OCT 18-20


Tues, Oct 18

VIEW: Buffy, ‘Once More, with Feeling’


  1. BulletLaura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’

  2. BulletKaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics, 201-05, 222-25

  3. Bullet“gender and sex”

  4. Bullet“suture”

  5. Bullet“nature”

  6. BulletPrimer on Buffy, ‘Once More, with Feeling’

Thurs, Oct 20


  1. Bullet Judith Butler, ‘Performative Acts and Gender Construction’

  2. Bullet“performativity”


In this second block of classes, we will build on our discussion of Brooks by continuing our exploration of psychoanalytical concepts, specifically those of Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, and Julia Kristeva. Througout, Buffy will be our guide since Joss Whedon, the show's creator, self-consciously incorporates both Freudian and Lacanian elements into his Buffyverse.We will also take this opportunity to discuss the influence of Lacan on both feminism and contemporary film theory.



ENGL 373H: The Theory of SF&F

INSTRUCTOR         : Prof. Felluga

OFFICE                    : HEAV 430

OFFICE HOURS      : T,Th 1:30-2:30 (or email me)

E-MAIL:                   : felluga@purdue.edu

Synopsis for Oct 18-20

"The Fourth Wall of Performance"

For these two classes, we turned to the Buffy episode, "Once More, with Feeling," an episode that continues the show's exploration of our relation to the death drive while also highlighting (and subverting) the ways that power relations function in traditional Hollywood cinema. The episode thus allowed you to explore the influence of Lacanian psychoanalysis on feminist film theory. The episode provides us with an interesting contrast to the other episodes examined in this course. Whereas "Hush" eschews diegetic dialogue in favor of discursive music alone, and whereas "The Body" follows a prohibition against discursive music for the entire episode, "Once More, with Feeling" appears to be replete with discursive music; in fact, however, the situation is somewhat more complex: the discourse is itself made a part of the story: according to the premise of the episode, the singing and the music are not outside the diegesis, as in traditional musicals, but a part of the universe itself due to a "dancing demon" summoned by, as it turns out, Xander (who wants a happy ending, a satisfying narrative closure, complete with a wedding—his own to Anya).


We have spent some time laying out the influential theories of Laura Mulvey and Kaja Silverman, which you read for this week. As Mulvey argues, there are two looks that dominate traditional Hollywood cinema: 1) the active scopophilia of the male look, which in turn objectifies the passive female object of desire; and 2) the identification of the male audience member's look with the male character doing the scopophilic looking, which amounts to a narcissistic projection (and is, therefore, driven by Lacan's imaginary order). Any woman who is represented as threatening (either because she rejects her passivity and tries to claim phallic power for herself or because she revels in her lack, thus reminding the male viewer of his own castration anxieties) tends to be dealt with in one of two ways, according to Mulvey: 1) she is punished or "cured" through narrative resolution; or 2) she is turned into a fetish object, one which arrests the narrative in moments of erotic contemplation (as in the cult of the female star, from Marilyn Monroe to Madonna to Lady Gaga).

Mulvey argues that there are actually three looks implied by film: 1) the look of the camera itself; 2) the look of the audience watching the film; and 3) the look of the characters on screen. In traditional Hollywood cinema, we are invited (through various tricks of editing, camera angles, etc.) to identify with the look of the male characters so that we will forget the mechanical look of the camera and our own invested look at the screen. Silverman explains that such techniques for making us forget the camera are examples of what film theory terms "suture": "This sleight-of-hand involves attributing to a character within the fiction qualities which in fact belong to the machinery of enunciation: the ability to generate narrative, the omnipotence and coercive gaze, the castrating authority of the law" (232). Some feminist film theorists go so far as to argue that, because of such techniques, "The simple gesture of directing a camera toward a woman has become equivalent to a terrorist act" (Mary Ann Doane).


To help situate this episode, I offered an example of fetishization: Marilyn Monroe's famous dance sequence to "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In the sequence, the performing women, including Monroe, are aligned with (or turned into) objects in the following ways, as you pointed out: 1) women are
turned into chandeliers, as Kailey Merida illustrated; 2) in her song and through her gestures, Monroe aligns herself with diamonds, suggesting that she too can be purchased at the right price, as Alex Reynaud explained; 3) Monroe does not move of her own accord but is picked up and transported by the men in the sequence, as Vivian Gu pointed out; 4) the pink dancing girls, whose attire and headdress align them with flowers, even have their faces veiled as if to underline their lack of subjectivity; 5) finally, we are invited to identify with the male protagonist for whom Monroe is performing (the man she ends up marrying at the end of the movie).
By the same token, Monroe does say "no" in the sequence, as Caitlin Stamper pointed out, and the song-and-dance follows this ‘no’ by having the men all shoot themselves, a symbolic castration.  There is even the mention that women sometimes do need lawyers, which could be read as a questioning of domestic ideology: women, in other words, have the right to divorce. (Madonna in her video for "Material Girl" therefore tries to read Monroe's performance as a feminist statement.) Also, the Monroe spectacle does appear to be offered in such a way as to suggest its campy self-consciousness. Whether such campiness saves the production and makes it transgressive is the question that will be raised in relation to postmodernism in following classes.


To compare, you looked at the Tara and Willow song-and-dance sequence, "Under Your Spell." The scene is worth examining because, unlike the Monroe dance sequence, this sequence consciously eliminates the male look from the picture. Two men appear to be attracted to Tara at the start of the sequence but they then leave so that the sequence explores a non-heteronormative relationship: there is no male look with which to identify in this sequence. However, we are nonetheless given a power dynamic. The song, we come to realize, is literal: Willow has invaded
Tara's subjectivity, taking away her free will by manipulating her memories. The scene thus explores how the power dynamics of the look does not need to be superimposed on a strict binary opposition (male/power/look, on the one side; female/passivity/looked-at, on the other). Even when no male look appears in a scene, even when we are given what at first appears to be an idyll of all-female desire (complete with kitschy magical sparkles), there is still a power dynamics that conforms to the power of looking. One must still ask: Who is in control of the look? Who is performing for whom? Who is placed in the active, higher, or controlling position in a given frame? As Tara sings, "I'm under your spell/ Surging like the sea,/ Pulled to you so helplessly/ I break with every swell"; the words are presented as Valentine kitsch except that they're made doubly complex: we are here given a lesbian relationship rather than the traditional heteronormative sort; and, as we are made to realize later in the episode, the lines are also literal: Tara is helpless before both Willow's desire and her (magical) power. As Sara Kramer pointed, the episode plays with metaphorical vs. literal meanings of words throughout (penetrate my heart, feel the fire, “I just want to be alive,” etc.).  The sequence is not without a politics of male power: the men at the start of the sequence are themselves attracted not to Willow but, appropriately, to the passive object of desire, Tara; also, Tara's sexually-charged lyrics are interrupted through a shock cut by Xander's questioning of whether Tara and Willow are actually working: "I bet their not even working... Did you see the way they were with each other, the get-a-roominess to them. I bet they're...[looks at Dawn] singing." Also, Tara here alludes to male stereotypes for herself ("do I need to fight for you?"). I pointed out the sex joke implicit in the editorial cut at “complete.”


We also examined the first Buffy song-and-dance sequence, "Going through the Motions," in which Buffy fights vampires and demons in a cemetery. The scene exemplifies how uncanny elements (vampires, demons) can be devoid of uncanny effects. The scene also explores a number of issues we have touched on this semester: 1) the episode does not take itself seriously, which therefore could be said to make the show postmodern: it is self-parodic (see the Hutcheon module
on parody); it is a "retro pastiche," as Anya puts it, of past styles and musical forms; and it is quite campy in its citation of Disney clichés (not to mention the schlocky demon); and it thus manages to explore serious issues in a form that, on some level, is immediately understandable by a mass market (offering a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down, as Rebecca Bormann put it in a previous version of this class). We might also point out the comment made by Anja after her song-and-dance sequence with Xander: "It was like we were being watched; like there was a wall missing from our apartment, like there were only three walls and not a fourth one." 2) the episode explores the idea that life is a play, a mere performance, thus linking up with our Judith Butler readings this week; 3) the episode explores how Buffy, after being brought back from the dead, feels herself to be somehow outside the symbolic order of intersubjectivity; as Lindy Patterson, a graduate student put it to me in a previous version of the class, it is as if Buffy is caught not "between the two deaths" but "between the two births"; she has come alive in the body but has yet to enter into the symbolic order and, so, can see that symbolic order as artificial, a mere script. She is going through the motions but she is not able to perform her part "once more, with feeling." 4) As Buffy puts it, she is therefore "losing all [her] drive," arguably both her sex drive (she, in fact, rejects the proffered gratitude of the Fabbio-like man she saves, Gabby Teter pointed out) and her death drive (since she takes no pleasure from nor feels an ethical imperative in her killing of the demons). The final shot of Buffy appearing through the dust of a murdered vampire while singing, "I just want to be alive," symbolically exemplifies the plot: Buffy wishes to return symbolically to life (and to the symbolic order) through the separating fog of death. Even the fact that the original episode went over its one-hour slot by 10 minutes could be read as a formal evocation of Buffy's position, Ross Piedmonte explained: Buffy has already achieved death so that she is now in a position beyond the point of traditional closure. Buffy of course also overturns the usual conventions of such song-and-dance sequences, both claiming the power of the (here oversized) phallus and rejecting the male, scopophilic gaze, as Gabby Teter explained.  The entrance into this dance sequence also fits in nicely with our discussion of Lacan’s Gaze when analyzing the art class sequence in “The Body.”  Instead of a “frame for a hole” that allows us to create a “field of reality” oriented towards an objet petit a, which in turn stands as a screen between us and the ever-threatening intrusion of the real (the death’s head blot in Holbein’s The Ambassadors or, in “The Body,” the corpse of Buffy’s mom), instead of “the spaces around, the space in between” by which a frame creates the field of desire, Buffy is in the process of completely blotting out the frame she’s holding in her hands.  She is now outside the symbolic order and can no longer feel any desire for any objet petit a.


You then turned to two sequences: the Buffy/Spike sequence, "Rest in Peace," and the Buffy solo, "Something to Sing About." The first you explored
in terms of both drive and gender relations. Arguably, it was logical for Spike to desire Buffy at this point since they are in analogous positions, somewhere between life/death in the body and life/death in the symbolic. What we are therefore given in the sequence is a conflation of the two drives, Caitlin Stamper explained: life/sex drive and death drive (Spike's desire for "sweet release" is thus made ambiguous in the sequence), with the two characters finally ending up in a quasi-sexual position inside a grave. Alex Reynaud commented on the gender reversal in the scene: here it is Spike who is performing for Buffy, with Buffy ending up literally "on top" at the end of the sequence. Spike also calls attention to his powerlessness in his lyrics: "You know, you've got a willing slave."


We finished with Buffy's solo, "Something to Sing About," which ends with Spike joining in. The sequence exemplifies Judith Butler's notion of performativity, about which you read for Thursday’s class. Not only does the sequence offer up that old Shakespearean line, "Life's a show and we all play our parts," but the episode goes beyond a mere self-consciousness about the characters' own scriptedness. As Bu
ffy sings, "It's all right if some things come out wrong/ We'll sing a happy song, [looking directly in the camera in close-up] and you can sing along." The characters here are not just playing a part (consciously choosing to take on a role); in this musical, the characters are forced to assume their roles, which thus makes them "open up our hearts." Such a notion of performativity comes closer to Butler's idea of the term. As I explain in the Butler module on performativity, "We may believe that our subjectivity is the source of our actions but Butler contends that our sense of independent, self-willed subjectivity is really a retroactive construction that comes about only through the enactment of social conventions," or, as Butler puts it, "gender cannot be understood as a role which either expresses or disguises an interior 'self'" ("Performative" 279). It is through performing our genders that we assume identity, that we become who we are—despite the artificiality of the roles. By looking directly at the camera, Buffy appears to suggest in the sequence that we may well be in a similarly scripted, performative position in our own lives. We might add that the sequence also illustrates Butler's point that performative gender identity can only be instantiated through continued repetitions of conventional acts; with each repetition, one is more perfectly caught, or, as Buffy sings: "Life's a song you don't get to rehearse/ And every single verse can make it that much worse." By looking directly into the camera, asking us to sing along, Buffy also breaks down the suture associated with the fiction that we should identify with the look of the fictional characters, reminding us of the other two looks usually hidden by Hollywood cinema: the look of the camera and the look of the audience (see above under "Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, and Feminist Film Theory"). Note that the Willow dream sequence in “Restless” explores a similar understanding of the performative nature of identity. 


The final point of the episode, however, is the relation between the performative constraints of the symbolic order and those elements in our lives that tie us together precisely because we cannot put them into words, those things that we all share as part of the human condition: pain and death. As Spike puts it, "Life's not a song, life isn't bliss, life is just this: it's living. You'll get along. The pain that you feel you only can heal by living." It is perhaps apt that the person who stops Buffy is precisely the tragic figure of Spike, someone who has come to understand the full existential pain of being in the position of "between the two deaths."