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Undead TV

Elana Levine, Lisa Parks

Essays on Buffy the Vampire Slayer

(Duke University Press)

I might as well say it now: this should be a compelling book, but it’s not. Intellectual, scholarly, and academic to a fault, the language is often impenetrably fluffed (a truly frustrating paradox), and the ideas generally unfocused. A welcome addition to the rising number of anthologies devoted to pop-culture texts? Welcome, yes. But you’ll have to hunt patiently for any gleam.


Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003, WB and UPN) follows Buffy Summers, the Chosen One, on her six-year tenure defending the world (at least that of Sunnydale, California) from all manner of vampires, demons, and otherwise oozy-mean-bad creatures. The once-L.A.-high-school cheerleader moves to Sunnydale with her single mom after Buffy burns down her high school gym during a fight with vamps.


She is now tagged both a troublemaker and a loser, as her only friends are Xander and Willow, two awkward, unpopular teens, and the high school librarian Giles, Buffy’s new Watcher. The show is at once a TV comic book, a horror soap opera, an extended metaphor for adolescence, a classic adventure story, and a piece of post-modern meta-literature. In short, it really, really rules (and I have my wife to thank for introducing it to me).


This new anthology seeks to explore the show’s legacy, influence, and how and why it matters, while pondering the task of “how to be critical of television without denying its pleasures, how to take the medium seriously without betraying its entertainment value”. That nicely fits my lowbrow definition of great popular art—it’s still cool and fun no matter how much or hard you think about it—but the collection as a whole falls short.


The first four essays address the show’s production and reception. Mary Celeste Kearney’s “The Changing Face of Teen Television, or Why We All Love Buffy” exposes how the WB did not target solely a young audience, but a multi-aged one “under the identity category of ‘youthfulness,’ an identity that transcends age and instead calls upon a ‘teen’ sensibility.”


This is at once a cool and encouraging notion, as well as a slick, profit-seeking, double-speaking tactic. We’re told of networks’ attracting and grooming tweens (kids aged 9-15), appealing to kids’ desires to grow up, an “aspirational form of consumerism…known as ‘reading up’” in which younger children look up to teens. The thinking goes that if you can get the 19-year-old, you can get the 14-year-old, and if you can get the 14-year-old, you can get the 10-year-old. Creepy? Yes, indeed.


Then there’s “reading down”. Through an astute lining-up of social factors, Kearney describes how a growing portion of adults over 18 (who either postpone or reject the conventional emblems of adulthood: cars, homes, spouses, children) are “being encouraged to identify with teens and adopt a youthful sensibility” and later expands her scope: “In fact, all adults in contemporary American society are encouraged to adopt a youthful attitude, particularly with regard to consumerism.” It’s a way of selling, and also a partial denial of inevitable decline, as if the US is going through a culture-wide age-crisis.


All in all, it’s a slightly sinister portrait of the Media Lords, a very top-heavy framing of a show, all instituted by higher-ups. However independent the production of the series may have been, executives’ spin is unavoidable, and it is this chill (the network’s “cultivation” of viewers) which resonates most, not Kearney’s admirable points about BTVS being “a program more about growing than growing up”, its theme of “multiple, fluid identities”, or the fact that it no longer takes “families to create a mass audience.” What resonates is the invisible network gods’ staging.


Susan Murray’s “I Know What You Did Last Summer: Sarah Michelle Gellar and Crossover Teen Stardom” examines how marketing strategies relate to individual stars. Consider a late ‘90s promo campaign in which WB stars act like friends hanging out in a WB warehouse: “The content of these individual programs is not addressed by these spots; rather, it is the stars themselves who are the representatives of the overarching industrial narrative of the WB. The spots remind viewers (and advertisers) that they tune into the network to see this stable of high-profile teen stars.” This pose seems to reflect a me, me, me youth culture that can only attend to individuals without any sense of the give-and-take of their relationships, their stories. One can’t help wondering how fair that is.


We are told of blogs on which girls express no preference in seeing Gellar on TV versus film, and rarely discuss the work itself, instead considering “the star as a text unto itself; a text that moves across media, acquiring deeper and often contradictory facets as it extends itself through numerous characterizations.”  The language sounds as if Murray considers this a shallow form of reading, but then she proposes, after situating BTVS among other texts “peppered with self-referential play, knowing asides, and deconstructions of its own form”, that a large part of Buffy’s success might be due to such references and the fact that such texts “demand that viewers engage their knowledge of other texts in order to enjoy fully reading and re-reading it.”


I only wish her opinion were more direct; after discussing so many compelling elements, raising so many important issues.  And that’s a big problem for me here: rarely do these writers come out and take a stand and say “This is good and cool; that is bad or lame, and here’s why”, apparently preferring to lay out fascinating, dynamic evidence with at best the most tepid conclusion.


I must be thinking like an arrogant American again, but I really don’t see the beef Annette Hill and Ian Calcutt have in “Vampire Hunters: The Scheduling and Reception of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel in the United Kingdom.” This amounts to a very well-researched complaint about the UK’s censorship, scheduling, and editing of episodes, how a show that is available in the US can be hard to find abroad, and therefore being a fan in the US versus the UK is not the same experience. There is an opportunity for some direct cultural critique, an exploration of the effects of the apparent censoring on viewers’ perceptions, but that opportunity is never taken, and without that push, it’s the same complaint I have about how hard it is to find Hob Nobs in the US.


Amelie Hastie’s “The Epistemological Stakes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Television Criticism and Marketing Demands” attempts to analyze the academic, scholarly culture through its response to BTVS. Minus a couple of great flashes—key parallels between academics and cult-show-fans, the rise in anthologies devoted to TV series, and television’s eternal novelty—this one’s for the riveting mob of scholars of scholarship to read. The rest of us should watch more TV.


Thankfully, the second four essays shift to the politics of gender, sexuality, and race and ethnicity. I won’t profess the ever-superiority of textual close readings over social analyses, but I will pronounce these infinitely more engaging, simply because they deal with the story and characters, not the network and audience.


Cynthia Fuchs’ “‘Did Anyone Ever Explain to You What Secret Identity Means?’: Race and Displacement in Buffy and Dark Angel” asserts both youth and race are “metaphorically related identities.” She elaborates a horde of neat contrasts of race, family, and motivation between Buffy and Max from Dark Angel without ever growing tiresome—a clear and smart mix of textual analysis and social commentary.


Plenty has been made about how the show represents young women and girls, but in “At Stake: Angel’s Body, Fantasy Masculinity, and Queer Desire in Teen Television”, Allison McCracken cites the vampire Angel’s new kind of masculinity as one of the show’s real innovations. He’s “at once the show’s most powerful male and its most deviant”; his “primary function in the series [is] as an object for teen girls’ erotic and sadistic fantasies.”
     
McCracken gets really good when she takes the sexual objectification issue further, beyond the show’s offering of provocative alternatives, and confronts something difficult and real: “if Buffy remained merely on the level of utopian sexuality, it would lack resonance with viewers…much of the show’s emotional power comes from its frequent acknowledgment of the fleeting and fragile nature of illicit desires.” I’m grateful for McCracken’s style in this one: her swift elucidation of points with curt but clear examples from the series is a much-appreciated briskness after the rest of this anthology’s dominant fluff.
       
Jason Middleton’s “Buffy as Femme Fatale: The Cult Heroine and the Male Spectator” has two bland ideas—different fans can interpret the same text differently, and BTVS is like many other shows in that it has a female protagonist—pose as groundbreakers. In between these yawners, Middleton does an excellent job discussing how camera work subverts a potentially invasive male gaze in a scene with Xander.


Then there’s the section on fanzines and which ones are perverted, and which aren’t. As Middleton analyzes the placement of images, headlines, and the content of articles, it becomes apparent that a number of fanzines (not necessarily devoted to BTVS) are using erotic, perhaps pornographic, images.
 
The fact that some fans might “take pleasure” from Buffy comics seems worrisome to Middleton (again, I’m not sure; so few writers in this book take any clear stand). One might wonder what business that is of ours how they privately perceive imagery. I’m not one to promote leering, harassment, or the like, but is it really news that some guys do more than just read magazines?


Co-editor Elana Levine’s “Buffy and the ‘New Girl Order’: Defining Feminism and Femininity” is all-in-all one of the better pieces in book, exploring “the ways in which Buffy enters into debates over what it means to be a feminist and what it means to be feminine [which] are different from earlier incarnations of the New Woman.” Between feminism, post-feminism, and third-wave feminism, the category-nuancing is just shy of agonizing, but it does ultimately serve to show how the series helps obliterate the overly simple notion that there is one way to be a feminist, which gets especially good in her discussion of the final season.


This is one of those books I really had to squint through, just to get the language and ideas sorted out; I felt like I was in a class of people way smarter than me, and unbelievably different in their view of how to express what is important.  Virtually every essay is well-informed, has at least flashes of insight, but suffers from a hyper-highfalutin-ness of language, and few critics here take any sort of clear stand, so that more than once, I’m left wondering, “What was that about? What was the point?” Perhaps this is armchair-editing on my part, but what also strikes me is a shortcoming of vision in most of the essays: what is obvious is highlighted, what is impenetrable is extended, while what is new and daring is relegated to a tangential or paragraph.


We have an insular collection here, where the voice is bogged down in academic quicksand, and competing angles within some essays distort the effect of the whole. It’s a shame when a great television series and several smart people with interesting ideas can’t cohere into an articulate, accessible book.

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