Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Buffy: What's to Come

Next week The Whedoning will officially kick off with the Buffy film, the unaired pilot, and the first three episodes of the show’s first televised season. So I feel the need for some preliminary remarks, which you'll see after the jump.

"You think you know... what's to come... what you are. You haven't even begun."

Buffy 4x22 - "Restless"

But the more I think about Buffy and try to boil it down to one core statement of the show, the more it slips away, and I’m having a hard time finding anything interesting to say by way of an introduction to the series. So maybe that’s where I’ll start: Boiling Buffy down to a single core abstraction just doesn’t work. And why should it?

There are people who will think of Buffy as a female empowerment thing, and I suppose I’ll just have to live with that, but I think overall to think of the show solely (or even primarily) in these terms is a pretty dull reading. Sure, feminist themes are all over Buffy, andI don't want to diminish the importance of that, but the show doesn’t really try to make a feminist statement (Aside from "Buffy is a female superhero" which is not much). Feminism is really more a part of the fabric of the world than something the show ever really tries to argue for: Buffy’s power is pretty much assumed from the get-go, and nobody ever really challenges it; her qualifications to kick vampire ass are never really questioned on the basis of gender. Or are they? Because I don’t remember that ever happening. I guess I'll be on the lookout for it.

In any case, Buffy’s power and agency grows not only out of Joss’s feminist upbringing but also out of his desire to subvert generic tropes. The idea that became Buffy the Vampire Slayer was originally Rhonda the Immortal Waitress, a story about an apparently ordinary girl, the kind of character who gets killed by the monster in a horror movie, but it turns out she’s far more special than that (one must wonder whether this idea was at all inspired by another waitress who was more than she seemed, Sarah Connor from Terminator). So even more than it’s about feminism, Buffy is about subversion of genre tropes (with feminist overtones nonetheless assumed). If Whedon had an "agenda" when he began Buffy, it was "genre-busting" (a term he uses in the audio commentary for Buffy 1x01 - "Welcome to the Hellmouth," and a term I'll be using a lot over the course of The Whedoning).

But even "genre-busting" doesn’t really get at the heart (so to speak) of what Buffy came to be. Buffy was never immune to cliché, and in fact it ended up developing some pretty standard conventions within its own narrative and sticking to them pretty closely. In other words, it doesn’t always break the old rules, and even when it does, it often replaces them with new rules of its own making. And then sometimes it breaks them, but still, Buffy isn’t as fresh, original, and rule-breaking as Joss’s original concept suggests it intends to be. At least not aggressively or self-consciously so. Usually.

So what is Buffy about? Well, none of those things, really. It’s about characters: Buffy in particular, but not Buffy alone, because she rarely carries the show herself and she’s usually not the most interesting character on it. This is one of the (many) reasons that the movie feels so “off” to fans of Buffy on TV: Buffy is hardly Buffy unless she’s surrounded by the “Scooby gang” that grew around her, and it’s the interactions between these characters that really defines the show.

The core of the show was always the team Buffy, Xander, Willow, and Giles. It’s the four of them that make the show work as well as it does. So more than any abstract noun, Buffy is about a group of people, and these people in particular. I mean, you could extend that to other characters as well, of course, but it's those characters that really form the core of the show. So now that I sat down to write this, I guess it wasn’t as hard to boil the show down as I thought it would be.

See you on Monday for the review of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the movie.


  1. So excited for this to begin!!!!!!!!

  2. I think you'll find that the female empowerment story ebbs and flows. Some baddies aren't familiar with the Slayer, and they do tend to mock all of the Slayers. Plus, you must consider other strong female characters, like Drusilla, Professor Walsh, Glory, and of course Willow. Plus, the events of season 7 strongly bring back the female empowerment trope and actually use it to resolve the whole series.

  3. I definitely see that it's there and it's important, but I also think it sometimes gets a bit overstated, which I think sells the complexities of the show kind of short.

    The events at the end of season seven I find kind of problematic, in that it's not universal. It's sort of the same issue as in Star Wars with the Jedi: not everybody can be one. I suppose I'll get the opportunity to talk a bit more about that. In a year.