Buffy: Freebird (by Special Request)

[Content Note: Abusive Parenting, Homelessness]

Given my searing, all-consuming hatred of Joyce Summers, several of you have asked me to do a post on Gingerbread when Husband and I got to it in the course of our Buffy-watching. We have now done so, and I find myself sitting here at a loss for what to say.

Chances are, if you like Joyce Summers, you're not going to agree with anything I say here. I respect that, I really do. Gods know I am intimately familiar with how a fictional character can be viewed very, very differently depending on who is doing the viewing. I'm almost tempted to opine that fictional characters are like Rorschach tests, and that whether we see a crab or a spider or a butterfly or a bat says less about the source material than it does about what we bring to it. (I say "almost" because as much as I like the poetry of the idea, I can't back it up with facts or anything.)

And chances are equally good that if you don't like Joyce Summers, there's nothing new I can say that I haven't already said here and here and here. I don't like Joyce Summers. I genuinely, honestly believe that she's a character with a narcissistic personality disorder, but which the writers are trying to sell to us as a loving, quirky, sainted mother only interested in her daughter's welfare and accidentally swept up in evil forces that she cannot control. If there's anything left that is interesting to me in the Question of Joyce, it's only that the television tropes and limitations that were designed to telegraph this wonderfulness in Joyce failed so badly. That seems kind of worth exploring, except that I've reached a sort of Joyce Fatigue. I hate Joyce; what more is there to say? 

And possibly this Joyce Fatigue ties in with the fact that I lived all this shit. Once, for myself, twelve years ago in an episode too long to get into here, and once again, vicariously through a family member just this very week. This past Monday, a girl I love very dearly, a girl not much older than Buffy, was told by her mother to leave home and never come back, because her mother couldn't accept who her daughter turned out to be. Her daughter failed to live up to the Fantasy Daughter in her head, and when she refused to change -- because that fantasy was unachievable -- her mother threw her out. Told her to leave, told her to never come back. Waited until she walked out the door and then changed the locks. And that teenage girl whom I love became essentially homeless, living on the charity of friends who couldn't afford to take her in for very long. While her mother turned around and told everyone else that the girl had left on her own without any provocation, and milked every drop of sympathy she could out of our family.

This situation, like Buffy's, eventually resolved itself. The teenage girl took the Buffy response outlined so clearly in "Dead Man's Party" and came home and took all the blame on herself. She did the smart thing: the alternative was to literally starve on the street. Her mother is gratified and happy that everything resolved itself so well for her; the girl is just relieved that the emotional abuse has been dialed back a little. Status quo has been restored ... for now. But unlike Buffy, this story is real. It's something that I and my family have had to live with for the past six days. And in light of this real tragedy, I find that my hatred of Joyce is something I cannot sustain for the moment. What was bright and burning and fiery is a dull throbbing ebb of pain. Because I live in a country where throwing good children out of the house for failing to be perfect is a reality. Because I live in a world where being thrown out by your parents means being thrown to the wolves, with little or no safety net to catch you. Because I live in a world with Lost Boys, with abandoned children, with unfeeling parents, and with a presidential candidate who would like to reduce what little safety net we have even further because he doesn't think people have a right to eat.

It's hard to rage against Joyce when all I want to do is curl up in a ball and cry. That is what I am saying. And I can't think of anything hilarious and quirky to say here to make this post less depressing, so imagine a fart sound in the background, or maybe a dog in a silly hat.

But I digress.

So here is your Gingerbread post, by popular demand:

Nothing that Joyce does here hasn't been predicted in advance by my previous anti-Joyce rants. 

That's my response to this episode. Either I'm getting serious Confirmation Bias or I fucking called it.

Joyce doesn't respect Buffy's boundaries. 
I just... don't even. Does Joyce ever let Buffy know people are coming over before she invites them? ... If there is a faster, more direct way of making Buffy feel like a tourist in her home with no control over her personal space, I can't think of it.
Buffy: Mom, what are you doing here?
Joyce: I brought you a snack. I thought it was about time for me to come out and watch. Y-you know, the slaying.
Buffy: You know, the slaying is kind of an alone thing.
Joyce: But it's such a big part of your life, and I'd like to understand it. It's, um, you know, something we could share.

Joyce doesn't respect Buffy's boundaries. Ever. She shows up during Buffy's patrol, and doesn't ask if it's a good time, or if her being there will put Buffy in danger by distracting her. She never ever asks if something is alright with Buffy; she just asserts that This Is What Joyce Wants. And therefore it will happen if Joyce has any say in the matter. She shows up at Buffy's school, again without asking, because she wants to be there and that's the end of that. She even goes so far as to argue with Buffy when Buffy asks her to not do this to her at school, and Joyce belittles her objections as mere "embarrassment".

Joyce doesn't prioritize Buffy's feelings.
That isn't an apology. It's not even an attempt at one. It's a way of dismissing the person in front of you, and the pain you've caused them. 
Joyce: (distraught) They were little kids. Did you see them? They're so tiny.
Buffy: (sympathetically) I saw.
Joyce: (shaking her head) Who could do something like this? I just... (looks down sadly)
Buffy: I'm so sorry that you had to see this. But I promise, everything is gonna be okay.
Joyce: How?!
Buffy: Because I'm gonna *find* whatever did it.
Joyce: I guess. It's just you can't... you can't make it right.

Joyce doesn't prioritize Buffy's feelings. She's more interested in mourning the two children -- two children she doesn't know and which she is skirting close to the line of appropriating for her own purposes so that she can feel good about feeling bad (I'm looking at YOU, third-cousin-once-removed who shows up at a funeral and acts like the death of the person they've never met before hurts them WAY WORSE than it does the immediate family) -- than about how this affects Buffy. You know, Buffy? The person with the constant survivor's guilt because she thinks every death in Sunnydale is a death she had the power to prevent and yet didn't? Joyce even tells Buffy that she "can't make it right" and almost aggresses against her in that scene for not mourning the "right" way.

Joyce doesn't care about people other than herself. 
I can't get over how aggressively ignorant Joyce is about vampire slaying. This goes beyond refusing to talk to Giles about this stuff: Joyce is actively refusing to think about her daughter's position. ... It doesn't take a rocket scientist to think of these things. It does take someone willing to sit down and mentally walk through what it would be like to live in Buffy's shoes. Incredibly, Joyce has not done that, not in the entire three months that Buffy has been gone and the house has been "quiet".
Joyce: Mr. Mayor, you're dead wrong. This is *not* a good town. How many of us have, have lost someone who, who just disappeared? Or, or got skinned? Or suffered neck rupture? And how many of us have been too afraid to speak out? I-I was supposed to lead us in a moment of silence, but... silence is this town's disease. For too long we-we've been plagued by unnatural evils. This isn't our town anymore. It belongs to the monsters and, and the witches and the Slayers.

Joyce doesn't care about people other than herself. She puts down Willow and Amy by saying that they "dabble" in magic, which makes them sound like they practice magic as a silly little fad rather than a meaningful part of their life. She lumps Buffy in with the forces of evil when she rants that the town belongs to "unnatural evils ... the monsters and the witches and the Slayers". She says this even knowing that the very fact that there are Slayers is supposed to be secret, and that this secret is the only thing keeping Buffy alive and (realtively) safe.

Joyce makes light of the locker raid at school and the book raid in the library, and the fact that these things are egregious violations of human rights. (Though unfortunately legal in America.) She tells Buffy that her job as a Slayer is "fruitless", and that she's a reactionary force. (So are police offers. So are domestic abuse attorneys. So are emergency medical personnel. God-fucking-dammit, Joyce, but you are a real class act, do you know that?) Meanwhile, Joyce has a all-consuming need to build herself up and to surround herself with admirers and social power: Ted. Pat. MOO. All these things are, first and foremost, about making Joyce feel special. That these things damage Buffy in the process is not a consideration for Joyce. 

Joyce is controlling.
In other words, Joyce providing Buffy food isn't a genuine apology. It's just one more example of Joyce realizing that things aren't the way she wants them to be and deciding that the correct option is to supervise and police Buffy's every action to an oppressive extreme ... See that previous episode where she grounded Buffy from literally doing anything except going to the school or going to the toilet.
Joyce: I don't want you seeing that Willow anymore. I've spoken with her mother. I had no idea her forays into the occult had gone so far.

Joyce controls Buffy's life to an abusive degree. We've already talked about her showing up while Buffy is slaying and then later at school, in both cases asserting her will to be there over Buffy's potential needs to have her absent. By the middle of the episode, Joyce is telling Buffy that she's not allowed to see Willow anymore ever again, based on something that Willow's mother has said. Willow has been tried as an absentee without a single witness offered on her behalf and Buffy has been given the sentence of never speaking to her best friend ever again. By the end of the episode, Joyce is chloroforming her daughter and tying her to stakes in order to control her behavior completely.

Joyce hates Buffy for not being the fantasy daughter that she wanted. 
And let's talk about Joyce's magical fantasy land, because again we see patterns. This is not the first time that Joyce has expressed open and verbal regret with having a daughter who isn't a carbon copy of her. She got into a fight with Buffy because Buffy didn't want to be on the yearbook staff like Joyce was. She shamed Buffy in front of a stranger because Buffy didn't want to go to the school dance. ... Joyce is apparently supposed to be sympathetic in spite of the fact that she's openly favoring the daughter in her head over the one that actually exists and has feelings to be hurt by all this compare-and-contrasting.
Joyce: Good morning, sleepyhead.
Buffy: (imploringly) Mom, you don't want this.
Joyce: Since when does it matter what I want? I wanted a normal, happy daughter. Instead I got a Slayer.


So here are my final thoughts on the episode:
We're not supposed -- or, rather, the characters refuse -- to view these magical reset actions as an established pattern ... We don't get to point out that Drugged!Joyce ignores and belittles and passive-aggresses against Buffy in ways that are consistent with previous actions on her part. We don't get to point out that bringing a Man Buffy Does Not Know into the house without warning Buffy is not substantially different from bringing a Male Student Buffy Does Not Know into the house without warning her. We don't get to point out that using a boyfriend to shame Buffy at mini-golf is not substantially different from using a female exchange student to shame Buffy into going to a dance. We do not get to point those things out because then the Watsonian red flag goes out on the play: BUT IT WASN'T THEIR FAULT!

No, it wasn't their fault. I agree. But it's not their fault because there's a magical reset button that makes it not their fault. And I'm not sure how I feel about writers who want to take persistently abusive traits up to 11 without having to actually commit to the character changes. Nor am I sure how I feel about a show that takes on relatively obvious shit ... while quietly obscuring the non-obvious shit like ... tackling parental abuse (DON'T INVITE SERIAL KILLERS INTO YOUR HOUSE WITHOUT GIVING YOUR DAUGHTER A HEADS-UP, MMKAY) without, you know, tackling parental abuse (UNLESS THEY'RE EXCHANGE STUDENTS).


Silver Adept said...

@Em -

Generally, I (we?) think that Whedon/the writers think of Joyce as good in the same way that we think they see Xander as good - there are little/no consequences for their actions delivered, they can assert their right to not have embarrassing or badactions in their past brought up while simultaneously demanding that others pay in full, repeatedly, for their mistakes, and they always have something like possession to handily explain away their evil acts, even when the evil really only exaggerates their natural state.

Because Xander can continue to be a Nice Guy without anyone calling him on being a creep who cares more about his pantsfeelings than about his friends.

Because Joyce can kick Buffy out and nobody calls her horrible. And then, she can get a party together to guilt Buffy and blame her for everything, and all the other people join in the abuse instead of sticking up for Buffy and calling Joyce on her shit. (Compare with [REDACTED] and [SPOILERS] in later seasons and how much she gets called out, despite having it worse in every way.)

Because [SPOILERS, CITIZEN] - it's unique for the whole series, compared to what happens to everyone else, on or off-screen.

There is a distinct lack of consequences around Good People in the eyes of the writers, regardless of their actual good deeds and values.

Fm said...

Addon to the previous post: because for me, it was always obvious Joyce is bad mother, and supposed to be there to make Buffy's life miserable. The Wake Up, Go to School, Save the World" muster is supposed to work like that, so I thought everyone finds Joyce bad, her badness only exaggerated when she is possessed.

Fm said...

Well, for vampires it isactually later established that their charachter is the evil side of the former human, so it is fairly sure that Demon!charachters behave like a worse version of themselves.I have a question though. Why do you think Whedon doesn't regard Joyce as bad?

Steven Damer said...

First - delurking message: I'm a habitual lurker and I don't usually comment on things but I've enjoyed your deconstructions - they're interesting, and they make me think about things differently (particularly Xander), so I've decided to delurk and tell you about an idea I've had about why these stories are so problematic. Thank you for writing such in interesting set of deconstructions.

So - I've been thinking about all the problematic elements you've been pointing out in Buffy (also Narnia, but the conclusion I've come to there is similar to the one I've come to here, so I won't go into that so much). The thing is, I don't think the author intends for Joyce or Xander to be horrible people (similarly, in Narnia, Aslan is not intended to be horrible). What I think is going on is that the author is deliberately telling a story about one thing, but changing the setting. For Buffy, I think he's telling a high school story (told from the point of view of Buffy), but setting it in a horror/action universe. For Narnia, it's a story about children playing pretend, but setting it as if the pretend-game were real.

The thing is, the elements change as they're translated to a different setting. So Xander (who is definitely a Nice Guy, regardless of the setting) has his normal Nice-Guy passive aggression and attraction to Buffy translated to horrible actions such as sexual assault, and attempted murder of her boyfriend. Joyce's behavior is ridiculously inappropriate if her daughter is the sole protector of humanity, but if she were trying to learn more about Buffy's activities on a rollerderby team (for example), her attempts to include herself wouldn't be nearly so inappropriate. It's the increased stakes of the new setting that transforms Joyce from a fairly unhip Mom with some unreasonable expectations of her daughter to a callous manipulative monster.

Which is not to say that these characters would be great people even in an 'ordinary girl goes to high school' setting - they just wouldn't be the towering piles of WTF that they are. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this idea - after all, I'm essentially proposing a hypothetical 'original story' in a different setting in which Xander, Joyce, and the other characters behave analogously to the way the behave in the Buffy series, but their personalities are more benign and comprehensible. It's pretty much completely untestable, but it is a stab at an explanation of how the author can intend that characters who behave horribly in the fiction aren't actually behaving horribly.

Shaniqua said...

While on the subject of Buffy and things Joss Whedon related.. this came to me as a surprise today. Whedon on Romney..


This was really well done. :)

depizan said...

My favorite thing Whedon's done, I think.

Aidan Bird said...

@MotherDemeter: This. This exactly is how I viewed Joyce. Buffy couldn't tell the difference between abusive, awful demon-possessed Joyce and her real Mom. It freaked me every time I saw episodes where she couldn't tell until the very end. It just seemed to prove to me just how horribly abusive and awful her mother really could be, and that was often fairly triggering to see.

You know, when Joyce threw Buffy out of the house because she was the slayer -- it immediately made me think of LGBTQIA people. This is something Buffy cannot change. It's something she was born with -- the potential to be a slayer, and then BAM! she becomes the slayer because that's how it is. She has no control over it. There's an analogy here to sexual orientation and gender identity - both of which we are born with and we cannot change. It's not like I can just stop being gay or alter the neurons in certain parts of my brain so I'm no longer genderqueer and am a cisfemale instead. I can't do this -- I just am who I am. Buffy is who she is.

I think that's also why it's hard for me to discuss Joyce, so I have a lot of respect for you Ana, on tackling this subject. Joyce is a painful subject. She's a reminder of what abusive parents can be like; she's a reminder of how it doesn't matter who you are, you can still be punished for being who you are -- something you can't even change. She embodies all of this.

Episodes like this one just really brings these points home. Joyce isn't a healthy person to be around ever really.

Ana Mardoll said...

Wow. This, so much.

And the sad thing is, I almost think there *can be* a collaboration between #3 and #4, between acknowledging the Being of the work while steering it back to the Meaning. It wouldn't be impossible or even hard for the writers to write Joyce as getting better at these things, maybe even apologizing and acknowledging that she needs to change.

They, in fact, flirted with this in "Amends" with Xander, when he decides to help Angel because it's the right thing to do despite the fact that it may mean continued non-access to Buffy's panties. I remember thinking then that if Xander really keeps this up, I'd be tempted to call it "character growth". They could do that with Joyce. But I don't imagine that will happen.

(You could even do this in a book -form, a la Narnia, but DAWN TREADER will not have, as a driving plot motivation, any corrections to the Being in order to get back to the Meaning. The Being will just continue to be blithely ignored, I think.)

Nathaniel said...

Guess the difference is for me is while I have a mother who by no means is perfect, she has never been abusive to me.

Sorry to hear that about your relative. Hope she gets out okay when she achieves some financial independence.

MotherDemeter said...

One thing that struck me about these "but Joyce is being controlled by evil" episodes is how long into it Buffy takes to pick up that it isn't really her mom. You know, the point that her mom is about the kill her. That says a lot about how not out of character all the messed up interactions are. I mean, at what point is it Joyce-Demon and not the real Joyce? If her mom weren't usually like that, living in the hell mouth and having been through it several times already, you'd think Buffy would be able to immediately figure out that her mom was being possessed (again).

But really Joyce is just a plot device and not a character. Her actions either give Buffy a reason to verbalize emotional growth (talking about her feelings about why she fights) or make the monster of the week somewhat more complicated (can't just stab the mom now can we). I think what we see in these posts is Meta Jocye and she' ain't nice. All of this does make me feel better about "The Body", though the style of the episode hits me right in the feels no matter what.

Tigerpetals said...

Trigger warning for hate, anger, despair:

I hate that your niece had to do that. Not as much as you do, or as I hope your niece does (or feels something about how wrong this is; this internet stranger wants her to be very aware and stay aware of how bad everything and what she had to do is, I hope that's not wrong.)

I hate the concept of the family, the concept that society is based on family and that that should be okay. I hate that young people are ever at the mercy of those older than them, especially for the beginning chunks of their lives, and that there's no escape unless the parents permit it/arrange for it. My experiences may not be as bad as yours and definitely not as bad your niece's, but they remind me that I hate everything about the elevation of family.

Niala Wesley said...

Ana, I knew that when you wrote about Joyce in Gingerbread I would love the post!

Silver Adept said...

Okay, so sometimes there are consequences. When they aren't necessitated by the plot, as our examples show, though, they don't happen. And on par, especially with Xander, many of the consequences for characters other than Buffy are Reset Buttoned and never spoken of again, even when brought into existence to serve the plot for the week.

So while there isn't an active endorsement of bad things being good (by character pronunciation or other such things), the way consequences tend to be handled suggests that certain people's behavior is supposed to be excused or tolerated, while other characters do not receive that same excuse or tolerance.

We may have to agree to disagree on this one - the degree of the Big Consequences that happen to the characters that get struck by them, especially relative to what they did that precipitated them, has arrows for me pointing at how much we're supposed to approve of their actions. Of the not Always Chaotic Evil cast, anyway.

Fm said...


Fm said...

@Silver Adept
Um no this is not whatI meant. I thught about (warning: spoilers for all of Buffy under Rot13) things like Knaqre naq Jvyybj xvff, Pbeqryvn oernxf hc jvgu uvz, be Knaqre yrnirf Nawn ng gur nygre, fur orpbzrf iratrnpr qrzba ntnva (F6), be Knaqre syvegf jvgu tvey, vf gvrq hc bire gur frny naq phg hc sbe uvf oybbq gb bcra vg(F7)
Nf sbe Jvyybj, Jvyybj'f erfheerpgvba bs Ohssl hygvzngryl erfhygf va Gnen'f qrngu (ng yrnfg Jvyybj urefrys guvaxf guvf jnl cre pbzvp). Naq orsber gung va F6 Jvyybj'f zntvp rfpncnqrf qb unir pyrneyl onq pbafrdhraprf, sbe ure naq bguref. Naq trarenyyl, ubj znal gvzrf ner Jvyybj naq Knaqre va qnatre orpnhfr gurl pubfr gb fgvpx gb Ohssl? Knaqre ybbfvat na rlr vf abg rabhtu?
Ba gur bgure fvqr, erzrzore gur thl jub fyrcg jvgu Ohssl, gura qhzcrq ure va F4? Tbg njnl. Nzl? Tbg njnl hagvy pbzvpf. Naqerj xvyyvat Wbanguna? Grnef ner rabhtu.
Some things have consequences, others don't.

Fm said...

Also note that Willow's mother also falls into "ignore, then oppress" pattern (even though in her case the"oppress" is magically driven : she never interests herself in what Willow does and then in this episode she uses Willow's magical exercises as a pretext for burning.
Personally, I always saw lack of consequences for Joyce simply as realism: abusive parents are rarely punished especially if the abuse is subtle (as in not beating / molestation kind). The point is precisely that just like in real life people usually get away with parental abuse and Nice Guyism, in "Buffy" superpowers don't help against such kind of evil - whereas more direct evils (represented by supernatural) are routinely dealt with in the classical "kill the baddies" way. So lack of consequences is a proof that not all evil can be vanquished with such direct approach, not a proof the charachter is OK. As for Xander, he does enough to compensate for his boner mentality. There is no sign in the show that this mentality is good, and later there will be repercussions.

Silver Adept said...


I do not believe the show supports your conclusion about Xander. Allow me to explain through the use of the Caesar cipher (Rot = 13):

Svg nf zhpu nf gur naivy trgf unzzrerq va frnfba fvk gung Erny Yvsr vf gur ovt onq (Jbeq bs Tbq pbasvezf guvf), gurer'f fgvyy cyragl gurer sbe Ohssl'f Fynlre novyvgvrf gb unaqyr, naq guerngf gung ner abg zhaqnar va angher.

Gur fvghngvba jurer vg vf Ohssl ntnvafg gur jbeyq vf n ovg pbagevirq, nf jryy. Lrf, jbexvat avtugf va nqqvgvba gb pynffrf vf cbffvoyr, ohg abobql, abg rira Tvyrf, pbafvqref gur snpg gung Ohssl fubhyq cebonoyl nccyl sbe onfvp nffvfgnapr sebz Pnyvsbeavn? Vs jr ernyyl jnagrq n fgbel nobhg erny yvsr orvat gur ovt onq, vg jbhyq or rnfvyl qbnoyr - gurer ner cyragl bs zhaqnar guvatf sbe rirelbar gb trg jenccrq hc va. Znlor rira n fgbel jurer, fbzrubj, gur Fynlre qhgvrf ner gnxra bire ol Snvgu, be gur Uryyzbhgu vf orvat uryq va purpx orpnhfr bs gur erznvaf bs Gur Vavgvngvir, be jungrire. Erny yvsr arire ernyyl vagehqrf ba gur Fhzzref ubhfrubyq.

Nf svg Knaqre, vs lbh'er ersreevat gb jung vf fhccbfrq gb or uvf Pebjavat Zbzrag bs Njrfbzr ng gur raq bs frnfba fvk, gung'f abg Knaqre fnivat gur jbeyq, ernyyl, gung'f Knaqre znantvat gb pbaivapr Jvyybj gung qrfgeblvat gur jbeyq orpnhfr fur'f tevrivat bire Gnen vf n onq vqrn. Knaqre gnyxvat gb Jvyybj fubhyq unir gur rssrpg bs tnyinavmvat Jvyybj gbjneq ure qrfgehpgvir checbfr, onfrq ba nyy gur fghcvq fghss ur'f qbar, ohg vafgrnq, vg jbexf gur bccbfvgr jnl. Ur trgf gb srry tbbq nobhg uvzfrys naq cergraq vg jnf nyy uvz.

So, no, I think the show is very good at showing consequences and chooses which ones it wants to have happen. To people the show deems good, they have Plot Armor against consequences. To Bad people, though, no such mercy. Which suggests that the show doors not see its protagonist as a good person, because Buffy gets a lot of crap dumped on her as consequences of her actions. Repeatedly. Others don't.

swbarnes2 said...

I think I remember Joss Whedon saying that he thought that biological families sucked. His thing is chosen families. Though he softened that a little with strong sibling relationships in certain shows. But I don't think there are any healthy parent/child relationships in Whedon, not where the children are older than babies.

So Joyce's horribleness as a parent is not 100% unintentional.

Post a Comment