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Buffy The Vampire SlayerBuffy the Vampire Slayer : Future Is Now
Monday 7 August 2006, by Webmaster
"I don’t want to be a member of a club that accepts types like me". Recently this old joke got practical application: a fan of the show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" accused its writers of excessive immersion in the themes of sex and violence that fascinate her and are persistent themes of her fanfiction.
This unprecedented case is a good starting point for reflection on paradoxes of professional and amateur art in the age of Internet.
Heather Fowler’s paper "Messages About Sex and Violence in the Buffy/Spike Relationship on Buffy the Vampire Slayer A Fine Line Between Love and Hate" has been published on AssociatedContent June 01 2006, more than three years after the show ended. Fowler, a romantic fiction novelist, uses TV show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" as prime example to illustrate her point that TV should be more responsible in telling stories about dark and unhealthy relationships. She doesn’t insist directly on tightening TV censorship but maintains that controversial scenes may send "mixed messages" to the audience. Fowler writes "In this paper, I deal specifically with the message given by the complicated sadomasochistic relationship between the series’ heroine, Buffy Summers, and the wildly popular arch-villain-turned-hero, Spike. [...] I contend that the message of this relationship to young viewers is a dangerous one."
Buffy and Spike are natural enemies. Buffy’s mission is to slay vampires, but she ends up falling in love with them; Spike’s natural calling is to kill Slayers (he has already killed two of them) but he falls in love with Buffy; their relationship is as dark and complicated as prime-time TV can afford. In later seasons Buffy, torn out of heaven, is "addicted to misery" and she punishes herself by using Spike as sex toy, insulting and beating him. He, in his turn, encourages her dark desires because he has no soul and can’t tell right from wrong (in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" soul is regarded as person’s moral compass). Buffy and Spike indulge each other in sadomasochistic games where "no" may mean "yes" - until the day when Spike misreads Buffy’s signals and tries to impose himself on her when her "no" really means "no". Horrified by his act of attempted rape he fights for his soul so that he could never hurt Buffy again. After many crucibles Buffy forgives him and in the final episode of the show confesses her love to him. The ultimate message of the show is that love overcomes everything, empowers women and helps to change the world.
According to Fowler, Buffy and Spike’s story damaged "show’s meta-narrative of female empowerment". In her opinion, "the attempted rape scene brought to the forefront some disturbing viewer attitudes toward women, sexual agency, abuse and violence." Fowler uses random quotes from long-defunct message boards as the proof that the relationship between Buffy and Spike undermines viewers’ morality. She accuses writers of not dealing with the consequences of attempted rape and implies that genre conventions (Buffy is much stronger than her partner - she’s a slayer and a battle-hardened fighter) are unacceptable when writers explore serious issues. Fowler concludes her paper with the statement: "Ours is a world where 80% of rapes are committed by acquaintances of the victim, less than half of those attacks reported to authorities, and in which many teens express a belief that women in certain situations do not have a right to say "no" to sexual activity (Eschbacher, 2002). Therefore, it is more important than ever to examine mixed messages in popular media such as the Buffy/Spike relationship, and understand what they communicate to younger viewers as to what constitutes a healthy romantic and/or sexual relationship. This is especially true in a popular television show whose creators publicly profess themselves and their program to be progressive and feminist, and who are enlightened, educated people with no excuse for not recognizing their influence on, and responsibility toward, young viewers."
Fowler also writes and posts online on her site DenialBubble numerous fanfiction stories (she mention this fact in her paper) under a pseudonym Ducks and the most frequent themes of her writings are sex and violence. In novel-length fanfic "Bringing Him Back" she depicts Buffy and Spike’s sex in a very graphic manner, as quasi-rape: (from Spike’s point of view) "...And in a split second, I don’t really give a witch’s tit, because her hot lips are smashed against mine, her sweet tongue violently plundering my mouth. Hands made to tear my kind in two are tearing nothing but my shirt, and then that mouth is on my bare chest, licking, biting hard enough to draw blood. I yelp in spite of the pleasure of it - it’s too much, her mouth, her scent, my blood, her crotch grinding against my hard-on.
My only thought is, "What the Hell is this?"
Then she wipes that thought away by ripping at the button fly of my jeans and yanking them down to my knees, her little hand grasping my rod too hard (not hard enough) and too hot, and I gasp out loud."
Later in "Bringing Him Back" Spike tells Buffy that she practically raped him and she doesn’t dispute it. However, in Ducks’ story this incident doesn’t preclude them from steamy threesome with another vampire.
Some other Ducks’ stories contain very adult material as they depict sexual encounters of other couples as well as threesomes and foursomes. "For Love or Monster" (Duck’s remarks: B[uffy]/A[ngel]/Faith, NC-17: Contains graphic violence, adult sexuality, bloodplay, character death(s), B[on]D[age]S[ado]M[asochism], darkness and disturbing imagery). "Nooner" (Duck’s remarks: B[uffy]/A[ngel]/F[aith]/S[pike] SMUT! NC-17 for Slash (m[ale]/m[male]/f[emale]/f[female]), Graphic sex. Utterly plotless porn - the current occupants of the Hyperion get together for lunch. And I mean... *TOGETHER*. *g*). "Darkness, I Love" (Duck’s remarks: B[uffy]/A[ngel]us NC-17. Graphic sex, bloodplay. The Slayer finds her Darkness made flesh... and loves it. "The FTECB Series" - (Duck’s remarks: Angelus is back, and he has lovely games for everyone. WARNING: This series contains explicit slash, violence, rape, bloodplay, and various other uniquely Angelus passtimes!) "Overachiever" (Duck’s remarks: Wishverse: Vamp!Willow/Vamp!Oz/Vamp!Faith/Vamp!Lindsey, NC-17 for violence, dark imagery, bestiality, bloodplay, slash.)
The fan who writes very dark NC-17 fanfiction but contends that professional art should abstain from following her steps, is an intriguing phenomenon which reflects the ambivalent situation in culture in the age of Internet. When Fowler writes professionally, it’s her work; she gets paid for the product and she has to meet her employer’s demands. When Fowler becomes Ducks and writes fanfiction she does it for pleasure, to express herself. This dichotomy is perfectly illustrating the crucial problem of the art in general. Should professional art serve the society - i.e. educate, create role models and set examples (as Fowler’s paper suggests) or it should all art be about self-expression (as it happens in case of Fowler’s alter ego, Ducks)?
This dilemma triggers a lot of other questions. Could popular art successfully combine self-expression with education and enlightenment of the audience? Are there different levels of responsibility for professional and amateur art? Does Internet make amateur art more viable? Could professional art create a new model of interaction with the audience to avoid being eclipsed by amateur art which is tremendously boosted by Internet?
Early examples of narrative art (for instance, Greek and Roman mythology) are full of sex and violence. Greek Gods copulate, kill each other and eat their own children. But as soon as censorship appears, many dangerous themes are excluded from professional literature. Interestingly, the greatest and most memorable writer of the previous millennium, Shakespeare, invariably explores themes of sex and violence. The mutual writer’s and reader’s urge, albeit repressed, is there. And it’s understandable: art thrives on passions, pain, conflicts and dysfunctional relationships, because the process of creation is closely connected with channeling frustrations, sublimation of hidden (or not-so-hidden) desires, and exorcising inner demons.
The immense influence of popular media in our society demands a responsible and balanced approach to dangerous themes, so modern TV explores sex and violence warily. But today Internet comes up with TV and quickly becomes more and more important factor in modern culture; for example, Fowler (as Ducks) is very influential writer within “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fandom, she has a cult following and her own sub-fandom of devoted readers who support all her undertakings. Yet, the responsibility of amateur authors is incomparable with that of professional TV writer. Non-professional authors feel free to write what they want to write, although amateur art in Internet usually provides self-imposed regulation by classifications and categories.
So, in the age of Internet everybody gets the chance to express themselves without censorship, without limits and without danger of ruining one’s reputation. Internet provides anonymity (unless a writer chooses to reveal his identity), absence of responsibility, chance to disregard rules and conventions writer finds unnecessary. Internet creates built-in audience of accomplices who can have regular contacts with each other even if they live in different parts of the world. Internet puts all the writers in equal position: you don’t get paid, you write what you want and hope other people like it.
During last ten years Internet sub-culture turned into fully-fledged Internet culture. Online art may be less skilled but it is more sincere - and sincerity is crucial factor in creative process. There are great Internet writers (Ducks is one of them) whose amateur works are highly competitive with professional creations. There are amateur clips, music compositions, even films - and many works can compete with professional ones in artistic quality. Often amateur writers and artists have fresh, original ideas professional art lacks.
In the course of the last decade Internet turned into a giant brain drain which attracts and absorbs enormous quantity of creative energy thus intensifying current crisis of publishing industry and entertainment business in general. Feeble attempts to regulate the process and to direct it toward mainstream entertainment invariably fail, and instead of emerging from Internet into professional culture many talented and original creators (David Lynch, Marilyn Manson to name a few) submerge in dotcom universe to work without censorship and financial struggles thus deepening the flow-out of creative forces from professional art. Talented amateur artists and writers may become good professionals but there is a catch: the integration into professional showbiz may cost them their originality. So far the majority of amateur writers continue working online.
Joss Whedon, the creator of the show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (1997-2003) suggests another, more fruitful principle of co-existence between professional and amateur art. His model of professional art (specifically, show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") is designed to nurture and inspire amateur writers and artists.
Whedon is one of those rare writers and producers who openly encourage fanfiction. More importantly, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" has been designed to urge viewers to write fanfiction or find other forms of self-expression regarding the show.
Whedon’s motto is giving the viewers what they need, not what they want. There is no easy resolutions and no happy endings in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer". Audience wants to see beloved heroes happy but writers give them heartbreak after heartbreak so that fans feel the urge to right the wrongs. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is a high-octane Greek tragedy but fans have creator’s license to transform it into soap-opera or comedy (or even pornography). Each viewer may participate in the creation of the universe and twist it the way he likes. You want to see the heroes happy? Make them happy.
Whedon and his writing team gave fans powerful creative tools to develop his universe. There is a lot of ways to twist the plot and to right the wrongs: resurrection from the dead, granting wishes, visiting different dimensions, appealing to Powers That Be (mysterious forces who are basically writers’ alter egos). Whedon encourages multiple interpretations of important plot points: for example, in one of the episodes writers toy with the possibility that everything that happens on the show is playing out in a crazy person’s mind. When asked about his own take Whedon replied "How important it is in the scheme of the "Buffy" narrative is really up to the person watching. If they decide that the entire thing is all playing out in some crazy person’s head, well the joke of the thing to us was it is, and that crazy person is me. It was kind of the ultimate postmodern look at the concept of a writer writing a show".
In a 1999 interview Whedon, answering a question "How much attention do you pay to feedback on the Internet?" replied "A lot. The episodes people like best are those that advance the soap opera elements. It’s fascinating to see what upsets them".
To upset the audience the show often sends what Fowler calls "mixed messages" i.e. demonstrates complex and controversial situations. In his show evil may look very attractive. The characters regularly have to make tough choices which always have both good and bad consequences. Everybody, including villains, have their reasons. All the relationships on the show are dark and difficult. When Buffy, a 16-years old girl falls in love with a vampire Angel, their first night together strips him of his soul; he becomes evil, terrorizes Buffy and her friends, kills their teacher and tries to destroy the world so Buffy has to send him to hell the very moment when her friends return Angel’s soul. Buffy’s friend, Xander, is possessed by hyena and tries to rape her; later has a relationship with a 1000-years old vengeance demon Anya who killed and maimed her victims before she turned human. Buffy’s female friend, Willow, falls in love with lesbian witch Tara and when her girlfriend is accidentally killed, Willow goes on a murder spree.
That’s how Whedon explains the themes of his show: "Ultimately, stories come from violence, they come from sex. They come from death. They come from the dark places that everybody has to go to. If you raise a kid to think everything is sunshine and flowers, they’re going to get into the real world and die. That’s the reason fairy tales are so creepy, because we need to encapsulate these things, to inoculate ourselves against them, so that when we’re confronted by the genuine horror that is day-to-day life we don’t go insane."
Darkness and controversy around Buffy and Spike’s relationship surpassed that of all the other couples put together. Heroes first met in the beginning of the second season and the chemistry between actors Sarah Michelle Gellar and James Marsters was so strong that fans immediately started to fantasize about mortal enemies as a couple. In season 4 Whedon made a test: during the course of one episode a runaway spell made Buffy and Spike betrothed. Again, the chemistry was so powerful and explosive that in the next season Whedon started a very intriguing and unpredictable love affair between them - and bumpy ride evolved into an exciting rollercoaster. Devoted fans who always are emotionally ahead of the story, wrote thousands and thousands of fanfics about the couple, discussed the tiniest details of their behavior on multiple message boards, made video-clips and Photoshop manipulations, organized campaigns to support heroes. Other fans, who disliked the couple also were very vocal - they wrote letters to show-runners, to TV bosses, to media outlets to express their dissatisfaction.
One of show-runners, Marti Noxon later reminisced about the season 6 when Buffy and Spike finally became lovers: "This was the beginning of the most divisive story we’ve ever had, which was Buffy and Spike boning. Really, I’ve never seen such a strong reaction on both sides. People either love it or hate it. To this day, people either truly believe that Spike is completely redeemed and should be treated a lot better, or they truly believe that Buffy is a fool for trusting someone who’s been evil and how can she be so unheroic as to allow herself to be caught up in this really sordid romance? So you get the total Buffy/Spike shippers or you get the attitude, ‘I just don’t respect Buffy any more.’ It’s fascinating to see. The thing I keep saying is that it’s not black and white. I’d love it to be, but it’s not. To me, this is much more real. If these two crazy kids can make it work, it will be a lot more interesting than a kind of perfect romance with obstacles thrown in. To me, this is real life; this is people making their own problems. If they can get it together, that would be amazing. But it was never going to be easy".
And it wasn’t. Fans desperately wanted happy ending for Buffy and Spike, but Whedon, true to form, ended their relationship tragically: Spike dies saving the world immediately after Buffy confesses her love to him. Moreover, Whedon not only plunged a knife into fans’ hearts, but also twisted it: Spike doesn’t believe that Buffy loves him and she doesn’t get time to convince him.
The absence of happy resolution provided a tremendous boost for fanfic writers who immediately started fixing the situation and reunite heroes in thousands of stories. And they still do it with a vengeance so thanks to them the universe that goes on living. Every day new fanfics and essays appear. New authors join the community. Some fanficwriters became professional authors. Some of them already were professional writers, scholars, scientists when they discovered the fandom.
Interestingly, the most controversial couple of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" - Buffy and Spike - ended up the most popular. Talented actors Sarah Michelle Gellar and James Marsters contributed a lot to its success, but ultimately it was mesmerizing and sometimes shocking complexity of the story of love and redemption that became the crucial factor of couple’s popularity.
Should writers have made their story more feel-good and less edgy, more traditional and less disputable? Should they have been more discreet and politically correct in portraying sex and violence?
"I’ve always been, and long before anybody was paying any attention, very careful about my responsibility in narrative", Whedon insisted in September 2001, when writers started BuffySpike romance. "How much do I put what I want to put, and how much do I put what I feel is correct? People say, "After Columbine, do you feel a responsibility about the way you portray violence?" And I’m like, "No, I felt a responsibility about the way I portrayed violence the first time I picked up a pen. [...] A writer has a responsibility to tell stories that are dark and sexy and violent, where characters that you love do stupid, wrong things and get away with it".
In the age of Internet the responsibility of a professional writer increases because his audience gets a chance to actively participate in the creation of the artistic universe. By avoiding controversial themes or treating them too cautiously professional authors practically lease out these themes to non-professional writers. The desire to explore sex and violence is innate part of human nature, and countless fanfics dedicated to sexual adventures of favorite heroes are the most conclusive proof that people need it. If professional authors cede the most important themes to amateur writers, it means that they practically admit their own failure.
Consciously or subconsciously Whedon developed the most productive way of interaction with the audience: he created a fascinating universe and turned it into a virtual playground for artistically-inclined people. He invited them to play and ignited their imagination by introducing remarkable characters and putting them into moot situations. His universe attracted people who can appreciate complexity, ambiguity and debatable themes.
Whedon has never been condescending to fans and invariably treated them as clever people who understand that there are no easy ways out in real life. He consistently encouraged fans’ creativity without pampering them. And, at the same time, in every story he told Whedon expressed his own tragic views on life and human nature. The much-debated scene of attempted rape was based on personal experiences of one of the female writers. In all his shows ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer", "Angel" and "Firefly") Whedon and his team honestly explored the problems that haunted them because close interaction with the audience demands honesty and openness.
The phenomenally strong response of the audience proves that Whedon and his writers found the most fruitful direction for professional art in the age of Internet. Current TV tendencies demonstrate that showbiz industry has already appreciated Whedon’s model of interaction with fans. Popular new TV shows "Lost" and "Battlestar Galactica" are also designed to stir audience’s creativity: show-runners unequivocally encourage fans to participate in the process of creation.
It won’t be an overstatement to say that "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" started a new age in TV history. The show that started in one millennium and concluded its run in the next millennium, became a bridge between yesterday and tomorrow. Three years has already passed after the ending of the show and we are still passionately debating about Buffy and Spike. Obviously there is something about them that continues to fascinate people.