Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Reading Buffy Synopically: Musings on Buffy's Theodicy

For Neal King (“Brownskirts: Fascism, Christianity, and the Eternal Demon” in James South (ed.); Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy:Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale (Chicago: Open Court, 2003) Buffy is not so much about the girl next door as the proto- if not outright vigilante fascist down the street who leads the forces of “good” against a host of “evil” “others”. For King, Buffy, with its dualistic distinction between good humans and evil vampires, demons, monsters, and witches is nothing more than another ugly manichean fairy tale about us the good and them the bad. In King’s mental world the Scoobies are the jackbooted and brownskirted or brownshirted defenders of a vicious human nationalism that won’t stop goose slaying their way through Sunnydale until every evil vamp, demon, monster, and witch in their way is dead.

Leaving aside the convoluted and much debated issue of just what fascism is, King is right, there is a manichean tendency in the media and in the ethnocentric ideologies and nationalisms that rule our world. This dualism is not, however, characteristic of the Buffyverse. By asserting this, in fact, King, misses a central concern of the Buffyverse, namely its emphasis on the reality of evil in our midst and the ability of individuals to escape the evil in their own hearts.

In the Buffyverse evil is depicted as having real ontological status, as being present not just in every demon but potentially in every human. In Buffy this evil is something which it is right and moral to fight against as best as one can. Nowhere is the idea that responsive violence is just under specific circumstances expressed more clearly and systematically than in the episode “Pangs”.

In “Pangs” Buffy is a freshman at UC, Sunnydale and it’s her first Thanksgiving away from home. Her mother is out of town and the Buffster has decided she wants to have a traditional turkey day dinner for the Scooby Gang at Giles’ place. As so often happens in Sunnydale, however, things don’t always go as planned. During a groundbreaking ceremony for a new cultural centre on the UC, Sunnydale campus the old Sunnydale Mission, which was thought destroyed, is unearthed. The digging also unleashes the vengeful spirit of a Chumash Indian who later raises other Chumash spirits to do to whites what the Whites did to him and his tribe. The Chumash, as Willow tells us at the beginning of the episode, were brutalised, infected by disease, disfigured, and murdered by Europeans who settled in California. It’s now pay back time. Hus kills a UC, Sunnydale anthropologist in charge of the cultural centre. He kills a local Catholic priest. Finally, after Hus has raised other Chumash warrior spirits, they come after Sunnydale’s strongest warrior, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In the meantime, once Buffy, Willow, and Giles figure out that the Chumash are returning to avenge what was done to them they debate just what they should do about it. Willow, recounting all the wrongs that were done to the Chumash opposes killing them. They are, she points out, just doing to Whites what Whites did to them. Giles counters that the Chumash are killing innocent people and so must be stopped. Buffy, while sympathetic to Willow’s position, realises that she must stop the revived Chumash spirit warriors before they kill again. She prefers to do it peacefully and diplomatically but is willing to use more forceful means if necessary. When the Chumash attack the Scoobies, however, this debate becomes moot. All of the Scoobies, including Willow, defend themselves and eventually defeat the Chumash in battle. The moral? When attacked you have every right to defend yourself. Violence, in other words, is just in the Buffyverse when you are responding to violence. And responsive violence is proper if you are the Scoobies defending the weak and unknowing against such attacks.

Despite the depiction of evil as ever present and ever violent Buffy doesn’t portray the demonic or the monstrous in strictly manichean terms. In Buffy humans, vampires, demons, ghosts, and monsters alike all have the potentiality for both good and evil as Giles tells Buffy in “Beauty and the Beasts”. In the first, second, and third seasons of the show we learn that humans can do evil (“Welcome to the Hellmouth”) and that vampires can do good (“Angel”), that there are bad witches (Amy’s mother Catherine in “The Witch”), that there are good witches (“Gingerbread”), that there are good witches whose spells sometimes go awry (“Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”), that there are demons who do good (the demon Whistler maintains the balance between good and evil in the world and contacts Buffy when Angel morphs into the thoroughly evil Angelus (“Becoming, Part 1”, “Becoming, Part 2”), that there are demons who become mortal and learn to be human (Anya), that there are demons who are evil (the Master), that soul stealers can help you when you’ve helped them (“Enemies”), that humans, even our heroes, have evil twins in an alternative universe who are very much our heroes themselves (“The Wish”, Doppelgangland”), that without Buffy’s presence in Sunnydale it would become the “brave new world” of evil vampire capitalism where dwindling numbers of humans are used to satiate vampire bloodlust (“The Wish”), that Buffy’s Watcher Rupert Giles has a demonic past (“The Dark Age”), that Oz is a werewolf (“Phases”), that vampires have emotional attachments (Spike, Drusilla, and Darla ) that we can sympathise and empathise with, and that Slayers can go bad (“Bad Girls”, “Consequences”, “Enemies”). In season four we learn that a covert government operation has dark secrets (“The Initiative”, “The ‘I’ in Team”) and that Maggie Walsh, the head of this commando operation, has created a literal frankensteinian monster (“The I in Team”). In season five we learn that an evil demon can share the same body with a basically good human (Glory and Ben in season five ) and that individual vamps can slowly, through love for someone, come around to the bright side (Spike). In season six we learn that life itself is the “Big Bad” and that Buffy, Willow, Xander, Anya, Spike, and Amy still face the demons within that negatively impact those around them and that humans can be the source of much of the evil in the Buffyverse (the Trio of Warren, Jonathan, and Andrew and our beloved Scoobies themselves). In Buffy otherness and difference then are generally defined on the basis of ethical and moral behaviour. In the Buffyverse, in other words, ethical or moral behaviour is not a prisonhouse of evil. One can, as Cordelia, Spike and Angel show, escape darker hues of grey for lighter ones. Good and evil, in other words, are not as simple as unalloyed black and white and good and evil (as Giles tells Buffy in the pivotal episode “Lie to Me”).

In fact, on a number of occasions Buffy and the Scoobies fail to kill vampires or demons and actually become friends and lovers with them. Buffy refuses to kill Angel even when she believes he has attacked her mother (“Angel”). Rather than kill their friend Oz who the Scoobies learn is a werewolf Willow, Buffy and Giles capture him (“Phases”). Instead of shutting down Willy’s, a local demon hangout, the Scoobies allow the tavern to remain open and use its proprietor as a source of information and over time use less coercive means to obtain this information from him (something the show parodies during season five). Instead of killing Vamp Willow (“I just can’t kill her” Willow says) they return her to her alternative reality through the same magicks that brought her to theirs (“Doppelgangland”). They fail to “dust” former classmate turned vampire Harmony (“The Harsh Light of Day”). Rather than allow the neutered Spike to dust himself (“we know him” Willow reasons) they keep him alive (“Doomed”). In fact, the Scoobies develop relationships with vamps, demons, and monsters. Xander goes to prom with the ex-vengeance demon Anya (“The Prom”). Oz is Willow’s lover and the Scoobies friend. Harmony, who becomes a vampire (“Graduation Day, Part 2”) and is involved in a relationship with Spike (“The Harsh Light of Day”) eventually comes out (recalling the coming out of gays and lesbians) as a vampire to Cordelia in an episode of Angel and struggles, not always successfully, to avoid taking human life in the future (“Disharmony”, fifth season of Angel). There is so much dating between humans and demons on Buffy (Buffy and Angel and Spike, Willow and Oz, Xander and Miss French, Ampata, and Anya/Anyanka), in fact, that Cynthia Fuchs (“Review of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Fourth season, PopMatters, 17 June 2003 (http://www.popmatters.com/tv/reviews/b/buffy-complete-season-4.shtml)) suggests that the interspecies nature of most of the sexual relationships makes a statement about Buffy’s take on race. Buffy, it seems, has nuances the manichean inspired eye often misses.

This complexity in Buffy’s theodicy is brought out most clearly in conflicts over the nature of evil between Buffy and Kendra, Buffy and Faith, and Buffy and Riley in the second, third, and fourth seasons. Kendra is guided by a dualism in which all vampires are evil. When she sees Buffy kiss Angel with his game face on she assumes that she, like he, is a vampire. She imprisons Angel in a cage to await a death by sunlight and trails Buffy to Angel’s place where she tries to kill her with no questions asked (“What’s My Line, Part 1”, “What’s My Line, Part 2”). Likewise, Faith sees vamps and demons as pure evil. When she learns that Angel is still alive she assumes it was he who attacked and tried to kill Giles in the library (it was really her new outlaw ex-Watcher Gwendolyn Post) and attempts to kill him only to be stopped by Buffy (“Revelations”) all with no questions asked. When Faith and Buffy run into a demon in one of Sunnydale’s many cemeteries who wants to sell them the important Books of Ascension, Faith, in typical manichean fashion, wants to kill him claiming that a demon is a demon while Buffy points out that this particular demon doesn’t seem fall into the “threat to humanity category” and that they need to find out more about the books he wants to sell them (“Enemies”). Riley, Buffy’s boyfriend and member of the US military special monster killing unit the Initiative, like Kendra and Faith is guided by a belief that humans are good while demons and vampires are bad: “I just suck at this whole grey area stuff” he tells Buffy at one point (“This Year’s Girl”). Soon, however, the manichean mentality that guides him comes under attack when he runs into the Buffster at Willy’s while both of them are searching for the Initiative’s escaped frankensteinian killing machine Adam (“Goodbye Iowa”). Realising that Buffy has known all along about the existence of Willy’s Riley has a manichean meltdown Buffy responds by emphasizing the complexities of good and evil. You can’t, she tells him, judge demons and vampires by their evil cover. Some vamps have souls and do good and some demons are not harmful. It is only with “New Moon Rising” that Riley’s manicheanism truly starts to takes a fall. In that episode Riley learns that the supposedly evil werewolf the Initiative has captured and is “studying” is really someone he knows, Oz, and Buffy’s caution to him that there are degrees of difference between vampires, demons, and monsters really hits home. After much soul searching he tries to help Oz escape the clutches of the Initiative and becomes, by the end of the episode, Riley becomes the “anarchist” his superiors feared he would become if he kept hanging with the Scoobies.

By counterpointing Buffy’s, more nuanced takes on good and evil against the manichean ones of Kendra, Faith, and Riley the show makes clear that Buffy is not the manichean dualist her critics claim her to be. Evil in the Buffyverse, then, is not as uncomplicated as the formulaic us good, them bad mantra that one finds so often in criticism on Buffy and in human life in general. In other words, evil in Buffy is portrayed in more complex and nuanced ways than King would like us to think.

Buffy is closer to the theological universe of Reinhold Niebuhr with its notion of human fallibility than to that of Quakerism with its perception that human beings are inherently good and potentially perfectible (Cf. Gregory Stevenson, Televised Morality: The Case of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Lanham, MD: Hamilton Books), p. 73). As Joss has said (Commentary: “The Harvest”, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete First Season) all of us are potentially Buffy, Willow, Cordelia, and Xander, all of us are, in other words, potentially both cruel and heroic.

Buffy then is neither a perfectionist nor a pacifist text. Perspectives on war and the moral or immoral use of violence have included the just war perspective, the war as a necessary evil perspective, the crusade, and pacifism. The last asserts that all wars are unjust and, in some instances, unnecessary. The just war perspectives see wars as just if they are defensive and if they follow certain criteria during the war (discriminate between combatants and non-combatants and if they respond equally to an attack). This perspective has characterised Roman Catholicism and most types of Protestantism and has been secularised becoming the standard war discourse in most Western states. The war as a necessary evil perspective asserts just that, that war is, sometimes, a necessary evil. Crusades, like those between Christians and Muslims during the Middle Ages, are no holds barred wars between ethnocentrisms each of which see themselves as right and having god on their side. Buffy as Anthony Cordesman notes (“Biological Warfare and the Buffy Paradigm”, Center for Strategic Studies, 29 September 2001) is an example of the new type of strategic thinking needed in a post 9/11 America, reactive defence strategies. In Buffy evil just keeps on coming and is never defeated. Angel tells Buffy in “Gingerbread” that victory is not what they, the Scoobies and their allies, fight for. They fight, he tells her, because there are things worth fighting for. Interestingly a “possessed” Joyce derides the Scoobies reactive defensive strategy in “Gingerbread” for its inability to defeat evil once and for all, an evil that kills “innocent” children. Though Joyce may be speaking the words of the demon that possesses her Joyce is also making a valid point. The Bad Guys, as we know, sometimes speak the truth in Buffy.

No comments:

Post a Comment