"Fighting the Forces": A New Book of Scholarly Essays on "Buffy"
A Short Review by Massimo Introvigne
Fighting the Forces: Whats at Stake in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", edited by Rhonda V. Wilcox and David Lavery (Lanham [Maryland]: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), is not the first book of scholarly essays on Buffy to be published. It was preceded in 2001 by Reading the Vampire Slayer: An Unofficial Critical Companion to Buffy and Angel, edited by Roz Kaveney (New York: Tauris Parke Paperbacks). The latter book, at least considered from continental Europe, epitomized both the strengths and weaknesses of American literary criticism. Some of the chapters were interesting because of the authors effort to relate Buffy to contemporary political and societal issues. Others appeared to force into Buffy meanings which simply are not there, and were vaguely reminiscent of the old (European) pun that most American books of literary criticism look similar: where the subject matter is Shakespeare, the Bible or Twin Peaks any such book will have its mandatory chapters of feminist, queer, Marxist and race-relations reading, and the same comments will be repeated ad nauseam irrespective of what the text is or says (at least, race relations in Buffy involve vampires, and this compels the authors to try something new).
The Wilcox-Lavery book is a much more ambitious enterprise; it is also, quite frankly, a better book. Although some (but not most) chapters still include clichés on feminism or same-sex relations which look quintessentially American to European readers, there is also a conscious criticism of these same clichés (see Sarah Mendlesohns chapter denying the plausibility of a queer reading of the Buffy/Willow relationship). Issues of gender, generations, race, class, and violence are treated seriously, through an in-depth analysis of both main characters and sidekicks. Class and race are discussed through a study of Buffys and her friends relationship with the two "other" slayers, American white trash Faith and Jamaican Kendra, a point which should have been obvious, but wasnt, in previous scholarly criticism of Buffy. Parallels are well chosen and carefully explored, such as the literature of the "tragic mulatta" for Kendras fate (by Lynne Edwards), Frankenstein (by Anita Rose), and the 1965-66 television series Gidget (by Catherine Siemann) as an example of a sunny Californian world where cheerleaders, although superficially similar to Buffy and Cordelia, do not meet vampires. The book also benefits from in-depth study of Season 3 and 4, with emphasis on such characters as Spike, Riley, Maggie Walsh, and Faith (Season 5 is considered only in a few chapters). Mary Alice Money has a valid point when she discusses the "undemonization" of several supporting characters in Buffy and Angel: literal "undemonization", indeed, for Spike and Anya, but also evolution from silly to heroic for Cordelia and Wesley, while Doyle and Whistler confirm that not all demons are necessarily bad. Another strong point of the book is the candid exploration of the relationship between the show and its fans, controversies included. Chapters on how the show used fan fiction for some episodes (but also unashamedly parodied it in Jonathans saga in fourth seasons Superstar), by Justine Larbalestier, and how informal but strong hierarchies of insider emerged on The Bronze, the Internet forum on www.buffy.com [no longer active], by Amanda Zweerink and Sarah N. Gatson, make for fascinating reading.
For readers of this Web site, devoted to religion, esotericism and popular culture, the fact that the book includes chapters on religion (by Gregory Erickson), the vampire tradition (by Diane DeKelb-Rittenhouse), and magic (by Tanya Krzywinska) is both refreshing and disappointing. The strongest of the three chapters is Ericksons on religion. The author makes a persuasive case for a religiously irreligious Buffy: religion is nowhere to be seen in the original series (Angel and its "Powers That Be" being a different story), and is occasionally denied in a very explicit way, yet is constantly present in the form of implicit religiousness. So far, so good. The author, however, fails to distinguish between different forms of "religion", apparently does not catch several important (to this reviewer, at least) religious allusions in the show, and leaves entirely unmentioned Christian fundamentalist opposition to Buffy. Some of these themes are discussed in my own Templeton lecture God, New Religious Movements, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, read at Harvards Divinity School in April 2000; the author would also have benefited from more systematic perusal of the huge Web site Everything Philosophical About Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Krzywinska usefully guides the reader to allusions in the series to contemporary Wicca and such famous (or notorious) character of the magick subculture as Aleister Crowley, but when her work seems to have just been started, her chapter ends. Reading that Crowley "provided Gerald Gardner with the key rituals vital to the foundation of modern Wicca" (p. 192) could not fail to raise the question of how familiar Krzywinska is with recent academic scholarship on both Crowley and Gardner, and how much she takes her clues from less scholarly sources; a quick perusal, for example, of Ronald Huttons The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Moden Pagan Witchcraft (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) would have persuaded her that Crowley did not provide Gardner with a single ritual, although the two met three times in 1947 (quite shortly, since Crowley was very ill and about to die) and Gardner did read some writings by Crowley. A development the author may have noted is that magical allusions (including to Crowley, inter alia in Ray Gartons Resurrecting Ravana) are much more prominent in the original fiction novels derived from the series, as well as in the comics (two neglected areas in the book) - which is not surprising, considering the occult-inclined Christopher Goldens prominence in the creation of the (quite independent, as Joss Whedon himself said) world of novels and comics. As for De Kelb-Rittenhouse, her otherwise brilliant chapter suffer from lack of acknowledgment that vampire studies are now an internationally acknowledged academic field (see, on the European origins, my "Antoine Faivre: Father of Contemporary Vampire Studies", in Ésotérisme, gnoses & imaginaire symbolique: Mélanges offerts à Antoine Faivre, edited by Richard Caron, Joscelyn Godwin, Wouter J. Hanegraaf and Jean-Louis Vieillard-Baron, Leuven: Peeters, 2001: 595-610), with several hundreds of academic titles well beyond the comparatively narrow field of movie and literary criticism. All three essays are promising starts, but they should be read mostly as an invitation to further research (which appears, in fact, to go on: see, on religion, the recent expansion by Zoe-Jane Playdon of the short essay originally published in Reading the Vampire Slayer) .
Several authors note the frustration of American academics in a variety of fields who held Buffy in high regards (and I can confirm from my personal experience that Buffy is indeed an academic favourite in fields such as religious studies and the study of esotericism), when they discover that their enthusiasm is not shared by mainline TV critics. American academic fans of Buffy are comparatively fortunate: the show may not be acknowledged for what it is by certain pompous TV pundits, but it goes on. In countries like my own Italy, lack of acknowledgement of the cultural significance of Buffy makes for sloppy programming by the network which owns the corresponding rights, and perpetual risks of cancellation, notwithstanding the existence of a very dedicated base of fans, worth in itself of further social science studies. As for (continental) European academics, the books editors also edit the excellent Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies: may it live a long life, independent of networks capriciousness.