Blog in Which I Consider the Humanity of Joyce Summers

During each winter holiday break, I shift from high-powered education cyclone to apron-wearing cookie carybdis. I am the holiday cookie, the holiday cookie is me. I am propelled by some primeval force to fill my hands with nuts and fruit and offer them up to the white gods of flour, of sugar, of baking soda, salt. I spend the days in what feels like a marzipan haze but is in fact the crust of sugar over my eyes. I bake until I am worn, but then there are jam thumbprints, gingersnaps, peppermint bark, and the exhaustion is delicious and makes people love me.

This past break, I decided to begin rewatching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as a way to fill the time in-between rolling and baking and crying over charred batches. This is the fifth time I’ve undertaken watching the whole series, the first just over 10 years ago right as I was beginning grad school and just after the show had ended. I had resisted watching the show because of a deep-seated antipathy towards grown people making monster noises. I’m not buying it, Steve, I want to say. You fool no one. I had been uncharitable toward the genres of fantasy and sci-fi since I was a kid and searching for what to lose myself in. I’ve often gravitated toward books and media that I could picture myself in, create a part for me to play. I was a child and then an adult unsatisfied with the reality of my life, but my solution wasn’t to then enter into a radically different world but instead one pretty much like this but tweaked—a little thinness here, a scoop more love there.

But “Buffy” was different. A bit younger than most of the actors but a bit older than the parts they played, I could see myself inserted into this world of monsters and star-crossed love. The pull of “Buffy,” as has been well-documented, is that the vampires and witches and werewolves and vengeance demons are window dressing for a compelling tale about what it is to grow up. The conflicts stem from what it is to love and lose and learn to try again. For a show about monsters, it is deeply human.

But in watching it again over the past seven weeks, I’ve noticed something disturbing. I no longer identify with Buffy or even Willow, whose awkward smartness is much closer to who I am than the perky blonde slayer. I no longer get where Xander is coming from or even find Oz enigmatic and cool. Instead, the character with whom I most identify and want to know more about is Joyce, Buffy’s mom, because I am now old.

To be fair, Joyce, as portrayed by the stunning Kristine Sutherland, is not exactly old. The first season of “Buffy” was filmed in 1996, making the actress about 41, a year older than I am now. However, the costumers do a terrific job of dressing Joyce in the very best of mid-90s mom drag. She owns just so many turtlenecks. This, along with Sutherland’s dead-on mix of parental exasperation and concern, renders the character of Joyce as every inch a Mom. People passing her on the street see her and feel certain that she’s used her own saliva to clean chocolate off of a small human’s face. Joyce is a woman who carries extra tissue in the pockets of her tapestry vest.

joyce-summers
The mom hair is strong with this one.

To the end that Joyce must be believable as Buffy’s mom, the character is a raving success, but what I’m noticing this watch-through is that she is not much else. What do we get to know about Joyce? She is a divorced art gallery owner with a bottomless capacity for denial. She likes a flowy blouse and has bad luck with men. This has also been written about by others, but until now, it’s never bothered me. From a plotting point, the choices make some sense—she’s the only parent we really get to know and her role serves as both a support and a foil for the main character. But suddenly, that’s not enough for me. I want more for Joyce than one maniacal robot boyfriend and a passive aggressive book club friend who gets killed by zombies then becomes a zombie ultimately possessed by a Nigerian demon spirit before getting a shovel to the eyes courtesy of Buffy. Is that so wrong? As an aging woman increasingly invisible to much of the world, I want her to have more than that final date before her unacceptably ordinary death. I want her to be a woman and not just a mom.

Therefore I propose a supplementary series to flesh out and fulfill the promise of this loving and kind character. I propose “Joyce!” No, not the right title—close, but too ‘70s, ala Rhoda! or Maude!

Maybe “Re-Joyce!”

Nailed it.

And what would we see on “Re-Joyce!”? Well, what do you think she was doing all those weekends Buffy went to go see her dad in L.A. before the series decided that a slayer with daddy issues was more compelling than a slayer with a caring if geographically distant father? The way Joyce is depicted in the show (outside of the occasional Schnaaps drinking) would have you believe that Joyce spent those weekends using the bath salts she’d saved up special and drinking tea from giant mugs painted with flowers the colors of a Southwestern sunset. And while that doesn’t sound horrible to these aging ears, as a mother myself I know that when you get some time away from your child, you are going to use the chance to tear shit up. Maybe Joyce is an early noise music enthusiast and spends her weekends going to Iron, the Bronze’s scuzzy rival bar. She could do roller derby, work as a part-time private eye, haunt karaoke bars with her husky rendition of “The Monster Mash.” The possible antics from these scenarios are rich and endless.

But we also have the chance, in “Re-Joyce!” to see that this title heroine is also a badass at work, a legend among art dealers. Others try to top her, but the joke is that there can only be one. Speaking of jokes, turns out Joyce is a card, though she only uses that term in jest—she’s self-aware and wry, this one. She’s great at impressions and nurses a powerful hatred for Albert, the haberdasher next door who is always parking six inches into her space! What does she do about it? What doesn’t she do, is more like it. She is fucking unpredictable.

Since “Buffy” is told through that protagonist’s perspective, it makes sense that we don’t see what else fills her mom’s life. After all, how many of us as young people were capable of seeing our parents as fully formed people, full of lust and envy and heartbreaks? The Joyce we get in “Buffy” is the Joyce that Buffy saw—her mom. But I’m a mom and don’t want my story to be only of that relationship, so I don’t want it for Joyce, either.

Joss Whedon—since you’re probably not busy—give me a call. I’ve never written for t.v. so therefore have no evidence that I’m not awesome at it. Let’s talk, let’s plan. Let’s Rejoyce!

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