Saturday, August 4, 2012

My Favorite Thing About Buffy (So Far)

I know that I promised I'd write something about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I'm shockingly watching for the very first time.

I have a lot of things that I want to talk about:
  • Whether or not the show is "feminist"
  • Have you noticed how many female-fronted bands there are in Buffy? 
  • Where are the characters of color? I mean, I see them in the background shots, so I know they exist in this world.
But I'm having a hard time being able to have anything sustained to say about those topics because I feel like it's unfair to talk about an incomplete picture. I'm only on Season 4. 

Plus, I want to enter into a conversation about these topics, and that means reading what other people have said about it. But every time I look up an article on feminism in Buffy or the lack of racial diversity, I end up reading three sentences into it before I discover some spoiler fact about the plot that makes me put my hands over my ears (well, eyes) and go "La, la, la! I can't hear (well, see) you!"
(On that note, I should probably tell you that there may be spoilers below. If you, for some odd reason, have also never seen Buffy but somehow still care enough simultaneously about what I have to say about it and about keeping the plot a secret (which is odd--no judgment), don't read anymore.)

So I probably can't talk about any of those things until I finish the series. 

In the meantime, though, I can say that my favorite thing so far is the metaphor the entire show presents for knowledge. 

Think about it. 

Buffy has a "secret" identity, but only because most of the people around her want to remain completely oblivious to the worst parts of their realities. And even though she's the Slayer and has special gifts associated with that role, her friends have demonstrated time and time again that--once knowledgable of the reality around them--they are capable of making a difference, too. You don't have to be anointed by the powers that be to make a difference in the world: you simply have to be aware. 

In fact, I think that's the message of one of my favorite episodes so far. In Season 3's "The Wish" Cordelia wishes that Buffy had never come to Sunnydale. Here's a promo for it:

The result is that most of her friends have turned into vampires and the entire town is engulfed in evil and mayhem. Sure, the message is that Buffy was the catalyst that kept the evil from coming (but when she shows up in the alternative world, she's being drawn away from some other town, so is her presence in Sunnydale ensuring that evil reigns somewhere else?) There's only one Slayer (okay, sometimes there are two, thanks to CPR, but still, there's not enough for every town to have one.) Who's supposed to keep evil at bay when there isn't a handy-dandy chosen one around?

Well, really anyone with a library. 

The show demonstrates time and time again that research and knowledge are the keys to success. Yes, Buffy's kick-ass ability to, well, kick ass is certainly a way to put that research and knowledge to use, but there are times when the entire crew spends their time hunkered down with some nice old books. 

And, while Giles may be a technophobe, the show as a whole is not infused with Luddite perspective. That knowledge can come from a variety of places. Willow is frequently seen using computers to make herself more knowledgeable, and thus more powerful. 

But Most People Ignore It

Most striking of all is that this knowledge is not particularly secret. It's hard to access, as most of it is in ancient languages and all of it is in obscure texts that require hours of intense research. But really, anyone could waltz into the library at any time and find out this information. In fact, I can't remember which episode, but someone (Xander, I think) mentions how fortunate it is that no one's doing research on demons because it would suck if the books they needed were checked out.

But it's a running gag that not only is no one checking out the books on demons, but no one is checking out any books . . . on anything. The library is deserted. The students are apathetic. Even in a world where their classmates are mangled and killed around them on a daily basis, they have no drive to figure out what's going on or how to fix it.

And it's not because they lack the ability to be brave or fierce. The finale of Season 3 demonstrates that they were willing to fight--and in some cases die--to defend their school and their friends. They stood up at graduation and faced a fierce demon and an army of vampires. And won. But they weren't willing to do that until someone else came along with all of the information. Even then, they didn't know the details; they were just told the part that they had to play.

Finally, knowledge isn't even tied completely to intelligence. Sure, Willow and Giles are the most efficient researchers because they are portrayed as the smartest, but no one is kicked out of the researching club. There are days when everyone--even Xander, who's constantly demonstrated to be a buffoon--has to sit down and get to work. The message is clear: the knowledge is there if you'll work for it.

So, without a doubt, my favorite part of the series so far is the way that it portrays the power of knowledge.


  1. Season 4 and 5, in my opinion, is Buffy at it's best and I am really looking forward to hearing how your critique evolves after the next two seasons. I'm not going to say anymore for fear of giving you spoilers. I will say, season 4 has "Hush," my all-time-favorite episode.

    1. It's so funny you said that. "Hush" was the next episode, and I watched it right after I wrote this. It's been my favorite so far, too! And it's the only episode I've seen with a monster that actually scared me. The Gentlemen are horrifying!

  2. And again, I'm going to recommend you check out Mark Watches, as he's doing Buffy The Vampire Slayer ( ). He discusses feminist themes, as well as QUILTBAG, disablism, heterosexism, etc. and has a really strict spoilers policy. He's got episode by episode write-ups so you could totally go episode by episode and read his thoughts as well as fan comments/dissection.

    I agree that the whiteness of the cast is disappointing.

    I really miss the 90s and how much easier it was to find awesome music made by women. It seemed like such a strong and permanent trend at the time, but now we're back to mostly male-fronted, male-written, male-directed music.

    1. I didn't know he went episode by episode. That sounds great! I'll check it out for sure. Thanks.

  3. For starters, I just want to say, I really liked your post; you had a lot of good insights about the show; impressive for someone who hasn't finished the series yet!

    There's just one thing you mentioned at the start of your post that I'd like to comment on in further detail -

    "Where are the characters of color? I mean, I see them in the background shots, so I know they exist in this world" -

    I've run into this kind of compliant before; not just about Buffy but other shows and movies, and the thing that I've never really understood is why this seems to be so important to people. The characters in Buffy are all well-developed, interesting, loveable and (emotionally) diverse. The cast fits together extremely well and manages to convincingly perform anything that's written for them. So, my question is, why do people care what race they are? They do their job, and hell they do it fantastically well. Xander, Willow, even Buffy; all are as complex as real people, and experience real emotions that *anyone* - regardless of race - can relate to. People shouldn't be concerned about what characters and actors look like; instead they should focus on their talent, their ability to "become" a character, and their compatibility with the rest of the cast.

    1. I agree that those characters do a great job of conveying emotion and being relatable (SPOILER ALERT FOR SEASON 5: I just watched the episode in Season 5 where Buffy's mom dies, and they did an incredibly great job of conveying grief.)

      That said, diversity (racial, gender, ability, etc.) matters in media representations because media shapes the way we perceive the world. We--for a myriad of social reasons--see ourselves as a collection of identities, and race and gender are two of the major factors in that identity construction. When we don't see people who identify similarly in the media we consume, it impacts the way that we view ourselves. And when we don't see people who are different from us in the media we consume, it impacts the way that we see others.

      Some very concrete examples of this can be seen in this video where young black children repeatedly identify white dolls as more beautiful than black dolls. Link here.

      Another great source on this topic is Chimamanda Adichie's TED Talk on the danger of a single story. This report from a children's media advocacy group demonstrates the findings of the way that racial representation impacts the way children of color perceive themselves.

      Finally, the lack of diversity in casting has very practical negative implications for actors who don't fit the narrow definitions that most scripts call for.

      For all of these reasons, I can't just give a show a pass for ignoring the diverse realities that we live in. Media does more than just entertain; it teaches us how to think about the world, and we should hold our clearly talented writers and producers to a higher expectation when it comes to this important issue.