The Fate of the Phallic Woman, Maggie Walsh

Further to my post on Planet Terror I thought I’d look at the figure of Professor Maggie Walsh in Season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer because her story more closely follows the usual symbolic fate of women who try and appropriate male power.

Spoiler Alert! This post gives away plot details ofrom Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 4

The lesbophobic and misogynist story in which she figures is striking, not only because Buffy is an ostensibly “feminist” show, but because this Season features the coming out story of Willow and her relationship with Tara. Beneath the pro-lesbian representation is a dark counter-narrative which implies deep anxieties about the dominant narrative in this series.

Maggie Walsh’s lesbianism is not stated outright in the show, but most of the cultural signs are in place. She has no family, she puts career before personal life, she is an academic, she talks tough, she hangs out with men but will not pander to them, she has short hair, she’s in the military etc.   She’s also a castrating bitch, or, as she herself puts it ‘The Evil Bitch Monster of Death’. Maggie seems pretty resigned to the roles available to her.

But she’s more than just a tough, coded-lesbian, teacher; it soon turns out that Maggie Walsh runs the initiative, a shady military operation that experiments on demons. In the process she has gathered around her a group of loyal young male soldiers. The show seems unsure whether these young men are substitute sons or extensions of her ego or (most likely) both, but they are clearly a means for her to wield male power.

Not satisfied with what she’s got, Maggie goes further and creates Phallic power for herself in the shape of “Adam” a gigantic, part-human, part-demon, male monster.  The name of the creature draws attention to Maggie’s desire to take the place of “God the Father.”

The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan posited that in the symbolic order, women can only get the phallus through having a child, by the gift of a man, (pretty convenient, huh?) but Maggie isn’t really having a child because no man is involved. She has bypassed “natural” reproduction altogether.

Unsurprisingly, the first thing Adam does when he wakes up is to impale her through the heart with the huge retractable skewer (yup) inside his arm – possibly for crimes against the symbolic order. As she drops to the floor, he calls her “mother,” having put her back in her place in a scene that strongly suggests rape as well as murder.  He uses the pointy instrument that Maggie herself has given him, presumably as an extension of the power she wished to wield.  The message? Women who try and have phallic power, who try and occupy the symbolic position ascribed to men, will find that power turned on them. In this sense, it is a deeply conservative narrative.

But it’s worth noting that Maggie reappears briefly in the episode ‘Primeval’ as a reanimated corpse serving Adam’s needs.  There is a feeling that she has been truly returned to her place in the symbolic order, that of reflecting, signifying and embodying male power for men, rather than actually having it for herself; but, at the same time, there is a horrible, and perhaps subversive, suggestion that the logical conclusion of this position for women is indeed a kind of living death.

Is this story a warning to Willow and Tara about their own position, about the kinds of power it’s appropriate for women to have? After all, Willow is also a brilliant scientist. But I rather suspect these narratives of being so deeply embedded that it may well have been unconsciously done on the part of the writers, a “symptom” of cultural anxieties, in which case Season 4 of Buffy is itself a “hysterical” text.