Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy
by James B. South (Editor)
Introductory note for non US-readers: This article contains spoilers through Buffy’s seventh season.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Philosophy is the latest of a number of anthologies which attempt to argue that the program was more than a well-written, even inspired creation of popular culture. It follows the excellent Reading the Vampire Slayer: An Unofficial Critical Companion To Buffy And Angel and the even better Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
There is part of me that likes the way books like these think about television because sometimes it’s the way I think about television. In both direct and indirect ways, BtVS has made me think more profoundly about sexuality, “patriarchal standards” of same, and the nature of a feminist text, among other things. And not only that, it had a mean line in banter. But there is also part of me that distrusts these books, because I suspect they are on some level involved justifications for academics.
BtVS, like academia, attracts an audience of nerds (I include myself) and nerds can be very single-minded. Surprised to have found themselves drawn to a television series about a blonde who slays vampires, the academics and philosophers convince themselves that it must be more than that.
To the non-philosophy student, the writers here are less successful than those of the earlier volumes. Readers may find their eyes glazing over as Carolyn Korsmeyer’s “Passion and Action: In and Out of Control” talks of how philosophical theories “…necessarily aim at abstract levels of explanation in order that general parameters and explanatory norms may be formulated. To this end, philosophers analyze prototypical emotions rather than the particular emotion events that individuals experience in specific circumstances.”
Which is a wordy way of explaining why, for example, James B. South (who also edited this volume) can spend 15 pages discussing Willow’s actions at the end of Season Six as tragedy while barely touching on the pain which fueled it, the brutal murder of Tara. In things like this (and Buffy’s tortured relationship with Angel, Faith’s redemption, and other topics under discussion here), I’m first concerned with the characters I had come to love. I think it’s safe to say most other Buffy viewers and potential readers are as well.
In “Feeling For Buffy,” the last essay included in the book, Michael P. Levine and Jay Schneider make the case that “It is BtVS scholarship that warrants study at this point, not BtVS itself. Those in English, Film and Television, and Cultural Studies departments would be better off investigating the nature of the•narrow critical responses to BtVS.” The response they speak of is reflected in this book by the refusal of South and others to consider Buffy as what it is first and foremost: A dramatic serial for television. Levine and Schneider go on to write: “There is•something ironic in the claims of those who unduly praise BtVS as something other and more than mere entertainment.” And, later: “As a paradigmatic instance of a superficial but immensely popular TV series, BtVS merits a degree of scholarly attention. This does not require that the show be regarded as anything but a well-made and fairly unremarkable instance of pop culture.”
Stretching the definition of “immensely popular” to include any show on UPN or the WB aside, they’re not wrong. Except inasmuch that an entertaining, well-made series is neither mere nor unremarkable. And whatever the faults of its declining years, at one time BtVS was all that. But no consistent “philosophy of Buffy” emerges here; in fact, the Introduction warns almost proudly of the book’s caprice.
The late Douglas Adams, writer of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio show and the novels and television series that followed, was once contacted by a student who wanted to do a thesis on the philosophical themes of his work. He replied, “Most of the ideas in Hitchhiker’s come from the logic of jokes, and any relation they bear to anything in the real world is usually completely coincidental.”
Similarly, I submit that, most of the ideas in Buffy came not from philosophical themes the writers wished to explore, but emerged instead from what they thought would look cool on television that week. Which isn’t necessarily a bad way to run a television program for the greater balance of its narrative. But it does make me wish that more writers in a book like this would use a kind of Ockham’s Razor of criticism in their thinking about the series. In “My God, It’s Like a Greek Tragedy,” South asks “How can the apparently strong Willow that emerged by the end of Season Three be the same Willow that becomes addicted to magic, makes a string of bad decisions and ends up unable to deal with her loss?” And then works himself into a lather providing “a framework for understanding why there can never be an answer.” Well, of course there can be an answer, and a remarkably simple one: Bad writing.
In Murphy Brown: Anatomy Of A Sitcom, Robert S. Alley and Irby B. Brown wrote that: “Analysis may be useful, but ultimately the business of network television should be to conjure the magic between audience and creative talent.”
To talk about the philosophy and intellectualism of a program like Buffy is all very well, but to lose sight of the bare bones of the matter is in many ways to disappear up one’s own never-you-mind.
Another problem this book evinces to an even greater extent than its predecessors, is that of timing. The essays here are undated but none appear to have been written any later than early in Buffy‘s seventh and final season. Two or three seem to predate the end of the sixth. The validity of some of the conclusions offered is thus sadly challenged by the later events of the series.
In “Passion and Action” Korsmeyer asserts that because Spike’s character gradually changed as a result of the violence-inhibiting chip in his head, this was “far more interesting than the restoration of Angel’s soul [because that] transformation is so abrupt that we see merely a metamorphosis from evil to good. But Spike blunders through his emotional change…” This would all resonate a great deal louder had not series creator Joss Whedon decided to short-circuit any discussion of whether Spike really had undergone this posited change. Spike’s ill-conceived attempted rape of Buffy and the subsequent quick-fix restoration of his soul divested his story of any originality or interest. Save for the teenybopper straight girl crowd, which saw him — and were encouraged to do so — as a vulnerable puppy rather than a vicious punk, in Madeline Muntersbjorn’s words.
More importantly, the status of Buffy as a hero or moral role model is much discussed in these pages. Jessica Prata Miller quotes Whedon on having created the show to be about “the joy of female power, having it, using it.” Jason Kawal’s “Should We Do What Buffy Would Do?” suggests that Buffy is “a fully-informed, unimpaired, virtuous observer.” But that status should have taken something of a beating as Buffy was demeaned and marginalized. This took place to such an extent that in the final two seasons, she wasn’t allowed to be the one who saved the world. Not even in the wrap-up to the entire series of which she was the titular hero.
Such issues should, it seems to me, affect any philosophical discussion of what Buffy was and what it eventually came to be. I can only assume that in future books (I already know of at least one other upcoming title), they will. And that certainly ought to separate the women from the girls, or the philosophers from the Buffy fans.