A famous painting by Rene Magritte is a realistic depiction of a tobacco pipe with a declarative sentence written underneath: “Ceci n’est ce pas une pipe.” (“This is not a pipe.”) Magritte’s title for this painting? “The Betrayal of Images.” Following a long philosophical tradition of investigating the status and politics of representation and the real, Magritte’s pipe is not a pipe, but a painting of a pipe. And the inscription encourages us to understand the painting as a critique of dominant “ways of seeing,” the constitution of “high” versus “low” art, and the social values and political import of art.
Recently, I have experienced a reminder of just how dominant ideologies promote certain understandings over all others in various responses to my interrogation of lesbian desire and representation in the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Several were angry accusations that I had gotten it all wrong, that I was searching for a tempest in a teapot. Among these, two points came up repeatedly: first, that I read too deeply into what is “just” popular entertainment, that not everything is politically motivated; and second, that my understanding of how BVS uses witchcraft as a trope for lesbian desire was a load of hogwash, even if some admit the show might have deployed such metaphors at the start of Willow and Tara’s relationship.
To the first, I have never understood the argument that popular culture is “just” entertainment or ephemera. It is manifestly much more than that and does real cultural work. Certainly politicians, critics, and scholars around the world have found in U.S. popular cultural products (whether Hollywood films, television, McDonald’s hamburgers, or Coca-Cola) the epitome of neo-colonial exploitation and cultural dominance. Furthermore, popular culture reflects and helps to reproduce contemporary zeitgeists; this is how pop culture functions as an apparatus of dominant ideology. The refusal to consider any social or political import to popular culture demonstrates how ideology functions through media to promote certain social and cultural values as “natural,” and to make particular political investments and disseminations transparent.
As to the rejection of my understanding of the connection between lesbianism and witchcraft on Buffy, I have never said that BVS‘s creator or writers made a conscious (and consciously homophobic) decision to directly cast lesbianism as social pathology and physical addiction. On the contrary, I am quite sure that those involved in season six had no such intentions, and probably weren’t even aware of the implications of what they were presenting in the changing relationship of Willow and Tara. Instead, the fact that the show wraps up the Willow-Tara story arc in addiction and death only proves to me exactly how dominant ideologies (in this case homophobia and intolerance) function on the unconscious level, for readers as well as creators.
Several writers tell me that witchcraft on BVS has nothing to do with lesbianism, that they constitute parallel, not intersecting plot points. How they could be parallel when the two primary witches and lesbians on the show are the same two characters, and who happen to be deeply involved with one another is beyond me. This denial has sought to keep the realm of fantasy free from political and social struggle, despite the fact that popular cultural representations of the monstrous have always been allegories for other crises.
Cultural theorists like Jeffrey Cohen, in Monster Theory: Reading Culture, have ably demonstrated how in the history of the Western imagination to talk about or to represent monsters, vampires, witches and demons has always been to talk about the boundaries of social and political normativity. Is Frankenstein “just” about a reanimated-monster? Aren’t Medieval Saracen demons, depicted in much Western religious art, about the perceived threat of Islamic culture and anxieties over Christian orthodoxy? Most often, as in the continuing case of vampires, monstrous figures are allegories for sexual excess and border crossings of all sorts. But apparently witchcraft is just witchcraft, and popular entertainment is just that.
In his rebuttal to my piece, Andrew Gilstrap suggests, “The sixth season of Buffy ended with pure, uncut sorrow. For one night, Willow became pure vengeance, and it had nothing to do with magic addiction, and it had nothing to do with lesbianism.”
If this is the case, what motivates her vengeance? Mr. Gilstrap declares my understanding of the regressive changes in the show’s previously very progressive representation of queer desire and identity as “a fundamental misreading of what was happening.” His defense of the past season is articulate and compelling. Nevertheless, in response, I would recall Magritte: images can betray; images often offer up one ideologically inflected meaning on the surface and, at the same time, promote other (even contradictory) social messages on unconscious and other levels. While, as many writers have reminded me, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, more often, a pipe isn’t a pipe.