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Review of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy"

By James B. South (Editor)
Open Court, 2003
Review by Marilyn Graves, Ph.D. on Jul 17th 2003
Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy

Just before I received my copy of this book I heard a talking head on a cable news network scoffing at the idea that colleges are taking the Buffy series seriously.  This book is nothing to scoff at.  It is a series of twenty-two essays mostly by people with philosophy credentials.  Most though not all are positive assessments.

Before there was Buffy the Vampire Slayer on TV there was a movie of the same name that was something of a parody of the vampire genre. It was lighter in tone and Buffy was less physically strong and apt to use her girlie skills, for example, killing a vampire with a novel use of her hairspray.  The series, while self-deprecatingly humorous, treats its themes more seriously and even has its very dark times.   The creator of this series is Joss Whedon.

The chapter authors of this book seem to have agreed to refer to the series as BtVS.   Each focuses on a different thread but they are grouped together by overarching themes.  A surprising number of them refer to Plato when discussing this show.  Analyses of themes are interspersed with comparisons to other philosophers like Kant and Aristotle.

Tracy Little, in her chapter, points out that on this series high school is literally Hell.  She thinks that the use of "such metaphors have the capacity to help views put their own fears and emotions into perspective, deal with such fears and emotions in a more effective way, to provide a point of comparison with the reality of the viewer and that of the show, to recognize that the fears and the emotions played out by the show's characters may be similar to their own, and finally, to legitimize the feelings of the viewer.  The complex nature of such metaphors also allows for multiple interpretations on the part of the viewer, providing the viewer with a means of agency for interacting with the show on a deeply personal level." (p. 284).  Further, she believes that metaphor has the ability to say the unsaysble and she refers to Baudrillard's "concept of the simulacra: the idea that the copy -- in this case the metaphor -- is more real than the original." (p. 286).    

 As a psychologist I think of this as allowing a viewer to empathically engage even parts of conflicts which are unconscious.  Thus, repressed or suppressed feelings are engaged as well as some that simply cannot be adequately represented in language. This allows for better representation of some basic developmental adolescent issues.  Some of these are:  self-esteem, self-identity, love and sexual relationships, graduating, being humiliated, wondered if you are gay, envying a peer, running away from home, separating from a parent, and dealing with an absent parent. 

For example, Little points out that graduation in the Buffyverse seems like the end of the world and actually results in the high school being destroyed.  What high school senior doesn't imagine that without them the high school is going to be erased from existence.  In that particular BtVS episode, it goes out with a bang, library exploding first.  In the same episode, Buffy glimpsed the departure of her high school boyfriend knowing the relationship can't last.  Many high school seniors really do go through this and recognize it as a painful and defining moment.  Buffy's parting has the cool fog that real kids would edit into the scene if they could.

Richard Greene and Wayne Yuen in their chapter feel that BtVS takes a "sophisticated moral stand on complex moral issues" (p. 281).  James Lawler also sees this and says "Buffy provides a powerful paradigm of moral responsibility" (p. 107) in it's treatment of Buffy's sense of her duty.  Lawler refers to Kantian principles of moral philosophy that "in each human being something that is of infinite worth and therefore requires the utmost respect -- both from others as well as oneself" (p. 108).   He also touches on the issue of teamwork among the four core characters -- what I would call friendship.  Involved also is the idea that one should sacrifice some of one's wants for the good of others.  He examines aspects of the episode called "The Gift" where Buffy plunges to her death to save the world and to save her sister Dawn.  Buffy does this willingly and out of love and it is a poignant moment.  Next season, of course, magic revives Buffy and she is back but experiencing a sense of estrangement, a developmental issue often common to people in their early twenties.  This is actually treated in amorally complex way: Buffy feels pain being pulled out of heaven where she was at peace and happy.   Willow who used magic to obtain Buffy's resurrection struggles with the consequences of challenging the natural order and usurping too much power.  Willow's struggles with magic becomes a metaphor for substance abuse. Willow explains that not having found any sense of worth and happiness in herself she became a junkie.   

 Lawler examines the way in which Willow must struggle with her inner conflicts.  Willow, who has never felt special or worthy, finds love and acceptance in her relationship with Tara and when Tara is murdered her grief has no end.  To stop her own pain and the pain she perceives in others in the world, Willow decides to destroy everything.   People who have been depressed sometimes report feeling something like this.  In this episode ("Grave"), it is Xander, Willow's best friend from kindergarten, who is able to save Willow and the world by offering to be there with her though he knows there is nothing he can do to take away her pain.  It is Xander's longstanding friendship with Willow that touches her and calls her back from the edge of despair.  It is hard to talk about themes like this without sounding smarmy or superficial.  Any dreary after school special might say the same but have no emotional resonance.  In this series they are able to empathically take eternal and mythic themes and make them contemporary as well as imbue them with verisimilitude.  

Gregory Sakel in his chapter also emphasizes moral themes and compares the series to Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings.  I also thing this and in LOTR Frodo could not have unmade the ring and saved the world if not for the friendship of Sam Gamgee.  Sakal says BtVS is "pulled from the fabric of 'normal' life, and thrown into the eternal struggle between good and evil." (p.240).  He looks at issues of salvation and redemption especially in the character of Spike who as a part of the series finale is cleansed of his sins and saves the world. (What, save the world again?) Fortunately, in this series, the writers have a sense of humor and joke about just such things.

Other chapters address other issues like pragmatism or feminist ethics.  One such is Mimi Marinucci's chapter in which she thinks Buffy rejects the passive and helpless role. Michael P. Levine and Steven Jay Schnider do not agree.  They see it as "superficial and stereotypical" (p. 298) and think "BtVS reinforces rather than subverts or undermines traditional gender stereotypes." (p. 306).  They seem to think its popularity "is simply the draw of schoolgirl sex." (p. 307). Though if their chapter subheadings are any indication they are drawn toward "deflating" and "debasing" Buffy.  Levine and Schnider are not the only writers in this volume who have a negative assessment.  Neal King sees Buffy as essentially fascist in outlook.

In a sense, all the contributors to this volume seems to have found something compelling in the series, a way in which the story lines and themes lend themselves to thoughtful discussion about moral, ethical, and deeply human issues.  I find myself having the same response. Don't even get me started on the contradictory nature of the vampire in this series and how it parallels whether or not man may be innately evil or whether even terrible acts can be repented.  Clearly, whether the assessment is positive or not, as James B. South, the editor, puts it BtVS is "no longer a form of entertainment or relaxation, but something worth my thinking about."  (p. 2).  I must say, I agree and this book is worth reading.     


© 2003 Marilyn Graves


Marilyn Graves, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice.