BLIND SPOTS: BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER

buffy title card
Blind Spots:
 we all have them. With so much cultural baggage heaped onto our nifty Honda Zeitgeists, it’s hard not to. On Blind Spotting, The Taste Basket Team sets to mending. Led by a resident expert, a writer navigates the rocky road of an unfamiliar work of art, writes about it, and then gets the satisfying revenge of playing backseat driver to their guide on a topic of their choice. It’s like a Middle School Cultural Exchange project… only pettier, and with less ethnic dancing.

Get a man on the side views—we’re flying blind.

For the second installment, Scott Interrante, who watched the entire original run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, mostly forgot about it, and then rewatched the whole series a few summers back, acts as Watcher for PJ Grisar as he slays his way through the iconic Joss Whedon show.

Scott Interrante:

With a brother four years my senior and fairly liberal parents, I was always consuming media outside of the age-appropriate boundaries. In 1997 I was in the first grade, and this girl Alyssa was talking about watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I knew my mom and brother had been watching the new WB show, so I lied and said I did too. Alyssa moved to a different school after that year, but I kept watching for real. I stuck with it till the end, too, even its spinoff, Angel. But then it mostly left my life. I would watch the occasional episode with my friend Emily who had the season DVDs, but until a girl I was dating in college started watching from the beginning, a lot of it had left my memory.

She and I broke up a few episodes into the second season, but the following summer, I got myself a Netflix account and watched all of BtVS and Angel (live-tweeting using the hashtag #BuffySummer. Get it?). Not only is the show expertly written—less could be said for its direction, special effects, and acting—but it’s such a fertile ground for analysis. At the time, I was beginning to focus my academic research on gender, and watching BtVS and reading much of its scholarship provided me with many fundamentals of gender studies I missed out on by being a music major in my undergraduate college life.

But that’s part of the problem when it comes to writing about Buffy. More words have been written about it critically and academically than any piece of pop culture ever. There are literally hundreds of books, thousands of essays, a peer-reviewed academic journal, biennial academic conferences, and college classes dedicated to unpacking the television show. So what can anyone possibly add to it now? PJ Grisar manages to come at the show with a fresh perspective, focusing on his own personal relationship to the attitude of the series and his identification with the character of Anya. As he points out in his postscript, Anya has been underserved in the academic community, and PJ’s emphasis on her otherness and potential as an audience surrogate is convincing and beautifully personal.


PJ Grisar:

“I dislike that Anya. She’s newly human and strangely literal.”-Anya Christina Emanuella Jenkins nee Anyanka nee Aud, “Into the Woods” BtVS 5.10

I was never much for the WB growing up. On the outer limits of network channels (11 in my neck of the woods) it made for an easy flyover to more premium offerings and prime-time must-sees. The family orbited around Fox and NBC and many of my post-school hours were fueled by the slime-guzzling mindlessness of Nickelodeon, the Stoner-in-Training fare of Cartoon Network or the B-movie supplement of Disney Channel Original Movies. The WB was for Saturday morning cartoons and teen soaps—that, and Buffy.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer began its run in 1997 when I was six and ended in 2003 before I was thirteen. My awareness of it was limited. No one I knew seemed to watch it. The title alone seemed to me a good gauge of a kind of camp usually reserved for maligning the very different film. I wouldn’t say my parents kept me away from it so much as I didn’t show an interest, though it’s likely my mother would direct me to something less exuberant for fear of me test-driving windmill kicks at recess. Until I was about sixteen I knew a dog named Buffy (for the eponymous) and a despised high school math teacher who kept a novelty wall calendar in the classroom and grew very upset if someone previewed the next page prematurely and that was about it.

At college and at summer camp I met the others. Like so many phenomena in Buffy (Jonathan’s “Superstar” status, the gang busting out in musical numbers… Dawn) the shift happened instantly, without explanation and managed to retroactively change something in me. Suddenly there was a summary (no pun intended) influx of people who grew up watching it. People with kindred values, a different way of speaking, like a kind of moralistic pan-pop culturists whose passion resided just outside the Comic Con convention center doors—I had found my tribe but I didn’t quite speak the language. I don’t just mean quotes, or other superficial touchstones of fandom.  Nor am I referring to the fathomless amounts of scholarship surrounding the odd duck of the WB line up. I think what I didn’t get, and, not being bottle-fed on Buffy may never fully get, is the overall language of the show as a whole: hope.

Conversant as I am in cynicism and sarcasm I have a bit of a tin ear for good faith. Tara and Willow’s baby-talking, all manner of “smoochies”, Xander facing down a black-eyed, evil Willow with a litany of “I love you”s and the whole notion of sentimental ultimate sacrifice have me near retching and have been since Pikachu’s magic tears in The Pokémon Movie (a notable WB outlier). I will not dispute that Buffy has some very dark trappings. We’re talking hellfire, death, rape both metaphorical and real, flesh flayings—the character Drusilla is driven systematically insane by the man who would become Buffy’s main love interest. But while the show doesn’t shout “Yeah friendship!” at the highest decibel, Buffy’s burden being allayed by her support system is a thematic glue just cute enough to give me a minor case of hives.  But right when all the charm began to lose its luster for me, my white knight of audience surrogates came cantering in.

Truth be told, from Season 3 on, I wouldn’t have been allowed to watch Buffy. As I’ve mentioned, my parents had a house rule that hinged a lot on subtext. With the entrance of Anya smoochies are become sex. The trademark Whedon-y euphemisms are given a reprieve when a different and stridently literal voice clashes with the harmony. Now, I was known to parrot quotes as a lad, so Anya, with her frank and surtextual Xander-loving accounts, literal bent and trademark lack of tact posed a bit of a liability for me. She had no filter and, neither did I. In essence, the character that is most like myself would have barred my entry.

Years later, out of the danger of virgin ears and binging BtVS Netflix with internet I pay for myself, she’s my favorite part of the series.

10947485_10155162516240707_424197680_nWe first meet Anya, as new girl “Anya Emerson” (“The Wish” BtVS 3.)  This is one of many aliases she assumes throughout the series but, it’s worth a mention that her first name was “Aud,” which, viewed as homonym could serve as her perennial adjective  (“Selfless” BtVS 7.5; Francis). Anya presents as human early in the episode but soon she is granting Cordelia’s wish and her vengeance demon colors bleed through. We have met “patron saint of scorned women,” Anyanka, complete with a nifty necklace that turns quirky, if dangerous Sunnydale into the potential hell scape it would be without Buffy. In short, it presents me the most extreme of alternatives to the schmaltz factor.

It’s no mistake the character I jive most with—though, of course, I gel with Xander a good bit too—would bring this kinda George Bailey action on. The halls of Sunnydale are garlanded with garlic, attendance is low, the town has a curfew and is pretty much run by the Master who puts a plan in place to have all human residents on tap.

When Buffy finally does make an appearance by way of Cleveland, she sports a split lip and professes not to “play well with others.” When Giles who, in this reality, leads a group of do-gooders on patrol but is in want of a slayer, lets Buffy know his plan to destroy Anyanka’s ‘power center’ and restore the world Cordelia claimed to come from, they have this exchange.

BUFFY: “Take an awful lot on faith here, Jeeves…The world is what it is. We fight. We die. Wishing doesn’t change that.”

GILES: “I have to believe in a better world.”

BUFFY: “Go ahead. I have to live in this one.”

Clearly Whedon and his team err on the side of Giles here. Little kid me (remember I wouldn’t even be at double digits for the air date) would have balked. I would probably demand some kind of Nolan treatment akin to Anyanka’s vision. Bleakness was shorthand for badass. But when Anya and Giles are struggling for her power center, the following dialogue proves instructive in showing us the dichotomy as well as giving us a feel for Anya’s arc:

ANYANKA: “You trusting fool. How do you know the other world is any better than this?”

GILES: “Because it has to be.”

Giles smashes her power center (no euphemism intended). We get the reversal and Anya her punishment—humanity. From here on out, younger me would have a travel companion on the path to being less cynical—if not in real life, I can at least give an inch on an hour-long comedy-drama about a petite girl who stakes demons on the reg, can’t I?

With Anya as a pivot point, I might have been very different. Like my younger self she is filterless. Uninhibited, the type of person who, when working retail tells a customer to “Please go” (“No Place Like Home” BtVS 5.5) after completing a transaction, someone who, when Giles is dropping discreet hints about a female companion will call her an “orgasm friend,” (“Hush” BtVS 4.10, Burnett) the kinda girl who explains the joke, crashes the nuance and is constantly confounded by what it is to be human.

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She is grappling with social protocol throughout. Asking Xander out or knowing how to dress for Halloween (a rabbit, as she finds them scary). It all comes to a head in “The Body” (BtVS 5.16) when Buffy’s mother, Joyce dies of a heart attack. Anya reacts to the news clinically. She asks inappropriate questions (“Will they cut the body open? Should I change my clothes a lot?”) which finally sets off Willow. When Anya explains “Nobody will tell me [what to do]” Willow explains “Because it’s not okay to be asking these things!” What follows is one of two big insights we get into Anya’s mindset, and one where her typically placid veneer begins to crack.

ANYA: “But I don’t understand! I don’t understand how this all happened. How we go through this.  I mean I knew her and now there’s just a body and I don’t understand how she can’t just get in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid and mortal. And stupid. … and no one will explain to me why.”

Anya is new to the human-game but expected to behave and to know intrinsically what everyone else does. The fact is, she’s wired differently than the rest. Myself circa Buffy’s original run is no stranger to her frustration, or Willow’s. My own Scooby Gang then consisted of a social skills group where we each drilled on scenarios like how to touch delicately on a death or offer condolences. Anya has the benefit of Xander’s little tips, the mentorship of Giles on her way to understanding non-vengeful emotions. On her way to series regular she gets to run the gamut. She is left at the altar, loses friends, relapses into her old (by some scholarship ‘oldest’) profession (Francis), gives it up for good, and finally, makes the ultimate sacrifice for the people she just almost-kinda-sorta understands.

In “End of Days”, BtVS 7.21, the penultimate episode of the series, Anya and another reformed baddy, Andrew, are gathering supplies for the final fight. While riffling first aid-items Andrew tosses Anya this meatball by way of philosophical barometer:  “So why don’t you go? You could just go right?”

Her answer: “I did once before… there was this other apocalypse this one time and I took off. But this time–I don’t know.”

ANDREW: “What’s different?”

ANYA: “I guess I was kinda new to being around humans before. Now I’ve seen a lot more, gotten to know people, know what they’re capable of and… I guess I realized how amazingly screwed up they all are… they have no purpose that unites them, so they just drift around blundering through life until they die, which they know is coming yet every single one of them is surprised when it happens to them. They’re incapable of thinking what they want beyond the moment, they kill each other, which is clearly insane. And yet, here’s the thing, when something really matters, they fight. They’re lame morons for fighting but they do… they never quit. So I guess I will keep fighting too.”

Wow, worldview in a nutshell. Do I need to unbox this? I will with my own context. At twelve I had a specialist describe my outlook as “Hobbesian.” I was more disaffected than most second term Presidents. It would be disingenuous to ascribe this viewpoint wholly to my parents. But media diet didn’t quite justify this cynicism either. Whatever my source, I find myself softening more with time. There’s no way to tell for sure if seeing this earlier, when my mind was receptive as putty on newsprint would have brought me around sooner. But if Anya could do it, why couldn’t I?

POSTSCRIPT and WORKS CITED/CONSULTED:

Of the reams of pages written on Buffy, Anya scholarship remains a surprisingly nascent field. James Francis, Jr.’s paper “’Selfless’: Locating Female Identity in Anya/Anyanka Through Prostitution” finds an analogue in Anyanka’s doings as a vengeance demon and those of a prostitute—the pimp being her self-proclaimed “patron”, D’Hoffryn.  Francis makes much of Anya’s shift from vengeance to a “residual desire for domesticity” left her from her brief time as the human, Aud. For Francis, Anya’s ties to humanity live and die in domesticity and, when the wedding is called off in “Hell’s Bells” she relapses back into the vengeance game, knowing no other alternative.

In Tamy Burnett’s essay, “Anya as a Feminist Model of Positive Feminine Sexuality” anthologized in Sexual Rhetoric in the Works of Joss Whedon (ed. Erin B. Waggoner), Anya is celebrated as maybe the one female character in the stable for her view of sex, noting her approach as “a feminist model of positive female sexuality that the otherwise troubling pattern…of women being punished for transgressing traditional expressions of female desire and sexuality.” The preoccupation with Buffy mainly slants towards sex and gender studies, but Anya is consistently pegged as an outlier even in bedroom matters. Her status as an outsider ally is, as of yet, fallow ground with most attention on morality and the transition to human values belonging to Angel and Spike who, in fairness, have their social grace more or less down pat whether they ignore them or not.

Jana Riess comes closest in her more spiritual take on the Slayerverse “What Would Buffy Do: The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide.” Riess suggests “[Anya] is full of contradictions: she is a jaded veteran of the demon world who exhibits childlike innocence and curiosity regarding her newly acquired humanity.” This makes her turn so much more potent and, to a younger me, a kind of retroactive role model.

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