It’s not often you get your heart broken by a middle-aged woman in fashionable spectacles, but Jane Root, a television executive, has just crushed mine
It’s not often you get your heart broken by a middle-aged woman in fashionable spectacles, but Jane Root, a television executive, has just crushed mine. She told a friend that the core demographic for Buffy the Vampire Slayer was single men over forty. All at once, what I had seen as a singularly witty and intelligent drama series which showed me as a keen observer of the cutting edges of culture turned into a witty an intelligent drama that showed me up a drooling old letch. But I still think Ms Root is wrong. If all I wanted from television was good-looking young women wearing less than their mothers think prudent I could watch almost anything, even the news.
There are other and better reasons for watching Buffy than her obvious charms. It is a show in which the physically incredible is rendered believable by its moral accuracy. It started off with a joke in the mind of Joss Whedon the creator: in a thousand horror films, a blonde teenager enters an alleyway where a monster lurks, and neither innocence nor stupidity can save her from a hideous death. Suppose, he thought, there were a bimbo who walked into alleyways with monsters, but who strolled out again alone, leaving the alley spattered with bits of bogeyman shredded like wet cornflakes?
That was the basic idea of Buffy — a sixteen-year-old Valley girl who looks completely at home in what one vampire calls "the all-you-can-eat moron buffet" of southern California but who has a unique and awkward talent for slaying monsters of every description. Indeed she resents her destiny, not only because it involves — ew — study, and libraries, but because it keeps her away from mindless fun as well as threatening her with death.
Death, even more than love, is something that Buffy handles with real intelligence. Violent death is always comic or heroic in the series. Buffy herself is as skinny as a Californian actress must be. She’d have a hard time arm-wrestling a toothpick. But she can fling baddies twice her size around, and does in every episode. Yet death from disease or old age is treated realistically as an occasion for misery and bewilderment. The sudden and completely unexpected and undramatic death of Buffy’s mother produces an episode in which there is at most ten seconds of vampire actions, which only serves to underline the utter bereavement of her family. This balance is important to the realism of the series, in the same way as it matters that none of the monsters Buffy battles with can hurt her as much as her human classmates. Buffy really does care more about getting her heart broken than about saving the world.
Most of the early plots were simply grand projections of common adolescent dramas. There was a stepfather-candidate who turned out to be a malicious cyborg, so it was all right that Buffy threw him down the stairs. She fell in love with an older man — a vampire, in fact, 222 years older than her — who was, however, good and loving because he had been cursed with a soul by some imaginative gypsies. When, on her seventeenth birthday, she finally yielded herself to him, this made him so completely happy that his soul vanished, and so he was once more turned into a vampire. Finally, of course, she had to send him to hell, for his own good, and that of the world.
Even in small things, the realism remains: it’s just more graphically illustrated than in the world we live in. The swimming team turn into monsters in pursuit of sporting success: and these are real –monsters, scaly, carnivorous. They even eat a nurse before escaping into the wild. The swimming pool monster episode brings up another aspect of Buffy — how very funny it is in a brutally confident way. There is a sinister, lisping black vampire, who, when hungry, orders a pizza. Supper’s here! calls the vampire at the door when the pizza arrives; then he consumes the delivery boy.
The humour in Buffy does not consist in characters saying nasty clever things to one another, as it does in most television shows. On the contrary, it derives from the way in which people trying to be clever say revealingly nasty things about themselves. Cordelia Chase, one of the minor characters, is a completely selfish, stupid girl who’s rich and good looking enough to be the arbiter of popularity in Buffy’s school. A typical Cordelia putdown starts. "I respect you too much not to be honest. Your hair …."
Eventually, she gets her comeuppance, and is found working in a dress shop that she once patronised, "Daddy made a tiny mistake on his income tax forms" she explains. "… for twelve years running" And then she expresses the depths of degradation she has plumbed: "and now I have to wear a name-tag."
To be one of the people whose names are not worth remembering: what better definition could there be of hell? Sunnydale, the town where Buffy and her friends now live, is meant to be perched on top of the Hellmouth, but what really frightens them is that they live, like all adolescents, perched above the boiling eternal torment of unpopularity.
Does any of this matter? Well, it matters rather more than Philip Pullman, if you are interested in the future of Christianity. Because Buffy, in her way, represents a far more complete annihilation of Christianity than anything Pullman has come up with, and a much less self-conscious one, too.
Buffy deals with moral questions the whole time. The characters are constantly confronting metaphysical dramas, both on the cartoon plane and in their real lives. But they do so in a universe which beyond post-Christian: none of her friends or family go to church; there are no clerical characters, though her Lesbian witch friend Willow is Jewish. The point is not that Christianity is absent; it’s that it appears never to have never existed in the Buffyverse. Whenever there is "research" to be done into the past, it is always into pagan religions, or pre-religious customs.
It’s true that Californian vampires still shrink from the crucifix and holy water, but the Buffster really puts her trust in stakes and hatchets. If you compare Buffy with Dracula (the novel), this becomes very clear. The big and reliable magic in Dracula is all Catholic. What drives Count Dracula from England is the consecrated Host. But in the century that passed between Professor van Helsing and Giles the librarian, who plays a similar role in Buffy, Christianity somehow stopped being a credible answer to evil in popular culture, or even an explanation for it.
This stuff written and copyright Andrew Brown. If the page looks bad, that's my fault, unless you're using Netscape 4.x. Then it's yours. Upgrade, and do yourself a favour.