Buffy The Social Anxiety Slayer (PS: Little Miss Sunshine.)

Mary Jo, no one can see
What you’ve been through
Now you’ve got love to burn

It’s someone else’s turn to go through Hell
Now you can see them come from twenty yards
Yeah you can tell
It’s someone else’s turn to take a fall
And now you are the one who’s strong enough to help them
The one who’s strong enough to help them
The one who’s strong enough to help them all

–Belle and Sebastian, “Mary Jo”

I refused to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I just wouldn’t do it. The whole phenomenon was simply too annoying: I was away traveling for about six months, and when I got back everyone had at least four seasons on DVD and were singing live versions of the songs from the musical. I’ve always had a lot of problems watching horror movies — into my teen years, I still got nightmares from them — so the idea of watching bad guys turn suddenly into mean-looking Klingons (the vampire when she’s “on the hunt”) frightened me. I’ve never been able to sit through a slasher marathon; I would spend all my time in video stores just reading the backs of horror movie cases, and getting scared enough by two or three screenshots. (“At this candy store…the only thing for sale…IS YOUR SOUL.”)

Those are the bad reasons why I refused to tune in, despite all indications that the show was the smartest thing since The Twilight Zone or Star Trek: The Next Generation. The better reason went something like this: Buffy was the sort of girl who wouldn’t have talked to me in high school. This is also my reason for mostly disliking Vin Diesel: he’s the sort of guy who would have beaten me up in high school.

“Not true,” my friends assured me. “Buffy’s a geek, and all her friends are losers. Being a slayer makes her totally unpopular, and the show is actually a celebration of nerd culture. That’s what’s so adorable about Willow, Xander, Giles, and the rest.” This was usually followed by a reverent discussion of Allyson Hannigan’s beauty. (She’s the band camp girl from American Pie, and she’s just as adorable in Buffy.)

Finally, now that one of my good friends (Pons Asinorum to you) was kind enough to lend me the whole boxed set, I’ve been able to right wrongs by sitting down and taking the whole thing in. (Well, not the whole thing — I’m freely skipping episodes like “Inca Mummy Girl” that have too high a concentration of filler.) Watching one Buffy classic after another has been a rewarding experience. Whedon has a gift for re-contextualizing conventional plots to make a point. For example, a throwaway beginning in “Nightmares” about “active listening” becomes a way out of a day of nightmares coming true. By comprehending each other’s nightmares and entering them, the Buffy team save each other from hysterical solipsism (and, in the vocabulary of horror, from actual death).

I was also shocked to discover how much other people steal from Buffy. The relationship between Seth and Summer in The O.C. is just an elaborated, triumphant version of the Xander / Buffy relationship. Every character on Veronica Mars can be traced back to Buffy.

Then I felt a second sort of fear rising. What if this was going to trap me back in the world of pseudo-humor? Almost nothing else smart outcasts find funny is actually as funny as Monty Python; for example, the sounds that Orcs make in the Warcraft II: Reign of Chaos game are not funny. Also, “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for” isn’t funny. Or what if Buffy was going to trap me in the land of corny action and male fantasy, like mediocre anime? The last thing I need is seven seasons of Lara Croft.

In trying to articulate this to a friend, I felt compelled, as if by an ancient curse, to utter the words “I don’t want to be pushed back into the basement!” We are used now to thinking of homosexuality in terms of the “closet,” a period when the real sexual identity is covered by conformity, and being “out of the closet,” when some degree of authentic sexuality has been achieved, along with the possibility of satisfying relationships and reciprocal love. Well, I thought of being a nerd in terms of a basement. It’s not a comparable level of repression. It is a phenomenon of conformity, though: you listen to “Weird Al” Yankovic and play Dungeons & Dragons because those are the worlds open to you. In the process, you develop an insular vocabulary and a style that marks you out. Some “nerds” try to celebrate their identity category. That excuses the whole American phenomenon of exiling smart kids, and ignores the weaknesses of cultural touchstones like Akira, which has over 35 minutes of dialogue where the only words spoken are “Tetsuo!” and “Kaneda!”

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have worried. Joss Whedon turns out to have the same kind of imagination as Josh Schwartz. In Schwartz’s world, becoming a poor orphan forces cool, aggressive Ryan to seek out Seth Cohen for help. In Whedon’s world, being a slayer forces Buffy out of popularity and into the company of Willow and Xander. Like Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth, drawing her way out of an underground prison with a piece of magical chalk, Whedon imagines himself out of the high school trap through Buffy. She is the apostle of a reconciliation between the glamourous world of popularity and pleasure, and the salt-of-the-earth goodness of the nerds.

Whedon thinks in the same metaphors I do. He personally wrote and directed “Lie To Me,” which is the first appearance of actual Goths on the show. The Goths are repeatedly characterized as “lonely,” and their club is regarded with amusement and contempt. In desperation (over how much life sucks), they make a plan to be transformed into vampires in exchange for Buffy’s life. Buffy goes to meet and confront them, and they slam the door on her. The door has been doctored so that it only opens from the outside. In other words, Buffy is now trapped in a basement with a bunch of losers.

When the episode resolves, Buffy organizes an escape so that the poor Goths (now in there with a bunch of real, monstrous vampires) can make it to the surface. This is an ambivalent image. The show did work hard to “bring to light” the lives of the more eccentric kids in high school. All the same, Buffy is the one leading them out of darkness, foreshadowing the moment when everyone in Sunnydale will turn into her, not into Willow or Xander.

As for the insular language of subculture, that rears its ugly head in “Out of Mind, Out of Sight,” also written by Joss Whedon. An episode that will turn out to be about a vengeful, invisible, unpopular girl begins with Buffy horrified at the sight of an inside joke shared by Xander and Willow. We see the whole thing from Buffy’s point of view: like two people quoting Holy Grail, they say half a sentence and immediately start laughing obnoxiously, and then another half-sentence and another fit of giggles. When Buffy reveals that she used to be May Queen, just like Cordelia wants to be, Xander tells her, “you don’t need that anymore, you’ve got us.” This statement is so painfully wrong that even Xander looks sheepish afterwards. Whedon uses the episode to build sympathy for Cordelia; meanwhile, Buffy tells the invisible girl, “I used to feel sorry for you, but I forgot that you were a loony.”

The same pattern recurs at the beginning of Season 2, where Willow and Xander almost kiss out of extremely palpable boredom (the “ice cream on the nose” scene). What was possibly the better romance plan — for Xander to choose Willow over Buffy — turns out to be dull, dull, dull. They almost hate each other when Willow starts quoting Star Wars.

Remember, Xander can’t choose Willow. That’s not the fantasy. The fantasy is for him to get Buffy, or at least Cordelia, just as the proper way for Willow to come out of her shell is for her to wear a sexy Halloween costume. It’s certainly not for Willow to spend more time on the Internet, even if the Net is her specialty. That way leads to Internet demons resurrected in metal bodies. Xander is good for a little bit of mouth-to-mouth CPR, but the only time Buffy actually “thanks” him is by dancing manically around him at the Bronze, during an episode when she’s basically out of her mind.

There is a lot more to say about the show, particularly about its version of sexuality, the engine of almost every single scene. For now, I’ll end by saying I identify with the show. I don’t mind its cool indifference to the plight of the Willows and Xanders who don’t have a Buffy. That said, the show’s just not Little Miss Sunshine. In that movie, the adult versions of nerds get together for a bus ride. You see, this stuff doesn’t end with high school — those outcasts turn into failed self-help gurus, suicidal Proust scholars, drug-addled elderly hedonists, and so on. They don’t “win” the beauty pageant — they take it over during a brief and unsuccessful revolution. They believe so fervently in the idiocies of American life (e.g. the faux sexuality of the pageant, self-help), and even in the idiocies of Nietzsche and Proust, that they triumph within the confines of their world. But it is still a world of exile. At the end, they are told never to re-enter a California pageant.

We can already imagine Buffy’s entry in the pageant. She would win. That wouldn’t overtake the other complexities of her personality — winning a beauty pageant could be reconciled with continuing to eat lunch with the wrong kids.

It also wouldn’t be a revolution. When fans of show snub Buffy in favor of the other characters, conveniently overlooking the deathly boredom of that claustrophobic margin without Buffy, they are demanding something of Whedon. He names that demand in the title of the episode that features the basement. Lie to me.