Sunday, June 7, 2009

Female Empowerment

TNT aired "Billy" yesterday morning, which featured one of my favorite Alexis Denisof performances in the entire Angel series. I've already written extensively about this episode here, and to a lesser extent, here, and here.

I can't help but add that this episode featured one of the last of my favorite Wes/Cordy moments, when Cordy advised Wes that the next time he invited Fred over to his place for an intimate dinner, he shouldn't invite the rest of the crew.

There were other aspects of the episode that I wouldn't exactly say I missed the first time around, but I didn't exactly dwell on them either. Along with the horror of Wesley going all psycho-misogynist on Fred, there was a counter theme of women empowering themselves against injustice and violence.

Obviously, Fred empowered herself by rigging up that fire extinguisher contraption to knock out Wesley, thereby probably saving herself from certain death. Although I'm certainly glad she had the moxie to think that quickly, the scene was somewhat unsatisfying for me because it was a little too simplistic. One, Fred's this genius scientist who likes to build things, so of course she'd come up with some sort of device to knock out Wesley. Second, Fred's from Texas, and we all know that every woman from Texas learned how to fire a shotgun and hogtie a full-grown longhorn steer by the time she learned how to ride a bicycle. If the episode had been written in 2008, Fred probably would have come from Alaska.

One other thing I failed to mention previously is that the whole Wesley against Fred sequence fell into the trap of, perhaps not glorifying the violence, but rather emphasizing the violence in somewhat explicit detail, as if the writers and the cinematographers might have had a little too much fun creating the scenes. It used to be a pet peeve of mine how major networks and Lifetime would crank out movies like these by the dozen, where the beautiful woman would suffer through all sorts of vile assaults, beatings and humiliations, until she finally took control over the last five minutes of the show and exacted revenge. I'm giving "Billy" a free pass on criticism just based on Alexis Denisof's and Amy Acker's acting (for Amy, particularly during Wesley's apology scene) alone.

I wondered in one of my last posts just exactly when did Cordelia become a fighting force to be reckoned with? It's clear (maybe a little too clear, but hey, who's keeping track) that she was really starting to take charge of her martial arts training in "Billy", and, to push the obviousness just a little bit more, just in time to show off some of her moves to the misogynist demon.

Cordelia was clearly tired of waiting for Angel to swoop in and save the day when she could start taking steps to save herself.

Also, just thinking out loud, could Cordelia have started feeling the competition from the spirited Fred? A similar case could be made that Fred was inspired by Cordelia's bravery.

What really fascinated me this time around when I saw "Billy" was Lilah's nuanced role in this episode. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any other episode that revealed some of her better motivations than this one. Like Lindsey, Lilah was also capable of coming up with her own version of moral ambiguity by sometimes doing the right thing.

First of all, Lilah took it quite seriously that Billy was off by himself for three day before he decided to show up at the offices at Wolfram & Hart. I had a feeling that Lilah's concern wasn't quite so much that Billy might have done something that would land him back in the hell dimension. Why should she care that demons were roaming the streets? Wasn't that part of her job, to represent demons so they could go off and perform more evil deeds? Was Lilah simply trying to shield a wealthy and powerful family (not to mention good-paying clients) from embarrassment and bad publicity? Or was she creeped out at the thought that someone like Billy was running loose in the world?

Then, Lilah received the surprise of her life when Gavin grabbed her, smashed her head against the wall, then started choking her, in response to his being infected by Billy's misogyny virus.

Later on, Angel paid Lilah a visit at her apartment and seemed genuinely upset to see her all battered and bruised. It's amazing how two people can possibly start bonding if they begin seeing each other on a regular basis, even if they are supposed to be mortal enemies. When Lilah started telling Angel that nobody could touch Billy, I didn't take it that she was trying to protect her client. I really felt that she was warning Angel that going after Billy would be a lot harder than he thought.

When Angel asked Lilah why she was protecting Billy even though he was responsible for her injuries, you could really hear the hurt in her voice as she said, "I'm sorry, but this deep chivalric concern coming from the only man I know who 'definitely' wants to kill me, is a bit much on a day like this."

I can think of two specific instances when Angel "definitely" wanted to kill Lilah. One was a few episodes earlier in "That Vision Thing" when Angel threatened to kill Lilah if she ever attempted to get to him through Cordelia again. Another time was in the Season 2 episode "Reunion" when Darla and Drusilla terrorized the lawyers in Holland Manners' wine cellar, leaving only Lilah and Lindsey alive to tell the tale. Angel made a dramatic entrance and Lilah pleaded with him to save everyone. (I might add that Lilah was probably quite relieved to see Angel at that point and fully expected Angel to come to the rescue.) Instead, Angel locked the cellar doors from the outside and left all of the lawyers to their horrible fate.

Season 2's Dark Angel had no qualms about seeing Lilah get killed, but Season 3's Back to His Old Self Angel was seemingly starting to acknowledge Lilah as being something akin to a worthy adversary (aside from a few casual death threats he threw in here and there). I can't help but think of how, in one of the Season 2 episodes, (I forget exactly which one), Lilah said incredulously to Holland Manners, I believe, that Angel was no longer playing by the rules! I also can't help but think of the end of "That Vision Thing" when Lilah told Angel it was "just business" what she put Cordy through in order to get Angel to break Billy out of the hell dimension. Was Angel starting to think the same way, that there was a de facto prescribed set of rules of engagement based on a foundation of grudging mutual respect?

When Lilah finished out the scene by warning Angel away from her client, I took that to be somewhat of a conditioned response. Her obvious grief over her assault (Angel had noticed Lilah's hands were shaking) betrayed her true feelings.

Cordelia seemed to really act out of character when she decided to confront Lilah about Billy's whereabouts, something I didn't really appreciate the first time I saw the episode. Cordelia's new sense of empowerment after her martial arts training probably gave her the confidence to take the next step and start taking matters into her own hands.

As much as I loved the "vicious bitch" statements and the dialogue regarding Boracchi shoes, I really keyed in on the concept that Cordelia was relating to Lilah on a woman-to-woman basis regarding unacceptable misogynistic violence. Again, this "sisterhood solidarity" might be a little too simplistic, but there are some interesting implications behind this concept.

It's obvious that Lilah had to fight a male-dominated Wolfram & Hart in order to get her Senior Vice President position of the Special Projects division. Lilah was very ambitious. She wanted power and money. Fighting her way to the top at Mary Kay Cosmetics would obviously not get her the same power and prestige as fighting her way to the top of Wolfram & Hart.

In a lot of companies, it's easy to not take women and minorities very seriously because they are such easy targets. People are a lot more creative in how they discriminate. Back in the Good Old Days, people could come right out and say, "I don't think you can handle these tasks because you are a [fill in the blank with your favorite legally protected employee group]." Now, discrimination is a lot more subtle, where you can be excluded from meetings, given low prestige assignments, given a lot of low-level tasks that prevent you from taking on extra responsibility, reprimanded all out of proportion to the actual mistake that you made, etc.

Actually, all workers can be discriminated against. New hires can be put through what can only be described as hazing, where older employees feel they have the right to jump all over the new hireling simply because he doesn't know the same things a 20-year veteran would know. Older employees may feel discriminated against when all of a sudden the better assignments are being given to younger employees. An intelligent employee may feel discriminated against because he presents a threat to a dull-witted supervisor. I can go on and on, but you get the picture. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there, and it seems like everyone is only out for themselves. To discriminate against someone is easy and doesn't require a lot of creativity. Employees may suffer through petty indignities just about every day, and, to a certain point, we're all expected to take our lumps without complaining. I think that's why a lot of people get fed up with claims of discrimination from women and minorities. A lot of workers have to put up with shit day in and day out all their lives, but women and minorities can cry out "discrimination" and supposedly get all sorts of redress.

My first response is, why should anyone have to put up with shit when they don't have to? Another point is, we all expect a certain standard of decency and respect on the job. When everything you do is discounted simply because you are a minority, or a woman, or a 55-year old white male, or an 18-year old youth, it can hurt you in the gut more than the worst sucker punch in the world. You can either sit back and take it, knowing it will only get worse later on, or stand up for yourself and fight back.

Lilah decided to fight back. I think her statement to Gavin about him "not being a captain of the debate team" after he gave her some petty insults revealed a lot about her attitude. Lilah would probably say something like, "Go and head and use all sorts of devious and diabolical means to try to get rid of me. Just don't take the easy way out by dismissing me just because I'm a woman!"

Again, as much as I liked the part of Cordy's speech about "no vicious bitch" would ever put up with the violence, I think what really struck Lilah was the part about Billy beating Lilah down until she stayed down. If word got out that Billy could get away with treating Lilah this way, then the entire offices of Wolfram & Hart would be lining up outside her door to get their punches in. There was only one move Lilah could make, and that was to take Billy down herself.

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