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Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Books & Culture’s Book of the Week: Buffy and the Meaning of Life

Tuesday 6 May 2003, by Webmaster

It might be a stretch to get him to publicly admit it, but Buffy creator Joss Whedon likely loved the last chapter of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale.

For 293 pages, scholars have been prattling on about Buffy-and-feminism, Buffy-and-religion, Buffy-and-science, Buffy-and-Plato (-Aristotle, -Kant), Buffy-and-politics. Along come Michael Levine and Steven Jay Sneider to argue that the show’s success does not rest "on innovation in genre or in any other area, nor does it rest on anything remarkable . . . about the series, its scripts, acting, language, or message." Rather, people watch the show for a much more simple reason. They’re turned on by the lead character, a classic blonde "girl next door" type, albeit one with superhuman powers.

I think they’re dead wrong, and I would propose another reason for the show’s success-but it’s this same reason that leads me to believe Whedon would appreciate their contrarian effort. Both Buffy and the spin-off series Angel succeed by consistently and stubbornly refusing to give viewers what they want. Just when you get attached to a character or comfortable with things as they are, watch for the narrative hand bunching up the edge of the carpet. People die unexpectedly and relationships sour like milk left out too long.

Some Buffy watchers believe the show to be not only entertaining but important as well. When English professors David Lavery and Rhonda Wilcox solicited contributions for Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer?, the response was so overwhelming that they created the online interdisciplinary quarterly journal Slayage. (Imagine citing that on a tenure application.) One recent book pushed the view, long believed by fans, that Whedon is a genuine "genius."

Levine and Sneider’s final essay aside, Buffy and Philosophy fits firmly in the Importance-of-Buffy genre. In 22 accessible chapters, high on snap and low on jargon, trained philosophers use the tools of their trade to try to bring some order to, or at least make some sense out of, Buffy’s chaotic world. Editor James South admits that the collection is a bit of a grab bag. Nor is the quality of the writing uniform. But the successes more than compensate for the failures.

The Manhattan Institute’s Greg Forster opens with a strong essay arguing that the moral vision of the show is "eudaimonism," the belief that behaving morally makes us somehow happier than being scoundrels.

Wendy Love Anderson looks at Buffy’s treatment of religion. On the one hand, the slayer uses religious symbols and artifacts (e.g., crosses, holy water) in order to kill vampires and other nasties. At the end of season six, worldwide destruction is averted by the self-sacrificial love of a "carpenter." On the other hand, the main characters are irreligious and those who practice a religion are usually evil or ineffective, and Whedon is a professed atheist.

On politics, Jeffrey Pasley and Neal King go head to head over what kind of a political order the show represents. Pasley argues for Buffy the liberal incremental reformer, while King believes the show is "merrily racist" and that one could easily turn it into "fascist propaganda." (With the vampires as the inferior race. Groan.)

Of course, this fan finds it sad that the deluge of critical recognition corresponds with the end of the show. Buffy the Vampire Slayer will end at the end of this, its seventh season, because Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy) has decided not to return. As of this writing, Angel had not been renewed for next season. Whedon has claimed that this isn’t the end of the Buffyverse, but most of the spinoff ideas floated have been frustrated by actors moving on to roles in other series. He may still pull something out, but at this point it doesn’t look likely. As endings go, it’s almost Whedonesque.

Jeremy Lott writes the "Latte Sipping" column for the American Spectator Online.