My last post about “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was written when I was halfway through the show’s fourth season in my grand re-watch project. Having just finished up Season Six*, I wanted to revisit some of what I wrote about then and expand on it a little.
My central issue with Buffy is that she never interrogates what being the Slayer really means. Oh, I know, she goes on vision quests and learns that death is her gift, and she explores the depth of her powers to a great extent. But at bottom, being the Slayer is about a singular purpose: killing vampires. And that goes fundamentally unquestioned. Angel is an exceptional vampire; Spike later becomes one; all other vampires are good for nothing but dust. The justification for this is, of course, that vampires are violent, bloodthirsty freaks.
We also know that vampires can love, form allegiances, be selfless, and pursue a life of the mind – in short, that they essentially act as people do, except with a preference for blood and an aversion to sunlight. That they must necessarily be killed is a rather incomplete premise, its basis born more out of absolute formulations of natural law (humans > vampires) than any kind of serious ethics**.
Absolute formulations, though, are what Buffy trades in. Season Six is the season in which Willow, Buffy’s best friend and sidekick, turns dark after the accidental death of her girlfriend, killing the man who shot her. In an episode approaching the finale, as she tries to prevent Willow from finding Warren, Buffy says that if Willow kills him, she “crosses a line. And I lose a friend.”
Let’s meditate on that for just a moment. Buffy – whose sole purpose in life is mediating its violent end for an entire class of beings – believes that if Willow exacts murderous revenge, Buffy will “lose a friend.” Perhaps she was thinking of Faith, who I wrote about in my previous post. Perhaps she was not thinking of any of the millions of people throughout history who have taken a human life, in cold blood, accepted responsibility and consequence and made peace with it. I’m not suggesting that taking a life is something which should be treated lightly, but there’s a certain irony in Buffy’s bright-line morality treating the life of a human like Warren (who had previously murdered his ex-girlfriend, and creates sexbots for fun and profit) as fundamentally more valuable than that of a demon like Clem, a gentle character who babysits Buffy’s little sister while this action is ongoing. Clem likes snack food and television and can be trusted with the care of teenage girls, and is more likable and honorable than Warren in every conceivable fashion except for his biological demonhood.
The other element of Season Six that is bothersome and worthy of comment is its portrayal of Willow’s abuse of magic. Willow is, we have been told for some time now, a highly powerful Wicca, and in Season Six she takes that to a dangerous end. The writers portray this as an allegory about addiction, even including lines like “I’m so juiced” in case the audience can’t comprehend subtlety. And – well, the whole thing is unnecessary. Buffy suddenly telling us that Willow has always had “an addictive personality” (really? Since when?) is reductive and cheap, because there’s a much more powerful story wrapped inside this particular plot arc, and it’s about a friendship between two incredibly powerful women. It’s touched on, but only briefly in the finale, which is too little, too late – the idea that Buffy, used to being the hero, the one who has a Watcher to guide her in the development of her power, the one with a Sacred Duty to Fulfill, does not play well with others, or at least others who are not her vampire boyfriends. We saw this previously, in her relationship to Faith and Kendra – as much of a powerful woman as Buffy is, she clearly enjoys being the center of attention, controlling the narrative. Her friends are her friends, but they are also her sidekicks, there to assist her, not to assert their own moralities or power.
Xander comes to accept this, as he does not have superpowers. He is just a regular guy, funny and fiercely loyal, and playing the supporting role is something he is willing to do. Initially, shy Willow also accepts being a sidekick; but as her power as a Wicca grows, so too does her ambition and self-confidence. Willow’s delight in magic had nothing to do with an “addictive personality” or a melodramatic metaphor about drugs, and everything to do with the fact that an incredibly smart, remarkably talented young woman isn’t going to stay a sidekick for long.
“Gossip Girl,” which is rarely afforded the kind of feminist admiration so often directed towards “Buffy”, is actually a much, much better show in this regard. Though “Gossip Girl” operates within the genre of soap opera, and so has a fair number of ridiculous sub-plots, its major narrative arc across the entire show is the separate character development of Blair and Serena, as well as their friendship. There was a pretty stunning scene in a Season Two episode in which Serena, newly minted as a Page Six fixture, dresses down her best friend for her unwillingness to accept Serena’s own gifts; Serena is tired of assuaging Blair’s insecurities by pretending that she is anything less than awesome. It’s incredibly hurtful and, in the next episode, Serena apologizes, but by then Blair has realized what the audience has known all along – as bitchy though it may have been to say, it was also true. Moreover, it inspires Blair to seek self-worth elsewhere, and not to use her friends as a yardstick for her own achievements.
“Buffy,” however, avoids such uncomfortable reckoning for our titular heroine. Because Willow’s magic is, unequivocally, Bad and Dangerous, she must go cold turkey, be made insecure and powerless again. For a show with so much ostensible feminist cred, it’s a pretty shocking smack-down – punishing a powerful female character for being, well, powerful. Of course power can be misused, but even prior to Willow’s dark turn, the addiction metaphor made it clear much earlier in the season that the problem was not the manner in which Willow applied this power: it was simply that she had too damn much of it. Sure, Willow’s name isn’t in the title, but it’s rather saddening that the narrative universe of the show couldn’t expand to accomodate two heroines, instead of just the one.
And, yes, I know that Season Seven is all about the sharing of power – Buffy’s decision to share Slayer strength with all the girls in the world who are potential slayers. I don’t know that I’ll be watching much of that in the next couple months, but if I recall correctly, sharing her strength at no point involves Buffy relinquishing her authority over that strength – that is, participation in the game may have broadened, but Buffy’s still the one holding the rule book. This is precisely why Willow’s power was so important, and so narratively misused; she had the capacity to challenge Buffy on a level beyond what any rookie Slayer could muster, but instead of her power being rewarded, it was something which had to be eliminated. And that trivializes… everything.
*I was sick the other night! Watching “Buffy” is not my general plan to spend my time in South America.
**My understanding is that “True Blood” reckons with some of these issues – with vampires striving to blend into human society and treated as a freakish underclass. Once I finish with “Buffy” I might just have to check it out.