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Buffy The Vampire SlayerShe saved the world, a lot
Sunday 1 June 2003, by Webmaster
More than just a vampire show, it explored the battle between good and evil, feminism and patriarchy and, like, other stuff. David Dale mourns the passing of Buffy.
The power of Buffy (The Teenage Vampire Slayer) is way out of proportion to her audience. In Australia, she has about half a million fans; in America, about five million.
So the outpouring of anguish and analysis across the Western media that greeted the showing of Buffy’s final US episode last week seems, at first sight, ridiculous.
But whether her story was followed by more than two per cent of the population for the past seven years is beside the point.
What matters is the image. Millions saw her posing glamorously on the covers of women’s magazines and provocatively on the covers of men’s magazines.
Millions heard her offered up as a symbol of the eternal struggle between good and evil, between realism and superstition, between teenagers and adults, between shock and laughter, and between female empowerment and sexist commodification.
Describing Buffy as "the most original, witty and provocative television show of the past two decades", Britain’s The Independent ran this obituary: "With astonishing bravura, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has succeeded in blending the conventions of teenage soap opera with smart, dialogue-driven comedy, a phantasmagoria of supernatural motifs - and even knotty theological debate."
The Miami Herald said: "What should concern any TV fan is the end of a daring work of love and imagination, something born of passion instead of a fleeting, this-year’s-flavour fame ... And those monsters Buffy battles ... are the demons we wrestle throughout our lives: the desire to fit in, the need to be your own person, the emotional risks of love and sex."
The Toronto Star lamented the end of a "multi-dimensional, deeply recessed and densely layered mythology ... that could engage both supernatural escapism and earthly social constructs such as friendship, love, power, religion and free will".
Such reactions were exactly in accordance with the strategy of the show’s creator, Joss Whedon, who told the satirical US magazine The Onion: "I designed Buffy to be an icon, to be an emotional experience, to be loved in a way that other shows can’t be loved. Because it’s about adolescence, which is the most important thing people go through in their development, becoming an adult. And it mythologises it in such a way, such a romantic way - it basically says, ’Everybody who made it through adolescence is a hero.’
"And I think that’s very personal, that people get something from that that’s very real ... I wanted her to be a cultural phenomenon. I wanted there to be dolls, Barbie with kung-fu grip. I wanted people to embrace it in a way that exists beyond, ’Oh, that was a wonderful show about lawyers, let’s have dinner.’ I wanted people to internalise it, and make up fantasies where they were in the story, to take it home with them, for it to exist beyond the TV show. And we’ve done exactly that."
Whedon decided to kill the show when the star, Sarah Michelle Gellar, told him she didn’t want to do an eighth series, and when he realised he was "sleepy". He’d invented the character in 1992 for a movie called Buffy the Teenage Vampire Slayer. The film flopped, but a new US network called The WB encouraged Whedon to resurrect the character in a comedy/ thriller series which started in the States in March 1997. It was an immediate cult, and Gellar became a cover girl.
Then the academics discovered it. Sociologists and philosophers generated essays that were often reprinted in a quarterly called Slayage: "The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies".
Sheryl Vint, a professor of English at the University of Alberta, wondered if Buffy was primarily a figure of empowerment for young women or a lust object for young men. She wrote: "Young women often reject a feminist identity because they associate such an identity with the negative stereotype of a man-hater ... It is imperative that feminism find a way to connect with the cultural life of young women, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer strikes me as one productive avenue through which this work can be done."
But she worried that "secondary texts" were subverting the image: "In magazines targeted at men, the desire to show Sarah as an object for sexual consumption becomes the dominant meaning of the text ... Does a sexualised Buffy in the secondary texts mean a return to the patriarchal stereotypes of women, undoing all the feminist ideological work performed by the primary text?"
Vint’s answer is no, because the female fans are "sophisticated, savvy readers, aware of the ways that sexualised texts attempt to manipulate their self image. Gellar, herself a young woman who has been formed by these cultural forces, has demonstrated the ability of young women to maintain an ironic distance from their exploitation."
Jana Riess, the religion editor for the US-based Publishers Weekly, is writing a self-help book called What Would Buffy Do? A Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide. "Whedon may call himself an atheist," she says, "but Buffy deals with profoundly religious themes. It serves as a strong moral example most of the time."
So Buffy is pro-feminist and pro-faith. But is she also pro-war? Anthony H. Cordesman, the chairman of the US Government’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies, recently published a treatise on "Biological Warfare and the Buffy Paradigm".
He told The Washington Post: "I was trying to explain modern warfare to people who seem to be incapable of understanding the subject. It is a fairly esoteric, difficult topic, so I thought if I related it to something in pop culture, it would be more easily understood ... Buffy deals with uncertainty and the grim side of life better in some ways than many experts in national security."
Read no further if you’re a Buffy fan, because a plot-spoiler is coming.
This obsessive, intellectual nature of the Buffy fan base explains why the Seven network in Australia is being highly sensitive in the build-up to the final episode, which will be shown here on August 11.
This week 487,000 Australians in the mainland capitals watched Buffy and 373,000 watched the spin-off series Angel. The dominant demographic within that audience is women aged between 25 and 39, which Seven needs because its most popular shows tend to reach older viewers.
Asked why this week’s episode of Angel had been a repeat, a Seven publicist said: "So the fans won’t be screwed over - we’re trying to do right by them." She explained that in the episode of Buffy due for June 9, Willow (a lesbian witch) will receive a phone call asking her to come and see Angel (a vampire and former boyfriend of Buffy).
She will then turn up in the episode of Angel that plays on June 10. If Seven hadn’t run a repeat this week, Willow’s appearance in Angel would have happened prematurely.
After that, Seven will need to run a couple of repeat episodes of Buffy to ensure that the current series of Angel will finish two weeks ahead of the Buffy finale, allowing Buffy’s beloved vampire to reunite with his beloved slayer for her last two weeks.
Seven, entrusted with the most original, witty and provocative TV show of the past two decades, knows all too well that both God and the devil are in the details.