We're All Mad Here: Institutionalization in the Whedon-verse

Anna Pearce
View profile »

There are several things you can count on seeing in a series created by Joss Whedon. There will be witty banter. There will likely be some awesome fight scenes where a woman kicks ass and takes names. There will often be a brunette who, beaten down by society, will at some point wander around in bare feet. There will be absent fathers. But Whedon’s work also continually and interestingly explores the idea of institutionalization as a form of controlling and punishing women. There are several women who are institutionalized in Whedon’s work.

In Buffy, there’s Buffy herself, who discusses having been institutionalized after the events of the Buffy movie; she hallucinates being institutionalized a second time in the episode “Normal Again.” Across Buffy and Angel, we learn of Drusilla’s past. She initially joined a convent before Angelus, obsessed with her purity, hunted her down and drove her insane by torturing and killing the other members of the convent in front of her. Also across both series, we see Faith, described by multiple people associated with the Buffy-verse as “insane” or “crazy,” learn to take responsibility for her actions; part of this involves spending time in prison for her crimes. In Angel, the fifth season episode “Damages” introduces potential Slayer Dana, who again was tortured into insanity. When she gains Slayer powers she escapes from the asylum she was placed into, until she is later captured by Angel and taken by the Council of Watchers to points unknown.

In Firefly, River Tam is experimented on by the military industrial complex until driven crazy while her parents believe she’s at a high quality school for gifted youngsters. In Dollhouse (if one puts aside the legitimate interpretation that all of the Dolls have been institutionalized), Sierra (nee Priya) turns out to have been drugged into “insanity” by a scorned man, and is later put in the Dollhouse as a new Doll for Topher to imprint. When he realizes in “Belonging” that she didn’t actually have schizophrenia, he is horrified and repentant. And, of course, that series ends with Topher having been “driven mad” by guilt. Across all of Whedon’s genre shows, we see exploration of issues of sanity, insanity, and institutionalization, especially as it pertains to women’s experiences.

Buffy, wearing hospital clothes, sit on a tiny bed between her parents. She looks scared and vulnerable.

Sometimes these women are institutionalized to shut them up or keep them out of the way. Buffy’s hallucination in “Normal Again” is brought on by the Trio wanting to eliminate her. Dru’s insanity makes her not only unable to accuse Angelus of his crimes against her, her family, and her fellow members of the convent, but also makes her a perfect victim to sire as a vampire. River’s insanity makes it impossible for her to properly accuse the military men who experimented on her. Sierra is essentially put on ice for the amusement of her rapist, and by having her institutionalized in the Dollhouse, he keeps her from accusing him publicly of his crimes—assuming anyone would believe a “schizophrenic” in the first place. With Faith, her institutionalization is supposed to be a form of atonement, a way of beginning on the correct path. She’s guided there by Angel, who views her as someone he needs to save as part of his own redemption.

What I believe Whedon wants to explore in these works is how institutionalized power—and in Whedon’s work, this power is always wielded by men—can be used to abuse women. Like in Sucker Punch, we see how this can lead to rape, to physical violence, and to the destruction of a woman’s entire life. However, in these same works Whedon perpetuates a lot of stereotypes about what insanity looks like. “Insane” women are almost always violent. Buffy is driven by her insanity to try and murder everyone she loves so she can “let go” of the Sunnydale “delusion.” Drusilla is, of course, violent throughout her run in both shows, delighting in torturing others while muttering “insane” prophecies that may or may not be insightful. Faith is “crazy” because she’s violent and murders people, putting her trust in the Mayor, the first adult who doesn’t insult or belittle her. Dana is first seen violently tearing apart an insane asylum, and then murders a number of people and cuts off Spike’s hands. River is randomly violent against the crew of Serenity, using both a gun and a knife in her attacks—she spends a lot of the early series being drugged and muttering nonsense that may or may not be insightful. While Sierra isn’t violent, she is kept highly drugged in the asylum that Topher finds her in, and then, when released from the Dollhouse, murders the man who sent her there. Afterward, she begs Topher to make her a Doll again so she doesn’t need to feel guilty.

Whedon’s works also express the idea that what happens in an asylum is bad… if it’s happening to someone who is actually “sane.” People who are only temporarily “insane,” as Buffy is in “Normal Again” and Sierra is in “Belonging,” are our heroines, and what happens to them is wrong. Faith is “insane” and violent, and thus must spend time in prison. When she’s no longer an antagonist, she breaks out of prison to help save the day with the other heroes of Buffy, cured of her “insanity.” Both River and Dana are presented as victims of terrible crimes. River is given an entire story arc to show her true personality shining through, while Dana ends up drugged and tied up, never to be seen again. Drusilla is always crazy, always will be crazy, and is a long-running antagonist across both Buffy and Angel.

We also see that part of the tragedy of what happens to Whedon’s heroines is that they are sane when they’re experimented on, as River and Sierra are. The underlying message, especially in Sierra’s story in “Belonging,” is that her being forcibly and painfully experimented on is tragic because she doesn’t actually have schizophrenia, not because it’s wrong to experiment on people who can’t meaningfully consent. Topher’s guilt isn’t that he imprinted a new personality on her, it’s that she wasn’t crazy enough to make that okay—an attitude one can see replicated in reading lists of unethical human experimentation in the US. (This list also includes experiments on prisoners, people who are considered to be “dying” in hospital [many lived well beyond the experiments], and soldiers. Many of the experiments were explicitly carried out on people of color, both those who fit into the other criteria and those who were deemed healthy. It’s a sobering list.) What I find troubling in this is that Whedon, especially in Buffy, likes to take real-life situations and supernatural them up. High school is literally hell. You have sex with a dude and he literally is a different person the next day. Your teacher literally is a monster. However, abuse in asylums is a real situation that happens to real people, and the theory that what happens to “crazy” people is okay because they’re “crazy” isn’t somehow limited to the past. As well, by continually presenting his heroines as completely sane—unless driven insane by circumstances outside of their control—Whedon is telling us again and again that real heroines can’t possibly be crazy as well. Real heroines are sane, or are fighting to be so. Crazy women are violent, and need to be locked up for their own good.

I like that Whedon explicitly explores the idea of institutionalization as an abusive mechanism that can be used to shut up “uppity” women, and, unlike Snyder in Sucker Punch, Whedon doesn’t make asylums sexy. In “Normal Again,” “crazy” Buffy looks haggard and worn out, as does Dana in “Damages.” Sierra is hardly able to keep her head up due to the drugs in her system, while River’s time being driven insane in “school” is brutal and depicted in shadow. In addition, while we can debate whether or not Sucker Punch was deliberately trying to make a point about misogyny, I have no doubt that Whedon’s exploration on this topic is intentional. Whedon is trying to say something here, something I agree with. It’s merely his execution that I have some concerns about.

Overall, I think Whedon is trying to discuss something very interesting and very relevant to the topic of “sanity” and “insanity” in pop culture. I have no doubt that in his future genre-work we’ll see him return to this theme. I do hope, however, that he’ll move on from the idea that sanity = good people, insanity = bad people, unless they’re victims of horrible crimes. Some of us are born with the crazy, and we, too, can be heroines.

Related Reading:

Commenting Guideline: I’m really interested in hearing people’s thoughts what themes they think Whedon is exploring in these shows, and talking about depictions of “temporary” insanity elsewhere in Whedon’s work. What I am not interested in is comments that speculate on some incident in Whedon’s life. “I think Joss is exploring the importance of kittens in the lives of women” is fine. “I think Joss comes back to these issues because of his personal grief over his parents forbidding him from watching reality shows staring kittens” is not.

Previously: We’re All Mad Here: Crazy Ladies in Batman: The Animated Series, We’re All Mad Here: Sucker Punch Tackles Abuse in Asylums

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

16 Comments Have Been Posted

"The underlying message,

<p>"The underlying message, especially in Sierra's story in "Belonging," is that her being forcibly and painfully experimented on is tragic because she doesn't actually have schizophrenia, not because it's wrong to experiment on people who can't meaningfully consent."<br><br>Thank you! "Belonging" was a brilliant episode, but in all the writing I saw about it at the time there was little mention of the fact that erasing a person's personality without their consent became magically ethical if they were mentally ill. <br><br>The fifth season of Buffy, one of my favorites, was also soured by Whedon's mishandling of "insanity". Joyce's tumor-related mood swings and confusion were the only instances that felt thoughtful, like Whedon was trying to portray mental health as a difficult human experience instead of a curse or a carichature. I don't think he went for the crazy=violent for once, and yet for some reason most of the "insane" characters spent the majority of the season <em>strapped to beds</em>.</p>

I'm a little surprised that

<p><em>I'm a little surprised that Whedon keeps coming back to the idea that "crazy" is something that happens to you because of trauma or outside influence, and I wonder what he's getting at there.</em></p>
<p>As you say yourself, Whedon's perspective and what he "wants to explore in these works is how institutionalized power—and in Whedon's work, this power is always wielded by men—can be used to abuse women" (par. 4), so as Ian Grey and Luminosity point out below I don't think Whedon is trying to depict actual madness. He is looking at the way the concept of madness is used against women to justify their abuse ala Gilman's "<a href="http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/wallpaper.html">Ye... Wallpaper</a>" or Bronte's <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Madwoman-Attic-Nineteenth-Century-Literary-Imagina... woman in the attic</a>, Bertha Mason aka Mrs. Rochester. Furthermore, I don't think any of the violent tendencies depicted by these "crazy" women have anything to do with them being crazy, but have to do with in the case of Dru and the Slayers them being demons (or part-demon, anyway) or programmed to be a violent super-soldier in River's case. Sierra is "sane" (or as well adjusted as anyone can be expected to be after that ordeal, in any case) when she kills that doctor. The only times in which Whedon is truly attempting to depict mental illness as mentall illness with no supernatural cause is, as RJ stated above, when Joyce suffers mood swings and confusion from her tumor and, as you pointed out, when Buffy is depressed in S6. I would be really interested in a close look at those moments because I think they'd reveal more about Whedon's messages (intended or unintended) on mental illness.</p>
<p><em>by continually presenting his heroines as completely sane—unless driven insane by circumstances outside of their control—Whedon is telling us again and again that real heroines can't possibly be crazy as well. Real heroines are sane, or are fighting to be so. Crazy women are violent, and need to be locked up for their own good.</em></p>
<p>I think Whedon's message is more complicated than this reduction. Women like River or Buffy or Priya or Drusilla or Fred (whom you don't mention), who don't fit the mold of a perfectly feminine subject by being smart and confident, are often labled a little off to even insane by our culture, so they have to fight against that lable or else be locked up either mentally or physically. For instance, "Drusilla [who] is always crazy, always will be crazy" (par. 5) is actually not "crazy" in the flashback in which Angelus first sees Dru with her family. She recognizes Angelus for exactly what he is and clutches her sisters to her then crosses the street away from him. She knows him and his intentions. The problem, which we see in the next flashback, is that Dru has swallowed a(n un)healthy dose of misogynistic Christian ideology about witches and evil women, so she distrusts her own insight and power. Rather than finding her own inner strength in her own power like Buffy (the other girl Angelus attempts to terrorize), she tries to seek refuge further into the very ideology that damns her (goes to a convent) and succumbs to the lable of "crazy" monster-witch because that was the only possible end in that narrative -- complete erasure of self. Dru, like Buffy, needed to disrupt the narrative in order to save herself.</p>
<p>As others have said, so I won't go into it right now, Faith's storyline is different, and she is not mentally ill.&nbsp; &nbsp;</p>


Really interesting article. I'm sure I'll have more thoughts on this later when I've had time to mentally process it. I think there would be an interesting perspective on this when considering what Glory did to Tara (and others) in Buffy season 5. Willow chose not to put Tara into hospital when others who had suffered the same were in hospital, and I think that says something- although I haven't articulated it yet.

Season 5 of Buffy is one big,

Season 5 of Buffy is one big, problematic exploration of 'crazy.' Ben is supposed to be a medical professional, yet we hear him sharing information about "mental ward" patients with Buffy (HIPPA violation, anyone?) and summoning the queller demon to kill the patients under his care. We see Buffy help Ben (violently) restrain a patient whose mind Glory has eaten, all the while insisting that "he's not crazy." In the final episode of the season, even though the whole gang has been protecting Tara, they have no problem violently attacking Glory's other mind-sucking victims. And, of course, Willow restores Tara's mind (and no one else's), because her character couldn't continue to be a productive part of the scooby gang without it. Then there's Bufy's brief catatonia when Glory takes Dawn. You could do a whole series just on this one season!

Here's a vote for writing a

Faith and Drusilla

I don't know if Faith really counts. She is "crazy" in the sense that she's unpredictable, however she is completely rational. I think when she turns herself in to the police on Angel, she is acknowledging that she is subject to the same rules as everyone else, something she had previously denied (see "Bad Girls") rather than that she needs to be institutionalized. She also turns herself in after Angel has been arrested for harboring a fugitive, and is about to get a jail cell facing East. She stays in prison until she learns that Angel needs her help and that she could be doing more good if she were out.

I think Faith's storyline is really about how much the way we treat someone can affect them. The first split between her and the Scoobies occurs when she assumes Angel to be evil, and believes what her new watcher (who turns out to be evil) tells her. Later she does anything the mayor asks, because he treats her like a daughter. When Angel believes that she can be redeemed, she comes to believe that as well. I always interpreted the relationship between her and Angel (once she stops trying to kill him) as that of an addicts' mentor.

As for Drusilla being evil and crazy, I don't think the two are connected. Vampires are shown to be evil, and I've always thought that Dru's evil was a result of that, rather than of her insanity. She is scarier than other vampires, because she doesn't behave in a way that is rational to the outsider, but her insanity isn't what makes her evil.

PS Faith also has many emotional scars, which I thought was handled well.

What Joss said

Hi. I'd noticed the same thing in Joss' work so I just asked him when I interviewed him for my coverage of Serenity.

Interestingly, he seemed somewhat taken aback, as in he hadn't honestly thought about how much this theme happened in everything he did. He was, of course, hugely charming about it.

Some thought and he said (I paraphrase) "I think I go to madness because it's just the single worst thing that could happen to a person, to lose your agency, your sense of self."

And of course, Joss is all about finding the worst things to do to beloved people. :)

Anyway, point was, he wasn't ever seriously exploring bipolar disorder or seasonal affective disorder--the mental illness is sort of classical, almost Victorian, like Spike being "mad" in the basement in S. 7.

Faith's "insanity" always seemed metaphorical, like the madness of nations when they go to war.

But mainly, "madness" in the Whedonverse is indeed a chance to look, yet again, by the most dedicated, relentless, even radical male feminist I can think of, at how males can overpower/control females in endless iterations.

I think it can be argued that

I think it can be argued that River is a heroine *because* she's insane. Without the experiments that were done on her, she wouldn't have the information about Miranda, which granted was in the movie not the show, but I really don't think you can separate the two.

When she is being shown as violent toward the crew, it is shown to be a disconnect from reality. When she picks up the gun, she doesn't know it's a gun, it looks like a tree branch to her. When she cuts Jayne, it's really heavily implied that she's not in the present. Given Jayne's attitude and later actions that cause even Mal to show Jayne a healthy dose of violence, perhaps she was picking something up from his mind, Miranda style. That was how I interpreted it. He's constantly plotting on how to turn them in for the reward. River is being violent, not because she's bad, but because Jayne is, and it's a threat to her safety, and probably more importantly to her, to Simon's.

I agree with the poster who pointed out that Faith is not crazy. She's perfectly rational. Faith's entire story arc is about how lifelong mistreatment can make you do shitty things, and how it only takes one person treating you like a human being to change your entire world.

Again with Buffy, we see a disconnect from reality. What Buffy believes to be true is not reality. She's not crazy, and she's not a bad person, and I don't think what's done to her is shown as being okay in any way. The bad guys can't beat her without screwing with her head. So they go ahead and do that, because they're the bad guys. There's a high school allegory, there, too.

And that's kind of my end point. You talk about him taking real life and supernatural it up like it's a bad thing. The truth is that we respond to parable, to allegory, in a way that we don't to real life situations. If Buffy were just another high school drama, I'd have given it a pass, and so would most of it's viewers. Part of the point of allegory is what we are doing now. Discussion. So in the spirit of discussion, I respectfully disagree. You see women being violent because they are crazy. I see women being victimized by 'bad guys' whatever flavor they come in, and fighting back. Not passively accepting, not turning the other cheek, however you want to phrase that. and because it's allegory, and ratings like violence, that fight is very literal in Whedon's world. I don't think he's implying that crazy == violent. I think that he's implying that the world often sees women who have power as dangerous, and will attempt to tear them down using whatever means it can, including unethical ones. And that for those women, it feels like a battle to fight. Often an epic one. but a battle that can be won. The women win, in the end.

And that's what I take from Joss.

Excellent post! Very

Excellent post! Very fascinating. I'm intrigued by your assessment that violence is what makes these ladies crazy. I suppose I'll have to think on it more.

I'd have to say incoherency is a big determiner on who gets called crazy---Dru, River--maybe Buffy to a certain extent. Yeah, they are violent, but they are also very incoherent when they are not violent. However, Dru and River are very logical and can understand what's going on---it's just that *we* can't understand *them.* And I think that's a big critique of society particularly in the case of non-conforming women. In other words, we are the problem, not them.

Just the POV of a schizophrenic!

I agree with the majority of this, except the part where Joss's heroines can't be crazy and in the right. They might get over the worst of their psychotic or dangerous symptoms but Buffy's ability to emotionally detatch in order to do what needs to be done, and her feelings of disassociation at the beginnings of series 5 point towards her in the normal Buffyverse being schizophrenic - early onset signs. Joss has added a supernatural twist - the essence of the first slayer in season 4 - to possibly represent psychodelic drug use. After the amount of trauma she goes through, even though it's not outright said she definitely has mental health problems. The catatonia in season 5 after Dawn is taken by Glory points to that as well. When she comes back in season 6, she knows she came back wrong. That there was something missing or changed. In either verse, Buffy shows symptoms. In season 7, she's learning to live with it.

Please us a paragraph break

I would like to make a comment about the content, but I can't. As someone with a reading disability, I can't read this. Your lack of paragraph break makes it so I can't keep my place. It is just something to think about for the future.

Add new comment