FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Gingerbread
Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Joyce has found out about her daughter's identity as the Slayer and is keen to remain an active role in Buffy's life.
A surprise Bring Your Parent To Work Day doesn't go so well for Buffy when Joyce joins her on a patrol to better understand the ways of the Slayer only to discover two murdered children in the park. With a mysterious symbol painted on their hand (and one that would go on to adorn my high school planner for many years to come), witchcraft is soon assumed to be the cause of the murder. Joyce turns her grief into a crusade, uniting the Sunnydale mob into a feeding frenzy and embarking on a quite literal witch hunt. However, things are not all as they seem as the Scoobies continue to investigate and discover that there is something manipulating the situation from behind the scenes.
It may be one of the less well-loved episodes of the third season and on the surface, it does look like a bit of a filler episode. However, it does happen to do some quite clever things with the themes that so often appear in the fairytale source material as well as being packed with references to other similarly-themed works like The Crucible. It's not the first fairytale adaptation to explore the mob mentality, something which Disney's Beauty and the Beast did beautifully in the unexpectedly violent The Mob Song. Writers Thania St. John and Jane Espenson use every opportunity to tear Mothers Opposed to the Occult, or MOO for short, down, whether it's their ridiculous acronym or the frankly medieval way of going about their anti-witchcraft business.
The central exploration of this mob mentality and the dangers of censorship in Buffy's world are expertly done, but there are several other explorations of fairytale tropes going on within the episode. So, if you'll indulge me, it'll be a slightly different post this week. Rather than talking about everything I liked or didn't in the episode, it's going to be a slightly closer reading of the way in which the episode takes these fairytale tropes and themes and remoulds them into something more fitting for the show's feminist leanings.
The narrative specifically references Hansel and Gretel; the two children are a split form of one demon which exists to sow discord amongst communities like Sunnydale. As Buffy says, a twist on their story is that Hansel and Gretel run home to tell everyone about the mean old witch and then sit back and watch as women are persecuted in the name of that very witch. This is what happens over the course of this episode, but there are several other subversions of fairytales. Perhaps the funniest is Xander and Oz taking on the Prince Charming rescue role, fighting their way through the building to save Buffy and Willow only to fall through the roof after everything has all been sorted out.
Often in fairytales (particularly in nineteenth century ones), the women who don't conform (ugly/old/outspoken/too clever/too inquisitive - basically, any that aren't silent or asleep) are the ones who are threatened with punishment by their respective narratives, or killed as a result of their actions, like Karen of The Red Shoes, vain and spoiled, who dances to her death. Buffy's non-conformism has long been one of her defining characteristics, just as it is for both Willow and Amy. They actively reject the straight and narrow path that society expects of them and go their own way, whether that's to do with being a Slayer, having a brain or actually being a witch. That these are the three picked to burn at stake is a direct nod back to the moralistic aims of the original tales.
As part of this whole suppression of non-conformist women thread, older women didn't tend to get off so lightly. The episode weaves the two threads nicely together; the actions of the younger women are directly influencing the actions of the older women and vice versa. If you were the nice, maternal older woman sort who told cuddly stories and looked after your kids, you were probably all right. The only trouble is biological mothers don't tend to last too long either; most mothers are already dead by the time the stories begin, leaving it to the evil stepmother to sweep in and torture the kids with abandon. The evil stepmother is not only so-called because she dislikes children (but is perfectly happy to marry a man with them), but because she's a disturbance of the traditional family order, subverting the traditional maternal role. In the original tale, it's Hansel and Gretel's stepmother who forces their father to send them into their forests to their deaths.
Now, in Buffy, there aren't any visible stepmothers around, but the events of the episode put a huge amount of pressure on the existing maternal relationships, most notably for Buffy and for Willow, subverting that aspect of the original fairytales. The episode opens with that surprise bonding session between Buffy and Joyce as the former is out on patrol. Since discovering her daughter's identity, Joyce has been attempting to come to terms with Buffy being the Slayer and her decision to join Buffy is one of many ways to get closer to her daughter; she could almost be accused of over-parenting. In contrast, Willow's relationship with her mother is remarkably distant. Sheila Rosenberg is, unsurprisingly, an academic and that seems to take priority over having anything to do with what is going on Willow's life.
Cut to the discovery of the two children and these maternal relationships rapidly shift into active antagonism as the two mothers suddenly see their daughters as part of Sunnydale's occult problem. The demon clearly targets maternal figures, knowing that they are pre-disposed to feeling sorry for victimised and murdered children and it's Joyce, chief matriarch here, who creates Mothers Opposed to the Occult. The demon causes the pre-existing maternal relationships to break down to the point of these women casting out their daughters, much like the evil stepmothers of fairytales did to their unwanted offspring. However, the demon fails because its true nature and its manipulation are revealed to all involved, even if they don't choose to remember it.
Like the fairytale evil stepmother, there's an external force at work here to try and break down these relationships. For Buffy, her relationship with her mother is a key foundation for her whole lifestyle (just look at The Body to see just how much Joyce's death impacts on her) and to see it break down puts Buffy in an extremely vulnerable position where she is relying on others to rescue her. However, once the demon is stopped, the relationships go back to the way they were or, in Willow's case, even improve as a result.
There's an undercurrent here about the way female relationships are presented in society; everyone is always quick to comment on how women are just as eager to trip each other up. In this episode, it's the external forces acting on these women that cause that breakdown, just like the societal pressure to remain beautiful forces the Evil Queen's hand against Snow White. It's a familiar narrative; the older women are threatened by the young women coming up through society, but in Buffy, it's just a hairy old demon with a misogynist streak. This is coincidentally how I tend to look at a lot of the mainstream media peddling these stupid narratives of female antagonism.
The episode still may not live up to the heights of some of the rest of the third season, but it's an interesting twist on fairytales (even if I may have read a bit too much into it). Thanks for joining me on this particular rambling. The next post will be shorter, I promise.
Quote of the Week:
Cordelia [to Giles]: How many times have you been knocked out anyway? I swear, one of these days you're going to wake up in a coma.
Let's Get Trivial: As Cordelia willingly illustrates, this marks the umpteenth time that Giles gets knocked out in the series, something which he becomes increasingly famous for amongst the group.
Inventive Kill: Buffy uses the stake she's supposed to burned at to impale the demon through the throat. As you do.
Sunnydale Who's Who: Shawn Pyfrom, who plays the little boy, would go on to play Andrew Van de Kamp in hit series Desperate Housewives.
You can catch Becky's look at Amends here.