Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Reading Buffy Synopitically: Musings on Buffy's Slayers

So many of the claims that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is ethnocentric, racist, classist, and sexist derive from analysts perception of the differences which characterise the three main Slayers in the Buffyverse, Kendra, Faith, and Buffy. Lynne Edwards (“Slaying in Black and White: Kendra as Tragic Mulatta in Buffy” in Rhonda Wilcox and David Lavery (eds.); Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 2003)) argues that the depiction of Kendra in season two of Buffy is patented racism while Elyce Rae Helford (Helford: “My Emotions Give Me Power: The Containment of Girls Anger in Buffy” in Rhonda Wilcox and David Lavery (eds.); Fighting the Forces) asserts that the depiction of Faith is classist. But is the depiction of the relationship between the Slayers really racist and classist?

Edwards makes much racist hay out of Buffy’s behaviour toward Kendra when she first arrives in Sunnydale. And Buffy does react negatively to Kendra during their get to know you phase just as she reacts negatively to Faith later on (“What’s My Line” and “Faith, Hope, and Trick”). Buffy’s reaction, however, is the product of teenage petty jealousies rather than of racism.

Buffy definitely has her flaws. And one of these is her rather “high schoolish” reaction to Kendra when she first meets her, but then she is a high school teen. Buffy is having a difficult time coming to grips with the fact that she is no longer the only “Chosen One”. She sees Kendra as Giles the second generation and is jealous of the attention she receives from him. To Buffy, Kendra is the by the Watcher’s book Slayer type that she has always refused to be.

But Buffy is not the only Slayer whose first impressions are negative ones. When Kendra sees Buffy kissing Angel she assumes that Buffy too is a vampire and sets out to do what any good Slayer should do, slay. Kendra also reacts in a knee-jerk stuffy Slayer way to the Scoobies. She is appalled that Giles allows Buffy to have friends who help her to fight the forces: “and you allow this” she asks Giles (“What’s My Line, Part 2”). To her a Slayer always fights alone and always fights unknown. Soon things change, however. Buffy gets over her jealousies and Kendra lets her manichean and by the Watcher’s book guards down and soon the Slayers are comparing notes. And as they do this they begin to bond, though not without degree of underlying competitiveness. Kendra thinks that Buffy is too emotional while Buffy finds Kendra too unemotional. To make her point about emotions Buffy tells Kendra that although she is technically a better fighter than Buffy, there is no way she could defeat her in a fight. “My anger gives me power”, explains the Buffster (What’s My Line, Part 2). Though Kendra’s anger grows as a result of this goading she soon gets the point, anger does indeed give a Slayer power. Kendra returns the favour when she uses her Slayer power to save Buffy from an assassination attempt by one of a group of assassins (the Order of Taraka) who have been sent by Spike to kill her.
This bond between the two Slayers does not end with Kendra’s death. When Buffy finds Kendra’s body in the library she is devastated (“Becoming, Part 1). As she kneels by Kendra one can clearly see the tears in her eyes and the pain on her face. And although Kendra is gone she is not forgotten by Buffy. The stake Kendra gave her, “Mr. Pointy”, remains so much her prized possession that she has it bronzed and it serves as a poignant reminder to both Buffy and the viewers of Kendra, the Vampire Slayer (“Helpless”, “Choices”, “The Freshman”).

Edwards and Helford also make much of the fact that Faith isn’t fully integrated into Buffy’s world or the Scooby Gang but rather is marginalised from it when she arrives in Sunnydale. They both chalk this up to middle class classism. There is no doubt that Faith is never fully integrated into the Slayer in crowd. Buffy, as she was jealous of Kendra, is jealous of the attention the other Scoobies pay to Faith when she first arrives in the Dale (“Faith, Hope, and Trick”). Buffy, however, realises that she is jealous of Faith and this time she controls her teenage jealousies at least at first. She makes several attempts to make Faith feel part of her world. She invites Faith to dinner at the Summer’s home (“Faith, Hope, and Trick”), granted partly at Willow’s prompting. She goes over to Faith’s “Spartan” motel room for some damage control (“Revelations”). Later she invites Faith, granted partly at her Mom’s prompting, to Christmas dinner with her and her mom and trusts Faith enough to watch and protect her mom while she goes in search of the First Evil that is causing Angel to “loose it” (“Amends”).

But Buffy isn’t the only one with jealousies. Willow is also jealous of Faith for stealing “her people” (“Consequences”, “Doppelgangland”). When Faith and Buffy do the Slayer thing spending increasing amounts of time together excluding the Scoobies in the process, Willow is jealous and is afraid that Faith is replacing her as Buffy’s best friend (“Bad Girls”). When Willow learns that Xander has had sex with Faith (another example of Xander’s slayer fixation?) she is devastated (“Consequences”).

It is clear that both Buffy and Willow’s jealousies of Faith and the exclusion this results in do play an important role in alienating her from the gang. And it is this sense of alienation, in part, which sends her spiraling further downward into the darkness. It is not true, however, that Faith didn’t have a fear of exclusion and a problematic sense of self before she arrived in Sunnydale. Faith is damaged psychological goods before she comes to the Dale as Buffy realises in “Faith, Hope, and Trick”. Faith had a difficult childhood (“Enemies”). She comes from a broken home and has abandonment issues because of this (“Enemies”). Her mother was a drunk and Faith believes she never loved her (“Enemies”). She was never one of the high school in-crowd and dropped out of school before she finished it (“Faith, Hope, and Trick” 3003). When she became a Slayer she watched a vicious vampire kill her Watcher before her very eyes (“Faith, Hope, and Trick”). She is impulsive (“Faith, Hope, and Trick”, “Revelations”, “Bad Girls”) living life on the edge (“Graduation Day Part 1”). She takes what she wants (“Bad Girls”). She is a loner and prefers to slay alone or to slay by her own often dangerous rules (“Faith, Hope, and Trick”, “Bad Girls”). She doesn’t trust people and uses others for her own pleasure and once she is done with them discards them just as she discards Xander after they have sex together (“Homecoming”, “The Zeppo”, “Consequences”). She has a tendency to see herself as better than others. She is, as she says, the Slayer after all (“Bad Girls” 3014). This sense of superiority draws her to her fellow uberSlayer Buffy and when Buffy likewise becomes enticed by the thrill of slaying it draws them both toward the darkness that we later learn is a part of every Slayer’s being (“Bad Girls”, “Consequences”, “Restless”, “Fool for Love”, and “Intervention”). After Faith accidentally kills the Deputy Mayor Buffy begins to reject this darkness. Faith, however, isn’t able to escape the darkness. Moreover, the heavy handed tactics of the patriarchal Watcher’s Council who kidnap and imprison her doesn’t help her but instead drives her further into the darkness (“Consequences”). Only when she turns to the dark side does Faith find a father figure in a man who is about to ascend to demon status, the Mayor of Sunnydale (“Consequences”, “Enemies”, “Graduation Day, Part 1”, “Graduation Day, Part 2”). She becomes a killer for him (“Enemies” 3017, “Choices”, “Graduation Day, Part 1”). Only when she takes over Buffy’s body (“Who are You”) does Faith feel what it is like to be affected by the love of family and friends, and feel the admiration of those she saves from certain death. It is finally Angel who helps bring her back from her personal hell of loneliness, solitariness, self loathing, sense of superiority, emotional distance, the torture and physical brutalisation others, and her death wish helping her restore the dominance of the light within in the First season Angel (“Five By Five”, “Sanctuary”). By the seventh season of Buffy and the fourth of Angel, Faith has paid her dues and emerges from the darkness of her past to fight a resurrected Angelus and to once again fight the forces of darkness by Buffy’s side.

It is important to remember that Faith is as jealous of Buffy as Buffy is of her (“Consequences”, “Enemies”). She is, as she says, tired of hearing about Buffy, Buffy, Buffy when she too is doing her part to save the world. It’s Faith who rejects Buffy’s invitation to Christmas dinner in “Amends” —though much dirty water has admittedly already passed under the Buffy and Faith bridge. This is hardly the stuff of exclusion based on class prejudice. Rather it’s the stuff of deeply ambiguous and contradictory characters. Faith, like every Slayer, like every human, and like many demons in the Buffyverse, has the potential for both good and evil.

On one point the critics are right: Buffy is unlike other known Slayers in terms of background. Kendra is a Jamaican. She has lived, studied, and trained with her Watcher alone almost from birth. Her parents gave her exclusively to her Watcher to raise and she has seen her parents only on rare occasions since (“What’s My Line Part 2”). She has been raised to be deferential to her Watcher and to men in general (“What’s My Line Part 2”). She cares little about the mundane things of life like clothes and boys. She has only the shirt on her back and goes into shy mode when a boy walks into the room (“What’s My Line Part 2”). She puts virtually all of her efforts into Slaying (“What’s My Line, Part 1”, “What’s My Line, Part 2”, “Becoming, Part 1”). Faith, on the other hand, hails from Boston or near Boston (“Faith, Hope, and Trick”). She has a wardrobe basically limited to dark colours and leather; her favourite colour is black (Angel “Five by Five”). She lives in a run down motel on the wrong side of the tracks (“Faith, Hope, and Trick”, “Bad Girls”, “Consequences”, “Enemies”).

Buffy, on the other hand, lives in a nice middle class home in, as the African American vampire Mr. Trick notes with great irony, a “strictly for the Caucasian persuasion” (a bit of an exaggeration) middle class community with a death rate which rivals that of DC (“Faith, Hope and Trick”). Her mom is divorced and apparently owns a local gallery in town which appears to provide a good living for them (“Welcome to the Hellmouth”). The Summers’ house is filled with nice furniture and assorted nick knacks and Summers mother and daughter seem to have everything they want including extensive wardrobes. Like most teenagers Buffy likes to shop (she bewails her inability to do so because of her “job” in “What’s My Line, Part 1), is concerned about her clothes (“Welcome to the Hellmouth”), worries about how her hair looks (“I Robot, You Jane”), worries about how she looks in general (“Halloween” 2006), and thinks a lot about dating. She tends to like her men dangerous (or “undead” as Xander quips) and studly and who can fight the good fight with her (“Prophecy Girl”, “The Pack”, “Reptile Boy” (with its “When you kiss me I want to die” statement of Buffy to Angel), “Pangs”, “Something Blue”). She spends a lot of time with her friends.

Though Buffy is middle class, her class and status background is rather more complex than commentators often make it. Buffy is not your run of the mill So Cal bourgeois valley girl. She is a dedicated pedestrian who doesn’t own an automobile and who rarely drives one (“Band Candy”, “Something Blue”, and “Who Are You”). We rarely see her at those staples of Southern California bourgeois life the beach (“Go Fish” and “Buffy vs. Dracula”) or the mall (“Bad Eggs”). Though she has an extensive wardrobe she spends most of her life selflessly fighting the forces of evil that live in or gravitate to Sunnydale because it sits on a Hellmouth. Her fight against the forces has cost her several staples of middle class status including popularity, cheerleading, and high school crowns. It has made her an adult before her time. Though she lives in America she never fights for the American government or the American corporate way of life (same difference?). She is simply the latest in a long line of global Slayers fighting a global war against evil they can never fully win. Her one brief attempt to work with a secret American military organization, the Initiative, goes awry after she asks too many questions and they try to eliminate her (“The I in Team”).

Some analysts have suggested that Buffy’s puns are symbols of a generalised (and negatively coded) middle class whiteness. While Buffy’s punning abilities may be a sign of class, intelligence, and education they are also something, as Jana Reiss suggests, that show that when she is fighting vampires, demons, and other assorted nasties (generally males) she is in power and in control. As Reiss notes Buffy’s punning ability declines as her confidence and hence her power in fighting evil declines (“Helpless”, “Superstar”, the sixth season when she is just “going through the motions” after she is pulled out of heaven by her friends). One aspect of the fact that Buffy’s puns represent that she is in control is her use of them when she rebels against patriarchal power. Her puns aimed at Giles and the Watchers (“Never Kill a Boy on the First Date”, “Helpless”, and “Checkpoint”) clearly undermine their authority and point up her autonomy from them. Finally, on an institutional level the Slayer’s puns may be devices put into the script by the writers to relieve the intense emotional tensions in the scripts. Interestingly David Fritts in is essay on Buffy and Beowulf “Warrior Heroes: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Beowulf”, paper presented at The Slayage Conference on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Nashville, TN, 28-30 March 2004 ) argues that puns function similarly in Beowulf.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer neither celebrates nor sanctifies its hero’s middle class background or middle class status. Rather, it often satirises and by implication condemns it. The town in which Buffy lives and fights evil can be read (as is often the case in the horror genre) as a quaint little bourgeois California town whose surface “normality” hides real evil lurking beneath it. Over the years Buffy has struggled against several forms of bourgeois evil in Sunnydale. She fought a stay at home mom trying to recover her high school cheerleading dreams by switching bodies with her daughter (“The Witch”). She railed against the absurdities of the politically correct term “undead American” (“When She Was Bad”). She brought down the members, past and present, of an elite fraternity whose wealth and status has come from sacrificing young high school girls (“Reptile Boy”). She led exploited workers in a hell dimension against their brutal masters with hammer and sickle in hand (“Anne”). She fought a vampire in an alternative universe who has adapted mass production, the most demonic of human inventions he claims, to meet the consumption needs of the vampire population that dominates the alternative Sunnydale (“The Wish”). She fought Sunnydale High School’s swimming coach who was using steroids to enhance his team’s performance in order to win the swimming championship in the process turning them into monsters (“Go Fish”). She fought the compassionate conservative mayor of Sunnydale who rhapsodises about family values, clean living, and bringing order to Sunnydale in between preparing for his ascension into an evil high school youth eating snake (season three). She expresses frustration with the abrupt price rise of message boards in Sunnydale after everyone has lost their voices (“Hush”). She led a group of “anarchists” against a government bureaucracy that captures, tortures, investigates, kills, and creates Hostile Sub Terrestrials (season four). She fought one of her toughest battles against a god who puts the consumer in consumer society and consumer capitalism (Season five). She and the Scoobies fight and condemn, on a number of occasions, the structure of high school status culture (the Scoobies are part of the high school out crowd) perhaps most notably when the former ultimate in girl Cordelia calls her former in crowd friends, the Cordettes, “sheep” (“Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”). She and the Scoobies fight against and condemn high school authoritarianism and semi-fascism (“Gingerbread”). And finally she and the Scoobies fight against and condemn misogyny on several occasions (“Some Assembly Required”, “Reptile Boy”, “I Only Have Eyes for You”, “Faith, Hope, and Trick”, “Beauty and the Beasts”, “Gingerbread”, the seventh season woman hating former southern preacher named Caleb who is the embodiment of the First Evil who the Scoobies and the Potentials are fighting).

Class and status may differentiate Buffy, Kendra, and Faith but they are not at the heart of what makes Buffy different from Kendra and Faith. Buffy is also very different from them in terms of personality and character traits. Buffy, in fact, is kind of a middle way between the by the Watcher’s book Kendra and the solitary Faith who lives for the “uuh”.

Like Faith, Buffy is rebellious: “I’ve never been one to tow the line”, she says, but her type of rebellion is very different than Faith’s—she’s a rebel with a moral cause (“Primeval”). While often questioning authority she still accepts the counsel of her mentor and Watcher Rupert Giles, though not to the degree Kendra does. She, unlike either Kendra or Faith, accepts and sometimes needs the help of her close friends and comrades in arms Willow and Xander (and an ever changing array of others including Cordelia, Oz, Anya, Tara, and Andrew). At first, slaying is a job for her but gradually, and with Kendra’s help, Buffy comes to realise that it is something that is very much a part of her.

As is true of Kendra and Faith, Buffy lives primarily in the now (“Bad Eggs”, “The Harsh Light of Day”). She takes charge in a crisis and she is better at strategising than at research (“Welcome to the Hellmouth”, “The Harvest”, “Earshot”, Graduation Day, Part 2). Her friends usually do this for her and are much better at it than she is (for example, “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date”, “Reptile Boy”). She isn’t, unlike Kendra, even aware that the Slayer’s Handbook exists (“What’s My Line, Part 1”). Although she is a Slayer Buffy unlike Kendra and Faith tries to lead a “normal” life. She lives with her mother. She attends high school and later college. She is smart and no one should ever take her punning for granted (“Anne”). She works for the Watcher’s Council until they refuse to cure her vampire boyfriend after Faith gone bad poisons him (“Graduation Day, Part 2”). She then becomes an independent Slayer working closely with friends to save the world from evil. Life as a Slayer and as a teenager and young woman has made Buffy angsty, though in a different way from Faith. She never forgets her moral responsibilities as a Slayer and she remains committed to the good fight against the “big bads” and the not so big bads (“Once More, with Feeling” and “Dead Things”) despite her feelings of alienation from almost everyone and everything save her friends.

As Buffy experiences more of life she matures and, unlike Kendra and Faith, begins to see things less in terms of manichean black and white and more in terms shades of grey (“Enemies”, “Goodbye Iowa”). Vampires, demons, witches, and monsters are not simply evil to her. She loves one. She is close friends with another. She distinguishes between those who are harmful and those who are not.

While there are differences between Buffy, Kendra, and Faith, they are, in the final analysis, all Slayers. And as Slayers they are “freeks” who look out for each other. Kendra helps save Buffy from an assassin and helps save Angel from the evil that Spike and Drusilla try to do (“What’s My Line, Part 1 and 2”), Faith saves Buffy from an attack by Mr. Trick on the docks (“Consequences”) and relays critical information about the Mayor’s power and weaknesses (“take what you need”) to her in a shared dream after she has turned to the dark side (“Graduation Day, Part 2”). Buffy follows Faith into the sewers to help fight the Eliminati though the odds aren’t in their favour (“Bad Girls”). As Slayers they are heroic and courageous. Buffy and the gang heroically and courageously save the world on a number of occasions (“Prophecy Girl”, “Innocence”, “Becoming, Part 2”, “The Zeppo”, “Doomed”, “The Gift”), Kendra helps in the fight against Acathla (“Becoming, Part 1”) while Faith helps Buffy and the gang save the world when a priestly cult tries to reopen the Hellmouth (“The Zeppo”). As Slayers they are all impulsive—Kendra assumes that Buffy is a vampire after seeing her kiss Angel (What’s My Line, Part 1”), Faith goes into battle several times on a whim (“Faith, Hope, and Trick”, “Bad Girls”) while Buffy destroys the mark of Gachnar even before Giles can finish a sentence explaining that destroying the mark brings Gachnar into existence rather than stops him from rising (“Fear, Itself”). As Slayers they all make mistakes—Kendra mistakenly attacks Angel and Buffy (“What’s My Line, Part 1”), Faith mistakenly kills the Deputy Mayor (“Bad Girls”) while Buffy is mistakenly jealous of Kendra and Faith (“What’s My Line, Part 1”, “Faith, Hope, and Trick”).

As Slayers Buffy, Kendra, and Faith mirror each other in a number of ways and can thus be seen as doubles of one another. Buffy and Kendra are both killed by vampires through the power of hypnosis (“Prophecy Girl” 1001, “Becoming, Part 1”). Buffy shares the same joy in slaying that Faith does and like Faith equates slaying with food or sex (Buffy and Angel have sex for the first time after battling the Judge in “Surprise”, Buffy and Riley have sex after fighting the Polgara demon in “The I in Team”, Buffy and Riley’s have sex after battling “horny” and “fangy” in “Where the Wild Things Are”, Dawn notes the slaying and food connection in “Wrecked”). Buffy’s casual sex with Spike is akin to Faith’s sense that sex is for pleasure. Buffy sees Faith as psychotic killer while Faith sees Buffy as proper and joyless (“Who Are You”) and a maniacal murderer (“This Year’s Girl”). The Buffy of “The Wish” (“I don’t play well with others”) bears more than a passing resemblance to the Faith we know and love in seasons three and four. Buffy is as convinced of Slayer superiority as Faith at least for a moment (“Bad Girls”, “Consequences”, and “Conversations with Dead People”). Buffy’s self loathing after she thinks she has killed a human being in “Dead Things” is very much like Faith’s self loathing in “Who Are You”, “Five by Five”, and “Sanctuary” (the last two on Angel) while Buffy’s inferiority complex about her superiority complex is very similar to Faith’s inferiority and superiority complexes (“Conversations with Dead People”, “Consequences”, and “Who Are You”). Buffy is as fascinated by the darkness in herself as Faith (“Bad Girls”, “Restless”, “Buffy vs. Dracula”, and “Into the Woods”). As Slayers, then, Buffy, Kendra, and Faith share heroism, courage, a concern for each other, Slayer frailties, and a perhaps not so healthy interest in darkness and death. Whether these traits are peculiarly bourgeois is debatable. Whether they are peculiarly Buffy, Kendra, and Faith isn’t. They aren’t.

What all of these differences and similarities point up is that there are differences between Buffy, Kendra, and Faith as Slayers that have little to do with class or ethnicity. They have everything to do with how each of these Slayers reacts to being a Slayer and the circumstances and experiences being a Slayer brings to their lives. In fact, one of the major themes of seasons one, two, and three of Buffy is Buffy’s coming to terms with her Slayer status. In “Prophecy Girl”, as she explains to Giles, she just wants a normal life. Circumstances, however, force her to choose being a Slayer over a normal life. And while she periodically bemoans what being a Slayer means for her social life (in “What’s My Line, Part 1, she points out that being a Slayer means she rarely gets to shop) she eventually comes to accept that being a Slayer is not a job it’s, as Kendra tells her, who she is (“What’s My Line, Part 2”).

The differences between Buffy and Faith some critics make so much of are experiential and moral rather than class or ethnic. Buffy responds to the accidental killing of Deputy Mayor Alan Finch by Faith by pulling back from the see, want, take philosophy Faith propounds and to which she was drawn if only briefly (“Bad Girls” and “Consequences”). While Faith argues that as Slayers she and Buffy are superior to other humans (“we’re different, we’re built to be warriors”) and that their actions in fighting demons and other nasties and saving the world on more than one occasion more than balance the accidental death of Finch out, Buffy argues that Slayers cannot live beyond the laws of humans and that killing a human being is wrong. I will mourn Finch’s loss she tells Faith (“Consequences”). As Joss Whedon, Doug Petrie, and Marti Noxon said the differences between Faith and Buffy are grounded in the abuse of power that can come from being a Slayer not in class or ethnicity (Comments of Joss Whedon, Marti Noxon, and Doug Petrie in the Season three Overview, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Third Season on DVD).

1 comment:

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