The Common Language of Pop References

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Yesterday a friend of mine off-handedly mentioned the phenomenon in which someone will make a pop culture reference and use their audience’s reaction to judge the people who are listening. You got my obscure Firefly reference? You’re awesome and a good human being. You didn’t? Well…you might not be worth my time.
I suspect that we’re all guilty of doing this sometimes, and I know I’ve felt that burst of connection when someone else knows my favorite book, so I couldn’t stop thinking about whether this was pointless judging or whether it might serve some purpose. And then I read this absolutely lovely article about a pair of sisters who found a way to communicate through Supernatural. The show gave them templates and referents through which to talk about their relationship. It seemed that sometimes coming at the problem head on was too scary or direction, but the shared media gave them a common foundation on which to build their emotional understandings of each other.
Suddenly it all came into place: we all do this. When we reference things, we’re using a different language that holds much more content because it assumes the shared experiences of the media we love. Instead of trying to explain a complex, semi-abusive relationship, you can just say “it’s like Spike and Buffy”, and someone will have a full emotional picture of what’s going on.
So when we make references to some pop culture thing we love and someone responds positively, we suddenly have an entirely new shared language of referents and emotions and relationships to draw from. It can be incredibly liberating to find that you don’t have to explain yourself but can use a reference to immediately instill a certain emotion or understanding in your listener. There’s a certain safety in having those shared understandings of the world, in knowing that no matter how differently you perceive the world, you have this touchstone with which to communciate and connect. These kinds of shorthands aren’t simply an easy, quick way of communicating, but they’re also a way to signal that you understand and care about the person you’re interacting with. If I respond positively to a reference, it means I want to engage with the person who has made it. I am interested in understanding what is going on in their brain and I’m willing to search my memory for a reference in order to do so. If the reference comes easily, it means that we don’t have to struggle to understand each other as much as we might have otherwise.
Of course there are in-group elements to references, and of course the references we make and the ways we value references have a great deal to do with the way we assign value as consumers, but somewhere in the practice of making references we find that pop culture names, quotes, and places become symbols for feelings or plot arcs or ideas that are far more complex. Just as Biblical scholars have an entire lexicon of symbols that hold a different kind of meaning than they would to anyone else, so fangirls of Supernatural have a shared lexicon. Carry On My Wayward Son isn’t just a song, it’s an anthem of family, heartache, long journeys, impossible tasks, and endlessly broken hearts. Where you come down on the Spuffy/Bangel split will tell me immediately whether we’ll get along (protip: Bangel sucks). The reason I get excited when I see someone making a reference that I understand is that I suddenly have an entirely new window into this person, a new lens through which to view them, an entire set of experiences that we had together about which I can get their reaction. It’s not quite the same as the trust you gain from firsthand seeing how someone reacts to new situations, but it is a helpful simulation.
Especially for a reference that is uncommon or that few people would recognize, it’s like a special shared moment you get with another person. It’s as if you’ve found another kilt-wearing unicycle enthusiast: you thought you were the only one, but now you can find someone who resonates with those feelings and reactions you had. Now nothing about this implies that making judgments about others based on their pop culture references is a brilliant and ethically sound decision. In all likelihood you’ll be misjudging a fair number of people. But there are useful things about making references, and the better we understand those uses the more effective we can be in our communication.  It’s being able to say that you’re the Marshmallow to my Lilypad and not having to explain any further, and that’s a kind of connection that is kind of beautiful.

Why I Ship Spuffy

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One of the oldest debates in fandom is Spuffy vs. Bangel. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, go watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer immediately and then report back. Done? Ok, good. Now I realize that this debate hasn’t really been active in quite a while, but it’s one that’s close to my heart and one of my friends recently told me that he doesn’t think Buffy and Spike should be together. I immediately told him we could never speak again until he changes his mind, and in the spirit of that I will now definitively tell you why Spuffy is the best ship ever (ok maybe not, but I do think there are some truly beautiful things about their relationship).

Now I am the first to admit that in season 6 their relationship is abusive. Wholly abusive. Spike does not in any way understand consent (he badgers her until she has sex with him many times, will physically restrain her when she tries to leave his presence, and regularly ignores her requests). Buffy on the other hand just uses him and then proceeds to insult him, berate him, yell at him, beat him up, and generally act emotionally abusive (“you’re not a man. You’re a thing”).

But Spike is right when he points out that they understand each other: both of them are broken people who don’t understand how they fit into the universe and are attempting to fulfill roles that will never be quite right for them. Buffy will never be the perfect, motivated, “good” Slayer that she was before she died. Spike will never be the big bad that he was before he got his chip. Both of them are struggling with feeling pointless, and both of them see themselves in the other. Spike has always had a talent for truth telling (see season 3, Love Walk, when he tells Buffy and Angel that they will never be friends) and he is the only of Buffy’s lovers that doesn’t idealize her in some way: he sees her dark bits and he loves those bits. He loves her complexity and her struggle because it makes her human, it makes her relatable, it makes her stronger: he sees that she has to choose over and over to continue in a life that isolates her, and she does it because it is right. He doesn’t try to sugarcoat that fact for her, he simply reminds her that it makes her an amazing human being.

Beyond their recognition of similarities in each other, one of the more amazing things about Spike is that he actually improves himself because of Buffy: he goes to get his soul. Some people might interpret this as the ultimate nice guy move (I got my soul back for you, now date me!), but if you look at his face after he realizes that he nearly raped her, he is fully disgusted by his own actions and wants to change. His motivation is more that he doesn’t want to hurt her anymore. There are few examples of relationships in media in which one party recognizes that they have behaved badly towards the other and then chooses of their own volition to make serious changes to their self and their life in order to be better and do better. I am amazed at the strength of Spike’s love that it allows him to do this. Not even Willow could. When Tara left her over magic using, Willow kept on going. But Spike, the moment he realizes how seriously his lack of soul is fucking up his relationship with Buffy, makes a change.

Once season 7 rolls around, things are very different between Buffy and Spike, not only because Spike has a soul, but because both of them have healed somewhat as people. Any relationship between two individuals who are deeply depressed will be fucked up. So while season 6 is part of their history, I don’t see that relationship as the best representation of what they can be together, because it isn’t the best representation of either of them as people. So let’s look a bit at season 7, shall we?

Once it hits this season, Spike has fully recognized Buffy as an autonomous person. Angel, Parker, Riley (especially Riley), all try to manipulate Buffy’s actions in some fashion. They want her to love them or not to love them or to be less strong or fulfill her destiny. Spike does none of these things. He backs her up, he challenges her when he disagrees with her, but he truly recognizes that she can exist fully without him and that he does not need to get her to behave in any particular way. Buffy in return begins to see Spike as someone deserving of compassion, someone with a complex history whose heart has been broken over and over and who simply needs love (see: “Can we rest now?”). While she doesn’t know if she can love him, she is content to be with him in a wholly present fashion that is incredibly healing for Spike. From the looks of it, no one else in his life has ever done that (certainly not Cecily and Dru was never really what you’d call present).

There is a great deal of tenderness in their relationship in season 7. Each of them has moments of complete vulnerability during which they show the parts of them that hurt the most, and in return the other listens, holds them, and simply reminds them that they are worthy. Each of them has come through a great deal of loneliness (Spike in his human life and when Dru left him) and confusion, and this gives them far more understanding of what the other is going through. What’s beautiful about this is that it shows how deeply two broken people can love. While season 7 doesn’t contain any crazy sex or passionate kisses, I would argue that it has the most passionately loving scenes in the whole series. In the last episodes when Buffy stays in an abandoned house with Spike, he gives her a bit of a pep talk. It is honest, loving, intense, and emotional. It is perhaps the most passionate thing I’ve ever seen in my life. That mix of gentleness and deep passion for the other person is what makes their relationship work so well. They hold each other so carefully because they know what it is to be hurt.

Spuffy has always given me hope that even if we have a past of pain and cruelty and confusion, we can learn from those things the compassion to love imperfect people. It doesn’t pretend that either party is good. It recognizes each of their faults and allows them to exist as they are while still loving each other, and even to love each other because of their faults. I don’t like aphorisms about learning from your pain or how bad things make us stronger or better in some fashion. But if there is one relationship in all of media that would convince me that having hurt in your past can expand your ability to have compassion, to care deeply for someone, and to make yourself vulnerable, it would be this one. The quiet moments in which Buffy simply asks Spike to hold her show so clearly how two people can take care of each other in the worst of situations.

If you’re not convinced of the beauty of Spuffy at this point, you have no heart. And so I will leave you with the most touching speech I know of, from Spike to Buffy.

“You listen to me. I’ve been alive a bit longer than you, and dead a lot longer than that. I’ve seen things you couldn’t imagine, and done things I prefer you didn’t. I don’t exactly have a reputation for being a thinker. I follow my blood, which doesn’t exactly rush in the direction of my brain. So I make a lot of mistakes, a lot of wrong bloody calls.  And 100+ years, and there’s only one thing I’ve ever been sure of: you.  Hey, look at me. I’m not asking you for anything. When I say, “I love you,” it’s not because I want you or because I can’t have you. It has nothing to do with me.  I love what you are, what you do, how you try. I’ve seen your kindness and your strength. I’ve seen the best and the worst of you. And I understand with perfect clarity exactly what you are. You’re a hell of a woman. You’re the one, Buffy.”

Truth-Tellers and Love

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I am a hardcore Spuffy shipper. Oh yes, I ship them to Mars and back. For those who don’t know, Spuffy is the pairing in Buffy the Vampire Slayer of Buffy and Spike, and shipping…well shipping is the unholy obsession that some of us have with certain pairs of people who we desperately want to get together because we live vicariously through their beautiful relationships. I have a lot of feels about Spuffy. I have a lot of Thoughts about Spuffy. But it’s been a while since I watched Buffy and right now my love for that pairing is slowly being usurped by a love for Belle and Rumplestiltskin (the last episode kills me. There will be spoilers of it in this post). And I’ve started to notice a lot of parallels between these two couples, particularly between Spike and Belle. This might strike some as a little odd considering the fact that Belle is a sweet girl who sacrifices her life to save her kingdom and sees the good in a beast whereas Spike is a soulless bloodthirsty vampire who keeps trying to kill Buffy. But the reason I love these two relationships is because each of these characters is a truth teller.

 

One of the things that I have always loved about Spike is that he sees right through the other characters in the show and says what needs to be said. From the point where he starts getting developed as a regular character this happens. In Lover’s Walk in season 3 he calls out Angel and Buffy, saying what no one else will say: “You’re not friends. You’ll never be friends. You’ll be in love till it kills you both. You’ll fight, and you’ll shag, and you’ll hate each other till it makes you quiver, but you’ll never be friends. Love isn’t brains, children, it’s blood…blood screaming inside you to work its will. I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it.” And from this point forward Spike becomes the truth teller of the show, even when he manipulates others and skews the truth to get his way. I think we see it most intimately in season 7 when Buffy has been kicked out of her home by the potentials, and Spike comforts her in the abandoned home. He doesn’t comfort her with empty words, he tells her exactly how he sees her and exactly how amazing that makes her.

 

In many ways, Spike is even a truth teller at the darkest points of their relationship. In season 6, he’s the only one who can see where Buffy has been and who asks her about it. He’s the only one who sees her when she’s truly falling apart. And he KNOWS that she is using him: in “Gone” he doesn’t want to have sex with her because he is in love with her and doesn’t want to be used anymore, he only wants to be with her if she’s willing to be seen with him. He knows exactly what she’s doing and he does call her out on it. In many other instances, Spike sees the good in Buffy, names it, and she grows. In season 6, Spike sees the darkness in Buffy, names it, and she grows more fully into that darkness. But either way, he is telling her the truth of herself. That forms the crux of their relationship and in the long run his ability to tell the truth is what allows their relationship to flourish. When Buffy is turning into something horrible, truth-telling destroys them, but when she is at her best, it saves them.

 

And I believe that there are some brief moments where truth-telling is what saves Spike too. In Seeing Red when Spike attempts to rape Buffy, she is finally able to tell him the truth of what she thinks he is, of the facts that he has no soul, of the fact that he cannot and has not respected her. Only through this truth-telling does Spike manage to find his soul and grow into a person who would NEVER do that again. And in the end, when Buffy gives Spike the amulet, she is telling him the truth that she sees him as a hero and it is only through that truth that he can save others. While Spike is more often pulling their relationship through with his truth, at crucial moments Buffy is able to tell Spike who he really is. When he is truly broken or when he desperately needs help to complete an action, she brings him back to who he is.

 

In a remarkably similar way to Spike, Belle is a truth-teller. From the beginning, both Spike and Belle see something that draws them to their respective lover. I believe that each of them sees nuggets of truth that no one else can identify. Belle knows from the beginning that Rumple is not as dark as everyone thinks he is. Belle is truth-teller in a slightly different way from Spike though: sometimes she comes straight out and tells Rumple who he is, but more often she tells the truth through her actions. She knows that Rumple will not hurt her for freeing Robin Hood. She knows that he will not kill Robin Hood. She acts in accordance with this knowledge and that proves to Rumple that he is who she believes he is. She reminds him verbally over and over that he is not dark and that there is love in his heart. She even reminds others, and in their relationship telling the truth to everyone is hugely important because Rumple’s reputation is an important part of his self-perception.

 

In the most current episode, Belle has forgotten who she is, and yet I still believe that she is a truth-teller. She sees through Rumple’s “best behavior”, the act and the façade that he puts up to try to win her over. She sees that there is darkness inside of him (because no one can deny that). He has been repressing his feelings of rage and impotence for a long time in Storybrook in order to try to win back his family, but it seems that he feels he is worthless and useless when he does this because in Storybrook love is more complicated than it is in the Enchanted Forest. Just as when he first became the Dark One, Rumple feels a need for power in order to protect himself, particularly when he has lost the love of those he cares about. Lacey sees this. Lacey sees that he has this overwhelming need to be safe through power. Belle is still telling the truth even when she is not herself.

 

But I suspect that what is really necessary right now is for Rumple to tell the truth. Belle is just as lost right now as Spike was in the middle of season 6. Belle needs her truth-teller to kick her in the chest and tell her to get her god damn soul back. Rumple has not stepped up yet. He’s tried, but he doesn’t know how to tell truth like Belle does and he has not been pushed in the same way Buffy was. Rumple needs to learn how to tell Belle’s truth before anything will break. I am highly looking forward to that moment.

 

The thing that I love about these relationships is that they ring true for me: the strongest and deepest relationships appear when you can see someone for who they truly are, both good and bad, and when you can help them become more themselves. This is true in media, but it is even more true in real life. Relationships live and die on truth-telling, and it is inspiring to me that relationships like these exist in media, relationships in which individuals are not afraid to tell the truth to each other no matter how terrifying it might be. And the reactions portrayed are real. Sometimes when you hear the truth about yourself you grow and change. Sometimes when you hear the truth about yourself you fall further into whatever you are at that moment. But truth-telling is always central to relationships.