Monday, October 31, 2011

Haunted by the Past: The BBC's Case Histories

PopMatters Critic Lesley Smith recently criticised the BBC adaptation of Kate Atkinson's mystery novels, Case Histories, for turning Edinburgh detective Jackson Brodie (played by Jason Issaacs) from an existential figure adrift in the world and who briefly impacts the lives of others into a standard TV detective who doesn't have much of a head for business. I have not read the Atkinson novels so I can't compare the two. All I will say here is that adaptations for different media are adaptations for different media and as such have to be judged as such even though there obviously is a connection between the "adaptation" and the "original" and the former is indebted to the latter in some way, shape, or form.

But back to critic Smith's assessment of the BBC adaptation of Case Histories, I have to disagree with Smith's assessment of the show. I very much liked Case Histories. At the time that Smith wrote her review--just after PBS broadcast the first of the three episode series (PBS stitched together two of the original six episodes transmitted by the BBC to get three episodes), I wrote this: I have only seen two episodes of Case Histories so I obviously have to reserve full critical judgement, as any self respecting critic should, until I have seen the third. It is not clear, however, contrary to Smith's claim, exactly where the relationship between Brodie and D.I. Louise Munroe (Amanda Abbington) is going at the end of episode two in this arc driven show which is why judgement should and must be withheld at least for the moment.

Now that I have seen all three episodes I can expand on these brief remarks. I particularly enjoyed the sense of melancholy that haunted almost every character in and almost every aspect of Case Histories. Brodie is haunted by the death (accidental?) of his sister Niamh and the subsequent suicide of his older brother who apparently feels responsible for Niamh's death. Brodie's melancholy associated with his sister, the death of whom along with the suicide of his brother replays themselves in Brodie's mind almost every day, is paralleled in the present by his relationship with his daughter Marley. Marley and Brodie have a close relationship that has put into jeopardy in the present when Brodie's ex-wife moves Marley from Brodie's Edinburgh to New Zealand where she has taken a job at the end of the second episode.

Other prominent and minor characters in Case Histories are equally haunted by mental scars from their pasts and their presents and these past and present ghosts impact the random chance encounters that almost all of them have with Brody and sometimes with each other in the Case Histories universe. D.I. Munroe is haunted by her feelings for Brodie, wondering, until the end of episode three, whether he has the same feelings for her that she has for him. He does. She is haunted by her difficult relationship with her teenage son, a relationship that is the antithesis of the one Brodie has with Marley. Lily Rose, who Brodie happens upon in an Edinburgh park by chance when he asks her to call for an ambulance while the person who hired him in episode one is writhing on the ground in pain, turns out to be the niece of someone who later hires Brodie to find her, Lily Rose, Shirley. Shirley turns out to be the sister of someone who supposedly killed her husband, Cheryl. Cheryl is the mother of Lily Rose who, after she was convicted of murdering her wife beating husband, a murder she did not commit, asks her sister Shirley, who did commit the murder, to care for Lily while she is in prison. Shirley, who seduces Brodie, abandoned Lily Rose and may carry this scar with her every day of her life. Reggie, the young girl who chances upon Brodie in episode three after he has accidentally been hit by a train while trying to save the life of Reggie's teacher along the railroad tracks, saves Brodie's life after the train accident. Reggie, it turns out, has a difficult relationship with her drug running brother and has had to drop out of school to work in order to take care of herself and her brother while trying to do some studying on the side. She has mental scars, in other words. Reggie's boss, Joanna Hunter, who has disappeared and who Reggie has asked Brodie to help her find, turns out to be famous because, when she was a teenager, she saw her mother brutally murdered by Gary Moore. She, of course, has lived with the scars of this murder ever since. Fearing that Moore, who has just been released from prison, is intent on murdering Joanna, Reggie and Brodie desperately seek Joanna eventually discovering that she has been kidnapped and held for ransom by mob "business" partners of Joanna's husband and has never been in danger from Moore. If the relationships in this paragraph seem labyrinthian that is because relations in Case Histories are labyrinthian.

From this brief summary of the complexities of Case Histories I hope one can see that the television adaptation of Atkinson's novels has indeed been faithful, assuming critic Smith has characterised the books accurately, to the existentialist and random chance encounters aspects of the original books. Many of the people Brodie encounters and tries to help he comes upon by chance. And most of those he comes upon through chance encounters and who he tries to help are deeply scared by their difficult and disturbing existential pasts, just like Brodie himself.

Thank you BBC for giving this viewer in the US, the land haunted by TV and film juvenalia, a thoughtful and adult television show.
Lesley Smith, Case Histories is Left With a Faint Echo of a Delightful Original, 19 October 2011, PopMatters,

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Republicans Present At the Movies...

Writing in the Washington Times, DC's conservative newspaper, freelance reporter James Frazier reports on one thing he has apparently just learned about most of the Republican candidates for president, they have their favourite movies.

Texas governor Rick Perry likes "Immortal Beloved", the fictional biopic about composer Ludwig van Beethoven's relationship with his immortal beloved. Former speaker of the House and ex-history professor Newt Gingrich likes "Casablanca", that beloved film about love amidst grey World War II. Michele Bachmann likes Mel Gibson's biopic of Scot leader William Wallace, "Braveheart" and Stephen Spielberg's war drama "Saving Private Ryan". Former Pennsylvania senator likes the baseball is life drama "Field of Dreams". Mitt Romney likes the Coen Brothers redoing of the Odyssey "O Brother Where Art Thou". Ron Paul doesn't, he claims, watch many movies.

So what do these movie likes tell us about the Republican presidential candidates? Perry's choice, "Immortal Beloved", plays fast and loose with the historical facts so I suppose it suits the Texas governor who has played hard and loose with the facts on a number of occasions including referring to global warming as an unconfirmed scientific theory and questioning Obama's birth records. Gingrich's choice of Casablanca, perhaps the propaganda film par excellence, suits a Gingrich who seems to equate a American propaganda and demagoguery with historical fact as when he claims that the American founding fathers created an "orthodox" Christian nation . Bachmann's choice of "Braveheart" raises questions about what her love of it says about her. Not being a psychologist or a psychiatrist I am not going to try to make mental sense of her love of "Braveheart" with its depiction of extreme torture (a trait in auteur Gibson's other films like "The Passion of Christ" as well). Bachmann's choice of "Saving Private Ryan" is no surprise since, like that film which, in part, celebrates the US contribution to World War II and elides that of the USSR, Bachmann prefers her history to be mythic and whitewashed rather than accurate. After all Bachmann is someone who thinks, like a lot of Republicans, that the US was created as a Christian nation and as such ignores the impact of the Enlightenment on the American Revolution and the American Constitution. Santorum's choice of "Field of Dreams" a feel good movie about baseball and eternal fatherly love is not surprising from someone who confuses, like most of the other Republican candidates, ideology with historical reality as when he claimed in Spartanburg, South Carolina recently that gays were engaged in a holy jihad against American values. Romney's choice of Coen Brothers "O Brother" raises that eternal question: What is it with Mormons and the Coen Brothers? As someone who once lived in Utah amidst Deseret's Saints I ran into a number of Mormons who liked Coen Brothers films like "Raising Arizona.

The other question the article raises is what happened to Jon Huntsman? Is his absence a reflection of the contemporary Republican parties disinterest in moderation, civility, and intelligence? Only time will tell.

James Frazer, Everybody's a Critic: Republican Presidential Candidates' Favorite Movies, 26 October 2011, Washington Times,

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Reading Buffy Synoptically: Musings on the Politics of the Buffyverse

Commentators on Buffy the Vampire Slayer have found all sorts of politics in Buffy. According to Jeff Pasley (“You Can’t Pin a Good Slayer Down: the Politics, If Any, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. and Angel”, ( you can find both “liberalism” and “conservatism” in Buffy (the satire of political correctness in When She Was Bad” when Buffy wonders whether she should call Angel an “undead American”). According to Brian Wall and Michael Zryd (“Vampire Dialectics: Knowledge, institutions, and labour” in Roz Kaveney; Reading the Vampire Slayer: An Unofficial Companion to Buffy and Angel) you can find marxism in the Buffyverse (Buffy’s hammer and sickle pose in the midst of her fight to free exploited proletarians trapped in a alternative industrial hell dimension in season three’s “Anne). According to others you can find all sorts of nasty bourgeois political nasties in Buffy including ethnocentrism (Neal King; “Brownskirts: Fascism, Christianity, and the Eternal Demon” in James B. South (ed.); Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy), sexism (Michael Levine and Stephen Jay Schneider; “Feeling for Buffy: The Girl Next Door” in James B. South (ed.); Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy) and Elyce Rae Helford; “My Emotions Give Me Power: The Containment of Girls Anger in Buffy” in Rhonda Wilcox and David Lavery (eds.); Fighting the Forces), and colonialism (Kent Ono; “To Be a Vampire on Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in Elyce Rae Helford (ed.); Fantasy Girls and Vivian Chin; “Buffy? She’s Like Me, She’s Not Like Me—She’s Rad” in Frances Early and Kathleen Kennedy (eds.); Athena’s Daughters).

For those who want to see Buffy in leftist terms there is a good deal of fodder for this Buffy as radical perspective. There is the anti-militarism of the fourth season episode “The I in Team”, for instance. In “The I in Team” our anti-hero hero Buffy Summers has finally joined her military boyfriend Riley and the military unit he fights for, the Initiative, to fight the evil that exists in their hometown of Sunnydale, California. The Initiative is a secret and secretive military unit with headquarters beneath a fraternity on the town’s UC campus. In past episodes viewers were made to feel uneasy about this group because of their methods, their treatment of Spike (a figure who evokes simultaneously contradictory emotions), and hints that they may have something to do with 314, whatever that is. Buffy shares these feelings of unease with us readers and the Scooby Gang, her friends in vampire and demon killing arms, but she seems willing to put them aside, at least for the moment, because of the excitement she feels at being able to work with the professional demon killers of the Initiative and Riley. After a brilliant scene in which Buffy alone questions a mission she and Initiative grunts are being sent on this excitement turns into skepticism as she begins to question the unquestioning mentality that characterises each and every member of the Initiative even Riley.

In the next episode (“Goodbye Iowa”) we viewers, the Scooby Gang, Buffy, and even Riley begin to understand the real darkness that lies at the very heart of the Initiative. During “The ‘I’ in Team” Buffy is sent by the head of that military group, Maggie Walsh on what she tells her is a recon mission. What Walsh has sent her on, however, turns out to be anything but a recon mission. It turns out to be a death trap. What Buffy finds in the sewers are the two Warrior Demons she saw being experimented on in the Initiatives Pit earlier, a trap especially set for her after a metal door drops making her escape from these Warrior Demons impossible, and that she has a gun which Walsh has given that doesn't work. Buffy manages to escape Walsh's trap and in the process expose the nefarious aspects of the Initiative to herself, to Riley (though he isn’t fully convinced), and to the Scooby Gang. Buffy’s actions don’t set everything right, however. Riley has to try to resolve his contradictions, his devotion to the Initiative with its military codes of honour he has grown up with, and his love for a Buffy who questions the rules he has grown up with, while the Scooby Gang remains angry at a Buffy who left them for the Initiative and Riley. As for the hints of darker doings at the Initiative, we begin to see what these are in "Goodbye Iowa" and the episodes that follow. We learn that the Initiative has pumped Riley up on drugs that turn him into a superhuman and which make him dependent upon them. We learn that the Initiative has given birth to a new super demon, human, machine hybrid Frankensteinian monster named Adam whose intelligence, sense of wonder, intellectual coldness, and calculating malevolence make him dangerous to everyone in Sunnydale he comes into contact with and who has a plan to take over the world.

Buffy’s critique of American militarism, the university, industrial, and military complex, and American masculinity doesn’t end with “The I in Team” or “Goodbye Iowa”. In Buffy’s dream in “Restless”, it’s Riley, the person most connected with Initiative in Buffy’s life, along with the de-monsterised Intiative Frankenstein monster Adam, who are secret agents out for world domination and who are condemned as such. Joss, in his commentary (Commentary: “Restless” Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Complete Fourth season on DVD) on “Restless” says both Riley and Adam in this episode are representative of masculinity, the government incarnate, suits, and evil corporate CIA guys. They are, he says, All American guys who simply can’t understand the mysticism of Slayerhood represented by Buffy. In “Restless” Riley and Adam are linked to world domination while Riley is also linked to economic imperialism (the cowboy in Willow’s dream).

This skepticism about the American government and its purposes does not simply appear out of nowhere. It is also present in other earlier episodes of Buffy. In season one’s “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” we find out at the end of that episode that the US government is using students who have become invisible because they are being ignored by other students for a variety of “very creepy” purposes.

Gregory Stevenson (Televised Morality: The Case of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, pp. 132-134) argues that Buffy distinguishes between positive and negative forms of institutional power and that there are positive and negative portrayals of governmental power in the series. However, Buffy during its seven years only shows the dark side of governmental power whether it’s the “yes men” of the Initiative (season four), the creepiness of the FBI (“Out of Mind, Out of Sight”), the plans of the mayor to become a demon and feed off the people of Sunnydale (season three), or the complicity of local governmental officials in the mayor’s plans (“School Hard”, “I Only Have Eyes for You”, and season three).

The Buffy spinoff Angel fleshes this skepticism about the powers that be out even further. In Angel we learn that a major law firm handles evil clients and often lets them get away with murder and other crimes (the entirety of Angel), that the mayors office is corrupt (“The Ring”), that the police are often in on this corruption (“The Ring”), that elements of the police are in league with evil (“The Thin Dead Line”), that some politicians are in league with evil (“Billy”, Power Play”), that nastiness lurks beneath America’s middle class communities (“I’ve Got You Under My Skin”) and in the pleasant and repetitive veneer of the its suburbs (“Underneath”), and that Southern California is really run by a secret cabal whose tentacles stretch into political and corporate power circles (season five).

One of the themes of both Buffy and Angel is the tendency of power to corrupt. Season seven of Buffy and season five of Angel interrogate the uses and abuses of power throughout those seasons. From the opening episode of Buffy Season seven when Buffy asks Dawn who has the power (“Lessons”) through to the end of season seven, power, corrupts not only Buffy’s and Angel’s villains but also its ostensible heroes. Season five of Angel has as one of its concerns how our heroes, the fang gang of Angel, Wesley, Gunn, Fred, and Lorne, handle the power they acquire thanks to their deal with the evil law firm of Wolfram and Hart. Season five of Angel is, in fact, Joss and Company doing Faust but with a difference. The Fang Gang make a deal with the devil, in this case the senior partners of Wolfram and Hart. Angel season five explores how our heroes deal with the real powers that run their world (the Circle of the Black Thorn which is made up of political and economic powers that be). In season five of Angel we learn that it is the powerful who control everything and that while our heroes cannot fully undermine the powers they can for one “bright shining moment” put a monkey wrench in their evil works (“Power Play” 5021 and “Not Fade Away”) making Angel Investigations once again the “heroes of the people”. (On Angel season five see the commentaries by Joss Whedon and others on “Angel: The Final Season”, Angel: Complete Fifth season on DVD).

On a more basic level it seems to me that power within both the Scooby Gang and the Angel Fang Gang is portrayed as more charismatic in form compared with the more patriarchal and bureaucratic forms of power that characterise evil organisations (to use Weber’s ideal type terms) they fight. Slayers are who they are because of something that belongs peculiarly to them (thanks, of course, to the patriarchal Shadow Men). Xander has power because of his heart. Willow has power because of her witchy skills. Angel has power because of his soul (thanks, of course, to a gypsy curse). On the other hand, Wolfram and Hart’s power is the product of their position as a corporation of very long standing while the power of the vampiric Order of Aurelius and the Circle of the Black Thorn seem to rest in traditional or patriarchal and bureaucratic sources.

Power in the Buffyverse is hierarchical just as it is in real life. However, power in the Scooby Gang as it broadens out in season seven to include the Potentials, and in Angel Investigations is not only more charismatic but it is more democratic than that of its villains. Buffy is briefly excluded from power in season seven of Buffy by a vote of everyone in Buffy’s house. With Buffy back in the fold Slayers, Potentials, and civilian combatants alike decide to go into the Hellmouth to fight the minions of the First (“Chosen”). When the scythe made by the female Guardians takes effect thanks to “Willow the White” every Potential feels its power and the rising power within themselves (Chosen”). There are parallels of this in Angel. Season two of Angel sees an Angel who has fired Wesley, Gunn, and Cordelia return to the Fang Gang fold only after he is hired by Wesley who has become the first among equals in the Fang Gang. In the finale of season five all of the Fang Gang vote to fight the Circle of the Black Thorn even Ilyria (“Not Fade Away”).

Stevenson’s interpretation of power in the Buffyverse seems to have been influenced by his Protestantism, a type of Protestantism which sees the “powers” as having godly authority over the broader culture (a type of Christ of culture in Niebuhrian terms (on this see H. Richard Niebuhr; Christ and Culture). I, on the other hand, would argue that Buffy takes a more skeptical view of governmental power (a kind of Yahweh against culture) though my interpretation here may be coloured by my own “secularized” Schleitheim Jewish Anabaptism.

Buffy’s creator Joss Whedon once remarked that what he does is all about the story. He has said that he puts things into people’s mouths that he himself doesn’t believe in the name of story. So is there really a singular politics in Buffy or is everything that Whedon does all about the god of narrative? Perhaps only academics will never know.

Imelda I Now Know Too Much of Thee

I first saw the documentary "Imelda" a year or two ago on PBS's documentary programme "Independent Lens". "Imelda" is a documentary about Imelda Marcos, that famous or perhaps better infamous former first lady of the Philippines and wife of Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos, the man who ruled the Philippines from 1965 to 1986 with, of course, American support. Thanks to her wardrobe Imelda has passed into popular folklore as a well known fashion diva who when she and her husband fled Manilla in 1986 left left behind over a thousand pairs of shoes and about a thousand handbags.

"Imelda" was directed by Ramona S. Diaz, a Filipina filmmaker now living in the United States. It was released in 2003. Diaz recently directed another fascinating documentary also shown on PBS, "The Learning". "The Learning' follows four Fillipina teachers as they take up teaching posts in the troubled Baltimore, Maryland School system.

Some have criticised "Imelda" for being too fair to Mrs. Marcos, for giving Mrs. Marcos too much screen time, and for allowing Imelda to speak her mind, too much of her mind. This criticism, however, at least in my opinion, is totally off the mark. By allowing Mrs. Marcos to speak for herself "Imelda" does not function as an apologia for Mrs. Marcos. Rather "Imelda" foregrounds the sadly all too common human tendency that Imelda expresses so well, the human tendency to create ideological driven positive justifications and imagined realities for our actions and behaviours. And it is this, this pulling back of the curtain on Imelda's rather ahistorical ideological rhetoric by counterpointing that rhetoric to historical reality in the form of archival footage and interviews with Mrs. Marcos's more historically literate critics, that makes Diaz'z "Imelda" so compelling a documentary to watch.

And oh thank you PBS Independent Lens for introducing me to this wonderful and important documentary. I now truly do know too much about thee Imelda Marcos. But I am glad that I do.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Musings on the Notion that Schizophrenia is Biological

Theory and Method:

My problems with the argument that schizophrenia is biological are primarily methodological and theoretical.

I make several assumptions all of which, I think, are empirically grounded:
--human biology is dynamic. As Darwin noted morphology can be changed by the environment. And as analysis is showing environmental factors like pollution can and do change human DNA.
--human social and cultural life is dynamic (historical).
--interaction is at the heart of all life on this planet (biology meets environment and in some cases society and culture).
--statistical analysis is static even when those statistics have a longitudinal dimension to them. Both the contemporary and longitudinal dimensions of statistical analysis are, at best, only snapshots in time and space. As such they do not and cannot capture the interactional and dynamic aspects of human life.
--the notion that schizophrenia is biological in etiology or origin is static because no evidence has, or probably ever can be, offered which shows that schizophrenia has existed across historical time and across geographic space. Analogies such as the one which equates the shaman of the past with the schizophrenics of today or which equates dementia praecox (being out of one's mind) are not conclusive or particularly compelling. They are simply analogies, and perhaps not quite compatible analogies.
--schizophrenia clearly has social and cultural components to it because contemporary schizophrenics from Christian cultures express their schizophrenia in language. Christian schizophrenics, for instance, maintain that the Christian god and the Christian Satan are pulling their strings. Language, of course, is an aspect of culture.
--raised serotonin levels are equally explainable as the end product of environment changing biology or as factors associated universally across time and space with schizophrenia. Is the raised heartbeat associated with fear the product of biology or the product of an environment full of dangerous predators? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Any argument for the universality of schizophrenia has to show that schizophrenia has been around in all times and all places.
--the studies of schizophrenia by psychologists and psychiatrists are static snapshots in time and space. They are the psychological equivalent of Chomsky’s notion that one specific language speaker in a particular time and place can tell you everything you need to know about language in general. These assumptions are highly problematic from a historical point of view. As such these perspectives do not and cannot capture the interactional and dynamic dimensions of human life.
--are biology is destiny arguments the new secular version of Calvinist determinism?

In order to argue that schizophrenia is cross-cultural and trans-historical the analyst has to produce sound cross-cultural and trans-historical evidence for the existence of schizophrenia. I haven’t seen any such evidence though I could be missing something.

Practise: A Case Study:
I once worked with a "schizophrenic" when I lived in Muncie, Indiana and Bloomington, Indiana. Let’s call him “Tom”. Quite often some event, an event often associated with a failed romantic relationship (though once it was the death of Elvis) set “Tom” into a tailspin of melancholy, walking around town, and drinking. These actions, in turn, eventually resulted in “Tom” experiencing slow response times--it sometimes took “Tom” what seemed like several minutes to respond to simple "yes"/"no questions--an inability to cook something on the stove without burning posts and pens, "Tom hearing the voices of the Christian god and devil who, “Tom” later told me after he came out of one of his schizophrenic funk, that the Christian devil told him to open and close doors repeatedly. “Tom” would follow these orders when in his "schizophrenic" state.

What really struck me about “Tom’s” "illness" was the cultural forms it took. It was set off, in my estimation, by culturally driven cognitive dissonance. Tom's romantic view of the world, a cultural view of the world deeply enmeshed with the poetry of Shelley and Byron for "Tom", simply did not mesh with what happened to "Tom" in the "real" world. "Tom" desperately wanted to have a relationship with a woman that mirrored the romantic images and cultural expectations of the world he grew up in the America of the 1950s. He was deeply pained by the death of Elvis Presley, the 1950s rock and roll “god” he grew up “worshipping”. He heard the voices of the Christian god and devil. “Tom”, of course, grew up in a Christian household.

When “Tom” and I talked about his history after he came out of his schizophrenic funk he told me that he had had a difficult relationship with his father. He also told me that he had desperately wanted the relationship with his father that society said he should have (the Father Knows Best complex?). He told me that he wanted to have romantic relationships that were consistent with the ideas of romantic relationships he imbibed from the romantic culture he chose to live in. In both cases the world he was forced to live in simply wasn’t the cultural or ideological world he wanted to live in. The result: cognitive dissonance and eventually, in my opinion, mental illness.

--Since schizophrenia expresses itself culturally anyone who argues that schizophrenia is biological alone has to deal systematically and analytically with the cultural dimensions of schizophrenia and explain why it doesn't manifest itself in purely biological terms.
--Schizophrenia clearly has biological aspects to it. However, since proponents of the biological explanation of schizophrenia cannot show that schizophrenia has existed in all or in most places and times they have to explain in systematic and analytical terms why schizophrenia was not diagnosed until the nineteenth century. Additionally, they have to systematically and analytically explain why, given that biology and environment are integrally interconnected and the latter can lead to changes in morphology and DNA, schizophrenia is not the product of environment rather than biology given the relatively recent "discovery" of schizophrenia.
--Given both of these proponents of the biological argument for schizophrenia have to be much more circumspect and much more limited in the scope of their argument and admit that culture plays an important role in schizophrenia as well as biological factors.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Reading Buffy Synoptically: Is Buffy Really Ethnocentric, Racist, and Sexist?

Buffy has been called ethnocentric, racist, sexist, classist, and ageist by a host of academics. To tell you the truth, however, it is hard for me to take any and all of these claims all that seriously. After all, Asian Americans, African-Americans, the rich, the middle class, the poor, straights, bis, lesbians, gay men, mature men, and mature women are all represented in the Buffyverse.

The argument that Buffy is many prejudiced is, in part, that though there is diversity in the Buffyverse this diversity is in the background rather than in the foreground. After all, so the argument goes, Buffy, Willow, Xander, Giles, Cordelia, Tara, and Anya are all of the Caucasion persuasion, to quote the Black vampire Mr. Trick. I have never found this argument particularly compelling, however, for though Buffy’s main characters are by and large middle class varieties of the Caucasian persuasion they are rarely, if ever, portrayed as ethnocentric, racist, sexist, or nationalist.

Another argument that Buffy is prejudist comes from the pens of Kent Ono and Dee-Amy Chin. Ono and Chin contend that Buffy’s vampires are in some way, shape, or form representations of people of colour or representations of orientals respectively. The problem with this argument, however, is the fact that most of Buffy’s vampires, in fact, are European or American. Angel is Irish, Spike and Drusilla are British, and Darla is a Colonial American. Buffy’s vampires in fact are a pretty diverse bunch. There are, in the Buffyverse, black vampires (Gabriel, Mr. Trick), white vampires (Spike), male vampires (Angel), female vampires (Dru), young vampires (the Annointed One), and old vampires (the Master, Kakistos).

While a number of academics have written about Buffy’s supposed ethnocentrisms and predelections for whiteness the major issue that has caught the attention of most academic commentators on Buffy is whether Buffy is sexist or not. Some commentators have seen the representation of Buffy’s females and males as replicating the sexist attitudes of modern American society and have argued that the girl power message of this TV programme is simply superficial. While it is true that Buffy creator Joss Whedon has spoken about the “prettiness” of his male and female cast members though whether this “prettiness” was something demanded by the network, something wanted by Joss, or both is an issue that necessitates further research through interviews and archival research (Joss Whedon and David Solomon; Commentary: “Lessons”, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Complete Seventh season on DVD).

It is true that some of Buffy’s characters, Buffy, Faith, and Cordelia, for example, are your standard American cinema and television female eye candy. It is also true that Buffy, Faith, and Cordy often wear, particularly in the early years of the show, tight clothes and show some cleavage now and again though whether this is sexist or simply comfortableness with sexuality remains, I suppose, an arguable open question. And it is also true that many of Buffy’s females are concerned with how they look, what they wear, and with boys: Buffy and Willow and talk about boys on several occasions (“Angel”, for instance), Willow’s fears often have to do with her appearance (“Nightmares”, “Restless”, and “Anne”), Cordelia is almost always concerned with boys, her appearance and how her hair looks in the First and Second seasons (“Nightmares”, “Reptile Boy”, and “Anne”). All of this, I suppose, may be seen (sadly) as evidence that generally it is “prettiness” and “girliness” rather than acting skill that seems to be the main criteria for casting in American films and television series.

But there are problems with this perspective. Willow, Tara, and Veruca, for instance, don’t, at least to me, seem to be your standard TV eye candy fare. Moreover, one can hardly accuse Buffy’s cast of being nothing but eye candy. Rather the cast of both Buffy and Angel have, in my opinion and that of critic Ian Shuttleworth, the “acting chops” to go along with their “prettiness”. Nor should we forget that male Scoobies are as concerned with their looks and with “girls” as many of the females are with their looks and with men: Xander asks Willow and Buffy how he looks (“Inca Mummy Girl”, “Anne”) while Oz’s hair changes colour almost weekly during the Second season (“What’s My Line, Part 1”, “What’s My Line, Part 2”, “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”).

In reality the Scoobies are simply not your typical masculine and feminine television characters. Buffy is both a tough superhero and a young woman who hopes in the early years of the show for a normal life (like many male comic book superheroes) but is caught in an intricate and sometimes negative web of responsibility and feelings of superiority and inferiority. Willow is a computer nerd, a science whiz, a major “wicca”, a leader when needed and a young woman fraught with feelings of low self-confidence and a limited sense of self-worth. Xander uses humour to deflect his feelings of low self-worth, is scared that he will replicate the negative behaviour of his parents, evidences fears of homosexuality, is a demon magnet, has a difficult time finding his place in the working world, often has to be rescued by Buffy but grows increasingly buff over the years, is always there in a fight despite the danger to himself, and is the emotional centre of the Buffyverse. Giles is a polymath, a nurturing mentor, an experimenter in black magicks, and a sometimes emotionless killer. Oz is quiet, stoical, and strong yet sometimes driven by the beast within with its very emotional jealousies. Cordelia is a forthright, “bitchy”, feminine and a dedicated follower of fashion yet is tough and committed to helping the helpless. Anya is forthright and a successful entrepreneurial capitalist, yet is also someone who needs a man in her life so she can feel a sense of self-worth. Tara is shy, insecure, and very womanly but tough and is someone who grows increasingly self-confident over the course of the show moving, in the process, out of the shadow of Willow becoming the only responsible Scooby adult in the Buffyverse during the Sixth season. Spike is a tough and dangerous yet perceptive and sensitive crypto-romantic who loves deeply if not always wisely. Dawn is whiny, fearful that everyone will leave her, and into boys yet able to learn about the dark world, gain competence in a number of languages, and learn some fighting moves from her big sister. Angel is tough, solitary, and broody yet sometimes giddy, deeply romantic and deeply troubled by the things he has done in the past. Robin Wood is a tough vampire fighter driven, to some extent by his past, who is also sensitive and supportive. Many of Buffy’s men and women, in other words, exhibit both traditional masculine and feminine traits.

Ironically, despite condemnations that Buffy is sexist, the show has almost always been dominated by women. Slayers, the Chosen One’s called and built to kill vampires and other demons and monsters, have always been female and, apart from this and the fact that they are always young, slaying has long been an equal opportunity calling. There have been African Slayers (the First Slayer, the Primal in “Restless”), Chinese Slayers (“Fool for Love”), Korean Slayers (“The Puppet Show” 1009), African-American Slayers (“Fool for Love”), white Slayers (“Welcome to the Hellmouth”, “Faith, Hope, and Trick” 3003), Jamaican Slayers (“What’s My Line, Part 1”).

This diversity is also represented in the Potential Slayers. There is a Chinese Potential, an African-American Potential, an upper class American Potential, a Southern American Potential, an upper class British Potential, a Cockney Potential, a Latina Potential, a Turkish Potential, and a German Potential and, if the language books in Buffy’s living room are to be believed, a Greek Potential, a Spanish Potential, a Norwegian Potential, a French Potential, a Portuguese Potential, a Hungarian Potential, and a Malay Potential (“Bring on the Night”, Showtime”, “Potential”, “Get it Done”, “Dirty Girls”, “Empty Places”, “Touched”, and “End of Days”).

Slayers have existed since time immemorial and almost always die young (before the age of 25 as Buffy tells Riley in “Doomed”). They have been found in classless societies (the First Slayer presumably slew when most humans were gatherers and hunters), in societies where power was based on status, and in class based societies like industrial America, where there have been both working class and middle class Slayers.

Not only is the Slayer female but so are most of the current Slayers sidekicks. While the First, Second, and Third seasons of Buffy have equal numbers of male and female representation in the Scooby Gang by the Fifth season Buffy is so dominated by women that Xander laments the absence of an Oz who would get him and his humour (“I Was Made to Love You”).

This feminisation is also reflected in the representation of bodies in the show. But it’s not just Buffy’s women who show some flesh. In fact, it’s the males of the Buffyverse who are most often nude or semi-nude on the show (“Out of Mind, Out of Sight”, “Dark Age”, “Innocence”, “Phases”, “Revelations”, “Graduation Day, Part 1”, “New Moon Rising”, “Wrecked”, “Beneath You”, “Sleeper”).

Buffy is also a show where the consequences of human action are not gendered. The actions of all the Scoobies, male or female, have positive and negative consequences for themselves and others. It’s a show where the women are sometimes in frame in a “superior” position to the men (“Band Candy”, “Doomed”, and “Touched”). It’s a show where “feminist” mysticism, magic, intuition, and communalism are counterpointed to “masculine” hierarchical hard science. It’s a show in which community is as important as individualism. It’s a show in which there is no linear progression towards the Promised Land of some radiant future at the end of history. It’s a show in which males are shown in a very harsh light and come in for some very harsh criticism (“Phases”, “I Only Have Eyes for You”, “Go Fish”, “Beauty and the Beasts”, “Smashed”, “Help”, “Selfless”). It’s a show which has at least on one occasion parodied, satirised, and critiqued the male gaze. According to Drew Goddard, one of Buffy’s writers, one of his seventh season scripts for Buffy intentionally critiqued the male gaze (Drew Goddard; Commentary: “Dirty Girls”; Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Seventh Season on DVD).

Character identification in Buffy is no less simple and straightforward. While proponents of the male gaze early on viewed character identification as a rather straightforward, simple, and gendered process, character identification in Buffy is complex, much more complex than analysts have often made it. In fact, identification with characters in the Buffyverse reveals the complex character of character identification in films and television. I can only speak for myself but I have identified with a variety of figures in the show. I loved Mr. Trick’s take on the Dale (“Faith, Hope, and Trick”). I reveled in Spike’s witty barbs, enjoyed his unexpected insights into the Buffy and Angel condition, and marveled at his unconditional love for Drusilla and later Buffy. I loved the Mayor and admired his paternal love for Faith and his insights into the Buffy and Angel condition. I empathised with Xander when his romances failed and as he tried to find his way through a world which seemed at times to have no place for him. I felt as betrayed by Jenny Calender as the Scoobies (“Innocence”). I cried when Jenny was viciously killed by Angelus (“Passion”). I suffered with Buffy as her romances went bad and as one lover turned from loving male into psychological torturer of her and her friends (Season two). I felt a vicarious thrill when Buffy finally fought Angelus and put the boot to him (“Innocence”). I marveled at Giles’s sensitive and supportive “parenting” (“Innocence”). I was amazed by Cordelia’s growth from an acid tongued high school celebrity (“Welcome to the Hellmouth”) to a full-fledged Scooby, and later to an integral member of Angel Investigations who feels the pain of others and wants to, has to, do something about it (seasons two and three of Buffy and five seasons of Angel). I loved Cordy’s forthrightness and directness and hope I can be half as forthright and direct as she was. I marveled at Wesley’s growth from a stuck up, always in the way bumbler to a confident demon fighter infected by a difficult past, a difficult relationship with his father, and his own paranoia about Angel (five seasons of Angel). I was devastated when Joyce died (“The Body”). I felt Dawn’s pain when she learned her mom died (“The Body”). But most of all I identified with Willow. I felt her pain as she tried to work through her fears of nerdishness and being a sidekick (Fear, Itself”, “Restless”). I felt pride as her witchy power grew (seasons two through five). I cried with her when Oz left (“Wild at Heart”, “New Moon Rising”). I felt her joy as her relationship with Tara grew and flowered (seasons four through six). I felt her pain when that relationship began to fall apart (season six). I felt her joy when she and Tara got back together (“Entropy” 6018). I was horrified when Tara was killed by a stray bullet from Warren’s handgun (“Seeing Red”). I have constantly been frightened by a show which portrayed such emotional terrors as broken families, boyfriends who suddenly turn mean after they get in your pants, the sudden deaths of family members, and growing up.

As a viewer I never saw the Scoobies as the objects my male gaze. I never watched Buffy for the short skirts, the cleavage, or for the sex (though I am aware that some people do watch television and films for these reasons). I watched it for the human drama, the human tragedy, the human struggle, and for the art of storytelling. I watched it because I enjoy spending time with individuals I have come to care about even if they are only characters on TV. I watched it because the Scoobies had become my friends and I cared deeply for them and empathised with the struggles they faced as they grew up. I watched it because as a former theology student I cared about the social ethical issues the show dealt with.