Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Pandoric Column: A Science-Based Look at Avatar

Above: A stolen picture of a pretty stroll on Pandora.

I'm not into writing movie reviews, and I don't intend to change this with Avatar, James Cameron's latest installment of revolutionary cinema. Suffice it to say, I thought the movie's visuals were stunning while the predictable story sucked. The combination of these two factors averaged out to an enjoyable experience that lost a lot on second viewing.

But Avatar offers entertainment beyond a three-hour brain drain in a theater made too-dark through bulky 3D glasses. It gives me a chance to do the kind of supernerd mental exercise that's kept Star Trek fans drooling for four decades. One thing almost universally praised about Avatar, after all, is the phenomenal world it depicts. And Pandora is a beautiful place. The question my inner geek keeps asking, though, is whether such a place could actually exist. Does James Cameron's paradise follow the rules of science? Could there really be a world like Pandora floating out there somewhere?

Just the Facts

We don't know much about Pandora. All we have is what we can infer from the images on the screen and a few bits of expository dialogue.

So what we know is this: Pandora is one of several large moons of a gas giant planet orbiting a yellow star similar to the sun. The gas giant appears to be blue when observed from space, closer in color to Neptune than Jupiter, suggesting a lot of atmospheric methane. In order for Pandora to be warm enough to support life, though, its primary must be much closer to its sun than Neptune is to ours, and it must receive a lot more solar radiation. One result of this is that the primary's atmosphere is more chaotic, with more violent storms and eddy currents than have been observed on Neptune.

Pandora itself has less mass than Earth, which translates to the slightly lower gravity mentioned in passing by Colonel Quaritch. Whether this owes to a difference in the moon's size or its density is not explained. Pandora's gravity is strong enough, however, to maintain a dense atmosphere, which is why animals walking on the moon's surface don't explode and surface water doesn't boil away. The movie never tells us the exact composition of this atmosphere, though we know the air is poisonous to humans.

Pandora has evolved a lush and diverse ecosystem with pervasive examples of large mega flora and mega fauna. This suggests, based on the rate of evolution suggested by Earth's example, that the moon can't be much younger than Earth's four-and-a-half billion years. It took four billion years for the first trees to evolve on Earth, after all, and Pandora has some really big trees. The moon also has a stable climate. Most of the territory seen appears to exist in a tropical or subtropical region--though oddly enough we never see rain. The water cycle is active, though, as we see a number of high-volume rivers and streams, as well as a few waterfalls in unreasonable locations.

The waterfalls aren't the only odd aspect of this moon. In one region, Pandora displays magnetic anomalies that make technological navigation useless. This same region has a number of strange rock formations, including a naturally-occurring structure of some generic gray rock formed into giant rings balanced on their edges. And it has mountains that float.

Pandoric Geophysics

I must admit, my assumption while watching the film was that the entire notion of Pandora was nothing more than the fantasy of a science-deprived mind. And I found support for this assumption when I considered Pandora's orbit. At first glance, there seemed to be something very, very wrong with Pandora's orbit.

We don't know exactly how long a day on Pandora is, but we do know that it's not too far off from the 24-hour days of Earth. Humans maintain the same circadian rhythm they've evolved on Earth. They wake up at sunrise and sleep at sunset, so a Pandoran day must be similar in length to an Earth day.

But Pandora isn't a planet. It's a moon orbiting a gas giant. And moons orbiting gas giants tend to be tidally locked, meaning they keep the same side facing their primary at all points in their orbit. The fact that Pandora's primary seems always to occupy the same patch of sky relative to, say, Home Tree suggests Pandora also is tidally locked. The day-night cycle, then, matches the amount of time it takes the moon to complete an orbit of its planet. And 24 hours seems way too fast for any real Pandora to orbit its planet. In order for Pandora to have an orbital period of 24 hours, I'd think it would either have to be moving at an immense speed, or it would have to orbit at an extremely low altitude. There's no way. At the very least, a Pandora with a 24-hour day would long ago have fallen inside its primary's Roche limit and shattered.

Fortunately, there are complicated mathematical equations that will tell you this sort of thing, and these equations are easy to find on the internet. So let us consider that first point. Just what would be the Roche limit of Pandora's primary?

For those unfamiliar with the concept, a planet's Roche limit is the distance from that planet a satellite can orbit without tidal forces shattering it to pieces and turning it into a pretty set of rings. The assumption is that Saturn's rings exist because some satellite ignored the Roche limit and paid the price. Neptune's moon, Triton, is on the edge of Neptune's Roche limit, needing nothing more than a slight push to fall over the edge. So in a real universe, would Pandora be doomed to a similar outcome?

To figure this, we have to know the mass of both Pandora and its primary. We don't know either, but let us make a guess. Say Pandora's mass roughly matches that of Earth. (Quaritch says it's lower, but from observation, things fall on Pandora at about the same rate as they fall on Earth. The difference is nominal.) Let us also say that the mass of Pandora's primary matches that of Jupiter. It could be much larger, but we don't know this. Plug everything into the equation, and what do you get? The Roche limit for Pandora's primary falls well within the radius of the primary itself. In essence, Pandora would have to orbit within its primary to be in trouble.

Okay, so Pandora isn't doomed to become a set of rings. But what about the speed of its orbit? How close would Pandora have to orbit to have a 24-hour day? Plug everything into that equation, and you get a distance of 180,000 miles from the primary's center. If the primary is as large as Jupiter, then Pandora would orbit some 138,000 miles above the atmosphere, 40,000 miles farther than our own moon orbits above us.

So, the upshot: it's possible. Pandora could exist.

As a side note, though, consider the other moons you see in Pandora's sky. All moons of any planet will exist in the same orbital plane, meaning they'll occupy the same piece of Pandora's sky. These other moons seem to be located wherever they'd be most aesthetically pleasing. So while Pandora could exist, these other moons probably could not.

What About the Air?

The composition of Pandora's atmosphere is never explained. We just know that humans can't breathe it. The air doesn't kill instantly, though; it's not as if some caustic agent eats away at the lungs. Humans recover quickly from exposure, eliminating a number of harmful gases such as chlorine from the list of possibilities. It's more that humans suffocate in the air without masks supplying oxygen. This suggests the problem with Pandora's atmosphere is more a lack of oxygen than an abundance of anything else.

This is unreasonable, though, for the simple reason that things burn on Pandora. Things burn quite well, in fact; a significant portion of the predictable plot depends on this fact. And when things burn, they burn beneath a sky the same color blue as that produced by the scattering of light by oxygen molecules in Earth's atmosphere. And they burn while animals as large as Earth's dinosaurs run or fly at energetic speeds, thanks to their ability to efficiently metabolize foods and produce energy. It's unlikely that anything other than oxygen would allow that kind of metabolism, just as it's unlikely that anything other than oxygen would produce a blue sky or allow a fire hot enough to burn a giant tree. It's clear, therefore, that a significant portion of Pandora's atmosphere must be oxygen.

Of course, that's not all it must be. Oxygen only makes up 20% of Earth's atmosphere, after all, so I assume a similar level for Pandora. In fact, any greater proportion of oxygen would allow fires to burn too well. But what about the other 80% of the atmosphere? On Earth, the dominant gas is nitrogen, but what about Pandora?

My chemistry isn't strong enough to come up with an informed answer. My first guess would be a carbon-oxygen compound, carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide, assuming either could exist in great quantity with pure O2. This would explain the difficulty humans have breathing the air. It also would be a step toward explaining the shear size of Pandora's plant life. It's reasonable to think that a warm world with an 80% carbon dioxide atmosphere would have enough carbon floating around to produce a thousand-foot tree. The problem with that theory, though, is that carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide suppress fires, so burning would involve a fight between oxygen and carbon.

But Floating Mountains? I Mean, Come on! Really?

Okay, so this is the hard part. How do you explain a mountain, a collection of rock no different than any rock on Earth, that floats? Yeah. This one's harder to explain, but there is a possibility.

It starts with the horribly-named material called unobtainium, the unimaginably valuable substance that justifies the expense to which humans have gone in order to colonize Pandora. Like anything else on Pandora, we have no idea what unobtainium is. Despite its -ium suffix, we know unobtainium isn't an element, as all the elements in the real world with an atomic number lower than 115 have been discovered and given better names. Anything new with a higher atomic number isn't likely to occur in nature, and if it did, it would be radioactive. Unobtainium must be a mineral then. It probably should have been named unobtainite.

All we know about unobtainium, we get from a clunky expository speech from our resident corporate stooge, who tells us the substance occurs in great abundance beneath Pandora's surface. And it floats. The corporate stooge keeps a sample floating over a little plastic circle on his desk.

Now, I'm not going to simply say the stuff contains some sort of antigravity particle that allows it to ignore Pandora's mass or something, as that's Star Trek science. I will theorize, though, that unobtainium may have some electromagnetic property that, if placed in certain environments, will repel matter. Maybe the little plastic circle on the corporate stooge's desk is also an electromagnet, so the interaction lets the unobtainium drift at whim.

Meanwhile, we know that Pandora orbits a gas giant. We know from observing gas giants in our own solar system that they can generate strong magnetic fields. Jupiter provides one example. Jupiter also provides the example of Io, the shallowest of its large moons. Io orbits close enough that it interacts with Jupiter's magnetic field, creating the Io flux tube, a stream of magnetic energy between the moon and planet. An enormous amount of electromagnetic energy passes constantly between Io and Jupiter.

Perhaps there is a similar flux tube between Pandora and its primary. Perhaps this electromagnetic energy interacts with unobtainium in Pandoric rock at the focal point of this interaction, allowing the rock to negate the downward force of Pandora's gravity so that mountains can float. It also could explain the giant rocks formed into rings, as these rocks may have formed from some crystalization process under the electromagnetic influence.

Another theory is that tidal forces acted upon Pandora from its primary could negate gravity in a location directly facing the primary, especially since we know that Pandora must have a shallow orbit. But we see near the end of the film that while the rocks here float, the bodies of Nav'i killed in battle fall like rocks. A gravitational effect would be reflected in everything in this location, including the slaughtered warriors and the pretty waterfalls.

And that's one thing about the floating mountains that not even Star Trek science can explain. Vast streams of water pour from several of these mountains. It's difficult to estimate just how much, as we don't know the width, depth, or velocity of the streams as they fall. These streams do look similar in size to known waterfalls on Earth, though. One example would be Yosemite Falls, which has an estimated flow of 300 cubic feet, or 2400 gallons, per second.

But any basin that feeds a waterfall at that volume would have to receive at least that much water in precipitation. The basins that feed these falls are tiny, nothing more than large, isolated rocks the size of a football field or two at most. Imagine the rain a football field would have to receive to feed a constant waterfall. There is no vast area where water collects. For a basin this small, inflow would have to look pretty much like outflow. Rain would have to fall on the mountains in an unreasonable waterfall as constant as the falls they produce. Yet we never see any precipitation here at all. The waterfalls, therefore, are nothing more than pretty pictures.

And About Those Glowing Leaves?

Finally, we have the biology of Pandora. Could evolution give us a Pandoric world, with its biolumenescence and its massive trees and its little spinny bugs that glow in the dark? In all honestly, I haven't the slightest idea.

I really don't know what's required for bioluminescence, for instance. I do know it results from a chemical reaction, and that like any form of light generation, it consumes some amount of energy. To occur in the amounts it occurs on Pandora, it would have to use a lot of energy. Nature doesn't necessarily mind using a lot of energy--and as previously discussed, Pandora may have a lot of energy available--but there usually has to be a reason. On Earth, bioluminescence has at least one of four purposes: it exists to attract mates or prey, to repel predators, to communicate, or to illuminate dark places. Most of Earth's bioluminescence, in fact, occurs in places where there isn't much light, such as near the bottom of deep oceans. It's not particularly dark on Pandora, though, even at night. So why would so much of Pandora glow? Did evolution on Pandora simply hit some bioluminescent arms race?

Pandora's life offers other puzzles. While we see a diverse collection of animals, they tend to follow certain themes. They all are brightly colored, which would be unexpected in an environment with so many predators. On Earth, natural selection tends to eliminate animals that stand out. The only true examples of brightly-colored creatures tend to be isolated, such as birds on tropical islands without predators.

This is only one example in which Pandora's animals move counter to what would be evolutionarily reasonable. A number of large animals, for instance, have six legs. It takes a certain amount of energy to move a leg, though, and more legs simply means more required energy. Evolution tends to move toward efficiency, though. This is why Earth's mammals have moved toward the minimum number of legs required. Humans get by with two.

Pandora's animals also are much larger than animals on Earth. The Nav'i, Pandora's resident humanoids, are more than twice as tall as humans. Certain hippopotamus-like creatures come in at brontosaurus sizes. A evil cat-like predator is at least as big as an Earth hippopotamus, yet it moves with incredible strength and speed. And it moves at these speeds through giant bushes with giant leaves at the base of thousand-foot trees.

Much of this Pandoric tendency toward the outsized could be explained with the lower gravity, which reduces energy requirements. This alone wouldn't be enough, though, as we've already seen the gravity isn't that much lower. It's possible the high-carbon atmosphere allows for the giant plant-life, and that the giant plant life in turn allows for giant animals. There may simply be much more energy available on Pandora.

I think the biggest problem presented by Pandora's life forms, though, is their almost Trekian similarity to animals we know. Pandora has its giant, six-legged feline that acts like a panther. It has its barking doglike creatures that look like Baskervillian hounds. And it has its people, blue, bipedal humanoids with opposable thumbs and binocular vision that utilizes giant eyes that look a lot like our own. The Nav'i, in fact, look like they could be our more-perfect cousins, with hair that grows in the same places and mouths that can be used to communicate with the same movement of tongues. Nav'i women have obvious mammary glands in the same location as humans. And it is strongly implied that Nav'i sex is simply a version of what people do. In short, it's all too similar to what we have on Earth. So while it may be possible that such a similar place could exist, it seems extremely unlikely.

Of course, Star Trek's more extreme fanboys and fangirls have a number of built-in explanations for why the only obvious difference between Humans and Vulcans is the shape of the ear, and it's possible that James Cameron has a similar explanation for Pandora. And if he doesn't, it's a sure thing that eventually, somebody like me will come up with one. For now, though, I think the simplest explanation is the best:

It's Only a Movie

And that, I think, is the rub with Pandora. James Cameron has created a fantasy world, a more perfect and unspoiled Earth. He has created the perfect answer for what seems so lacking to so many in this world we've nearly destroyed. Science fiction has always done this sort of thing, and while some of it may depend more on the science and some of it more on the fiction, the audience has long showed its willingness to embrace or ignore both, just as it's demonstrated a willingness to ignore quality of story. It won't matter to most whether Pandora can exist, because to them, when they're sitting in that darkened theater, it already does.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Joss Whedon is a misogynist homophobe

From the moment its theme in off-tune punk hit the air in 1997, television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer has inspired a fanatical following rivaled only by shows with pointy-eared aliens. The uninitiated see why after just a few episodes. Written and created by Hollywood outsider and relative unknown Joss Whedon, Buffy features a deep, intelligent, character-driven style of writing rarely seen on television. The show tackles dark, heavy themes seemingly without fear, approaching difficult issues in an intricate, innovative way more characteristic of Russian novel than American teledrama. The fan base flocks to the show because of the honest treatment of its recurrent themes—the peril of love, the failure of modern paternalism, the pains of despised childhood, and, more than anything, the untapped power of strong, complex women.

This last arguably is the theme central to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In a television genre known more for super-short miniskirts and big-breasted women in spandex, Buffy gives us an all-new form of girl power. It becomes clear within the first moments of the series opener that title character Buffy Summers kicks ass. A fifteen-year-old high school girl in a cheerleader’s body, Buffy is all brains and brawn. Though backed by a stuffy but lovable father figure, a hottie good-guy vampire with a non-beating heart of gold, and an idiot geek boy, Buffy quickly shows us she has everything she needs to handle the Big Bad all by herself. Maybe a little hacker help from mega-brain gal pal Willow in a pinch, but otherwise Buffy has it taken care of.

Yet this great and admirable strength hides Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s greatest weakness. Sure, the Buff’s all bad-ass on the surface, but scrape a few layers below and it soon becomes obvious that the slayer wears no clothes. Despite its Girl Power pretensions, despite all Whedon’s valiant efforts, Buffy is written by a guy, and it shows. The show’s rebellion against the patriarchy is built on a patriarchal foundation that, consciously or not, undermines many of the themes the show wanted us to think we were seeing. As strong as she is, Buffy’s girl power is unplugged time and again by hot guys with weird hair.

Consider Buffy’s overarching mythos. The deal is that into every generation, some mystical and mostly unexplored power calls forth a “slayer,” a young woman who’s job it is to protect the world from demons and dark things. Once called, the slayer is given great powers—supernatural strength, incredible stealth, and a bitchin’ wardrobe. Buffy suddenly has abs of steel and fists of fury. She’s faster than trains and leaps tall buildings and all that jazz. Buffy has everything mortal men dream of having.

Wow, the progressive is tempted to say. A girl superhero. How totally awesome! But wait. There’s a catch. The first failure of Whedon’s girl power is that Buffy has a watcher. In fact, all slayers everywhere have always had watchers. Slayers tend to be called young and die early, after all, and there’s a lot to learn in their short lives. They need somebody to guide them, to help explain their power, to help them understand just what it is they’re fighting.

This begs the question, though, why she needs to be “watched.” Why a “watcher” and not a “helper” or a “teacher”? And if she has to be watched, why must she be watched by a stuffy white guy like Rupert Giles? In fact, we meet several watchers in the course of the series, and all but three are stuffy, middle-aged white men, the very definition of Western paternalism. The only exceptions are a recurring Indian man who has no lines but looks tough, a snotty Brit woman who turns evil when offered supernatural powers of her own (season 3, “Revelations”), and a scared little blond woman who spends a few minutes trembling under the bemused eyes of the Cheney-like head watcher before being blown to bits (season 7, “Never Leave Me”).

All this seems to suggest, at least subconsciously, that girl power is fine and dandy as long as there’s a strong father figure around to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand. And it must be a father figure, because a mother just isn’t up to the job. She’ll either fall to the temptation of power and betray the good guys or be rendered useless and annoying by fear.

The end of the series seems to recognize this subtext, at least, and makes an attempt or two to correct it, though these corrections almost are more screwed than the original storyline. Through a series of visions and multi-dimensional travel, Buffy learns that slayer power first found its way to young girls in the early days of demonology, when a group of grumpy tribal chieftains—an African prequel to Europe’s stuffy white guys, perhaps?—force their mystical superpower on a fearful girl who would rather be left alone (season 7, “Get it Done”). In other words, the first slayer was metaphorically raped and forced to bear the burden of that rape, which we the viewers take pleasure in watching week after week. Instead of being the most recent of a glorious line of worthy warriors, Buffy is merely the latest victim of male arrogance. Rupert Giles and the other watchers are merely the latest perpetrators, always keeping watch over their slave girls.

In a final, last-ditch effort at redemption, Whedon briefly presents us in the second-to-last episode with the watcher of the watchers, an ancient, all-powerful female overlord who oversees the ignorant meddling of the stuffy male watchers. But what comes of this all-powerful woman? During a three-minute exposition speech about female liberation—in mid-sentence, in fact—this superwoman is killed, stabbed in the back by Caleb, the most unsubtle misogynist (“Look at me. I hate women. I’m eeeeeevil!”) in the history of television (season 7, “End of Days”).


Of course, the watcher dynamic is only part of the problem with Buffy. We also have the title character’s horrendous taste in men.

A large part of the premise of the series is that Buffy is smarter than the rest of us. Each week, she manages to outwit demons and supernatural beasties who automatically assume she lacks in the brains department. And yet when it comes to Buffy’s personal life, she proves to be little more than the typical dumb, pretty blond who always falls for the bad boy.

First, there’s Angel, a vampire who represents everything Buffy fights against. Angel is different, though. Angel is special. Don’t let those bad-boy good looks and dark trench coats fool you. Angel has a soul.

The problem with Angel, though, is that his soul vanishes the moment he comes in contact with Buffy’s dirty parts. He sleeps with Buffy in the middle of season 2 and as a result transforms into a murderous creature without a conscience who effortlessly slaughters dozens (season 2, “Innocence”). That’s right: Buffy’s sex turns Angel evil, so that immediately afterward he spends half a season stalking Buffy and her family and friends, killing supercool teacher Jenny Calendar, and plotting the destruction of the world.

And yet, throughout this sequence, Buffy still maintains her tragic love for her tormenter. She is not the strong woman who learns to stand up for herself against the cruelty of an evil man. She becomes the classic abused enabler. “It’s not Angel’s fault he killed Miss Calendar,” she seems to say. “Maybe she broke her neck on a door knob. Maybe she fell down the stairs. And anyway, it’s my fault Angel lost his soul. The foul Buff muff made him do it.” In the end, Buffy forgives Angel his trespasses, despite the fact that her own friends are far less forgiving of her simply for leaving town (season 3, “Anne”) to take a much needed vacation (during which she leads a workers’ revolt against literal demon capitalists, vanquishing the elite with a literal hammer and sickle as weapons … but that’s another analysis).

There doesn’t seem to be much wrong with Riley, Buffy’s second boyfriend, at least not at first. He’s a nice enough guy, but he has severe inferiority issues. Buffy’s a superhero, after all, and after season four Riley is little more than a fired government agent, a pitiful human, a boy. Buffy makes the unpardonable sin of looking stronger than Riley, so Riley responds in season five by “cheating” with vampire women, then leaves town (season 5, “Into the Sky”). And in the end, in the Whedon narrative according to idiot boy Xander Harris, whose fault is this? Certainly not Riley’s. Riley goes off, jumps back into the secret agent biz, and marries a supermodel. Buffy is left to mope alone, presumably as punishment for her uppitiness.

If Angel and Riley abuse Buffy’s girl power myths, though, Spike beats them wholly into submission. Perhaps Buffy’s cavorting with Spike in season six is understandable from a character standpoint. Buffy did die at the end of season 5, spend a summer hiatus in Heaven, and get pulled back into the hell of Sunnydale, after all. Unlike most of her friends, Spike seems willing to cut her some slack and understanding. But the series had spent seasons emphasizing Spike’s uselessness, his impotence. Although one of the show’s most admired characters, Spike is its most pathetic. His is a worthless life of self-torture and self-loathing. The idea that Buffy would stoop to that level for comfort rather than simply taking a break from guys is insulting at best.

And Buffy is not the only supposedly strong woman in the Buffyverse who lets her life be derailed by men not worth the effort. Cordelia and Anya both waste seasons on the arrogant boor Xander Harris, only to be left in shambles when he dumps them. And Willow Rosenberg falls to pieces after being cheated on then dumped by her werewolf boyfriend. She even goes so far as to turn lesbian because a boy broke up with her. The loss of a boy will do that to you, you know.


Which leads us to Whedon’s supposedly progressive views on sexuality. Despite Hollywood’s supposed liberal agenda, television was remarkably slow to accept homosexual characters. Melrose Place never used their gay housemate for anything more than a set piece. Ellen Degeneres lost her show when her character came out. Homosexuality is still anathema in the TV universe when Willow Rosenberg falls in love with Tara during Buffy’s season four.

Because of this, Whedon can’t completely embrace Willow’s sexuality. He has to couch it in metaphor, hide Willow’s exploration of sexuality behind her exploration of magic. Willow wants to become a witch, after all. Her relationship with Tara is as much about that shared desire as it is about finding her true self.

This leads to a stilted coming out, in that Willow never actually says who she is and what she’s become. Encounters between Willow and Tara are hidden behind special effects, glowing lights and sparkles and levitations that involve no touching or intimacy but inevitably lead to simulated orgasmic response. It is five or six episodes—an eternity in the Buffyverse—before we even see Willow and Tara kiss. We rarely see them hold hands. Only in the end do we see any real affection between the characters, but even then they can’t just be two people in love. They have to be LESBIANS! Everywhere they go, they have to dance and sing and hold up flags—“Hey, hey, look at us, we’re progressive, we’re open-minded lesbians, we’re all about the levitating oral, hey, hey, we’re lesbians!!!”

Willow’s coming out also seems to suggest a black and white view of sexuality. A woman is either gay or straight, and making a decision for one permanently flips the switch on the other. We had seen Willow attracted—sexually and otherwise—to both Xander and Oz. We know she liked men at one point. After Tara, though, that response evaporates completely. The series seems to suggest that she can’t make that choice anymore. She’s not allowed. Rather than liberated to be whatever she chooses, Willow is trapped in yet another societally imposed role. “Remember,” she’d say. “Gay now.”

Worse than this, though, is what Whedon does with his metaphor of magic and homosexuality. Over the course of season six, the metaphor changes, so that the magic once symbolizing Willow’s sexuality becomes something dangerous if embraced too much. It is as if Willow falls under the spell of some drug (read “magic” drug or “homosexual” drug) that eventually comes to rule her and slowly destroy her. In the end, the magic consumes her as she uses it to avenge her lover’s death at the hands of yet another misogynist (season 6, “Villains”). Willow uses her magic to flay a man alive—the true goal of lesbians in the Buffyverse?—then lash out and threaten to destroy the world. Willow’s magic eventually makes her the Big Bad of the year.

Is this really what Whedon means to say by tying magic to homosexuality? Is Whedon really suggesting that in the end, homosexuality consumes you, destroys you and threatens the stability of the world? Is this the statement of a true progressive?


Even in the face of patronizing paternalists and bad boyfriend decisions, though, Buffy still is a strong, independent superwoman, right? Right?

Not really. What is Buffy without her superpowers—superpowers given to her by men, remember? We see the answer in the third season episode “Helpless.” In their infinite wisdom, the council of stuffy European watchers decides to strip Buffy’s powers and test her response. And what does Buffy become? She becomes yet another scared little girl unable to make her own way in a big bad world. She becomes a sobbing weakling, a pitiful, pathetic, simpering fool who runs to her bad boy lover for help. Buffy is strong when the men let her have their power, the show seems to say. When the men choose to remove it, Buffy is nothing.

This is what happens to girls without superpowers in Whedon’s world. They run and scream and hide and die. They spend their time like Cordelia or Harmony, worrying about clothes and hair until they’re attacked, when they come out screaming. Buffy’s sister, Dawn, is helpless until Spike or Xander comes to save her. Anya—a woman of strong character, at least—is useless in a fight without her demon powers, and in the show’s final episode is cleaved in half while protecting a pathetic, sniveling little boy who somehow still survives (season 7, “Chosen”).

In the end, Whedon tries to correct this, too, by spreading the slayer powers throughout the populace. Thousands of little girls around the world are potential slayers, after all. Their power lies dormant inside them, but Buffy changes that. All the potential slayers are made real and strong, represented in montage by a little girl on a softball field about to whack the hell out of a ball pitched by some slimy boy. The little girl smiles slyly in what we are meant to see as a moment of glory, a moment of empowerment (season 7, “Chosen”). Girls can be anything they want, we are supposed to think. They’re just as strong as the rest of us now.

Only they’re not. What is unspoken in this moment is the suggestion that equality isn’t possible in the real world. Women aren’t able to hold their own without supernatural interference. Yes, thousands of little girls suddenly have superpowers, but millions more do not. Millions are left weak and wanting, and we wonder what is to become of them? They’re worthless, the show seems to say. Without superpowers, they’re weak, doomed to live in fear. They’re still pitiful creatures in need of protection.


Of course, all this sums up the danger of heavy dependence on metaphor in literature and television, both to writers and to critics, as metaphor is open to a million interpretations. Did Whedon mean to imply that girls are weak and that unbridled homosexuality can destroy the world? Is Whedon really a homophobic misogynist? Surely not. He simply failed by not thinking through the implications of his work and everything it said—much the same way many feminists, male and female, have failed since the days of Gloria Steinem. For all its complexity, Buffy the Vampire Slayer didn’t dig far enough beneath the surface. The show spent too much time on one side of the issue, trying to look like it was saying the right thing but never actually saying what it meant to say.

Of course, the very fact that these questions exist point to the superiority of the series. One never debates the sociological ramifications of Laverne & Shirley, after all. Buffy the Vampire Slayer presented us with well-drawn characters and attempted the big issues, and for that alone it should be applauded. In the end, the problem may be that we’re asking too much of Buffy. The problem may be that we’re asking Buffy to save an entire gender all by herself, and that just isn’t fair to her. We should simplify things and just trust her to save everybody, male or female.

Update, February, 2009: I'm curious how the progressive Whedon fan would respond to this now that Whedon has created Dollhouse, a show about an organization that rents out super-hot mind-wiped sex slaves who have to be watched and continually rescued by men. Of course, we're only two episodes in. I'll reserve judgement until we see the whole ... though Wedon better hope the thing doesn't get cancelled first.

Author's Note, January, 2009: I wrote this article a few years back with the intention of making it the first of several semi-academic, mostly navel-gazing explorations of the Buffyverse and other pieces of pop culture. I wanted to do an in-depth look at Angel's Los Angeles, for instance, and compare it with the city as presented in other noir works, or I wanted to explain my belief that Buffy season 6 is the best character season of the series. You know, that sort of thing. But I never got around to any of that, and other projects occupied the limited space in my mind. I decided to leave this article where it was, though, because I liked it, and because it still generated the occassional response.

The thing is, I only remember this is here about once every three months or so and therefore don't check the comments much. When I do, I delete any spam, but leave everything else, whether it agrees or disagrees with my postulations. I welcome a good debate on this, and I welcome you to leave your comments for those who come after. And if you feel strongly enough about what I've written here that you want to discuss it with me in a timely fashion, drop me an email at vulpalasar@hotmail.com. As long as you have reasoned discussion rather than mere flame to offer, there's a good chance I'll get back to you.

Either way, thanks for dropping by.