Unlike the (anti) heroines of other high-school-in-hell creations (Heathers, The Craft), Buffy is fighting to save her school and her classmates from total destruction. Despite her pastel goth tendencies toward alienation and disaffection, Buffy is actually trying to maintain order in Sunnydale-on-Hellmouth. One of the main aspects of growing up has to be sex and discovering ones sexuality. In Buffy both of these aspects are explored and the skill of the representation makes it difficult, at points, to differentiate between the fantasy and reality.
In the Buffyverse, the series’ cosmos, kisses are at once holy and illicit, visual displacements of erotic connection and signs of intimacy; significantly, they mark points of contact, exchange, bonding, and collusion. But they are also transgressive, as their deadly extension in the vampire’s bite confirms. The vampires, witches, and demons that populate Buffy’s world are merely archetypal depictions of the stresses and fears that run throughout modern (particularly teen) existence. The vampire has been long understood as a symbol of rampant sexuality, the desire which leads to immolation and destruction of the self…what better symbolic story to present to modern teenagers threatened with the spectres of date-rape, AIDS, and teen pregnancy?
In “Surprise”, Buffy and Angel, after just facing the judge and escaped finding sanctuary at Angel’s place/home, come to the crucial stage in their relationship of having sex. Angel, a vampire who has had his soul restored by a gypsy curse and has learned the evil of his ways but must live with the consequences of conscience, loses his soul and comes under demonic possession after sleeping with Buffy. Ironically, the man loses his soul through sex, rather than the woman, which would be the norm in conventional vampire fictions. This is an indirect Representation of the age-old adage that the boy you lose your virginity to turns mean and nasty the morning after.
This is an example of the plots often turning to that old stand-by, the harsh recognition of the evil in people who first appear to be good, from computer friends who are true demons (“I, Robot–You Jane”) to prospective stepfathers who are depraved predators (“Ted”). Such apparent transformations are expected on television and in life. Today, Buffy herself does not bother with the heathen mythic protection of virginity.
She even gets to survive her sexual mistake, both defying the horror-film convention dictating that virgins are the only ones who ever get out alive and alluding to the all-too-real emotional turmoil of that first failed relationship. She is a modern young woman without being either a pure virginal character or a rampant femme fatale. Her role refuses this dichotomy of a past age. Instead, it embraces both Buffy’s moral role as slayer superhero, and her normal impulses as a teenager in love with Angel. Later in series – after being poisoned by Faith, the rogue slayer, Buffy’s love for Angel almost kills her. The violently erotic near draining of Buffy by a dying Angel, deliberately provoked to attack, emphasizes the technical equation of love and death in vampire fictions, but this time deliberately, and consciously survived.
Within the theme of youth isolation, Willow rejects her Wiccan group to help her cope with her particular experiences of isolation and rejection, and to continue her studies both as a solitary practitioner and, at the end of the episode, as a magical partner with Tara. Like Willow, Tara has been studying magic in isolation, neither one alone has confidence in their powers, or themselves. But combined, the mystical, physical, and emotional come together for them in a new way. They speak of experimenting with their spells but, at this point, Whedon makes it clear that magical experimentation is a close metaphor for sexual experimentation.
Their skills develop in parallel with their relationship, which provide them with a manner of communicating that emotions facilitate rather than hinder. In “Who Are You,” Tara and Willow perform one of their most elaborate spells to rectify the Faith/Buffy body switch. The scene is beautifully shot with 360-degree camera movement and slow dissolves, and the ecstatic looks on the character’s faces pushes the magical/sexual metaphor to its limit. In “New Moon Rising,” Willow finally admits that her relationship with Tara is undeniably romantic. The program skilfully avoids using the “L” word (lesbian) and simply presents it as what Buffy calls “an unconventional relationship.”
With the series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer being produced by The WB, Joss Whedon explains that, “On a [bigger] network, you don’t have an opportunity with a same-sex relationship to show the kind of graphic coupling that you do with, say, Buffy and Riley. So you have to use your imagination…” Now that Buffy has changed hands and is now with UPN and 20th Century Fox, a larger television company than The WB, it will be interesting to see how the relationship continues to represent the troubles gay couples experience in reality.
Sex and love has given the characters a sense of identification and released them from the isolation they all felt when they were at high school. In realising who they are it has allowed them to mature to the final stages of childhood and into the world as adults. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer death is an everyday occurrence and is generally anticipated, rapid and just. However, on occasions Joss Whedon explores issues of loss and bereavement, which are even more poignant for being unexpected, painful and without reason or justice, rather more like ‘real’ death. It is this treatment of death, which is most likely to differentiate the fantasy from the reality narrative.
There are two treatments of death in the series which narrow the gap of fantasy and reality, both of which I am going to explore. The first being that of teacher and friend Jenny Calendar, in “Passion”. Ms Calendar was introduced to the series as a love interest for watcher and librarian Giles, who also becomes resourceful to the slayer and her team as a techno-pagan. When Ms Calendar is killed by Angel it is a chance for the characters to transform/evolve. The representation of each characters reaction to the news of Ms Calendar’s death is different, but it is Buffy who appears to take charge of the situation.
By the end of the episode, a state of equilibrium is restored, but the storyline is not concluded or solved. Most issues are solved by the end of each episode restoring the utopian aspect of the show, there are some issues and storylines/plots which are continued for a length of time but the problem is resolved usually by the end of each series/season, with good triumphing over evil and restoring a state of equilibrium. This is based on Todorov’s theory of narrative.
Each season, the writers have given Buffy a character-building crisis to deal with. She lost her virginity to Angel and he turned on her. She had to lead an apocalyptic battle with evil at her graduation ceremony. But they were only dress rehearsals for what she faced in series 5. In “The Body”, Buffy’s mum, Joyce, dies from an aneurysm. Joyce’s death was unexpected as she was nursed back to health from a brain tumour by Buffy (who also took on the motherly role of taking care of her supernatural sister Dawn).
In this portrayal of death it is Buffy who discovers her mothers lifeless body face upwards on the sofa, as Buffy realises that her mum is dead her eyes turn from concern to terror. Buffy tries to revive her mum but doesn’t succeed and inevitably listen to the paramedics tell her, that her mum is dead and there is nothing anyone can do. This is difficult for Buffy to grasp as she is always in control of things.
Joss and his team successfully screened a heartbreaking depiction of the discomfort people feel as they awkwardly search for the “correct” response to death. Buffy’s friends Willow, Tara, Xander and Anya tried to pull themselves together before going to see Buffy, but they were uncertain about how they were supposed to act. Anya, is always asking childlike, tactless questions about the ways of mortals, so it made sense that she was the one to voice what the others were too embarrassed to say.
“What will we do?” Anya asked. “What will we be expected to do?” When the others remained speechless, she cried, “I don’t understand! I don’t understand how we go through this. I knew her. And there’s just a body. And I don’t understand why she just can’t go back in it and not be dead anymore!” In last season’s hair-raising “Hush” episode, Whedon experimented with the power of silence as a storytelling device.
In “The Body,” Whedon played with silence again; there was no background music in the episode and only a few ambient sounds, like wind chimes and sirens. The effect was almost Bergmanesque in its starkness. The spooky stillness and the long, spacey pauses in conversation as characters struggled to articulate their feelings exaggerated the sense of time elongating and standing still. Killing Buffy’s mom was the right way to make the distinction between the daily stakings Buffy doles out and the awful permanence of “real” death. It also put an end to Buffy’s childhood finally elevating her to the final stage of maturity.
Television is in the business of producing myths and stories which either project the wish-fulfilling dreams of society at large, or which enumerate the anxieties and phobias which plague us. That such shadow-plays are carried out in metaphoric form merely enhances their power for, as 18th century critic Samuel Johnson pointed out, art succeeds best when it is both specific enough in the depiction of its subject to evoke the proper reaction in its audience, yet vague enough to entice the audience into filling in the gaps in its representation, thus enabling the viewer to bring the personal force of their own fears, desires, dreams and nightmares to bear.
Modern nightmares that are represented in Buffy include, gang murders, social awkwardness, drug addiction, date rape, academic and economic failure. In the lexicon of Buffy, however, the challenges, pitfalls, and lessons of our culture are kept at a symbolic distance through the conventions of horror-fantasy, where they can be more entertainingly digested by viewers. Buffy the Vampire Slayer depicts a young attractive cast struggling with the issues that typically face young adult characters on television, if not young adults in real life. Buffy, her friends and her adventures, operating in the liminal space of the Hellmouth, challenge the symbolic order (rules, conformity) and enact adventures in the imaginary or fantastic space, while also seeking the sane everyday conformity of teenage romance, high school dances and grade chasing.
The fantasy escape world is ours as much as theirs. It’s many a girl/woman’s dream, to be able to walk down any street of any town at any hour of the day or night, knowing she can defeat any monster that crosses her path, this depicts the utopian pleasure of watching the show for the female audience. Closely allied to the position of the heroine of Xena warrior princess, Buffy occupies a position, which invites us both to identify and desire. Physically strong and full of agency, yet scantily clad, Buffy has the ability to affect the maximum number of viewer identity positions with the desire both to be and to have.
In some cultures Buffy the Vampire Slayer may appear to be reflecting reality, but it doesn’t fit the Western culture, as we know it. Agreeably it does, just below the surface, represent every day issues and problems but as soon as you get past the issues that are explored and look closer at the surface of the program you will notice that it is unlikely that it represents any cultures reality. All the characters look like they have just walked off a modelling shoot, which in reality, yes, there are people who look like that at school but it isn’t everyone.
Also there is a non-existing ethnic minority in the high school or social groups of Sunnydale. We see the odd person show up but the only recurring actor was a black man ‘Mr Trick’ who was a vampire. If looked at, this could bring up whole new issues about ethnic minorities, and black men in particularly being evil and shouldn’t be trusted. Therefore this representation of reality isn’t precise for the Western culture and I would even say it isn’t representational of America as they have a large ethnic minority.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer borders closely on the fantastic and realistic narratives making it difficult in places to depict the difference, but most of what we see in the show are representations of reality in a fantasy genre. I think it is popular with the teenage audience because of its depictions of teenagers struggling to mature and progress into the world I believe its popular precisely because it offers weekly solutions to the “vampire’s plight” with humour and finesse.