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.

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