"A teenager to get your teeth into: Bryan Appleyard on Buffy"
by Bryan Appleyard ("Sunday Times", Culture Section, December 10, 2000)
The American television industry consists of large numbers of highly intelligent people doing very stupid things. The cream of US universities are drawn to Hollywood by money and glamour, and there they churn out appalling soaps, sitcoms, news and breakfast shows, nut'n'slut confrontations and cop'n'doc dramas, all of them designed to stupefy the masses to the point where they are incapable of switching off or turning over. There are, however, bugs in this programme that result, very occasionally, in good things getting through. Frasier, The Simpsons, Cheers and a handful of other shows are not just good relative to the dross with which they are surrounded; they are absolutely good - literate, thoughtful, crafted products of sensitive, cultivated imaginations. There has, lately, been one new addition to this thinly populated hall of fame. It is - and if you haven't seen it, you're going to have to trust me on this one - Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The fourth series is being scheduled eccentrically on BBC2, the fifth series starts on Sky in the new year, and the video box sets and DVDs of previous series are going to be one of this Christmas's bestsellers. Unlike The Simpsons, Buffy is not a brilliant, warm-hearted satire; unlike Cheers, it is not a sophisticated, quasi-religious celebration of the loser that lurks inside us all; and, unlike Frasier, it is not literate, camp and psychologically profound theatre. Buffy is unique in the literal-minded morass of primetime television, for it is an assertion of the redemptive power of metaphor. This is not just another run-of-the-mill bloodsucking saga; these vampires are cleverly contrived images of every conceivable teen trauma. For those of you unaware of this series, it is set in a high school in the town of Sunnydale, California.
Unknown to most of its pupils, teachers and parents, this school is located over the mouth of hell and is, therefore, subject to persistent invasions by a variety of demons. Buffy Summers, the heroine, has moved to Sunnydale from Los Angeles to discover that she is the slayer, the particular individual who, in each generation, is destined to fight for humanity against these demons. In every episode she kills several, either by the traditional method of a wooden stake through the heart or by the non-traditional method of martial arts. The show has developed a hybrid pagan eschatology to explain this eccentric state of affairs. Rupert Giles, the English school librarian played by the star of those Gold Blend coffee ads, Anthony Stewart Head explains: "This world is older than any of you know and, contrary to popular mythology, it did not begin as paradise. For untold eons, demons walked the earth, made it their home - their hell. In time they lost their purchase on this reality, and the way was made for the mortal animals. For Man. What remains of the Old Ones are vestiges; certain magicks, certain creatures." This may be a rough transcription of the lore of fantasy literature, but it is evidently anti-biblical - hell is seen as predating Eden - and, inevitably, the show has run into trouble with the fundamentalist keepers of the American conscience. Interestingly, though, US Catholics - who have, historically, tended to be smarter than US Protestants - have rushed to Buffy's defence. Massimo Introvigne, of the Center for Studies of New Religions, says that people watching the show are not embracing an alternative soteriology - doctrine of salvation - but "are much more likely to focus on the characters and to get the symbolic value of the 'occult' episodes as metaphors of very real teenage problems". Exactly.
The occult in Buffy is a brilliantly sustained metaphor that embraces the multiple social and sexual crises of the teenage years. More precisely, it is a defence of teenagers against those who would deny their pain and trauma. In one superbly acute episode - Gingerbread - parents at the school form themselves into a body called MOO, Mothers Opposed to the Occult, and almost end up burning Buffy at the stake. She is saved only by the mothers' discovery that it is they, not their children, who are being manipulated by demons. In fact, all adult authority figures in the show, from the mayor of Sunnydale to the principal of the school, are either wicked or depraved.
Joss Whedon, the creator of the show, and his team of writers are fully aware of the significance of their metaphor, and every episode expresses the point with wit and conviction. "Everything is life and death when you're a 16-year-old," observes Buffy's mother. And Sarah Michelle Gellar, who plays Buffy, has remarked succinctly that "high school scares everyone". The demons are metaphorical expressions of the way that life, to the teenager, seems more frightening and more significant than it does to anybody else.
"I think the show is at its best," Whedon has said, "when we remember the sort of human relationships that people have that are really twisted and scary, and sort of extend those into horror stories, rather than just have a monster show up. That's where the stuff really disturbs me, when it's somebody's parent or somebody's friend who is turning into something horrible." The two key relationships in the series - between Buffy and Angel, a sometime vampire who now has his own spin-off series, and Willow and Oz, a werewolf - are brilliantly direct realisations of the sexual anxiety of the teen girl. Boys in the real world do seem to have a dark, bestial side. They are also irredeemably alien. In Buffy's world this is because boys may well be demons, and sex, as a result, may be dangerous.
Indeed, when she finally succumbs to Angel, the consummation results in the death of his soul. The accuracy of this metaphor is reinforced by the wit with which the show consistently evokes topicality and practicality as ironic foils to its pagan melodrama. The series' best running joke is that Buffy and her friends desperately want a normal, all-American teenage life, but are constantly frustrated by the need to fight the demons that spew from the mouth of hell. The teenagers thus become the authentic Americans, struggling, like their settler ancestors, to build order amid the chaotic wilderness. One out of 1,150,000 on a typical browser; get slaying.
Furthermore, Buffy, as Time magazine has pointed out, is a product of "Camille Paglia-style feminism". She is a strong woman, but she also cares about clothes. She's tough but very sexy. She wants it all - boys, family life, schoolwork and a career in vampire slaying. She repeatedly fails in this because her schoolwork is poor and, socially, she is shown as being outclassed by the luscious prom queen Cordelia, played by the improbably named Charisma Carpenter. But failure, of course, makes it easier for Buffy's fans to empathise. In their dreams, they, too, are secret slayers.
In fact, Whedon created Buffy as a self-consciously feminist icon. He thinks of her as a reaction against those horror films in which "bubblehead blondes wandered into dark alleys and got murdered by some creature", and he sees his show as a way of teaching boys about competent girls. "If I can make teenage boys comfortable with a girl who takes charge of a situation without their knowing that's what's happening, it's better than sitting down and selling them on feminism." There is a further underlying theme here that was also brilliantly realised in the British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous and the Hollywood movies The Faculty and Clueless. This is that the children have learnt something their parents have forgotten. In Ab Fab it is the daughter, not her mad, drunken mother and her chain-smoking friend, who has a sane, adult understanding of the world. In The Faculty, only the teenagers are aware that their teachers and parents have been taken over by aliens. And, in Clueless, the highly conservative mores and rituals of teenage life are compared to the rigour of Jane Austen's society - the film is based on her novel Emma. Popular culture is saying that the dislocation of values embraced by the 1960s generation must now be reversed and order must be restored. Typically, the adults suffer from broken marriages, drugs and drink. They are out of control. They wreck themselves and the environment.
Against this spectacle of dysfunctional adulthood, teenage rebellion becomes an attempt to return to a more stable world. It is no accident that Rupert Giles calls the vampires "the Old Ones"; they are, in fact, the wreckers from Woodstock. The fundamentalists, therefore, should not be alarmed. All of these works - and Buffy in particular - may be unorthodox, but they are extraordinarily moral. This is not the easy, ineffective moralism of political correctness. Rather, it is based on the genuine moral impulse to confront disorder and injustice. It is also more realistic than the liberal morality of the 1960s. Whereas the 1960s liberals believed in technologicalor political fixes that would put things right once and for all - an end to the Vietnam war being the obvious example - Buffy's struggle is eternal: the vampires keep coming. Slayers have to be reborn for every generation; they only keep the lid on the mouth of hell, they cannot fix the problem of evil.
This may be a lot to claim for what is, on the face of it, a rather daft teen show. And it's certainly true that Buffy will not change the world and will, in time, be superseded by some other fashionable Hollywood nonsense.
But, compared to the drab, destructive realism of the British teen-drama tradition, she is a breath of fresh air. For Buffy asserts the power of metaphor and the imagination to embody human reality. Her fans will grow up with a more lively and purposeful awareness than those brought up on the dull delinquencies of Grange Hill or Hollyoaks. For these American teens are right: the demons are real. I once spoke at an American school and, completely ignoring the content of my speech, one 12-year-old boy earnestly asked me if I believed in vampires. "No," I said quickly, glancing at his teachers. But then, glancing at my conscience, I added: "Not exactly ..."
The fifth series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer starts on Sky One on Jan 5; BBC2 is currently screening the fourth series.