Saturday, March 26, 2005

Buffy The Vampire Slayer

I never watched Buffy The Vampire Slayer until well after the series ended and entered syndication. I saw and enjoyed the 1992 film–and still count Paul Reubens’s death scene as one of the funniest ever–but I think what kept me away from the TV series was the advertising. The spots I saw for the show emphasized the dark and sexy aspects of the series but never the humor, and it was tough for me to imagine that I could take a character named “Buffy” seriously as a monster-killer without the same kind of humor that made the film bearable. If I’d just known the show was as hilarious as it actually was, I wouldn’t have waited until a couple of years after its conclusion to check it out.

If I recall correctly, Buffy repeats ended up being scheduled either right before or right after The X-Files repeats on FX, which is the only reason I tuned in at all. I wouldn’t say I was hooked right away, but I remember the chilling grins of the villains of the first Buffy episode I saw start-to-finish, The Gentlemen of the well-loved “Hush,” left enough of an impression that I was sure I would see them again in my nightmares. I tuned in every now and then after that, but didn’t really become a genuine fan until FX started repeating the sixth season, right about the time of “Life Serial.” I got enough back info from my girlfriend and her best friend to keep everything coherent, and I grew so enamored with the characters that later–when my girlfriend suggested we try to go a month without TV because she felt it was taking her away from her academic work–the fact that I’d just watched Tara get murdered in “Seeing Red,” was the only thing that inspired me to say, “Yes, honey, this is a good idea. This is a good idea for next week. After Willow kills people. Next week.” I think some justifications were thrown in there, like arguing that I’d be unable to sleep without Charlie Rose (this, by the way, is a good example of why italicizing show names is good–without it what I just wrote might sound kinda weird), that I was too young to enjoy the Dark Phoenix Saga and I should at least get to enjoy the Dark Willow one, if I had been making money at the time I probably would have offered her some, but alas my girlfriend’s well-executed pout-face rendered it impossible to watch Warren’s skin fly off him like a rain-slicker until only a couple of months ago when we got the DVD collection.

Since we first started really getting serious, I always told my girlfriend she was more to me than a friend and a lover–she’s an ally. The perfect example of our alliance is how we’ve managed to refine our skills in telling our respective families exactly what we want for Christmas and birthdays: gift certificates. I tell my family I want gift certificates from my local comic shop, while telling them to get my girlfriend gift cards to Best Buy. She likewise tells her family to get her Best Buy gift cards, AND to get me Best Buy gift cards, thereby allowing us both to get piles of new DVDs and me piles of new graphic novels. This year, we loaded up on Buffy.

On the advice of co-workers and friends (who, in retrospect, were dead wrong in dissing Season Four), we started on Season Five. Unable to resist the Dead Buffy cliffhanger, we went right for Season Six, where the “Dark Willow and Her Stupid Crayon” saga was finally revealed.

Well, we weren’t going to go right to the last season from there, so I got my girlfriend a $100 gift card (with absolutely NO hints towards what I would personally like her to get, no sir, not a one), and she used it to get–among other things–Seasons One and Two. After we finally finished with the first two, bank account be damned, I bought Three, Four, and Seven (not all at once).

Just for the record, neither of us really have any interest in Angel. I breathed a deep sigh of relief when Season Four came and went without one whiff of Cordelia, and there was no way I was going to pay money to end my bliss. Not to mention that I have a healthy–if not complete–collection of the third volume of Silver Surfer. If I want Super-Stoic-Guilt-Man stories, I’ll crack open the “S” longbox.

I am never so much a geek as I am when watching new Buffy episodes with my girlfriend. She will attest to the fact that I usually roll around on the futon and pump my fists like the dirty sweat-monkey I am every time the opening theme starts.

I do not treat comics as overtly interactive as I do Buffy. My girlfriend will also confirm that I have set words and phrases I call out when specific events occur. Since I considered him to be the most annoying aspect of Season Five, every time Riley Finn speaks, I bark, “DIE!” “Why don’t they kill her...” is usually groaned after just about every scene with Cordelia. I loudly root for Spike no matter who he’s fighting (including Buffy), and not since high school when a buddy and I stood up in a near-empty theater and cheered on James Caan’s vengfeul bitchslapping of Kathy Bates in Misery have I felt such vicarious bloodlust until Giles went after Silver Surfer Angel with that torch in “Passion.”

What I think is so miraculous about Buffy is the same kind of thing I saw in Bubba Ho-Tep. Despite a lot of absolutely ridiculous premises, low-rent special effects, and comic-book-absurd action, Joss Whedon and co. not only make you love these characters and laugh mercilessly at them, but in the midst of hilarity he can make you ball your fucking eyes out. A TV exec could hardly be blamed for saying, “No, Joss. You cannot kill off the main character’s mother at the end of an episode about a crazed, runaway SexBot,” but Whedon did it and followed it up with one of television’s most chilling and disturbing looks at the aftermath of death.

I do have ongoing issues with Buffy. Two issues, to be precise. One is pretty small.

Accents. I dearly wish that if Whedon wanted folks with accents, he should’ve either gotten natives from the lands where the respective accents were used, or just passed on them. The English accents are okay, but let’s just say that there’s a reason why I didn’t mourn the loss of Kendra The Slayer, nor the Southern Potential (who turned out to be The First), or–should she fall (still working on Season Seven)–the Aussie Potential. Maybe they are natives. I don’t know. They don’t sound like it, dammit.

Oh wait, actually I have three ongoing issues.

The second issue can be summed up in an equation:

Southern California high school + No Mexican Students Until Season Seven = a lot of white people work for TV, don’t they?

Finally, maybe it’s just because I happened to do the bulk of my Buffy watching during the same semester I took a Sociology of Gender class, but something really bothers me about the whole juxtapositioning of gender roles in Buffy.

Now, I preface this by saying that I know it isn’t the job of Buffy The Vampire Slayer to make feminists’ jobs easier. Ultimately, it’s just a (great) TV show, but this is a problem I have with it, and I think it’s valid.

Mostly, I love it. Whedon turned the horror genre on its head. The young, attractive, thin blonde teenage girl chases the killer through the woods, instead of the other way around. The woman gets to be the hero. The woman cradles her lover’s head after she saves him from the villains. The man proclaims defiantly to his captors that she will come for him. All great. No problem. Girl Power, yay. It’s the kinda thing that should be changing the world.

My problem is that Whedon and co. don’t come through with the whole promise. The gender roles aren’t switched in Buffy–women discard their prescribed gender roles, while the men’s roles are firmly in place, and I just don’t think you can have one without the other.

Xander is probably the best example. Usually, when he’s hurt it’s for comic relief and we’re usually led to believe it’s his fault. When Xander tries to get an Initiative gun to work while Willow and Buffy chat nearby, he’s electroctued, Willow briefly glances over to watch him shake and turns back to Buffy without missing a beat. When he pulls himself out of some rubble in “The Zeppo” after a Scooby battle with some uber-demons, Faith laughs about his “manliness” and he’s consequently left out of the Scooby adventure for the rest of the episode. Instead, he goes on his own adventure, and we’re led to believe he’s finally found some contentment because he gets to screw and to succeed in violence, both of which are necessary to be a “real man.”

Think of it this way, put Xander in Tara’s spot at the end of “Family” and what do you think would’ve happened? Do you think Spike would have given him a light tap on the nose to test whether or not he was really a demon, like he did with Tara? Or, as I think is more likely, do you think Spike would’ve knocked the holy shit out of him, followed by the Scoobies cheering through his unconsciousness, prying him out of the wall and slapping him awake to give him the good news?

And it isn’t isolated to the physical stuff. When Willow or Buffy pine over a desired man (or woman), we’re supposed to feel sorry for them if they don’t get who they want and happy for them if they do. When they cut someone loose, we’re led to believe it’s out of strength. When Xander pines over a girl, he’s usually depicted as pitifully inadequate at best, completely selfish and petty at worst. And of course he’s usually punished (Bug Ladies, Evil Slayers, Demon Women, Life-sucking Mummy Princesses, Dark Priestesses etc.) when he finally manages some success with a woman. It’s okay that Buffy is at first oblivious of Xander’s feelings towards her, but it’s not okay for Xander to be ignorant of Willow’s desires.

For much more blatant examples, see The Trio.

I know most folks consider Xander to be the show’s strongest reflection of Whedon himself, but I don’t think it ends with Xander. Spike’s situation, once the chip is implanted, is not so different from Xander’s. The scene in which Spike learns of his inability to kill humans is blatantly treated as a case of impotence (and it’s funny as hell, I’m not denying that). Afterwards, he’s often referred to as “neutered.” He can’t be as violent anymore, so he can’t be as much of a “real man.” In fact, he’s also punished for his lack of manhood early on. His life as a vampire starts because he failed in his attempt at conquest over a woman.

Like I said, it’s a problem I have with the show but it doesn’t–no matter how long-winded I get about it–take away from my enjoyment of it. Regardless, I think the fact that women ARE allowed to throw off their shackles in Buffy far outweighs any validity my arguments may have, I just think it’s too often forgotten that in a society where men oppress women, we don’t just need to work on the women. We need to work on the people who are causing the problem in the first place.

No comments: