“I’ve Got These Evil Hand Issues”: Amputation, Identity, and Agency in Angel
Keynote Address, 5th Biannual Slayage Conference on the Whedonverses, 2012
The connections between the physical body and one’s identity are an oft-explored theme in the works of Joss Whedon. This is especially true in Angel, a series where each major character experiences significant challenges to his/her physical, bodily integrity and, by extension, his/her sense of self and understanding of agency. Primary examples of this phenomenon include the title character’s body housing both the champion Angel and the villainous Angelus, Cordelia choosing to physically become part-demon to keep her visions, Fred’s body being colonized by Illyria, and two major characters—Lindsey McDonald and Spike—experiencing involuntary hand amputation and subsequent transplantation/reattachment. The repetition of the fairly unusual scenario of hand amputation, with Lindsey in Season Two and Spike in Season Five, is especially rich, as well as being a trope to which little attention has been paid in Whedon scholarship to date.
This presentation will examine three main points of intersection in Lindsey’s and Spike’s narrative arcs: 1) the characters’ divergent reactions to amputation and transplantation/reattachment; 2) the implications of narrative arcs about amputation and transplantation/reattachment medicine within the context of medical history and how those implications parallel key Angel themes; and 3) Lindsey’s and Spike’s narrative positioning in relation to the primary figure of Angel and thus to the series’ primary themes of redemption, agency, and free will.
First, hands have long symbolized agency in human history, and Lindsey’s and Spike’s divergent responses to hand amputation and subsequent transplant/reattachment surgery serve as a turning point for each character, forcing a recognition and acknowledgment of his own agency in relation to his actions, both villainous and heroic. The differences in each man(-pire)’s reactions and readjustment of self-perception are illuminating and speak to Angel’s key questions about identity and agency. Second, the history of organ and tissue transplantation is a story rife with exploitative power structures not dissimilar to Wolfram & Hart, the evil law firm prominently involved in Lindsey’s and Spike’s amputation story arcs and the primary symbol of corruption and evil in the series. Third, and perhaps most interestingly, Lindsey and Spike share a parallel positioning in the series, mirroring the main figure of Angel and wavering between antagonist and ally to the title vampire. This positioning is fitting, given the questions the hand amputation storylines raise about redemption, agency, and identity, and given that those same questions are explored by every character in the show yet centered in Angel himself.
Status: Will be presented at the SC5 Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, July 12-15, 2012
Blood, Body, and Soul: Health, (Dis)Ability, and Medicine in Joss Whedon’s TV Worlds [Tentative Title]
Essay Collection, co-edited with AmiJo Comeford (Dixie State College, Utah)
This collection will employ critical perspectives to explore the ways in which television auteur Joss Whedon and his creative teams construct and utilize health and wellness—physical, mental, and emotional/psychological—and, conversely, illness, injury, and (dis)ability, as well as the practice of medicine in television narratives. Within the wide-ranging and prolific field of Whedon studies, the vast majority of scholarship to date has ignored the physical body in favor of more philosophical questions of identity and being. However, given the heavy action component to Whedon’s shows (which frequently results—or should result—in injury), the often techno/magical accelerated healing that characters enjoy, and Hollywood standards of beauty and wellness that contribute to de-emphasizing or miraculously “fixing” imperfect bodies, we believe there is a wealth of untapped critical exploration to be made.
Chapters will explore a range of characters and themes, drawing on the texts of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly/Serenity, and Dollhouse. Specific topics include social and medical models for understanding (dis)ability; historical representations of illness and doctors; questions of gendered bodies; posthumanism; representations of specific body parts such as heads, hands, and skin; intellectual and moral disability; torture and trauma; and mental illness.
Status: In progress; Chapters undergoing revision