Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Ethnocentrism and Religion: A Few Thoughts

It has long seemed to me that ethnocentrism is pretty much a universal aspect of human life. And it has long seemed to me that all of the world's "major" religions are ethnocentric. By ethnocentrism I don't simply mean a sense of choseness (religious or secular). Nor would I argue that ethnocentrism necessarily begins or ends with a notion of choseness. Yes choseness is generally an aspect of ethnocentrism. And yes a sense of choseness is at the heart of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the Bahai Faith, and Mormonism. And while Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism are sometimes seen as being characterised by a sense of toleration and often times were genuinely tolerant that doesn't mean that they are not without ethnocentric stain.

Ethnocentrism is much more complex than a sense of being a chosen or special people and the superiority complex that goes along with it. Ethnocentrism can take many forms: the superiority that comes from a perceived positive and "progressive" social activism (Quakers), the sense of musical superiority felt by the devotees of some rock group, the designer label sense of superiority held by those in some clique with a fashion sense or classes who wear Monolo Blahniks, the sense of right politics that most political parties have, the racism of the Jim Crow South, the Indian caste system, tribal conflicts throughout the planet, and so on. Ethnocentrism encompasses this sense of group superiority, ethnic superiority, racial superiority, gender superiority, clique superiority, fashion superiority, art appreciation superiority, and more. Virtually every aspect of human life down to mundane everyday interactions is rent through with ethnocentrisms big and small. It is an inherent part of every human group because when a community defines itself, it defines itself against some "other" and it generally sees itself as superior in some way, shape, or form to that other or those others.

It is thus not ethnocentrism or the lack of ethnocentrism that differentiates religious groups or groups in general. All human groups are ethnocentric in their own ways to paraphrase Tolstoy. What differentiates religious groups and groups within religious groups is the willingness or unwillingness to resort to violence in the name of their sense of ideological superiority. Historically Christianity and Islam, both monotheistic religions with a strong sense of their own rightness and a sometimes intense missionary zeal, have sometimes engaged in holy crusade, holy jihad, or holy ghettoisation to conquer the world for Christ or Islam. Hinduism and Buddhism have been less likely to engage in these "holy" wars and these isolate the infidel practises until recently, that is.

It is not a sense of specialness that differentiates Judaism from Buddhism and spurs contemporary Israel to build settlements in their "promised land". The Buddha's rejection of ascetic practises as ineffective in reaching the promised land of a release from suffering is, after all, a kind of kindler and gentler rejection of "inferior" religious practises of the other in favour of the superior and special four fold path to enlightenment and escape from suffering the Buddha proffered. And lets not forget that Buddhism gave us the genocide of Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka and Hinduism has given rise (with a lot of help from good old Western nationalism) to the ethnocentric and fundamentalist Hindu National Party and widow burning. Every group thinks they are special.

In some ways I think Judaism is similar to the Japanese national religion Shintoism. Both are tribal religions that have ethnic and national dimensions. Neither, however, really has much of a missionary impulse for somewhat different reasons. And unlike Shintoism Judaism has had and continues to have international dimensions (the suffering servant theme in II Isaiah and his school) in which Israel is seen as a light to the world as a result of its suffering bringing the social ethical truth of YHWH to the world through its suffering, an impulse that I believe fed into the Jewish socialist movements). Suffering servant ideologies, while ethnocentric, are far removed from the crusade, the jihad, and the ethnic ghetto.

Some early forms of Christianity such as Paulinic Christianity with its elimination of several markers of Hebrew and Jewish distinctiveness (for example, circumcision and dietary restrictions), picked up and ran with this internationalist strain within the Hebrew faith (a strain of Christianity which linked the suffering Jesus to the suffering servant of II Isaiah) only to return, with Theodosius, who made what would become Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity the religion of the Roman state and after the Reformation which split Europe ideologically once and for all a movement that would make Protestant varieties of Christianity the state religions of the monarchic and later nation states which arose in the West each of whom saw themselves as distinctively special, specially chosen. This process which turned an internationalist ideology into a nationalist ideology shows the universal power of notions of ethnocentric group specialness. By the way, none of this means that internationalist Christianity wasn't ethnocentric. It was. It maintained that it and only it was the only true form of "religion" on earth.

As to Judaism, the rise of the nation of Israel after World War Two has brought a nationalist dimension to Talmudic Judaism, a dimension that has led to the rise of Religious Zionism, a Zionism while similar to was also different from Secular Zionism. Secular and religious Zionism start from different places, the former in religious ethnocentrism, the latter in secular ethnocentrism. Where they are similar is that both Religious Zionism and Secular Zionism are heavily imbued with notions of blood and soil (but then who isn't?). Interestingly there is also a kind of anti-nationalist Judaism as well, the one which argues that the state of Israel is a heresy because the messiah hasn't come and it is only the messiah who can restore Israel to its (imagined?) former glory.

Now don't get me wrong here. I am not trying to justify or legitimise Israel's policy of building settlements in occupied Palestine. Far from it. In fact, I am one of the very few who supports the one state solution with a separation of synagogue, mosque, church, and state in a secular and democratic (Israel's Knesset is certainly more democratic and representative than the US Congress) Israel/Palestine along with the much missed Jewish democratic socialist and historian of Europe Tony Judt. This is a pipe dream, of course.

One certainly can validly argue that Israel is using settlements to create a fait accompli in the occupied territories. However, there are other factors at play in Israel's settlement policies as well including demographic pressures and financial pressures that any Israeli politician has to deal with particularly in the wake of the mass protests in Tel Aviv.

I don't primarily blame Israel for the Israeli/Palestine conflict. If anyone is to blame it is Europe. The blame for the present situation in Israel/Palestine after WWII can and should be laid at the doorstep of that "civilsed" continent (I like Mark Mazower's take on late twentieth century Europe as the dark continent). Europe's Antisemitism clearly helped create Secular Zionism (the Jewish version of Europe's blood and soil ideology) and Israel, one of the last European settler societies. And Europe's Antisemitism has, as we circle back to ethnocentrism and specialiness, good old Christian ethnocentric roots.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

This Ain't Your Older Sisters Prime Suspect...

So, dear unreaders, I actually watched one of the crop on "new" shows on American television this week, NBC's adaptation of yet another British television show, ITV's seminal Prime Suspect.

The original Prime Suspect ran from 1991 to 1996 and from 2003 to 2006 on Britain's commercial broadcaster ITV. Prime Suspect's main protagonist was Jane Tennison played by the great Helen Mirren, the first DCI in London's Metropolitan Police Service. Up against an old boy's network Tennison has to push and shove for everything she gets, including her first case, a case she gets after the detective in charge dies of a heart attack in the midst of the investigation. Tennison as written (the first series by Prime Suspect creator Lynda La Plante also creator of the wonderful, at least during its first and equally feminist series, Widows) and as played by Mirren is portrayed warts and all. She is sometimes pushy, because she has to be to make it in an old boy's world, she has family problems, and she is, as we see in later series, an alcoholic.

The new Prime Suspect was developed by Alexandra Cunningham whose resume includes Desperate Housewives, NYPD Blue, Fastlane, and Rome, and stars Maria Bello as Jane Timoney a tough as nails female cop trying to make it it a man's world. It debuted on NBC on Thursday 22 September 2011 to some 6 million viewers according to the website TV by the Numbers, ratings that may suggest that NBC's latest adaptation of a British show, which is this week up against the mediocre Mentalist and that mediocre fantasy show Grey's Anatomy, may be destined for that ever growing dust pile of American TV shows headed for cancellation and that aren't on the CW where 2 million plus viewers will get you renewal. American TV is, after all, dominated by commodity aestheticism, the notion that it ain't good if it don't get the viewing numbers and, as a result, advertising dollars. TV by the Numbers, of course, is a shill for this commodity aestheticism, inc.

So what did I think of the new Prime Suspect? I thought it paled in comparison to the original in a number of ways all of which are revealing about the increasing irrelevance of American television. The great thing about ITV's Prime Suspect is that, except for series four which was divided into three 100 or so minute episodes, most episodes of Prime Suspect clocked in at around 200 minutes plus. This meant that viewers like me who enjoy a good mystery and great acting could savour the plot and savour the acting of some of Great Britain's finest like a fine slow cooked meal. It also meant that there was often a degree of ambiguity built into each episode. The first series, for instance, played on viewer ambiguity as to whether the prime suspect in that episode, George Marlow, played with superb ambiguity by John Bowe, really was guilty.

There is no time for savouring the American Prime Suspect, reveling in its acting, or enjoying its ambiguities. The American version, after all, only has forty or so minutes to get from crime to suspect to the capture of that (right) prime suspect. It is the television equivalent of the male wham bam thank you ma'am sex mentality and McDonald's fast food.

The pilot of the American Prime Suspect (and I know I shouldn't judge an entire show on the basis of one episode but it often times works with US TV) was OK but it was not the British Prime Suspect. Given that it is an adaptation of the original British series comparison here is unavoidable. It is simply not as well acted, not as well written, though it did borrow several plot points from series one of the British series, nor as important and seminal as Prime Suspect (and earlier Morse and later Cracker) was for ITV and for British television. In the world after Scully and Buffy, in fact, it seems rather passe. I am not sure I will watch the US Prime Suspect next week. What I am sure of, however, is that this latest adaptation of an adult British TV show makes me yearn for the great writing, superb acting, fascinating arcs, and ambiguites of X-Files, at least for its first five seasons, and Buffy, again at least for its first five seasons. Whatever happened to the second golden age of US television?

Postscript:
I watched the second episode of the American Prime Suspect and I liked it better than I did the first. It was much less indebted to the British version and while still following slavishly the good old wham bam thank you ma'am formula that dominates American television these days, it wasn't bad. I actually enjoyed it even if I wasn't moved by it. I particularly liked it that the episode portrayed the cops warts and all and that it wasn't your standard caricatured and stereotyped portrayal of a child molester. Still it wasn't the British Prime Suspect, a programme to savour and revel in rather than to have quickly pass before your eyes and quickly out of mind.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Down to Earth and the Cultural Work of Ideology

I must admit, dear unreaders, that I was embarrassed to learn that me, a cinephile who has been watching films, classic Hollywood films and European art films, religiously since the 1960s didn't know that there was a sequel to the classic 1941 Hollywood film Here Comes Mr. Jordan. Here Comes Mr. Jordan is a Hollywood fable about a boxer who dies as the result a heavenly error and is allowed to return to earth in the body of another man because of the error. It was remade in 1978 as Heaven Can Wait by Warren Beatty and in 2001 as Down to Earth. But dear unreaders there was also a sequel to Here Comes Mr. Jordan. And it too was called Down to Earth.

Down to Earth was released in 1947. Like Here Comes Mr. Jordan Down to Earth was produced by Everett Riskin. Like Here Comes Mr. Jordan it was directed by Alexander Hall. Like Here Comes Mr. Jordan it starred Edward Everett Horton and James Gleason. But unlike Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which was in glorious black and white, Down to Earth is in glorious technicolor.

Down to Earth is actually only a sequel of sorts to Here Comes Mr. Jordan. It stars Rita Hayworth as the muse Terpsichore who, upon discovering that a play is being readied for Broadway with her as the main character, a play she doesn't like, convinces Mr. Jordan, this time played by Roland Culver rather than Claude Rains, to send her down to earth in a human body so she can transform the play from low art to high art. She is Terpsichore after all. Unbeknownst to Terpsichore the real reason Mr. Jordan is sending her to the land of the mortals is to stop a murder.

Terpsichore, masquerading as Kitty Pendleton, does manage to transform the musical play into a "long haired" work of art to the dismay of the cast and crew. But the new and "improved" play flops. Terpsichore walks away from the play until she learns that the plays writer, producer, and star Danny (Larry Parks) is in hock to a gambler king and will be killed if the play flops. The gambler king, you see, is backing the play in the hope of getting the money Danny owes him back.

Terpsichore, who is falling in love with Danny, returns and, in typical Hollywood fashion, the show is a hit, Danny is safe. Terpsichore and Danny are in love. But since Terpsichore, her job of making sure Danny does not die done, must now return her home to Mt. Olympus the relationship between the two lovers isn't consummated. But don't worry dear unreaders, Danny dies and comes to heaven where Terpsichore is waiting for him. Hollywood fairy tale once again consummated. Eternal love proves once again eternal in a Hollywood film.

What is so interesting about Down to Earth is that it is, in many ways, a film about Hollywood's image of itself. Down to Earth counterpoints Hollywood popular entertainment for the worthy masses to the "long hair" art of ballet that Terpsichore creates when she retools the musical play from low to high art replete with the symphonic music of the high brows. That Hollywood's music was a rip off of symphonic music does not seem to bother Hollywood's powers that be at all. What is also interesting about Down to Earth is that by the end of the film Terpsichore, who has throughout the film been a woman of independent mind and action, is turned into someone who, because she is now in love, just wants to stay at home and take care of the children to be. I guess we are supposed to feel sad that the tragedy is that she can't be a good American housewife because, after all, she is a Greek goddess. Let's hear it for the cultural work of Hollywood entertainment. Let's hear it for Hollywood's cult of domesticity. And let's hear it for commodity aestheticism, long short haired Hollywood's raison d'etre.

American Nationalism, American Patriotism, Anti-Communism, and Hollywood: The Case of The Bamboo Prison

I recently saw a film on the retro television channel Antenna TV that I found quite interesting, The Bamboo Prison. The Bamboo Prison was produced by Columbia, written by Edwin Blum and Jack DeWitt, who also wrote the story the film is based on, and directed by Lewis Seiler.

The Bamboo Prison takes place in a POW camp during the Korean War and was released in 1954, a year after the real Korean War ended. The Bamboo Prison tells the tale of a POW, John Rand of Toledo, Ohio, played by Robert Francis who, when the film begins, appears to be a Benedict Arnold, a turncoat who, convinced by the truth of communist ideology about fat cats, Wall Street, and capitalists, appears to be aiding and abetting the ideology of the enemy. But appearances can be deceiving in Bamboo Prison. Rand is not who he seems. He is actually a secret agent working for the US who, in the course of the film, is told by another secret agent Brady, played by Brian Keith, that he has been ordered to uncover evidence about communist atrocities in Korea.

In order to gain this much needed information and send it back through Brady to US forces in Korea, Rand goes all commie and is allowed perks that all "progressives" get, including leaving the camp. Rand believes that another turncoat, Mr. Clayton, the propagandist from Moscow who used to work for a US communist newspaper, presumably the Daily Worker which shows up in the film and plays an important and ironic role in Rand's and Brady's communications with each other. So Rand makes close with Clayton's ballerina Russian wife, Tanya (Dianne Foster).

It turns out that Tanya has a secret, well a couple of secrets, too. She married Clayton in order to get to the United States because she hates communism. Clayton, by the way, is using Tanya as a sex favour toy to gain favour with the communist elite crowd in Moscow and "Peiping". Rand and Tanya, of course, this is a Hollywood film after all, fall in love and Tanya helps Rand to find the documents he has been looking for and which have been hidden in her husbands death all along.

The Bamboo Prison comes to a head when another secret wills out. It turns out the Catholic priest, Father Dolan (E.G. Marshall), is secretly a communist agent masquerading as a priest. Dolan eventually uncovers Rand's dirty little secret forcing Rand to act. Rand kills the priest, helps Brady to escape by staging a fake fight, kills Clayton, who has arrived back from "Peiping" unexpectedly, and arranges for Tanya to finally live her consumer dreams (she likes sable and pop music) by escaping to the West. At the end of the film with the war over Rand refuses to repatriate to the US telling his military interrogators that he is a true commie believer. Just before he gets on the truck to return to the North Rand spies Tanya and Brady and tells them that he must do his duty as a patriotic American by continuing to spy on the North Koreans and asks Brady to take care of Tanya until he can return home. An almost fairy tale ending. But we viewers can't help but believe the fairy tale will become reality soon given what we have seen of Rand throughout the film.

I was fascinated by the The Bamboo Prison for a number of reasons. It is clearly a piece of wartime propaganda much like Casablanca (one of the greatest propaganda films of all time and one of the greatest films ever made, in my opinion), Mission to Moscow, and The North Star. It is in many ways an earlier and much less ambiguous version, though Bamboo Prison does have some of the prison camp humour you see in Stalag 13 (Billy Wilder) released a year before The Bamboo Prison, though it has none of the cynicism of that film, of the Manchurian Candidate (1962), which takes the theme of communist brainwashing in a much darker direction. The Bamboo Prison, a film about secrets, makes no secret about its ideology, good old American patriotism and good old American heroes and heroism. It wears its ideological heart on its sleeves unlike some films whose cultural and ideological work goes on beneath the surface. Even the only Black prisoner we see in the film Doc (Earle Hyman) is an American patriot who doesn't fall for the bourgeois America keeps the Black man down on the plantation routine the communists, Korean, "Russian", and Chinese, are giving him. His patriotism will earn him a beating and jail time in the isolation cooler, the "ice house". Don't forget that communist "propaganda" was making much hay out of the fact that Jim Crow was slavery by another name in the 1950s and 1960s, much to their advantage in some quarters.

There is so much that is interesting and intriguing about the ideology of The Bamboo Prison. There's Comrade-Instructor Li Ching (played by veteran Chinese-American actor Keye Luke) who, when discussing the joys of American consumerism with a POW who sells cars back home and who is trying to sell cars to POW's in the camp (a good capitalist never misses an opportunity apparently), seems more interested in American consumer products than the communist ideology he is supposed to be teaching the POW's. The Bamboo Prison has that good old time good capitalist consumer society versus evil communist famine binary and theme in spades. Then there is that good old notion that all communists (met one, met them all) are united be they "Russia" (it is never called the Soviet Union), North Korea (I don't recall this phrase being uttered by anyone in the film), or China. This, of course, reflects a common understanding of communism among much of the American population at the time of the Cold War despite the fact that by the 1950s the Soviet and Chinese alliance was fraying and the split would become irrevocable by the 1960s.

The Bamboo Prison is not likely to show up in the books or articles written by academic film scholars or the work of film critics these days. Though many film scholars condemn the auteurism that has dominated film study since the late 1950s they continue to focus on the films of auteurs like Hitchcock, Welles, and Lynch, and they continue, like Andrew Sarris, to ignore films made by metteurs-en-scene like Bamboo's director Lewis Seiler when they can. And though film scholars are interested in ideology they tend to like their ideology beneath the surface of the text so they can expose, through textual analysis, the gender, racial, ethnic, capitalist, ageist, and misogynistic ideologies secretly lurking and repressed beneath the surface text. I can't imagine much interest in a film like the The Bamboo Prison among contemporary film scholars, a film which wears, as I said, its ideological heart on its sleeve.

Nor is The Bamboo Prison likely to show up on the retrospective art film circuit of film festivals or museums. Its aesthetic is realist and its director is not someone much talked about in film critic circles. I am glad I got to see it, however. It reminds me of all those paintings lurking in the basement of museums that John Berger showed viewers of his wonderful BBC documentary Ways of Seeing (a Benjaminian critique of Sir Kenneth Clark's BBC documentary Civilisation), paintings that elite's had painted of their mistresses so their elite buddies could gawk at them. Like those paintings, which tell us something important about status and wealth in Europe, and particularly in England and Britain past, The Bamboo Prison may not, like Berger's paintings, have much in the way of cultural capital these days, but it tells us something important culturally about the US in the 1950s. Looking at it from a historical perspective then, there is something to be said for cultural artifacts which wear their ideological hearts on their sleeve.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Bliss Sutra or Ignorance is Bliss

We interrupt this sutra of bliss to bring you...Don't you just love people who have limited historical literacy? Well I don't. I am particularly frustrated by individuals who have no understanding of the history of bureaucracies and their functions.

Bureaucracies, economic, political, cultural, have been around since the Ancient Near East and Ancient China. Elites have always used them to increase their own wealth and power. The rise of modern forms of industrialism and capitalism transformed bureaucracies somewhat (adding a veneer of meritocracy to the its who you know mentality and practise that dominates human life) and they have become, quite obviously, the hierarchical form that dominates the modern world economically, politically, culturally, and even educationally. Read Weber.

The triumph of bureaucracies, of course, is related to population increases thanks to the advent and eventual triumph of capitalism and industrialisation. The triumph of bureaucracies is related to the fact that cartels and monopolies are, as the Gilded Age in the US and beyond shows, cheaper, more efficient, and more effective, and they bring greater profit because, as Wal-Mart shows, they can buy in bulk. The triumph of modern bureaucracies is related to the rise of the nation-state with substantial populations (and by copy catting and having the nation state forced on them because of Western notions of superiority) because bureaucracies are the cheapest, most efficient, and most effective way for governments of significant scale to operate. Read Weber.

So, if you want to get rid of bureaucracies become an anarchist, an anarchist who wants to lower the world's population, who wants to eliminate corporations and big businesses that aren't local, who wants to get rid of economic globalisation, and who wants to institute local only political regimes. Join the small is beautiful and do everything locally crowd, in other words. Be aware that if you choose this path you will also need to eliminate big bureaucratic militaries since they require the big money and big technology that centalised economic and political bureaucracies bring in order to become big and powerful and push others around in the name of national (read economic) interests.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Canadian Looney

So the National Post's and the CBC's Rex Murphy thinks that American President Barack Obama has gotten a free ride, huh. Well I think that Mr. Murphy and me seem to live in alternate universes, me in the real one and Mr. Murphy in one constructed out of his own ideological assumptions.

I recall much media hand wringing over the supposed anti-American statements of Obama's Chicago pastor Jeremiah Wright. I recall much discussion of whether a man who had such "little experience" should be president. He had, by the way, more experience than that attention seeking celebrity whore Sarah Palin and was more even keeled than the sometimes fruity McCain. I recall a backlash against Obama as Hillary seemed to be making a late charge to win the Democratic nomination for president. I recall all those reports on the network news about people who thought Obama was a Muslim (he, of course, isn't but the looney right crowd have never let facts get in the way of a good looney tune). I recall all of those nightly news reports about all those right wing loonies calling Obama and Democrats socialist commie nazis during the debate over Obama's (weak as water corporate) health care bill. I recall all of those news reports about all those right wing flat earth loonies who believed that Obama was not born in the good old USofA. And I recall all the unfair and unbalanced anti-coverage of Obama since before he became president on Roger Ailes' right wing propaganda cable machine, Fox News.

Whether there has been a bit of a honeymoon for Obama as there often is for American presidents in general I will leave to a future historian. The US press does, presumably because it wants to maintain access to the executive branch, seem to give presidents a pass at least while they are doing well in the opinion polls and in regard to foreign policy matters. Bush's claims about Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction", for instance, claims which, anyone who had studied the issue knew was fallacious (read the UN's UNSCOM reports online about Hussein's weapons capabilities), was not thoroughly investigated by the media (save for McClatchey and Moyers) because of the primitivist chest pounding patriotism mentality that mesmerised the American media for a period of time (not surprisingly ideologically driven emotion usually trumps intelligent analysis). And now that Obama's poll numbers are down note that the Solyndra "scandal" has reared its ugly head in the US press, well you get my drife.

Let's get real here, there are limits on what an American president can do economically and politically (particularly given that the Republicans have become a party of looney flat earth like-ers and they control the House). I say this as someone who didn't and would never vote for Obama and as someone, who while he would never have voted for Hillary, thinks she would, in retrospect (don't you just love Monday morning quarterbacking), have been a better choice for president than Obama. That said I still prefer him, weak as water though he is (thank you Mrs. Slocum) because he seems to cave into everything the Republicans want almost before negotiations begin, to the Apostolic Dominionist theocrats like Perry, Bachman, and Palin that populate the Republican Party.

And oh, by the way, it is clear from the empirical evidence that Obama is a moderate conservative friend of America's big business and big military-industrial complex interests. If that is what constitutes a nazi/liberal/socialist (all the inconsistent things the completely looney American right has called him) these days then we are indeed up the proverbial creek without a paddle and the looney right has indeed won the categorisation and demonisation wars.

Bibliography
Rex Murphy, The Media's Love Affair With a Disastrous President, 17 September 2011, National Post, http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2011/09/17/rex-murphy-the-medias-love-affair-with-a-disastrous-president/

Rin Tin Tin and the Culture of Liberalism

As I have mentioned before in these blogs, dear unreaders, I have been watching a lot of what is now called retro television recently. I just can’t get into “new” shows, speaking of retro TV, like “The Secret Circle”, Kevin Williamson's recent retread of the witchcraft genre, for a variety of reasons. What I have enjoyed during my sojourn through retro television has been the opportunity it has afforded me to see shows I haven’t seen for years and have only very fuzzy memories of or to see shows I have never seen before.

I recently watched an episode of the Adventures of Rin Tin Tin (1954-1959), a show about a boy and his dog that I think I have seen before in reruns but my memory is fuzzy here. The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, of course, is just one television show in the boy or man and his animal buddy subgenre that proved popular on television in the 1950s and 1960s and even, to some extent, beyond. Think Lassie (CBS, 1954-1973), Adventures of Champion (CBS, 1955-1956), My Friend Flika (CBS, 1956-1957), Circus Boy (NBC, 1956-1957, ABC, 1957-1958), Sergeant Preston of the Yukon (CBS, 1955-1958), Belle et Sébastien (1965-1970, a French TV show dubbed and run on the BBC), The Adventures of Black Beauty (ITV, 1972-1974), The New Adventures of Black Beauty (ITV, 1990-1991), Due South (CTV, 1994-1999), and The Adventures of the Black Stallion (Family Channel, 1990-1993), for example). This subgenre, of course, has precedents in literature, film, and radio.

The episode I watched of The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, “Rin Tin Tin and the White Buffalo”, was fascinating to me because I am someone who has a strong interest in how ideology works and functions. And ideology is really working and functioning in this episode of the Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. “Rin Tin Tin and the White Buffalo” begins with Rusty (Lee Aaker), the character, along with Rin Tin Tin, on whom Adventures of Rin Tin Tin centres, Rin Tin Tin, Lieutenant Ripley "Rip" Masters (James Brown), the solder who has adopted Rusty after he was orphaned by an Indian attack, and a group of US soldiers assuring a group of Chiricahua Apaches that they are in Chiricahu territory--The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin is set on the Arizona frontier in the nineteenth century-- not on a mission of conquest but rather to insure that a recent treaty signed between the Chiricahua and the US government which keeps White buffalo hunters out of Chiricahua territory is enforced. After Lt. Masters explains why the military has entered Ciricahua territory Rusty, who has heard Komawi (Norman Frederic), the son of the Chiricahua chief, mention to Masters that they are in search of buffalo, asks to accompany the Chiricahua braves on their search for the increasingly illusive buffalo. Masters agrees and off Rusty and Rin Tin Tin go on in search of buffalo. During the search Rusty, playing the role of a subpint ethnographer, learns about the importance of the buffalo to the Chiricahua way of life and how they, unlike White hunters, use every part of the buffalo in their everyday lives. Later he meets Komawi’s father who tells him about the significance of the white buffalo.

This being television there is, of course, another plot tale going on alongside the Rusty and the Indians one. In this subplot white hunters appear in Chiricahu territory while Rusty and the braves are engaged in their search for the buffalo. One of these hunters, Keller, played with appropriate roughness and gruffness by Richard Reeves, is clearly racist. After Masters and the troops arrive just in time to save the Chiricahua from the White hunters Keller, who has lied to Masters about the hunters intentions—Rusty tells Masters the true story—Keller and his gang of hunters are ordered to leave Chiricahua territory by the Lt. Keller, though he and his men leave, is not happy with what happened and he makes plans to return to Chiricahua territory to shoot the red man, Komawi, who had the audacity to touch him, a White Man. The other hunters who are interested simply in hunting and don't seem to be racists like Keller (is the moral here that only few Americans were and are really racist?), refuse to return to kill any Indians. In the final act of this twenty-five or so minute teleplay Keller shoots Komawi. He escapes only to be chased down by the soldiers, Rusty,and Rin Tin Tin. Eventually Rusty captures Keller. Keller, however, escapes when Rusty is unable to shoot him. In a kind of Montezuma’s revenge ending Keller escapes only to be trampled to death in a buffalo stampede. Rusty, threatened by the same buffalo stampede, is saved when he sees the white buffalo once, twice, but not again.

What I found so interesting about this episode of The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin was, as I mentioned earlier, its ideological work. On one level “Rin Tin Tin and the White Buffalo” (2:6, 14 October 1955) is a classical liberal American television show from the fifties similar in its portrayal of Indians to shows like Wagon Train (NBC, 1957-1962, ABC, 1962-1965). The horse soldiers and Rusty treat America’s First Peoples with respect and even as, to some extent, fully human. Rusty even comes to understand the Indian point of view about the importance of buffalo, about Indian mythologies about the white buffalo, and about how Whites, hunting buffalo for sport or simply to eliminate the nineteenth century red threat, are threatening the Native American way of life. All of us, of course, learn an important lesson about the evils of racism. Whether the burgeoning civil rights movement was in the background of this episode is something only empirical historical research, archival and oral history, can reveal.

On another level “Rin Tin Tin and the White Buffalo” creates an imaginary American past where America’s horse solders act paternally to protect the American Indians, one pole in the “Rin Tin Tin and the White Buffalo’s” narrative, from greedy and racist American buffalo hunters, the other pole. There is irony here, of course, since America’s soldiers, the middle and hence mediating pole of this episode (those Americans just love their great middle), were the very group who massacred and mutilated American First Peoples throughout the nineteenth century. On this second ideological narrative, in other words, the US military becomes the embodiment of dispassionate law and order that protects all, Indians or buffalo hunters. Whether readers of “Rin Tin Tin and the White Buffalo” made a metaphorical connection between Rin Tin Tin’s horse solders and the forces of military and police order in 1950’s America is a question only empirical reader response analysis can answer.

The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, by the way, was produced by Herbert B. Leonard who would go on to produce two innovative and important adult television shows in the late 50's and early 60's with with realist, verite, and liberal sentiments, Naked City (ABC, 1958-1963) and Route 66 (CBS, 1960-1964), both of which involved substantial, and in the case of Route 66, total location shooting. Leonard and his work is worthy of article or book length academic study but is, sad to say, unlikely to get one in an academy enthralled and mesmerised by new television shows and the newest and trendiest television auteurs and metteurs en scene (academics and the fads of the moment). "Rin Tin Tin and the White Buffalo" was written by Douglas Heyes whose credits include Maverick (ABC, 1957-1962), 77 Sunset Strip (ABC, 1958-1964), Ice Station Zebra (film, 1960), McCloud (NBC, 1970-1977), Night Galley (NBC, 1970-1973), and Alias Smith and Jones (ABC, 1971-1973).

Reading Buffy Synoptically: Musings on Buffy as Feminist

Buffy raises issues that “second wave” and “third wave” feminists argue about all the time and probably will be arguing about until the apocalypse actually does come. The question they keep debating is can you be sexy, wear short skirts and short shorts, show cleavage and still be an empowered feminist?

Second Wave Feminism, the feminism that arose in the 1960s and 1970s, the feminism of equality particularly economic equality, says no. For many Second Wave Feminists the portrayal of women in the media is generally all about the portrayal of women for the male gaze. For John Berger and Laura Mulvay, who developed the notion of the male gaze, a theory founded on Marxist and psychoanalytic or Freudian theory, women are portrayed sexily in advertising, films, and TV programmes and some paintings because they are there for the male gaze. They are eye candy for men. Third Wave Feminists, on the other hand, argue that today’s woman can be both sexy and equal particularly when they are performing roles that males usually perform.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which Joss Whedon claimed in several interviews was a feminist show, raises the issue of the male gaze because Buffy is, at the same time, the chosen one, the sole woman in all the world who protects us against the vampires and the monsters out there, the girl who kicks ass, male and female ass, but is also the woman who sometimes wears short skirts, shows some cleavage, and occasionally meditates on the joys of shopping at the same time. So is Buffy a feminist? Can an empowered woman like Buffy be powerful and be sexy?

This issue has divided academic and intellectual commentators on Buffy from the very beginning. A sampler: For Frances Early (Frances Early; “Staking Her Claim: Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Transgressive Woman Warrior”, Journal of Popular Culture 35.3 (2001): 11-28, also at Slayage 6, http://slayageonline.com/essays/slayage6/Early.htm) Buffy is both sexy and powerful. For Rachel Fudge (“The Buffy Effect or, a Tale of Cleavage and Marketing”, Bitch 4.1 (1999): 18-21, http://bitchmagazine.org/article/buffy-effect) there is some of the sexy Buffy for the male gaze in Buffy but there is also, at the same time, some kick ass feminism, much of it done by Buffy, making Buffy a good role model for the modern woman. For others (Michael Levine and Steven Jay Schneider, Elyce Rae Helford), however, Buffy is basically eye candy for the male gaze.

The problem here is one common in intellectual and academic culture, namely each side judges the theories of the other on the basis of their own very different ideologically and utopianly driven perspectives. Second wave feminism, in other words judges third wave feminism by second wave ideological standards and third wave feminism judges the perspectives of second wave feminism by third wave feminist standards and vice versa. Speaking personally, I sometimes find second wave feminism verging on puritanical in that it sometimes seems that for second wave feminists a "true" feminist" (something determined on the basis of their own ideological standards, of course) is someone who dresses like what they think a feminist should dress like. Third Wave feminism, on the other hand, assumes that women can kick ass and dress sexily (whatever sexy is since perceptions clearly vary) downplaying the role cleavage and short skirts play into the sex and pretty sells mentality .

One of the fundamental problems with second wave feminism is metaphysical. Second wave feminists seem to assume that their brand of feminism is the sole One True brand of Feminism. This notion is basically a fundamentalist approach to feminism. The empirical way to define feminism, on the other hand, is to note that there is no such thing as feminism. There are feminisms just as there is no such thing as Islam or Christianity or Judaism there are Islams, Christianities, and Judaisms.

I want to return to briefly to the issue of the male gaze for the remainder of this short musing. There are, in my opinion, problems with the notion of the male gaze as propagated by Berger and Mulvey. The concept of the male gaze raises all sorts of questions. Do all males view women in the media and beyond in the same way? Do some guys identify with female characters, some females with male characters? What about the gay and lesbian "gaze"? How does that play out if at all?

I would argue that issues of males and females and straights and gays, has always been more complex and complicated than some academics have made them. The fact that some women liked Buffy, for a variety of different reasons, some sexual, seems to suggest that the rather simplistic notion of the male gaze postulated and popularised by Mulvay is somewhat problematic. For me it is essential to do empirical research (archival research, interviews, ethnographies) to ascertain how people, non-academic people, “read” characters in TV shows, films, books, or painting is essential here.

And when one does empirical research beyond the text one finds that contrary to Levine and Schneider Buffy does not seem to me to be the proverbial blond every girl next door they claim her to be. As the show’s creator Joss Whedon has said on a number of occasions Buffy was intended to turn the horror genre upside down and inside out. Instead of its sweet, petite, young blond thing dying a horrible death at the hands of serial killing evil, Buffy is the “Chosen One”, the one who does the killing, the one who repeatedly saves the day, the one who transforms Slayerhood from one forced on one girl by the shadowy Shadow Men to one given to all female Slayer Potentials by the female Slayer (“Chosen”).

Probably no episode of Buffy better expresses the conflict between Buffy’s female Slayer power and patriarchal authority better than “Checkpoint”. In this episode Buffy is put down by a male history professor, the male dominated Watcher’s Council, attacked by the male Knights of Byzantium (all of which are portrayed as parallel forms of pompous male power), and the “big bad” of season five, Glory (who we later learn in this episode is a god). Instead of folding under these attempts to make her feel low and powerless, however, Buffy learns that it is she who has the power, something she makes clear to the Watchers later in this episode. Later in aeason seven Buffy will teach Dawn and the Potentials this lesson (“Lesson” 7001 and “Chosen”) and will fully break away from the patriarchal power that created Slayers (“Get it Done”). Needless to say this struggle between Buffy and patriarchal authority is one of the central themes of the series.



Reading Buffy Synoptically: Musings on Buffy and Colonialism

According to Dominc Alessio ('Things are Different Now'?: A Postcolonial Analysis of Buffy the Vampire Slayer” The European Legacy 6.6 (2001): 731-40) “Pangs” shows that Buffy has some of the colonialist in it. There is a line from “Pangs” that Alessio spends a lot of time explicating: “…but you have casinos now”...The question about this line that Alessio doesn’t ask, however, is this: is this a serious line or is it instead comedy and parody. Is “Pangs” parodying the Western genre? Are the Chumash engaging in payback? Are the Chumash doing to Europeans what the Europeans did to them? Is “Pangs” thus anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist?

My problems with Alessio’s reading of “Pangs” centre around these questions. Revenge, it seems to me, is at the heart of “Pangs”. The Chumash are spirits bent on revenging the wrongs done to them. They are not real Chumash. They are Chumash spirits.

“Pangs” is also a parody and contains significant amounts of comedy. It was written by Jane Espenson (who has an MA from Berkeley) who is known for bringing a comic element to her scripts. “Pangs”, in my opinion, parodies the Western genre with its good Whites and bad Indians.

This fact that Alessio did not interview Jane Espenson, the person who wrote “Pangs” to ascertain what her intention was is another major problem I have with Alessio’s approach. This lack of historical research, in fact, is a general problem with crystal ball textualism since crystal ball textualists (those who believe that anything you need to know about a text can be found in the text) tend to assume that you don’t have to do primary source research because “authors” simply channel culture via their texts. The author, they seem to believe, is, as Barthes and Foucault claimed, dead. Historians like myself, of course, would beg to differ with this assumption. Yes authors channel history, society, culture, but they also have “intentions”. And it is incumbent on analysts to try to explore, through historical research, interviews, and so on, what these intentions are. One analyst, by the way, sees the intention of the episode as multicultural rather than colonial since it ends with a Thanksgiving dinner being eaten by a demon, two vampires, two Brits, a Valley girl, a witch (and lesbian) and a construction worker (John Kenneth Muir, From the Archive: Buffy the Vampire Slayer; "Pangs", http://reflectionsonfilmandtelevision.blogspot.com/2011/11/from-archive-buffy-vampire-slayer-pangs.html).

Beyond textual analysis Alessio’s paper also raises a whole host of other questions. Do academics sometimes take things too seriously and miss parody and satire in the process (the last is certainly something that is common among the general viewing and listening public)? Does political correctness lead to ideological kneejerk reactions rather than analysis of a text in its historical contexts? Does Alessio and others like him, in other words, engage in kneejerk ideological analysis and as a result miss something important in the text?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Lucasification

George Lucas. Some people adore and semi worship him. Some people hate him for what he did to his Star Wars saga. I have always found this second group interesting because they remind me of true believers who have fallen from the (in this instance Lucas) faith. And then there are those like me who neither adore or hate/adore George Lucas.

As someone who has long been critical of Lucas I simply find his films derivative and juvenile. In other words, and to use a metaphor, one can be a critic of Mormonism without being "anti-Mormon", a category, that for Mormons, hides a good deal of valid criticism of the faith, just as one can be a critic of Lucas without liking or disliking him. Personally, I could get that personal about his films.

If I recall correctly my reaction to first seeing Star Wars. I had been drawn to it by the media blitz and the gossip about it being the greatest thing since sliced bread. After I saw it the only thing I could do was to shrug my shoulders and think to myself OK that is another film I have seen. In my teenage years I tried to see every film I could in particular films by the “great” film “masters” and I had seen A Clockwork Orange in 1972 in Muncie, Indiana. Star Wars seemed dreadfully juvenile to me next to the Kubrick film. Rather like the Sunday morning cartoons and serials I used to watch on Dallas TV in the sixties because there was nothing else on.

I have always suspected that age and cultural contexts have something to do with faith in George and with the enjoyment or lack of enjoyment of films in general. I was someone who had seen many classic Hollywood films and even a number of foreign films before SW. As a result, I suspect, I didn't respond to Star Wars as many younger contemporaries who adored the film with an almost religious like devotion (the construction of meaning) and who seem to have lived with that memory ever since and who have defined Lucas after SW in that ideological context.

By the way, I do like and did enjoy one Lucas film, American Graffiti. I haven't seen it in twenty or so years, however, so I don't know how I would "read" it these days.

Reading Buffy Synoptically: Musings on Blood in Buffy

“Cause it’s always got to be blood”. The “sucking” and blood thing in Buffy is quite complex. A few examples: the Master gains power from Luke's sucking of human blood in "The Harvest", the Master gains the power to leave the underground church in which he is trapped in “Prophecy Girl” after sucking Buffy’s blood, Buffy gains in power from being "sucked" by the Master after being revived by Xander in the same season one episode, Drusilla gains in strength after commingling her blood with Angel's in a restoration ritual ("What's My Line") and killing Kendra the Vampire Slayer and sucking her blood ("Becoming") in season two, Buffy and Dracula exchange blood in season five's "Buffy vs. Dracula" and Buffy learns something about slayerness in the process, its all about Dawn’s blood in season five, Glory needs it to open the portal so she can return home. Blood in Buffy, its important.

Reading Buffy Synoptically: Musings on Glory/Ben

I would argue that moral ambiguity rather than gender tensions, as Lorna Jowett claims (Sex and the Slayer, pp. 92-93), is central to understanding the Glory/Ben character, the big bad of Buffy season five. Buffy repeatedly highlights the potential all of us have for good and for evil and the ambiguities associated with this conflict by portraying moral tensions in the Glory/Ben relationship (“The Weight of the World”).

This doesn’t mean that gender is irrelevant to the Glory/Ben character. Glory is put into the body of a human male (Ben) by her rivals in order that she can be contained. This may be read as a sly comment on traditional western gender culture where men have controlled and contained women or it may be a comment on the fact that each of us have a bit of the male and female in all of us. Of course, one can raise the issue of why Mutant Enemy made the “big bad” of season five a woman and her container male. To answer this question, however, requires more than simply crystal ball textual analysis, more than simply staring into a text for enlightenment. It requires production research.

Reading Readers Reading

I want to spend a bit of time musing on something academics talk a lot about but do little systematic analysis of, namely how people “read” films, TV programmes, or books. Academics typically inscribe themselves into the “text” they are reading as the “common reader”. But the question has to be asked as to whether they really are ideologically, economically, politically, and culturally "common" readers?

As I have taught classes on TV and read the online posts of individuals commenting on TV programmes I have long been struck about how theological most TV (and film and literary) “criticism” is. Most online or Amazon.com.uk.ca criticism begins and ends with things generally repressed in prose, “I like it”, “I don’t like it”, or it’s “cheesy”. There is no critical and systematic analysis of the programme itself just “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it”. There is usually no attempt to define, systematically and analytically terms of criticism such as what “cheesy” is or whether aesthetics are universal or social and cultural,in the eye of the social and cultural beholder. In fact, most individuals who engage in pop theological readings of a text, and that is what most of them are, often seem to mistake their particular “reading” of a text for a “gods” or universal or transcendental reading of a text. They, in other words, write in authoritative tones, universalist tones, dogmatic tones, theological tones, fetishistic tones.

One often gets the sense that theological readers (like it, dislike it) approach a “text” from a perspective of a budding filmmaker themselves. One gets the sense, or at least I get the sense, from reading such “criticism”, that the critic (who is seeking his or her their five minutes of fame?), if given a chance would have done something (visually, narratively, ideologically) different from the way the craftspeople who actually made the film or TV programme did it. There is, in other words, a practise dimension to this theological approach to “reading” and "reviewing" texts.

I find this practise dimension rather ironic because it sometimes seems to me that so many who take this approach write as though making a film or TV programme was done in a vacuum, a monetary vacuum, a technology vacuum, an institutional vacuum. For me the inability of so many to systematically analyse “texts” in their broader empirical contexts says something not very positive about what passes for intellectual life in the twentieth and twenty-first century West. So much for the notion that education will create an educated and rational populace.

There is another and more clichéd aspect to this theological and practice criticism of TV “texts” that troubles me. If the ideas, particularly the practical ideas, of so many “I like it, I don’t like it” school are so good why aren’t they making films and TV programmes? Why aren’t they writing books? I realise, of course, that it is not easy to get a foot in the Hollywood door. Someone like Paris Hilton can become a celubutante, can get an acting gig in Veronica Mars or make an album while I and others cannot because she is Paris Hilton and we are not. Paris got her celebrity, acting, and record gigs, of course, at least initially and it at least predominately, not because of her inherent talents at being a celebrity, an actor, or a musician but because her daddy is a Hilton, the Hilton, the Hilton with big money.

The same criticisms can be leveled at those who criticise film and TV acting in the webverse, the blogosphere, and in intellectual and academic culture. I suspect, though I don't know this for a fact since I haven’t done the necessary empirical research here, that most of those of claim that acting in films and TV series is awful have either limited acting experience (in high school) or no acting experience at all. I also suspect that most commentators know little about the history of acting, how acting has varied across time and space, how acting varies between film, TV, and theatre, how acting has and continues to vary by genre (and within genre), how acting is impacted by genre blending, and so on. All of this is a long way of saying that most of those who condemn acting as "bad", "horrible", or "wooden" have little in the way of critical or practical legs to stand on.

What bugs me about this is that I was taught to begin all analysis with when I analysed a text, analysed a text empirically, plot, its characters, its character development (if any), its visuals, and so on. Only, I was taught, after I did this could I move on to hermeneutic or interpretive analyse and than homiletic, aesthetic, or ideological analysis. I am fond of this more systematic and analytic approach. I wish others would get historical and interpretive before they go all homiletical on us by telling us how they would remake the TV show object of their gaze before they systematically and empirically analysed a TV show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But hey, that’s just me. I apparently fetishise.

Of course, there is a broader issue here, an issue I mentioned in passing earlier: is "beauty" and "value" universal or is it in the eye of the beholder, the binary that aesthetic philosophers have usually framed aesthetic issues? To me one can't escape empirical "reality" here. Some, to use the example of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, like Buffy, others don't, even more probably have no interest in Buffy whatsoever. One thing critical discourse in the blogosphere, in the webverse, and in intellectual and academic culture shows is that what some commentators on acting in a film or TV show find "wooden" others find "superb". Aesthetic perception, in other words, varies and is thus in the social and cultural eyes of beholders. Case closed.

Granted some commentators have tried to construct "canons" of great films, great TV programmes, and great acting performances and granted intellectuals and academics who have tried to construct canons of greatest films, greatest TV programes, and greatest acting performances ever often have degrees of expertise in film, TV, and acting. But the question remains whether these greatest of lists escape the hermeneutic circle, escape social and cultural bound time and space. As Jonathan Rosenbaum, one commentator who still believes that constructing best of lists is still worthwhile, says about his own lists, and I paraphrase, I recognise that my preferences are often of the moment. He recognises, in other words, that his aesthetic, his taste, preferences vary in time and space. If Rosenbaum is right then analysts of reader response or audience tastes must recognize that intellectual and academic discourse about film, television, literature, and so on is a form of reader response that doesn’t escape history.

Moving beyond the ivy halls of the academy and intellectual culture and into how real people read real texts, I have two acquaintances who responded to Buffy in interesting and different ways when I introduced them to the show. One, a female, called her ex-husband after Dark Willow flayed Warren and berated him for how he treated her during their marriage and was treating her after their divorce. Another acquaintance, a male, often commented on Buffy’s women in sexual terms. He saw Buffy sometimes as sexy, sometimes as not. He saw Cordelia and Darla as sexy. He found Tara too womanly. He often commented on what the female characters were wearing, the amount of make-up they had on, and on occasion yelled for more girl on girl action toward the screen. On the other hand, he also commented that he wasn’t sure if he could forgive Angel for how he treated Buffy and the Scoobies in season two and condemned, as did the show, the misogyny of some of the male characters. The moral of this story: More real consumption studies of a variety of consumers, as opposed to academic readings of film and television texts, are needed in order to understand how a variety of “readers” “read” “texts” like Buffy and Angel.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Reading Buffy Synoptically: Musings on Buffy

In “Lie to Me” (2007) Buffy is self aware enough to recognise that she is “immature”. In the early years of the show Buffy’s mise-en-scene emphasises the simultaneous older than her years maturity and teenage immaturity of Buffy. As Joss Whedon has noted in his commentary on “The Harvest” (Commentary: “The Harvest”, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Complete Second season on DVD) the chest that Buffy opens before she goes to the Bronze to fight the Master’s forces emphasises and symbolizes the fact that Buffy is a teenager (a normal girl) with all that entails and the Vampire Slayer with all that entails at the same time. In the top portion of the chest are things that one would expect a teenager to have. But underneath this lies the things of a Slayer: holy water, stakes, and wafers. She is as Joss says (Commentary: “The Harvest”, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Complete Second season on DVD) a normal girl who has things lying beneath this exterior.

This dialectic between Buffy the teenager and Buffy the Slayer is also emphasised in other ways: Buffy’s room with its stuffed animals (including Mr. Gordo), her closet full of clothes, her photos of her Dorothy Hammel phase, her posters, and the furnishings of the room emphasise Buffy as teenager while the hidden weapons in her desk, weapons hidden in her chest, emphasise her Slayerness. As the series progressed Buffy’s room became less that of a teenager and more that of an adult reflecting Buffy’s growing maturity. Additionally, as we learn more and more about the darkness at the heart of Slayerness, her clothes became darker. This movement from teenager to adult can also be seen in other aspects of the show as well: the movement of the Scoobies into the daylight of public spaces like college and work in seasons five and six, for instance.

Reading Buffy Synoptically: Musings on the Buffy Canon

Kevin Durand (“Canon Fodder: Assembling the Text” in Durand (ed.); Buffy Meets the Academy: Essays on the Episodes and Scripts as Texts, pp. 9-16) and Brent Linsley (”Canon Fodder Revisited: Buffy Meets the Bard”, ” in Durand (ed.); Buffy Meets the Academy pp. 17-24) have reinvigorated the exegetical criticism of Buffy. Durand argues that it is the shooting script of Buffy that is “canonical” for a variety of reasons. Linsley argues that the text that is “canonical” for Buffy is the final filmed version for a variety of reasons.

Let's assume Linsley is right for the moment. A question still remains, however: what filmed version is the canonical text of Buffy, the 4:3 or 1:33:1 version of Buffy or the 1:69 or 1:78 version?

Buffy save for the episode “Once More With Feeling”, was broadcast in the classic Hollywood ratio of 1:33:1, the aspect ratio that dominated TV from its beginnings until recently when more and more widescreen shows began to make their appearance, not coincidentally at the same time wide screen televisions increased in sales, on US and British television. The problem is that Buffy, at least beginning in season four, was filmed in widescreen and these widescreen versions of Buffy are available on the season four through season seven European DVD sets.

Buffy creator, writer, and director Joss Whedon has waded into the debate over standard ratio Buffy versus widescreen Buffy. In his IGN interview Whedon said he framed Buffy in the standard ratio:
IGNFF: Did it surprise you the reaction that the lack of widescreen for Buffy season four on DVD got here in the U.S.?
WHEDON: People were upset, right? I haven't seen the season four package ... it contains a disclaimer from me as to why it's not in widescreen, that I wrote. It's on it, it comes with it. It's not a widescreen show. We shot it in a TV ratio, and I am very, very specific with the way I frame things. To arbitrarily throw – and I love widescreen, but Buffy was never a widescreen show. It was an intimate, TV-shaped show. To arbitrarily throw wider borders on it, to make it more cinematic when I very specifically framed it. Think of "The Body" – the episode "The Body"...
IGNFF: Right, which I've seen in widescreen and full frame...
WHEDON: How could you have seen it in widescreen?
IGNFF: The U.K. sets are in widescreen.
WHEDON: Good. See, that is not the way I framed it. That's not the way it was meant to be seen, and therefore that's not the way I shot it. I'm preserving what I shot. The DVD is there to preserve what we made, for eternity. What we made, very specifically, was a certain shape. So I'm sure there'll be widescreen copies and there'll be arguments about what's better, but I'm not interested in – and I mean, I love widescreen. I'm a widescreen fanatic, when something's wide. When it's not, then I want to see it the way it was meant to be seen.
“Joss Whedon Interview”, IGN, 23 June 2003, p. 10

So, if Whedon’s is the authoritative voice as to which version of Buffy is canonical, standard ration Buffy or widescreen Buffy, it has to be conceded that the standard ration version of Buffy is the “canonical” version at least from Whedon’s point of view. Still we can study both and ask whether the framing and the mise-en-scene on the widescreen versions vary from those of the standard aspect ratio versions.

One other interesting fact about the difference between the European versus North American versions of Buffy on DVD is that the former contains the “previously on Buffy” introductions that were done for the series. Since I regard these, and particularly the “previously on” for “The Gift” as essential to the Buffy tale, I would have to say that at least in this regard the European DVD’s of Buffy are more canonical than the North American versions.

Given all of this one has to wonder whether there ever will be a final canonical DVD version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I guess we can await the release of Buffy on Blue Ray to see if this remains an open-ended question.

By the way, an important question needs to be asked about the Buffy text on DVD: Can the DVD’s of Buffy be canonical when they don’t contain the original commercials? The episodes of Buffy, after all, were structured around commercials and watching the Buffy text with commercials is different then watching them on DVD without commercials, isn’t it? Isn’t watching Buffy on TV a different experience that watching it on DVD?

Reading Buffy Synoptically: The Continuum in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I would argue that many analysts of gender in film, television, and literature, tend to play in conceptions of gender that are far too narrow and far too binary. For instance, they often miss and ignore variations within masculine, feminine, straight, bi-, gay, and lesbian categories in films and television programmes. While there are antinomies or binaries in many films, many television programmes and in Buffy—there is good and evil in the Buffyverse, there are those with souls or conscience and those without, there are males and females—there is also, at least in Buffy, a sense that “masculinity” and “femininity” is like evil in the Buffyverse, analogical, lying on a continuum, since some individuals can share both “masculine” and “feminine” traits just as those who once were evil can become good (even if they are vampires or demons). In the Buffyverse, in other words, or so it seems to me, all humans have the potential for good and evil and all males and females have the potential for exhibiting what are typically regarded, in the mainstream, as “masculine” and “feminine” traits.

Reading Buffy Synoptically: Musings on Sex and Relationships in Buffy

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a show which portrays high school and college life and sex and relationships, those omnipresent aspects of high school and college life, as just another aspect of human life in general and as just another aspect of our Scoobies lives in particular.

Xander is, as the show makes clear, obsessed with sex, at least in his high school and early post-high school years (“Ear Shot”, “Becoming, Part 1” with the wonderful linoleum makes me think of sex line). But he doesn’t remain locked in a holding pattern where every other thought he thinks concerns sex. Like all of the Scoobies he grows and changes over the course of the show. Where once he obsessed on praying mantis woman (“Teacher’s Pet”), fell in love with Inca mummy girl (“Inca Mummy Girl”), had a short term relationship with sometime Scooby Cordelia Chase (from What’s My Line Part 1 to “Lovers Walk”), and had a brief flirtation with fellow Scooby Willow (“Homecoming”, by “Lovers Walk”), he finally couples with Anya, an ex-vengeance demon and patron of scorned women (“The Prom”, “The Harsh Light of Day”), and has what appears to be a genuine and sexually fulfilling relationship with her even though, like almost everything on Buffy, this doesn’t mean eternal TV happiness for them (from “The Harsh Light of Day” through “Hells Bells”).

In Buffy sex is just another aspect of Scooby lives. And have sex they do. Willow has sex with Oz (“Graduation Day, Part 1”, “Graduation Day, Part 2”), Tara (“Who Are You?”), and Kennedy (“Touched”). Buffy has sex with her longtime boyfriend Angel (“Surprise”, “Innocence”), with Parker, the devotee of the pleasure principle (“The Harsh Light of Day”), with her secret agent world domination manly man Riley (much of season four), and with her vamp boy toy Spike (Season six beginning with “Smashed”). While the sex Buffy and Angel have has nasty consequences—it activates a vengeance curse placed on him by Gypsies turning him into the brutally evil Angelus when he experiences this true moment of happiness--their sex is not condemned. The problem, of course, with the Buffy/Angel relationship is that Angel is a vampire while Buffy is the Slayer and that Angel is substantially older than Buffy. He is, in other words, exactly the wrong guy for her, something Buffy’s mom Joyce, vampire Spike, and Season three’s “Big Bad” Mayor Wilkins recognise before she does (“Lovers Walk”, “Choices”, and “The Prom”).

Buffy is not the only one of our protagonists with relationship problems. Scooby Xander’s problem is his past, especially his dysfunctional family past and the effect this has on his relationship with Anya. His dreary family background has made him fearful of what his life will be like and it has made it difficult for him to commit to coupling with anyone (“Restless” and much of Season six culminating in “Hell’s Bells”). He also remains deeply in love with Buffy and deeply jealous of anyone else who loves her (“Becoming, Part 2”, “Entropy”).

Sex and girls or boys, of course, are not the only things the Scoobies think about or are involved in. Yes they think about sex. Yes they have sex. Yes their sex has consequences. Yes they reflect on their failed relationships, sometimes even learning and growing from them. But they also worry about the evil in their midst. They worry about the next apocalypse they might face. And they worry about their mundane and not so mundane futures.

Reading Buffy Synopically: Musings on Buffy's Theodicy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Buffy Synopitically: Musings on Doppelgangers in Buffy

Buffy is full of doppelgangers or doubles. There are doubles of Xander (AltXander “The Wish” and the two Xander’s of “The Replacement”). There are doubles of Willow (AltWillow in “The Wish” and the aptly titled “Doppelgangland”). Willow and Tara are to some extent doubles of each other in that they portray different ways one can use magick, Tara responsibly, Willow irresponsibly. There are doubles of Giles, the AltGiles of “The Wish”, Wesley (Season three) and Ethan Rayne (“Halloween”, “The Dark Age”, “Band Candy”, “A New Man”). There are doubles of Giles and Joyce, Buffy’s mother and father figures. Tara takes on the role of Joyce and Giles who are dead and in England respectively during season six. She becomes confidante to Buffy and her warnings to Willow about her use and abuse of wicca power during season six echo those of Giles (“Flooded”; Giles spoke generally of the dangers of magicks in “Passion” and “Becoming, Part 1”). She serves an exemplary moral function in the Buffyverse in Season six by empathising and sympathizing with Willow and Buffy, by counseling them, by not condemning them, but by being honest with them about the problems associated with their actions (“Tabula Rasa”, “Dead Things” cf. how Joyce and Giles deal with Buffy’s problems in “Innocence”). There are several doubles of Buffy. Kendra is a buttoned down Slayer version of Buffy. Faith is an unbuttoned double of Buffy. As several commentators have noted, the AltBuffy of “The Wish” is, very much like Faith, an impulsive loner filled with darkness itching to get into battle. It is no accident that AltBuffy appears for the first time in the third Season, the same season Faith arrives in Sunnydale. The intentional use of Shakespeare’s Othello in “Earshot” emphasises this doubling by pointing up the mutual jealousies of Buffy and Faith and Buffy’s fear that Angel is romantically interested in Faith. Finally, Buffy and Cordelia are to some extent doubles of each other. The Buffy of Hemery High is just like the Cordelia of Season one and Season two (“Becoming, Part One”). It shoud be noted that Cordelia becomes more like Buffy over the course of Buffy and Angel.

Reading Buffy Synopically: Musings on Slayerness

With respect to the Slayer power issues associated particularly in season seven, just as there is a contradiction in Christian history between egalitarianism (the ministry of all believers) and the hierarchical (the various offices—charismatic, patriarchal-patrimonial, and bureaucratic—that go back to Paul) there is a contradiction in the Buffyverse between the egalitarianism, potential and actual, of the Slayers and the Potentials and the leading role Buffy and to a lesser extent Faith play in the battle against the First in season seven. Of course, age and longevity are a factor in Buffy’s and Faith’s leading roles in the battles against the First which is why Buffy and again to a lesser extent Faith act as teacher to the Potentials. Age and the experience that age brings is the great unequaliser and is related to growing up, something that is one of the major themes of the series.

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).