“Into every generation a slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their number. She is the Slayer.”
‘I am 22 years old, male, and I’m psychologically indebted and addicted, in a passive sense, to Buffy the Vampire Slayer’. No, I don’t like Twilight. And nor am I altogether insane because, in a very real sense this generation – one weaned by an ever-present television – were socialised into being by that box (or nowadays, rectangle) in the living room. I remember a lecture last year, when the question was poised as to major popular cultural influences of the past couple decades, and a girl raised her hand and said ‘Friends…the TV show’, to a generous ripple of laughter. Thing is, she had a point. Think about how many times we now say ‘like’ mid-sentence, serving no conversational value at all; the Americanisation of British speech, for this generation, surely owes much to those long-running programmes we’ve spent countless hours watching; so what is it exactly that Buffy fans might have picked up? If literary studies expose that non-institutionalised, grass-root theological and philosophical worldview implicit within a given cultural epoch, then media studies – yes, even Buffy studies – might very well do the same.
Buffy, airing in 1996, quickly mustered a cult-audience who eagerly and attentively lapped up every minute of its seven series – running in at around 120 hours (and that is excluding adverts), and no dedicated fan can claim they watched the entire run only once. I am assuming some degree of familiarity with the show on the part of the reader, but here’s my attempt at a summary: Buffy is essentially a superhero, a supremely strong Slayer, whose sacred duty is to defend the town of Sunnydale – which unfortunately rests upon a hellmouth – from the forces of darkness, be it vampires, monsters or even an extra-terrestrial demon. She stands not alone, helped by her friends, ‘the scoobies’, made up of a witch, a librarian, a werewolf and a builder…the result being a TV drama framed by a constant battle of good vs evil.
Traditional religion doesn’t exactly enjoy an easy ride here. Sure, Buffy sort of ‘does a Jesus’ in Series 5, dying to save the world and being subsequently resurrected, but the similarities end there; she spends her (somewhat brief) death in one of ‘countless’ heaven dimensions; asked whether God exists, ‘the jury’s out on that one’. Yet Sunnydale is hardly a metaphysically disenchanted Grimsby. Spawned in the late 90s, a time where New Age themes were prevalent and seeping into the mainstream with dream-catchers, incense, henna, yoga and meditation becoming cultural vanilla. Increasing numbers of people were (and still are) far happier in identifying themselves as ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’; institutionalised religion’s loss was partly deregulated, inner-spirituality’s gain. Even the NHS is now heavily concerned with spirituality as part of its mantra…I digress, but Buffy’s treatment of Wicca and witchcraft was indicative of a cultural turn towards alternative spirituality.
Yet on a far more fundamental level, Buffy goes far deeper than rehashed academic paradigms, right into the inner-sensibilities of a late-modern, secular society. Within Sunnydale the meek shall not inherit the earth; Buffy is something of a self-involved, egocentric and quasi-narcissistic bitch. Her appeal lies in the fact that all of us, within an age of individualism, share the common goal of late-modernity: the cultivation of an idealised sense of self. Buffy is morally dubious and yet simultaneously she is ‘the chosen one’; this results in a universe where of the 50 shades of moral grey hers is the lightest. Whether it’s Buffy sleeping with a vampire she lusts after but doesn’t love, or her quietly thinking she’d be happier dead and buried than struggling with the heart-wrenching matter of being in this broken world, or Willow’s foray into drugs (in the guise of magic), or Xander leaving his bride-to-be alone at the altar, they are never the bad guy. Lacking a traditional theological underpinning, one’s existential orientation nevertheless sees oneself as an embattled, misunderstood, imperfect goodie playing centre-stage in the implicit myth of our reality.
Within the cultural logic of late-capitalism the individual assumes a relative state of pseudo-divinisation. Such latent narcissism becomes tolerable only through a subconscious dramatisation of an ultimately non-rational (or even irrational) sense of identity by construing some sense of good vs evil within the narrative we live and breath every day over our very own hellmouth. Relatively speaking, and to indulge in a moment of unreserved post-modernism: we are all heroes and villains – just depends on which slayer you ask.
Postscript: I should say that I first reckoned with the show’s influence when I realised that ‘my walk’ – walking is a necessary skill all children of course learn through trial, effort, and social example – but one’s style; ever wonder where you picked it up? The strut, the rock, the stoop…well, watching a flashback in Season 5’s Fool for Love, I stole mine off Spike. It’s quite uncanny, and more than a little unsettling.