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YOU CAN’T PIN A GOOD SLAYER DOWN:
THE POLITICS, IF ANY, OF BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER AND ANGEL
By Jeffrey L. Pasley
[NOTE: The following is a longer version of my chapter, “Old Familiar Vampires: The Politics of the Buffyverse,” in James B. South, ed., “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale (Chicago and La Salle, Illinois: Open Court Press, 2003), pp. 254-67. The present document incorporates material from several different drafts of that piece, and much that was cut from the final version. I have tried to shape it all into a coherent, slightly updated form here. This document was first posted in September 2003, and may be cited, but the book chapter should be consulted and cited first.]
Of all the philosophical themes that run through the Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe, none seem to be more elusive than the political ones. As the intelligentsia’s favorite show and a pop-culture reference in heavy rotation, Buffy has been analyzed many times, with amusingly bipartisan results. Initially greeted as an exemplar of the “girl power” feminism trend, Joss Whedon’s creation has been lauded since by everyone from the liberal American Prospect and Salon to the rightist National Review. Among its big newspaper supporters have been Britain’s leading left-wing paper, the Guardian, and its venerable conservative organ, the Times, joined in the U.S. by the stuffy, quasi-liberal New York Times and by Middle America’s primary-colored cheerleader, USA Today. At the same time, the shows have been attacked by liberal anti-violence advocates keen to count up the number of flying kicks and vampire impalements and by right-wing Christian groups on the lookout for satanic pop culture.
It is not difficult to see why the intellectuals and pundits and activists have had such a hard time. Overtly, Buffy and Angel are among the least political shows on television. To a certain degree, they are designed to defy pigeon-holing, in term of genre and tone as well as politics.Joss Whedon and his lieutenants have spoken of their desire to keep viewers off balance. “It’s a mandate,” Whedon told The Onion A.V. Club in what seems to be the most extensive interview he has given. “Don’t give people what they want, give them what they need.” His primary commitment is the telling of emotionally powerful, entertaining narratives: “The story is god.”
This is a common enough rhetorical ploy for filmmakers faced with criticism, but Whedon seems to mean it. His shows have studiously avoided cheap moralizing, hot-button pushing, and “very special episodes” (with the possible exception of “Wrecked,” in which Willow suddenly becomes “addicted” to magic and even visits a kind of mystical crack house).Indeed, the Buffy and Angel writers have usually gone out of their way to undercut the few “statements” that might have been made. Even “girl power” has not simply been celebrated. Faith, the swaggering East Coast slayer who showed up in season 3, outdid even Buffy in the female empowerment department, but she turned out to have far too much of a good thing. Physically and sexually more aggressive than Buffy and comfortable with her power and her warrior’s role (or so it seemed), Faith initially swept everyone in Sunnydale off their feet (“Faith, Hope, and Trick”), only to prove unreliable and even dangerous in the long run. Filled with self-loathing, Faith had become a rogue slayer by the end of season 3 and began to amass a record of villainy that includes trying to torture a captured Buffy (“Enemies”), nearly raping (and murdering) Xander (“Consequences”), and beating and torturing her old Watcher, Wesley (“Five by Five”). As feminist as the show is, the message seems to be that power can be abused as easily by women as men.
The Tara Controversy
“It’s a good thing I realized I was gay.” – Willow, “Hell’s Bells”
Most recently, Whedon chose to sidestep the “statement” opportunity presented by Willow’s turn to homosexuality, even as Buffy the Vampire Slayer was celebrated in the gay and lesbian community for providing the first committed same-sex relationship in the history of series television. Well aware that they were breaking new ground and being closely watched, the Buffy braintrust elected to depict the relationship honestly but unsensationally, avoiding the prurient ballyhoo that had accompanied fleeting homosexual encounters in other series like Ally McBeal and Party of Five. “It would start to get coy and, quite frankly, a little offensive, for two people that much in love to not have any physicality,” Whedon explained. “But the whole mission statement was, ‘We’ll put it where nobody expects it, and we’ll never talk about it.’” Sex between Willow and her lover Tara was implied now and then from “New Moon Rising” on, and Willow’s best friends Buffy and Xander were allowed to feel briefly uncomfortable with her switch in sexual preference (“The Yoko Factor”). Yet by design the relationship was treated matter-of-factly, with little comment made on its lesbian nature and little overt change in the characters’ behavior.Love was love, whatever the partners’ gender, and indeed for a long period from the end of season 4 to the middle of season 6, Willow and Tara were the Buffyverse’s happiest and most stable couple.
Joss Whedon’s basically apolitical intentions showed in his obvious surprise at the bitter, politically charged reaction to Tara’s death, by accidental gunshot, late in season 6 (“Seeing Red”). Though rooted primarily in the anguish viewers felt over the death of a beloved character, the criticism converged on the idea that Whedon had lapsed into the “Dead/Evil Lesbian Cliché,” a subset of the broader pop culture cliché in which a minority character is introduced only to be killed or turned into a villain. Recognition of the cliché was quite widespread by the spring of 2002 thanks to a highly entertaining documentary called The Celluloid Closet (1995) that happened to be showing frequently on cable television. Full of alternately hilarious and chilling clips from old movies that few Buffy viewers were likely to have encountered, the documentary gave the impression that every third film made in the 50s and 60s featured a predatory lesbian villain or a tortured young woman, often trying to “go straight” after falling inadvertently into lesbianism, who dies tragically in the last reel. A good deal of screen time was given to atypically outrageous items such as the notorious Al-Pacino-undercover-in-the-leather-bars thriller Cruising (1980) and the Tennessee Williams freakfest Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), in which the central though largely unseen homosexual character is also a pederast and not only gets killed but eaten in the film’s big flashback climax.
It is arguable how close the Buffy storyline actually came to matching this tradition. Tara had been on the show for almost three years, so she could hardly be seen as mere cannon fodder. The elements of self-loathing and violence that the Celluloid Closet films associated with homosexuality were never shown to be part of Willow and Tara’s relationship. The two characters’ story arc showed the women becoming more confident and powerful as an acknowledged couple than they had been before. The Evil/Dead Lesbian Cliché generally involves a partner killing herself or her lover, but Willow’s murderous rage was directed outward at her lover’s murderer. Perhaps the worst mistake that Whedon and his writers made was waiting until Tara’s last episode to actually picture her naked in bed with Willow and then having the murder occur immediately after, thus apparently linking death with a homosexual act. That put it close enough to the Celluloid Closet paradigm to bring many politically minded critics and fans down hard on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and destroy much of the political cachet it had acquired since Tara came on the show.
Suddenly denounced in many quarters where he had previously been a darling (liberal-leaning pop culture journals, Buffy fan websites, the gay press), Joss Whedon expressed dismay that his reluctantly made decision to kill off Tara “made people I actually like angry. . . . it didn’t anger a bunch of morons.” His response to the criticism was to spell out more clearly than ever that his shows have no intentional political messages to deliver. “I never court controversy,” Whedon told E! Online. “I don’t really care about issues. I didn’t care about the one I introduced with Tara, and I didn’t care about the one when I killed her. I cared about narrative and what I needed to do to Willow.” What he needed to do at that point was turn an enraged, recolored, magically supercharged Willow into the show’s primary villain for the last few episodes (“Villains,” “Two to Go,” and “Grave”), underlining season 6’s “Oh, grow up” theme of young adults as their own worst enemies.
It would be wrong to declare Buffy and Angel free of politics based solely on their creator’s intentions. The fans outraged by Tara’s death have bored in on the idea that, in the words of a leading Willow/Tara fan website, “creative freedom, ignorance, and/or absence of malice on the part of Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy do not excuse the social harm this storyline has caused.” Social harm seems a bit extreme – one doubts that the death of cult television character will really contribute much to increased homophobia in society or have a “catastrophic effect” on the lives of gay and lesbian teenagers. Nevertheless, it is surely true that two of most intelligently written and emotionally resonant series ever put on television, shows Whedon designed “to be loved in a way that other shows can’t be loved,” have affected viewers’ thoughts and feelings concerning matters far removed from the world of vampires and demons. Moreover, once the shows have been released to the culture, their themes belong to the audience as much as to 20th-Century Fox, the networks, and Joss Whedon. Many intelligent members of that audience have found political ideas embedded in the Buffyverse as they have experienced it, and that alone makes them worth investigating.
Buffy the Hollywood Liberal
“You smell sin? Well, let me tell you something, lady. She who smelt it, dealt it!” – Xander, “Where the Wild Things Are”
On the most superficial level, the politics of the Buffyverse appear to be a conventional form of Hollywood liberalism. We see the typical good/evil codings that Hollywood has employed since the 1960s: People and personal relationships are good and fulfilling, institutions and authority figures are evil and repressive (the Mayor, Wolfram & Hart, Prof. Maggie Walsh) or stupid and repressive (Principal Snyder, the Sunnydale Police, the Watcher’s Council). Love and magic are good, science and technology are bad or at least dangerous (except for the Internet, where plucky, freedom-fighting, technopagans like Willow and Ms. Calendar can find anything they need, from City Hall blueprints [“Choices”] to criminal records to medieval German newspapers [“Gingerbread”]). Young people seek justice and see the world clearly, while adults rely on power and habit, and through fear, self-delusion, or corruption, refuse to acknowledge the world’s evils and put themselves and their children in danger. Those who loudly denounce sin or proclaim their own goodness are likely to be the greatest evildoers of all.
Being the creed of extremely wealthy and entrepreneurial liberals, Hollywood liberalism has tended to have a libertarian and personalistic bent, shying away from more broadly social and economic issues in favor of those relating to individual health and happiness: the personal traumas of war, the dangers of environmental poisoning, the horrors of prejudice (be it racism, sexism, or homophobia), and, in recent times especially, the heavy psychic costs of repression and violence within families and relationships. These are the typical themes of the few openly liberal productions to dribble out of Hollywood in recent years, and where appropriate – Buffy never squared off against any polluting demons – Joss Whedon’s shows seems to share a similar set of values.
Conservative critics have long complained about Hollywood’s promotion of permissive sexual mores and alternative lifestyles, and indeed it sometimes seems that trying to suppress the inner feelings and self-expression of children is the worst crime Hollywood can imagine. As in the acclaimed recent film American Beauty, within every overly strict screen parent seems to lurk a cauldron of violence, neurosis, and unacknowledged sexual tension. The villain of “Where the Wild Things Are,” named after a classic 1960s picture book that celebrated the inner wildness of children, was a seemingly nice old Christian lady who, while headmistress of an orphanage, had psychologically terrorized and physically abused her charges lest they be “shut out of the Kingdom, lost to lust.” This led to the repressed desires of the children haunting the house and tormenting Xander and Anya (“Shut up! Repressed crybabies”) after the ghosts are awakened by Buffy and Riley’s lovemaking.
Tolerance is upheld not only for lesbians and nerds, but also for certain types of demons; rehabilitation and redemption are depicted as possibilities for even the most depraved beings, such as vampires and lawyers. Besides the two vampires (Angel and Spike), two witches (Willow and Tara), and three demons (Anya, Doyle, and Lorne the Host) who have served in the main casts of Buffy and Angel, it has been well established in the shows that “demon” is not a pejorative term signifying the evil minions of the Christian Satan, but rather a more neutral term denoting a diverse array of supernatural beings. As Anya put it in “Family,” there are “lots of different kinds” of demons, some “very, very evil,” but some “considered to be useful members of society.” Earlier she had informed the gang that most “demons” on Earth were actually human-demon hybrids (“Graduation Day, Part 2”), further blurring the line between which beings are permissible to hate and kill and which are not.
This partial decoupling of biological origins and moral character has been carried furthest, and most specifically linked with an antiracist message, in Angel. The early episode “Hero” dealt with the need to protect a group of innocent demon refugees from a Nazi-like corps of racist “pureblood” demons called the Scourge. During Angel season 2, one of the show’s primary locations was the karaoke bar Caritas, where the owner and patrons were demons depicted mostly in comic terms. Early in season 3, human racism was brought into the mix, and the question of demon morality was further complicated. In “That Old Gang of Mine,” the Buffyverse’s one black regular, Charles Gunn, finds himself caught between Angel and the demon-fighting street gang he once led. The old gang has become much more violent and indiscriminate, murdering a harmless “balancing entity” (a fat childlike demon shown in the teaser slurping on a Big Gulp) and then besieging Caritas to kill all the monsters and “monster lovers” gathered there. Gunn is accused of betraying his race (as a black man and a human being) by siding with Angel and Lorne, and he begins to question his decision to leave the gang.
Following a grand tradition in liberal pop culture, men with guns are the most distasteful villains of all in Buffy’s world, snarling macho caricatures who lack the verbal wit possessed by non-gun-toting baddies such as the Master, Principal Snyder, Spike, Angelus, and the Mayor. Representing the worst tendencies of both testosterone and technology, they tend to meet with humiliation, like the werewolf hunter Cain (“Phases”), whom Buffy symbolically castrates (by mangling his big gun), or grisly, ignominious death, as visited on the Initiative’s doomed martinet commander, mauled during the demon prison riot in “Primeval.” Warren, leader of the season 6’s evil nerd trio and the murderer of Tara, receives the combination platter: symbolic castration by Buffy in “Seeing Red”-- she crushed two magic orbs on his waist that granted superhuman strength -- followed by torture and live skinning at the hands of a black-haired, black-eyed, floating Willow in “Villains.”
The punishment meted out to men with guns underlines the dominant form of liberalism abroad in the Buffyverse, feminism. Not the more radical, overtly politicized feminism of the 1970s, of course, but rather the more marketable, sex-positive, “girl power” feminism of the 1990s. Girl power was built into the very premise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and formed a key aspect of its early publicity appeal. Most weeks, a powerful but still feminine young woman battles and defeats male figures who dwarf her physically or claim patriarchal power over her. Joss Whedon has repeatedly said that his inspiration for Buffy was sympathy for “that blonde girl who would always get herself killed” in horror movies. “A beautiful blonde girl walks into an alley, a monster attacks her, and she’s not only ready for him, she trounces him.” In other words, Whedon sought to subvert or invert the horror genre’s notoriously misogynistic sexual politics. He hoped that his literally empowered heroine would not only be better for girls to identify with, but also might help reform the attitudes of boys who might resist feminism if it were presented directly or abstractly: “If I can make teenage boys comfortable with a girl who takes charge of a situation without their knowing that’s what’s happening,” Whedon told Time during his show’s first season on the air,“it’s better than sitting down and selling them on feminism.”
Inadvertently but fortuitously, Buffy’s spring 1997 debut coincided with the rise of a cultural flap over the allegedly low self-esteem of adolescent girls. The show entered the vanguard of a still-burgeoning trend toward entertainment franchises built around empowered female role models, or as the New York Daily News more bluntly put it, “Butt-Kickin’ Babes.” Buffy’s colleagues in butt-kickin’ included her immediate predecessor Xena: Warrior Princess, buxom videogame heroine Lara Croft, La Femme Nikita, two out of three leads plus the main villain of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Max of Fox’s Dark Angel (a blatant Buffy ripoff that was actually scheduled against, and named to confuse viewers with, Buffy’s own spinoff), Agent Sydney Bristow of ABC’s Alias, Officer Sara Pezzini of TNT’s Witchblade,the far more violent big-screen Charlie’s Angels, the animated Powerpuff Girls, and many more who have achieved less success. At the same time, male action stars like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger saw their careers decline.
The extensive and largely ecstatic nature of the media coverage that Buffy attracted in its early years, despite relatively low ratings, owed not a little to its feminist reputation. “Think of Buffy as Whedon’s take on Reviving Ophelia [a 1995 book that was one of the self-esteem for girls movement’s bibles],” wrote Entertainment Weekly TV critic Ken Tucker, justifying a lavish 24-page spread on the series in October 1999. With notices like that, Buffy’s auteur even earned an admiring profile in Ms. magazine. Academic feminists have concurred with their journalistic counterparts and then some, anointing Buffy as a “transgressive woman warrior” who offered “possibilities for re-imagining gendered relations and modernist American ideologies” and “reconfigur[ing] some of the relations of power in the body rhetorics of horror and action,” whatever those might be.
Though definitely surfing a trend, Whedon was not merely posturing, and Buffy’s feminism is not solely of the “post-feminist” backlash variety, as some conservative writers have claimed. True, Buffy is an unapologetically girly girl with more than a passing interest in boys and clothes, not to mention school dances, stuffed animals, and figure skating, but both her show and Angel have returned again and again to core liberal feminist concerns with the victimization and subjugation of women in a patriarchal society. Some of the series’ more heartfelt episodes have dealt with typical feminist topics such as domestic violence (“Beauty and the Beasts” & “Billy”) and date rape (“Dead Things” & Willow’s first vampire experience in “Welcome to the Hellmouth”), rendering them as usual in a heightened supernatural form. Buffy’s abusive future stepdad turns out to be a misogynistic robot (“Ted”), and leering frat boys drug Cordelia and Buffy at a party not for sex but instead to feed them to the phallic snake-demon they worship (“Reptile Boy”).
One season 5 episode (“Family”), penned by Whedon himself, directly addressed a Reviving Ophelia scenario. Tara’s conservative family shows up take her home, claiming that she (like her mother before her) is a demon whose “true face” will show itself on her twentieth birthday. Her budding self-esteem and sense of belonging crushed, Tara begins stuttering again and, to protect her secret, performs a demon-hiding spell on her friends that nearly gets them all killed. In the end, Spike proves that Tara’s alleged demonism is just a convenient patriarchal fiction, a “bit of spin to keep the ladies in line.” This fiction is linked explicitly to a demand that Tara abandon her college education and limit herself to traditional female domestic duties. “There’s a house needs taking care of,” her cousin Beth clucks, “Donny and your dad having to do for themselves while you’re down here living God knows what kind of lifestyle.”
More subtly, arcs reflecting feminist ideas were developed for various male characters, chronicling men’s misguided, often destructive struggles to shore up their fragile male egos in the face of women’s power. Episodes centering on Buffy’s friend and would-be lover Xander usually employ this theme: Two prospects for losing his virginity nearly result in death when the women in question are revealed to be a giant praying mantis (“Teacher’s Pet”) and a lifeforce-sucking Inca princess (“Inca Mummy Girl”). Then havoc results when a love spell affects every woman in Sunnydale but the person Xander intended (“Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”); later he starts running with a tough crowd to assuage his feelings of inadequacy for being weaker than his two female, superpowered best friends, only to have his new friends turn out to be zombies (“The Zeppo”). In this last episode, Xander finally does succeed in getting “up with people,” but the occasion is a near rape by the rogue slayer Faith, who later tries to strangle him during an attempted repeat performance (“Consequences”).
The feminist thematics declined somewhat after Buffy graduated from high school at the end of season 3 and began to face more female adversaries, including the most powerful Big Bad of them all, the “hellgod” Glory. (Of course Glory had lots of girl power herself, mowing down a small army of crusader-type knights in “Spiral.”) Yet at times, the theme of threatened masculinity was dominant, especially during season 5, over the course of which Buffy’s outgoing and incoming paramours, besotted with the Slayer yet reduced in their physical powers, go through life-changing breakdowns. Deprived of super-soldier drugs that once made him nearly a match for Buffy, the hulking Riley turns to vampire prostitutes to understand why Angel and Dracula, sexy vampires who had been permitted to bite Buffy in previous episodes, “had so much power over [her]” when Riley did not. He flees back to the military when Buffy discovers his extracurricular activities (“Into the Woods”).
Then there was Spike, a former villain and a specialist in Slayer-slaying who was first introduced running over the “Welcome to Sunnydale” sign and declaring the place his “Home, sweet home” (“School Hard”). His whole history on the show has been a campaign to undermine and finally dismantle his pretensions to alpha-male dominance. Besides being repeatedly outmuscled and outsmarted by Buffy, Spike was cuckolded and then dumped by his vampire lover Drusilla (“Lover’s Walk”) and subsequently fitted with a brain implant that prevents him from attacking humans (“The Initiative”). Neutered in this fashion, Spike then developed a crush on his former nemesis and headed into a downward spiral, mooning outside Buffy’s house (“No Place Like Home”), sneaking in to sniff her clothes (“Shadow”), building a shrine to her in his crypt (“Crush”), and occasionally trying misguided, Taxi Driver-like attempts to court her (“Fool for Love”). When Buffy made it clear that she considered Spike “beneath [her],” echoing a putdown received on his last night as a human in Victorian England, Spike began accepting substitutes, the moral equivalent of masturbating over pornography or copulating with inflatable women. He convinced airheaded vampire girlfriend Harmony to dress up as Buffy for sex games (“Crush”) and then, like one of the bloodless suburban husbands in The Stepford Wives,commissioned a “Buffybot” programmed to adore him unconditionally and submit to his every sexual whim (“I Was Made to Love You,” “Intervention”).
Finally, the former Big Bad lost his last shred of vampiric self-respect and became Buffy’s self-admitted platonic love slave, swearing to protect her sister for life and choking up at the prospect of the Slayer’s treating him even a little more respectfully. “I know that I’m a monster,” Spike tells her earnestly in the season 5 finale (“The Gift”), “but you treat me like a man, and that’s…,” he trails off, unable to speak. Almost by itself, the fall of Spike from strutting icon of punk-rock machismo to the devoted babysitter who opened Season 6 (“Bargaining, Part 1”), proves that the post-high school Buffy retained its original agenda of, as one academic treatise put it, “relocating narrative agency from masculine to feminine.”
Buffy the Revolutionist
“I’d call that a radical interpretation of the text.” – Oz, “Doppelgängland”
More than one writer has detected radical or even Marxist tendencies in the BuffyandAngel that go beyond Hollywood’s “lifestyle liberal” pieties. Unsurprisingly, of the three major sets of commentators, self-consciously radical academics have been more likely to take this tack than entertainment journalists or fans. Yet it requires no great feats of exegesis to see what they mean.
In Buffy and Angel, there is a persistent association of capitalist values — among them excessive self-interest, cutthroat competition, the accumulation of wealth, the rationalization of production, and the commodification of labor — with literal inhumanity. Following a long left-wing tradition of depicting economic exploiters as “bloodsuckers” and vampires as privileged figures exploiting a defenseless populace (such as Bram Stoker’s castle-dwelling nobleman,feeding off the peasants who should be under his feudal protection), the association of demonism and capitalist values is often made quite explicitly and directly.The only really avid capitalist among the main cast members is the once and future vengeance demon Anya, whose greed and failure to master human behavior have been running jokes since the end of season 3. In “Doublemeat Palace,” Anya even states her motivations for fighting evil, shown to be extremely grudging and unsteady over the course of the series, in narrowly capitalist terms: “Supervillains want reward without labor! To make things come easy. It’s wrong! Without labor there can be no payment and vice versa! The country cannot progress!”
When inhumans grow powerful on the show, capitalism rises. The hellgod Glory is depicted as an uber-consumer. In the alternate universe of “The Wish,” the vampires’ domination of Sunnydale leads directly to the industrialization of the human body.Bored with “the mindless routine of the predator,” the Master introduces the vampire world to “a truly demonic concept: mass production,” opening a blood factory where live humans will be transformed into a tasty, nutritious beverage.
As with the lifestyle liberal themes, anti-capitalism is taken to the greatest extreme in Angel, where Los Angeles capitalists of both the corporate and street-criminal variety are shown to be actual monsters whose interests are protected by the satanic law firm Wolfram & Hart. The basic insight, not entirely original to this series, is that the secretive, exploitative, amoral world of corporate capitalism would naturally attract any vampires and demons who might happen to be living in the modern world. (For instance, the Blade films depict vampires as a hidden financial and political elite, managing the world’s affairs from behind the scenes.) In the first episode’s climax, Angel barges into a plush corporate boardroom to confront that week’s villain, Russell Winters, a vampire businessman who preys in every sense on desperate young actresses. Winters turns coolly to Angel and explains, in effect, that the inequality and moral indifference of capitalist society affords a respectable, stable place for vampires like themselves: “We do things a certain way here in L.A.” Winters plays along with the system, keeps his crimes discreet, and “in return I can do anything I want!” Angel disproves this by asking, “Can you fly?” and pushing Winters and his leather chair through the office tower window.
Winters was only the first of many such figures that Angel encountered. Until its apparent destruction in “Habeas Corpses,” Wolfram & Hart always remained Angel’s arch-nemesis because of the role the firm played in maintaining the system that made Russell Winters possible, an almost too-obvious analogy to the role that real lawyers (along with judges and the law itself) play in the maintenance and protection of American corporate capitalism. The structural nature of this role is underlined by that fact Wolfram & Hart continued as villain despite the fairly high death and turnover rate among the particular characters we saw running its supernatural “Special Projects” division.
The anticapitalist theme goes much deeper in the shows than these rather unsubtle examples might suggest. The whole Buffyverse mythology identifies the essence of humanity with the capacity for non-capitalist, unselfish feelings and actions: compassion, altruism, love, and self-sacrifice. Indeed, the moral sense or conscience has usually been defined on the shows as the very function of the human soul and the most important thing separating humans and demons. When a human becomes a vampire, his or her soul departs, leaving behind most aspects of the original self — including memory, personality, and appearance — except the conscience and moral values that restrained (or should have restrained) the former person from destroying others to serve his or her own needs. Alienate a human being from his or her soul, and he or she is liberated from the ethical qualms and sentimental feelings that impede the ability to compete and dominate. The Mayor indicates that he literally alienated his soul, in the legal-economic sense, in order to gain power and immortality and pave the way for full demonhood (“Lovers Walk”): “I swear, I would sell my soul for a decent short game,” he jokes to his assistant while putting in the office. “Of course, it’s a little late for that.” As revealed in “Primeval,” the evil plan of Prof. Maggie Walsh and her human-demon-machine creation Adam is to create a new race of hybrids who would combine the intelligence and adaptability of humankind with the inhuman strength and killer instincts of demonkind. The first of their new warriors, Riley’s former friend Forrest, sounds like a sales seminar graduate in describing his new hybridized state: “This is the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m free of all my weaknesses — my doubts.”
Buffy the Vampire Slayer frequently advances the idea that non-economic, altruistic values and structures are absolutely critical to the preservation of human freedom and must be protected from the selfish, aggressive forces that threaten them. The goal pursued by Adam, the Mayor, and most of the other seasonal Big Bads, including the Master, Angelus, and Glory, involved breaking down the barriers standing between the human world and the demonic ones: the forcefield keeping the Master in his underground prison, the magicks that banished pureblood demons from the Earth in prehistory (“The Harvest”), or most strikingly, the dimensional walls separating our reality from other far more horrifying ones. Angelus tried to get the Earth sucked into one of the many hells (“Becoming, Part 1”), while Glory intended to use the Key (reshaped to be Buffy’s sister, Dawn) “to open the gates that separate dimensions . . . all the gates” (“Spiral”). With the walls broken down, Giles explains in “The Weight of the World,” “Dimensions will pour into one another with no barriers to stop them. Reality as we know it will be destroyed, and chaos will reign on Earth.” In “The Gift,” we get to see a little bit of what this means. The world does not end so much as get opened up to free trade with many hellish, faraway places: A dragon suddenly cruises across the sky. An apartment building is suddenly exchanged for a nest of Alien-like monsters. Even before the Glory story arc, the opening of dimensional gates was almost the working definition of apocalypse, as in the Hellmouth openings of “Prophecy Girl,” “The Zeppo,” and “Doomed.”
Allegorically, the Big Bads’ schemes can be seen as nightmarish replications of the rise and globalization of the capitalist market economy. The history of capitalism has been a story of the structures that blocked or impeded the free play of market forces being gradually neutralized, from physical obstacles to religious beliefs to local customs to cultural traditions to national boundaries themselves. In the Buffyverse, most humans most of the time can live relatively unaffected by, and ignorant of, the mighty magical forces lurking under and around their world. This is because a whole host of traditional structures and institutions (like the church and the nation-state) shelter them: the Slayers, the Watcher’s Council, the Powers That Be, the magical limitations that constrain vampires and demons operating in this dimension, the dimensional boundaries themselves. The Big Bads want to knock these barriers down, and once they do, the relatively altruistic and communal human order would be replaced by a new laissez-faire regime of free competition between humans and supernatural creatures, where the only thing regulating their interactions would be raw force and the willingness to use it. In this new arena, as many Buffy villains have pointed out, the weaker, less aggressive, conscience-laden human race would be wiped out or become slaves or livestock. Compare this to Marx’s description of the bourgeoisie’s impact on traditional society and its institutions in the Communist Manifesto:
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations.It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors,” and has left no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment.”It has drowned out the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade.In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
For orthodox Marxists, of course, the dissolution of traditional society is a positive development representing progress on the road to communism. Obviously, Joss Whedon and his writers see no such upside to demon realities overwhelming our human one. The dimensional portal-opening metaphor in BtVS comes much closer to the ideas of neo-Marxist “dependency” and “world-system” theorists who describe the destructive impact of intercourse between developed capitalist nations and the poorer, less developed places they colonized. Such theorists, and the scholars influenced by them, cast sympathetic eyes on the less individualistic, less economically competitive traditions of tribal and peasant societies.
Historians of Native American culture have been particularly eloquent on this theme. Brought into contact with the world market and European culture, Richard White writes, Indians who “had once been able to feed, clothe, and house themselves with security and comfort” and maintain political self-determination, soon found their accustomed means of subsistence impossible, their political and economic choices dictated by outsiders, their cultures rapidly and involuntarily changing, and their societies divided, impoverished, and collapsing.The evocative title of Elizabeth A.H. John’s book on southwestern American Indian history captures this idea in a way that closely tracks the fiery tableaux of dimensional conversion seen in “The Gift”: Storms Brewed in Other Men’s Worlds.
Apologists of globalization love to celebrate the strange juxtapositions brought about by the penetration of modern consumer goods into incongruous places, like cell phones on the Wailing Wall or McDonald’s restaurants in communist China.Yet for many formerly isolated societies, exposure to world market forces has produced devastating results much more like Sunnydale might have experienced if Glory’s dragon or the mayoral serpent had been allowed to stay. European microbes brought by traders and fisherman wiped out much of the coastal North American population in “virgin soil epidemics” before English colonization proper even began. Firearms and metal weapons made Native American warfare far more deadly, while hunting to serve the European market for deerskins and furs led to the rapid disappearance of the game along with increased warfare and the beginnings of social breakdown as Indian men ranged farther and father from home in search of animals. When the supply or demand for furs and skins finally collapsed, Indians found themselves economically and politically dependent on whites.
The heroes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and, to a slightly lesser extent, Angel)are specifically set up as champions and users of traditional, nontechnological, uncommodified forms of knowledge and power. Buffy and her friends operate as an informal collective altruistically serving the common good. Beginning undercover in the high school library with funding from the Watcher’s Council of England, the Scooby Gang’s demon-slaying operation has moved systematically away from sanction or association with any hierarchical, bureaucratic organization, be it the police, the Watcher’s Council, or the military. Buffy herself is too absorbed with her personal life and Slayer duties to pay attention to money matters. Yet even when left destitute after the death of their mother, she and Dawn angrily reject Anya’s suggestion that they “start charging” for killing monsters (“You provide a valuable service to the whole community. I say, cash in” [“Flooded”]). Buffy thinks of Slaying as anything but a service to be exchanged for money: it is her calling, her destiny, and she will not have it “stripped of its halo” and converted to a form of wage labor, as Marx observed that capitalism had done to “every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe.” Angel Investigations is a more complicated case — something must be paying all those salaries and maintaining that hotel. Yet money is rarely shown changing hands, and Angel’s biggest battles are clearly handled on a pro bono basis.
Armed with pointed sticks, crossbows, axes, dusty old tomes, and magic (supplemented only by Willow’s plot-convenient computer hacking and the occasional rocket launcher or bomb for magically unkillable foes), Buffy and her friends are the “primitive rebels” of leftist lore and scholarship. As developed by postwar social historians such as E.J. Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, and George Rudé, this interpretation transforms the criminal classes of world history — the bandits, poachers, gangsters, and rioters — into proto-revolutionaries, resisting by traditional means the forces threatening the common folk and their traditional way of life. Robin Hood, Jesse James, and the pirates thus become “social bandits” in the eyes of some historians.
Buffy’s experience with the Initiative in the second half of season 4 established her most clearly as a “primitive rebel.” Buffy briefly joined this secret, demon-fighting branch of the military, even carrying a gun for one episode (“The I in Team”), but it all backfires: the gun is sabotaged, and Prof. Walsh, the Initiative leader, wants her dead. Later discovering that Adam, the Initiative’s own Frankenstein, cannot be hurt by their technology, the “young radical” Buffy (“The Yoko Factor”) realizes that she can only defeat the menace with the traditional, supernatural means that are her birthright. The Slayer and her friends march into the Initiative’s lair with only a spellbook and a magic gourd (“Primeval”), and Buffy warns the facility’s clueless replacement commander to butt out:
This isn’t your business. It’s mine. You, the Initiative, the boys at the Pentagon… You’re in way over your heads. Messing with primeval forces you’ve got no comprehension of.
And you do.
I’m the Slayer. You’re playing on my turf.
Colonel McNamara does not listen and gets killed along with most of his men. Buffy and her friends combine their essences into a glowy-eyed super-Slayer and tear Adam’s nuclear heart out.
Unfortunately for the radical interpretation of the Buffyverse, the Slayer and her friends are “primitive rebels” in one other way. Theirs is only a piecemeal resistance rather than any sort of revolution. Viewers and heroes alike are constantly reminded that the fight can never be conclusively won, that evil will abide no matter how often it is defeated. “For us, there is no fight,” explains Holland Manners, top official of Wolfram & Hart, after Angel has killed one of the firm’s “senior partners.” “We go on, no matter what. Our firm has always been here in one form or another. The Inquisition, the Khmer Rouge . . .” (“Reprise”) Though their efforts are frequently hindered by corrupt or incompetent human institutions, and though it has been demonstrated often that demonic evil permeates the power structure of Southern California, the shows’ heroes have never developed any strong sense that the larger social order is unjust enough, or changeable enough, to overturn. Based on their conversations and the posters on their walls, the youth of Sunnydale seem to be enthusiastic consumers of popular culture and (outside of their occasional run-ins with principals and the police) generally seem to regard their apparently prosperous California suburb as a place worth saving rather than one in need of revolutionizing.
Moreover, the anticapitalist themes have been balanced by other storylines that depict money-making in a far more positive light. In the Angel series and the post-high school Buffy episodes, running a small business like the Magic Box or Angel Investigations is presented as a perfectly decent and darkness-free activity if one doesn’t get carried away. Indeed, Whedon and company seemed to be following the uncritically procapitalist zeitgeist of the late 1990s when they shifted Buffy’s primary setting from the university to a retail store at the beginning of season 5. While investigating the latest murder of a local magic shop owner, the unemployed Giles makes a startling discovery in the deceased’s account books: “I had no idea the profit margin for a shop like this could be so high” (“The Real Me”). Giles eagerly goes into business, and the characters are rather genial about the fact that the magic supply business involves a good deal of commodification and mystification, deriving inflated profits from the ignorance of the clientele — the truly useful stuff is kept mostly away from the customers in a loft or behind the counter. “Congratulations, you’re now an official capitalist running dog,” Willow jokes as Giles burbles over his first sale (“No Place Like Home”), riffing good-naturedly on communist rhetoric in a vein that recalls the advertising tagline for Forbes,the conservative business magazine: “Capitalist Tool.” Even “Doublemeat Palace,” a satire on the horrors of life on the bottom rung of the economy (and the only episode to get Buffy in hot water with the advertisers), ended with Buffy concluding that her fears of corporate conspiracy were unjustified and resigning herself to the job.
Finally, the standards of heroic behavior expressed and modeled on the shows hew much more closely to liberal notions of incremental reform and the rule of law than to the radical drive for “justice now” “by any means necessary.” Whedon has cited comic books as one of his major influences in the development of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and with that in mind, it is easy to see that the Buffy and Angel characters are essentially superheroes, with deep roots in a comic book tradition that has always been liberal at heart.
Superman originated during the New Deal years as the liberal Reformer of Steel, punishing corrupt businessmen, exposing stock market swindles, and freeing death row prisoners. Superman also pioneered the ethical code that came to be standard for all costumed vigilantes meant to be taken as heroes: he avoided the use of firearms, protected helpless creatures at all costs, and never killed human beings, or even allowed them to die if he could help it, however great the justification. In the 1960s, Marvel’s signature hero Spider-Man debuted, committing himself to the same superhero code and adopting a motto that incorporated the principles of selfless community service and the duty of the powerful to the powerless: “With great power there must also come — great responsibility.” The unarmed liberal superhero was a sharp revision of the heroic model presented in older genres like the western and the hard-boiled detective story, where everyone had guns and the heroes killed all the time.
Though both Buffy and Angel have been shown in dark periods where they abandoned the superhero code, usually drawing criticism from other characters and incurring serious repercussions, they have always come back to the code and occasionally even vocalized its precepts on the shows.In “She,” Angel aids Princess Jhiera’s campaign to save the enslaved women of Oden Tal but warns her not to kill humans who happen to get in her way (several had already been incinerated for reasons that require too much exposition to explain here). Their last exchange is a fairly classic rendition of liberal reformist vs. radical revolutionary tactics, as well as Angel’s adherence to Supermanian canons of heroism:
If you’ve vowed to protect the innocent, Jhiera — it shouldn’t matter which dimension they’re from.
An easy sentiment, when your people are free.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t fight — just know I’ll be here to stop you if you cross the line.
Angel fights for the oppressed, but he would never condone revolutionary bombings, shootings, or hijackings no matter how good the cause.
Buffy’s commitment to the code has been even more steadfast than Angel’s — he went on a ruthless loner streak for much of the spin-off’s second season, while Buffy’s only serious lapse was her failed attempt to kill Faith in “Graduation Day, Part 1.” In less desperate times, she even extends the helpless creatures rule to nonviolent demons and defanged vampires like Angel and Spike. Certainly the most stirring endorsement of the superhero code in Buffyverse history came near the end of Whedon’s “The Gift.” Buffy has finally defeated Glory but cannot bring herself to execute the now defenseless human, Ben, whose body the hellgod shared. Giles takes it upon himself to kneel down and suffocate Ben, destroying Glory forever while preserving Buffy’s liberal values: “Sooner or later, Glory will reemerge and make Buffy pay for that mercy, and the world with her. Buffy even knows that, and still she wouldn’t take a human life,” Giles explains, with great admiration in his voice, to the man he is about to kill. “Because she’s a hero, you see. She’s not like us.”
Murder, terror, and other radical or final solutions are for ordinary humans, the shows seem to argue. Liberalism is for heroes, who must at least model the superhuman values of mercy and altruism for the rest of us. The 2002 season premiere of Angel featured an actual lecture on this theme, delivered to the hero’s vengeful, wayward son Connor (“Deep Down”): “Nothing in the world is the way it ought to be. It’s harsh, and cruel. But that’s why there’s us. Champions. It doesn’t matter where we come from, what we’ve done or suffered, or even if we make a difference. We live as though the world was what it should be, to show it what it can be.” That is as clear a statement of Joss Whedon’s liberal, incrementalist vision as we are likely to get.
Buffy the Conservative
“It does have that icky government feel to it.” — Willow, “Out of My Mind”
Though a conservative interpretation of Buffy has been put forward in the press rather often, it frankly requires some suspension of disbelief to even entertain it. Given the prominent role of explicitly Christian, proudly old-fashioned “family values” in recent conservative politics, it makes a lot of sense that Buffy and Angel would be, in Christianity Today’s words, “Must Flee TV” for right-leaning Americans.
The sexual content would be the first thing for conservatives to flee. Buffy presented the most appealing and realistic portrait of lesbian love in broadcast television history at a time when conservative psychiatrists and clergymen were promoting “cures” for homosexuality. At the same time, Joss Whedon and his writers obviously relished their ability to sneak raunchy sex scenes past the censors. Season 6 of Buffy depicted primary characters engaged in lesbian sex, oral sex, and sadomasochistic sex. Buffy must undoubtedly be the first television superhero to fellate a man onscreen, though she was invisible at the time (“Gone”), and the last verse of Tara’s song in “Once More, With Feeling” was largely a description of what Willow was doing to her just below the frame: “Lost in ecstasy/ Spread beneath my willow tree/ You make me com-plete!” If any of the kids received abstinence education in high school, it clearly didn’t take.
Then there is the matter of religion in the Buffyverse. The dominant strains of conservatism in early 21st-century America uphold organized religion, especially of the evangelical/fundamentalist Christian variety, as the indispensable basis of a decent and moral society and government. Nothing could be further from the worldview on display in Buffy and Angel, where the characters eschew Christianity almost completely, despite the use (lessening over the years) of crucifixes and holy water as parts of the traditional vampire-fighting arsenal. No “good” character, except the corn-fed Iowa soldier boy Riley, a stereotyped Hollywood Midwesterner, is ever shown attending Christian worship (“Who are You”), unless one counts funerals and two non-weddings: Xander and Anya’s, where half the guests — the better behaved half — are demons (“Hell’s Bells”) and Buffy and Angel’s, which takes place only in Angel’s nightmare (“The Prom”).
Christianity’s relatively infrequent appearances in the 232 episodes of Buffy and Angel aired as of this writing have usually been comic, dismissive, or negative. Looking to swear off men, Buffy visits a convent in “Triangle” but quickly discovers a stumbling block: “Do you have to be, like, super-religious?” she asks one of the sisters.The Thanksgiving episode “Pangs” gets some laughs out of the secular Jew Willow’s moral opposition to the holiday, but then more or less endorses that view, putting some of the blame for the Native American holocaust squarely on Christianity. A vengeful Chumash spirit hangs a priest in retaliation for his people’s mistreatment at the local mission, but much more time is spent guilt-tripping about the Indians than mourning for the slain padre. The only counter-example would be Angel’s exorcism episode, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” in which a nun recognizes Angel as a vampire when he and Wesley visit a church looking for an exorcist. Even here, the last act of the episode inverts the theological message of The Exorcist, the Catholic Church-approved film from which many of its elements are borrowed: it happens that the demon was trying to exit the possessed boy, who tries to murder his little sister after he is exorcised. The Church’s power over evil in such a classic case turns out to be sharply limited.
The most devout characters in Buffy and Angel are in fact the villainous vampires and demons, who are constantly shown performing evil rituals and spouting twisted biblical-sounding rhetoric. This motif was introduced in the very first episode (“Welcome to the Hellmouth”), in which a vampire cult called the Order of Aurelius works to free the Master, who is trapped in a buried church and frequently reads aloud to his followers from a “sacred” text. In the cliffhanger, the Master’s “vessel” Luke advances on the young Slayer reciting a vampire prophecy that Whedon wrote in a kind of evil Old Testament-ese: “And like a plague of boils, the race of man covered the Earth. . . . But on the third day of the newest light would come the Harvest. And the blood of men will flow as wine.” This demonic penchant for that old-time religion is consistent with the explicitly anti-Christian cosmology that was set up in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s earliest episodes. “This world is older than you know, and contrary to popular belief, it did not begin as a paradise,” Giles explains, taking down the Book of Genesis in his very first library exposition speech to the newly assembled Scooby Gang (“The Harvest”).
Spike snuffed the Order of Aurelius early in season two — by exposing its messiah, a child vampire called the Anointed One, to sunlight (“School Hard”) — but since then evil religious sects have shown up again and again, sometimes in contexts that closely mimic an anticlerical view of Christianity’s role in world history. When the Angel cast visits Lorne the demon Host’s homeworld, Pylea, at the end of season 2, the ultimate villains turn out to be an order of priests, something like demonic Jesuits, who secretly control the government and use magic and religious mumbo-jumbo to keep humans enslaved and Pylean society in a cruel, ignorant, sub-medieval condition (“Through the Looking Glass” and “There’s No Place Like Plrtz Glrb”).
As if to underline these antireligious and anticlerical messages, and give final notice to conservative Christians and other zealots about where his shows stood, Whedon ended BtVS and the 2002-2003 season firing on religion with both barrels.The last story arc of BtVS introduced a psychotic super-powered preacher named Caleb as the First Evil’s chief henchman, endowing him with both folksy biblical cadences and a nasty case of misogynistic bloodlust to go with it. In his very first scene, Caleb cried “Hallelujah” after burning one of the potential Slayers with a cigarette lighter, prefatory to murdering the “whore” as a message for Buffy (“Dirty Girls”).Over on Angel at the same time, a touchy-feely goddess/Messiah named Jasmine was rapidly bringing harmony and happiness to L.A., only to be revealed as a worm-faced, mind-controlling fiend that lived by consuming human beings.
One very important dissenter from the irreligious interpretation of Buffy is star Sarah Michelle Gellar herself. Bristling at Christian attacks on her show, Gellar ranted to Entertainment Weekly that hers was “the most religious show out there! We’re more religious than 7th Heaven! . . . we answer the big questions.”She was quite right in a thematic and allegorical sense. On those levels, television rarely gets more Christian than the season 5-6 arc in which Buffy learns from a spirit that “death is [her] gift” (“Intervention”), submits to death(arms outstretched like Christ) to save the world (“The Gift”), then goes to heaven (“After Life”) and gets resurrected (“Bargaining, Part 1”). Buffy’s struggle to understand and endure the divine sacrifice required of her cuts far closer to the heart of the Easter story than most of Hollywood’s explicitly biblical epics. There’s also no doubt that Buffy’s mysterious but powerful encounter with the divine is far more theologically correct than the weekly direct interventions that occurred contemporaneously over on Touched By An Angel, a conservative Christian favorite.
Yet the problem with conservative religious traditions — for Hollywood claims of religiosity — is that they take the details of their faiths really seriously.Many Christian denominations hold that every word of the Bible is literally true (the doctrine of “inerrancy,” it is called), and no allegories need apply to interpreting Christian doctrine, especially in terms of magic and the occult. In evangelical circles like these, Satan, demons, and witches are treated as beings that actually exist, hurt real people, and must be constantly hunted and fought. Conservative Christian influence has gotten Halloween banned from many schools and localities for being a Satanic holiday, and many churches hold Hell Houses (showing how sinners will suffer in Hell) to compete with the haunted ones. Even Sarah Michelle Gellar is not going to convince serious fundamentalists that her show reflects the Christian religion as they understand it.
With those extremely important reservations in mind, we can proceed to considering what basis there might be for a conservative interpretation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As a hip show made in a conservative era, it is not surprising that Buffy sometimes takes shots at favorite conservative targets. “Big government” does not win a ringing endorsement. Voluntaristic and spiritual solutions to society’s problems are favored rather vehemently over anything resembling statist or political solutions. Government plays no very active or salutary role in the lives of Sunnydale’s citizens, and when it does appear, it appears only in foolish and/or threatening guises. The police hide when monsters rampage and then try to arrest those (meaning Buffy) who actually fight evil. A suspicious social worker questions Buffy’s ability to raise her sister, and the script (“Gone”) resolves the situation by having an invisible Buffy torment the petty bureaucrat for laughs. In season 3, we discover that the city government is controlled by an immortal professional politician who “built this town for the demons to feed on” (“Enemies”).In season 4, the federal government shows up in town, embarking on a sweeping and dangerously foolish piece of social engineering, the capture and technological rehabilitation of vampires and other monsters.
In the early seasons, inattentive, psychobabbling baby boomer parents and teachers came in for a good deal of satire, often by means of rather unsubtle allegories. One whole episode (“Band Candy”) had Sunnydale’s adults magically induced to act like teenagers so that neglected babies could be sacrificed to a demon. The touchy-feely Principal Flutie had so little control over his students that they literally ate him alive (“The Pack”). As seen in “Gingerbread,” Willow’s mom, Sheila, turned out to be a conservative’s stereotype of a liberal feminist college professor (or perhaps a psychologist). She specializes professionally in adolescents but is so absorbed with her career and her theories that she knows almost nothing about the adolescent in her own house.Jane Espenson’s script describes her as “sweet and well meaning — but definitely of the woolly intellectual variety.” Confronted by her mother about her witchcraft (“Honey. You don’t have to act out like this to prove your specialness”), Willow retorts with a lampoon of her mother’s politically correct approach to child-rearing, as conservatives have often done regarding public educators and child psychologists, complaining that “the last time we had a conversation over three minutes it was about the patriarchal bias of the Mr. Rogers show.”
Joss Whedon’s shows also occasionally poked more direct fun at political correctness, as when Buffy snaps at Angel, “You’re a vampire. Oh, I’m sorry, was that an offensive term? Should I say ‘undead American’?” (“When She Was Bad”)On Angel, when a police precinct is forced into sensitivity training, the trainer proves to be a demon worshipper, and the oversensitized cops literally let the criminals run wild in the streets (“Sense and Sensitivity”). Conservatives just love that “undead American” line and conclude from the above and Buffy’s skimpy outfits (which gave way to more functional sweaters and jeans in later seasons), that “what Buffy might really be driving a stake through is old-school liberalism and the dated notion of political correctness.”
On balance, however, the mild digs at p.c. seem to be more a style of humor than emblems of a considered or consistent political message. The send-ups of modern education and parenting have almost universally been undercut. Buffy meets effective, supportive teachers along with the slackers, though the ones who befriend her tend to get killed by monsters (“Teacher’s Pet,” “Passion,” “Beauty and the Beasts”). The character of Joyce, Buffy’s nice but clueless liberal mother, was treated with greater and greater respect as the seasons wore on, to the point that her death could sustain an entire shatteringly powerful episode in which the characters do almost nothing but mourn her (“The Body”). Buffy’s “undead American” remark to Angelcame in the context of an episode in which Buffy was depicted as emotionally out of control; after mistreating nearly all of her loved ones, the Slayer repented of it all by the end of “When She was Bad.” This early episode (the Season 2 opener) was also the beginning of some serious consciousness-raising for Buffy, who grew so tolerant of other-dimensional Americans by Season 6 that she was playing poker and attending parties with them (“Life Serial,” “Older and Far Away”). She just drew the line at currently active killers of humans.
At the same time, the alternatives to liberal permissiveness and sensitivity usually looked far worse. The swimming coach who turned his team into sea monsters (“Go Fish”) was certainly no bleeding heart, but he’s no hero either. The liberal Principal Flutie was replaced by his ideological, managerial, and pedagogical opposite, Principal Snyder, but the ultra-conservative authoritarian Snyder proved to be a petty tyrant who hated children and delighted in persecuting Buffy and her friends. Snyder was also a partially witting servant of the dark forces in Sunnydale, covering up supernatural occurrences and reporting to the evil Mayor (“I Only Have Eyes for You”).It was Sunnydale’s monsters who seemed to delight in punitive, conservative solutions to social problems. Under the influence of demons pretending to be murdered children, Buffy and Willow’s good liberal moms turned vigilante; they started a pressure group called MOO (Mothers Opposed to the Occult) — modeled on the kind of local Christian organizations that lobby school boards to remove Harry Potter books from libraries — and eventually tried to burn their own daughters at the stake (“Gingerbread”). The Initiative looked far worse when its real agenda turned out to be demonic weapons development rather than advanced supernatural penology.
Buffy’s only explicit depiction of politics, the Mayor character from season 3, is one of the hardest arcs to pin down politically. The Mayor seemed intended to satirize most 1990s American politicians, of whatever party: he was a smarmy centrist who had mortgaged himself to the darkest forces imaginable in order to prey upon the youth of America while pretending to protect them. In classic Buffy fashion, Mayor Wilkins planned to eat the senior class on Graduation Day as the final stage in his campaign for full demonhood, a nice little metaphor for the way children and parental worries about them are exploited for political benefit: “The children are our future. We need them. I need them” (“Faith, Hope, and Trick”).At the same time, the Mayor was marked as a conservative by his 50s-sitcom-dad demeanor and often stated commitment to clean living and family values. In what might be a comment on the political ruthlessness lurking behind the smiles and prayers of many a compassionate conservative, the Mayor’s nastiest threats were often linked with goofily prudish advice, as when he told his henchmen to “watch the swearing” after instructing them to kill the graduates quickly and brutally (“Graduation Day, Part 2”). He also lectured Buffy and Angel on civility, foresight, and personal responsibility while threatening Willow: “You kids, you don’t like to think about the future, don’t like to plan; but unless you want Faith to gut your friend like a sea bass, you’ll show a little respect for your elders” (“Choices”).
The most accurate observation conservatives have made about Buffy is that, as the National Review put it, itis one of the “most morally serious” shows on television. Wrong actions always have consequences in the Buffyverse, and lapses in judgment or character bring severe costs. Whedon and his writers love to put their characters through the wringer and rarely allow problems to be solved easily or without repercussions. In addition to horrible self-esteem issues, poor Faith’s cavalier approach to Slaying and sense of entitlement (“We’re Slayers, girlfriend. The Chosen Two”) led her to accidental murder (“Bad Girls”), then cold-blooded murder, madness, a year-long coma, and, finally, prison (“Sanctuary”).
Sex was never treated lightly, either, and never separated from questions of love and commitment, making Buffy and Angel quite distinct from other popular shows of the time, such as Seinfeld or Ally McBeal or Friends. For a pretty girl in a modern Hollywood production, Buffy was quite chaste in high school. She had sex only once, and that one time with Angel (“Surprise” & “Innocence”) resulted in so much anguish, terror, and death that she understandably did not try again until college. In Buffy’s most famous allegory of teen trauma, the boy who took her virtue not only abandoned her, but then reverted into the ultra-evil Angelus, with torture, rape, and world-destroying nihilism on his r¾sum¾ along with the usual bloodsucking and murder. The supposedly slutty Cordelia may have had some wild times early in high school, but viewers witnessed only one sexual encounter, in six years of shows, before she finally hooked up with the virginal Groosalugg, the royal champion from her days as Princess of Pylea (“Couplet”). Cordelia’s single post-college one-night stand (“Expecting”) resulted in a demonic pregnancy and temporary zombification. “Oh God, I’m being punished,” she sobs, and that does sometimes seem to be the intention of those who manage the Buffyverse.
But does this moral seriousness and penchant for punishing characters mean that Buffy and Angel are shows with a conservative message? I would argue not, at least not in any political sense. For one thing, the conservative interpretation of the Buffyverse is grounded in one of modern conservatism’s most tendentious and debatable premises: that only conservatives understand the difference between good and evil and that liberalism is a philosophy of nihilistic relativism. Starting from that baseline belief, conservative cultural critics like to argue that any television show, book, film, or play that deals seriously with questions of ethics, religion, and morality, or shows evildoers being punished, is ipso facto conservative. Suffice it to say that this premise is misleading and inadequate at best. If postwar liberals were once too sanguine about the possibility that progress, reason, and government action could solve social problems, and too optimistic that the defects of human nature could be corrected, they were and are also highly moralistic, condemning the evils of war, violence, poverty, inequality, and concentrated power.
The difference lies in the scope of the moral compass that liberals and conservatives use. Conservatives focus almost exclusively on individual, personal morality, as seen in matters of sex, substance use, religious faith, and deportment. They also tend to be pessimistic about human nature, doubting the possibility that those who commit moral transgressions can ever change and believing fervently that evil actions stem from the evil intent of irredeemably evil people. Liberals, on the other hand, acknowledge collective notions of morality as well as the personal ones, believing that moral duties and moral transgressions can apply to societies, nations, corporations, and economic systems as well as individuals. Liberals are much more willing to see individual transgressions in the context of these larger structures. Conservatives approach the collectivities and structures of human life either by denying their influence or else by simply demanding that people choose sides: the good guys (us) vs. whatever the current “axis of evil” happens to be. “You are either with us or against us” is not just the Bush administration slogan for the “War on Terrorism,” but a whole conservative approach to politics that has rarely varied over the course of U.S. history.
Moral seriousness does not necessarily mean the kind of moral simplicity, the clear boundaries, that American conservatives instinctively seek and assert. Moral simplicity is also not the kind of moral seriousness that Buffy and Angel provide. Every character, including the two main ones, have gone through morally ambiguous periods, and while viewers were led to be concerned about these developments, they were not led to judge. The characters suffer and grow through it, but the scripts do not endorse their travails as deserved punishment, and they always hold out the promise of redemption and reform: “You’re not being punished,” Wesley assures the pregnant Cordelia (“Expecting”). Even the notion of what constitutes a monster and how they should be approached became increasingly murky and gray as the Buffyverse developed, including not only conscience-stricken vampires and good demons, but also the possibility that bloodsucking itself could be a victimless crime. In the season 5 episode “Into the Woods,” Buffy ruthlessly dispatches a nest of vampires who have been biting consenting humans, finishing up by staking the “vampire junkie girl” who bit Riley as she runs away. Marti Noxon’s shooting script opines that this act “stinks of pointless vengeance.” Xander, usually the most conservative of the core Scoobies, criticizes Buffy for her brutality, and she herself feels less than great about it.
It is nice that not all conservatives have put Buffy and Angel on their enemies list, but these are not conservative shows.
(Not) Slaying Alone: Buffy and Civil Society
“You guys are gonna have a prom. The kind of prom everyone should have. I will give you all a nice, fun, normal evening... if I have to kill every single person on the face of the Earth to do it.” — Buffy, “The Prom”
Before concluding this essay, it be would wise to come back to Joss Whedon’s non-political intentions. The fact that so many contradictory themes can be found in the two shows demonstrates that he has probably succeeded in not sending any particular political message and might make it seem foolish to keep looking for one.
Yet there is one theme in recent political thought that does shine through fairly clearly and consistently from the Buffy mythos.