Sexuality, Pop Culture, and Magic: The Prelude Starring Buffy

You are my sweetest downfall
I loved you first , I loved you first
Beneath the stars came falling on our heads
But there just soft light, there just soft light
Your hair was long when we first met

Samson came to my bed
Told me that my hair was red
He told me i was beautiful and came into my bed
Oh I cut his hair myself one night
A pair of dull scissors and the yellow light
And he told me that I’d done alright
and kissed me till the morning light

–Regina Spektor


Now that I’ve watched my way almost to the end of Buffy’s third season, I’m ready to write the sequel to my first post, which was Buffy The Social Anxiety Slayer. (Note: if you don’t want the larger context, just skip to after the break. But you probably do.) (Update: link fixed.)

This is a post about what the show does with sex. It is not about how the show caves in to goth-lite alternative rock at every opportunity, culminating in a prom scene where the cover of “Wild Horses” by the Rolling Stones made me so angry that I had to set one of my Mazzy Star records on fire. More generally, it isn’t really about the show’s alleged insight into the high school experience. Buffy is comfortably devoid of any such insight. Particularly annoying is the show’s equation of talking about studying with actual studying, and its helpful decision to reinforce the popular idea that SAT scores + money determine college admissions.

This isn’t insider criticism for fans of the show. It would be a huge mistake to think of Buffy as a cult phenomenon. It is the prelude to a larger blog project on sexuality and popular culture, tentatively scheduled to post this August. There I will take a look at the trickle that’s become a torrent: Swingers, Sex and the City (again), The Tao of Steve, Rodger Dodger, The Rules, The Game, Wedding Crashers, and so on. (It will come to light in a few years that Zizek was the only theorist ahead of the curve, since he actually does write about The Rules and seduction in his newer books.)

These works, which are collectively raising the bar for alienation, emotionlessness, and insincerity, are what is happening right now in sexuality. They totally subsume the “metrosexual.” The only significant sexual events they don’t enfold are at the frontiers of gender: transsexuality, transgendered individuals, and related phenomena. It’s really no surprise that the most controversial and, often, the most exciting things being written in the feminist blogosphere right now are by, for, or about “trans” persons.

So this post really continues the work I began in my TWFB posts on cowboys, strippers, and astrology. Ultimately, I’ll be putting together a whole book on magic and popular culture, tentatively titled Willing Fictions, which I see partly as an update of Weber.

One final note, before we get down to brass tacks: you can’t go home again. It’s a huge relief to be writing about Buffy, since last week I also watched Notting Hill and tried to watch The Notebook. No, I don’t know why I’m that dumb either. I insist that nobody told me that Notting Hill was going to be about a pitiable little whiner, played gamely by Hugh Grant, following around Julia Roberts despite her astounding self-absorption until she finally gives him a painting. In essence, it was the story of a guy trying to act out the ridiculous expectations of subservience and continual forgiveness that are usually imposed on women.

The Notebook was even more unfair, because it’s one of those films that tries to whisk us away to a more innocent time. The problem with films like that is that they always fall back on anachronistic tricks from the corrupt old present: the Ryan Gosling character is essentially a modern scammer, except that he really means it because, after all, this was a different America where you could say “aw, shucks” and mean it.

Enough with the classic-style romances. Let’s get to the vampires. Apologies in advance: somebody recalled my Zizek, so I’m gonna have to paraphrase instead of quoting.

1. The Red Herring

The word on the street about Buffy is that the show broke ground for alternative sexualities. As Brandon wrote in a comment to my first post, “The show may do more to ‘bring to light’ marginalized sexual predilections than it does marginalized members of the D&D club.”

I see this issue differently. While the show’s references to “safety words” and so on may be confusing or shocking to somebody who has been living under a rock for ten years, these references never go beyond the status of jokes for 98% of the characters, with the exception of the vampires Spike and Drusilla. Sado-masochism comes up as repartee when characters are being actually tortured or imprisoned. That is just pure sadism. It’s not the contractual relationships that have enabled these kinds of desires to become semi-mainstream. Likewise, erotic asphyxiation is just a goofy way for the show to joke about nerdy sidekick Xander almost getting strangled.

I am, however, interested in the fact that these perversions function as a kind of red herring, in part because that is the larger social function of perversion, outlined persuasively by Zizek in The Ticklish Subject. For Zizek, sado-masochism and other such complexes serve their function by making the requirements of sexuality so concrete and complicated that they provide the illusion of solid ground: the problem becomes the immediate practical problem of tying up one’s lover properly, rather than the anxiety-producing question of what one actually desires. The specificity of fetish simultaneously obscures the relationship between the fetish and the rest of life, and provides an illusory sanctuary from those other fourteen waking hours in the day.

On the show, the references to perverse or fetishistic behavior, which are always made as jokes and thus always refer to somebody else besides the principals, draws our attention away from the fact that the relationships of the principals are not what they seem, and aren’t reducible to “real” perversions like sado-masochism either. For example, the Television Without Pity recap of one show goes like this: “Does it mean anything that Angel shows the most personality we’ve seen from him after torture and bondage? Best not to read too much into that.” This skips over the fact that the Angel/Buffy relationship, which has no medieval props, isn’t ice creams and lockets, and isn’t just a case of the badass older guy either.

2. The Spell: Seduction and the Death Drive

In the very Freudian world of the show, desire is produced by the id. The vampires are id-mirrors of the human beings, and even the vampires have id-eclipses where they turn into ravenous Klingons (if you haven’t seen the show, I can summarize by saying this is when they turn from evil Jekyll into evil Hyde). The really bad vampires (usually henchmen), who don’t repress at all, always look like Klingons.

The id is the repressed truth of the person. The vampire form of Willow gives us the first clue that Willow is gay. When Buffy gets infected by demon blood, she acquires the ability to hear what everybody’s “really” thinking, except for Angel, who she can’t hear because he’s already id (being a vampire and all).

Desire is not a two-way street in Buffy. It is either active desire, which is the desire to kill, or passive desire, which is the desire to die. (Jean Baudrillard was the first to identify seduction with the desire for death, I believe, in his book on the subject.) The id aligns itself with the death drive. As the vampire Spike puts it, in amusing allegorical fashion, “I found her on a bench, making out with a chaos demon.” This is actually what is happening every time anybody in the show makes out with anybody else. Thus a vampire always interrupts trysts in Sunnydale, and rock shows at “the Bronze” are always under threat of vampires.

The active half of this equation should be pretty familiar: the satisfaction of desire equals the erasure of the other person, who is merely a means, and who is “sacrificed” on the altar of that instrumentality. (That’s why it’s so dangerous to be desired. When every woman in town is bewitched by Xander, they nearly kill him.) The greater the agency of the other, the greater the victory, and that makes Buffy the Slayer the object of disproportionate lust. This is an utterly masculine dynamic. Both men and women on the show are concerned about threats to their masculinity, a topic I’ll cover in more detail under the heading of castration.

Meanwhile, what about the desire to die? Why such a profusion of spells, hypnotic trances, and possessions? As Kenneth Burke argues in The Rhetoric of Motive, the “desire to die” appears frequently in artworks, and is very rarely literal, even if it sometimes expresses itself as literal (i.e. suicidal) intentions. In Buffy, the desire to die is the unconscious articulation of a desire for the interruption of normalcy.

Sometimes this takes the form of adultery, like the adulterous relationship between Xander and Willow that Willow tries to ward off with a Pez dispenser her boyfriend gave her (standing in for a cross). Here the normal romantic relationship is invaded by chaos.

In general, the desire for interruption is the desire to enter a world of different and greater bliss. Xander, the unpopular kid, wants the popular girl Cordelia. Willow, the studious nerd, wants Oz the rocker. Potential love interests for Buffy are criticized for being thrillseekers, but their real problem is that what is excitingly different for them is more of the same for her. Buffy’s dream world is made up of the fables surrounding normal events like the prom.

Buffy’s the most interesting case, because her predicament sheds light on the intersection between desire and duty (the work ethic). She doesn’t want to be a Slayer: she says so at the beginning of the show, and reiterates the point approximately twice per episode for seven seasons, except at the end of certain episodes where she realizes that being a Slayer is her job yadda yadda yadda. I say “yadda yadda yadda” because, after another fifteen minutes of screentime, we’re always back to the Buffy who doesn’t like the color of her parachute.

Her love for Angel suspends her obligation to her Slayer duties: here’s a vampire she doesn’t have to kill. This is the respite she cherishes in his company.

The reason she wants this respite, as she makes clear in the pilot episode, is that her destiny has been imposed on her, just the way studying is imposed on all the high school students, and the way work is imposed on adults. Being a Slayer is a “forced choice,” and the result is that she’s bound to want to express her freedom by subverting that choice. In general, just as the agency of the Slayer is the forced choice of the employee, the freedom offered by the vampire merges with the passive spectacle of entertainment and celebrity. Celebrities are the ones who got away, like Roxy Carmichael did: we assume their lives are more interesting and glamorous than our own, so we ambivalently either want them to return to our level, or we want to be consumed by them. We stalk them innocuously through magazines and celebrity gossip sites, and we are consumed by them in the mediocre mode of distraction.

Even the celebrities themselves don’t know how to escape this dynamic, so they mirror us back to ourselves in works like Eminem’s “Stan” or Sarah McLachlan’s “Possession.” The power of fascination is really a projection born of unhappiness.

The most hypnotically compelling vampire on the show, Dracula himself, is also the most famous, his legend stretching far beyond the limits of the show.

3. Love on Buffy: Don’t Blame Boreanaz

You can’t understand Buffy until you put it in reverse: Buffy loves Angel because he’s a vampire, Willow loves Oz because he’s a werewolf, Giles is a good Watcher because he was once a teddy boy named “The Ripper.”

The key to the love relationship is sublimation: most of the time, Oz’s werewolf nature is sublimated into his rock music. Giles and Angel both revert to their bad old selves on the occasions where they have to fight, at which times Buffy and the viewers alike are delighted by the show of machismo.

In other words, the love relationship is a fiction that keeps a lid on the real source of attraction, the lurking power in the other. When Drusilla hypnotizes Giles into thinking she’s Jenny Calendar, he’s really seeing Jenny as she actually was: he was in love with a computer teacher who was also a “technopagan” and occultist, but the only reason Ms. Calendar was a technopagan was that she was actually a Gypsy (with some other, silly “gypsy” name) sent to make sure Angel continued to suffer. Drusilla is only doing what Ms. Calendar did first. Ms. Calendar was the woman Giles loved because of her secret identity as a Gypsy witch.

If you’re one of those unfortunate types who happens not to have any obvious lurking chaos, you’re basically out of luck until magic comes to your aid. Xander’s two shots at attractiveness come when he’s possessed by demonic hyenas, and later when he is transformed by a magical costume into an actual soldier. He wins the right to Cordelia’s love on that one magical night. Willow is a different story: she’s just very repressed. Her tone of voice, her sense of style, and her luck all change as her desiring id (her Wicca powers and homosexuality) gradually surfaces.

If all this sounds a little less than romantic, well, don’t worry, it gets worse. The show is less sanguine than Freud about the virtues of sublimation, and invariably portrays love as a form of castration that affects men and women alike.

The funniest kinds of castration affect Buffy. Dracula, when he’s seducing her, commands her to put down her stake. In the same episode where Xander turns martial, Buffy dresses in period costume to impress Angel, and ends up transformed into a passive woman incapable of protecting herself. Angel, in a characteristic scene, tells her that he was always bored of helpless women like that. Later, he will tell her that he always gets bored of women who are like the wild child Faith. You can’t go one way or the other in Buffy: you have to be the voluntary Samson whose hair could always grow back.

That’s why David Boreanaz gets an unfair deal when he is criticized for playing Angel with the sensitivity of a cardboard cutout. It’s pretty hard to play a character whose inner conflicts are in a state of perfect equilibrium, and that’s what you get with Angel, since he’s both more powerful and more crippled than any other principal. He’s a vampire, but he has a soul. He’s wracked with guilt, but he has a reason to live because of Buffy. The impulses neutralize one another so perfectly that he’s left with no room for emotion. The slightest actual happiness will turn him evil, since it will break the spell of repression.

4. The Stakes

So what about the stakes? They’re sexual, right? They’re pointy (sometimes Buffy calls her stake “Mr. Pointy”) and both Faith and Giles make terrible jokes comparing killing vampires to having sex.

The moment of the staking is the moment of conquest and disillusion. The vampire is literally “seen through,” in that he or she turns to dust and disappears. When Buffy snaps out of her hypnotic trances (when she’s fighting the Master and later when she’s fighting Dracula), she gets down to the business of staking. Faith’s lust for the act is the mirror and complement of her completely cynical appropriation of her own desires, a la Samantha in Sex and the City. Angel has sex with Buffy, loses his soul, and begins to taunt her by saying the relationship meant nothing. Buffy is never fully disillusioned with Angel, though, so he gets stabbed with a mere sword and returns later, intact.

The vampire at the moment of its death is also the symbol of the betrayed lover, which is why the staking is so frequently dramatized as a surprise. Mr. Trick has the same look when he’s staked as Buffy has when she sees Angel with Faith.

When Cordelia realizes that Xander is cheating on her, she almost immediately falls through a rickety stair onto a metal rod. She sends Xander away as she lies in the hospital, recovering from being staked.

5. The End Scene Where We Look Wistfully Back And Sometimes Do A Voice-Over

This is the properly tragic dimension of the show: without the vampires, there is nothing, because according to the logic of the show, desire is what bodies forth the world. Willow can’t allow her vampire döppelganger to be killed, because that would mean a living death for her.

Duty and reasonableness are a vacuum, empty as the dusty air after a slaying. Desire teems with creation, but its law is kill and be killed, or else wear a false and crippling mask. That is our world through the eyes of this show. That is its spell, and its disenchantment.