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

Content note: Before reading this post, please read ‘Feminism and Joss Whedon: Setting Some Boundaries‘ if you have not done so already.

Cordelia Chase is one of the most fascinating characters in the Buffyverse, a world which is already quite full of very interesting characters. However, the way that Cordelia is handled makes her kind of a standout; while she herself is a highly feminist character in many ways, what happens to her is most assuredly not feminist. There’s a reason that some fans regard Cordelia’s fate as one of Joss’ greatest (and most unnecessary) acts of betrayal. It’s not just that her character was killed off, but that it was done in a way which made no sense and in fact was actively hurtful.

She’s a character who sneaks up on you, which is one of the reasons I like her so much. Cordelia is introduced to us on Buffy as a rather shallow member of the cheerleading team who is more concerned about her hair and nails than anything else. But she falls in with the Scoobies, and along the way, she reveals her true colours. She deals with pretty harrowing situations with aplomb and she often brings great insights to new situations. She is also relentlessly practical when sometimes other characters are less capable of being so and even when the chips are down and her family is in financial trouble, she finds a way to accomplish her goals and get things done. Her practicality and resourcefulness are part of what make her such a great character; I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if it had been Cordelia in the same position Buffy was in at the start of season six when she was newly resurrected with no money and a house falling down around her ears.

Much as Buffy herself forced viewers to rethink their feelings about cute blonde girls, Cordelia forced people to rethink the way that they felt about head cheerleaders. About fashion-conscious teens. About people who may appear selfish on the surface, but who can actually act with great selflessness and an intense awareness of others. She is a character who develops great emotional complexity, and I was really happy when she made the leap to Angel. I felt like that allowed her more room to grow as a character, taking her out of Buffy’s shadow and giving her her own space, and it also allowed Buffy to improve by mixing up the Scoobies a bit and rearranging our characters.

It also allowed some room for Angel to emotionally grow, as the two developed a friendship and a connection which went beyond having Buffy as a mutual acquaintance and into something much deeper. Their relationship never really had an opportunity to be realised, for reasons which I will be delving into in tomorrow’s post, and the selfish part of me that believes in Angel + Buffy 4eva is pleased by that, but the pop culture aficionado in me kind of wishes I had been given a chance to see that.

On Angel, Cordelia is given visions which allow her to see people in need so that Angel can help them. One interesting thing about the framing of the visions is that they take a tremendous physical and psychological toll on her, and in ‘Birthday’ (Season Three, Episode 11), we learn what might have happened if the visions had gone to someone else, like Angel: They wouldn’t survive it. This further underscores Cordelia’s hidden depths and strengths; she is a character with a very strong moral core and also a strong psychic one, to be able to withstand the visions as effectively as she does.

While we are allowed to see Cordelia in pain from the visions, this is not depicted as weakness on her part. It’s a reminder of the cost that comes with this gift from the Powers That Be, and also a reminder of Cordelia’s strength. She’s one tough cookie. She has literally supernatural strength because as a human, she should not be able to survive the visions as she does. This is actually a bit unfortunate, because it undermines her strength as a character a tad; why can’t she just be a strong woman? Must women have superpowers in order to do amazing things?

There are some interesting parallels going on with the visions and with the plotline of ‘Expecting’ (Season One, Episode 12), in which Cordelia becomes pregnant when a demon tries to use her as a vessel for bearing his young. This episode might seem like a throwaway event, except that the Cordelia-as-vessel theme is not done and it will be explored again. In the case of ‘Expecting’ and the visions, Cordelia has something thrust upon her without consent and it violates her bodily autonomy and her mind. In ‘Expecting,’ she becomes aggressively protective of the fetus she carries because she is being enchanted to behave that way, just as the visions strike without warning or consent.

It’s interesting to see Joss exploring these issues, although I’m not sure how many viewers caught on to what, exactly, he was exploring. I do note that his work has consistent themes dealing with the violation of bodily autonomy, particularly in women, and in which women are controlled, by magic or by science. I don’t think that Joss is doing this because he fantasizes about controlling women or anything, I hasten to note. Rather, just the opposite; I think that he is interested in the ways in which society tries to control women. While technology such as the wipes used on Dollhouse does not exist, one could argue that, socially, women’s minds are heavily manipulated with the goal of controlling them and that this has very real consequences.

Joss keeps coming back to this theme, of controlling women, because it is a persistent part of our society which does not go away. In ‘Expecting,’ he even explored some of the aspects of the reproductive rights debate by saddling Cordelia with an unplanned pregnancy.

So far, so good.

And that makes what happens next all the more upsetting.

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

  1. Agreed with everything so far. I have one caveat though: ” in ‘Birthday’ (Season Three, Episode 11), we learn what might have happened if the visions had gone to someone else, like Angel: They wouldn’t survive it.” – except we do discover, eventually, that Skip, her ‘guide’, is a decidedly unreliable narrator, and that entire “alternate life” sequence is therefore suspect. When Angel does eventually get the visions, at the end of S5, they don’t bother him at all.

    Cordy was being shown the story that was most likely to get her to sign on to become demonified – telling her “become part-demon or die” wasn’t going to turn the trick, but tell her “give up your ideal life which is actually yours by right, and become part-demon to save your friends” and she’ll do it. She’s being set up.

    However, that still makes her someone who will give up her ideal life to protect her friends, which is admirable. I wonder if Joss intended her to go the way she did at that point; perhaps not.

  2. Cordelia is by far, hands down, without a doubt, my favorite Whedonverse character evah! Did I mention that I really really like her?

    The huge curve of her character arch is amazing to me (until the train wreck of S4, which I suspect you will be talking about w/ P2), because I feel she develops more than any other character that he creates. I couldn’t have put it better myself, though I have tried, and you nail on the head exactly how I feel that Cordy was ripped off in the end but failed to communicate well. We all were (in a tender state when we were still owed for S4, IMO).

    Again and again Cordy is used as a vehicle for discussing autonomy, and I think that kiss and the transfer of the Visions is a huge one, with her not expecting what would be coming to her. Interesting, too, that no, it seems that it never can be just a woman who is strong.

    Can’t wait for the next one! Give it to me NAO!

  3. Merely: That whole sequence is part of the set up. I think we find that it was all part and parcel to get her to sign on to what was eventually the coming of Jasmine. If it had been some random person or deamon who inherited the visions, Cordy might not have traded her “happily ever after” life for it. But it was Angel, someone whom she eventually made a connection to that was deeper than “just the dude I work for” (sorry s.e., I was a “Buffy was a jerk, move on” fan), which I am willing to be they foresaw, or possibly manipulated (who knows?). If it had been Lorne, or someone else, I don’t think she would have done it. But yes, b/c of what we saw, she was totes manipulated. I think that was the point.

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