Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: I Was Made to Love You


Somewhat unusually, today I actually want to argue that, in the case of this particular example, rather than using or working with classical culture, the modern retelling actually has very little to do with its classical predecessor at all. Several scholars (especially Paula James of the Open University) working on classical reception have discussed 'I Was Made to Love You' as a re-telling of the myth of Pygmalion which, on one level, it is. It is the story of a 'perfect' woman built by a man who wants to be with her sexually and romantically - which is the story of Pygmalion. However, I think that the themes explored in the episode are really very different to the themes of the myth, and that the classical story has little to do with the modern re-telling.

This story has been re-told many times, especially in the twentieth century, either in the literal form of robots or mannequins coming to life, or, following George Bernard Shaw, in the metaphorical form of a man trying to model a real woman into a more ideal version. The level of interest in the statue/robot/woman herself varies, though it is worth pointing out that whereas Ovid, the main classical source for the story, focuses on the process of production, obsession with the lifeless statue and prayer to Aphrodite to have the statue brought to life, few modern 're-tellings' do the same. Bernard Shaw was clearly interested in working with the myth, titling his play Pygmalion, and both his play and My Fair Lady, the musical based on it, focus on the process of transforming a young woman physically (through accent) and socially. However, most of the other examples that spring to mind, like Weird Science, focus on the activities of the woman once brought to life and on the implications of creating a fully grown woman, and probably owe more to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein than to the myth of Pygmalion. Even The Stepford Wives, which brings the focus back onto creating the perfect woman, is told in reverse, from the point of view of a woman trying to escape being 'turned into' a robot, the focus on the existence of the women, rather than on the process of transformation.

'I Was Made to Love You' also focuses on the created woman, rather than the creator (who would get more attention in the following season) but I think this episode is much more concerned with its place within season five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer than with ancient myth. IWMTLY is, perhaps surprisingly given its largely light tone, the crucial, turning-point episode of season five. It sits directly between the two biggest game-changing episodes of the season - the revelation of Spike's love for Buffy in the preceeding episode 'Crush' and the death of Buffy's mother, discovered at the end of this episode and dealt with in the following episode, 'The Body'. (An argument could also be made for the importance of 'No Place Like Home', in which Buffy discovers Dawn's true nature, 'Blood Ties', in which Dawn discovers the same, and 'Checkpoint', in which Glory's nature and intentions are revealed, but these are plot points, episodes which move the mechanics of the plot along. Even 'Into the Woods', I would argue, exists simply to get rid of Riley. 'Crush' and 'The Body' are the real emotional turning-points of the season, where the themes of this season - what love is and whether it is dependent on a physical state or relationship, and death - are brought home). Essentially, all the content of IWMTLY reflects the changing state of Buffy's relationships brought about by these two episodes.

IWMTLY opens with Buffy in a state of distress over Spike's affection for her, worrying that there is something wrong with her that attracts crazy vampires. April is a clear rebuttal to this idea. April was created for the sole purpose of being Warren's perfect girlfriend, but Warren has abandoned her for an imperfect, real woman. There is nothing about the way Buffy behaves or lives her life, the episode insists, that can attract or repel men and trying to remodel herself to be a better girlfriend will do her no good.

April's empty 'perfection' and her sole purpose in life of being Warren's girlfriend is also a recurring motif in the episode, emphasised by one of very, very few conversations between Anya and Tara, without any of the 'core Scoobies' (Buffy, Willow, Xander and Giles) present. Anya and Tara are 'the girlfriends', the people who exist on the edge of the group and who drop off when their relationship ends (when this does happen, Anya eventually comes back and Tara maintains contact, but the fact remains that their position within the group is dependent on Willow and Xander, emphasised by the fact that their previous conversation alone with each other took place in Giles' bathroom while the others were arguing and they were waiting for them to finish). By repesenting them having a conversation about their own lives with each other, the episode tries to avoid the very plausible accusation that these two, especially Tara, are depicted on the show almost entirely in relation to their sexual partners and their own lives and interests tend to be sidelined.

The real importance of April's lack of purpose beyond Warren, however, is to highlight another of the main themes of season 5, that of Buffy's nature as The Slayer. Buffy herself is, to a great degree, a created woman, made into a Slayer by a prehistoric group of men, and she questions what this means for her throughout this season. If there is a conscious parallel with the myth of Pygmalion, it is here, in the exploration of what it means for a woman to be a literal creation of men. April asks Buffy what her purpose is if it is not to love Warren and Buffy has no answer - just as Buffy herself finds it difficult to determine a purpose for herself beyond slaying, as her nature as the Slayer drives away all her romantic paramours and threatens her relationship with her sister. Whedon has frequently discussed how this was a crucial theme for series 5 and it is treated overtly in 'Fool for Love', 'Intervention' (in which a robot version of Buffy herself is created, just to really push the metaphor) and 'The Gift', among others.

The most important overall theme in this episode, though, is death. The whole season is driven by the lead-up to Buffy's death and her mother's death, which partially precipitates Buffy's own sacrifice by removing the strongest tie she has to the world. The robot girl's name is 'April', which may be a reference to the rhyme put to music by Simon and Garfunkel, 'April Come She Will', which ends with 'August, die she must'. April has a limited battery life, which she has already outlived, and her demise is inevitable. The swing set she and Buffy sit on reflects April's literal youth and her childlike innocence, but it is also significant that, unbeknownst to Buffy, at the exact moment she sits and comforts the dying April, her own mother is dying, alone, in their house. April's death quite literally marks the end of Buffy's childhood - it is a death of innocence and of childhood comforts like 'when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.' It is impossible to understand the significance of the episode without acknowledging that the whole story is created and informed by that moment at the very end when Buffy walks into her home to find her mother's dead body in the living room. Whedon had been planning this character death since the end of season 3, and this moment comes before anything else in this episode and shapes the entire story.

I don't know whether Joss Whedon and Jane Espenson, the writer of this episode, have read Ovid's Metamorphoses, though I'm sure they are familiar with the story of Pygmalion. I have no idea whether they had the Pygmalion myth in mind in creating this story (Joss or Jane, if you're reading, please let us know!). But I don't know that I really consider this to be an example of classical reception, of a use of the classical past in modern popular culture. I can't help thinking that the resemblences between this story and the myth of Pygmalion are largely coincidental - that this episode is concerned with exploring particular themes in the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer ('perfect' romantic love, the historical manipulation of women by men which is given metaphorical form in the creation of the Slayer, death and innocence) and that, while the myth may have provided initial inspiration, it has little to do with the development of this story.

Of course, on the other hand, postmodern literary theory tells us that we should be considering the response of the reader rather than trying to discover authorial intent, so in that respect, this is very much an example of classical reception. If it makes viewers think of Pygmalion in its treatement of the attempt to create the perfect woman (though Pygmalion was rather more successful), then it counts as reception of that myth, and we can never really discover the author's intention anyway. I do think, though, that there is something different about this sort of use of classical myth to the more overt uses of Greek and Roman culture and history that I usually look at, and that this example really has very little to do with using the classical past, and more to do with using a useful recurring motif that happens to be classical (the manufactured woman) to work within its own mythology.

7 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. The Pygmalian story is always SO rewarding to adapt. And Joss Whedon does it brilliantly. This is one of my favourite Buffy episodes and always makes me cry a little bit. (Plus Spike!)

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  3. Thanks both! I wasn't so wild about this episode for the most part (poor Spike!) but I do love that scene on the swings, which I think is really beautiful. Also, this directly led to the Buffybot, who is awesome ('I hate Angel, his hair sticks stright up and he's bloody stupid'! :) )

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  4. This is an excellent piece of analysis. I like it a lot, and will point students at it.

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  5. Thanks Tony! :) It was inspired by the DVD for A330!

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  6. VERY interesting take on this! It's not one of the episodes I usually remember when I think of the series. I'm astonished I had forgotten the key final scene when Buffy walks into her house... I always just think of "The Body"!

    "it is also significant that, unbeknownst to Buffy, at the exact moment she sits and comforts the dying April, her own mother is dying, alone, in their house. April's death quite literally marks the end of Buffy's childhood - it is a death of innocence and of childhood comforts like 'when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.'"

    Very true... an idea that hadn't dawned on me.

    As for Pygmalion, whenever I did think about this ep, I always considered it to be an anti-Pygmalion story: man creates perfect woman to love, only to discover that perfection isn't all it's cut out to be and prefers "real".

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  7. Yeah, definitely - something distinctly lacking in the Pygmalion myth, which in Ovid's version ends all happy-ever-after! (and is, therefore, incredibly insulting to women).

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