Blissful Nightmare Suburbia
Joss Whedon’s series carried a huge following, which still seems to be growing in number. It was the show I grew up with. As I went through high school I watched Buffy, Willow and Xander, along with Giles and others who came and left (and usually returned), struggle through common, and not-so-common, day-to-day life “issues.”
By the time I’d finished my English undergrad degree I was already determined to do English honours and write my thesis on Buffy. Honestly I didn’t think the academic staff would allow it. After all there is that wanky level of highbrow expectation that often comes with one’s entry into the academic world. And despite its arbitrariness there is some legitimacy to the expectation that you write something for a reason.
Unfortunately because I was such a committed fan I was too ambivalent about what to write on, specifically. Also my co-ordinator and I seemed to come from completely different directions. The end result was a confusing mishmash of identity, morality and the bonds of kinship.
Only now do I see stronger ideas which would have provided a more comprehensive and comprehendible argument. Apart from ideas like the use of the English language or inconsistencies between athiesm and altruism, one patrticular point which sticks out for me is the way Joss Whedon (like many others) set the evils of of hell in the middle of a predominantly white middle-class suburban town.
In itself this isn’t the most unique setting for a horror film or series. American Gothic and Sopranos are just two other examples of series which have observed the hidden darkness of suburbia.
So then, what might’ve also drawn me to Buffy was my gradation from naive white middle-class surburban boy to… well, white middle-class suburban man, hopefully now a little less naive about the world and its atrocities. Over time I’ve grappled with images of war and trying to understand why I was born into a first-world country, while others suffer in third-world countries.
Perhaps the most shocking thing of all is that some of those who live in fortunate suburbs turn their backs on those that aren’t like them. I’ll never quite be sure if it’s because of our fear of others or if it’s some deranged way of showing gratitude.
I’m not talking here about our neglect towards third-world countries. Any sort of levelling between all nations is likely impossible though all help you can give is personally worth it.
What I have in mind here, however, is derogatory attitudes towards minorities. Of particular interest is the (still fairly recent) 2004 Cronulla riots.
For those who are unfamiliar with the events, the long and short of it is that some lifeguards were elegedly beaten up by a supposed gang of men of middle-eastern or lebanese appearance. Within a week the media’s beatup of the attack and some irresponsible aggressors led to what was tagged as a “leb and wog bashing day.” Of course that meant that those of middle-eastern or lebanese appearance keeping to themselves and trying to enjoy a Sunday in Cronulla were attacked by drunken flag-toting wankers. I’ve added some links at the bottom of this post if you’d like to read more about these events.
Clearly it is worth addressing what it is that motivates this mentality and what it might mean if we change it.
The problem is that it seems like any change or modification to places like the Sutherland Shire (which Cronulla is a part of) might, presumably, mean the very breakdown of such places. The question then is whether or not this would be a good thing. Obviously nothing is black and white and nothing comes without a cost but surely there is a happy medium wherein people of different colours, shapes, ethnicites and religions can coexist. It’s not unreasonable to think we’d be better off knowing one another than keeping from one another. If anything we’d be smarter.
What I liked about Buffy was that though it explored this it didn’t take a hard line or come up with a simplistic answer. Even as I read my own words about coexisting I’m rolling my eyes. The beauty of Buffy was that it was just proposing the reality of Suburbia and why many who live in these areas might feel dissatisfied with all they have (which often seems to be the case as we consume and scratch our heads over riots).
I was watching a visual arts documentary series episode on ABC the other week (which unfortunately I can’t find any information about at the moment) and it was about artists from the suburbs and the many ways in which their artworks explored their homelife. There were those who were positive and neutral about suburban life. But one artist who made darker observations of suburban life posited that the eerieness of suburbs, the reason why we might see lush homes with people simply going about their daily life under a negative moral banner is because, as he put it, the suburbs are the profits of war.
So how does all this fit in with Buffy? Well, given the sophistication of the series it never directly touches on the specific example of discrimination towards minorities. However it is all suggested in the kinds of characters presented throughout the show. For example one character, Anya, grasps with her identity as an ex-demon and is used to highlight the fragility of humanity and our ineptitude when it comes to showing diplomacy towards others. Because of this she is only really ever loved by Xander. Buffy, Willow and Giles never really accept her as one of the group, even after her few attempts to gain their friendship.
And time and time again throughout each season of Buffy, our hero protects Sunnydale from vampires, demons, hybrids and gods (to name a few); going to war each time to maintain order in the world, but more specifically, maintain order in Sunnydale (which rapidly seems to deteriote from season to season).
By the end of the series Buffy and the surviving characters of the show stand looking at a demolished Sunnydale. Something accomplished by them, not the enemy, in order to destroy the hellmouth (on which Sunnydale stood). This has enormous symbolic contribution towards the suburban lifestyle.
Of course, Whedon is not suggesting we blow up all these suburbs in order to free ourselves from it. I see it more as a deconstruction. It’s a challenge to our perceptions of suburban life. Is this really something we need or is it keeping us from something more meaningful?
But it doesn’t stop there. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a franchise. You can still buy figurines, novels, comics, read/write fanfic on it. And I’m partial to the occassional Slayerfest dvd viewing when I have the time.
Even Whedon hasn’t left it, as he goes on to write and direct upcoming features like Goners or contribute towards comic series Xmen. Despite the cancellation of Buffy and seeing the actors part ways and sadly go on to some abysmal roles (like Sarah Michelle Gellar’s washed-out character in The Grudge or Alyson Hannigan’s sickly sitcom-laced character in How I Met Your Mother) Joss has been writing an Eighth season via comic.
So far I’ve only read the first comic (out of what I believe will end up being 22+ comic “episodes” long). Thankfully because it is Whedon’s vision continuing on (and not a novelist) I still find myself drawn to it and excited by the script and even the images as events unfold.
But one moment from the first comic I particularly loved was Buffy’s yearning for home. After she destroyed Sunnydale I wasn’t sure I accepted the half smile on her face as she considered the prospect of a “free” (baked cookies) life.
Despite Whedon’s criticism of suburban life he also seems to appreciate the desire for its warmth and comfort. And who can resist that?
Links on Cronulla Riots: http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/the-mob-sang-waltzing-matilda/2005/12/11/1134235951620.html
Link for accessible Buffy academic content: http://slayageonline.com/
If you’d like to Buy Buffy on dvd and you are American or have a multiregion dvd player I recommend the Chosen collection. Unlike other “complete collection” editions the Chosen collection comes with an extra disc of bonus features and a letter from Joss Whedon.