by Kate Hagen
Dead homecoming queens wrapped in plastic, a lady and her omniscient log, Tibetan mysticism and of course, a damn fine cup of coffee – these are just some of the peculiarities that defined Mark Frost and David Lynch’s seminal cult television show, Twin Peaks. The show rose to prominence amongst viewers due in large part to Lynch’s unique style as an auteur involving elements of melodrama, horror, and surrealism. Due to a declining audience in the show’s second season, its network, ABC, forced Lynch to solve the show’s central mystery in the middle of the show’s second season causing an unsatisfying conclusion for critics and viewers alike. Despite this, Twin Peaks proved to be a highly influential television show, paving the way for other serialized cult shows such as The X-Files and Lost (Jensen). With the use of binaries as a means to express his vision as an auteur, David Lynch explores the doubling of female characters and their subsequent domestic abuse, the corruption of criminal men in power, and the escapist reality of fairy tales to transcend his film work and create a television show that explored the bugs beneath the surface of suburban America.
When studying the impact of the television show Twin Peaks, it is impossible to ignore the auteur theory of production brought to the show by one of its creators, David Lynch. Beginning in 1976 with his debut film, Eraserhead, Lynch brought elements of surrealism into pedantic, everyday life. Most obviously seen in the introduction to 1986’s Blue Velvet, Lynch seeks to show the bugs burrowing beneath the surface of American life – “I hate slick and pretty things. I prefer mistakes and accidents. Which is why I like things like cuts and bruises – they’re like little flowers” (Lynch and Rodley 78).
This approach carried over into Lynch’s auteur theory when approaching Twin Peaks. But what is an auteur? The term came about from French filmmakers Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Eric Rohmer in the 1950s and 1960s via their own publication, Cahiers du Cinema, which explored the role of the director as the overwhelming creative force that drives the creation of a product (Vande Berg 233). The French word for “author” is “auteur.” With this idea in mind, the auteur theory was formed: directors who “consistently express their own obsessions,” in order to develop a “thematic and/or stylistic consistency in all (or almost all) of the director’s films” (Kamina 56).
This idea of the auteur, a director whose thematic and stylistic traits become trademarks, is important to understanding television at large, not just Twin Peaks. Television and film are both highly collaborative mediums, and many pieces of the puzzle are needed in order to create an overall picture. While films are singular entities, and television shows produce many episodes within a single season, one might ask if one can truly be an auteur in television. The answer, to a certain extent, is yes. While a creator such as Lynch may leave the show within the second season (as he did to work on the film Wild at Heart in 1990), the thematic ideas and patterns existed long after he was gone (Anthony). In fact, Lynch only co-wrote four episodes of the series, and directed six, but his ideas as auteur are those that the viewer most remembers about the show.
The show’s third episode, “Zen, or to the Skill to Catch a Killer,” which is both written and directed by Lynch, features some of the show’s most lasting imagery: FBI agent Dale Cooper dreams of a red room where he finds a dancing dwarf, Laura Palmer alive and well, and a lot of backwards talking about seemingly nonsensical things like gum. However, these images, created by Lynch as auteur, were some of the series most enduring, and proved to be a marriage of Lynch’s surrealist sensibilities and Twin Peaks as a network television show. Despite the fact that Lynch left the show, these ideas, which present themselves from the beginning, but most evidently in the third episode, remained throughout the series. One can always tell a Lynch written and directed episode of the show because of its thematic and stylistic content: he is the auteur, and this becomes very evident as we watch. Dwarves? Check. Surrealist imagery? Check. Major upsets to the plot and characters of the show? Check.
When thinking about the auteur theory and comparing multiple works by a writer or director, one should be able to create a similar check list of trademarks and markers laid out by the creator that span each of the works. All the trademarks may not be present, but there should at least be some indication that this work belongs to a particular creator.
Why do we care about auteur theory? If we like the content, why does it matter who created it? One might ask this when considering auteur theory, and they are just questions. By understanding auteur theory, the viewer is better able to understand genre, audience, and thematic ideas. For instance, if someone had a pitch to a show similar to Twin Peaks, one might want to study the particular style of Lynch and Frost as not to copy it, as well as understand details about ABC, the network who broadcast the show, so that they might attempt to pitch to a similar network. Analyzing auteur theory becomes important when looking critically at work, as we can learn to recognize patterns and devices used by the auteur, the “recurring stylistic features,” and better be able to understand the auteur’s body of work as a whole (Vande Berg 239).
When looking at Twin Peaks, the auteur theory created by David Lynch works mutually with the production theory of the television industry. Despite the fact that production theory may seem like an obvious thing to explain, the levels of it are more complex. Production theory helps to explain and analyze how the relationships between people affect the creation of a television show. It can be broken down into three areas: micro-level, macro-level, and midrange criticism.
Beginning at the top of the food chain, macro-level criticism deals with the social, political, and economical factors that affect television as a whole. These are the large factors, such as allocation of resources, FCC regulation, and social trends that affect the content created on television, and deals with large media conglomerates and media institutions. (Vande Berg 259). Mid-range criticism looks at how the network itself functions within the larger institution of television: programming, brand identity, policies, and further allocation of resources are all essential when considering mid-range criticism (Vande Berg 259). From here, micro-level criticism can be explored, as it deals with the roles and responsibilities of the individual television workers, and the day-to-day operations of the network as they pertain to individual shows (Vande Berg 259).
Another key element to understanding production theory is considering some of the theorists that help support this theory. One of these theorists, Joseph Turow, further explained production theory with his explanation of power roles, or roles in which the various levels of production theory can be broken further down. (O’Donnell). Within these thirteen power roles, including producer, investor, creator, and distributor, Turow creates a series of checks and balances that further explains how macro-, micro-, and mid-range level criticism function together to create production theory (Vande Berg 265). For instance, as a real-life example, ABC – the distributor and mid-range– became angry that David Lynch – the creator and micro-level – would not solve the mystery of Laura Palmer’s death in the second season, which was frustrating their network conglomerate – the investor and macro-level (Divine). In this way, the Investor and Distributor worked together to power-play against the Creator, Hagen 5 and ultimately solved the mystery, which Lynch said “really kill[ed] the magnet. It’s terrible. We were put under so much pressure by ABC and people in general to solve that, that we killed the goose that laid the golden egg” (Divine).
Understanding production theory is key to understanding both the successes and failures of Twin Peaks, as well as the impact it had on cult television. With the above example, one can see that network pressures from the mid- and macro- levels affected the micro-level, and eventually led to a less than perfect ending for the show. Indeed, after Laura Palmer’s killer is found to be her own father in the Lynch directed episode “Lonely Souls,” the series definitely goes off track, not finding its footing again until the series finale. Here, production theory has a noticeable and essential impact on the content created. While Lynch’s style as an auteur carries throughout the episode – most noticeably in Leland Palmer/Killer BOB’s murder of his niece Maddy – this would be the last episode he would work on before the finale, and his disdain for revealing Laura Palmer’s killer hinders his impact as an auteur on the show.
Auteur theory and production theory are both key to understanding the impact left by Lynch’s vision as an auteur, and the overall impact Twin Peaks left on network and cult television. Both theories affect the other, and it is through their combination that one can better understand the show’s legacy. Perhaps if Lynch’s voice as a singular auteur would not have been so loud, then the show may have lasted longer, but Twin Peaks certainly would not have been as quirky, unique, and important of a series.
In addition to understanding production theory and auteur theory when assessing Twin Peaks, one must understand the idea of binaries. Developed by French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss as a means of exploring the idea of myth, a binary is the idea of constructing a story through opposites. Their opposition to each other is what creates narrative structure (O’Donnell 89). One opposite cannot exist without the other, and from this opposition a binary is created.
Levi-Strauss also explored the idea of syntagm – a chain – and since narrative involves a chain of events, he explained narrative as syntagmatic in nature. Within each syntagmatic structure are opposites and from this, meaning is generated. “By analyzing binary oppositions, the relationship among the elements of the story,” explains O’Donnell, using Levi-Strauss’ theory, “[these] oppositions [turn] into resolutions of conflict and a plan of social action. This can reveal cultural laws and the moving force behind social systems. The end result is a myth” (90).
While we can now understand the purpose of binaries in the creation of story, we must apply this purpose to Lynch’s auteur construction of Twin Peaks. As an exploration of suburbia and its dark underbelly, the narrative of Twin Peaks primarily concerns the murder of seemingly perfect homecoming queen Laura Palmer. Palmer is eventually found out to be much more troubled than her public persona would suggest. Like Laura’s cocaine habit and promiscuous sex life, the town itself harbors an unseen dark side.
As more mysteries about the town unfold themselves through the course of the show, the opposites within the town of Twin Peaks become exemplified in the supernatural centers, the White Lodge and the Black Lodge. The Black Lodge is seen more prevalently throughout the show – as Agent Cooper’s dreams in the red room – and is a place of pure evil. Here, Dale Cooper is finally corrupted by the centuries old evil of Killer BOB that has possessed Leland Palmer, and even his morally righteous FBI agent turns into the personification of pure evil in the series finale. Entered through a portal in the Ghostwood Forest, Lynch plays with this idea of fairy tale as he presents the Black Lodge as a totally evil realm. More mysterious is the White Lodge, a place of pure good and lightness as explained by the only character to have experienced its power, Major Briggs, father to Laura’s boyfriend, Bobby Briggs. While the viewer only experiences the Black Lodge, one interpretation upon viewing the prequel film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, is that Laura Palmer is transported to her ultimate fate in the White Lodge at the conclusion of the film (1992).
What is most important about the existence of the Black Lodge and the White Lodge is their role as the primary binary upon which all of Lynch’s other mythology in the show is based. As opposites, one as pure good and the other as pure evil, perhaps as a parallel for heaven and hell, Lynch bases his binaries throughout the rest of this show off of this idea. Capitalizing on Levi-Strauss’ idea that one extreme cannot exist without the other, Lynch uses binaries as a tool with which to explore the darkness within the suburban landscape of America.
Claims and Subclaims
Through the use of three distinct binaries: doubling of female characters and their subsequent domestic abuse, the corruption of criminal men in power, and the escapist reality of fairy tales, Lynch uses his style as a film auteur to translate this style to television.
The first, and most obvious, is the doubling of the female persona. Using the double identities and/or secret lives of women allows David Lynch to explore the objectification and abuse they often endure as the result of sinister male forces. The idea of a double comes from gothic literature, and explains how “a single character possesses the duality to be both good and evil” (Strengell). Through the characters of Dorothy in Blue Velvet, Renee/Alice in Lost Highway, Betty/Diane and Rita/Camillia in Mulholland Drive, and Laura Palmer/Maddy Ferguson in Twin Peaks, Lynch uses the idea of “doubling” of explore the public and private personas of women (1986, 1997, 2001,1990). Through sexual objectification, domestic violence, and even multiple identities, Lynch is able to show the pressure faced by women as they are forced to reconcile private trauma with public persona.
Lynch uses a variety of female characters to explore this binary. The character of Dorothy Vallens, in Blue Velvet, is forced to become a sex slave to sadistic criminal Frank Booth and perform in a club as a means of protecting her son after her husband has been killed (1986). Similar is the case of Alice in Lost Highway – she has become property to crime boss Mr. Eddy, and forced to perform sexual favors for him, while her alter ego Renee is subjected to her husband’s impotence and eventual murder of her (1997). In Mulholland Drive, the dream of Diane Selwyn is a means of escaping her unrequited love for film star Camilla Rhodes, the personas of Betty Elms and Rita are created so that Diane might avoid her own misery and heartbreak after Camilla becomes engaged to a man (2001). In Twin Peaks, like Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, Lynch uses the same actress to portray both the murdered Laura Palmer and her eventually murdered cousin, Maddy Ferguson, at the hands of incestuous Leland Palmer/Killer BOB (1990). This use of the same actress as well as the exploring of double lives with Diane Selwyn and Laura Palmer allows for Lynch to explore the public and private nature of women’s objectification and sexual power as a pull to violent men.
However, some may view Lynch’s doubling of women not as an original idea, but a capitalization on the style of another distinct auteur: Alfred Hitchcock. It is certainly apparent in the mysteries of the 1940s and 1950s, most significantly in the Alfred Hitchcock films Vertigo, Marnie, Rebecca, and Psycho which all deal with women hiding their secret personal lives or assuming multiple identities as a means of escaping the men in their lives. While the idea of using a “new” persona or the same actress to portray women is certainly not a new concept, Lynch takes the idea and pushes it in a decidedly more surreal direction. Dorothy Vallens and Laura Palmer work at hiding their private lives as a means of survival, but Betty/Diane and Rita/Camilla, and Renee/Alice use the personas as a means of truly escaping violence. The plots of Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet are easily understood, but multiple meanings could be assigned to both Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, and the more obtuse elements of the films reflect a post-modernist sensibility that was not present in the films of Hitchcock. Hitchcock himself borrows the idea of doubling from gothic literature. Just as Hitchcock has auteur trademarks, so does Lynch, and his existence in a post-modernist society allows for much more emphasis on overt sexuality, perversion, violence, and dream elements including non-linear narrative.
Lynch’s idea of doubling is best seen in the character of Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks – her character exemplifies the idea of public and private personas created by Lynch. Through Laura’s secret diary and the back-story told within the prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the double life led by Laura is used as an example of the public and private lives women must conduct (1992). On the surface, Laura seems to be a perfect teenage girl: homecoming queen, tutor, Meals on Wheels liaison, kind and beautiful. But her secret life reveals a girl struggling with her sexuality and dealing with her incestuous relationship with her father, her cocaine habit, and her fatalist thoughts brought on by the misery of her life. By exploring both parts of Laura’s persona, Lynch is able to explore the ways in which women are forced to keep hidden parts of their femininity and sexuality.
A binary in and of themselves, the way in which Lynch characterizes men, specifically suburban men in power, serves the purpose of showing the extreme nature of good and evil – they are either wholly moral or wholly immoral – and these disparate characterizations allow for Lynch to explore the core forces that occur in American life. Like his doubling of female characters, Lynch also draws on the idea of doubling from gothic literature in order to show the good and evil within in all men (Strengell). With the use of Leland Palmer/Killer BOB, the Renault brothers, Benjamin Horne, Dale Cooper, and Big Ed in Twin Peaks, Mr. Eddy and Fred in Lost Highway, Frank Booth and Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet, and Adam Kesher and the Cowboy in Mulholland Drive, Lynch explores how male forces work upon his often female protagonists as antagonistic forces, or forces that ultimately fail them (1990, 1997, 1986, 2001). Most noticeably, the character differences between Agent Dale Cooper and Killer BOB in Twin Peaks explain the two moral opposites of good and evil Lynch explores throughout his work.
Dale Cooper and Leland Palmer/Killer BOB are stereotypical characters that explore the nature of good and evil in suburban America. Dale Cooper is a lawman, an FBI agent who believes in a good night’s sleep, a damn fine cup of coffee, Tibetan mysticism, and always doing the right thing, even when it requires great self-sacrifice. His polar opposite, the man he strives to catch, is Leland Palmer/Killer BOB, the dual persona who Cooper eventually determines killed Laura Palmer. Killer BOB is a murderer, an incestuous rapist who is committed only to hedonism and eventually murders several girls within the Washington state area. Killer BOB is an ancient evil, one that gets transferred from body to body and continues to perpetrate crimes. Dale Cooper is an everyman, a moral center, and a man who harkens back to gentlemanly gestures and a bygone era of honesty and chivalry. Therefore, when Killer BOB eventually inhabits Cooper’s body in the final episode of the series, “Beyond Life and Death,” his corruption is all the more devastating. This act exemplifies Lynch’s view as auteur that even the purest of men can be corrupted by the evil of other men.
We know the world does not exist in black and white, so Lynch’s idea of absolute good and absolute evil in terms of men is illogical and one-sided – the idea of absolutes in human nature is unrealistic, and most people fall somewhere in between the two extremes. While the idea of human nature and the acts man perpetrates is perhaps the most ancient of stories, the opposites of good and evil are explored in detail with each individual storyteller’s unique viewpoint on the world. Therefore, Lynch’s view of men as wholly good and wholly evil belongs to him as an auteur, and it is his personal vision that allows for this viewpoint.
As a means of allowing for his audience to have an “in” with which to observe the world of Twin Peaks, Lynch uses the idea of possession to explain how “good” men become evil. In both Lost Highway and Twin Peaks, the male protagonists of Fred Madison and Dale Cooper eventually become inhabited by evil men who force them to commit acts uncharacteristic to their nature (1997, 1990). The use of possession allows for the corruption of good men to seem less devastating since it is a force beyond their own control, and certainly harkens back to the idea of gothic possession (Strengell). It allows for the audience to feel more connected to the characters, but also creates a unique structure which does not allow for the typical happy ending. This structure is an auteur trademark of Lynch, and is apparent throughout his other work including Eraserhead and The Elephant Man.
Another way Lynch allows for his audience to connect to his style as an auteur is the suburban setting. It allows the audience to view his ideas of good and evil in a setting that is familiar to them – their own backyard. In Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, the setting of small towns in Northern Washington exposes how corruption and immorality permeate even the seemingly most idyllic of settings (1986, 1990). While Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive have urban settings, the male characters in each are not as corrupt and vile as Frank Booth in Blue Velvet and Leland Palmer/Killer BOB in Twin Peaks – both characters who exist within suburbia. In this way, Lynch explains the terror and dark side that comes from living in suburbia, and argues that it is even more dangerous than city living.
While the concept of doubling of the female identity finds its roots in film, and the corruption of suburban men in the very banal settings of small-towns that many Americans grew up with, Lynch’s final binary used to explore the world in Twin Peaks finds its roots in a more classical place: the fairy tale. It serves as the bridge between Lynch’s other two binaries, and the use of fairy tale mythology is central to the work of Lynch as an auteur. Elements of it allow for him to explore his concepts of idealization of female characters as well as his ideas about the extreme evil and good within men. The use of fairy tale elements including; Sleeping Beauty, The Wizard of Oz, white knights, and evil overlords are vital in much of David Lynch’s work and allows for some of his trademarks as an auteur (Jensen). As a means for exploring his sometimes horrific narrative content, Lynch brings in these fairy tale elements as a way to universalize some of his more surreal elements, and ground them in classical tales known to most individuals.
In terms of content, Lynch deals with very disturbing and mature themes: incest, drug use, rape, sexual violence, lesbianism, murder, the evils of big business, and the corruptible nature of men. As a means of decreasing the severity of these themes for viewers, he also includes elements of fairy tales including trapped women rescued by heroic, brave men, elements of the fantastic supernatural world, the magic of the wilderness, and to a lesser extent, ambiguously happy endings. Lynch grounds the mature themes in a way that makes them more tolerable to a general audience. These fairy tale elements are most apparent in Twin Peaks, which makes the most sense because it was a television show, which forced Lynch to tailor his own ideas as an auteur to fit a television audience instead of an art-house cinema crowd.
However, most stories draw on classical fairy tale elements, and the work of David Lynch is not unique in this viewpoint. Grimm’s Fairy Tales include many of the same dark and disturbing elements featured in the work of Lynch. While many other films and television shows do in fact incorporate fairy tale elements within their narrative structure, few do so in quite the same surreal way as Lynch. He combines elements of the real world with fairy tale elements without making concessions to either world – something other media often does. Lynch makes no mention of the surrealist incorporation of Glinda the Good Witch in Wild at Heart, or Cooper’s dreams in The Black Lodge in Twin Peaks – they are simply parts of the universe that exist without explanation or a reversion into total fantasy (1990).
Taking the idea of fairy tale one step further is the character of Laura Palmer, a stand-in for the fairy tale character of Sleeping Beauty. By using a classical fairy tale character, Lynch is able to connect a wider audience to Twin Peaks, and use a universally recognizable character to compel the viewer to watch the show. Sleeping Beauty is a perfect, untouched specimen of beauty, but dead to the world. The first shot of Laura Palmer, dead, blue, and wrapped in plastic is very similar to Sleeping Beauty in her glass coffin, and Lynch incorporates elements of her rape and sexual objectification as a means of updating the more disturbing, original fairy tale, and making it work within his universe of Twin Peaks. In this way, Lynch incorporates the disturbing elements of Laura’s incestuous rape and murder with a childhood story to make them more viewable by a larger audience. This also plays into Lynch’s ideas about the duality of women: he portrays Laura as both a mythical creature almost like Sleeping Beauty, but also a real, imperfect teenage girl.
As Laura Palmer allows Lynch to explore fairy tale through character, the setting of Twin Peaks in the wilderness – a classic fairy tale trope – serves the show in that it shows the power of the wild, creating an audience appeal that stands in contrast to the evil of the suburban men in power, and brings in a fantastic element that blends with the realism of the series (Jensen). Although the wild in the town of Twin Peaks opens the portal to the evil Black Lodge within the show’s final episode, it also allows access to the White Lodge, a place of supreme good. Here, the wilderness serves as a means for Lynch to further explore the extremes of good and evil which he also does with character. The wilderness becomes a place of magic, which contrasts to the “typical” suburban setting of the town of Twin Peaks, further exploring Lynch’s auteur trademark of duality within good and evil, urban and wild, and the roles women play.
The impact that Twin Peaks left on the television landscape forever cannot be underestimated. As the show celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 2010, major news outlets including The Guardian, NPR, and People Magazine offered retrospective features and interviews on the lasting legacy of the show, and online communities continue to canonize the show. In December 2010, the USA network series Psych dedicated an entire episode in homage to Twin Peaks, complete with many former cast members (Ausiello). The show has only grown in cult status, with the release of a “Gold Box” DVD set in 2007, including the previously unavailable European pilot episode, cast and crew interviews, and a variety of bonus features. Lynch’s continued popularity as a surrealist filmmaker has endured, most recently with the digitally shot Inland Empire in 2006, and forays into music with a Danger Mouse/Sparklehorse collaboration as well as his own pop singles.
Twin Peaks brought art-house surrealism to network television, due to David Lynch’s unique visions as an auteur. Through his use of binaries as a narrative technique, Lynch told a darkly compelling tale of the evil lurking within suburban America and the very people we call neighbors. Because of its particular appeal as a quirky cult television show, Twin Peaks will live on in the collective television unconscious, just as Laura Palmer has, forever wrapped in plastic.
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by Laura E. Crook
Character and plot are the backbone of any narrative story. Aristotle was the first theorist to apply the three act structure of narrative to storytelling – a structure that has been faithfully applied to nearly every story in every medium since. Aristotle was a big advocate for the importance of plot, but narrative stories have changed and shifted since 335 BCE. Consequently, other elements of narration have eclipsed plot, such as character. There are still many forms of media that are plot-driven, but television in general has become interested in character’s complex relationships. The works of auteur Joss Whedon are not driven by plot, as many other narrative stories are. Instead, the driving force in his body of work are his characters, which can be seen in their relatable character traits, their complexity and their endurance as icons in popular culture.
Auteur theory began with French New Wave cinema. It is a French term meaning “authorship.” That is, the author’s “vision and personality are ‘written’ into the text” (Auteur Criticism). The phrase “auteur” is usually used to describe works of art that are collaborative, such as film and television. Auteur theory explains “that in the presence of a director who is genuinely an artist (an auteur) a film is more than likely to be the expression of his individual personality; and that this personality can be traced in a thematic and/or stylistic consistency over all (or almost all) the director’s films” (Caughie 9). In a way, an auteur is the person who holds the vision that has been stamped on a film or television show. While the auteur in film is usually the director, the auteur in television is anyone who has primary creative control over the show–often someone called the show-runner, who doubles as executive producer and generally writes and directs several episodes per season.
Auteur theory in TV primarily asks the question who is the auteur? In a medium that is largely collaborative, an auteur can be a writer, a director or a producer (often, they are all three). Auteur theory also determines the patterns that appear in the television series. What is the auteur trying to “work through” in his or her text? One example of a television auteur is Joss Whedon, a producer, writer and director. Whedon created four television shows, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse. Whedon’s works are largely character-based. Though plot is important, it is the incredibly complex characters that he has created that move his stories forward. Some of Whedon’s patterns include ensemble casts, often lead by a female character, who must face supernatural or futuristic conflicts. In short, Whedon creates extra-ordinary characters (that is, characters that rise above the ordinary) in an ordinary, everyday world.
The characters in many of Joss Whedon’s TV shows are gritty and unglamorous. It is this realism that allows the audience to become attached to them. They make mistakes, they have fights and they can be cruel to each other. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), a series that featured over fifteen main characters in its run of seven seasons, is a virtual cesspool of messy, flawed characters. The show follows the titular character, Buffy Summers, as she navigates high school and beyond while juggling a higher calling – that of a vampire slayer.
One of Buffy’s messier situations is her relationship with Angel, a vampire and Buffy’s “ironic true love” (Shepherd 246). In the thirteenth episode of season two (Noxon and Lange “Surprise”), Buffy and Angel sleep together for the first time. Afterwards, Angel literally turns into a monster. “When [Angel] finds a moment’s true happiness, his soul is once again exiled and the demon takes his place” (Wilcox 21). Angel spends the rest of the season stalking Buffy, terrorizing her and her friends. Buffy’s predicament creates a safe distance from reality, while still remaining identifiable.
In season three, Buffy discusses her failed relationship with Angel with a school counselor, a man who has no idea that the ex-boyfriend in question is a vampire. When Buffy gives him the background of her relationship, he finishes her sentences for her. “‘I loved him and then he–‘ ‘Changed. …He got mean. …and you didn’t stop loving him’” (Noxon and Whitmore “Beauty and the Beasts). Not many women can claim that their vampire lover turned on them, but how many can identify with the idea of a man changing drastically, and hurtfully? Such as the nature of Whedon’s characters – using science fiction as a safety net, he allows his viewers to identify with the more difficult and painful aspects of his characters’ lives.
Whedon’s characters are complex – nearly as complicated as living human beings. After all, “anecdotal and research evidence suggest that the characters who populate the programs play a key role in generating and maintaining audiences” (Hoffner and Buchanan 325), so the characters should be interesting enough to bring people back for more. “Many television executives believe that the presence of likable, intriguing characters is a key component of a successful program” (Hoffner and Buchanan 326). Occasionally this complexity can lead fans and viewers to identify with their favorite characters as “real.” The human race is, by nature, social, and so people feel the need to form connections in every area of their lives -including television. “People have a fundamental need to form connections with other people, and television offers audience members access to a wide range of other human beings” (Hoffner and Buchanan 326). Characters can become real to the viewer in a way that a plot cannot. This is largely because of the complex nature of the characters. “It is… possible (and plausible) that participants came to initially favor characters that seemed more real to them” (Gardner and Knowles 164). In this case, the phrase “seemed more real” is applied to the complexity of Whedon’s characters, in the same way that non-fictional people are complex.
To understand reality, and thus how a fictional person can become real, one must look into Robert Fiske’s reality code. The idea of code rises out of semiotics (the study of signs, signifiers and their symbolism). “A code is a system of signs that is able to communicate meanings” (O’Donnell 156). Fiske devised three levels of code, the first of which is reality. The reality code relates to appearance: “skin color, clothing… facial expressions and gestures” (O’Donnell 156); speech: “spoken language, accent, dialect” (O’Donnell 156) and settings. These aspects, when used in television, denote what is real and recognizable to the viewer.
Similarly, Wendi L. Gardner and Megan L. Knowles conducted a study on what it would take for a favorite character to be perceived as “real” in a social facilitation paradigm. Their results found that “greater knowledge of the character contributed significantly to perceived realness” (161). Thus, the more complex back-story a character has been given, the more likely it is that a viewer will perceive that character as real.
One of Whedon’s most complex characters is Spike, a vampire that appears in both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Spike first appearance on the show was in season two, as a villain. He returned in season four, “neutered” by the government with a computer chip in his brain, and became a member of Buffy’s gang. By season five, Spike had fallen in love with Buffy. In season six they entered into a sexual relationship. Toward the end of season six, Spike unsuccessfully attempted to rape Buffy, causing him to travel to South America to atone for his actions. Spike returned to Sunnydale in season seven – the final season of Buffy – with a soul and a tortured realization of how great a monster he truly was. After the events on Buffy, Spike moved to LA and became a regular on the fifth season of Angel.
Spike’s complexity as a character lies in his relationship with the women in his life, most notably his mother; Cecily, Spike’s first unrequited love; Drusilla, the woman who turned Spike into a vampire; and Buffy herself. Spike’s curse is that he is never “good enough” for these women. He loved his mother, but she was ill and all she wanted was for Spike (known as William when he was alive) to find a woman and become independent. Spike found Cecily, who never loved him and informed him that “you’re beneath me” (Petrie and Marck “Fool For Love”). In his depression, Spike became susceptible to the advances of Drusilla, a vampire, who offered to make Spike “special” – an offer he accepted. Spike and Drusilla were together for over a century, but Drusilla would routinely abandon Spike in favor of Angel, the vampire who created her.
Once he fell in love with Buffy, Spike was used to being shunted by the women he pursued. Buffy routinely pushed Spike away, citing his lack of a soul as a reason why she could never love him. Even when they entered into a relationship, it was purely physical; Spike was always last in Buffy’s affections, after her family, her friends and her slaying. Spike’s complexity brings a reality to his characters that is not found in Whedon’s storylines (after all, Buffy is a television show about vampires). This reality and level of identification means that the characters are more relatable than the plot.
Whedon’s characters have endured the years and joined the ranks of the pop culture icons. This is primarily due to the relationships that have been developed between the fictional characters and their adoring fans. Cynthia Hoffner and Martha Buchanan conducted a study exploring the degree of “wishful identification” in young adults. Wishful identification is here defined as “the desire to be like or act like the character” (325).
However, in Hoffner and Buchanan’s results, they discovered that “wishful identification is also influenced by the manner in which characters are portrayed… Viewers assess characters’ personality traits and develop impressions and expectations of their behaviors” (329). Some of the personality traits that were explored were intelligence, success, attractiveness and humor (330). Overall, the study found that “men identified with male characters whom they perceived as successful, intelligent, and violent, whereas women identified with female characters whom they perceived as successful, intelligent, attractive, and admired” (342). Looking at these results in comparison to the characters in Whedon’s cult-classic Firefly, it is easy to see how the series has received post-cancellation popularity.
Firefly, Whedon’s third television series, ventures into space, all the while retaining the familiar themes found in classic western films. The show centers around Mal Reynolds, the captain of a space-ship called Serenity. His crew of misfits include Wash, a playful pilot; Zoë, Mal’s tough as nails second-in-command and Wash’s wife; Jayne, a crude hired gun; Kaylee, a sweet and bubbly mechanic; Inara, the high-class, geisha-esque working girl; Simon, the intelligent, if somewhat dense, ship doctor; River, Simon’s crazy, fugitive little sister and Shepherd Book, the kind, mysterious traveling preacher-man in the midst of atheists. Through two of the most popular characters on Firefly, Mal Reynolds and River Tam, one can see that Hoffner and Buchanan’s study applies to Firefly’s fan-base.
Mal Reynolds is the captain of a space ship named Serenity. Mal is a struggling smuggler – at first glance he seems like a loser, not someone who would incite wishful identification in the mind of his viewers. However Mal is successful, just not successful in the definition that many people use. Hoffner and Buchanan defined success as “the achievement of a desired goal or reward, often as the result of one’s own actions” (330). Mal’s success lies in his ability to survive anything. Mal always comes up on top, no matter what the situation might be. In the season one episode “Out of Gas,” Mal struggles to save his crew, his ship, and his own life when an explosion knocks out the life support that supplies the ship with air. Mal sent his crew away in the shuttles, eliminating the number of people consuming air and lengthening the amount of time he would have to solve the problem. Mal discovered the part needed to replace the engine, received it from a passing space ship that caught his distress signal, and got shot for his trouble. Even as he bled to death, Mal’s persistence allowed him to succeed in his goal: to live, to save his crew and to salvage his beloved space ship, Serenity.
Mal is also admired, which was another important character trait according to the participants in Hoffner and Buchanan’s study. Mal is the captain of his ship–every other character falls below him in the hierarchy created by Firefly. His crew is not adverse to arguing or disagreeing with Mal, but in the end they always trust his decisions. One character in particular, the hired gun named Jayne, consistently tries to undermine Mal’s authority. However, Jayne always backs down and acknowledges Mal as the alpha male, which demonstrates his admiration. In the pilot episode, “Serenity,” Jayne pushes the boundaries by teasing Kaylee, the mechanic, about her crush on Simon. Mal utters one line: “Jayne, you walk away from this table, right now” (Whedon “Serenity”). This line, coupled with a steady glare, causes Jayne to retreat. Jayne is not a timid man – his collection of weapons is extensive, and he has no qualms against using them. His respect and admiration for Mal outweighs his desire for power.
Hoffner and Buchanan found that attractiveness was an important factor for female viewers to identify with female characters. Attractiveness is, of course, a deeply subjective concept. However, according to current standards of beauty, River Tam (portrayed by Summer Glau), is definitely attractive. Her features are dainty and her body is slender. River is a dancer, and she moves with a dancer’s grace that adds to her beauty. River is also a genius, and her extreme intelligence manifests itself in her speech and actions. In the episode “Safe,” Mal offhandedly remarks that River can shout until she makes their ears bleed. River informs him that “The human body can be drained of blood in 8.6 seconds given adequate vacuuming systems” (Greenburg and Grossman “Safe”). Nearly every line River delivers illustrates her intelligence.
Mal and River are successful, admirable, attractive and intelligent–all traits that are connected to the idea of wishful identification. Mal and River only scratch the surface of the complexity of Joss Whedon’s characters – all of his characters touch on at least one, if not more, of the primary traits found to incite wishful identification in viewers. In this way, Whedon’s characters connect to his viewers in a way that plot cannot.
Television has not abandoned Aristotle and his ideas about plot. Instead, it has surpassed him. No longer are storytellers concerned with a logical progression of plot, or even of plot at all. Now, characters are the forerunners of television, not plot or narration. People dress and speak like their favorite characters; sometimes they even cut and dye their hair to imitate these beloved, fictional, people (Hoffner and Buchanan 327). Plot is second to character, and no one expresses this through television quite like Joss Whedon.
Auteur Criticism. Chapter 9. 231-242. Print.
“Beauty and the Beasts.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Three. Writ. Marti Noxon. Dir. James Whitmore Jr. WB. 20 October 1998. Warner Bros, 2003. DVD.
Caughie, John. Theories of Authorship. London: Routledge, 1981. Print.
“Fool For Love.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five. Writ. Doug Petrie. Dir. Nick Marck. WB. 14 November 2000. Warner Bros, 2000. DVD.
Gardner, Wendi L., and Megan L. Knowles. “Love Makes You Real: Favorite Television Characters are Perceived as ‘Real’ in a Social Facilitation Paradigm.” Social Cognition. 26.2 (2008): 156-68. Print.
Hoffner, Cynthia, and Martha Buchanan. “Young Adults’ Wishful Identification With Television Characters: The Role of Perceived Similarity and Character Attributes.” Media Psychology. 7. (2005): 325-51. Print.
O’Donnell, Victoria. Television Criticism. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 2007. Print.
“Safe.” Firefly, Season One. Writ. Drew Z. Greenburg. Dir. Michael Grossman. Fox. 8 November 2002. Fox. DVD.
“Serenity.” Firefly, Season One. Writ. Joss Whedon. Dir. Joss Whedon. Fox. 20 December 2002. Fox. DVD.
Shepherd, Laura J. “Morality, Legality and Gender Violence in Angel.” Journal of Gender Studies. 18.3 (2009): 245-59. Print.
“Surprise.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Two. Writ. Marti Noxon. Dir. Michael Lange. WB. 19 January 1998. Warner Bros, 1998. DVD.
Wilcox, Rhonda. “There Will Never Be a ‘Very Special’ Buffy: Buffy and the Monsters of Teen Life.” Journal of Popular Film and Television. (1999): 16-23. Print.
by Adam Adcock
Throughout television history, there has been a vast change in traditions and values in our society. Media is a powerful tool of persuasion that changes the way we see morality, our ideologies, and the way we view one another. One of the most significant changes since television has become mainstream in the 1950’s is the way an entire television audience chooses to view and acknowledge a traditional family (Castleman). When audiences see their favorite television families and how they act on the screen, it show influences the viewers and ultimately, transforms the design and makeup of the traditional family, gender roles, and its values. The mixing of taboo with popular culture allows television to present new ideas.
When classifying anything, in particular television shows, we use Genre Theory. Genre comes from the French term for “group”, “family”, “genus”, or “type”. As a television audience, it is important to know this theory because it will help classify shows making them easier to find through the hundreds of channels in circulation. Television production is completely dependent on this theory and it is central to the organization and structure of the industry (O’Donnell). Television’s characters use Genre Theory in a similar way by means of “archetypes.” Archetypes are generated when characters are portrayed with recurrent patterns of actions that an audience sees subconsciously and relates that action with those of other characters (O’Donnell). An example of an archetype would be “the hero”. “The hero” can be classified as any character that overcomes an obstacle in pursuit of a goal that usually is for the good of his community or the entire world (O’Donnell). Jack from Lost is a prime example of this “hero” archetype. He takes it upon himself to become leader after his plane crashes on a deserted island leaving a number of survivors. He is a doctor and makes it his goal to help those in need of medical assistance after the catastrophe, thus benefitting the community on the island. Archetypes we see today are merely prototypes of original characters within myths such as the original hero, Hercules (O’Donnell).
One genre within television that changes the most is the traditional television family and what audiences view as a “family show”. Television in the 1950s reveals a family who consists of a working father, a stay-at-home mother, one boy usually involved in sports, and a girl who lives for one thing; a date for the weekend. These are all stock characters. Cast in a family pet and wacky neighbors and audiences now have the basic formula for a sitcom. The audience lacks a sense of complexity and character development however due to governmental restrictions on subject matter (McMahon). “Television was new to families at this point and like all new guests in people’s houses, it must act as just that; a guest with respect and a consciousness of morality.” (Castleman 10)
In the show I Love Lucy, we are introduced to the Arnaz family. At first glance, we see traditional family construction, which was a stay-at-home wife, a working father, and the wacky neighbors, but with a few twists. The neighbors were the Arnaz’s landlords, the husband was a Cuban singer, Lucy actually had dreams of being something other than a wife, and the house in which they live is not in Suburbia, but in a one-bedroom apartment downtown. This specific change reflects the history at this time as millions of families were leaving the cities and migrating to suburbia to raise their families. Only the husbands travel to the cities to work and then return home to their families residing in the suburbs (Lawson).
Up until now, audiences nationwide have grown accustomed to seeing the nuclear family shown in shows such as Father Knows Best. America was ready for a change. The typical family was white, middle class, following specific gender roles, and was “nuclear.” On the other hand, why did I Love Lucy gain such a large amount of success if it was so different and taboo? Lucy was the first woman to ever be shown on the television pregnant. It was considered taboo in television’s first years (Castleman). Even though Lucy appears pregnant in some episodes, and the fact that the network airs the scene of her giving birth the very same day she physically gives birth to her real life son, the cast never is allowed to use the word “pregnant.” Characters referred to Lucy’s pregnancy as her “condition” (Castleman).
So why is the word “pregnancy” such a huge milestone to overcome for the FCC? The network’s ultimate goal, at this time, is to not offend anyone with their themes aesthetics in hopes that sponsors will buy advertising slots within their specific programming. Such subject matter as pregnancy could be seen as mature content not suitable for some viewers. Sexual intercourse is part of pregnancy, and could deter viewers from watching, thus ratings would falter, and in essence, the ad agencies would not be getting their money’s worth in audience numbers (potential buyers of their products). However, Lucy’s childbirth airing and the show resuming its critical acclaim proves that America is ready to see the pregnant women’s story giving way for other taboos to infiltrate the television waves.
After Lucy’s childbirth episode, audiences are able to see how a family develops and are not just being thrown into a family with no back-story. With I Love Lucy, we witnessed the world of the Ricardo family before, during, and after the birth of their son. Television was changing from a typical “dreamlike” family that almost rarely existed, to a more accurate depiction of the postmodern family. One example would be The Mary Tyler Moore Show. First debuting in 1970, the show gives America its first glimpse of a family of one. There was one woman, Mary, who is “making it on her own” (as the opening theme song states). Family values change in the 1970s and this show depicts this change truthfully. Suddenly, it is ok for a woman to be a woman, without the title of ‘mother’, making it possible for them to gain success without the help from a man (Douglas).
The 1970s era marks the height of the feminist movement and the goal of women to gain their own independence from men (Lawson). Women’s issues are not being taken so lightly at this point. Many women consider the original theme song of The Mary Tyler Moore Show controversial because of its lyrics, “You might just make it after all” (Heide). By season two, the lyrics change to “You’re gonna make it after all.” The word “might” depicts feelings of doubt in a time when women were liberated to definitely making it to success. While being a mother is a huge accomplishment for women, and still a goal, there is a niche demographic of women at this time who want more in life than “The American Dream.” Now, women are aspiring to become doctors, lawyers, actresses, etc., without children, or a husband holding them back. Mary Tyler Moore pioneers the way for women to do just this. Still, television shows are depicting the television family as traditional with their stock characters, but giving the genre more leeway to revolutionize. We see these post-modern ideologies being illustrated on television, so our own lives become less taboo. Single women can feel proud to be single and not “stuck” in a family because “if Mary Tyler Moore does it, then so can I.” That is how powerful television is.
Another television show that is responsible for the transitioning of family tradition is Married…With Children. In this sitcom, we witness the lives of the Bundy family. They are the first family to introduce dysfunction amongst family with a comedic ‘raunch’ (Castleman). In each episode, Al, the husband/father figure, returns home from his job selling women’s shoes and reflects on how much he hates this career. He usually begins with a bantering story such as, “So a fat woman came into the shoe store today.” In the late 80s early 90s when the show is at its peek, the storylines and scripts are fresh and original, and attracting a large audience. Families are starting to move away from the modern ideologies of gender roles, values, and life lessons, and starting to see more androgyny amongst families (Douglas). The Bundys piece together the missing link between the modern and post-modern family because now we see the father actually mad and fed up at the wife’s laziness and ambition to be a stay-at-home mother. There is so much irony behind the gender roles here because these characters are similar to their 50’s stock characters, but polar opposites in its representational values. Peggy Bundy, the housewife, is the epitome of laziness. She lives by the idea that the woman’s place is the home. It isn’t necessarily that she believes in the traditional female role of “housewife” but it is just the convenience of the privilege (Stacey, 1996). Peggy sits on the couch watching Oprah all day eating bonbons and finds refuge in running up Al’s credit card bill while abusing the Home Shopping Network. She never cooks, never cleans, and especially never claims her children. She represents a new version of “housewife”, as “the waste of space.” Al Bundy tries to earn money at his job selling shoes. The irony behind this characteristic is that now the father figure is depicting the idea of being forced to support his family financially, rather than enjoying the pride within the accomplishment (Stacey). Al despises his wife’s work ethic and hates giving all of his money away to his family. He holds a job that is traditional in the fact that he is destined to be there till retirement, but lives paycheck to paycheck never seeming to get ahead. In his own words, his family “sucks him dry” and he never receives anything in return.
The Bundy family sparks an array of other shows with similar characters. The networks are beginning to change the stock characters that we see today. We see the typical “dumb oaf father” in shows such as Family Guy, The Cleveland Show, and The Simpsons. We see one dumb kid, one smart kid, and a stay-at-home mother. We also are introduced to the personified dog in Married…With Children. Buck becomes a main character featuring voice over. He is also, coincidentally, the only one with the common sense in the house. This is said to be where the idea of Bryan the dog from Family Guy originates (Castleman). These animals have always been present in the sitcoms, but in post-modern television, they get to be a bigger part of the shows with episodes featuring them as the main character. They can talk, and nowadays, even offer advice for their human counterparts.
This new form of family, challenges the modern, traditional family saying “life just cannot be that perfect.” Now it is okay for a father to vent about his problems at home with his friends over a beer (Kelly, 1995). This new form of television sitcom forces us out of our comfort zones. Now, families can sit down, relax and watch families bicker and fight, while finding humor in the storyline since this is accurate. Families can expect imperfections because, “if they can do it on television, then it must be okay” (Stacey).
Fathers, after shows such as Married… With Children, Unhappily Ever After, and The Simpsons hit the airwaves, are starting to feel less pressure with always having to be right. It makes perfect sense. Homer Simpson is a beer guzzling fool in most of the episodes of The Simpsons who almost never has a right answer for anything. The same setup is shown within Peter Griffin from Family Guy. Al Bundy is a public figure on television living paycheck-to-paycheck complaining about his deadbeat family, but loved them nonetheless. The definition of archetype states that a recurring character trait is what gives archetypes new characteristics and room for change. After the Bundys we are introduced to the Connor family in Roseanne, where Dan Connor is also struggling to make ends meet and does not always provide the right answers. This imperfection is now the new standard for fathers around the United States (Castleman). When fathers depict the notion that they should have all the right answers and be as perfect as possible, fathers struggle with intense complexes and self-esteem issues if they for some reason lacked a right answer or guided their child in the wrong direction accidentally (Kelly). Perhaps they cannot afford to send their children to college, like in the Utopia that the 50s television sitcoms portray. Finally, it is okay. This is how strong the television sitcoms are. They can change the way entire populations see themselves. It has changed the ideology that family life is perfect life.
Apparently the world is now once again ready for a next step in family television. “It started with Archie Bunker in All in the Family making his racist remarks and establishing some of today’s stereotypes” (Stacey 109). This show introduces the world to stereotypes in the African-American, homosexual, and immigrant cultures. This new type of family sparks controversy even today, but it also introduced the tension between a white family with bigot ideologies, and them dealing with the new African-American family that moves in next door (The Jeffersons). This is one of the milestones of integration in television in the 1970s (Castleman).
Along with stereotypes, we also get a look at gender role reversal in shows such as Who’s the Boss. We have a man who is the epitome of the male “machismo” prototype, but he is thrown into a successful woman’s household as a housekeeper. For the love of his daughter, he moves to get her out of the dangers of the Bronx. He takes whatever job he can find elsewhere. He transforms from star of the Cardinals baseball team to live-in housekeeper cooking three meals a day and incorporating life lessons he has learned throughout his rough life, into this upper-class household. These shows are pioneers of their kind and are something that audiences have never seen before. The history of television illustrates the reasoning behind their success. They go against the norm and strike up controversy and conversation through their storytelling. The aesthetics behind each storyline is so complex because we haven’t seen them until now.
If you trace the history of television, you will witness the history of America. Shows such as Married…With Children, Family Guy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, and Modern Family challenge tradition paving the way for genres in television to morph and transition (O’Donnell). The nuclear family is one genre that has changed the most, but what if Mary Tyler Moore had not made it after all, without the help of a man (Heide, 1995)? What if Lucy’s “condition” was not aired (Castleman)? Would women have the same amount of power as today? Television changes as society transforms. America is now able to see these dysfunctional families as depicted in Married…With Children and their post-modern problems and relate, rather than strive to become the perfect, “nuclear” family (Stacey). The weight is taken off of our fathers with characters in Al Bundy and Homer Simpson, depicting a sense of accuracy within family. Our mothers have different standards to uphold with much more slack, and room for being right. Our sons can be free to be gay and our daughters can get pregnant on Prom night, and know that “we all make mistakes sometimes. Look at what happened to ___”. The world would be a much different place without these shows transitioning family values from modern suburbia and the nuclear family archetype into a post-modern, imperfect prototype. What is in store for family television? Is there anything left to uncover? Taboos are being unveiled every day and it gets harder to offend or shock anyone. Perhaps this post post-modern era we live in today marks the end of the traditional family transformation. What if there is not anything left to change? Will we grow bored of this new permanent family if more elements are not introduced to this genre? Will eternal writer’s block from television writers and the lack of new ideas embark a fate meaning the end of family evolution? Only time will tell.
Castleman, Harry, and Walter Podrazik. Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2003.
Douglas, William. Television Families: Is Something Wrong in Suburbia? Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003.
Heide, Margaret J. Television Culture and Women’s Lives: Thirty-Something and the Contradictions of Gender. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.
Kelly, Janice. “Fathers and the Media: Introduction to the Special Issue.” Fathering: A Journal of Theory, Research, & Practice about Men as Fathers 7.2 (2009): 107-113. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 18 Feb. 2010.
Lawson, Alan. The American Promise: A Compact History. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007.
O’Donnell, Victoria. Television Criticism. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, Inc, 2007.
Stacey, Judith. In the Name of the Family: Rethinking Family Values in the Postmodern Age. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1996.