About ten years have passed since the final episode of the series Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired on TV. Series creator Joss Whedon, who spoke in the Glasgow Film Theatre at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival, showed that pop culture can be non-sexist, a profound social commentary, deeply philosophical and entertaining at the same time. Buffy, Willow, and many other protagonists continue to be role models for generations of young women. Do we all need to become superheroes to change the world around us? With the economic downturn, climate change and biosphere decline threatening our livelihoods, it seems like that at times. But with the Scottish referendum comes a rare opportunity to envision change on a larger scale, by choosing a different path – a path which is not set on destruction, but on renewal, and on cherishing the things that matter to improve the quality of life for all. As a tribute to the ten year anniversary of the closing of the series, let’s imagine what Buffy would make of the Scottish Independence campaign…
For those who don’t know the series, Buffy is a teenage girl – and later a young woman – who lives in the fictional town of Sunnydale, California. Sunnydale High School happens to lie on top of the Hellmouth, which harbours supernatural evil and serves as a gateway for demons, vampires and other shady creatures. Buffy is the chosen one, the only current Slayer in a long line of Slayers, which means that she has supernatural powers, fights evil creatures, and helps people. To be effective, she needs the help of her friends, the Scooby Gang, and receives a crash-course in moral philosophy by her watcher Giles. Throughout the series, Buffy struggles with her responsibility of being the a Vampire Slayer while completing school, going to college, working in a fast food restaurant, and managing her domestic affairs. We accompany her through the blessings and difficulties of becoming an adult. Her ordinary chores are complicated by the slight inconvenience that some of her boyfriends also happen to be vampires.
The Buffyverse is a gory version of life with all its difficulties, friendship, loyalty, redemption and compassion. It also makes some more obvious political points regarding a broken food system (Episode: Doublemeat Palace) and a socialist critique of the exploitation of Labour (Episode: Anne). At the core of the series lies the morale that good and evil are always ambiguous; we choose to act ethically or be corrupted by our short-term longings – we can enter the good old Faustian pact with the devil or side with a struggle for the greater good. Personal and collective autonomy and loyalty go a long way in building better relationships and societies.
In the Buffyverse, no-one is entirely good, and no-one is entirely evil. Even soulless vampires are given a choice to become better persons, although this is not an easy task. Equally, good people can become corrupted, wreak havoc, and must redeem themselves. It’s all about choice – Buffy and her gang are natural anarcha-socialists.
As Solzhenitsyn famously wrote, the line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. We can choose to build more compassionate lives. We can choose to build more compassionate societies. Independence is fundamentally about choice – but with that comes the responsibility to choose well. Can we get beyond our cultural and political differences and build a society that has the well-being of its people, people elsewhere, and that of the natural world at its heart? We can, if we choose to. As the Persian poet Rumi wrote,
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
The empowerment of women is at the heart of the Buffyverse. This doesn’t simply mean that women gain the same powers as men. Ordinary women with no special powers can get to know themselves and become powerful witches, for example. But gaining power is only the beginning – power can be painful and destructive. Only when used wisely and for the greater good, power becomes beneficial to all.
Those who have benefited from social inequalities so far may wonder: Why should we bother?
This is why: We simply don’t know! Throughout history, there has been an enormous impoverishment of societies here and elsewhere, because people haven’t been given the chance to bring forth their talents. Countless voices were lost forever, inventions weren’t made, decisions were skewed in favour of those with an inflated sense of entitlement. We’ve all lost out as a result. But we can do better than that.
What would a society based on equality look like? It wouldn’t just include equality of the sexes – or genders – but also equal opportunities and extra support for those who need it, regardless of their ethnicities, (dis)abilities, class or sexual orientation. An equal society would understand the psychologies of oppression, and counteract them in our education systems. A fairer economy would counteract feelings of disempowerment which lead to scapegoating. We’d all be enriched as a result.
The Buffyverse fiercely supports a morality of independence. Heroines (and heroes) need to cope not only with predatory monsters, but also with sexist institutions, and economic exploitation. Buffy and her friends repeatedly clash with authority figures, and have to make their own ethical choices, which sometimes means taking on an opposing stance. When they finally gain power, they must take great care to use it with compassion and for the greater good. Authority figures and institutions are repeatedly shown to have the capacity to become corrupted and inadequate.
Buffy reminds us that it’s important to think for ourselves, keep a fresh mindset, and assert our independence, even where this seems difficult at first. We can all be redeemed, but there’s also no space for complacency. We need to constantly question our motives and their consequences. Personal responsibility, loyalty and a keen sense of justice save lives. Although evil is never beaten completely, it can be kept in check.
Ten years later, the status quo of popular culture is not very different from what it was in the 1990s. Admittedly I don’t own a TV at present, but I don’t get the impression that many TV shows live up to their social transformative potential. Generally spoken, popular culture tends to focus on appearance and installing negative body images even in young girls when even the ‘Brave’ heroine Merida gets a sexed-up makeover.
Nevertheless, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s imprint is still felt – it has subtly changed popular culture by raising the standards of what we can expect from good entertainment. Popular culture could play a transformative and healing role in creating a better society. Heartfelt responses from Whedon’s circle of geeky fans (to which I count myself) show that TV shows can be empowering. If every young woman struggling with the challenges of coming-of-age had a role model like Buffy, the world may just become a more powerful place.
Buffy would love and support the journey towards an independent Scotland. Buffy’s self-determination, free will and anti-authoritarian attitude are a shiny example of how to deal with social, economic and environmental crises. The real-life Hellmouth isn’t closed yet – it’s never been out of business. Buffy would fight for more gender equality – she’d tackle violence against women, and take on the Glasgow nightclub installing two-way spy mirrors in the female bathroom. But she wouldn’t tolerate the low male life expectancies in some parts of Scotland either. She’d hate the inequalities and banker’s bonuses, the profit-driven market system, and the short-term thinking engrained in so many economic practices, destroying our livelihoods and ecosystems.
I like to think of the movement for Scottish Independence less as a nationalistic movement, and more as a movement to think about collective autonomy. We’re a movement to become a Scooby Gang in a struggle for social and environmental justice. If we gain independence, we can develop our collective ethics, discard outdated systems and support the disadvantaged members of society to get their voices heard. We can all be Slayers now, roll up our sleeves and build a better society.
In fact, in the comic continuation of the series, Buffy and her fellow Slayers have set up the Slayer command-central in a citadel in Scotland. Perhaps they’ll give us a hand.