In Pop Punishment, Louis Peitzman endures the most derided genre films, television, and literature, all for your sadistic pleasure.
Few phrases fill my heart with dread quite like "Special Guest Star Bai Ling." Some people can't seem to get enough of her bizarre brand of Bai Ling-ness. (Have you read her website? Here's a sample: "Yes its true this is what I do this is what I do the best to seduce you with the nakedness naked emotion naked heart naked mind and naked confession naked.") Personally, I can't stand her, and that has little to do with her freestyle poetry. My beef with Bai is her nasty habit of appearing in misguided episodes of my favorite genre series.
I say "habit," but I'm really only referring to Lost and Angel. Since I can't bring myself to revisit "Stranger in a Strange Land"-the origin story of Jack's tattoo!-I'll stick with tearing apart the latter. In "She," Bai Ling plays Jhiera, a princess from the Oden Tal dimension. She arrives in Los Angeles by way of a portal, seeking refuge for the subjugated women of her world. In Oden Tal, personality and passion is held in the "ko," a ridge extending down the women's backs. Bodies are beautiful, but it's honestly kind of weird looking. By cutting the ko, the Oden Tal men can control the women and keep them as slaves. That's right, "She" is an unsubtle metaphor for female genital mutilation.
It's not that I don't recognize the importance of spreading awareness and bringing an end to such a horrific act-I just question the ability of a show like Angel to take it on. There's something so tacky about the way the episode exploits the real-life practice for a relatively forgettable story about a dimension we never hear of again. And while I think the point was to make Jhiera a strong, independent woman-one who warns Angel to stay out her way-she still ends up getting rescued by the vampire detective right before getting her ko clipped. Sure, sometimes even extradimensional princesses need saving, but it would have left a better taste in my mouth if, I don't know, Buffy had done the heavy lifting.
What bothers me most about "She" is its depiction of sexualized women as wild and dangerous. While it certainly doesn't justify the Oden Tal men's behavior, the episode does have a strange way of showing that it sides with the women. Jhiera explains that when the female members of her people reach a certain age, they're aggressive and unstable. "When the ko first matures," she says, "the girls can't manage it. … We come to your world in a fever." They can burn men from the inside out. (We see this early on in the episode, and the dude's eyeballs explode. Not sexy at all.)
And yeah, according to Jhiera, Oden Tal women do eventually settle down, but only after they're kept in ice baths for a while. Meanwhile, her ko throbs and glows red whenever she's around Angel, which makes her self-control suspect. Maybe there's a parallel to be drawn between Jhiera's hopeless passions and Angel's-back in Season 1, the operating theory was that sex with anyone would release Angelus-but it's oddly drawn. And why is it necessary to keep panning back to Jhiera's glowing red ladyparts? It's not like the camera ever zooms in on Angel's boner.
"She" is a bad episode, but I don't want to suggest that the series condones female genital mutilation. That's a ridiculous reading and probably something of an overreaction. Still, writers David Greenwalt and Marti Noxon should have been a bit more cautious of the episode's ultimate message. There's something disconcerting about the fact that these women's kos do make them violent and threatening: I'm not comfortable with the Oden Tal men having any legitimate reason to do what they do. Luckily, they're such relentless douchebags that we accept them as the bad guys. I mean, they call women "it" and strut around like total bros. So, yes, we know "She" is taking a stance against ko removal, but it should never have presented the ko as something scary and eyeball-exploding in the first place.
The episode does, of course, have a few redeeming moments, namely Angel being a spaz. The Angel dance is the stuff GIF dreams are made of-it's a real tragedy Tumblr wasn't around back in 2000. We're also treated to Angel's complete inability to use a cell phone and talk to women. Seriously, when was this guy ever considered cool? Otherwise, "She" is a low point of the first season. The only saving grace was that the producers decided not to do the follow-up episode they had originally planned. Yes, Bai Ling was on board.
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