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Buffy The Vampire Slayer

’Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ in the Fantasy Canon

Saturday 12 March 2011, by Webmaster

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was famously “a teen drama…with vampires,” equally involved with representing realistic teens as with showing these teens fighting monsters and demons. Creator and show-runner Joss Whedon once said that his original conception of the landmark show came from an impulse to give substance to the buxom blonde so easily disposed of by monsters in horror movies.

To view Buffy, then, as a revisionist entry in the fantastical horror genre would seem apt. But it’s interesting to notice that it’s not the fantastical elements Whedon inherited from horror movies that are most revised, but the realistic ones. Buffy is original for focusing on realistic characters—their language, their psychological motivations, their humanity—as much as on their involvement in a fantasy world. Buffy is traditionalist in the horror genre, but innovative in attending to realism as readily as fantasy. And the show’s success as fantasy illustrates the importance of a strong sense of reality in effective fantasy stories.

To even begin to talk about a fantastical world, one has to seriously consider its relation to reality. There is reality as it actually exists; there is a facsimile of this reality as we experience it, projected into a medium that bends to the whims of imagination; and finally there is a fantasy world that makes certain alterations upon this facsimile. The latter two both take place in “fiction,” or the not-real. But the enjoyment of fantasy worlds always requires a groundwork of necessary plausibility. For us to go into a wonderland, we must first understand what a “land” is; for us to enjoyably follow the exploits of a superman, we must first know what a “man” is, and how the superman differs from him. One imagines passing through a series of doors into larger and larger rooms, the structural integrity of each subsequent room depending entirely on that of the former. Fantasy stories require of their audience two concepts of “the real,” one of which is “actually real” and commonly experienced in reality and another that is an abstraction of the real, which constantly references this common experience but which also has a certain imaginative malleability.

Also, one notices right away that the subtler the malleability of abstracted realities, the greater their artistic effect. While great fantasy stories make un-real claims upon literary projections of real experiences, the demands of their un-reality end up being really not very great. For instance, consider the dragon. Here is a creature quintessential to many fantasy worlds but the novelty of which rests entirely upon the combination of very normal creatures. Broken into parts, the dragon is a cat, a snake, and a bat. The dragon’s most fantastical attribute, breathing fire, is also an amalgam of two very normal things. We know of fire; we know of breathing. To suppose that something could breathe fire is not an exercise in recreation but rearrangement. Given these observations, does the dragon seem more or less real than, say, Blair from Gossip Girl, whose novelty occurs within the projected realities that fantasy uses as its substructure? Blair supposes a “new woman,” (and very effectively, too), whereas a dragon only supposes our old conceptions of fire, breathing, cats, bats, etc. and combines them. Whereas “realistic” stories rewrite history, fantasy is much more indebted to history as it has already been written.

The giant is a man whose bigness gives humanity a beastliness, makes him “other.” But his menace is his sameness, not his otherness. The vampire is the human form given aspects of certain parasites, worms, insects, and bats. But we are more frightened of vampires when they take the form of a man than when they appear as mists. Very little actual fantasy is required for a fantasy story, and subtle forms of fantasy are much more effective than those that go over the top. One could tell a story about a “normal day”—a character working in an office, fighting traffic, paying too much for lunch—and then have him bump in to only one unicorn, after meeting a thousand objects and people of everyday quality, and presto change-o, the story barrels headlong into fantasy. This is only a short stretch of the imagination, in some ways much smaller than to suppose an ordinarily fictional “something that could have happened but did not.”

This is significant to Buffy, because while the show would seem an “innovation” or a “revision,” it is really more a throwback, a return to form. By focusing on what is real in its telling of fantasy stories, it illustrates the indebtedness of all fantasy stories to reality, and positions itself within a long tradition of like fantasy stories. With Buffy we get a television show about teens much more real than those in Gossip Girl but who also happen to be destined to fight the demonic forces of evil. Rather than the fantasy of one aspect of this show undermining the real, fantasy and reality are completely dependent upon the other and thus they reinforce each other in a way that is not necessarily required in shows like Gossip Girl and 90210, the fantasy of which is much less overt but also much greater. As effective fantasy finds itself indebted to effectively real characters, so effective fantasy stories often contain characters strikingly true to life.

Realism, Fantasy, and Magic Realism

Like fantasy, realistic fiction or “realism” is a literature constructed from a reaction to reality itself, and this often not an altogether realistic reaction. Realism is not so much a reflection of “the real” as an emphasis of certain aspects of it.

The construction of the realistic aesthetic is, in a way, much less indebted to reality itself than that of fantasy. Realism does not necessarily build from the experience of the reader but asks him or her, in a sense, to throw that experience out the window and, instead, to take into account someone else’s experience. Since reality itself is not a plane from which realism launches its own imaginative vision but rather one from which it reactively rebuilds, realism has no particular loyalty to reality. The difference is somewhat like that between a picture of a dragon and a cubist painting of a woman. The former is real in medium, unreal in that which is being depicted; the latter is unreal in medium, real in that which is being depicted. The cubist painting of the woman assumes an experience of “woman-ness,” but one that is not necessarily shown in the art itself. The point of the cubist painting lies in a perceived difference as compared to an actual sameness, whereas the picture of the dragon highlights the reverse, a perceived sameness as compared to an actual difference. One can only guess at to what a cubist painting of an imaginary creature would be; someone might try, but it wouldn’t work unless we first knew what the creature looked like. So we could understand a cubist painting of a dragon, but only because we’ve already seen much more “realistic” drawings up to that point.

Realism makes use of the difference between that which “did or did not happen” much more liberally than that which “could or could not happen.” The effectiveness of the latter difference is built upon the former and, in a sense, enforces its veracity; in not addressing the latter difference, realism often does not take the trouble to enforce such veracity, or at least often requires it in a less representative way. This is not to say that realists do not need to know what reality is, or that the good writers among them do not need to assume that their readers do. But where fantasists build upon existing realities, realists tear down existing realities only to rebuild them. Again, where realism rewrites, fantasy rearranges.

Another key difference between realism and fantasy is that realism focuses on novelties of human interaction, while fantasy focuses on ordinary human interaction in new worlds. Fantasy wants the container of the story to be new, the setting and circumstance, while realism wants the contained or what goes into the container to be new, the characters. Realism wants new men fighting against the old world, while fantasy wants ordinary men who find themselves in new worlds. And this is why fantasy stories are thought to be less personal than realistic ones.

Fantasy stories often feature very “ordinary” protagonists in un-real circumstance, while realism features the exact opposite—un-ordinary protagonists in ordinary circumstance. But as “ordinariness” in literature is often a measure of how close we are allowed to look, and all characters stop being ordinary if one is allowed to live inside their thoughts, fantasy with its rendition of the misplaced everyman as seen from the outside often comes off as less personal, while realism with its psychological emphasis of interior perspective becomes more so.

By recognizing the narrowness of “what is personal” in the above description, we can see the important innovation of magic realism, which somewhat reconciles the personal and the fantastical by allowing fanstical elements to represent the personal. Magic realism recognizes that a character’s personality can be addressed as profoundly through his or her actions within a new world, as by addressing the psychological motivations of those actions. It addresses the question of whether or not fantasy stories are personal by addressing fantasy’s relation to “the real,” that reality is always personal.

Magic realism writers—like Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and Salman Rushdie—altogether bypass the argument of the impersonality of fantasy stories. They maintain the literary embellishment of realism, that of a closer-than-life perspective and emphasis of detail, while doing away with its core characteristic, a re-writing of actual experience. With the magic realists, we get the mannerisms and stylizations of realism with an allowance for different worlds or literary containers. Magic realists rearrange real like fantasists but look closely at those real things like realists. Here, we get un-ordinary protagonists, because we are allowed to live within their perspective and can looks closely at all their peccadilloes, in the un-ordinary circumstance of magic. And often the new worlds and characters of magic realism are made to interact with are projections of internal, personal struggles. Here, we enjoy close perspective, as in realism, but we also formally rely upon the real, as in fantasy.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer belongs in the tradition of magic realism. Buffy is an ordinary girl, yet her interiority is writ large in adventure. Her powers do not threaten her ordinariness; they are, in fact, significant projections of her quite plain interiority. Supernatural powers do not make the characters of Buffy less recognizable. Their powers are an exercise in perspective, an exercise in showing graphically what a novel by Henry James would explore psychologically through inner monologue. Our “closeness” to Buffy Summers, by way of her interiority being significantly projected into a shown medium, formally comprises her status as a vulnerable, human hero.

This is illustrated well in one of the most poignant moments of the series. It is a turning point for the character of Faith, the “other Slayer,” and in differentiating Faith’s slip from reality against Buffy’s steadfastness. The moment is in “Bad Girls” (3.14) where Faith accidentally kills a human, thinking that he is a vampire. Buffy, who “dusts” vampires on a daily basis, is visibly shaken by the death of an actual human being. Faith is not so outwardly shaken, and she continues down the arc that had been already established this season, further into evil and inhumanity. Her projected psychology falls into the blank monochromatic mood swings of all evil characters while Buffy’s maintains its hue and nuance. Diving Further Into Fantasy

Fantasy stories vary in whole and in part by the distances they remove themselves from the real. They are divided here in three categories by A, B, and C, though the difference between the types is very fluid and perhaps better represented along a continuum than in groups.

Type A Fantasy is where the difference between the imagined fantastical world and that of the reader is very large; the world as we know is not in plain view. Common objects may persist between the two worlds, as in the “sword and sorcery” sub-genre; swords exist in our own real world, though maybe they have never been put to quite such good use on our own plane. People look generally the same, though with heightened features. Heroes are impossibly strong, helper dwarves are impossibly ugly, villains either specter-like or dark-side versions of the hero, with equal strength but thwarted morality and thus distorted outward physicality. Commonalities between this kind of fantasy and the real—and thus in the dynamic by which this kind of fantasy is springloaded, as it were—are established by way of abstraction and of emphasis. These stories see heightened (and usually simplified) versions of real situations played out in epic battles between good and evil. Characters imbued with this kind of fantasy can throw farther, ride longer, hit harder. They do some of the things that we do, only much better, which ultimately gives them a difference of quality rather than degree.

Examples of Type A Fantasy are the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars sagas, where the action occurs “in a land far, far away” or so “long ago” that reality itself seems to have a markedly different nature than ours. Characters can ride horses for days on end, or jump up huge walls with perfect balance. They use “the Force,” which can perhaps be the most pure expression of Type A Fantasy. Where we can move things by way of abstracting them, or by harnessing them with technology, they can move objects physically with their minds, which is a kind of mental exercise so great as to become “other.”

Type B Fantasy exists when definite portals exist between the worlds. Fantasy and reality merge significantly. Or more aptly, fantasy and reality have to deal with each other. Fairy tales are of this Type B—as the rich man’s house in “Cinderella,” or the woods in “Hansel and Gretel,” or the abject poverty described at the beginning of “Jack and the Bean Stock.” These places and things were more or less real in history, though they seem remote from modern sensibilities and have been so infiltrated by magic entities since their historical moment that it is sometimes hard to think of them as ever being real. The Harry Potter books are perhaps a more obvious example of Type B Fantasy, as well as the Narnia books.

Certain totemistic magical items can also be said to be in the tradition of Type B Fantasy. We have rings in our world; magic rings are not necessarily made magic as a result of their being greater or “more ring-y,” as Type A’s difference of emphasis would dictate. Conan’s sword used in the Type A sense, for example, becomes “more a sword” in his hands; its function is heightened. But the faculty of Arthur’s sword, Excalibur, to choose the King of Logres is totemistic, and not necessarily as a function of its being a sword. Excalibur in other ways is Type A but not in this one. A cup or a crown could have just as easily chosen Arthur to be king.

Type C Fantasy is where the real exists as a literary device by which to view the fantastic. With Type C, the reader/audience is totally immersed in fantasy, but usually through the eyes of a very normal type of person. The modern obstinacy of the protagonists of Alice in Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth, as well as the simple goodness of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and, to a certain degree, the Hobbits in Lord of the Rings, are all examples of Type C Fantasy tradition; in either case, “normalcy” hinders an understanding of each respective magical world but also enables our own enjoyment of those worlds. Alice, Milo, and Dorothy maintain their real-ness in their magical worlds to give the viewer a portal by which to view said worlds. They are the eye of the fantastical hurricane, and the eyes of the reader/audience.

Magical objects of the Type C variety include those chosen for their homeliness, like the owls or the Ford Anglia in the Harry Potter series, or like the ways Chewbacca resembles a faithful dog in Star Wars. These objects are not only totemistic but also homely; their associations are to ideas small rather than great; they are characterized not by their being a symbolic portal between the ordinary and the other-world but as being totally at home in our own world. Their “otherness” in fantasy worlds, then, is all the stranger for being recognizable. We identify with them and are not overawed by them, except in their being magic, and feel the difference of their being magical because we identify with them. Type C magic in itself perhaps most aptly encapsulates the dynamic of fantasy being indebted to reality.

The best examples of Type A are the most simple in their abstraction, the most complex in the narrative layering of said abstraction, as in the Lord of the Rings. Type B, however, improves with complexity; here we find sneak-thief heroes and sympathetic villains. For example, while most characters in Lord of the Rings are Type A, Frodo and Gollum are Type B, which is why they have a kind of kinship, and why they both must leave the world in the end. They are pushed out by Middle-earth’s being mostly of the Type A variety. Many fantastical stories have elements of all three, though in such examples each type is still distinctive and yields themes representative of said distinctions.

Buffy shows all three types at different times. Willow’s nerdiness coupled with her extreme power as a witch can be said to have Type C significance, while her intelligence has Type A. One should view her intelligence and her nerdiness separately, as they are not necessarily two sides of the same coin, which is demonstrated through the character of Xander, who is definitely nerdy but not particularly intelligent. Buffy’s strength is, of course, Type A, while the spells and rituals performed on the show are part of the Type B tradition.

The character of Giles is interesting for very clearly showing all three types at various times during the run of the series. At first he shows definite symptoms of Type C, exuding fatherly homeliness and approachability in his status as Buffy’s Watcher, yet obvious magical tendencies. As the Watchers’ Council begins to expand its influence over Buffy’s world, Giles begins to take on Type B totemistic qualities. Through the course of the series, Giles’s resourcefulness—and indeed that of all the characters—approaches Type A levels. All the Buffy characters at one point take on different types, though maybe no other character exists so comfortably in all three as Giles.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Magic Realism

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a significant example of magic realism. The formal intermingling of reality and fantasy are interestingly (and as it turns out, inversely) paralleled in storylines and characterizations. Buffy is very ordinary—indeed she often flees from fantasy into the real—a character who confronts her mortal and immortal enemies with all parts of her personality intact and on display.

Buffy is conflicted, scared, remorseful, reluctant; her appropriation of fantastical elements is as awkward as that of the show’s realism to fantasy is fluent. And this is a crucial quality of the show: a formal fluency between the real and the unreal reflected in characters whose narrative transitions between reality and unreality are anything but fluid. We watch Buffy fight demons, and yet our emotions in watching her do so are feelings we would recognize anywhere.

Another extremely interesting aspect of the story is its sheer number of fantastical characters. Fantasy becomes almost commonplace on the show, such that there is very little “othering” of magical creatures. Many stories with large and various fantastical casts have a Type C “normal” character who remains couched in reality and gives the audience a sense of “a man on the ground.” Think Luke in the “Mos Eisley scene” of Star Wars, Alice in her Wonderland, or even Harry Potter, who in the magical world of Hogwarts and Diagon Alley never seems to stop being amazed by it all. Not so in Buffy; vampires and magic becomes prosaic very quickly on the series, and surprises are those of plot and character rather than of a heightened fantasy. The character closest to performing this Type C function is Xander, but he is too situated in his role as the lovable fool to serve as a Type C everyman.

As stated before, the peccadilloes of interiority that would comprise a story’s placement within the tradition of realism are in Buffy drawn as fantastical. Whatever is personal or unusual about the real selves of human beings is on the show drawn as fantasy. The core conflict of the series is Buffy’s own personal struggle with her magical self, and thus, her reluctance to be thrown headlong into her own personality and “become herself.” She is a character that over the course of the series transforms from the thoughtless, easily-killed blonde of horror movies into the heroine of her own epic story.

No other story arc typifies this transformation than Buffy’s romance with Angel. She feels deeply for him on a real-world level, yet her feelings run contrary to what is safe on a fantastical one. Complications arise between them only after they are each unmasked as Slayer and vampire. Buffy and Angel’s love is perhaps the most fantastical element in the series, in that it runs against every rule set up in their magical cultures, and yet it is the most recognizable, the star-crossed lovers. Yet even before being revealed as a vampire, Angel is always dangerous to Buffy. That his danger is reflected and confirmed across the line between reality and fantasy speaks volumes to the show’s ability to exist within both worlds.

A sense of drama being played out on two levels occurs everywhere on the series, often mirroring typical teen television clichés with equally trite horror-fantastical clichés, their amalgam comprising something unique and meaningful. One example of this is the evil Mayor character from Season Three. He is relentlessly cheerful, a politician. Yet his cheer hides a menace perhaps unplumbed by any other character in the show’s run—except for Nathan Fillion’s maniacal preacher Caleb.

But the best example of television drama clichés being mirrored by fantasy cliché, with the combination informing and enriching each and together creating something special, is the inclusion of the Dawn character at the beginning of Season Five, perhaps the show’s most profound moment of fantasy.

Television is known for throwing new characters into the mix willy-nilly, long-lost cousins who suddenly move into town and become part of “the gang,” neighbors who had always lived right next door but whom the audience had never seen. In this case, the Dawn character uses the audience’s ignorance against itself. She is presented at the beginning of Season Five as “Buffy’s sister,” treated as if she had always been there. Even faithful viewers doubted themselves, not remembering any mention of a long-lost sister but having no reason to disbelieve the Summers’ knowledge of their own family. Maybe the audience had forgotten some scene where Michelle Trachtenberg had been shooed away to private school, and had only recently returned.

This would be par for the course for TV. There was no indication that any funny business was afoot until we had already run through the surprise of seeing her and had accepted her as just another TV cliché, as we had been taught by so many other series. But as always, Buffy shows us what we’ve seen on television, then shows us something more. The explanation of the appearance of Dawn fuses formal television technique and magical content in a wholly new way. Our sense of reality is involved significantly in the moment, as with all great fantasy.