June 04, 2004,
Because I'm working on a book, have a dog with a gravity-bending sense of entitlement, and a 16-month-old daughter who rejects the "false choices" of the modern post-industrial economy, I don't get to do as much reporting or anything else as I would like these days. Usually, I don't mind because fresh air is overrated. But I'm really bummed I missed an "academic conference" in Nashville last week, particularly because I never got to say my goodbyes to Buffy.
"The Slayage Conference on Buffy The Vampire Slayer" convened the leading experts at wasting tuition money on geeky personal hobbies to present papers on the "Buffyverse," the alternative reality created by Joss Whedon, the creator of the now-defunct series Buffy the Vampire Slayer as well as the spin-off Angel. Slayage, by the way, is an Internet site which tracks all of this.
Oh, I guess I should also mention that Buffy is about a quick-witted California blonde who is a chosen warrior against evil, primarily of the demonic and vampiric variety. Angel is about a vampire imbued with a soul who has appointed himself a champion against the forces of darkness to atone for his past sins. "The elders conjured up the perfect punishment for me: They restored my soul," Angel explained to Buffy. "What, they were all out of boils and blinding torment?" she replied.
Buffy and Angel were more than fun TV. Yes, the stories were fun and the dialogue was great (and un-PC: "You're a vampire. Oh, I'm sorry. Was that an offensive term? Should I say undead American?" ). But the shows had a political and cultural relevance that dwarfed their many imitators.
Buffy was by no means culturally conservative in any conventional sense one of the lead characters, after all, was a lesbian witch. But some life lessons still shine through.
"I told one lie. I had one drink," Buffy explains to her father-figure mentor, Giles. To which he retorts, "Yes, and you were very nearly devoured by a giant demon snake. The words, 'let that be a lesson' are a tad redundant at this juncture.'"
What's even more interesting, albeit ironic, is the show's popularity among religious people. Whedon says he's an "angry atheist," but his scripts are crowded with pagan gods, demon worship, witchcraft, agnosticism about the existence of the capital-G God, and other sorts of things to make Pat Robertson choke on his Corn Flakes.
I suppose I shouldn't be too dismissive of the professoriate's interest in all things Buffy, considering what a great show it was. It's just that, well, the American founding was pretty great, too, and very few professors teach that. Meanwhile, a Boston College professor can find time to present a paper on "Self Becoming or Becoming Self? A Comparative Study of Buffy and the Hindu Saint Antal on Identity and Self-Realization."
But I don't want to be curmudgeonly, especially when there are good reasons, even for conservatives, to cheer the immense popularity of the Buffyverse, which, in terms of cultural influence, will be for this generation what Star Trek was for the last.
You could always tell Whedon was deeply influenced by Marvel Comics (in fact, he's currently writing one of their X-Men titles). The overriding message of almost all Marvel stories from the 1960s to 1980s was, in the words of Spider-Man (or Peter Parker to be more accurate), "with great power comes great responsibility."
This was the unifying motivation for Whedon's heroes. "Do you think I chose to be like this?" asks Buffy. "Do you have any idea how lonely it is, how dangerous? I would love to be upstairs watching TV or gossiping about boys or ... God, even studying. But I have to save the world. Again."
In an age when the entire world seems to think "might makes wrong" when it comes to American power, the resonance of this message should be obvious.
Running like a steel spine through Whedon's work is the conviction that evil exists, isn't going away and must be constantly fought or it will win. Indeed, the series finale of Angel last month concluded on the eve a massive battle we'll never see, offering a simple message redemption is for tomorrow, but the battle against evil is for right now.
This may not be how they teach things at Sunday school, but in secular culture, which often sniffs at the notion morality is real, this message is welcome.
Skeptics who think this is making too much out of "just a TV show" should bear in mind that viewers had lots of choices for monster-fighting fantasy, most of it forgettable. Buffy will endure (probably on the big screen), because there's something special to what Whedon wrought.