Sunday, May 3, 2009

Feminist Analysis of Angel Episode, "Billy"

I recently re-watched the Angel episode, "Billy." It doesn't get any easier.

Fans of Joss Whedon and The Buffyverse may know that Wheedon describes himself as a feminist. Whether or not you would describe him that way, one thing is not debatable; feminism and gender loom large in Wheedon's work. I am primarily familiar with Buffy (BTVS) and Angel, but a quick scan of the cast and concept behind Dollhouse tells me these issues are still on Whedon's mind.

"Billy" is one of the most provocative stories from the Buffy-Angel run. With the possible exception the sickest phases of Buffy's relationship with Spike or the realization that the first Slayer was made by ancient shamen having a woman ritually raped by a demon it disturbs me as much as anything Wheedon has ever thrown at me. When Billy Blim is first introduced in "That Vission Thing" you know he's bad, but there is no real clue to what he is about.

Billy is a humanoid part-demon who hates human women. He enjoys having human men act out this hate for him. To make this happen he need only touch them. Likewise, if a human male comes in contact with any of Billy's bodily fluids their behavior will turn violently misogynistic.

Exactly how this works is part of what makes this episode to highly charged. Different characters describe Billy's effect on men in different ways during the show. Lilah Morgan's explanation to Cordelia Chase, "He brings out a primal misogyny in them," may be the most disturbing. In Tim Minear and Jeffrey Bell's DVD commentary for "Billy" Lilah's explanation, that Billy is just activating something men inherently feel, generated considerable negative response from viewers, even though it was a villain who said it.

If Lilah is right, what does that really say about men? It is one thing to say that there is some biological essentialism in our human experience, but Lilah is saying that there is not only hate but misogyny in the male body. Listening to what "infected" men say in "Billy," men resent woman's thoughts, words, bodies and how they affect us to the point that we will kill them to silence them and keep them in their place.

Sadly, this idea doesn't come out of nowhere. Andrea Dworkin, among others, has written about how men have systematically subjugated women in private life, literature and entertainment based on their physical differences from men throughout recorded history. The consistency of this behavior supports the view that contempt for women is part of the male schema and will continue to be expressed culturally and personally because it is always there. Whether attributed to biology or socialization, non-physical feminine traits, such as those embraced by Cultural Feminism, are also dismissed or maligned by men in power.

The pattern across time and cultures of men abusing and repressing women is pretty damning, but there is also evidence that men are not entirely locked into this behavior. Isn't there?

Here is some dialog from the end of "Billy." Wesley is holed up in his room, hiding from the world after saying horrible things to Fred and trying to kill her, under Billy's influence. Fred wants him to come back to work with the team.

Fred: That wasn't you.
Wesley: How can you know that? Something inside me was forced to the surface. Something primal. Something.
Fred: Do you want to kill me?
Wesley: Oh, God, no.
Fred: It wasn't something in you. It was something that was done to you.
Wesley: I don't know what kind of man I am anymore.
Fred: Well, I do. - You're a good man.
So which one is it? Is Fred naive, or maybe trying to protect Wesley's feelings? Or is she right?

There is another hint of an answer near the end of the episode. Cordelia asks Angel why Billy's touch didn't effect him. Angel replies that he no longer has hate. It is something that he has moved beyond.

I may not be a 250 year old vampire, but I'm fairly wise, and I don't get all of my truths about life from TV dramas. "Billy" is unusually thought provoking but I don't expect any of the characters to totally clarify the origins of misogyny for me. Angel puts forth an interesting, if over-stated, idea. Is misogyny something men can move beyond, like other types of hate and jealously?

What creeps me out most when I watch "Billy" is Wesley's diatribes while under Billy's sway. He hits all of the notes in the song of heterosexual men's problems with women. At our worst we hate them for their weakness and resent their strength; admire their beauty and hate them for the way that makes us feel; belittle them for not being like men and resent them if they try to be; desire woman's bodies but are completely baffled, dismayed and threatened by them at the same time, especially and specifically menstruation.

I sort of end up riding the fence. Lilah is largely right. My last paragraph and Wesley's ugly rant at Fred are in many men's hearts, in one form or another. At the same time, I think Fred is right. What Wesley was saying and doing were not who he really was, even though its seeds were in there somewhere. Many men, good men, are somewhere on the road to being like Angel. We're trying to move beyond the JV-locker-room-of-the-soul we fall back into when we are frustrated. We're trying to become real people--real people who don't hate arbitrarily or resent others based on anatomy.

Then Billy won't be able to make us hurt the people we love. Only we can make that change. Unlike Angel, we don't have centuries to get it right.

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