Yesterday Sophie Gilbert published an essay at TheAtlantic.com celebrating the 18th anniversary of the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She describes the ways in which Buffy represented a conventional teen hero (pretty, blond, athletic), and then all the many ways in which Buffy the character and Buffy the television show were subversive in the sheer joy they took in displays of female power.
Today a friend posted a quote on Facebook by a different Gilbert: Elizabeth Gilbert, memoirist and adventurer – surely another powerful woman. In the post my friend shared, Gilbert is credited with saying “The women I love and admire for their strength and grace did not get that way because shit worked out. They got that way because shit went wrong and they handled it. They handled it a thousand different ways on a thousand different days, but they handled it. Those women are my superheroes.”
How cool to read these two very different reflections on female power, one day after the other, and at a time when I’ve been working on my own memoir about women, power, and, to quote Elizabeth Gilbert, “handling shit.”
The story I tell in My Mother’s Cross is not my story alone. It’s the story about my mother’s discovery in her early 60s that she took joy in sexual domination – imposing her erotic power on willing submissives. Even more remarkable is that she did much of her erotic domination after her first bout with cancer, one that left her on dialysis for the remaining years of her life. (How badass is that!) It’s a story about my helping her navigate that newly discovered world of BDSM, and also the path of a terminal illness, but it’s also a story about power and control in our relationship as mother and daughter. It’s about my struggle with her demons, demons she unintentionally set loose on me. In fact, one whole chapter uses the metaphor of Buffy to describe what it felt like to be my mother’s primary medical advocate as she faced the hell mouth of her second, and this time terminal, cancer. A very tiny peek:
As I slay my mother’s demons, different elements of myself come to the fore. Sometimes I’m Willow: give me problem to study or a plan to research, and I’m on it. I take notes, I ask questions, and I make it a point to know stuff. Sometimes I’m Xander: just tell me what to do and I’ll do it. I can even step in without being asked. It doesn’t matter how dirty the work. Clean out the refrigerator, even the scary produce crisper that obviously hasn’t been opened in months? I’m on it. Help change the hospital bedding for the third time in an hour and a half? No problem. Just say the word. More often than I’d like, but hopefully not as often as I fear, the Giles in me comes out: I’m reserved and I sound like a know-it-all even when I don’t mean to. And yes, sometimes my past comes back to haunt me. But no matter what, I’m Buffy: the chosen one. I alone can save my mother from disaster. Or at least that’s how it feels.
That’s how it feels. But that’s not exactly how it is. Even Buffy, the chosen one, doesn’t save the world alone. One thing I realized in writing about my journey with my mother is that strength comes from mutual support. In guiding my mother through her late-life sexual discoveries, I was strongest when I could help connect her to other resources. When battling the demons of her terminal cancer, I was strongest when working together with my sister and a my aunt, or when relying on the support of friends like Ricci Levy or my partner Will.
At the end of each season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, an apocalypse is averted by some combination of strength, sacrifice and teamwork. At the end of the last season, that sacrifice and teamwork is magnified as Willow helps Buffy figure out how to share her power with all the potential slayers in the world. Buffy is no longer the only chosen one, and the world is safer because of it.
To paraphrase Elizabeth Gilbert, our strength is demonstrated by how we handle shit when it goes wrong, and I think it’s important to remember that our strength is magnified when we support one another. Asking for help is asking to share power. I try to remember this because I’m actually lousy at asking for help. Maybe you are too. Right now I’m contemplating the shift from the relative joy of writing this book to the relative misery of seeking a publisher, and I know I will need to ask for help. So, as I contemplate the significance of the 18th birthday of Buffy’s debut I will try do my best not to focus on the subversiveness of Buffy’s badass female power, but on that other subversive lesson Joss Wheadon taught us, and, really, what feminists and kinksters have been teaching us for a long time: strength comes from sharing and exchanging power, not from jealously guarding the bit we have on our own.
I’m pretty sure this applies widely and not just to the situations I’ve described above. There’s a lot of shit to handle right now. There is no shortage of potential apocalypses from which we need to save each other. If we’re going to do it, we need to share our power. From the most individual crisis to the most global conflict, there is nothing to be won in the long-term if what we seek is domination over others. Saving ourselves means saving each other, and there isn’t one among us so chosen that we can do it alone.
Here endeth the lesson.