Buffy, The Vampire Slapper

July 6, 2006

If someone told you that they don’t like the main character of their bestest TV show, you’d probably laugh, and tell them to individually remove and carefully wipe each of their brain cells with a dry, static-free cloth to remove any dust or fluff that may be inhibiting hi-fidelity thought reproduction. How can it make sense for someone to enjoy television based around a central character they don’t like?

Well, there is a problem with Buffy The Vampire Slayer, one that presents a barrier to many would-be (or rather, wouldn’t be) fans of the show. That problem is Buffy herself. To grossly oversimplify the problem: she’s not a nerd.

It should of course be understood that “nerd” is not an insult; the nerds long ago inherited the Internet and are well on their way to inheriting the entire earth, and this is a good thing. Go nerds. But in the strange dimension that is the American High School, not so far removed from the wild plains of the Serengeti where upright humanity evolved, this truth is concealed by the existence of “popular” people: popular males are good at sport and humiliating people, and popular females are good at shopping for clothes and humiliating people.

They are not quite like human beings, these popular people. They are not subject to the stress of potential failure that real human beings have to face. Everything comes easy to them. They have superpowers.

Buffy’s core sidekicks are certainly not popular. When we first encounter Willow, she is undoubtedly wearing clothes bought for her by her mother, and Xander has never successfully humiliated anyone.

The true measure of popularity in the early days of the show is a character’s relationship with Cordelia, who is undoubtedly as popular as it gets. It emerges in Season 2 that Willow founded the “We Hate Cordelia” club, appointing Xander as treasurer. Cordelia lives to pour humiliation on the heads of nerds like Willow and Xander.

So how does Buffy fare in her first encounter with Cordelia? Very well. Buffy has many superpowers, and this is one of them. She passes every test Cordelia throws at her, and is instantly admitted to the popular club. This is enough to make any normal human being suspicious of her. And then, get this… she snubs Cordelia!

She was once, like Cordelia, obsessed with shoes. Only on finding herself thrust into a supernatural occupation she didn’t ask for does she develop any depth. The earliest depiction of her in the series is a flashback of her sitting on the steps of her original high school, licking a lollypop seductively and quite obviously thinking about shoes. In Season 3’s ‘Homecoming’ she spends an episode trying to revert to type, to out-Cordelia the competition.

It’s not clear whether she had any moral compass before her first encounter with vampires; there were no good or bad people, only good or bad handbags. No serious problems existed in her life. She effortlessly attracted a circle of “friends” and passed all her tests – all the important ones, anyway.

For a TV show created by a male nerd, and written by nerds both male and female, it is a bit strange that the central figure is such a bottomless howling void of shallowness. She is partly a fantasy figure, the carefree, popular girl who, in the nerd fantasy, takes pity on the nerd and lowers herself to spending time with them. The writers and the audience (all of them complete nerds) secretly love this idea, while ultimately finding it as unbelievable as Willow does when Buffy first says “Hi!” to her. The biggest nerd in the history of the show (and thus its true hero), Andrew, appeared in Season 6, but he was initially an unattractive personality and morally vacuous. The writers of the show are nerds, but they found it easiest to create a nerd by placing him with the pathetic bad guys. The truth is, even nerds hate nerds until they get to know them.

She may also be a half-arsed attempt to appeal to exactly the type of person she typifies, drawing in a wider viewing audience. But this probably never worked. The writers were always more comfortable spoofing her trivial fashion-related tendencies rather than attempting to take them seriously, and even the female writers would have to go to Joss for assistance in producing convincing dialogue about designer clothing labels.

But leaving aside these external forces, the effect of all this is that, throughout the series, a huge gulf separates Buffy from the other main characters. They are more like lowly work colleagues than friends. They regularly refer to each other as “best friends”, but this is never anything other than mystifying, even jarring. “In what parallel universe,” the enthusiastic viewer ought to shout back at the screen, “are you even remotely best friends?”

Buffy is the alpha female, the queen bee, and her sidekicks are the satellite clique that she dominates. Xander and Willow both idolize her, and though they don’t talk about it much, they also deeply resent her (Xander because Buffy never takes him seriously, and Willow because Buffy lures Xander away only to reject him). Even leaving aside her Slayer abilities, Buffy is already socially superhuman compared to her sidekicks, and this drives a permanent, mostly unspoken, wedge between them. Check out the scene in Season 3’s ‘Bad Girls’ where Willow offers Buffy a slightly pathetic spell, and is hit by the sudden realization that Faith and Buffy are the in-crowd, whereas she is not, and has never been, “in” anything at all, not even the communist party. Willow’s journey to the dark side starts in the very first episode, the moment she meets Buffy.

And we are left in little doubt as to what Buffy has graciously given up so that she can save lives. In Season 3’s ‘The Prom’, we get the first inklings of her martyr complex, where she makes a really big deal out of the fact that her own life – the one she rightfully deserves for being the popular type – is denied her due to her calling, that she lays down her having-a-life for her friends, and she gets a tiny gay umbrella as a symbol of all this.

Buffy is not like Spider-Man, the ordinary nerd whose superpowers grant him the ability to achieve great things in a social world he could not otherwise navigate with any confidence, and she is not like Superman, the alien being who has to learn to disguise himself as a human. In High School terms, she is a socially successful human being who, on being granted superpowers, loses nothing except some of her need to be socially successful, and so uses a group of nerds to provide herself with a connection to pure humanity.
She needs to put her roots somewhere. She chooses raw, unprocessed and unthreatening humanity-mud.

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4 Responses to “Buffy, The Vampire Slapper”

  1. Ed Says:

    I was thinking after reading this whether or not there was some kind of “Angel as geek” corollary; embarrassed in social situations where he can’t rely on superpowers (karaoke, that bit at Cordy’s party in late Angel Series 1), can’t get laid, spends lots of time on his own in his room. I’m not sure there’s much to this other than it being a switch back to a more “traditional” kind of superhero, though.

  2. peterobject Says:

    Yes, he is a nerd with insecurity about gurls, I think, not just a typical aloof superhero. The bit where he imagines suddenly dancing ridiculously like Wesley, and then dismisses the idea rapidly, is a big clue to that. They added this to his character in the spin-off, didn’t they? He was more trad super-hero when he was in Buffy (oo-er).

  3. Kate Says:

    This is a somewhat angry and stereotyped analysis. I disagree. Speaking as a nerd AND as a popular, “carefree” person at the same time, I think Buffy rather typifies the social expectation of young women to deliberately be carefree, extroverted, and superficial. At least, she was until forced to undertake a spectacular melange of adult burdens in early adolescence. If an ordinary cheerleader obsessed with Prada was told she had to kill, save others from murder, and do it all in secret all the time for the rest of her natural life . . . and she didn’t have an iota of intelligent, introspective, “nerdy” sense of humor and analytic capability–she’d be dead. Willow and Xander, by contrast, appear second-string to Buffy not because they really are, but because their adult evolution progresses in normal time. They behave as young people do–rash, disbelieving, resentful, aggressive, jealous–loving Buffy because she loves them, and hating her NOT because they want to be her but because she cannot be with them. Remember Willow’s reaction in early Season 4 when Oz leaves and Buffy repeatedly is called away to do battle? Willow says she’s upset because Buffy is choosing another over her, but as a woman with friends and lovers who’ve left–she’s unhappy her friend cannot literally be with her. Period.
    It’s facile to claim a nerd-vs-popular dynamic as the persistent theme of this show, or even a dominant theme. Maybe for ten minutes here and there in Season’s 1 and 2, but there’s no lasting conversation about what nerdiness or social dominance means for these characters. Rather, Joss Whedon is showing us a portrait of the world outside simple human society and convention. The easiest way to do that is break the rules of reality.


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