Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Todd R. Ramlow

As to the rejection of my understanding of the connection between lesbianism and witchcraft on 'Buffy', I have never said that BVS's creator or writers made a conscious (and consciously homophobic) decision to directly cast lesbianism as social pathology and physical addiction.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Airtime: Tuesday, 8pm EST
Cast: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, Amber Benson, Emma Caulfield, Michelle Trachtenberg, Nicholas Brendan, James Marsters, Anthony Head
Display Artist: Joss Whedon, Marti Noxon
Network: UPN
Creator: Marti Noxon

A famous painting by Rene Magritte is a realistic depiction of a tobacco pipe with a declarative sentence written underneath: "Ceci n'est ce pas une pipe." ("This is not a pipe.") Magritte's title for this painting? "The Betrayal of Images." Following a long philosophical tradition of investigating the status and politics of representation and the real, Magritte's pipe is not a pipe, but a painting of a pipe. And the inscription encourages us to understand the painting as a critique of dominant "ways of seeing," the constitution of "high" versus "low" art, and the social values and political import of art.

Recently, I have experienced a reminder of just how dominant ideologies promote certain understandings over all others in various responses to my interrogation of lesbian desire and representation in the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Several were angry accusations that I had gotten it all wrong, that I was searching for a tempest in a teapot. Among these, two points came up repeatedly: first, that I read too deeply into what is "just" popular entertainment, that not everything is politically motivated; and second, that my understanding of how BVS uses witchcraft as a trope for lesbian desire was a load of hogwash, even if some admit the show might have deployed such metaphors at the start of Willow and Tara's relationship.

To the first, I have never understood the argument that popular culture is "just" entertainment or ephemera. It is manifestly much more than that and does real cultural work. Certainly politicians, critics, and scholars around the world have found in U.S. popular cultural products (whether Hollywood films, television, McDonald's hamburgers, or Coca-Cola) the epitome of neo-colonial exploitation and cultural dominance. Furthermore, popular culture reflects and helps to reproduce contemporary zeitgeists; this is how pop culture functions as an apparatus of dominant ideology. The refusal to consider any social or political import to popular culture demonstrates how ideology functions through media to promote certain social and cultural values as "natural," and to make particular political investments and disseminations transparent.

As to the rejection of my understanding of the connection between lesbianism and witchcraft on Buffy, I have never said that BVS's creator or writers made a conscious (and consciously homophobic) decision to directly cast lesbianism as social pathology and physical addiction. On the contrary, I am quite sure that those involved in season six had no such intentions, and probably weren't even aware of the implications of what they were presenting in the changing relationship of Willow and Tara. Instead, the fact that the show wraps up the Willow-Tara story arc in addiction and death only proves to me exactly how dominant ideologies (in this case homophobia and intolerance) function on the unconscious level, for readers as well as creators.

Several writers tell me that witchcraft on BVS has nothing to do with lesbianism, that they constitute parallel, not intersecting plot points. How they could be parallel when the two primary witches and lesbians on the show are the same two characters, and who happen to be deeply involved with one another is beyond me. This denial has sought to keep the realm of fantasy free from political and social struggle, despite the fact that popular cultural representations of the monstrous have always been allegories for other crises.

Cultural theorists like Jeffrey Cohen, in Monster Theory: Reading Culture, have ably demonstrated how in the history of the Western imagination to talk about or to represent monsters, vampires, witches and demons has always been to talk about the boundaries of social and political normativity. Is Frankenstein "just" about a reanimated-monster? Aren't Medieval Saracen demons, depicted in much Western religious art, about the perceived threat of Islamic culture and anxieties over Christian orthodoxy? Most often, as in the continuing case of vampires, monstrous figures are allegories for sexual excess and border crossings of all sorts. But apparently witchcraft is just witchcraft, and popular entertainment is just that.

In his rebuttal to my piece, Andrew Gilstrap suggests, "The sixth season of Buffy ended with pure, uncut sorrow. For one night, Willow became pure vengeance, and it had nothing to do with magic addiction, and it had nothing to do with lesbianism."

If this is the case, what motivates her vengeance? Mr. Gilstrap declares my understanding of the regressive changes in the show's previously very progressive representation of queer desire and identity as "a fundamental misreading of what was happening." His defense of the past season is articulate and compelling. Nevertheless, in response, I would recall Magritte: images can betray; images often offer up one ideologically inflected meaning on the surface and, at the same time, promote other (even contradictory) social messages on unconscious and other levels. While, as many writers have reminded me, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, more often, a pipe isn't a pipe.






Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."


The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.


Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.


The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.


Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.


King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.


Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.


Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.


Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.


The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.


Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.


The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.


'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.


Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.


Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.


South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.


Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.


'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.