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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

“The Apparitional Lesbian” as a Key to Interpreting “Out of Sight, Out of Mind”

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Marcie Ross performs her disapperaing act.

According to Lucie Armitt’s “Ghosts and (Narrative) Ghosting,” Terry Castle regards “the image of the apparition as a key leitmotif for closet lesbianism in literary history.” “When it comes to lesbians,” Castle writes in The Apparitional Lesbian, “many people have trouble seeing what’s in front of them” (Contemporary Women’s Fiction and the Fantastic, 106). This insight offers a key to unlocking a deeper meaning to “Out of Sight, Out of Mind,” an episode of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series that has hitherto come to light.

Usually, this episode is regarded as offering, in the form of a cautionary tale, a lesson, so to speak, concerning the dangers that can result from the bullying--in the case of this episode, mostly through ignoring or insulting--of someone who, for whatever reason (or no reason) doesn’t fit the mold of other people’s narrow-minded perceptions as to how one should dress, speak, and act. The victim, Marcie Ross, becomes literally invisible after she is repeatedly ignored or overlooked by her high school and teachers and is rebuffed by the cliques she seeks to join. No reason is given for her rejection other than that she doesn’t measure up to the ideas of those with whom she tries to communicate or whom she seeks to befriend.

Castle’s insight, however, offers a subtext for understanding why Marcie may have been rejected that goes beyond the issue of personal popularity (or the lack thereof), or at least addresses this issue from a different, perhaps more significant, perspective: Marcie is rejected by others because she is homosexual, or lesbian. Once this possibility is entertained, it finds support among other element’s of the episodes plot, including characters’ actions and other behaviors.

Cordelia Chase, who is arguably the sexiest and most beautiful of Sunnydale High School’s students, and who is competing for the coveted title of May Queen, attracts Marcie’s ire, which Marcie directs not at Cordelia herself but at Cordelia’s boyfriend, Mitch, whom Marcie attacks with a baseball bat as Mitch is dressing in the boys’ locker room--an obviously male bastion--possibly because Marcie, enamored of Cordelier, is jealous of Mitch, who has succeeded where Marcie herself has failed, having won Cornelia’s affections.

Across the face of several lockers, Marcie scrawls the word “LOOK!” Some regard this text as a message to those who have ignored her, as if she were commanding the attention that others have denied her, and, certainly, this interpretation makes sense. However, in the context of the understanding of the episode’s significance that is implied by positing Marcie’s rejection by others specifically because of her lesbianism, the message might be focused more upon her rejection of men, and Mitch, as Cordelia’s beau, in particular, as if, in having attacked her male rival for Cordelia’s affections, Marcie is issuing a warning to other presumptuous would-be suitors of the May Queen candidate. The message could also be more general: look at the results of homophobia when the target of such bigotry strikes back.

Her attack upon Mitch is not only a blow to the power of the patriarchy, but it is also a strike against heterosexuality. In both cases, Marcie, a female who prefers other females to males, delivers a blow to a majority of her peers with whom she, alienated from them because of her own sexual orientation, if not her gender per se, can never be a part. Her homosexual assault on a male in the boys’ locker room must be contrasted with heterosexual Xander Harris’ statement as to how he would use the power of invisibility, were he to have the ability: “I’d protect the girls’ locker room.” Where Xander would protect girls in an all-female environment, Marcie attacks a boy in a male bastion.

In a flashback, Marcie is ignored (that is, rejected) by both Cordelia and Harmony Kendall, Cordelia’s best friend, when Marcie approaches the other girls while they are discussing whether Cordelia is interested in dating Mitch now that he has broken up with a girl named Wendy. Marcie launches an attack upon Harmony, pushing her down the stairs at school, just as, earlier, Marcie had attacked Mitch with the baseball bat. Was Marcie’s attack an act of revenge upon the girl, Harmony, who had apprised Cordelia of Mitch’s availability when Marcie herself may have hoped to become Cordelia’s girlfriend?

Perhaps intentionally (although seemingly inadvertently), Marcie makes her presence known to Buffy (the latest object of her infatuation?) by playing a flute. In ancient Greece, women were sometimes represented as playing the flute in settings reserved for the gathering of men, such as banquets. In one such scene, by a Bygos painter, dated 480 B. C., which is now housed in the British Museum, a youth at a banquet pushes aside a flute-playing girl so that he will have a better view of the target--a nude young man--at whom he aims a missile. His pushing aside the woman who plays the phallic instrument seems to suggest that he rejects her offer of sexual favors in favor of the naked youth. Marcie, as a phallic woman of sorts, offers similar sexual favors to her female schoolmates, but she is rejected by them as well. The flute (her masculinity, as it were) both lures, but also causes her rejection by, others of her own sex. In this sense, she is the rejected flute girl in the ancient Greek banquet scene, transported to modern America and transformed into an aggressive, dominant suitor of present-day young women. The link between flute-playing girls in ancient Greece and Marcie, a present-day flute-playing girl in Sunnydale, California may seem a stretch, but the episode itself makes a connection in Xander’s speculation that Marcie owes her power of invisibility to cloaks that confer invisibility upon their wearers--the gods of ancient Greece.

In the next scene, as Buffy, having followed the sound of the flute, discovers Marcie’s hideout, Marcie herself attacks a teacher, Mrs. Miller, attempting to suffocate her with a plastic bag. Marcie’s motive? Mrs. Miller is not just any teacher; she is Cordelia’s English teacher, who has shown Cordeila a good amount of attention in class and who has agreed to meet with Cordelia after class on the day that Marcie arrives, just before Cordelia’s appointment, to suffocate her. Perhaps Marcie is jealous of the attention that Mrs. Miller has shown the object of Marcie’s own romantic interest or perhaps Marcie sees the teacher as a potential rival for Cordelia’s affections. In either case, it seems that Marcie’s attack upon the teacher is motivated by Marcie’s unrequited lesbian love for the May Queen candidate. Adding insult to injury, it is Cordelia who saves Mrs. Miller, arriving in time to remove the bag from her head before the teacher suffocates--and in time to see Marcie’s latest message, written on the chalkboard of what might have been the scene of the school’s second murder: “LISTEN.” The basis of Cordelia’s relationship, that of student and teacher, with Mrs. Miller is primarily verbal communication, in which the two take turns listening to one another; it seems clear that Marcie is making it know that she wants to be the one to whom Cordelia speaks and the one to whom Cordelia, in turn, listens. Speaking and listening, for Marcie, seems to represent more than mere communication. Conversation, from which she is always excluded, represents relationships.

The fact that Cordelia is competing for the title of May Queen is also significant, for Cordelia’s entry in the contest seems to have been the inciting moment, as it were, that sparks Marcie’s attacks. Marcie had not resorted to violence before now, although, as the episode’s flashbacks make it clear, she has been ignored, rejected, and insulted on several occasions well before the May Day contest. The competition, however, draws attention to Cordelia, casting her in the light of a beautiful woman rather than merely a popular peer. Cordelia’s popularity is joined with an emphasis upon her beauty and sex appeal by her participation in the contest, which, it seems likely, she will win, as does Cordelia’s recent dating of the athletic and manly Mitch. Indeed, another person who attracts Marcie’s attention, Buffy Summers herself, was the winner of a similar competition at the high school Buffy had previously attended. Although it is true that Buffy is also Cordelia’s protector, Buffy is also an attractive young woman who allies herself with Cordelia rather than with Marcie.

Willow Rosenberg, who, ironically, becomes or (depending upon one’s point of view concerning the matter) discovers her own homosexuality later in the series, finds that, like everyone else to whom Marcie had presented her high school yearbook, she has signed it “Have a great summer,” a throw-away--indeed, dismissive--pseudo-sentiment that, Xander informs the audience, is “the kiss of death.” As it turns out, the line is almost the seal of their own deaths, for Marcie lures Willow, Xander, and Buffy’s mentor, the school’s librarian, Rupert Giles, into the boiler room, where she locks them, after opening a gas valve so that their place of confinement will fill with the deadly fumes. Their ignoring (that is, rejection) of Marcie becomes her “kiss of death” to them.

Having won the May Day competition, Cordelia dresses for the award ceremony, and Marcie knocks her out. However, Buffy, who serves as Cordelia’s bodyguard, discovers her unconscious charge. Before Buffy can act, Marcie jabs her with a needle and injects her with a sedative. The girls awaken, strapped into chairs, the word “LEARN” on a curtain before them. Marcie, who has supplied herself with an array of surgical instruments, informs her captive audience that Cordelia herself will become the object lesson, after Marcie uses her instruments to carve up the beauty queen’s face. However, after Marcie cuts Cordelia with a scalpel, drawing blood, Buffy kicks the surgical tray from the attacker’s hands, frees herself, and does battle with the invisible girl. Buffy, who, the series makes abundantly clear through her multiple romantic liaisons with powerful males of unquestionable masculinity and virility, such as Angel, Spike, and Riley Finn, is heterosexual, takes on the lesbian threat in single, hand-to-hand combat, ironically using her sense of hearing to locate her invisible opponent, whom she defeats by revealing her presence in shoving her into a curtain that falls over and drapes Marcie, allowing Buffy to knock her out.

The method by which Buffy wins the fight with Marcie--listening--symbolizes, for Marcie, both interpersonal relationships and attention, and is becomes the vehicle, as it were, for Marcie’s possible redemption, for, following her defeat and capture, she is led away by government agents to a clandestine school for spies, where, as a new student among other invisible classmates, her first lesson, as her textbook’s title implies, is Assassination and Infiltration, specialties in which she has already demonstrated some expertise. The episode’s conclusion suggests that there is a place in society for Marcie and others of her kind--the “apparitional lesbians” of whom Castle writes--but it is not a place in which she can be visible (that is, be accepted as herself). To be accepted, even tacitly, she must remain in the closet, hidden and invisible, an apparition. In seeking an explanation for Marcie’s condition, Giles speculates that her invisibility has been caused, in fact, by her being ignored and rejected by her peers. According to a principle of physics, he says, the perceptions of the group can alter or mold reality itself, as has been the case, he thinks, with Marcie: her peers’ perceptions of her as virtually non-existent have caused her to become invisible to others. The conclusion of the episode reinforces Giles’ observation, concluding with Marcie’s marginal acceptance as a closeted, or “apparitional,” lesbian.

The series’ later transformation Willow into a lesbian (or its revelation of her homosexuality) and that of the minor characters Larry Blaisdell and Scott Hope, as well as Willow’s protracted lesbian affairs with Tara Maclay and Kennedy are further indications that Marcie Ross’ motive may have been to avenge her rejection by her peers because of her lesbianism, since such storylines demonstrate the Joss Whedon’s interest in same-sex themes. At the same time, Marcie’s treatment invites the same sort of criticism as the treatment that the series’ writers gave to Willow’s homosexuality and its expressions. Homosexuals do not fare well in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and some contend that there is a reason for it: the writers’ own homophobia. Tara is killed, Willow grieves, Scott spreads rumors that Buffy is gay, and, when Larry is killed during a fight with his hometown’s demonic mayor, Willow dismisses him by telling Amy Madison (who, in the form of a rat, has been out of action for several years, in protective custody inside a cage in Willow’s bedroom), that Larry won’t be taking her to the prom, as she’d hoped, because “Larry’s gay, Larry’s dead, and high school’s kind of over.”

The mixed messages that Buffy the Vampire Slayer delivers concerning gays mirrors the ambiguity that surrounds them in contemporary society. The series, despite its boldness in delving into thorny social and political issues (albeit often in the disguised forms of demons, ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and witches), is as much a mirror of its times, in many ways, as it is a corrective lens, and this ambiguity is as apparent in its depiction of gays and lesbians as it is in its portrayal of other minorities and their causes. Sometimes, when television crusades instead of entertains, it becomes more propagandistic, whatever its momentary view might be than it is educational. As long as viewers are aware of this and don’t take their television shows too seriously, an episode like “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” is fairly good fare, even with its “apparitional lesbian.”


Anonymous said...

Stealing this for a text and gender course assignment. Thanks.

Other notes:
bats - so phallic is hurts.
The teacher specifically ignoring the lesbians interpretation of literature (even highly pertinent interpretations like her opinion on Shylock as an angry outcast in society)
The Scoobies go for two competing explanations for the locker room assault - ghost or invisible person. Turns out it's a ghosted person.

Gary L. Pullman said...

Thou shalt not steal.

Anonymous said...

Taking inspiration, then :)

PS - Marcie is a madwoman in the school equivalent of an attic.

Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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