Feminism and Joss Whedon: The Silencing of Cordelia Chase (Two)

At the close of season three, Cordelia and Angel are about to admit their feelings to each other when Cordelia conveniently gets her reward. She is whisked away into an alternate plane in compensation for her service to humanity. As it later turns out, this entire situation was manufactured so that Cordelia could return. As a vessel. And here we plunge into the dark side of what happens to Cordelia and how it is handled.

I told you the Cordelia-as-vessel theme wasn’t done with, right? We saw it again in ‘Epiphany’ (Season Two, Episode 16) and we saw a further violation of Cordelia’s bodily autonomy when she was trapped in Pylea, when she was ordered to ‘mate’ with the Groosalugg. Interestingly, the show attempts to weasel out of the rapeyness of this particular plotline by making the Groosalugg nice, and attractive, and attentive, but it doesn’t change things. He is used as a tool and so is she. Being forced to have sex with someone is rape, no matter how attractive he is. And I note that rapey plotlines are also a recurring theme in Whedon’s work and that they are not always handled particularly well, when they are even acknowledged as rape. The fact that variations on this, the violation of Cordelia, happen over and over again throughout the series is really a pretty fundamental devaluation and even putdown of her character. Cordelia is constantly being violated, other characters are constantly saving her; she is never allowed control over her own mind and body.

When Cordelia finally returns to Earth in season four, she initially has amnesia and then regains her memories and rejoins the gang. But there’s something slightly off about her which only becomes more intense throughout the season. Cordelia is behaving in ways which are completely out of character for her, ending with seducing Angel’s son Connor and becoming pregnant by him. It’s a deeply creepy season for this among many other reasons.

Then Cordelia gives birth and lapses into a coma.

Where she stays until the 100th episode, where she returns briefly in a momentary blaze of glory.

But let’s back up here. Let’s start with how Cordelia was characterized in season four. Viewers were pissed when they finally understood what was happening; that this was not Cordelia at all, but Cordelia being used as a means to an end by an evil entity. There was a great deal of furor over this and questions about whether or not the plot line should have been done at all, or whether viewers should have been told sooner so that they understood that Cordelia was possessed, not going off the rails.

I wasn’t that enamored of the whole Jasmine plot just in general, and I was especially not enamored of the way Cordelia was used as a vehicle for it. The decision to include that plotline was a creative one, and I’m not quite sure what the intent was behind it, but I definitely think it could have been much better handled. I’m not going to go as far as to say that it should not have been included, though, because I think the situation is complicated.

We spent three seasons watching Cordelia develop as a character while also being torn apart by the visions. And this is, I think, a telling part of her characterization: One could view her primary function as being a vessel for the visions, except that Cordelia refuses to allow herself to be used that way. She is also a valuable member of the team in her own right, especially as an organiser. The writers did, in fact, a great job of preventing Cordelia from being used like a tool, which would have been really disgusting.

Making it all the more frustrating when she spent the entirety of season four as a tool; a vessel for possession, and later an incubator for a pregnancy. And there certainly are parallels between this and real world situations, except that a lot of them are actually really offensive. I think, for example, of the criticism of women who are deeply religious and who have lots of children. It is implied that they are controlled (possessed) by their husbands/their faith and incapable of making real decisions for themselves, so instead they just allow themselves to be used as baby factories. And I think, again, of the way that Cordelia was denied bodily autonomy throughout the series. She never had an opportunity to assert herself or to regain control of her body and mind; how is the complete disempowerment of a female character a feminist act?

What’s frustrating about this plot is that it silences Cordelia while pretending that she is still allowed to speak. If it had been made explicit from the beginning that she was possessed, my reading of events might be very different. It would still have been a frustrating plotline, but in different ways. I would have been caught up in wanting the characters to figure it out and make a plan to help Cordelia, instead of gnashing my teeth about Cordelia’s abruptly out of character behaviour which was presented without comment or explanation. I would have been excited about the possibility that perhaps Cordelia herself could break the possession and finally take control, which would have been an ultimate reclamation of her character, and it would have provided a reason for why her autonomy was repeatedly violated; to give her the strength for this moment, in which she could step outside the paradigm and become her own person. Though that too comes with its own troubling implications — rape-as-character-building is rather slimy.

Instead, she was allowed to fizzle out in a coma and she was stashed somewhere until she was needed again. Which brings in a very interesting disability intersection here — I will be exploring disability on Angel more in the future, incidentally — people in comas are treated a lot like Cordelia Chase; they are stuffed in a nursing home somewhere and ignored and forgotten. They fade away in the memories of the people who once knew them, even as they are very much alive.

Cordelia returned in the 100th episode to grant Angel a final vision (always, Cordelia must be the vessel) and then to die, finally. It was the last chapter in the ignominious and really degrading debasement of a character. Cordelia Chase went from being a strong, assertive female character with complexities and depths to being an empty, used-up tool.

Is this what feminist television looks like?

Image: Charisma Carpenter, Gage Skidmore, Flickr

2 Replies to “Feminism and Joss Whedon: The Silencing of Cordelia Chase (Two)”

  1. There’s an interesting parallel with Faith in BtVS here. She’s disappeared into a coma and then in to prison. When she shows up in the final season of Buffy, she even makes it clear that she was inappropriately forgotten at a time when all the potential slayers were being killed. As the fact that she gets to say that suggests, the difference between Faith and Cordelia is that Faith gets to make choices and to find redemption, though there are still issues with the extent to which she is designed as a foil for Buffy.

  2. EKS: Even more interesting is that Faith, conveniently, crosses over onto Angel, which is pretty much why she (comes out or winds up in? I can’t remember) is comatose. Her being a vessel is due to her putting Angel’s soul back into Angelus (I believe she poisoned herself in order to do so, but this was an active choice of hers). She was a tool, a means to an end that arched over both shows, and then she was taken back to Sunnydale for care because Buffy was rounding up all the newly active slayers (this reminds me that I should write a new post about Dana very very soon).

    Back to Cordelia, you really catch it here. I remember that there was speculation, because Charisma Carpenter was actually pregnant when she was playing a pregnant woman on the show (they did a good job of hiding it for a good job of the season) but that she didn’t want to tell the writers or Joss until she was sure what she wanted to do. The story arch, according to unverified rumors, was her punishment for telling them too late to hide it properly, or something, which has always made my dislike of S4 even worse, whether it is true or not. I have an easy time believing that this would happen. To give a woman a terrible story arch leaving for wanting to leave to take time with a new baby. I don’t know if she wanted to work or not, but she apparently did not get that option with the show.

    And I felt that Cordy’s final wish, her “calling in a favor” that she got from the PtB was tainted by all of that. It was like she had to make up for what happened with Connor and Jasmine and all of it and give it to “her guy” no matter what, taking her agency again. The choice was taken out of her hands by that abduction. It angered me to no end, because she was my favorite character. And I am not going to pretend that I am not angry because they killed both principle women before the end of the show. And, yes, there was no thinking of her while she was in that Wolfram and Hart hospital. No one ever mentioned her (possibly conveniently due to the memory change) until that 100th episode.

    In fairness, Ilyria was supposed to be split from Fred somehow in S6, but the show was canceled early. /digress. This is tl/dr. Sox.

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