Friday, November 11, 2011

Reading Buffy Synopitcally: Is Buffy Really Ageist?

For J.P. Williams (; “Choosing Your Own Mother: Mother-Daughter Conflicts in Buffy” in Wilcox and Lavery (eds.); Fighting the Forces) Buffy’s portrayal of knowing teenagers, unknowing parents (Joyce and Sheila), and the killing of Jenny Calendar, the assertive techno-pagan computer science teacher who loves Buffy’s Watcher Giles and mentors Scooby Willow, is evidence that Buffy the Vampire Slayer harbours ageist prejudices against mothers and surrogate mother figures.

Really? Honestly I don’t see it that way. Here's why.

Instead of being “ageist” adults are more than present in the Buffyverse and they aren’t always portrayed as unknowing adults on the demon menu. There are adult vampires (the Master), quasi-demons (the Mayor), witches (Catherine Madison), goddesses with consumer obsessions (Glory), practitioners of the dark arts (Ethan Rayne and Rupert Giles), cyberpagans (Jenny Calendar), minions (Luke), power hungry and power mad authoritarian former losers who rarely if ever got dates in high school (Principal Snyder), high school principals (Principal Flutie, Principal Snyder, and Principal Wood) teachers (Jenny), librarians (Giles), psychologists, counselors, doctors, interns (Ben), surgeons, high school coaches, professors (Maggie Walsh), archaeologists, werewolf hunters (Cain), military men, bankers, small business people (owners of The Pub and magic shops, Willy the Snitch, Mr. Sanderson from the bank), mayors (Richard Wilkins III), deputy mayors (Allan Finch), “advisors” to the mayor (Mr. Trick), hit men for the mayor, chauffeurs, policemen and policewomen (Detective Stein, Bob), Watchers, scholars and hit men working for the Watchers Council (Giles, Wesley Wyndham-Price, Gwendolyn Post), members of the Watchers Council (Quentin Travers), people in love (Giles and Jenny, Giles and Olivia, Giles and Joyce?), parents, parents who are tax evaders (Cordelia’s father), divorcees (Joyce Summers and Hank), absentee fathers (Hank Summers), mothers (Joyce, Sheila Rosenberg, and Catherine), mothers struggling at parenting (Joyce, Sheila), mothers and fathers unsuccessful at parenting (Joyce, Sheila, Catherine, the Harris’s), mothers with superhero daughters (Joyce), mothers who comfort their superhero daughters (Joyce), mothers who work (Joyce and Sheila), and mothers who die of natural causes (Joyce’s death in the brilliant “The Body” , the finest portrayal of the horrors of death and how family and friends deal with it I have ever seen or read). In other words, adults are presented in a great variety of ways in the Buffyverse.

And while it’s true that most of Sunnydale’s adults are generally oblivious to the evil in their midst, so are most of the “kids”. Only a very few of Sunnydale’s young people are aware or become aware of this evil and fight it (the Scoobies, Sunnydale High School graduating class in “Graduation Day, Part 2”), just as only a few adults are aware of it and fight it (Giles, Jenny, Joyce after the second season, Robin Wood) or try to keep it secret (the Mayor, Principal Snyder, Bob the Sheriff). Buffy’s mother Joyce may, at least in the First and Second seasons, be blind to her daughter’s secret identity. She is also portrayed during those years, however, as someone who is genuinely trying to be a good parent. That she is sometimes unsuccessful says less about her parenting skills and more about what it means to be human.

It is true that Buffy sees its adults through its teenager’s prejudiced eyes. Buffy, Willow, Xander, and others, such as Amy, do see adults as hapless, petty, and without much of a clue. This perception doesn’t last very long in the show, however. When Buffy came on the air it was a show about a group of high school looser outsiders struggling with the problems of being teenagers in a dangerous world. They struggle to find themselves, they struggle with various relationships, they struggle to graduate from high school, and they struggle to save the world from vampires, monsters, and demons—a lot. By the end of the third season, however, the Scoobies have not only saved the world from the mayor’s ascension they have graduated from high school.

In the fourth season, however, young adults begin to predominate in the Buffyverse. The Scoobies are growing up and are beginning to face all the problems and responsibilities that accompany young adulthood not to mention the continued threats to Sunnydale and the world. They have relationships, they deal with failed relationships, they start new relationships, and they struggle with college and life. Willow is in her element. She begins a relationship with Tara, continues to grow in witchy power, and increasingly feels that Buffy and Xander don’t take her wicca abilities seriously (“Fear, Itself”, “Hush”, “New Moon Rising”). More and more she feels that Buffy views her only as a sidekick (“Fear Itself” and “Restless”). Xander lives in his parent’s basement and cycles through a series of frustrating dead-end jobs. He becomes more deeply involved with Anya and feels alienated from Willow and Buffy and doesn’t feel that they take him seriously (“Fear, Itself”, “Beer Bad”). Giles is no longer a Watcher or a Sunnydale High School librarian since there is no Sunnydale High. He struggles to redefine himself and feels more and more unnecessary to the Slayer and less and less a part of the group (“A New Man”). Buffy has gotten over her fears, is doing well at UC-Sunnydale (she is a B minus psychology student) and in her slaying, has become deeply involved with Riley and is spending more time with him than with the Gang. When she learns that he is a member of the Initiative, she joins them, making the rest of the Scoobies feel like the proverbial fifth wheel (“The ‘I’ in Team”). Just as it seems that the Gang will fall apart (“The Yoko Factor”) Buffy discovers the evil that lurks in the depths of the Initiative and they reunite to fight Adam by magically uniting each of their gifts in Buffy (“Primeval”).

By the beginning of the fifth season Buffy’s sister arrives. Dawn is the key that allows dimensions to be opened. She has been sent to Buffy by monks and disguised as her sister so that the Slayer can protect her from the god Glory. Glory needs to bleed Dawn in order to open a portal to the world she once ruled and which, if opened, will destroy the world (“No Place Like Home”). During this season Willow’s relationship with Tara continues and deepens while her wiccan powers grow to such an extent that they become absolutely essential to the Scoobies struggle against evil. She alone is able to harm Glory before the epic final battle (“Tough Love”). Xander has settled into a relationship with Anya, a construction job, and into a nice apartment (“Tough Love”). Giles once again becomes Buffy’s mentor and plays the role of her surrogate father particularly after Joyce’s death (“The Body”). He gives himself a sense of purpose by buying The Magic Shop becoming, with this purchase, a small, independent businessman (“The Replacement”). Buffy fails to stop Riley from leaving her for the demon wilds of Belize (“Into the Woods”) and after her mom becomes ill (“Out of My Mind”, “No Place Like Home”, “Fool for Love”, “Shadow” 5008, “Listening to Fear” 5009, “Into the Woods” 5010) and eventually dies suddenly (“The Body”, “Forever”) is left to care for Dawn (with more than a little help from the Scoobies and Spike). In the final episode she gives her life so that Dawn might live. By doing so she discovers that sacrificial death is her gift (“The Gift”).

At the beginning of the sixth season Buffy is brought back from “heaven”, drops out of college, cycles through a series of meaningless jobs (“Bargaining, Part 1”, “Bargaining Part 2”, “Flooded”, “Life Serial”, ”Doublemeat Palace”), deals with life’s increasing meaninglessness, and begins a kinky boy toy relationship with Spike (“Smashed”). Throughout Season six Buffy, Willow, Tara, Giles, and Dawn live together as an alternative family in the Summers’ house each watching out for the other and all watching out for Dawn. Willow becomes increasingly addicted to magicks and her relationship with Tara suffers as a result (“Tabula Rasa”, “Smashed”, “Wrecked”). Xander, despite his apparent success in terms of jobs, apartments, and relationships remains fearful that he will turn out to be just like his Dad, abusive and alcoholic, and leaves Anya at the altar (“Hell’s Bells”). Giles returns to England after Buffy dies (“Bargaining, Part 1”) but comes back after she is resurrected and plays his role as her mentor and surrogate father again (“Flooded”). However, he is increasingly torn between his role as surrogate father to Buffy and being there when she needs him and the necessity of pulling back from her so to allow her to gain the autonomy she needs (“Tabula Rasa”). Buffy has become far too dependent on Giles. Tara leaves Willow after she discovers that Willow cannot kick her addiction to magic (“Tabula Rasa”) and moves out from under Willow’s shadow becoming a surrogate mother to both Dawn (“Wrecked”) and Buffy (“Dead Things”). Buffy is as clueless about Dawn’s sneak outs, growing interest in boys, and petty thefts as Joyce was clueless about her secret identity (“All the Way”). Throughout season six the Buffy is manipulated and attacked by the trio of Warren, Jonathan, and Andrew, the essence of immaturity and a failure to oh grow up. When Warren accidentally kills Tara while trying to shoot Buffy, Willow comes unhinged and resorts to dark witchcraft in order to try to destroy the world (“Seeing Red”, “Villains”). Buffy and Giles fail in their attempts to stop her (“Two to Go”), but Xander finally saves the day with agapic love and friendship and a little bit of help from the white magicks Willow took from Giles (“Grave”).

At the beginning of the seventh season Willow is a recovering magickaholic living in England where she is being helped in her recovery by Giles and the Coven (“Lessons”, “Beneath You”). She returns to Sunnydale fearful that her friends won’t be able to forgive her (“Same Time, Same Place”). In fact, it takes her sometime before she can begin to forgive herself for what she has done (“The Killer in Me”). Eventually she once again is using her computer (“Him”) and her magickal skills in the fight against evil (at the end of the season and the series Willow passes the powers of the scythe on to all Potential Slayers in “Chosen”). Xander is leading a crew rebuilding Sunnydale High (“Lessons” 7001, “Beneath You”). As someone who sees he helps Dawn find the extraordinary in herself (“Potential”). He loses an eye in the fight against Caleb (“Dirty Girls”). By the end of the season he and Anya have reconciled and he fights with the Scoobies, the Potentials, and the Civilians against the First Evil (“Chosen”). Buffy becomes a part-time counselor at the new Sunnydale High where Dawn is a student (“Lessons”, “Beneath You”) and begins training Little Sis (“Lessons”, “Beneath You”) and the Potentials who make their way to Sunnydale because the First and its agents are trying to kill them (“Showtime”, “Potential”, “First Date”). She struggles with her feelings of superiority and inferiority (“Conversations with Dead People”) and survives a revolt against her leadership style and its consequences (“Empty Places”). By the end of the season she has resumed her leadership role, though in a more collective way, when she finds a way to pass Slayer powers on to all Potentials with whom she helps defeat the First Evil (“Chosen”). Spike has got his soul back and is struggling with its consequences (“Two to Go”, “Grave”, “Lessons”, “Beneath You”) and the fact that the First is manipulating him (“Sleeper”, “Never Leave Me”, “Bring On the Night”, “Showtime”). His love for Buffy and his trust in her helps him withstand these struggles and to play a central role in the defeat of the First (“Bring on the Night”, “”Showtime”, and Chosen”). Anya, who has returned to the vengeance demon fold after being jilted by Xander, causes havoc as a vengeance demon (“Beneath You”, “Selfless”) forcing Buffy to try to kill her (“Selfless”). While struggling with her conscience she returns to the Scooby Gang with her patented forthrightness intact (“Selfless”, “Him”) to help once again in the fight against the evil that devours from beneath them. In the final episode of the season she gives her life in the final battle with the First Evil (“Chosen”). Dawn finally becomes a Scooby showing off her research abilities (Same Time, Same Place”) and her fighting skills (“Never Leave Me”, “Chosen”). She continues to struggle with her fear of being left alone (“Conversations with Dead People”) and her fear that she has nothing special to offer her friends (“Potential”).

As this selective synopsis makes clear, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, rather than being a show which mocks adults (though it does portray adults as having faults like all humans), actually helps viewers sympathise and empathise with those who have grown up before them by forcing us to sympathise and empathise with the Scoobies as they grow up before our TV eyes. Buffy is, in large part, about growing up, the price we pay to do it, the scars it leaves as with us as we do, the inner and outer demons we have to fight to achieve it, and the imperfections that remain when we do. This is made very clear very early on in the show when Buffy realizes that Giles faced very similar things in his past that she is now facing in her present and she is able to sympathise and empathise with him as he is with her (adults are people too she notes in “The Dark Age” 2008). Buffy is also about the struggle to maintain the much needed friendships that help you traverse the thorny path which is the road to adulthood and responsibility. Without her friends Willow would be the destroyer of worlds (“Grave”). Without his friends Xander might still be living in his parent’s basement. Without her friends Buffy would be dead or even more lost than she is during Season six. Friends, Buffy tells us, help us to survive the most difficult thing about the world, living in and growing up in it. Buffy, then, is a bildungsroman as Douglas Kellner points out in his excellent online essay, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Spectacular Allegory".


  1. I was doing research online on becoming a surrogate mother and came across your blog. Very entertaining and insightful read.

  2. I agree on your take on Buffy's alleged ageism.