Disability on Angel: Winifred Burkle and the Hot Mess

Fred Burkle is simultaneously one of the characters I love and hate most about Angel. She’s a science nerd. She’s a walking trope. She’s funny in unexpected ways. She’s dependent on dudes for everything. She’s innovative and creative in stressful situations. And she doesn’t pursue a career until her memory gets altered by a spell.

She’s a complex character and one that I keep coming back to. I think that she embodies the theme of fear of institutionalisation that crops up again and again in Whedon’s work, and of course she’s another example of the ‘fragile’ mentally ill characters that populate much of Whedon’s work. Amy Acker’s a fabulous actress, and this makes my relationship with the character even more complicated because she’s well played, very well played, and I alternate between thinking she’s the coolest person ever and wanting to bite Joss in the ankles for what he did with this character.

We first meet Fred in Pylea, where she’s become a recluse after escaping her captors. It’s not really clear what exactly Fred is supposed to have; post traumatic stress disorder certainly seems likely. The walls of the cave she lives in are filled with scribbled formulas, she talks in fits and starts, she fears physical contact, and she’s unkempt. Ladies and gentlefolk of all genders, we have a Crazy Lady Living In the Woods. Yet, the very sight of Angel calms her down. Fred, an extremely talented and creative scientist, ultimately needs Angel to save her from Pylea.

And once restored to Los Angeles, Fred again holes up, scribbling on the walls and resolutely refusing to come out. It is, again, Angel who rescues her and draws her out, conveniently just in time for her to pursue romantic relationships with the other helpful savior male characters. I’m trying not to be bitter here, really I am, and in all fairness, she is allowed to shine in a few instances; she becomes a valuable member of the team, she craftily deals with Gunn and Wesley in ‘Billy,’ and she’s clearly on a footing with the other characters.

But there’s always this implication lying beneath the surface. Fred is fragile. She needs to be protected. She’s hanging by a thread. Who  knows what will happen to plunge her back into the mental state she was in when she came back from Pylea. Even as she’s ‘one of the gang,’ she’s also not, and she’s an object in the way that the male characters are not. We never see Fred and Cordelia fighting over a man, but we do see Wesley and Gunn fighting over Fred.

I think that one of the things I really like about the dynamic of the team on Angel is that they are highly interconnected and protective of each other, that they have created a family network with the people around them. But the dynamic with Fred sometimes leaves me feeling unsettled and unhappy. Is it really necessary to make her find her redemption through the male characters? To have the men rescuing her and shaping her into the strong person she is? Why don’t we see more interactions between Cordelia and Fred?

Fred also challenges some dynamics and stereotypes, though. People who interact with her write her off because they see a conventionally attractive woman and think that she has nothing of value to contribute, when she’s actually a very talented scientist, and she’s worked hard to get where she is. She’s also well aware that people make assumptions about her on the basis of her looks and her voice and she’s not shy about letting people know that she’s fully aware of what’s going through their heads when they look at her. She’s good at what she does, even if she doesn’t really get a chance to do it until the fifth season, when she’s conveniently had part of her memories removed. Another theme in Whedon as well, the erasure of memory.

The way Whedon plays with memories and the way they impact our lives really interests me. I see over and over again that his characters choose to erase each others’ memories out of love, or protection, or ‘for their own good’ and it backfires. I can’t help but think of some particularly brutal treatments for mental illness that also involve fundamentally damaging the brain, and how these procedures are sometimes committed against the will of the patient ‘for ou own good.’ I think there’s a reason Whedon keeps teasing around this and coming back to it; with Fred, the erasure of her memories was depicted as almost liberating, allowing her to forget some of the traumas in her life and move forward.

But, of course, in the end Fred is taken over by a goddess from another dimension. An early iteration of the themes from Dollhouse? Co-opting of the body by a different mind, with a certain amount of co-existence with the original soul that inhabited that body? The containment of Illyria also plays into some familiar Whedon themes as well; she’s too dangerous to be allowed loose, but too valuable to kill. She’s a bright mind trapped in a grim place. It’s something that I ponder a lot because Joss makes me ponder it. He keeps coming back to these themes in different narratives and, I admit it, I like it. It makes me think about what it means to be human, and it makes me think about identity, sometimes in interesting ways.

That’s why I end up with mixed feelings about Fred. I really don’t like what her character seems to be suggesting about mental illness. I am not such a fan of the idea that taking memories away from people will help them heal. But I think that Fred also pushes people to ask some questions about institutionalisation, and souls, and bodies. And I really like see models of awesome female geeks on television, combating stereotypes that viewers hold not only about other people, but possibly about themselves, and who they are ‘allowed’ to be.