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Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Buffy season 7 Discussion : Round 2

By James

Tuesday 11 March 2003, by Webmaster

Rhonda mentioned the way that sexuality and physicality are being played out this season. In fact, though, I’m not sure they’re being played out at all. All the characters seem consciously to be repudiating various forms of sexuality, though, as Stephanie rightly points out, sexual tension is everywhere.

Buffy has desexualized her relationship with Spike. Xander and Anya are apart, and while Anya, especially, seems a bit anxious about her lack of sex, Xander seems none the worse for it. Indeed, he seems to have sublimated his sexual energies right into a rather successful construction job. Willow seems particularly surprised that anyone could find her sexually appealing, recoiling from both Anya’s less-than-subtle references to "spellmaking" and her sexual interpretation of their spellmaking session, as well as Kennedy’s obvious sexual flirtation with her in "Bring on the Night."

I’m reminded, again, of Joss’ ambiguous comment about going back to the beginning this season. There are multiple ways of reading that statement, but one way is to think about the characters’ sexual personas. They all seem to have reverted to their high school ways with sex. Willow is timid around women, Buffy expresses her idealized love for Angel, (and note how in "Him" Spike seems threatened by a statuette of an angel), and Xander wants a woman who loathes him as Cordelia did in Season One.

Of course, the most overt treatment of sex this season has been "Him." I’ll confess that I thought this was a fine episode, though I know many in the Buffy fan community think otherwise. But we do see Willow, Anya and Buffy all respond to love pathologically, reverting to their worst instincts. In Season Two-speak, "Love makes you do the wacky." Or, as Dawn put it at the beginning of "Him": "I just don’t see why people bother. I mean, you put all this energy into chasing and having and brooding and — I just don’t understand these relationships where you all do insane things." And Buffy’s comment that Dawn will feel stupider when she does such "insane" things for reasons other than a spell seemed as much a commentary on her own relationship-littered past than anything we’ve seen so far.

And one final moment — the second creepiest scene of the season — when The First, in the guise of Drusilla, lifted her skirt in order to try to manipulate Spike. That was not the kind of behavior that Dru herself was ever portrayed as engaging in — it seemed way out of character. But it may shed light on just how the writers are thinking about sex this season — something the First Evil would use to manipulate people, but not something the "white hats" want to deal with. And it must be significant that it was something that did not seem to move Spike at all.

And speaking of "physicality," what should we make of the fact that The First can’t actually engage in physical activity? The First can manipulate appearances, but proves to be powerless (there’s that word again) without someone to manipulate or to do his bidding. By contrast, all the scoobies have taken real physical punishment this season, and there’s no sign of that ending soon. I’m guessing we’re going to be taught a lesson about the true nature of power and bodiliness.


— James

* * * * *

From: Rhonda To: James, Stephanie and David

I’m just going to write very briefly tonight because I’m exhausted — not from anything physical (on topic here), but because I had a very Stressful day: I received news that a student I was fond of had passed away. Don’t know the cause. His family asked the school to tell me because they said I had helped him a lot. I think people get tired, sometimes, of my connecting the Buffy text with life, but you know, you know, I was thinking about "Help" and Cassie.

I completely agree with what James has said — I think the series is showing the fragility of the physical and is emphasizing spiritual and emotional connections instead. That’s one of the reasons that moment between Willow and Buffy is so touching and important — and I hope to see it built on. And what is happening with Spike and Buffy is I think also a building of relationship — when Cassie said "She will tell you" (I need to check that quote), was she talking about Buffy’s statement "I believe in you, Spike"? And the most dreadful of cruelties is the First’s pretense of connecting Willow to Tara in spirit.

A quick insertion — recognizing the fragility of the physical is not the same thing as rejecting the physical. But I think we are seeing the spiritual/emotional given primacy (rightly, in my view).

One other note — At that Eyedrum gathering I mentioned before, I said almost exactly the same thing as you did yesterday, Stephanie, about trusting the creators of Buffy— and how rare it is to be able to do so. And yes, I do consider Buffy art.

More later, but that’s all I can manage today.

— Rhonda

* * * * *

rom: David To: Rhonda, James, Stephanie

Let me begin by saying that the complex and fascinating discussion to this point is, of course, a testimony to the critical acuity of Stephanie, Rhonda and Jim, but it has lead me to wonder anew at this astonishing series’ ability to generate such discourse. We wouldn’t be having this colloquy about Charmed, now would we? But we wouldn’t be having it about 24 or Alias either (two shows that I dearly love).

Let me comment on a number of topics raised by the rest of the Scoobie Gang (of Critics).

All the discussion of sexuality and bodies has led me to recall the oh-so-wise observation of William Butler Yeats (and there was a great paper on Yeats and Buffy at the "Blood, Text and Fears Conference" that "Bodily decrepitude is wisdom." Now I realize that we are talking about young men and women here and not the aging Yeats of "Among School Children," but the wisdom that Year Seven seems aspiring to might have a similar basis: a realization of constraint, of the limits of power, as Jim and Rhonda have already eloquently contemplated.

On the decline in fight scene quality: Didn’t Buffy lose its fight choreographer a couple of years back? If so, isn’t this a contributing factor? Also, it must be an incredible challenge to keep stage combat fresh and new for over 130 episodes.

On our faith in Joss and company (more a question than a comment): How does audience faith in a television series creator differ from the faith of fans in, say, the makers of long anticipated movies like The Matrix Reloaded or The Lord Of The Rings trilogy? Is the expectation level different/higher for television? Why or why not?

Stephanie’s wonderful pun: The suggestion that "Doublemeat Palace" was, perhaps, "filler" is entirely possible. After all Joss is not beneath such:

Anya: She came from the grave much graver

Spike: First he’ll kill her, then I’ll save her

Tara: Everything is turning out so dark

Spike: No, I’ll save her, then I’ll kill her

Willow: I think this line’s mostly filler

On our continuing discussion of narrative: May I bring another television passion into the Buffy discussion? Last year, when The Sopranos was off the air, the major network TV execs took petty pot shots at the show, claiming they, too could have produced such an attention-grabbing show if they could have used the profanity and nudity allowed on HBO. Sopranos creator David Chase finds that explanation superficial. It is not bare breasts and obscenities that have set The Sopranos apart but, according to its creator, a variety of other factors: the narrative possibilities granted by the absence of commercial interruption, the freedom to allow characters to develop slowly over time, the series’ insistence on treating its audience as highly intelligent.

As Jamie Poniewozik (in Time) observes, The Sopranos expects its viewers to remember details from three years back in an era in which the broadcast networks "increasingly believe it’s highfalutin to air dramas like 24 that require viewers to remember what happened the week before." Now Buffy has never used the F word, has no nudity (aside from various Spike exposures, including that naked side shot in "Sleeper"!), and must endure commercial interruptions (has their ever been a television show that "broke" its narrative episodes better than Buffy?), but it does allow its characters the luxury of unhurried, unforced, real-time development, and it does treat its audience as supremely intelligent.

When I was a Twin Peaks cultist, I was proud (too proud, too elitist) to be one of a very small group who understood the series. Watching Buffy I am proud of being part of a large community ready to acknowledge (with Melville) our "shock of recognition" ("Genius all over the world stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round").

On where we are headed: Did anyone else find this dream dialogue (in "Bring on the Night") intriguing?

Buffy: Something evil is coming.

Joyce: Buffy, evil isn’t coming, it’s already here. Evil is always here. Don’t you know? It’s everywhere.

Buffy: And I have to stop it.

Joyce: How are you gonna do that?

Buffy: I — I don’t know yet, but?

Joyce: Buffy, no matter what your friends expect of you, evil is a part of us. All of us. It’s natural. And no one can stop that. No one can stop nature, not even?

Now we don’t know yet (unless I missed something) whether the Joyce apparition is a manifestation of The First or not, but if she is not, I think she is pointing Buffy (and the show) in an all important direction here: The First will be defeated not by thinking of its as an other but recognizing (in true Jungian fashion) that it lies within, that it is natural. The Buffyverse is not Manichean.

One last matter. Has anyone else been bothered by the way The First has been escaping the narrative and insinuating itself not just into Spike’s new soul or Willow’s grief, or Buffy’s sorrows but into the U.S. Senate itself? And then there was the recent revelation (readily admitted by The First himself in a book) that when it was in medical school it had secured dogs from animal shelters in order to practice dissection …

Oh, sorry, that was the FRIST, not THE FIRST. Emily Litella lives!

— David

* * * * *

From: Rhonda To: Stephanie, James and David "Litella" Lavery

David, you did make me belly LOL. Talk about getting extratextual. And I really like what you said about the possible need to embrace the Jungian Other in order to deal with the First. But does that mean I need to embrace the Frist?

Really, though, I do think that what you’re saying seems to fit. Recall also Buffy talking to her mom in "Gingerbread," when MOO tried to break the world into black and white segments of bovine simplicity. Buffy tells her mom "I don’t think it gets better" — the dark is always there because it is part of us. Maybe dream mom does know better now. Or maybe the First is telling the truth for its own purposes.

At one point during tonight’s episode I muttered "It would have to be Eve." Now I confess I (Southerner that I am) was actually thinking, "Of course The First has to be the Southern-accented Slayer-in-Waiting." My husband Richard, however, piped up "yeah —it’s kind of reactionary to have the Eve character be the First Evil." First I had to stop and deny credit for having thought about the name; then I had to point out that in this episode the First Evil *falsely* takes the place of the true Eve; just as one might say women have been falsely represented, wronged by the more recent (in the millenial scheme of things) patriarchal story of Eve.

One thinks also of the first Slayer (Buffy never has been able to truly explore her roots) — and of the lines David noted in "Lessons" — before the Word or the Bang. If the Word includes the dissemination of the Biblical Eve story, that may surely be questioned here. Recall "Welcome to the Hellmouth" (as Buffy did in her words to "Rona" tonight) and its questioning of the creation story.

Wow, I just set myself up to get a lot of people mad at me, didn’t I? Anyway, this is stuff that’s roaming through my head. I also did, after thinking about what I had written before, realize that I should not have said that I "completely agreed" with James. (We’ve been through this before at UEA, right, James? When you said we disagreed and I said we actually agreed and you disagreed that we agreed?) I should for heaven’s sake beware of absolutes. Anyway, re the "sexuality and physicality" discussion, I was excited by your "not being played out at all" comment. But I don’t agree that the characters are "repudiating" sexuality; I think that other things are just higher priorities, and rightly so. (Or as Stephanie says, this stuff has to be worked out first.)

Humans must recognize their physical natures — this is where we live and breathe and have our being — but it is also true that the more important fight is the spiritual one. I think that what James pointed out about the inability of the First to be corporeal was a very good observation; and maybe the point is that the battle will be fought on the spiritual level. But that doesn’t mean we won’t hurt, and won’t comfort. It doesn’t mean we repudiate the physical.

Though Spike says (is it in "Never Leave Me"?) that he’s only just realized that Buffy used him in the past, I would say that he’s subconsciously realized it before. In the church scene in "Beneath You," when he starts to unzip his pants Buffy is horrified apparently because she thinks he is going for sex with her. But the really sad thing is that he is offering to let her use him as a "service." They of course misunderstand each other.

Is he flesh to her? He has been; "just this," to use her phrase in "Dead Things." His first reaction in that sequence, if you recall, was to tell her not to touch him — then apparently to remind himself to do whatever she needed. For myself, I don’t believe that’s all he is (or was) to her — in the scene later in "Dead Things," when she beats him into a bloody lump (and would it be interesting to explore the images of damaged flesh in this series?), she is certainly protesting too much. (And of course I wrote a whole essay on this in Slayage 5.)

But all of them, all of the characters, need to deal first with the spiritual/emotional to get anything else right — but spirit that inhabits the human flesh. Hey, David, I see the connection to Late for the Sky.

Gotta stop — oh, a quickie — loved the Hamlet stuff, James — and note also that Hamlet includes acknowledgement of mortality not only in terms of the spiritual questions (the To be or not soliloquy, obviously, among other spots) but also in terms of very physical representations — e.g. Polonius as worm-food, Yorick’s lips, etc.

Okay, stopping now.

— Rhonda The readiness is all

* * * * *

From: Stephanie To: James, David & Rhonda

Somehow I’m thinking that the ideas Jim and Rhonda have raised, about the limits of power, may also have something to do with the weird sexual tensions that are coursing through (but not breaking the surface of) Season Seven. Being the ridiculous real-world romantic that I am, I would argue that Spike represents the first real adult relationship Buffy has ever had — the first time a boyfriend has ever demanded that she LOOK at him for who he is, to accept that what she thinks she finds repulsive about him is also the absolute turn-on — and that it goes deeper than just "hot sex."

Angel was the completely idealized beau — and it’s amazing how, in casual conversations with Buffy fans, I still run across women (tough, smart ones!) who get all dewy over Angel and insist that for Buffy he was the one. I might have agreed, up until Season Five or so. But the stuff between Spike and Buffy really threw me for a loop, and continues to confound and intrigue me. Riley was a nice jock who never had a hope in hell of really understanding Buffy. That actually seemed to suit Buffy quite well, and it still does — she doesn’t want to be "got." She doesn’t understand (or care) that that’s part of what adult love is. (This isn’t a particularly high-toned literary reference, but I’m reminded of a line from an old Replacements’ song: "Only loved, not understood, she’s aching to be.")

Buffy’s development as an emotionally mature adult seems to have basically stopped. The rest of the Scoobies are way far ahead of her — Willow is dealing with the death of the person she loved best (she is a very young widow), Anya and Xander are figuring out how to maintain a friendship even in the midst of the resentment and weird sexual tension that lingers between them (my God, poor things, they’re like old divorced people!). Buffy just avoids everything — even Spike, the only one who can get under her skin (as he himself has noted). (Poor, suffering Spike! He’s like the Gene Tierney of early 21st century TV!) All that matters to Buffy at this point is power and strength — the ability to kick The First’s ASS. (Now what, pray tell, do you think The First’s ass looks like?) And that gives her a convenient excuse not to have to deal with Spike or any of that yucky love stuff (she’s kind of like an adolescent boy in that way, isn’t she? hmm ...).

But at the same time, she’s facing the limits of that power and that strength. It seems that only now is Whedon showing us the real price Buffy has to pay for not having had a normal teenagerhood. That was the great joke of the show in the early years: We had this sunny, cheerful teenager who should be spending her evenings hanging out with her pals at the soda shoppe (like in the Archie comics), but all those simple pleasures were held apart from her — instead, she had all these wearisome burdens and responsibilities; the weight of the world was on her shoulders. It seems to have stunted her development, to have twisted her in some way. And now, when she really needs to feel powerful — she isn’t. Or isn’t as powerful as she needs to be. Nor is she a reasonably well-adjusted adult. What DOES she have, then? She often seems more lost than even poor, deranged Spike.

The issue of faith in a TV show and/or its creator ... David wrote: "How does audience faith in a television series creator differ from the faith of fans in, say, the makers of long anticipated movies like The Matrix Reloaded or The Lord Of The Rings trilogy? Is the expectation level different/higher for television? Why or why not?" I think it’s lower with TV. People still (for some good reasons and some very bad ones) think of movies as the higher art. I have a hard time convincing people that some of the best acting out there is done on TV — and often these are actors who have really lived with a character, who find ways to come up with fresh and interesting things week in and week out. That’s it’s own particular challenge.

So maybe one of the reasons so many people have taken so keenly to Buffy is that it exceeds our expectations of what we thought TV could be (just as Twin Peaks did). There are literary allusions there if you want to read them, but it’s also perfectly enjoyable if you don’t. It deals with an amazing range of human emotions and experiences. Our downstairs neighbor hasn’t had a TV for years, but we lent her our DVD of the first season of Buffy and she was instantly hooked. She went through everything we had to lend her in about a weekend (or less!). And she said to us, "I didn’t want to have one of those stupid evil boxes in my home, but now I’m realizing that THIS is the kind of thing I run the risk of missing ...?" Now, I love my stupid evil box for many reasons — old Warner Bros. cartoons, the occasional episode of South Park, Real Sex on HBO, etc. and so forth. But I can honestly say that over the past seven years I have loved it most for Buffy.

Long live the stupid evil box!

I’m also really intrigued by David’s comments about how artful Buffy is (the commercial interruptions — YES! Whedon actually uses them to shape the narrative of each episode ... someone could do a whole paper on this!). And how network execs have tried to denigrate The Sopranos by claiming they could do great TV if only, if only, blah blah blah — and meanwhile, Whedon, working under the same constraints as they are, blows them all away. And as all of you have pointed out, BtVS is something of a demanding show — it expects us to be able to follow the narrative and remember details from many seasons past. I just love having something EXPECTED of me as part of an audience. I understand what you mean, David, about feeling proud to be part of this group that accepts that "shock of recognition." It’s galvanizing to be treated with so much respect. Uh, like an adult, basically.

Now back to those Warner Bros. cartoons ...

— sz

* * * * *

From: James To: David, Rhonda and Stephanie

Lots of good stuff rising to the surface in the last exchange, not the least being a Replacements reference — and from the much underrated Don’t Tell a Soul, no less.

Here’s where I have to reveal my deep Buffy secret. I’ll confess, and I hope I don’t get run out of town (or at least the discussion) for this, but I am pretty much immune to the charms of Spuffy. Apparently, I’m just defective that way; and I know it means I’m pretty much missing what many people watch the show for these days. Oh well.

I think that after seven years of watching Buffy be the slayer, we really do tend to forget that being the slayer is not something that Buffy is *in addition to being Buffy*. In many ways, it’s the non-slayerness that gets in her way. Thus, to borrow Stephanie’s phrase, it’s not surprising that Buffy is not an "emotionally mature adult."

If I wanted to watch emotionally mature adults on TV, I’d watch ... shoot, I can’t think of any emotionally mature adults on television. But I don’t want Buffy to be an emotionally mature adult. I want her to be the slayer. I know I have a tendency to read Buffy as a kind of Bildungsroman, so aptly described by Dilthey as a story in which "The dissonances and conflicts of life appear as the necessary transit points of the individual on his way to maturity and harmony. And the ’highest happiness of humankind’ is the development of the person as the unifying, substantial form of human existence." (I think that proves I’ve officially thought about this show too much, if I had a Dilthey quote lying around among all the Buffy notes on my hard drive).

But I constantly remind myself that there’s no good reason to read Buffy that way. Buffy’s a slayer, complete with an expiration date stamped on her — and judging from "Showtime," perhaps she’s stamped with an expiration date that’s already passed.

A remark or two about trusting Joss. I may be the only one of us who spends much time hanging out on fan boards, but that is a very revealing experience. The four of us may trust Joss, but for each of us, there are others who trusted him and feel betrayed. This is most striking in connection with those who had a heavy emotional investment in the Willow/Tara relationship. So, we may want to talk a bit more about just what trust means in relation to a TV show. I take it my (our) trust in Joss is rather different from a fannish one that invests in one element of the show and reads all the events from that one perspective.

Joss’ famous quote about giving viewers what they need, not what they want, is really both courageous and breathtakingly presumptuous at the same time. Honestly, how can he know what viewers need? Is it possible to watch the show from an objective view, a view from nowhere? Don’t we have to have some investment in a particular aspect of the show to be hooked at all? And if that’s the case, how can Joss know which hooks to play with, and when? And what does it say about me as a viewer that I find the Buffy/Spike relationship tedious? Is Joss teaching me something by exploring that relationship? Am I invested so heavily in Buffy’s slayerness that I’ll be terribly disappointed if the show ends happily for Buffy (that is, happy in some conventional sense of happiness)? Will I learn something from that, or just become pissed off like so many Willow/Tara fans? One of the interesting things about fan boards is watching just how many different ways the show has of hooking fans, which is just another way of pointing out how many opportunities the show has for driving fans crazy.

And just a worry. There’s a lot of Joss worship that goes on (and not without good reason), and I know Joss is the guy, but there’s also Marti, David Fury, the two Drews, Jane Espenson, Rebecca Rand Kirshner and Doug Petrie writing like crazy to make this show work. I sometimes wonder, especially when I watch Angel, how much of Joss’ success is because of those he surrounds himself with. Is Buffy going to be the TV version of the Beatles? A case of the chemistry of the whole being something more than the chemistry of the parts? Firefly showed real promise, I thought, but even so, much of the creative input was from the same group of people, although the addition of Ben Edlund (I’ll take Stephanie’s Warner Bros. cartoons and raise her the first season of the Tick!) was a stroke of genius.

Finally, another remark about physicality and sexuality - "repudiating" was, perhaps too strong, and Rhonda’s right to call me on that. Or at least make me explain that remark a bit further. This show’s attitude toward sexuality has always been a little odd, because there’s no doubt that sexual feelings are the kiss of death in this show (sometimes literally). Buffy and Angel sleep together and, presto, he becomes evil. Willow and Tara reunite, have great sex and, bang, Tara’s dead.

Think about Giles and Jenny, or the way that Faith was portrayed as much more sexualized than Buffy. Think about Buffy’s dance with Xander in "When She was Bad." More recently, Dawn’s dance with RJ in "Him" — which mirrored Buffy’s dance with Xander. Or think about the amusingly exploitative Wesley/Lilah relationship over on Angel, or even the Cordy/Connor issue. Sexuality in the Jossverse always seems to go along with emotional trauma, pain and death. So, maybe the characters shouldn’t be repudiating sexuality if they want to be healthy human beings, but if they want to stay alive in the Jossverse, it’s probably in their best interest to do so. And that’s what I think we’re seeing this season.

And can I just mention one final thing? My now predictable disappointment that the show was overlooked yet again. This time the Grammy voters ignored the "Once More, with Feeling" soundtrack. Grrr. Arrgh.

— James

P O P F O R U M Discuss Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Related Sites Here’s the official UPN Buffy site. From PopPolitics, other Buffy-related articles can be found here. Here are other points of interest related to the ongoing discussion: "Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Male Defeat" (Bad Subjects); "A Vampire with Soul, and Cheekbones"; "A Weekend with Buffy, Vampire Slayer and Seminar Topic"; "Slaying Terrorism" (The New York Times); Salon’s directory of BtVS articles; Whedonesque (a weblog of all things related to Joss Whedon); and Restless (a Buffy trivia guide).

* * * * *

Stephanie Zacharek is a staff writer for Salon. She has also written for The New York Times, the New York Times Book Review, Entertainment Weekly and Newsday.

James B. South is an associate professor of philosophy at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis. In addition to numerous essays on topics in late Medieval and Renaissance philosophy, he is the editor of the forthcoming (March 2003) Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale (Chicago: Open Court). He and his wife, Kelly Wilson, collect 1960s spy TV show memorabilia (especially The Man from U.N.C.L.E.). His Web site can be found here.

David Lavery is a professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University.Heisthe author/editor/co-editor of six books, including Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks (Wayne State University Press, 1994) and This Thing of Ours: Investigating The Sopranos (Columbia University Press, 2002). ("Coming Heavy," an article on the intertexuality of The Sopranos, was reprinted in PopPolitics.) With Rhonda Wilcox, he co-edited Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002) and runs the online journal Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies. They are also organizing the Slayage Conference on Buffy the Vampire Slayer to be held in Nashville in May of 2004. He is now completing a book on Seinfeld.

Rhonda V. Wilcox is a professor of English at Gordon College in Barnesville, Ga. While she has published on subjects as varied as Molière and Thomas Pynchon, her primary area of interest is good television. She is the author of the chapter on television in the Greenwood Guide to American Popular Culture and of one of the earliest scholarly articles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "’There Will Never Be a "Very Special" Buffy’: Buffy and the Monsters of Teen Life," Journal of Popular Film and Television 27.2 (1999). With David Lavery, she is the co-editor of Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002) and of Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies. A member of the editorial board of Studies in Popular Culture, she gave the opening plenary address at the 2002 University of East Anglia-sponsored conference "Blood, Text, and Fears: Reading Around Buffy the Vampire Slayer."