O Buffy, Where Art Thou?
The world needs a new kind of hero right now. We need someone who has flaws, understands trauma, realizes that no matter how bad things might be, they can always get a little worse, or even a lot worse. We need someone who is comfortable with death; someone who doesn’t deny death or glorify it, but who also won’t turn away when faced with its likely prospect. We need a pessimist who is not defeated, someone who has given up on hope but still brushes her teeth in the morning. Someone diminutive, even fragile, but who can also kick some ass. The world needs Buffy.
I was squarely in the middle of the Buffy demographic when the show first came out but didn’t discover her till year years later. During the early run of the show, I had read somewhere that part of the “fun” of the show was that you had this California girl named Buffy who was perky and into cheerleading, but who just happened to go vampire hunting at night. That did not sound “fun” to me, that sounded awful and gimmicky, and like something I was glad to miss out on. I didn’t trust the “Buffy as feminist” narrative, because I already had definite opinions about white men creating feminist heroes and then seeing how short her mini-skirt could be while still allowing her to administer a judo kick. The answer in Season One is “very.” I was skeptical. I was surprised when I eventually watched a couple of episodes of the show and found that Buffy is a Buffy in name only. She has none of the other Buffy characteristics that I was expecting. She rarely smiles and, as portrayed by Sarah Michelle Geller, is way more New York neurotic than California beach bunny. She is not at all what I would describe as “perky.” Geller’s performance is streaked with darkness from the beginning. Buffy is the kind of girl who likely heard, “Smile, sweetheart. Why so serious?” every single day of her life and wouldn’t even bother to give it a response beyond an occasional icy glare. That was my kind of girl. New York, I can handle, California, not so much, and perky, never. Yes, the little secret of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is that you expect a blond-high school student named Buffy to either be a cheerleader or be really pissed that she isn’t one. What you get is a character who rarely bothers to crack a smile and is more likely to put a stake through a demon cheerleader’s heart than covet the position.
The feminist bent of the show is largely conveyed by Geller’s badassery and, despite consistent glimmers of male gaziness in the script, the ensemble acting work is strong. Still, the impact of the show begins and ends with SMG’s moody, precariously neurotic, performance. Buffy birthed the lineage of dark female heroes, of which Jessica Jones is our most recent example. However, she lacks the self-obsession of J.J., a self-obsession that doesn’t play nearly so well in an era in which we’re all screwed. (No shade, J.J. I see you and am an unabashed fan.) Buffy is one of us, she is not our martyr. (It is worth noting that some of the later episodes in which the writers occasionally veer into traditional “good vs. evil” speeches and “Buffy as martyr” narratives are among the weakest by far).
Buffy is an unwilling hero right from the beginning. By now we are old enough to know that anyone who actually fancies themselves a hero either lives in a fantasy world, or is too self-involved to actually be one. What kind of idiot would willingly court death in order to save human beings? Look around you. See all the ugliness? Humans made that. See all the suffering that could easily be averted if there were any modicum of will to do so? Humans made that, too. Remember how awful high school was? Well, humans being all-too-human, I trust it still is. In the world of Buffy, none of that is a deal-breaker. She doesn’t have to like you to save you (though she does seem to heavily favor those in her inner circle, and while this might be morally questionable, the trolley problem indicates you would probably do the same).
Buffy is more than an unwilling hero, however. It’s not entirely clear she’s a hero at all. Buffy, you see, is fulfilling her destiny. All vampire slayers have been pre-ordained to complete a certain task and to do so at a certain time and in a certain place. Their life comes to them, not the other way around. In this sense Buffy is more like a tragic hero, the kind we first encounter in ancient Greek drama. The reason those tragic heroes are “tragic” is because terrible things happen to them, they know those things are going to happen to them, and they cannot escape. They do not go seeking their destiny, rather, their destiny finds and makes, or rather unmakes, them. Greek heroes of the tragic variety go to great lengths to renounce what is to come. They shun the life that they know is theirs. It is typically the very actions taken in order to escape their heroic fate that ushers in the fate they are trying to avoid.
This brings us to the crux of the matter: these figures of Greek drama have no free will, so it is unclear to what extent we wish to deem them responsible for the events that unfold around them. Can a hero be considered heroic if she hasn’t exerted her own personal agency? The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus tells us that “character is destiny.” But do we shape our own character, or is it shaped regardless of our will? A turning point in Buffy’s overall story arc occurs at the very end of Season One. When faced with what she knows will be her certain death, Buffy rejects her fate; she tries to wash her hands and simply walk away. She fires herself from her own life. She utters the line that appears in most highlight reels of the Buffy show, “I’m only 16 years old. I don’t want to die” (this also happens to be the scene where SMG convinced her remaining sceptics that she had some real acting chops, and that this was going to be a fun ride). To be a hero in Buffy’s world is to sign your own death warrant. It’s not a matter of if, just when. Death is woven into the fabric of this show, and not the kind of death that is redeeming and elevating, but the kind of death that is terrifying, permanent, and awful. This is a dark show from the get-go, and it becomes even more so as the seasons progress. In the first few seasons, the high school years, the darkness is often covered over by witty and near constant wordsmithing, but the darkness is always there lurking, seeping out in nearly every episode. It’s no accident that in the seven-season run of the show, all the most iconic episodes are the ones in which the script is stark, words are stripped away, and the characters are left literally speechless and baffled in a world that is frightening and utterly indifferent to their fear. This is the world of Greek tragedy. It’s the world that Aristotle tells us is created to arouse pity and fear in the audience as they view the unravelling of the hero who is being buried alive by her own fate.
Because Buffy is the hero of this particular Greek tragedy, she finds it impossible to escape from her fate, which is to say, she can’t escape herself. Buffy realizes that, willingly or no, to live is to live her life, the one she doesn’t want, in this town, at this historical moment, among these people. So, she chooses to return. Or does she? When you have no choice in the matter, how can you possibly choose? We are now squarely in the world of philosophy, examining the question of free-will. In philosophy there are two broad camps, those who believe humans have free-will and those who don’t. Belief in free-will is called libertarianism (and has nothing to do with the political party) and belief that there is no free-will is called determinism. If you are involved with philosophy you have undoubtedly noticed a curious thing, which is that hardly anyone who is not a philosopher thinks determinism is true and that many of those who are involved in philosophy, think it is. Which is to say, a high percentage of philosophers do not think human beings have free-will (there is a third option known as compatibilism, which I shall set aside for right now). The Greek heroes live in the world of determinism, and it is a rock-hard determinism. They do not possess free-will and they do not “choose” their own path; they are placed there by the gods, or by circumstance, or by fate, or whatever else does the placing. You, and they, and everyone else, knows exactly what’s about to happen, all there is to do is watch it unfold.
Even if determinism is 100% true, no determinist will deny that it certainly feels as if we are choosing. This subjective feeling is intoxicating and impossible to deny. But philosophers also know that many subjective perceptions and feelings are often wrong. So, the clear “feeling like” I’m choosing is not really evidence one way or another. However, this sensation of choosing is quite useful on a pragmatic level. Even if we are all billiard balls on a table, bouncing around, it is pragmatically useful to say to yourself, “By golly, I think I’ll bounce into that left corner pocket for a bit and grab a bite to eat.” It is in this billiard ball sense that Buffy “chooses” to return to her life. This psychological pragmatism is important, to Buffy, to philosophical determinists, and to everyone. She is going to die, no matter what, but it feels better to have the sensation of walking up to the edge of the cliff as opposed to being dragged there.
We are all standing on this cliff edge overlooking the valley of death right now. We didn’t ask to be here, yet here we are. Some of us walked, some of us were dragged, some of us won’t even admit we are here, and yet here we stand. We would be insane to desire such a view, and Buffy’s initial reaction of fear, anger, and desire to run is the only reasonable one. It would be hard to trust anyone who simply embraced this moment without any kind of struggle. Buffy is a hero who knows that her own undoing has already been scripted. She knows that this is a world in which mothers die, friends betray, and those you trust terrorize you. But even though our free choices did not bring us here, it doesn’t mean we are victims, either. The world is also a place where friends will put their lives on the line for you and people you barely know will risk themselves, thus reminding you that the delicacy and transiency of our lives also creates a certain kind of deep beauty and kinship. For humans, living amidst death is the norm, not the exception, and it’s odd we keep forgetting that. But still, your bed must be made in the morning, even if you won’t be back to sleep in it that night, or ever.
Which brings us back to where we started: Buffy is the hero we need right now. She’s no anti-hero, either, thank god. We don’t need another one of those, and besides it’s not her way to sulk or brood, but don’t expect her to smile back, either. Why should she? What is there to smile about? Death is final and terrifying, and the apocalypse is nigh, because it always is, even if most of us want to look away. Our hero will be our eyes. She won’t look away. Our hero knows that sometimes you must look, and look without blinking, just because it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes you must choose to bear witness, even if you have no choice in the matter. Hurry back, Buffy. We need you.