It Still Stings: The Mistreatment of Women on Joss Whedon’s AngelPhoto Courtesy of 20th Television TV Features Hulu
Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
A Buffy the Vampire Slayer spin-off about Buffy Summers’ (first!) vampire boyfriend fighting crime in the Gotham-like streets of Los Angeles was an odd choice, of all the characters creator Joss Whedon could’ve used to grow the Buffyverse. After all, he jumped from a show about a 16-year-old blonde girl as the savior of the universe to a show about a 250-year-old brooding vampire playing detective. But in that dichotomy, Angel seemed like a masterclass in feminism upon its inception.
Whedon never shied away from calling himself a ‘feminist.’ He preached ad nauseam about women’s superiority over men. However, considering what’s come out about Whedon from not only his ex-wife but from Charisma Carpenter (who played Cordelia Chase) and several other female actresses who have worked with him, it’s safe to say that, sometimes, those who seem the most trustworthy are actually the ones to watch out for. Especially when the performative nature of Whedon’s feminist promises crumbled on screen throughout Angel’s run.
It’s a particularly slippery slope because the women of Angel, at times, seemed even stronger and more self-sufficient than the women of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, making the spin-off feel even more feminist and empowering than its fountainhead. That’s not to say the women of Buffy were less powerful simply because they weren’t as physically strong or magically inclined, but it was a different vibe. Since Angel was initially positioned to be a show dominated by men, given its titular character, it was a welcome surprise when Angel’s roster was filled with heavy-hitters like Fred Burkle (Amy Acker), Lilah Morgan (Stephanie Romanov), fan-favorite Cordelia (Carpenter), even Harmony Kendall (Cordy’s ex-BFF-turned-evil-vampire-turned-not-so-evil-secretary, played by Mercedes McNab), and even Angel’s sire Darla (Julie Benz), of all people.
The women of Angel felt fully fleshed out and could exist on their own without men to keep them alive. Not many other shows of the era could boast such a diverse cast of female characters who weren’t just love interests or sisters. It was fascinating to watch objectively evil women like Lilah and Darla be multi-faceted and become likable, and, at times, even sympathetic without feeling the need to turn over to the “good” side and apologize for their crimes. Women were allowed to live within the gray areas and make their own decisions on Angel without letting men boss them around.
So why, by the last episode of Angel, were nearly all of the women dead?
Darla, Angel’s (David Boreanaz) long-term on-and-off-again girlfriend (not to mention the person who turned him into a vampire) was a surprising breakout. She was introduced in the first few episodes of Buffy as the first Big Bad’s lackey before being dusted; likely no one thought of her after that, so it was a great surprise when she was brought back as a driving narrative force in Season 2 of Angel. Darla was beautiful, she was tortured, and she maintained an impressive level of self-preservation. She was complex, less flat than she was on Buffy because all of a sudden she was given the opportunity to be human again, something a vampire could never imagine in their wildest dreams.
Yet, despite paralleling Faith (Eliza Dushku) in her slow development towards (mild) redeemability, and the tiniest glimpses of hope that she might possibly rekindle a relationship with Angel (or even her newborn child), she suffers an inexplicably gruesome death. She stakes herself in the middle of child labor, afraid she won’t be able to love the baby once it’s born. After countless demonstrations of fearlessness, Darla’s final act is uncharacteristic, a disturbingly unwarranted death for a scared woman.
Lilah Morgan of Wolfram & Hart was another non-demon (but still very evil) force to be reckoned with. She was dryly funny, and she stuck to her guns—literally—no matter what, never allowing herself to be swayed. Even throughout her relationship with Wesley (Alexis Denisof), she reigned supreme, controlling the narrative despite his attempts to take over. Her death felt like a betrayal.
She starts to come into her own as someone other than the Evil Lawyer Lady she’s resigned to in seasons past. Season 4 sees a warmer, more “human” side to her, without making her completely give up what she stood for… all for her death to feel as though it serves no greater purpose. Out of nowhere, she’s stabbed by a possessed Cordelia before Angelus drinks the former’s blood, thus prompting the “good guys” to cut Lilah’s head off to save her from a vampiric fate.
On the side of good, however, is Cordelia, a character who suffers unfair treatment on Buffy, which unfortunately seemed to parallel the real-life poor treatment Carpenter suffered at the hands of Whedon on the sets of both series. The second-most important character on Angel, along for the ride from the beginning, Cordelia’s ending is less tragic and more… confusing. She’s plagued by painful visions, disappearing at the end of Season 3 to become a “Higher Being.” She only comes back as a plot device, possessed by the demon Jasmine. The latter sleeps with Angel’s 18-year-old son Connor (Vincent Kartheiser) in Cordy’s body, before slipping into a coma, quietly dying off-screen in the penultimate season. An appalling end for arguably the best character to come out of the entire Buffyverse.
By the end of Angel, the only two women left are Fred and Harmony. Except, Fred isn’t quite herself. She dies early in Season 5, her body sacrificed as a vessel for Ilyria, an ancient being whose purpose is never quite explained. (Ilyria’s not one of the “good guys” nor is she a villain. She still fights on Angel’s side in the last episode, anyway.) Meanwhile, Harmony, first introduced on Buffy as Cordy’s second-in-command and one of Spike’s ex-girlfriends after she’s turned into a vampire, is the only one remaining. Sure, she’s still alive, but she’s not sticking around to fight the good fight. She’s given a coward’s exit, escaping L.A. before the world implodes around her. She’s never seen again.
If you haven’t already picked up on the distressing pattern unfolded by all the deaths and exit strategies of the women on Angel, it’s that they’re nearly all used as sacrificial plot devices. Their deaths are all unnecessarily macabre and violent. None of them (save for Fred, if only because she “becomes” Ilyria), are discussed posthumously or mourned properly. These are odd conclusions that Whedon wrote for his supposedly beloved female characters. Those mentioned here hardly even begin to cover every single female death or sudden, inexplicable departure from the show.
It’s a shame to reckon with this now, over two decades after Angel’s commencement, mostly because at the time, when it was released into the sticky world of the late ‘90s & early ‘00s TV, it felt like a breath of fresh air for women and female-identifying people to see so many kickass role models on a show that looked like it was geared toward a more male audience than Buffy was. This all to say, Angel is still worth a watch (if you’ve already seen Buffy!), and the beloved characters it brought us were all, regardless of gender, such a wonderful array of human beings and vamps alike. Still, its women will always deserve better.
Gillian Bennett is a writer and editor who has been featured in Strike Magazine, Her Campus, and now Paste Magazine. She enjoys watching copious reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and fantasizing about living in London. You can find more of her neverending inner monologue and online diary on her Twitter or her blog.
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