(This article also published on Medium.com.)
I’ve been thinking about a specific TVtrope more and more lately. Also,Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Inside Out. This is kind of a follow-up to my last article on the subject — of not acknowledging bad feelings — just going into a tad more detail. Now with GIFs! And singing!
So, there’s a Trope for almost everything these days, including almost everything fictional you can think of. (I’ve been known to contribute to trope articles, and read it a lot in my spare time. What, it’s what nerds like me do for fun.) It’s also really helpful shorthand, for when you want to explain a complex or large idea or story concept, in a small, concise way.
It’s called the Stepford Smiler. Its name might be kind of extreme right off the bat — because it comes from the Stepford Wives movie, where perfect wives — actually lobotomized, or maybe robots, depending on the interpretation/movie version you like — acted out ‘perfect,’ ‘idealized’ lives, while hiding a not-so-happy reality. The movie/concept itself is horrifying in a lot of different ways that would take a million articles to analyze, and probably has by now, pretty sure everyone’s familiar with the story.
But let’s look at the trope. Despite the name, and forced/victim implications might not quite fit, the essence of it comes pretty close.
“The Stepford Smiler is obsessed with projecting an image of wholesome happiness in order to be accepted by her peers. Tragically enough, they’d probably accept her for who she is regardless of her self-imposed Masquerade. Her flawlessly crafted facade hides a real person that’s usually breaking like so much fine china, in order to keep up the deception.”
So, it’s someone dedicated to seeming well-adjusted, healthy, happy, and Okay. Sounds legit so far.
Maybe it’s someone who just projects a joyful, uplifting, wonderfully funny energy, while actually living with a lot of pain and hidden internal struggles.
If you think about it, I bet you’d recognize somebody in a situation a lot like that. There’s at least one whose story seems reminiscent of the basic trope idea, whose actual suffering entered public consciousness relatively recently.
But there are a lot of others out there.
One might even be you. One is definitely me.
I’m not saying I’m in anywhere as dire a place. (In fact, I’m feeling a lot better, ever since that last article. Amazing what expressing yourself can do.) I’m incredibly blessed with amazing, supportive loved ones, who I absolutely thank most of all for keeping me out of it. But it’s something I’ve been thinking about ever since I decided to actually acknowledge I’m in more pain than I like to think about. Check out my past ramble about masks. I’m still trying to be optimistic and hopeful, and it’ s really not a lie — like how masks aren’t always— it’s who I am, and am even more underneath the pain (emotional and physical from chronic illnesses). The only problem comes from not acknowledging it. I’m just thinking about what happens when you don’t admit that you’re having a hard time.
That’s when some really bad stuff happens, and you start to wander into Smiler territory, and get the different types:
“Type 1: Depressed. The character seems to be happy, cheerful, is always smiling and seems to live a perfect life — but inside they are melancholic, if not outright depressed”
“Type 2: Empty. The character seems to be kind and cheerful, but is actually motiveless and hollow.”
That’s when you can go from a bad situation to… well, a really bad one.
I have kind of mixed feelings about the rest of the TVtropes article — mostly because of the last type, which would be the scary, unstable, ‘villainous’ one, describing the archetype as “dosed up on prescription tranquilizers or antidepressants” (yes, yes, people who take Prozac are scary, wow, I’ve neverheard this before!) — it’s a staple antagonist role, but not one I’ve ever really liked.
Probably because it’s the way I feel most of the time. (Not really villainous, I mean, but making it my business to appear several levels Happier, Healthier, and Neurotypical than I feel? Yeah.)
And I can tell you even better how I feel. In song form. It’s laid out surprisingly perfectly in a kind of unlikely source — the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode: Once More With Feeling.
I have more really mixed feelings about BTVS. Joss Whedon in general has given me — and probably many of you — a lot of pause lately to say the least, and the show itself really hasn’t aged well in some ways. In others, it’s a TV classic and important member of the nerd pantheon. I’m not really here to discuss that, though. Quite honestly, the only thing I still care about after all these tired years (and Joss drama), that gives me any kind of really deep feelings… is Once More, With Feeling.
Yeah. The musical episode. With the singing.
(And the bunnies. It must be bunnies.)
So, okay. Nothing in Buffy is really about the supernatural. Everything is a metaphor — yes, I know — for an adolescent struggle, from growing into your own identity (as a villain or a powerful warrior for good?) to puberty (holy unwilling transformation, Batman). And Once More With Feeling gives one of the best-illustrated (and sung?) demonstrations I’ve ever seen for post-traumatic depression and emotional numbness. (Ha, get the funny title now? Yep.)
(Give me a better line than “I want the fire back” for what I’m going through with emotional numbness/fatigue and… nope, sorry, there isn’t one.)
This episode of the culmination of an arc in which Buffy dies — temporarily, of course, and to save the world, as always — and her loyal friends risk everything to bring her back to life. She’s resurrected, and continues going about business as usual, fighting vampires and demons and behaving like her normal, sunny, clever, can-do self. Like nothing has changed. When inside, she feels nothing — or nothing but pain — and is emotionally as lifeless and brittle as the undead fiends she stakes into dust night after endlessly repetitive night.
The very first song of the musical, “Going Through The Motions,” lays it out in painfully clear terms:
“Every single night, the same arrangement,
I go out and fight the fight.
Still I always feel this strange estrangement,
Nothing here is real, nothing here is right.
I’ve been making shows of trading blows
Just hoping no one knows
That I’ve been going through the motions
Walking through the part
Nothing seems to penetrate my heart.”
(Have some video. Enjoy the singing, choreographed vampires. Cute, snarky depression! Still really freaking effective, especially later when it cuts out the funny and just kind of gut-punches.)
In the climactic fight, she finally lets the words out in front of everyone she’s been hiding them from — “Give me something to sing about!” — I know this feel. Very well. Buffy‘s actually begging this of the demon she’s fighting.
(If I may musical theatre-nerd for a moment! You might recognize him— or maybe not, that’s some makeup — as the Tony-winning Hinton Battle, the original Scarecrow from the stage version of The Wiz, and a ton of other Broadway shows like Chicago and Dreamgirls. He gives an amazing performance that’s on show-stealing levels here too, and makes my theatre nerd heart basically sing. Of course, the implications kind of suck. Only black guest star, however wonderful, playing a demon creepily antagonizing all-white good guy cast… Come on. Like I said, no BTVS is free of sin, even in quite possibly the best episode ever. Sigh.)
Anyway. I’ve been there too, begging the very things that hurt me — my ‘demons — if they’d be the key to my salvation. And when it doesn’t happen, I just keep going through the motions — and when that doesn’t work, walking through the fire.
Lyrics and music-wise, the entire thing is so well-crafted — seriously, I’m a music, theatre and writing nerd, let me tell you about its turns of phrase both verbal and tonal, double-meanings and musical reprises and inversions… In another essay maybe. And it’s so powerful that it’s really the thing that sticks out most vibrant and important in my mind about BTVS. Even if you’re not a fan (of Buffy or musicals), I recommend checking it out once for the portrayal of depression, desperation and catharsis alone.
But this isn’t about that, really, it’s about smiling and not-smiling. So let’s try something a little more recent. That I know you’ve probably seen.
A story about a little girl — and her emotions. In this situation I wouldn’t so much just be Riley — I’d be her, okay… but I’d be Joy. Mostly.
Or that’s who I used to be. Nobody reading this would recognize me in her, or her in me, anymore, probably. But I was, about 5 years ago, before the worst of my chronic illness stuff hit. (If you’ve been following me at all, you know about this. If you don’t, this isn’t really the place either — suffice it to say, it’s a lot, it’s disabling, and I’m in actual constant physical pain as well as mental/emotional.)
Literally… I cried in the theatre for the first time (of several) not because anything sad had happened yet! It was just about the first 30 seconds! But because just watching Joy walking around and talking I was like… That’s Old Me. Energetic and optimistic and passionate and hopeful and driven and… Joyful. Wow. Haven’t seen you in a while. Missed you.
But then of course… say hello to New Me.
Contemplating the Void. So much Void to contemplate.
Unable to move as the world self-destructs around her. Hi, New Me. Literally, I have never related to a fictional character quite so much. It’s amazing. Sadness gets me. Maybe because there’s a lot of her in me. (And all of you as well.)
My Dad likens me a lot more to Bing-Bong for whatever reason, and actually sometimes calls me this. I suppose there may be a resemblance there as well. I did basically used to be soft and cuddly and dance around and fart rainbows and sing songs that flew you to the moon. (Really hard to see now. On a bad day, I tend to feel more like… well, what ultimately happened to Bing-Bong.)
(That’s fine, I really didn’t need my heart or anything. Still haven’t quite forgiven Pixar for this one.)
Of course, the actual moral of the movie is amazing and beautiful (you can only be a whole and functional person by accepting sadness and embracing it as well as your other emotions, sadness serves an important purpose, and helps you be emotionally and mentally healthy) — and Riley only got back to her happy (and ‘joyful’) self when Joy and Sadness worked together and became friends.
Or, in actual psychological terms, when Riley stopped attempting to bury her negative emotions through unhealthy coping mechanisms like denial or brave fronts, and stopped trying to be who everybody else wanted — their “happy girl” — and acknowledge her true feelings and pain. When she tried that, it led to a breakdown in the foundation of who she was (her fundamental personality Islands), derailed her ‘Train of Thought’ for organized mental processes, and finally led to actual emotional numbness. The beginning of depression. When the console stopped working for one terrifying moment on the bus. I was scared, guys. I know that feeling too well.
When her default mask “Joy” — who wasn’t a lie, but wasn’t who Riley really was feeling at the time either — embraced her actual “Sadness” who was becoming more and more a presence in her life, they were able to achieve a healthy equilibrium, and Riley was overwhelmed with relief — fighting to stay strong and happy is exhausting! — and was able to find a stable footing for recovery and growth from there into a new stage in life.
Plus, look at this adorableness. Sitting on a rainbow. Look at it. They complete each other.
So, when you feel like this, like I do sometimes — and we all do — it’s finding that equilibrium that can be a problem. It’s so easy to get out of balance.
I’ve been put through the mental and physical wringer for several years. So I’m feeling a lot more Sadness — and I’m still trying to be Joy. (And I will be again! Sometimes I catch myself being ‘myself.’ The people I love make sure of that.) I’m feeling like Buffy, trying to act like I’m still the same optimist, hyper-competent Slayer, carrying on the fight, ‘saving the world,’ keeping calm and carrying on as if I haven’t been through some life-altering trauma, when inside I’m numb, and ‘going through the motions.’ It’s exhausting, and painful, and if you keep that a secret, it just multiplies it and makes everything worse.
And it’s only now that I’m really admitting it. I’ve known it for a long time, I just haven’t said it ‘out loud,’ to myself or my friends, and definitely not in article form. I don’t know how many more of these are coming, but they’ll all have the same message. I’m looking at it now. And I hope you all are too. Not just at me, but at yourselves. If you’re reading these I hope you’re looking at yourselves too, seeing if you’re fighting a battle that you really don’t need to. I hope you’re being honest about your emotions and mental and emotional (and physical, for other chronically ill/disabled spoonies out there!) states. It’s a losing fight if you’re not being realistic with yourself — and letting the people who love you know how you’re doing. Like I said in the previous article, if you keep the mask up, no one can see warning signs.
We all fight enough battles every day. (Every single night, the same arrangement…) Fighting yourself doesn’t need to be one of them.