So Long, Sweet Slayer
After seven seasons, Buffy the Vampire Slayer ends this Tuesday with a much anticipated series finale. What can I say about the once-reluctant Chosen One who killed her lover for the good of the world, died once, came back to life, died again, then finally rose to confidently, deservedly assume the mantle of Slayer? There's too much and not enough.
Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is no helpless blondie running from monsters, twisting her ankle at the worst possible moment. But BtVS is more than an inverted, sometimes wry take on the monster-movie genre, and for this, it's earned legions of loyal fans who made BtVS appointment television.
For help on finding sage words to describe the many dimensions of BtVS, I turned to a recent book on the subject, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale (Open Court Press, James South, ed.). Open Court is the same publisher that brought us Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book About Everything and Nothing (2000) and The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D'oh of Homer (2001). With chapter titles like "A Kantian Analysis of Moral Judgement in Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "A Slayer's Solution to Aristotle's Love Paradox," the book is not a casual read. Essays on high school as a metaphorical hell and BtVS as a feminist text are there, as are discussions of the Christian overtones of the show, interesting given that creator Joss Whedon is an atheist. There is a piece by Jeffrey L. Pasley on the radical and Marxist tendencies of the show. "When inhumans grow powerful on the show, so does capitalist excess," he writes. (Remember the shopaholic hellgod Glory?) And Neal King's argument that BtVS has symbolic elements of fascism is extremely provocative. Fortunately, BtVS lacks the basic elements to be a true fascist text, King says.
It's all very interesting. But to truly appreciate BtVS, it's useful to examine the comic book traditions of the Forties and Fifties, which undeniably influenced Whedon. As Pasley reminds us, a liberal superhero code of ethics was created that "incorporated the principles of selfless community service and the duties of the powerful to the powerless." Or, as Spider-Man says, "With great power comes great responsibility."
Like Spidey and Superman, Buffy has fantastic strength and follows a clear code of ethics. And as I've said repeatedly, there is something deeply liberating about watching Buffy physically defend herself against evil. Not just because she's a girl, but because in real life, evil is often faceless or inaccessible.
I imagine many Buffy fans as children played "superhero" as I did, with a towel tied around my neck, fighting invisible battles that I always won. As adults, maybe some of us miss winning those battles; sure, they were imaginary but they were for the good of the world! Maybe Buffy fans dig Buffy because she has retained that fire of childhood, tempered with the still-fresh realization that fair play is really only expected in field games, and the powerful often do make their way on the backs of the less fortunate. Still, that's a more vital place than where many of us end up: leeched of hope, ticking off the days till we roll over and die (like Buffy's abysmal days in the Doublemeat Palace episodes).
For Buffy and other superheroes, do-gooding is done under cover of night (or a layer of spandex), usually without fanfare except from her immediate cohorts. So, if there's anything BtVS teaches us, it's that real heroism is not in the big flashy acts that play on the evening news, but the small moments that go unseen and often unrewarded.
Or maybe it's simply what Whedon said in an UPN press statement to announce the end of the series:
"I truly believe that in years to come, people will look back and say, 'That was a show on TV.' Yessir. I truly do."
Yessir, it truly was.