Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Aching Romanticism of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Fourteen years ago this month, the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted on the (now defunct) WB. I was going to let the anniversary slide by without notice, but then something Fuzzy Bastard wrote in his excellent review of Catherine Hardwicke's Red Riding Hood (which I haven't yet seen), got me thinking:
"The tendency of male critics to gleefully embrace power/revenge fantasies and scream in indignation when confronted with fantasies of romance is just embarrassing..."
Well, it didn't start me thinking exactly, as this is something I think about more or less all the time, but I thought this would be a nice time to revisit. What I mean is, in discussion of genre fiction - whether it be books, movies or television - the world at large is incredibly forgiving of all nature of violent stupidity. Tired superhero tropes, even the dumbest and most unforgivable, while not necessarily liked, are viewed as an individual aberration and not used as an indictment of the entire genre. These same people flip out about romance, as Fuzzy Bastard says above, and deride all of it as awful. And don't give me some bullshit rubric about "geek culture". I'm so over it. When there are enough fans to constantly populate gigantic conventions, and the films of a genre are consistently number one at the box office, a line has been crossed: it's just plain old every day "culture", and it's become a bullying one at that.

I think we're going though a bad patch in which mainstream culture isn't particularly welcoming to women. The reasons for this are vast and varied and something that certainly deserves its own blog post, so I'm going to leave that alone for now and talk about a television show that aired its finale almost eight years ago. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was best described as a Horror Comedy Romance, and I'll go out on a limb here and say that the Buffy/Angel storyline is the greatest romance in the history of the medium. Sorry Spike enthusiasts. Sorry Dave and Maddie fans. Sam and Diane? Please. Luke and Laura? Ew. Kelly and Dylan? Don't make me laugh.

You are simply wrong.

Rewatching Buffy, though some parts feel dated, the story is still fresh. A great deal of this is because like all truly good art, the show isn't really about vampires or magic or a Hellmouth or a superhero, but about people. And a big part of that is - as it is with so many coming of age stories - romance. Seasons Two and Three of Buffy contained romantic episodes that felt like nothing I've ever seen on television. They felt like opera or like myth. I've written a bit about the glorious episode in which Buffy loses her virginity, Angel loses his soul, and all kinds of hell breaks loose. The lead up to this pivotal episode, and the way in which the story is shaped through to the end of the season is a complete fucking master class in story structure.

Angel is evil and killing people, and Buffy feels as if she is responsible as, like all over-conscientious control freaks, Buffy feels responsible for everything and usually reacts by shutting down emotionally. Buffy hesitates, like Hamlet before her, in killing Angel. So he, in the episode Passion, kills Giles's girlfriend Jenny Calendar (undercover gypsy and computer science teacher), and Buffy is shaken to the core. The episode contains that gloriously edited sequence in which Giles finds Jenny's dead body on his bed, strewn with rose petals, as an aria from La Bohème surges on the soundtrack. You so rarely see that kind of gothic romanticism played straight anymore.

Which I guess is what I'm getting at. Buffy manages the tonal shift from comedy to horror to romance so well by taking them all equally seriously. Romance is played straight and worked out creatively, and not as an afterthought. I've seen so many people all over the internet make it very clear that they like the horror and fantasy and comedy aspects of Buffy, but have no interest in the romantic story lines - as if that would be somehow embarrassing. Romance novels are given equally short shrift. And, yes, many romance genre novels aren't very good. But many, many fantasy or science fiction novels aren't very good either, and one rarely sees the bad ones as causing critics or those that blather on the internet to dismiss the entire genre as a whole. I've made it fairly clear that fiction that is aimed at or primarily enjoyed by women is rarely afforded much respect. Most often male critics of genre sneer. It's completely tiresome and the reasons for this have a few causes. One of the big ones, which I don't think is spoken of very often, is that men and women are conditioned to respond to books and media a little differently. The typical (and lazy) critical thought (male) as opposed to emotional reactions (female) is far too simplistic.

A few years ago, I conducted a survey in which I asked a simple question: "What did you read when you were growing up?". I left the question purposefully vague in order to have people interpret the question as they chose, which I thought would be illuminating (it was). First, men were far more likely to question me about what I wanted to hear, i.e. what was the "right" answer. They were also five times as likely as the female responders to mention a learning disability, or a reading disorder. They were six times as likely to respond that they "didn't read much". They also were far more likely to mention being bullied or made fun of for reading (zero women reported this). My raw data makes absolutely fascinating reading.

Reading fiction of any sort used to be referred to as a "feminine vice". Still, many men read mostly non-fiction or maybe for relaxation, Stephen King or Tom Clancy. Other men read widely and well. But, over all, more women read fiction then do men. Another gender difference in my survey response was in the language used - three times as many women than men used the word "loved" to describe a book (27 - 9). Women were also more likely to send me email after email, adding books they had forgotten to list. But the thing that surprised me the most was how much commonality there was in the lists from women, as opposed to the lists from men. Many, many women listed Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, the Little House books, the works of Frances Hodgson Burnett, Sweet Valley High, the Bontes, Baby Sitters Club, Nancy Drew, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler, All of a Kind Family, Anne of Green Gables, Harriet the Spy and the works of Dr. Seuss.

There is very little overlap in the books the men cited, which as not something I expected at all. Part of this is that the average male responder listed so many fewer books than the average female one. The following books were listed by multiple men, and by equal numbers of women: Narnia, Tolkien, A Wrinkle in Time, Roald Dahl and The Phantom Tollbooth. The only books citied in great numbers by men and not women are The Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown. Men mentioned genre far more often, though, saying they read science fiction, history and comics. It's all so interesting, and I've been sitting on all of it for ages, as I'm not sure what to make of it all. There were many impassioned responses from both men and woman, which is thrilling. But - the results were kind of overwhelming. I don't think I need to say that my sampling skewed ridiculously toward college graduate, East Coast artistic/educator types, so I really didn't expect there to be as large a gender divide as there was. I expected it to be far more subtle.

One thing I gleaned that didn't at all occur to me before I read the responses was that women have very little shame in admitting they liked things that could be perceived as silly or childish. Several men responded with something along the lines of,"I read a lot of comic books and spy novels and stuff, but that's not what you want to hear about" and then proceded to list a bunch of "school" books. Their lists also skewed far more grown up with far fewer mentions of picture books like Where the Wild Things Are and Dr. Seuss (and I'm pretty certain that these books were read and enjoyed by both boys and girls equally). There was a subtle feeling that the men were a little bit more concerned with how they would be perceived - as exhibited by the worry about answering the question "correctly". Women, by and large, didn't seem to care. They answered with gusto, making few apologies for anything they read and liked when they were young. In other words, the women came off as being far more confident than the men, which was (embarrassing for me) completely unexpected. On average, women enjoy fiction more than men do, I think. They also have so much common ground with each other in terms of what they (or, I should say, we) read. The women responders seem to lap up enjoyment without worrying as much about how these choices would be viewed.

I think one of the big reasons for this is because if you're a girl growing up, your options for watching stories about other girls has always been limited. That's far less true for boys. Girls like Star Wars too, of course, but it's not the same. Movies, television shows and plays are overwhelmingly by and about men. Girls mostly have had to look elsewhere for challenging and entertaining stories about girls, and that elsewhere is often in books. So, there are an awful lot of books that are geared towards girls and women. The fiction stacks of Barnes and Noble (and certainly in the Young Adult section) may be one of the very few places where boys and men aren't top dogs.

Which brings me back to Buffy. More than any other show I can think of, it was about women. And not just one women surrounded by men, but about a female protagonist surrounded by lots of other women. That's one of the reasons lots of women also like the much mocked Sex and the City (of which the first couple of seasons were pretty interesting) and Gray's Anatomy (which I think is a nightmare). But, really, in these post-Roseanne times, there's not much - and even less that can be construed as feminist (my long awaited 30 Rock post is on its way, I promise). I mean, we live in a world in which Two and a Half Men can last for nearly 10 seasons! There are so few women on TV shows who bear any sort of similarity to human women as I've encountered them here on Earth, and Joss Whedon, in a show about high school kids and vampires managed it better than nearly anybody.

There is over the top gothic romance at every turn, which I found thrilling. But Whedon always manages to ground all of it in recognizable human feelings. So, I'll leave you with a flashback musical number in which Anya, the 1100 year old ex-vengeance demon sings of her love for Xander. Of course, as it is a flashback, we know, though she doesn't, that he will leave her at the altar and she will go back to being a vengeance demon, and as the song is played, Anya has a sword through her chest that has been thrust there by Buffy as Xander watched.

Ah, romance.


That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Another thought on the subject of girls lack of shame about childhood reading versus boys, from Caitlin Flanagan's piece about Twilight: " One of the signal differences between adolescent girls and boys is that while a boy quickly puts away childish things in his race to initiate a sexual life for himself, a girl will continue to cherish, almost to fetishize, the tokens of her little-girlhood." Boys try to get childhood books out of their shelves as quickly as possible, or somehow justify their Tintin collections as "not really kids books"; girls feel no such compunction.

As for what's geek culture and what's just culture: It's worth noting that Twilight is as much a box-office smash as 300---more so, by many estimations. Twilight and the Sex & The City movies may not get as much critical attention (which is definitely not the same as respect, or importance) as Iron Man, but they're very much equally big parts of mainstream culture.

Caviglia said...

re: Twilight and S&tC. I agree. It's just that they're so freaking few and far between compared to some superhero movie being released approximately every two seconds. Or action movies. Or spy movies. Or sports movies, ad infinitum

Sarah Porter said...

It's nice to think that the cultural association between women and childishness can be as liberating as your survey results suggest. If women don't feel the same need to repudiate those things they loved as children, if they can allow themselves ongoing intimacy with books that could just be reduced to artifacts of the past, then maybe it illustrates (once again) how being marginalized has its benefits.