Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Incoherent Metaphysics of the Buffyverse

[Originally posted at Bitch Flicks.]

Contains spoilers for Buffy and Angel. Not the comic books, though. Those never happened. 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was famously asking the question: what if, in a typical horror-movie monster-chases-girl scenario, the girl turned around and kicked the monster's ass? But it's also, perhaps less wittingly, asking the question: what happens when an atheist – someone who disavows the existence of all things super- or preternatural in the real world – writes a show about the supernatural?

Of course, American TV, and especially the WB in the late 90s, is perhaps not the best forum for a nuanced discussion of faith and religion. Even so, it's striking how one-dimensional the perspectives on the supernatural are on Buffy. Maybe I know too many seminarians (I know a lot of seminarians), but it seems very odd to me that nobody we know in Sunnydale reacts to the presence of demons and vampires by turning to religion. Especially once the show's mythos expanded to encompass an elaborate lore of gods, resurrection, heaven and hell, and de- and re-ensouling, the big G remains notable for its total absence. Even after experiencing a heavenly afterlife, Buffy's only comment about God's existence is “Nothing solid” (S7E7, “Conversations With Dead People”). And I for one would find this profoundly unsatisfying. Once you have come across the First Evil (as worshiped by an ex-priest, no less!), would your first question not be: So is there an equivalent primordial good?

On a metatextual level, of course, this all makes perfect sense. The premise of the show is not God, religion, or Manichean dualism fought on a cosmic scale. Metatextually, we know that the Buffyverse is a world where the supernatural forces of evil operate, but the question of God is moot, and the source of goodness is people's love for each other and their willingness to make sacrifices for the sake of what's right. From the perspective of a viewer looking in on this world, we can accept this, but once we try to imagine ourselves truly inside the Buffyverse, the cracks in its metaphysics begin to appear.

These cracks show themselves most clearly in late-period Buffy, when the series starts to sink under the weight of its own mythos. The show, which had once so brilliantly and wittily allegorized the trials of growing up as horror-movie monsters, lost its focus and its direction in the final two seasons. Buffy tries not to simplistically equate soul with good and soulless with bad, attempting to explore gray areas and moral ambiguities, but this winds up pulling the show in hopelessly contradictory directions: if vamps and demons have the potential to be good, if they are redeemable to the point of being able to want a soul, then how is Buffy justified in constantly staking them? Add what we learn from Angel, and things get even less coherent. If ensoulment and goodness/evilness are, as Angel the supposedly more grown-up show would have us believe, much more complicated than that, how come Angel yo-yos between Good, ensouled Angel and Evil, soulless Angelus with, frankly, comical facility?

Come on, it's a bit silly.
 When Darla, staked as a soulless vampire, is brought back as a human, the soul question gets even more inexplicable. If, as established very early on, “When you become a vampire, the demon takes your body, but it doesn't get your soul” (Buffy S1E7, “Angel”), then why does the resurrected human Darla even remember her life as a vampire? Is the vampire a new, evil creature occupying the formerly ensouled body, whose soul is now at peace (as that line of Angel's would seem to suggest); or is it the same person, the same consciousness, with some fundamental part removed? Is the soul the individual's consciousness, their moral compass, an ineffable that somehow endows humanness? What, finally, is a soul?

This is, of course, a hugely complex question, to which I do not expect a coherent real-world answer. In a TV show, however, where the quality of ensouledness apparently determines whether you deserve to live or die – whether or not it's morally acceptable for our protagonist to kill you – we damn well need our terms defined.

This is... what a soul looks like?
 Perhaps this kind of moral and metaphysical incoherence is simply an inevitable result of the Chosen One narrative. (I'm reminded irresistibly of Harry Potter, and of the fan critiques that read Dumbledore as a nasty, manipulative figure who deliberately programs Harry to do his bidding, rather than as the wise and kindly mentor Harry sees. There are counter-readings of the Bible that find traditional atonement theory similarly abhorrent, arguing that only an abusive God would sacrifice his own son.) Noting the Powers-That-Be who guide events on Angel, I wonder to what extent it's possible to engage questions of Chosen Ones, prophecies, destiny and so on without resorting to a Calvinist determinism.

Naturally there is a metatextual Calvinist element – it's called the writers' room – and Whedon occasionally nods to this. Of Buffy S6E17, “Normal Again,” he has said: “the entire series takes place in the mind of a lunatic locked up somewhere in Los Angeles, if that’s what the viewer wants.” In that same interview he admits that the role of the soul in the Buffyverse is often simply a matter of narrative convenience; and that, I think, is kind of cheating. When we watch a show, our assent to its premise is a kind of contract: we will accept this premise, provided that the show does not flout the narrative rules on which it is predicated. If a show flouts its own narrative rules – say, retconning an entire season as a dream – audiences tend to feel that the contract has been violated. Altering something as crucial to the show's whole premise as the function of the soul according to narrative diktat is, I think, a similar violation.

As a lover of Buffy and a theologian, I want Buffy to be theologically and metaphysically coherent. I want it either to establish one metaphysical system as true for the world it portrays, or to represent a believable variety of beliefs among its characters. The former is an entirely lost cause; the latter is frustratingly undercooked. Willow's Judaism is wholly Informed, and her turn to Wicca is entirely to do with magic. There is no sense at all of Wicca (or any other religion) as an ethical code, as a way of making meaning, as a way of personally relating to the world and others in it.

Ultimately, this is the same problem I have with the show's self-professed feminism. Joss Whedon is a proud feminist, and yet in the course of Buffy some very unfortunate tropes appear – Bury Your Gays, Psycho Lesbian, No Bisexuals, Token Minority, general racefail – which cumulatively suggest a writers' room that just didn't necessarily see the implications of everything it was doing, perhaps because it lacked the diversity of viewpoints necessary to provide checks and balances on overwhelming privilege. Established metatextually, the show's feminism is taken for granted by all characters in-universe, and it requires extra work on the part of the viewer to critique its problematic elements. Perhaps this fundamental incoherence of Buffy's feminism is tied to its fundamental metaphysical incoherence. Both seem to stem from the same failings.

But also, there were really really awesome things.

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