuban Missile Crisis or MLK’s assassination, but also larger social shifts like the strengthening of the Civil Rights movement (for instance, the real response to SCDP’s insincere publicly chastising a rival firm for racist pranks) and the social divide re: the anti-war movement (I’m thinking of the appalled response to Don’s attempt to build on presumed anti-war sentiment among clients).

I hope it’s clear without my saying so that the last thing I’m advocating here is a model of social action based on the behavior of the characters in Mad Men. But what I do think we can see is how what we think of as “history” is often experienced as a quantum shift rather than a progressive line. While it’s often retrospectively clear where things have been headed All Along, big historical shifts often feel like a gut punch. I was naive enough to be shocked by the Trayvon Martin verdict, even though in retrospect it should have been obvious–but even for people with a more realistic perspective on the relationship between the judiciary and young black men, the way that the news was experienced and distributed seems to have hit like a ton of bricks. We get a piece of terrible news, and then watch as reactions (including our own) fall into place.

Ultimately, there’s something simultaneously invigorating and terrifying about this conception of history. How does one advocate for justice without a utopian vision of the future to which you get attached? BUT, the more attached we become to a specific vision, the more shut down we are to new possibilities, and the less able we are to respond thoughtfully to moments of historical surprise.

This is what I love about the way Mad Men is constructed. Even in a show where we by definition know what’s going to happen (it is, after all, a kind of historical fiction), we’re constantly thrown for massive narrative loops. The one that gets at the show’s model for thinking about history most interestingly, I think, is the finale of the most recent season, and that’s where you can see how the theoretical framework of alcoholism and recovery might offer a new way of thinking about narrative progress. It’s clear that Don is “hitting bottom” in this episode, and that he’s on the verge (or in the midst) of experiencing a massive narrative shift. He’s lost his job (potentially permanently) and is coming clean for the first time about the impact of his own history on the shape of his life to date. As a reader, one of the most exciting things about this season finale is how little sense I have of where the story is going, even in the short term. I’m tempted to assume we’re on some kind of narrative trajectory toward redemption, but it seems extremely unlikely to me that the show would go in this direction, given where it’s been so far. The end of the season right at this point of a massive narrative shift (and this is the third time a season has ended like this–I’m thinking of the creation of SCDP and Don’s marriage to Megan) makes us live in that moment of surprise, extending the part where you’re waiting for the next thing so that you can’t just react right in the moment. We’re waiting for the narrative “payoff,” but also knowing that it won’t deliver whatever imaginary pleasure we think it contains, because whatever it is will be different than what we’re currently envisioning. And in this way, we’re forced (or at least structurally encouraged) to take the narrative “a day at a time,” even as we’re reminded how difficult, or even impossible it is to achieve that perspective.