Thursday, May 30, 2013

Buffy, Role Theory, and the Horrors of Growing Up

May 20, 2013 marked the 10-year anniversary of the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer - aka: my favorite show. Though the concepts explored in Buffy are always on my mind - it is my favorite show, after all - this milestone has got me thinking about what I love about the show.

I love pretty much anything Joss Whedon does, but this show is what first pulled me in to the so-called "Whedon-verse". Though it is easy to cast this show off as fantasy, horror, Vampire-love teen drama, the show is really a metaphor for the horrors of growing up.

Early in the series (Seasons 1 through 3), much of the show focused on the metaphor of "high school is hell". Though the forces of evil that Buffy and her friends fought during this time are stand-ins for the true conflicts one experiences during this age (relationships, betrayals, popularity), the show was also quite literal in its attention to some of the relevant topics.

In one of my favorite episodes, Earshot (Season 3, episode 18), the set-up begins as supernatural: Buffy, during a fight with a demon, obtains one of the demon's powers of telepathy. At first, being able to hear other people's thoughts is exciting for her. She uses it to impress her English teacher with her knowledge and interpretation of Shakespeare's Othello.

One of the deeper thoughts Buffy hears.
The High School principal, on the other hand, has "Walk Like an Egyptian" stuck in his head.

As the gift become stronger, Buffy is overwhelmed, but she is able to pick out one evil rasp in the high school din: "This time tomorrow, I'll kill you all."

Though her gift begins to weigh her down and leads her to cut herself off from others, she is able to communicate this message to her friends who seek out the killer in their midst. They think they have identified the potential killer around the same time that Buffy is cured of her telepathic abilities, and Buffy seeks out Jonathan, who has climbed into one of the school's towers and begun assembling a weapon, presumably to shoot his classmates. Buffy bursts in and talks Jonathan down, discussing the feelings of alienation head-on: "I don't think about you much at all. Nobody here really does. Bugs you, doesn't it? You have all this pain and all these feelings, and nobody's really paying attention… Believe it or not Jonathan, I understand about the pain… My life happens to, on occasion, suck beyond the telling of it. Sometimes more than I can handle. And it's not just mine. Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they're too busy with their own. Beautiful ones, popular ones, the guys who pick on you, everyone. If you could hear what they were feeling, the loneliness, the confusion. It looks quiet down there. It's not. It's deafening."

As Buffy and her friends move on to college in Season 4, the themes become more adult, but still deal with notions of growing up. The thing I (as a psychologist) find most fascinating about Buffy is the notion of roles. Thoughout the series, Buffy struggles with the different roles she is expected to adopt, roles that are sometimes complimentary and sometimes in conflict with each other: her role as the Slayer (in which she must be a leader, depended upon by others; a hero where her focus is expected to be on others, but one in which she must fight alone); her role as a young woman, and all the thing she desires to come along with that (finding love, developing relationships and friendships with others, being able to depend on others and being able to focus at times on her own fulfillment and her own life); her role as a daughter (in which she is often expected to be a follower, to be the listener rather than the speaker); and later in the series, her role as a caregiver and mother-figure to her sister Dawn (where she has now taken on the role once occupied by her mother and Dawn stands-in for a teenage, sometimes rebellious, Buffy).

The way that Buffy moves through these different roles, trying them on and occasionally trying on different personas as well (e.g., her brief stint as a "bad girl, rule breaker" in season 3), is very much a metaphor for growing up and figuring out one's place in the world. I think this is why the show resonated with me so much when I first started watching it in college and graduate school. Though the show ends with a shift in one of Buffy's roles (and as a result, a shift in others - don't worry, no major spoilers here), she still recognizes that she has not finished developing into the person she is going to be. Even in the very last episode of the series, Buffy says: "I'm cookie dough... I haven't finished baking."

I had so much fun writing this blog post, that I hope to write another one, in which I tackle the impossible (for me): picking my favorite all-time episodes and explaining why they are my favorites. This task is not necessarily impossible, but ruling down to a manageable number will be. I don't want to commit myself to a number, like 10, because I'm sure I won't be able to meet that goal if I do. But suffice it to say, it will not include entire seasons and should be a reasonable number. (Stay tuned!)

Thoughtfully yours,

1 comment:

  1. There are college courses in Harry Potter, and I'm sure there are college courses in Star Trek and Dr. Who. Perhaps a University level course on Buffy?