Towards the end of my watch of season two of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, I went back to my write-up on the first season, and was deeply amused to see how much of what I thought was new insight actually applied from the start. This show is the myth of a teenager; Buffy slaying vampires is a stand-in for anything that a teenager feels both deeply passionate and vaguely insecure about, and her juggling vampire slaying, her social life, and her sense of family responsibility is to be seen the same way as a teenager juggling their passion for, say, playing guitar in a band with friends and family. The big difference is that the show has figured out how to work this metaphor on a larger scale; you may recall that I enjoyed the episodic elements of the first season but found the whole thing with The Master to be empty genre signifiers with a coat of Whedonesque comedy. In season two, the one-off episodes are as good as ever; the ironic thing about Whedonesque dialogue is that it’s actually better at imbuing characters we see for one episode or even one scene with a life and vitality that elevates the whole show.
What’s actually important is that season two as a whole tells two grand myths that any teenage girl can recognise. One: Spike, the dangerous bad boy. James Marsters is one of the all-time casting coups here, with his youthful good looks and his forty-year-old man voice; he reminds me of David Hepworth explaining that Bob Dylan was so attractive to the youth of the early Sixties because he looked young but sounded old, and between his Sid Vicious leather jacket and hair and his constant glee in being undead and destroying everything he touches, he’s a wonderfully dangerous presence. I found myself wondering if Whedon originally planned out some more stuff with the Anointed One, realised what he had kind of sucked, and tossed it when he had this moment of inspiration (it’s also possible that he wanted me to believe this).
Secondly: this season is the story of a girl who had sex with her cool, edgy, sensitive, tough boyfriend, and he suddenly becomes a callous jerk. What moves me most of all is there is no distance or irony here in the way that a lot of works aimed at or about teenagers can be, even and especially Whedon’s direct imitators, to the point that I can understand exactly why so many women initially fell in love with his work and were genuinely caught off-guard by his crimes. Buffy is not stupid for falling in love with Angel, and she’s not stupid for not knowing he was going to turn into a jerk.
If this show were more mundane, there would be an equally mundane reason for Angel becoming a jerk; perhaps he was always a callous jerk and was only pretending to be nice to get laid, or perhaps having sex went to his head and amplified his ego. But if those things had been true, we would have distance and superiority to Buffy. Angel being a vampire under a curse in which he has a soul as long as he is unhappy isn’t just cool for its own sake, it’s cool for a purpose; we’re locked into her point of view and the only way we could see this coming is if we were watching the show roughly twenty years after it first aired. The use of genre elements instead of realism has made it so that, for twenty-two sections divided into forty-five minutes each, we are not smarter than a teenage girl.
Who is Buffy Summers? One of the delightful things about visiting Whedon’s first work so late is seeing a few character types he’s recycled in different ways. I have zero patience for people who whine about actors having recurring types they always play and almost as little for complaints about writers with recurring themes and types and ideas; so long as they’re deploying these ideas to different ends, it’s perfectly fine, and I’m fascinated with how Whedon in particular rejiggered characters. Wash is obviously a version of Xander who settled into a job he loves with a wife he loves; Kaylee is a more self-confident riff on Willow; Druscilla lays the groundwork for the more obviously victimised River; I can see a lot of Mal in Angel at this point. Obviously I do still have a collective ten seasons of television for these characters to get through, but I’m surprised that for a guy who writes about teenage girls all the time, his most iconic teenage girl seems to stand alone.
(I imagine you can see more of her in his X-Men comics)
Buffy has a few different contradictions in herself that make her visibly human. She does want the one thing all human beings, regardless of (but often exacerbated by) culture or personality or nature inherently want and have to work past: complete control over her environment. I find her particular expression of it sympathetic and recognisable as a part of the Teenager condition; she downplays her vulnerability and overstates her confidence, and that Whedonesque dialogue is part of it. One thing she repeatedly does that bugs me is reflexively rejecting any kind of authoritative help; it could be interpreted as a belief that nobody else could possibly have the expertise she does, but it strikes me as a fear of showing any kind of vulnerability. If she’s somebody that needs help, then she’s weak.
Her central contradiction is that she’s caught between wanting to be liked by others and wanting to like herself, and there are mixtures of internal values and a need to be strong muddled up further in that. She protects people because someone who can protect others must obviously be strong herself. Her famous snark isn’t just funny for its own sake or the natural language she speaks in a la Hawkeye Pierce; it’s a defence mechanism to convey that she’s above whatever petty thing is happening. This is what truly floors me: Buffy The Vampire Slayer is possibly the most influential genre work of all time, leading writers to drench their works in ironic distance as a matter of course, but the original article is this deeply vulnerable, open-hearted work in which the characters say ironic things as a fucking character flaw.
I’m probably the only autistic person on Earth who is puzzled by people who don’t understand metaphors. At its most extreme, there are people who see all stories as a series of disconnected incidents, so dense as to be unable to conceive of characters as having motivations, let alone stories as having themes. Less stupid – and because of that more infuriating – are people who see stories as building blocks and literal puzzles to be solved. I have become more forgiving of that since discovering that people who read like that tend to be training their brain for logical thinking; I generally find it more satisfying to apply it to nonfiction history and, lately, science. More often than not, applying that to fiction is counterintuitive; fiction is more useful for emotional myths and trying to see things from another’s perspective.
In this case, it’s how I enjoy watching Buffy. It’s very easy to dehumanise a child and treat them as an object to be manipulated instead of a person who makes decisions based upon information they have. Hell, even when we do think about what they know, it’s often from a position of smug authority – that we know things they don’t. It’s perfectly understandable; nobody decent wants to think of themselves as harming a child, so children tend to activate a sense of responsibility even in the most layabout asshole. In turn, though, nobody really likes being dehumanised; kids immediately pick up when you’re doing that and often resent it.
Buffy turns the tables on that. This is the oversimplified way that a kid sees us and there is nothing we can do about it. Buffy reminds me very much a specific kid I know, and if I’m very lucky, she sees me the way the show presents Giles – stuffy, insecure, prone to brooding, but ultimately well-meaning, insightful, loving, and trustworthy. Principal Snyder is an unfair caricature of authoritarian treatment of children, but it’s exactly how you can come off when you’re barking orders at kids all the time with little explanation beyond the general principle of order. There’s even Buffy’s mother, right in the middle – someone who she loves and knows loves her, but has been left out of the loop on the things that really matter and who can’t fully be trusted for fear of hurting her (as well as the subtextual element that if Mrs Summers ever found out about the vampire slaying, she’d try and stop Buffy being the Slayer).
It would be humbling enough to have a child have your number completely, but I think it’s even more humbling for a child to be half-right for reasons that stem from how you’ve always acted around them. Like, of course a child would be unimpressed by your displays of authority if all they’d ever seen you do was make blustery threats of detention in the confines of a school while they were off banging their sexy older boyfriend by night and doing the coolest slayer-esque shit on the planet, and it seems petulant to me to question that, let alone whine about it. I’m not saying you should let kids do whatever they want and damn the consequences and I’m certainly not saying you should never protect them; what I’m saying is that one can more effectively communicate and negotiate with kids by recognising what they want and how they want to see themselves and allowing them to have it. Buffy reminds me of that.