Feminism and Joss Whedon: Angel (Part One)

(The earlier entries in this series are “Is Joss Whedon a Feminist? The Women of Firefly/Serenity,” “Is Joss Whedon a Feminist? Buffy and Female Empowerment,” “Feminism and Joss Whedon: The Demon Women & Slayers of Buffy,” and “Feminism and Joss Whedon: Misogynist Villains in the Whedonverse.” They are not required reading, although if you haven’t read the previous Buffy entries, you might want to. Obviously, please assume that there are spoilers in this post, and that a basic knowledge of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel will make it more enjoyable for you to read. Also, please note that these posts are very, very, very long, so you may want to set aside some time to read/digest them if you’re interested in the topic.)

Angel, the spinoff of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, debuted in 1999 and ran for five seasons.  (It was, incidentally, rather abruptly and unexpectedly not renewed after the fifth season, which was arguably its greatest.) The show revolves around Angel, the vampire with a soul. It’s much darker than Buffy, and it’s also a bit more muddled. It struggles in some seasons to find itself, and on occasion it goes in some really strange and awkward directions.

Unlike Buffy, Angel is not specifically framed as a feminist show. And Joss had varying degrees of involvement with it, what with managing Buffy and later Firefly while working on Angel. Yet, as producer, he bears a lot of responsibility, especially with major plot points, and the show is worth exploring from a feminist perspective because there is a goldmine of material.

Like Buffy, Angel is supported with a team: Cordelia (a Buffy alum), Doyle (briefly in the first season), Wesley Wyndham-Pryce (another Buffy alum), Charles Gunn, Winifred “Fred” Buckle/Illyria, Lorne, Spike (resurrected after his death in Buffy for Angel’s fifth season) and Harmony (also from Buffy). In the first four seasons, Angel works independently as a private investigator, and in the fifth season, he’s brought into the fold of Wolfram and Hart, the evil law firm (literally) which is his nemesis throughout the series. By taking over the Los Angeles branch of the firm, Angel hopes to reform the system from the inside.

One of the key distinctions between Buffy and Angel is that in Angel, demons are given humanity and personality. In fact, Doyle and Lorne are both demons. The show illustrates for viewers that there are good and bad demons, ranging from demons who pass as ordinary people and lead ordinary lives to demon supremacists who want to wipe out all the half breeds. And stand out in a crowd.

This adds a layer of complexity to the show which is not present in Buffy, as many of the human characters are forced to confront their prejudices. In the first season, Cordelia constantly expresses distaste for demons, later learning that Doyle has demon ancestry, and ultimately realizing how important he was to her in “Hero” (season one). Buffy also struggles to see Angel being friendly with demons and working with them. Charles Gunn in particular carries a great deal of vampire and demon prejudice.

Gunn is an interesting figure. He’s one of the few people of colour in the show, which makes it all the more fascinating that his character comes from a very prejudicial vigilante group. Gunn eventually comes into conflict with his former friends and allies, trying to explain that they can’t kill demons indiscriminately because the world can’t be seen in black and white, good and bad terms. Gunn is a skilled warrior, and he resists culture and education at first as elite and unnecessary, before eventually succumbing in “Waiting in the Wings” (season three) when he falls in love with the ballet, and again rather spectacularly in “Conviction” (season five), when his brain is loaded with legal skills by the wizards at Wolfram and Hart.

The premise of Angel is pretty antifeminist. There’s really no way of getting around it. The show centers on a dark, mysterious man with a troubled past who saves damsels in distress. And he saves damsels almost exclusively throughout the show. In the first episode alone, we see a multitude of desperate little blonde girls who  can’t defend themselves and require Angel’s assistance, and Cordelia is introduced to the show by being rescued from the clutches of a vampire.

It’s not really the most ideal foot to start off on, from a feminist perspective. And as the series unfolds, it only gets more troubling.

Nowhere is this more clearly exemplified than in the case of Cordelia. What happens to Cordelia in Angel is something which has been soundly criticized by fans and feminists alike, because it is deeply problematic. At the end of Buffy, we start to see her as an empowered, sassy, take no prisoners woman.

At the beginning of Angel, though, she’s beaten down and helpless. She’s living in a vermin-infested apartment, struggling to make it as an actress, and while she is savvy enough to recognize a vampire when she sees one, she still needs Angel to save her. Doyle gifts her with his visions when he dies, forcing Cordelia to endure extreme pain as each vision arrives, and she becomes steadily more disabled. As the series goes on, she starts to develop more depth and complexity, with a few serious stumbling blocks, until she is raptured up into heaven in the season three finale.

Viewers are informed that this is her reward for her service. As it turns out, the real story is a bit more sinister: an entity called Jasmine plans to use Cordelia as a tool for accessing Earth and taking over. Which she does, in the fourth season, but this is not made readily apparent to viewers. Instead, people are forced to see Cordelia engage in steadily more bizarre choices, including having sex with Angel’s son, Connor (about which more in a moment). Eventually, the fact that she is possessed is revealed, but her life force is drained giving birth to Jasmine’s earthly body, and Cordelia is left to sit off stage in a coma until the middle of the fifth season, when she finally pops up to provide some closure for angry viewers.

We see a recurring theme with Cordelia: she is not allowed control of her body, because her body “needs” to be used by others. The visions gifted to her in the first season come from the Powers That Be, and are designed to help Angel. As it turns out, we get to see an alternate reality in which Angel gets the visions and goes mad, suggesting that Cordelia is stronger than he is, at least in this arena, but that doesn’t make the visions less violating and disturbing.

Also in the first season, in “Expecting,” Cordelia is impregnated by a demon and used as an incubator for its babies. (Until, of course, Angel and Wesley, the knights in shining armor, manage to rescue her. Sigh.) There’s a parallel here with the anti-choice movement and its determination to treat pregnant women as incubators, and the episode is deeply creepy, what with hordes of frat boys being sent around to stand in for the demon and impregnate beautiful women. But it’s also a very violating episode. We’ve seen Cordelia beaten down throughout the season, and the pregnancy just seems highly unnecessary.

She is used as a vessel again in season four by Jasmine, as though to underscore the fact that we should view Cordelia as an object which should be used, rather than as a real woman. She’s a toy who can be shuffled about and manipulated by the other characters as needed, and while she does briefly fall in love with Angel and the Groosalugg, we don’t really get to see her experiencing and exploring her sexuality.

Fred is also a troubling character. She is discovered trapped in the demon dimension of Pylea in the second season, and rescued by (wait for it)….Angel and Wesley. As it turns out, Fred is a super smart scientist, but we don’t get to see that for quite some time. Instead, we see her as a deeply damaged girl. She is severely shy and agoraphobic, she falls in love with her rescuers, and she takes a long time to gain her footing and establish herself as a solid, valuable, important character.

She’s also objectified, by Gunn and Wesley as they war for her affections (even as she struggles to deal with the world), and again in “A Hole in the World” (season five), when her body is used as a vessel (see a theme here?) by an entity named Illyria, who eventually takes over Fred’s body entirely, killing Fred. Illyria has the ability to manipulate the appearance of the body she has stolen, at times appearing as Fred and taking on Fred’s personality (shades of Dollhouse), but we are constantly reminded that she is not human, and while we grow to love and respect her, it is troubling that she must be introduced by killing Fred.

The story arc which occurs in Pylea could be read as feminist, with Cordelia being crowned queen, but it’s overshadowed by the painful “damaged goods” subplot with Fred. It’s hard to see empowerment in these episodes while being introduced to Fred as a totally helpless, debased character who ultimately starts worshiping Angel for rescuing her. It’s actually a pretty gagworthy male fantasy.

Angel also brings us the return of Darla and Drusilla from Buffy, and we learn a lot more about them.

But they aren’t the only recurring vampires we see. You can’t talk about Angel without addressing Harmony, Cordelia’s former classmate who was turned during the chaos in the season three finale of Buffy. At first, Harmony returns and pretends to be human, but she’s unmasked as a vampire, and she flits in and out of the show, ultimately being hired as an assistant to Angel in season five.

She’s a nice reminder of the way vampires are supposed to be within the framework of the Buffyverse: she’s without morality. She struggles with the new Wolfram and Hart policy (under Angel), which bans the consumption of human blood, and she occasionally gets into trouble when she engages her vampire nature. By the end of the series, Harmony is also very confident and assertive, a far cry from the vampire who joins a multi-level marketing organization in “Disharmony” (season two). Ultimately, Harmony betrays Angel, but he doesn’t hold her responsible for it, knowing that this is her vampire nature, and nothing more.

The interesting thing about Harmony is that by behaving like a vampire should within the expectations of the Buffyverse, she is also behaving like a stereotypical woman. The connection between women and vampires has long been explored  (including on this very website), and I can’t help but find it fascinating that Whedon’s manipulative, greedy, heartless, cold vampires are the sluts and bitches of the demon world. Several vampires manage to break the mold: Angel himself, Spike, and Darla, to some extent.

In Angel, Darla is resurrected (or whatever you do to vampires) by Wolfram and Hart, with the express goal of stealing Angel’s soul. She is initially brought back as human, and we learn that she is dying from the same case of syphilis that was killing her in the 1600s, when she was turned into a vampire. Angel, our Dark and Shining Hero, tries to war for her life, but ultimately it is Drusilla who saves her, by turning her into a vampire. This is only one among many of Angel’s failures; Joss isn’t afraid to have a hero who trips up, sometimes in major ways.

Darla’s turning is not without considerable sturm und drang. By the time Drusilla reached her, she had attained a state of peace about her death. She had struggled with having a soul again, and dealing with the horrors she perpetrated on others, and she was ready to let go. This makes her turning more like a rape than any other turning we see in the series, as Drusilla forcibly takes everything that Darla has fought for away.

Of course, once turned, Darla loses her soul, and she goes on a bloody rampage with Drusilla. Darla also has sex with Angel, and he learns that the “moment of true happiness” which will cause him to lose his soul doesn’t necessarily occur every time he has sex. Which I rather like, because it divorces happiness/orgasm, reminding viewers that there are lots of kinds of sexuality, and that sex is not necessarily always happy. It’s also a very real and sad moment to see the two characters coming together in a moment of frustration, fear, and sorrow, and to see that the act is ultimately hollow and unfulfilling. In an unexpected twist, the Angel-Darla liaison results in a pregnancy, and in the end, Darla sacrifices herself so that the child, Connor, can be born, thereby redeeming herself. Or something.

Angel gives us a lot more of the background for Angel, Darla, Drusilla, and Spike, which could be viewed as an excuse to dress everyone up in period costumes and wreak havoc, but it also gives us more of their stories, and makes them more real as individuals. One very sobering note is the reminder that Angel and Darla were together for a very long time, and that they had a very complex and strong relationship. The bond of over 100 years together cannot be shurgged off lightly, and this sometimes proves problematic for Angel.

The problem of Connor is difficult, because one can’t have a baby hanging around on a show like this. The solution was to have the baby kidnapped, taken into an alternate dimension, and returned several months later as a teen. (Did I mention that the show had some rocky moments?) All grown up, Connor is deeply troubled and struggles with daddy issues. He even buries Angel in the ocean as retaliation for the wrongs he thinks that Angel has committed, before joining Angel Investigations, having sex with Cordelia, and ultimately continuing to struggle to make his way in the world. The Connor plot is so weak and infuriating that I’m sure I’m not the only viewer who has chosen to block out large portions of it, for my own sanity.

In the end, Angel works out a deal: when he joins Wolfram and Hart, he has Connor placed with a normal family. Connor’s memories are overwritten, as are everyone else’s, to make it seem as though he has never existed as Connor, and has always been part of a nice, loving, perfectly normal and demon-free family. This is not the first time that Angel makes decisions on behalf of someone else which involve the erasure of memory. In “I Will Remember You” (season one), he takes an entire day away from Buffy, but the complexity of the conspiracy surrounding Connor is quite astounding, and very hurtful.

Angel’s decision to erase the memories of others without their consent is very disempowering. He’s essentially saying that he thinks he knows what is best for everyone, and that he should have the ability to make decisions about what happens in the minds of others. (Shades of Dollhouse again.) While these choices are shown to be difficult for Angel, we as viewers do not see him consulting the people involved, although we certainly see the fallout when people realize what has happened.

Connor isn’t the only one who has daddy issues. We see Angel (as Angelus) killing his father right after he was made into a vampire, as retribution for his abuse at the hands of his father. We also meet a number of Angel’s…children? Sirelings? And see that many of them have conflicted relationships with him. Fathers, in the Buffyverse, are dark and dangerous figures.

To be continued tomorrow