“Into each generation, a Slayer is born. One girl, in all the world, a Chosen One. One born with the…”
“…the strength and skill to hunt the vampires, to stop the spread of evil, blah blah. I’ve heard it, okay?”
-Rupert Giles and Buffy Summers,
“Welcome to the Hellmouth”
Myriad critics have recently come around to what legions of fans had been saying for the past four years: that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of the most cleverly written, daring and inventive shows on television. Garnering an Emmy nomination for best script last season for “Hush,” an episode which, ironically, contained nearly half an hour of silence, series creator Joss Whedon has managed to top himself twice this season. The first was with “Fool for Love,” a globe-spanning history of one of the show’s most charismatic antagonists (the punkish vampire Spike, played by James Marsters,), then later with the chillingly realistic, “the Body,” where heroine Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) faces the sudden-and apparently natural-death of her mother (Kristine Sutherland.)
“On another series,” writes Salon TV critic Joyce Millman, “the death of Buffy’s mom might have been an excuse to pull out all the Very Special Episode bells and whistles. But Buffy is the ultimate anti-VSE show. Every episode is special, every episode is momentous, every character matters, every feeling, big or small, is meaningful. On Buffy, stuff happens — things change, people change, people die, and sometimes, arming yourself with a big pointy stake just won’t do you any good.”
Make no mistake: on a very real level, this is simply a very clever and stylish show about an attractive young woman who kicks ass in high heels and stalks creatures of the night in Pashmina scarfs while spouting a never-ending stream of witticisms. That it’s well-acted is certainly a plus. What differentiates it from other shows (including the lovely to look at but agonizing to listen to knock off, Dark Angel) is that Whedon and his writers have an unerring sense of these rapidly changing times, and of the children growing up in them.
“To some generations much is given… and from some generations, much is expected.”
-Franklin D. Roosevelt
Consider for a moment the world of Buffy Summers. Not the world where undead monsters rise from their graves to terrorize innocents and where the bassist of the band your listening to doesn’t book gigs during the full moon because he’s a werewolf, but rather the world she shares with any other twenty year old woman. A few observations: Buffy would have been an infant when the obsequious “Baby on Board” stickers were making their rounds, and attended grade school during the advent of the PMRC’s “Parental Warning” labels. Movies of the 1970s that featured demonically possessed children, such as the Omen, waned in popularity slightly before her birth-giving way to insipidly cheerful movies starring lovable-and capable-tykes living in a world where adults were either hostile or inept. Home Alone, anyone? She has no conscious memory of the excesses of the 1970s.
The trends continued through her high school years. Rates of teenage sex and drug use plummeted with breakneck speed each year she attended high school (1995-99.) Incidences of violence amongst children decline across all racial and economic lines, and even the tragic Columbine shooting fails to raise the number of deaths in US schools to the amount it was at even the previous year. (45 in 1997-98, opposed to 25 in 1998-99, including the Columbine deaths.) Surveys of 7th through 12th graders conducted by authors and historians Neil Howe and William Strauss in 1998 reveal that students believed the major causes of problems in society was “selfishness, not thinking of the rights of others,” along with “people who don’t respect the law and authorities.” Concurrently, President Clinton urged America’s schools to adopt school uniforms. The campaign’s motto? “All kids are created equal.”
Buffy Summers is anything but equal to her peers. She’s superhumanly strong and fast, gifted with the ability to heal wounds at an accelerated rate and has the mystical ability to perceive the future through (often confusing) precognitive dreams. She has a sacred destiny to protect mankind from the forces of evil. But she’s also very much a product of her times. The cynical veneer of the slightly older “Generation X” is there, but the jaded cynicism and self-reliant individualism that denotes that generation is, for the most part, a show…a well-trained reflex. For someone who may well be the most unique person her age in the world, Buffy strives for nothing more than normalcy. “I wish we could be regular kids,” she says of herself and her friends Willow and Xander, who assist her in her battle against evil.
It’s this reliance on others that differentiates her from the succession of Slayers preceding her all the way back to the dawn of mankind. This eventually brings her into conflict and confrontation with the spirit of the first Slayer, perturbed by her lack of self-reliance. Buffy responds to the first Slayer’s accusations in typical Buffy fashion:
“I walk. I talk. I shop, I sneeze,” replies Buffy. “I’m gonna be a fireman when the floods roll back. There’s trees in the desert since you moved out, and I don’t sleep on a bed of bones…You just have to get over the whole primal power thing. You’re not the source of me.”
It’s a telling piece of dialog. Buffy believes that it’s not the qualities that make her different that she gains strength from, but rather the qualities she shares with others. This is reaffirmed when Spike, in the fifth season’s “Fool for Love,” claims “The only reason you’ve lasted as long as you have is, you’ve got ties to the world.”
“The humans need a leader. A champion. The Slayer can do that-can even the odds.”
Adam in “The Yoko Factor”
Howe and Strauss, in a series of books on generations in American history, classify four types of generational archetypes–Prophets, Artists, Nomads and Heroes-who come of age during four types of historical periods, called turnings, defined by the four generations relationship to each other. “Generation X,” a Nomad archetype born in what the historians call an “awakening.” More precisely, between the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America.” As the preceding Boomer generation came of age and turned their attention inward towards self-discovery, children were, for the most part, left unsheltered and neglected. Latchkey children were commonplace as the divorce rate skyrocketed, and a sort of “rugged individualism” took place, culminating in a shift towards a new turning, an “Unraveling.”
In their book, The Fourth Turning, Howe and Strauss define an Unraveling as “a downcast era of strengthening individualism and weakening institutions, when the old civic order decays and the new values regime implants. The children of this turning are referred to as “Heroes,” the type of Generation that fought the Revolutionary War and World War II, and then rebuilt society from the ashes. When Ronald Reagan, late in life, was asked if he felt uncomfortable living in a world with computers and mass transit and such, he replied, “No. My generation didn’t have those things when we were growing up, so we invented them.” Hero generations reach adulthood during a “Crisis” and then rebuild, using the values of the preceding Prophet Generation (ala the Boomers) and the common sense and practicality of the preceding Nomad Generation (ala Generation X).
Particularly in the show’s first three seasons, there is a constant theme of perilous forces endangering life that only the children can see. With the exception of Buffy’s “Watcher” and mentor, Giles (Anthony Stewart Head,) adults on the show are woefully oblivious to the fact that their town is overrun with vampires, demons, evil spirits and the occasional werewolf. At first, even the other high school students seem oblivious, but by the end of season three, it becomes plain that they’re aware of their surroundings, and Buffy is honored at the Prom for protecting everyone. Soon after, she leads the students in all out war against the demonic Mayor, who’s hell-bent on becoming a demon and destroying the world. The students-even those she’s had personal conflicts with-follow her unquestioningly into battle, some even dying in the process. At the end of the day, of course, the world is saved. That the battle is waged on Graduation day is not coincidental.
In the course of graduating high school and overcoming the Mayor, Buffy manages to shatter two separate “institutions,” the corrupt politician, of course, but also the Watcher’s Council, a centuries old order that trains and guides the Slayers. Throughout the series, the Council’s directives and imperatives come into conflict with what Buffy sees as fulfilling her mission, culminating in their firing Giles and failing to rescue her lover, Angel (David Boreanaz, a vampire with a human soul.) Simply put, the old institution fails to fulfill her needs, and she abandons it. It’s not until late in season five that she takes the council back, but only then on her own terms, metaphorically rebuilding it into a new form.
The social metaphor for the first three seasons becomes increasingly obvious: the mostly Boomer adults fail to see an impending crisis, burying their heads in small details. Attempts at action on adult’s parts to maintain order fail miserably. Principal Snyder’s attempts at bullying students into passivity are comical, at best, and when the parents attempt to form a committee to protect their children from the occult (named “MOO: Mother’s Opposed to the Occult”) they, too become co-opted by “dark forces” and need rescuing by their own children.
In season four, the emergence of the militaristic “Initiative,” a special squad of government demon hunters who pose as graduate students at a local college, provides a different analogue. The older (Generation X) soldiers have every technological resource available to them, and are coldly efficient, but it takes the addition of the younger Slayer and her friends to truly overcome the threat of the cybernetic monster, Adam, and his army of demons.
As chilling as it seems, these generational attitudes towards war and conflict match well with the attitudes-and realities-of existing generations. Strauss & Howe, in their book, Millennials Rising, write that “middle-aged Boomers sometimes say that their generation could have rallied against a Hitler as compliantly as their parents did, but most Americans who have lived through both the ’40s and the ’60s would probably doubt it. In Desert Storm, Gen-X soldiers were acknowledged as capable and did the job swiftly and well, but heard few accolades about glorious American youth nor of the need to rid the world of future dangers on their behalf.”
“We cannot build the future for our children, but we can build our children for the future.”
-Franklin D. Roosevelt
Part of what’s compelling about the character of Buffy Summers-aside from the razor sharp wit, fabulous outfits and ability to beat the Hell out of a demon from Hell without chipping a nail-is her willingness to sacrifice herself and her own happiness for the good of others. In season one, she went to battle the monstrous “Master,” despite an explicit prophecy that she would die while doing so. In season two, she willingly condemns Angel to Hell to keep the world from being sucked into Hell. The martial subtext to the show is integral to making that self-sacrifice believable. Buffy’s own sense of destiny and purpose mirrors the sense of destiny that today’s children seemed fated for.
Howe & Strauss argue there’s a crisis on the horizon, and the National mood appears to bear that out. In the first few months of 2001 alone, the country’s economy has slowed to a near halt, and once near-stabilized relations with countries such as North Korea, Russia and China have again become strained. Institutions as basic as the educational system and public utilities are bitterly fought over by Boomer political leaders, while Generation X revises blueprints for the second wave of the New Economy.
Certainly, the mood of Paranoia of the 1990s hasn’t lightened, but the X-Files-style of aimless paranoia seems already dated, as dated as the cold war era’s Rambo. The appeal of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that her willingness to sacrifice herself is tempered by her ability to not be hampered by old institutions that are either dangerous or obtrusive to the public good, and the subtle insinuation that, when the floods roll back, she’ll be able to move away from the martial to find something else constructive, that there is, indeed, a brighter future afterwards-albeit as unclear and elusive as the clairvoyant dreams that haunt her. Or as she herself puts it, in “Prophecy Girl,” “We saved the world. I say we party.”