let’s grill some stakes: interrogating whedon’s slayers and mayors

If love isn't forever / and it's not the weather

Uncomplicatedly, who you may recognize from such films as Impossible Loves: Essays and What’s Happening With Herzog?, writes in with a great question:

That last line really gets it, and it ALMOST (but not quite) answers my question, so i’ll go ahead and ask it: what about sci-fi camp a la buffy the vampire slayer and dr. who (which i am now minorly ashamed to be watching)? there’s plenty of romance in those shows, but there’s also plenty of non-romance-related camp. is “camp” just not the right word for rubber monsters and (perhaps) deliberately exaggerated acting? is that a different kind of “camp”? or is there something you could say about vacuums and shame (whoa) that could make your definition work for that, too?

Tragically, I can’t speak to the BBC’s revamped Dr. Who, which is turning into the Virginia Woolf of 2012. With apologies to Marx, I won’t join any club that can’t understand, not one bit, why I haven’t joined already.

Building on Dan’s point that camp is a performance, and seems artificial to the spectator, all of the most important constructs in Buffy are potentially sources of camp: adulthood, authority, love and sex, holy combat. The Mayor, for example, is a campy authority figure, with his cleanliness obsession, his evil schemes, and his exaggerated paternal charm. The musical episode takes the love and attraction plotlines to a campy extreme. Buffy’s fighting style is campy (less so, really, once it becomes a running joke within the show). The town in general, and Buffy’s home in particular, are campy versions of adulthood, and the Donna Reed Show atmosphere gets shattered with the “Band Candy” episode (maybe long before then).

Camp is an overcompensation for a threatening lack of substance or stability. For example, Faith’s first night with Buffy and her mother is a parody of “dinner with the impressive, enviable friend.” Faith is overcompensating for her inner demons, and Buffy and her mom are overcompensating for their distance from one another.

As Faith’s story goes on, she becomes a campy version of The Bad Seed. Her evil is camp because the universal need for family trumps any easy division of the world into good and evil. Faith deserves to have a father, and the Mayor assumes precisely that role. Faith anticipates newer evil anti-heroes, including Gru from Despicable Me, Megamind, and Whedon’s own Dr. Horrible, all of whom just want a family. All of this suggests that family, too, is a construct in crisis. As a society, we’re probably using the deconstruction of evil to stave off recognizing the fragmentation of the family. (I mean in any serious way, not via some narrative of “moral decline” or of the tragical “loss of family values.”)

Whedon consistently establishes campy excesses and then deflates them. In fact, as excessive investment, camp is dangerous: if the Scooby Gang doesn’t stop singing, they’ll catch fire and burn up. But there’s a price, too. What survives beyond the episode’s “happy” ending is a cool and paralyzing irony.

Buffy is frequently a little hard to read. We don’t always know where Whedon is being “campy” because of a tiny budget, where he’s being intentionally campy, and where he’s being unintentionally campy in a fit of corny melodrama. This ambiguity leads back to gigantic contemporary questions, completely unresolved, about the nature and uses of what we call “irony.” It’s much easier to track camp in a show like Battlestar Galactica, precisely because the most campy elements, such as Adama’s militarism and bombast, are so appealing that we blush to admit just how campy they are.

I’m much more comfortable holding on to uncertainty here, than I am assuming that goofy makeup is always deliberate camp, which seems to be the working assumption for so many devoted fans and critics of the show. One of the unfortunate truths of irony is that even a little bit of it can create the illusion of a blanketing irony, covering everything and making it all profound. Sometimes the episode is just a standard, sentimental Christmas episode, as opposed to a subtle revelation of Christmas-as-performance.

Maybe say more about the acting? I never experienced any of the acting as campy, other than at moments when the characters were campy. Instead, I experienced it as very Whedon-dependent. When the actors grasped their characters (Willow, Season Four), the acting was sincere and restrained. When the actors didn’t have a clue (Willow, Season Six), the acting was equally uneven. The exception’s probably Angel; now that Bones exists, perhaps we finally have a way of judging how much of Angel’s stiff, waitperson-like manner was intentional. I don’t know, having never watched Bones. I prefer the undead, or “mostly dead,” to the bones of the “all dead.”

Certainly, there’s more work to be done analyzing our increasingly over-the-top obsession with vampires and werewolves, our blatantly sexual monsters. As you know, I’m including myself here, since I’m reading The Wolf Gift, renting Twilight, watching Being Human, and watching the night o’ magic every week on the CW. I know only a small part of what these artworks are trying, in their weird oblique consumerist ways, to articulate about the self.

The endless, kaleidoscopic love triangles — including humans, vampires, werewolves, and other monsters — are “queer” types of love, because they obviously suggest some need to re-shape our notion of identity, in particular sexual identity. Romances between human beings look downright boring when they’re competing with the dance macabre; there’s something old-fashioned and corseted about people in love with mere people. The majority of Xander’s relationships, for example, cast us right back into Wiseau’s world of impossible hetero relations, even though Xander is often frustrated while Wiseau casts himself as a magnificent lover. However, I put “queer” in quotes because I don’t want to conflate all kinds of minor sexual variation (such as the pull that draws a fascinated subject towards the vampire) with the real world of queer desire, in the most normative sense of gay romance and gay rights. A lot of academics have overstated the supposedly “radical” or transgressive elements in Buffy.

In order for vampire luv to be really queer, it has to somehow transcend Freud. This has not happened. Buffy is a big slice of Freud, and so are its descendants, including True Blood and The Secret Circle/The Vampire Diaries. I’m way more sympathetic to Freud than a lot of people, but even I have to admit that his dialectic of permission/liberation vs. morbid excess is very conventional, a “desiring machine” that has been around forever in the Judao-Christian West.

Much more to reflect on here. Can it really be that we’re blogging Buffy again? That can only mean one thing…