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Heroism, Power, and the Illusion of "Usefulness"

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  • Heroism, Power, and the Illusion of "Usefulness"

    There are more than a few ongoing discussions on the forums pertaining to the character of "Buffy" (and by implication, "Angel", which is why I'm going to make it a general thread) as to what characters are more "useful", are more "helpful", i.e. how they contribute to their respective battles against evil. A running theme through these discussion has been an assumption, or correlation, between ways in which one is powerful, special, or talented and the ways in which they are useful or helpful.

    A quote came to mind. It's by one of the United States' founding fathers, Patrick Henry, from a speech to the Virginia Convention in 1775. It was also quoted this summer on TNT's "Falling Skies". The quote is this --

    “The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave.”

    I believe Mr. Henry was correct. And I think that the Buffyverse portrays it. What makes the good guys "heroes" is not their strengths, either individually or aggregately. The battle is not Buffy, Angel, Spike, Faith, or four-season magic-wielding Willow alone. It is in fact, the vigilant (Giles, Wes, Cordelia), the active (Fred, Anya, Dawn), and the brave (Xander, Gunn, Lorne, Oz -- who most of the time was just a normal guy).

    What does it mean to be "useful" in this context? What does it mean to be "helpful"? If you think someone is useless or helpless, what makes them so, but someone else not? Discuss. Please spoiler where appropriate for references to comic continuation.
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  • #2
    Interesting thread!

    I've always found it quite odd that people seem so focused on this when it comes to BtVS. I've always felt that emotion is the driving force behind the Buffyverse. Characters don't relate to each other based on their usefulness to the group, nor do they think in such practical terms when it comes to interacting with one another. They're together because they love eachother and because a common theme in all of Whedon's shows (even Dollhouse eventually) is that they become Family. Sure, very occasionally the writers will pay lip service to the idea that each individual character has a specific skill or use (Gunn's the "muscle" etc) but its never been the focal point of this story. It's a story that places a lot of value on things such as emotional support or loyalty. And I think a lot of fans pick up on that which is why there's a lot of bad tempers when 'Character A moves in on Character B's territory and starts being Buffy's main emotional confidant' etc.
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    • #3
      I do think that a lot of my metric for appreciation of usefulness comes down to effort and even more, an effort to excel in different areas. It's why Willow, Xander, Wesley and Buffy, are my favorite Buffyverse characters- I got more of an impression that they rise above their comfort level and given skill level, commit themselves full time, do things that they're not good at and teach themselves in areas that they are good at. It's why as much as I love Giles and Anya, I have issues with them because I always thought that they harbored more talents, knowledge and pull than they used to maximum effort.

      My favorite character moments frequently revolve around characters contributing in fields that aren't their natural strengths. Non-fighter characters fighting. Non-book learning characters spending time researching.

      That said, I do think there's some correlation between effort and powers. Of my Favorite Four, Wesley and Willow concentrated quite a bit of their effort into being a fighter/weapons expert or a witch because those things aren't just monikers, they're pretty damn crucial. Buffy's slayer powers were and are the impetus for her to push herself for others.

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      • #4
        I can´t remember where but I listened a commentary about Buffy that seems to make sense. It was actually Adam Busch talking, and he said that Buffy is a heroine not because she is strong and has skills, but because she sacrifices her own life for the sake of others. Yes, she may be selfish sometimes (all of us are) but she is selfless in putting the world and other´s needs in front of her own.

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        • #5
          But why single out Buffy? What about Doyle who died to save some halfdemons he just met? Or Dawn who was only 16 when she decided to jump to save the world? Or teenage!Gunn who lived on the streets so he could fight vampires fulltime? And Cordelia who gave up her humanity? Also Fred & Willow could've great carreers if they focussed on that.

          Almost every single character made the choice to fight evil, to risk everything everyday and some of them made huge sacrifices. Buffy is one of them and so is Angel, but they are surrounded by selfless and brave people. And it's stated several times that they would be nothing without their friends who motivate them, fight with them, save them from time to time and connect them to the world.
          Last edited by Nina; 03-12-11, 02:26 PM.

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          • #6
            I´m not singling out just Buffy, this was just a commentary I found useful. The other members choose to fight evil too and they are as much heros as Buffy herself. For example, Xander not only fights evil but also is a valuable to the gang because he supports and encourages everyone.
            And the people on Ats also fight evil to get some kind of redemption.

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            • #7
              Originally posted by Nina View Post
              But why single out Buffy? What about Doyle who died to save some halfdemons he just met? Or Dawn who was only 16 when she decided to jump to save the world? Or teenage!Gunn who lived on the streets so he could fight vampires fulltime? And Cordelia who gave up her humanity? Also Fred & Willow could've great carreers if they focussed on that.

              Almost every single character made the choice to fight evil, to risk everything everyday and some of them made huge sacrifices. Buffy is one of them and so is Angel, but they are surrounded by selfless and brave people. And it's stated several times that they would be nothing without their friends who motivate them, fight with them, save them from time to time and connect them to the world.
              I think Buffy gets singled out in this matter time and again because she had no choice. She was forced into this world when she was Chosen to be the Slayer, something she had no control over, something she couldn't deny, even when she was determined that her Slaying days were over. She was still pulled back in. Now whether that has something to do with some deep part of the Slayer...gene, or whatever, or just something that Buffy brought to the table herself - her own, ingrained inability to stop saving people - we'll never know, but I do think that's why people get bogged down on the Buffy side of things.

              I do agree with you, though, Nina. Every single character - with the possible exception of people like Harmony, who we've seen only caring about protecting themselves - has sacrificed something in order to be a part of this world, in order to help keep the world safe from people like Glory, The Mayor, W&H. I don't think it's fair to focus on the main characters of the show, when people like Gunn, Fred, Doyle, Cordy, and Anya have given up everything to do what they could to keep people safe.
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              • #8
                Even though it's played for laughs, Wesley picking himself up after the Sunnydale fiasco and becoming a rogue demon hunter on his own armed with nothing with no powers other than his limited, purely theoretical Watcher's Council training is in a special category of heroism. I never feel like that's appreciated enough. I think even many of the heroic characters in this 'verse would want to hang up their weapons after the disaster that was Wesley's stay in Sunnydale in S3 or wouldn't want to fight entirely alone with no support at all.

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                • #9
                  Originally posted by Lyri View Post
                  I think Buffy gets singled out in this matter time and again because she had no choice. She was forced into this world when she was Chosen to be the Slayer, something she had no control over, something she couldn't deny, even when she was determined that her Slaying days were over. She was still pulled back in. Now whether that has something to do with some deep part of the Slayer...gene, or whatever, or just something that Buffy brought to the table herself - her own, ingrained inability to stop saving people - we'll never know, but I do think that's why people get bogged down on the Buffy side of things.
                  But you could turn it around as well; There is a group of characters who can leave but make the choice to stay, which could be seen as more heroic than the ones who tried to leave but couldn't.

                  Take a person like Cordelia; she helped the Scoobies in BtVS season 1, which was before she started to be friends with them. Yes her tongue is sharp, but she risked her life to help people she didn't need to help. And when she is 19 she says that she is happy because she can help people. Cordy is strong and clever enough to make something of her life, that underpaid and dangerous job at AI is not the best she can do. But she chooses to stay, heck she even goes further; she sacrifices her humanity so she can continue to help people. And only a couple of months later she sacrifices the life she loves, to do even more good (or so she thinks). She sacrificed so much for the greater good, perhaps more than any other character. I respect what she did in her short life even more than what Buffy did simply because Cordelia made the choice to stay and fight because she wanted to help people and gave up everything she had for it.

                  Not to take anything away from Buffy or the other supernatural warriors by the way, but yes I do think that it's more heroic when you fight while you can leave easily and whe you go out there and risk your life even if you don't have the powers to beat the enemies you face.
                  Last edited by Nina; 04-12-11, 06:48 PM.

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                  • #10
                    Originally posted by Nina View Post
                    Take a person like Cordelia; she helped the Scoobies in BtVS season 1, which was before she started to be friends with them.
                    I wouldn't really characterize Cordelia's help in S1 as a commitment to "fight the good fight even though she didn't like the Scoobies". She was a victim saved by Buffy and the Scoobs in OOM, OOS. In the next ep, she encountered Jenny and Willow out there while there was a horde of vampires approaching them while Cordelia was in the relative safety of her car. What kind of a person would just drive away? From the position of a person that reached basic decent human person and took Willow and Jenny in her car, Cordelia became a natural part of the fight.

                    From then, Cordelia didn't start contributing as a matter of course until she helped Buffy carve stakes in School Hard after being rescued in OOM, OOS, WSWB and Some Assembly Required and Willow rescuing her against in School Hard. Then she doesn't do anything to help until The Dark Age. I love BtVS Cordelia, more than I like S3 AtS Cordelia even the latter is billed as more heroic. However, I do think that Sunnydale!Cordelia was rather selective on when she'd be heroic or when she wouldn't be, especially after she and Xander broke up.

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                    • #11
                      Well the key is 'relative safety', I'm not saying that Cordelia was the big hero of BtVS but when a 16 year old girl risks her life to help people she is not a big fan of and stays to help the same people by again putting herself in danger... I think she deserves some credit. There were certainly moments where she could've turned around and left to save her own life. So yes she did make te choice to help even when it wasn't the easiest and safest choice.

                      But if you prefer to hear another example; Gunn is another character who fits the "could leave without leaving loved ones behind but stayed and gave all for the good fight." bill. My point was that I respect those kind of characters even more than the ones who can't really escape the supernatural world.

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                      • #12
                        I've never been able to decide to what extent Buffy is held to her slayer destiny. Yes, her guilt at hanging up her stake could be all the more acute because she has these special abilities...like S5-8 Willow could feel. Her prophecy dreams are a constant reminder that there's evil that needs fighting... but nothing on the level of Cordelia's visions as an alarm clock on the Importance of Being Heroic. Some demons seek her out because she's the Slayer but Buffy could be retired and only fight the demons that seek to hurt her. S1-4 just makes that it's only those variables plus a prodding Giles in S1-2 that pushes Buffy to fight. S5-7 seems to push the concept that the Slayer is a natural hunter and a big part of Buffy feels more comfortable in graveyards because the Slayer going back to the First Slayer made itself a part of her personality. S1-4 seems to paint a Buffy who's closer to an ordinary girl, just with slayer strength, prophecy dreams and a prodding Watcher as her "externals" driving her to slay while the rest is just sheer heroism and duty that comes from Buffy the Girl. As with most things, I much prefer the S1-4 stance.

                        However S8-9 turned around again and implied that there are a lot of girls who don't care enough to help people even though they've been called or don't care enough to continue fighting even with an army or will take their slayer skills and become evil. Heck, I think it's possible that Buffy could have continued waitressing and feeling sorry for herself indefinitely in summer between S2 and S3 but she was driven to slay because Anne needed her and I really think that's all Buffy and the Slayer aspect is negligible.

                        Long and short of it, the extent that externals like the Slayer spirit or Watchers driving Buffy to slay and how that mitigates her heroism compared to an ordinary guy like Gunn is ambiguous. I will say that once Cordelia got her visions and became the Agent of the TPTB with all the solemnity that the title implies, I fail to see a distinction between Buffy's "less choice in being a hero" and Cordelia's "less choice in being a hero".

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                        • #13
                          Originally posted by Nina View Post
                          Well the key is 'relative safety', I'm not saying that Cordelia was the big hero of BtVS but when a 16 year old girl risks her life to help people she is not a big fan of and stays to help the same people by again putting herself in danger... I think she deserves some credit. There were certainly moments where she could've turned around and left to save her own life. So yes she did make te choice to help even when it wasn't the easiest and safest choice.

                          But if you prefer to hear another example; Gunn is another character who fits the "could leave without leaving loved ones behind but stayed and gave all for the good fight." bill. My point was that I respect those kind of characters even more than the ones who can't really escape the supernatural world.
                          Well actually, Cordelia wasn't staying to help the Scoobies. She constantly got into danger because she was popular or because she wanted to be more popular (except for When She Was Bad, which was a consequence of her being there in Prophecy Girl) and the Scoobies (or rather, usually Buffy) were saving her (The Harvest, Witch, Out of Mind, Out of Sight, When She Was Bad, Some Assembly Required, Reptile Boy). The only exception was Prophecy Girl, which was the first time she actually does do something useful and when she does fight vampires, when she was near by with her car when Jenny and Willow were being attacked. She would have been a pretty crappy human being not to help. (She had a pretty powerful motivation since she had just learned that vampires were now openly killing students in the school, her boyfriend among them.) Hardly comparable to Buffy walking into the Master's lair despite knowing about the prophecy that she was going to face him and die. She could have also walked away and left others to deal with the upcoming apocalypse, and was understandably tempted to do so.

                          One could praise Xander and Willow for choosing to participate in the fight (as Buffy does in the cut lines from CWDP), but Cordelia was at first hanging out with the Scoobies mostly because she knew that Buffy could protect her, as she openly said in Out of Mind, Out of Sight. Cordelia was the show's main damsel in distress in seasons 1 and 2. Then she started integrating more with the group and dating Xander. But the real sign that she was changing was only in Becoming II when she felt bad for running away in Becoming I instead of trying to fight like Xander and Giles did (Willow was already unconscious), even though Buffy was right to tell her it was the right thing to do.
                          You keep waiting for the dust to settle and then you realize it; the dust is your life going on. If happy comes along - that weird unbearable delight that's actual happy - I think you have to grab it while you can. You take what you can get, 'cause it's here, and then...gone.

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                          • #14
                            Originally posted by TimeTravellingBunny View Post
                            Well actually, Cordelia wasn't staying to help the Scoobies. She constantly got into danger because she was popular or because she wanted to be more popular (except for When She Was Bad, which was a consequence of her being there in Prophecy Girl) and the Scoobies (or rather, usually Buffy) were saving her (The Harvest, Witch, Out of Mind, Out of Sight, When She Was Bad, Some Assembly Required, Reptile Boy).
                            I think the "Cordelia in danger" eps are more naunced than Cordelia in danger because she's popular or wanted to be popular.

                            In The Harvest, Cordelia was a person with blood at the Bronze and that made her a victim. Just like Xander or Willow or Buffy could be.

                            Cordelia was definitely striving for popularity in Witch and she arguably got Ms. Madison even angrier at her for threatening her. Although, I will say that *Buffy* was also trying out to be a cheerleader and was threatened because of it.

                            In Some Assembly Required, the other candidates to be Darryl's Head of Girlfriend were Buffy and Willow in a total case of there but for the grace of not getting your head cut off. Some of Darryl's selection of Cordelia was influenced by the fact that she was nice to him (to suck up to the then studly football player) but the selection of Buffy/Cordelia/Willow and Darryl's final selection of Cordelia meshes with "Cordelia was in danger because she's gorgeous."

                            Then you have eps like School Hard and WML when she's in danger because she's helping (or even Passion because Angel could come into her car because she's in that world but also because she wanted that salty goodness) or Phases because she's out in her car or BB&B because she's Xander's girlfriend.

                            One could praise Xander and Willow for choosing to participate in the fight (as Buffy does in the cut lines from CWDP), but Cordelia was at first hanging out with the Scoobies mostly because she knew that Buffy could protect her, as she openly said in Out of Mind, Out of Sight.
                            I don't agree with that. What's to stop Cordelia from taking Buffy's destiny-given-obligation to protect her and going off and living her own life? Cordelia didn't need to hang around parent-teacher night to whittle stakes in School Hard. She'd be safer at home. She could have left when Jenny stopped the computer seminar in The Dark Age instead of staying to help Giles. She did not need to drive Xander in What's My Line? to find Buffy. That's all Cordelia being heroic and it deserve major creds. It didn't take till Becoming for her to be a True Hero. In fact, I find S2 Cordelia more heroic than S3 Cordelia who is out of the action a lot.

                            However, I do agree (and did argue the point) that Sunnydale!Cordelia is more selective with her heroism and puts forth less effort than Buffy/Willow/Xander/Giles and even arguably S3 Wesley and Oz, if we want to lean heavily on the notion that Xander, Oz and Willow were the main slayers in the summer between S2-3.
                            Last edited by Dipstick; 05-12-11, 12:14 AM.

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                            • #15
                              Originally posted by Dipstick View Post
                              I think the "Cordelia in danger" eps are more naunced than Cordelia in danger because she's popular or wanted to be popular.

                              In The Harvest, Cordelia was a person with blood at the Bronze and that made her a victim. Just like Xander or Willow or Buffy could be.

                              Cordelia was definitely striving for popularity in Witch and she arguably got Ms. Madison even angrier at her for threatening her. Although, I will say that *Buffy* was also trying out to be a cheerleader and was threatened because of it.

                              In Some Assembly Required, the other candidates to be Darryl's Head of Girlfriend were Buffy and Willow in a total case of there but for the grace of not getting your head cut off. Some of Darryl's selection of Cordelia was influenced by the fact that she was nice to him (to suck up to the then studly football player) but the selection of Buffy/Cordelia/Willow and Darryl's final selection of Cordelia meshes with "Cordelia was in danger because she's gorgeous."

                              Then you have eps like School Hard and WML when she's in danger because she's helping (or even Passion because Angel could come into her car because she's in that world but also because she wanted that salty goodness) or Phases because she's out in her car or BB&B because she's Xander's girlfriend.
                              I said that she was at first hanging out with them because she realized that she was often in danger (and most of those were because she was Cordelia, not just because she was some girl), and because she thought it was better to be close to the Scoobies, who knew about supernatural things and Buffy, who could protect people. Neither of these is a what I'd consider a controversial claim, since she explicitly states both:

                              Cordelia: Why are these terrible things always happening to me?
                              (Some Assembly Required)


                              Cordelia: Somebody is after me! They just tried to kill Ms. Miller? Uh, she was helping me with my homework. And Mitch! And Harmony?! This is
                              all about me! Me, me, me!
                              Xander: Wow! For once she's right!
                              Buffy: So you've come to *me* for help.
                              Cordelia: (nods) Because you're always around when all this weird stuff is happening. And I know you're very strong, and you've got all those weapons... I was kind of hoping you were in a gang. Please! I don't have anyone else to turn to!

                              (Out of Mind, Out of Sight)


                              That's why she starts hanging out with the Scoobies. This is what kickstarts her change. Hanging out with them, she tries to be helpful, and becomes even more integrated when she starts dating Xander.

                              Saying that she was choosing to stay and help them out of sense of duty is stretching it.

                              Becoming II isn't about her being heroic, since she wasn't, it's a proof that she actually cared at that point about being brave and doing the right thing and that she actually thought that she should have stayed and fought, which is a far cry from the Cordelia who was enjoying playing the damsel role whenever a hunky guy was around (Some Assembly Required, Reptile Boy).
                              You keep waiting for the dust to settle and then you realize it; the dust is your life going on. If happy comes along - that weird unbearable delight that's actual happy - I think you have to grab it while you can. You take what you can get, 'cause it's here, and then...gone.

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