Thursday, September 17, 2015

Strong Female Character Friday: Cordelia Chase (BTVS and Angel)

Time for a throwback to the classic days of strong female characters, my dear sweet chickadees, because today we're taking a timewarp back to the late 1990s and early 2000s to talk about Cordelia Chase (played by Charisma Carpenter) one of the most hilarious and, eventually, complex characters to ever come out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Strap in, buckle up, and get ready for the Queen's biting wit - it's probably going to be a bumpy ride.

Okay, that's all hyperbole. But I really do think that Cordelia is one of the most interesting characters to have inhabited the Whedon-verse, particularly the 'verse as it was expressed in the collective world of Buffy and Angel. Starting out as the clear antagonist and "mean cheerleader" stereotype, Cordelia transformed from a procedural villain to a complicated leading lady. 

She went through some of the most abrupt and life-changing traumas of the entire series (her father went to jail for tax evasion, her family lost everything, the love of her life died tragically, she got magic visions of the future, she became part demon, her body was overtaken by a parasitic life form and she never recovered), but they didn't make her more of a bitch. Instead, Cordelia Chase mellowed over the years, maturing from being "hell in high heels" to being, well, still that, but also the kind of person you can count to be at your back in a fight against the forces of evil.

In other words, she grew up. And in a pair of series that are all about coming of age and finding your place in the world, it's hard to think of a character who had a rougher go of it, and who made a better life with the little she had, than Cordelia motherfreaking Chase.

In case it's not obvious, Cordelia has always been one of my favorite characters. When I first watched the show I desperately wanted her to be more a part of the Scooby Gang, so hopeful that eventually her devastating one-liners and fantastic ability to see through people's bullshit would be put to good use. I think a huge part of why I liked her, why I still like her, is because she was and is such a fantasy of a character. I mean, yeah, there's the part about her being an Amazonian supermodel of a high school cheerleader, but I actually was referring to her personality.

Cordelia Chase is a bitch. There's really no denying that. Hell, she doesn't deny it, she embraces it. She's a bitch, but she's also generally right. Like, Cordelia Chase is a bitch throughout the whole show but what makes her a genuinely interesting character is that she doesn't seem to be a bitch because being a bitch makes her happy. It's more that she's a bitch because no one else can handle how she refuses to bow to societal conceptions of how teenage girls are supposed to behave.

Yes, she absolutely takes it too far. The first two seasons or so see her relentlessly bullying Buffy and Willow and Xander, ruthlessly ignoring their feelings and even going so far as to refuse to publicly acknowledge that she was dating Xander. She's cruel and mean and harsh.

But, again, what's interesting is that sprinkled in there somewhere is a girl who just wants to tell the truth. As Cordy says later on when asked if she's never heard of tact, "Tact is just saying not true stuff. Pass."

I don't want to read too much into this (that's a lie, I totally do), but I feel like there's something really interesting going on with Cordelia's character, or at least with how Charisma Carpenter plays her. We know that Cordelia's homelife is not ideal. Her parents ignore her and very literally buy her off. Sure, she's a spoiled brat, but she's a spoiled brat with no actual emotional resources to draw on. All of her friends are fake, all of her relationships are predicated on people sucking up to her, and it's really not surprising at all that her main love interests consist of people who require nothing of her. Cordelia doesn't want to be needed, she wants to be wanted for exactly who she is.

I think this is what's behind her insistence on telling the truth even when (especially when) it gets her labeled a bitch. She's sick and tired of no one else telling the truth so she's just going to do it for them. Then again, she really does go too far sometimes, and that's a huge part of why I like her too.

She's not a great person. Not when we meet her in high school, at least. She's kind of awful. You love her because she's so funny and clever and mean, but you also really hate her because she's just a bad human being. The brilliance here is that they don't retcon that out of existence and say "Oh, she was never mean, that was all just a misunderstanding," but instead take the harder path of having Cordelia actually mature and grow as a person.

While she starts off the series lusting after Angel because he's the tall, dark, and handsome mystery man she doesn't know anything about, she ends up dating Xander, the cute nerdy guy who takes all the abuse she can dish and hurls it right back. Already we can see her maturing into a person who gets what's important in a relationship: common interests. Granted, their common interests are snarking at other people and making out, but whatever. It works for them.

That relationship doesn't end because Cordelia gets fed up and bitchy. Well, it does end like that once but they get back together. In the end what decimates their relationship is Xander cheating on her. Cordelia has changed enough even by this point in the third season to be a genuinely good girlfriend. Still occasionally a petty and bad person, but she's changed. She's different. She doesn't let her breakup mean she's going to stop saving the world, either. She keeps doing that too.

Heck, there's a whole scene in season three where Cordelia makes a vampire back off and run away in terror just by talking to him. Respect. She also convinces a bunch of hunters that she's a vampire slayer too, despite having no superpowers, and is just kind of the coolest person ever. But I digress.

The third season is where things fall apart for Cordelia in general. We find out that her father is going away for tax fraud, all of her family's worldly goods have been confiscated, and that the college acceptances she worked incredibly hard for mean jack when you can't pay for your degree. Especially when it's way too late to qualify for financial aid.

Yes, Cordelia whines through this and it would be easy to see it as some kind of cosmic retribution. But it's also not that funny because Cordelia doesn't let this get to her. She keeps her head up high, stays the queen bitch of Sunnydale High School, and even if she has to work her butt off in a dress shop to buy her prom dress, she stays Cordelia Chase.

The real culminating moment for Cordelia on Buffy has to be the season three finale when she has to make a choice to stay and fight or to run away when the gang discovers that their high school graduation is going to be a fight like none other.* Cordelia doesn't run. She stays and she fights and in the end, she survives. Buffy is the show where Cordelia grows up. The Cordelia who leaves graduation is very different from the girl we met in the first episode. So it makes sense that we keep an eye on Cordelia as she moves into adulthood.

Angel provides a much more open framework for Cordelia's "finding herself" phase. A show that took the urban fantasy of Buffy and applied it to a more gritty framework of private detectives in LA, Cordelia finally got the space to really explore herself as a person, all while continuing to fight evil, dispense witty bon mots, and generally torment Angel.

The first season of Angel sees Cordelia living in Los Angeles and trying to make it as an actress. The only problem there is that she doesn't seem to have any natural talent for that, and the show isn't about to pretend breaking into the acting industry is easy. She lives in a terrible roach-infested apartment, spends her time schmoozing with creeps, and generally has a rough go of things. Until, that is, she runs into Angel and ends up rocking it out as his side-kick/receptionist when he decides to go into saving the world as a private detective.

Cordelia is, it should be noted, an awful receptionist/secretary/employee of any kind, but she is great with people. Not really with people, but she's great at reading people. As their practice grows - helping people struggling with supernatural problems and investigating anything that stinks of magic - Cordelia finds her niche as Angels' girl Friday.

Her love interest for the very beginning of the series really shows how much she's changed. Doyle, an adorable half-demon with prophetic visions, a drinking problem, and a complete lack of a way with words, worships the ground that Cordelia walks on. But not because he wants anything from her. He just thinks she's amazing. And Cordelia responds in kind. Slowly but surely she comes to love Doyle back, appreciating him for who he is. Which makes it horrible when he dies sacrificing himself to save the good magical community of LA.

But this is also a huge turning point for Cordy. Doyle's death is when she gets her own visions and becomes Angel's appointed guide and connection to the power's that be. It's also when she has to decide if this is what she's going to dedicate her life to. Is she really going to be an actress? Or is Cordelia Chase going to live her life in the shadows, climbing through sewers and saving a humanity that barely knows she exists? It turns out she picks the latter. That's character development for you.

I can keep going about Cordelia's amazing character development over the years - her relationship with Angel alone, when it comes, is such a far cry from the first interactions of those characters - but I think you get my point. Cordelia is perfect proof that a character doesn't have to start out good and heroic and wonderful to wind up there, and that showing a person in transformation, a messy ugly bitchy horrible human being, is more meaningful than giving us an example of someone who's already all there.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer wasn't a perfect show and there's definitely work to be done examining and unpacking it, just as there's tons more to be said about Angel. But none of that can take away from Cordelia Chase. She's the supreme example of how when you put a character through hell their internal strength is revealed. Cordelia goes through hell and comes out the other side a softer, gentler person. Still a bitch in all the best meanings of that word, but a bitch with heart. 

We should all be so lucky to grow up like that.

*Side note, but Graduation I and II are two of my all time favorite Buffy episodes and I highly recommend them to anyone considering the series. Admittedly they might be hard to grasp because they rely on three seasons of character development for their emotional impact, but I love them. So there.