Becoming the Other: Multiculturalism in Joss Whedon’s Angel

Cult television series like Joss Whedon’s Angel offer veiled social commentary, depicting everyday issues as otherworldly threats. Free from the constraints of verisimilitude, the genre of the fantastic undermines the boundaries and categories structuring understanding, disguising and dramatising social conflict within a discourse of heroism and villainy. In Angel, in particular, the traditional opposition of good and evil is eroded by locating both in the same entity, the eponymous vampire with a soul played by David Boreanaz. Whedon’s cult status suggests that the characters and conflicts represented in his work tap into widespread concerns and warrant critical scrutiny. Examining how ideological messages about race, culture and power are communicated through the interplay of heroism and villainy, I argue Angel can be interpreted as a critique of xenophobia, the fear of foreigners. Through identification with characters and the challenges that they face, viewers engage with conflicts underlying an era marked by multiculturalism and globalization.

angel1.jpg

The multiethnic, multidimensional cast of Angel

The character Angel debuted in season one of Buffy as the legendary vampire Angelus whose reign of terror ended when he was cursed with a soul and, with it, a moral conscience. After leaving Sunnydale and his doomed relationship with Buffy, Angel moved to Los Angeles and established a detective agency to help the helpless.

Whereas the fictitious town of Sunnydale was situated on the Hellmouth and Buffy’s task was to protect her home from savage ‘aliens’ spilling over the border, Angel is set in an actual city located near the Mexican border. Residents of the real Los Angeles are contending with patterns of immigration altering the cultural composition of California, which is inundated with illegal immigrants. Despite providing cheap labor, immigrants are viewed with such hostility by many citizens and officials that it is not unreasonable to draw parallels with the demon population in Angel. ((In his CNN column, political commentator Lou Dobbs argues that President George W. Bush’s ‘comprehensive immigration reform legislation’ will ‘unfairly advantage’ 12 to 20 million ‘illegal aliens.’ Voicing his concerns, Dobbs writes, “The bill would be disastrous public policy and devastate millions of American workers and their families, taxpayers and any semblance of national security.” 13 June, 2007. CNN ))

angel2.jpg

The half-human, half-demon character Doyle.

Jon Stratton has suggested that in early seasons, the “overwhelming whiteness” of the cast of Buffy was “a product of generalized white anxiety about the numerical loss of white dominance across the United States and, in particular, in California.” ((Stratton, Jon. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer: What Being Jewish has to do with it.” Television and New Media, 2005: 6.2, p. 176.)) The way in which Whedon’s series deal with the influx of unwelcome foreigners can be read as a response to the intrusion of foreign cultures via immigration and globalization. Indeed, these series are products of a time when many Americans struggle with the sense that those beyond their borders are hostile and that their nation and identity must be defended. By 2003, the final season of Buffy had responded to changes in the socio-political climate and begun to embrace globalized multiculturalism: the slayer formed an alliance with multi-ethnic ‘slayerettes’ recruited from around the globe. On many levels Angel’s task involved learning to live with the demons that Buffy initially sought to slay. Contrary to what might be expected of a program that confronts the demonization of immigrants, Angel does not vilify the ‘ethnic other.’

Typically, villainy is projected onto individuals marked by signifiers of difference such as foreign accents, distorted features, dark skin, or strange customs. As the hero works to contain the threat posed by the villainous ‘other’, the narrative may project a fear of foreigners onto the villain. Hence not just evil actions are vilified, but entire communities and cultures. Angel consistently counteracts xenophobia, suggesting we all harbor aspects of the demon and the outsider as well as the potential for heroism.

angel3.jpg

Lorne, pacifist and manager of the karaoke bar “Caritas.”

One way Angel undermines negative stereotypes is by casting persons of color in positive central roles. ((Buffy epitomises ‘grrrl power’, but until its final season the show had a predominantly white cast. By contrast Angel has a progressive approach to race, but by the end of the series all the strong female characters meet their demise.)) Lorne, the green Empath demon and Charles Gunn, the African American character, are the most obvious representatives of ethnic diversity, but they are far from token inclusions. Whedon confronts stigma and stereotyping in a variety of ways. Stigma can be understood as a label or mark that both signifies and creates hierarchical, oppressive social divisions. Often a physical or cultural difference accrues negative meanings and fears about purity, deviance, and the unknown, perpetuating socio-economic disadvantage and discrimination. Angel not only features a hero who is part demon, but an entire community of sympathetic, ethnically diverse characters bearing attributes usually coded as villainous. Additionally, a number of demon characters, such as Doyle and Lorne, personify honour and integrity. Doyle champions racial diversity by protecting demons of mixed descent (part human, like himself) from fascist soldier demons who attempt genocide to ensure a pure bloodline. In the season one episode “Hero,” Doyle thwarts the persecution of the ‘ethnic other,’ and sacrifices his life to save demon-human refugees.

By the end of the series virtually all the characters are at least part demon. Angel, Connor and Spike are part vampire, Cordelia is rendered part demon to cope with her skull-splitting visions, Fred becomes the indigo coloured Illyria, and Gunn gets a mystical brain upgrade, literally internalising the enemy by transforming into a corporate lawyer. In each instance hybridization is represented as empowering. The only fully human character is Wesley who, as an Englishman, is already a foreigner. Through such characterization, Angel embraces a sense that the citizens of the fictitious L.A. (like the real society it represents) must come to terms with racial mixing and cultural change. As Diana Fuss writes, “The practice of cross-identification, specifically with the struggle of oppressed social groups, becomes an urgent political imperative whenever the dominant ideology invokes a discourse of natural boundaries to categorize, regulate and patrol social identities.” ((Fuss, Diana. Identification Papers. New York: Routledge, 1995, p. 8.)) The pleasure viewers derive from “cross-identification” via character engagement helps win consent for the program’s political message. The role of arch-enemy is ultimately displaced onto the corporate villain Wolfram and Hart and its anonymous Senior Partners.

angel4.jpg

The office of Angel Investigations.

Angel questions what constitutes real villainy and offers us a hero who undermines the binary opposition of self and other, responds to changing demographics and power relations, and negotiates social and ideological conflicts. Destined to remain caught in the struggle between heroism and villainy, we leave Angel in the last episode once more bravely facing impossible odds after incurring the wrath of the Senior Partners. Angel raises his sword to slay a dragon unleashed by Wolfram and Hart, and the final credits roll.

Throughout Whedon’s work the interplay of heroism and villainy helps to structure the sphere of moral concern, delineating insiders from outsiders, and articulating socio-political concerns. While the series have ended, their legacy lives on within online fan communities, television re-runs, and DVD box sets. The issues Whedon’s series confront retain cultural currency, and continue to provide a heuristic through which viewers can engage with contemporary events.

Please feel free to comment.

Image Credits:
1. The multiethnic, multidimensional cast of Angel
2. The half-human, half-demon character Doyle.
3. Lorne, pacifist and manager of the karaoke bar “Caritas.”
4. The office of Angel Investigations.




The Cult of Æon Flux

What happened to the transgressive pleasures of Aeon Flux when it moved from small screen to large?

Æon Flux in “Thanatophobia.”

Æon Flux in “Thanatophobia

“You’re skating the edge,” Trevor Goodchild warns his lover, nemesis, and would-be assassin; “I am the edge” Æon Flux retorts in the cult television classic that bears her name. “What you truly want, only I can give,” he insists. Æon’s caustic reply could just as well apply to the transgressive pleasures of cult fandom itself: “Can’t give it, can’t even buy it, and you just don’t get it.” Cult media texts often defy commodification and offer an allure that mainstream audiences ‘just don’t get.’ Indeed, J.P. Telotte argues that a transgressive, oppositional stance in relation to mainstream culture is central to understanding cult texts and their audiences[1]. What is it, then, that makes Æon Flux so fascinating, and why did her move to the big screen polarise her devotees?

Opening sequence from “Skating the Edge.”

Cult media theorists Sara Gwenllian-Jones and Roberta Pearson refer to cult television as any text “that is considered off-beat or edgy, that draws a niche audience, that has a nostalgic appeal, that is considered emblematic of a particular subculture, or that is considered hip”[2]. Most cult media exhibits several of these characteristics, but Æon Flux, the television series created by animator Peter Chung and later remade as a feature film, incorporates every element. Æon Flux is as definitively edgy as its heroine proclaims. It first aired as animated shorts for Liquid Television in 1991, which developed into a season of half-hour episodes for MTV in 1995. In today’s fast moving mediascape, it is already acquiring ‘nostalgic appeal.’ Through the obvious influence of Asian animation, it also hooks into anime subculture. The show was born from a desire to break the conventions of screen language, and to push creative boundaries with an enigmatic and aggressively anti-narrative style. It seduced its audience, the late night young adult niche market, with an anarchic heroine styled as a leather-clad ‘bitch fatale,’ and it offered viewers more aesthetically and intellectually challenging material than standard MTV fare.

Gaylyn Studlar develops the idea that cult audiences with a taste for excess and perversion express dissatisfaction with the status quo by identifying with transgressive characters who “ritualize perversion into a subcultural icon of rebellion against bourgeoisie norms by celebrating the possibilities of sex as ironic play and playacting”[3]. Studlar argues that the social function of many cult texts is linked to redefining social norms by representing sexual ‘deviance’ and gender performativity[4]. Certainly, Æon captivates her fans with secret messages exchanged via tongues tangled in an illicit kiss, a dominatrix aesthetic, a recurring lesbian subtext, and her role as a Monican spy in a forbidden, passionately adversarial relationship with Trevor, leader of the rival state of Breen. Through identification with Æon, cultists vicariously participate in her transgressions.

Æon Flux clones kiss in “A Last Time for Everything.”

Æon Flux clones kiss in “A Last Time for Everything.”

Because prime time free-to-air television must cater to ‘family viewing,’ texts that challenge taboos frequently acquire cult status[5]. Æon Flux’s incorporation of a sexualised, violent aesthetic mark it out as forbidden fruit, which augments its appeal in a context where network television is subject to conservative constraints on language, sexuality and violence, by contrast with the more liberal parameters of cinema, subscription television or the Internet. When Æon was expanded to fill a half hour slot, the creative team were under instructions from MTV to reduce the violence in order to avoid Federal Communications Commission restrictions and to make the 30 minute episodes appeal to a broader audience, so they sought subtle ways to ‘maintain the edge’ and push the boundaries, including double entendres in the dialogue, a suggestive soundscape, and oblique sexual references in the imagery.

Æon Flux’s current appeal harnesses the purchasing power of the Y-generation and exploits their access to a wide range of screen technologies. The show continues to draw fans to reruns on MTV, Internet downloads and videos on YouTube, and has been distributed in installments on the screens of mobile phones, thereby conflating its exhibition and reception context with the uptake of mobile and digital technology. In these ways Æon Flux garnered enough of a cult fan base to spawn a feature length live action film in 2005 (directed by Karyn Kusama, starring Charlize Theron), which in turn reinvigorated interest in the original series and generated lucrative DVD sales for both the television series and the film.

Æon Flux movie poster.

Æon Flux movie poster.

While delighted that Æon Flux finally received critical and popular acclaim, many fans of the original series resented the mainstreaming of their passion, and the appropriation of Æon’s identity by a blonde actress and a mass audience. Mainstreaming undercuts some of the primary pleasures of cult fandom associated with identity and identification. When the adored text becomes something that is widely appreciated, the true fan’s identity is no longer experienced as elite or discerning and the knowledge community to which they belong is no longer that of a specialised interest group that defines itself as distinct from the cultural mainstream.

The aura of exclusivity surrounding fans’ relationships with cult texts is evident in the kinds of online material they generate, such as ‘The Purity Test’, which one fan website uses to test knowledge of Æon Flux and implicitly determine whether visitors to the site are ‘pure’ fans or casual drop-ins from mainstream culture. In addition, the expansion of the fictional world of Æon Flux beyond what is shown on screen via multi-platforming is evident in a fan produced graphic novel and comic book miniseries, the Monican Spies online community, and the virtual world of the Æon Flux video game.

The adaptation from television to film demonstrates that attempts to expand the market for a text often compromise the very qualities that created its unique appeal. As a whole, the film retains superficial elements of the original series, but offers a simplified narrative which blunts Æon’s edge. The television episode most closely related to the film is “A Last Time for Everything,” in which Trevor copies Æon using a process similar to cloning, and she and her duplicate surreptitiously swap places. The original Æon embarks on an affair with Trevor, while the copy completes her mission. The duplication of identity relates to fears about duplicity since Æon is a double agent, but also reflects the desire for a partner and an ally. In the end of the television episode, despite her feelings for Trevor, Æon remains loyal only to herself and works in partnership with her copy, drawing lethal fire from the border guards to enable the second Æon to return safely to Monica. Death is no stranger to the series: Æon dies with the methodical regularity of Kenny in South Park, meeting her demise in each and every one of the original shorts. The certainty of death meant that she was completely unrestrained.

Æon in action.

Æon in action.

In the television series Æon is an independent agent with her own agenda, exhibiting strong traits of feminism and individualism. These characteristics are taken up in the film in Æon’s defiance of the matriarchal power of the Monican ruler (played in the film by Frances McDormand, although in the television series Monica had no head of state and was therefore ungovernable), and in her quest to derail Trevor’s messiah complex and the patriarchal reproductive fantasies of Bregnan bureaucracy as the regime strives to propagate the human race in the face of infertility. Unlike the television series, however, the film ends by taming Æon, binding her to Trevor in a romantic union that sends them forth into the brave new world beyond the walls of the city, like Adam and Eve in Eden without the original sin. Needless to say, fans of the original series were unimpressed with this ending, which seemed to shackle their deviant, free spirited heroine to the heterosexual, monogamous conventions that she had always usurped. For example, the Æon that fans loved in the original series tartly replied to Trevor’s offer to take care of her in “Chronophasia” with the retort, “Naturally, I’d rather be dead.”

Negative fan responses to cinematic remakes of cult television series are often based on a sense of allegiance and ownership, an investment of fan identity in the original series, or a sense that the remake has not been true to fans’ detailed knowledge of the mythology that surrounds the characters and fictional worlds of cult texts. Indeed, many members of the cult of Æon Flux would far rather see their subversive heroine die than be resurrected in the sugar coated domain of mainstream cinema.

Works Cited
[1] Telotte, J.P. (Ed.) ‘Introduction.’ The Cult Film Experience: Beyond All Reason, University of Texas Press: Austin, 1991.
[2] Gwenllian-Jones, Sara and Roberta E. Pearson. ‘Introduction.’ Cult Television, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 2004, p. ix.
[3] Studlar, Gaylyn. ‘Midnight S/Excess: Cult Configurations of ‘Femininity’ and the Perverse.’ The Cult Film Experience, University of Texas Press: Austin, 1991, p. 141.
[4] Studlar, p. 138.
[5] Jancovich, Mark and Nathan Hunt. “The Mainstream, Distinction and Cult TV.” Gwenllian-Jones, Sara and Roberta E. Pearson (Eds.) Cult Television, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 2004, p. 35.

Image Credits

1. Frame capture from Æon Flux DVD, episode “Thanatophobia.”

2. Frame capture from Æon Flux DVD, episode “A Last Time for Everything.”

3. Æon Flux movie poster

4. Æon in action

Please Feel Free to Comment.