I'm sure that for truer fans of Joss Whedon, or maybe just a different sort of fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Rhonda Wilcox's Why Buffy Matters is a welcome addition to a library that includes a growing number of academic and quasi-academic analyses of the television phenomenon (Sex And The Slayer: A Gender Studies Primer For The Buffy Fan, Blood Relations: Chosen Families In Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Philosophy and BtVS: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale, etc.) These tomes seem to have grown weightier and increased in number ever since someone discovered that the handful of such books analyzing Star Trek in the 1970s would make a few bucks for an author/editor and publisher; there were only ever a few such books about the transgressive, innovative Xena, Warrior Princess, yet The X-Files' academic industry provided many graduate students with their first professional publication credit, and now Buffy seems to be a discipline unto itself.
Take Why Buffy Matters, for instance, which is a single writer's 240+ page analysis of a television show that her biography indicates has been her area of expertise for several years. "She has been described by CNN as 'the Master of Buffy studies," brags the back of the book, and she has edited two other volumes of essays on BtVS, as Buffy the Vampire Slayer is abbreviated in more pedestrian online "meta" where fans discuss and analyze the show. One thing that doing graduate school work on Star Trek taught me is that while academia had given me a new and powerful vocabulary to discuss television, and enabled me to put the smackdown on people who disagreed with my analysis much more effectively because a lot of people are intimidated by academic-sounding phrases, it didn't particularly make me a better critic of shows or movies of which I am a fan. If anything, it gave me better ways to justify my fandom. Wilcox avoids academic jargon except when she's really straining to prove Buffy's importance vis-à-vis The Aeneid, The Sound of Music or some other unquestioned classic, but she still comes across as surprisingly defensive given the incredible depth and power she attributes to her source material.
Wilcox starts out by making the case for Buffy studies by suggesting that anyone who isn't interested may be guilty of snobbery, censorship or denying the genius of Cynthia Bergstrom, "who worked in symbiosis with actor Sarah Michelle Gellar" to create Buffy's look. To her credit, Wilcox acknowledges that she is a passionate raving fan -- not quite in those words, but she does say, "this book praises Buffy. At length. That is its purpose." And she acknowledges as well that loving Buffy has given her resume credits and a conference speaking career, making me a little sorry that I did not finish my PhD and turn it into a published work on the importance in American popular culture of Dallas and J.R.'s shooting.
Really, Wilcox does very little to tell me why Buffy matters in this book, and I am saying this as a fan of the show, as well as someone who has read other professional and amateur analyses of the series (and been more impressed with the breadth and diversity of the latter). "No fans are more thoughtful than Buffy fans," Wilcox declares as if saying makes this so -- clearly she has never hung out with the Space: 1999 faithful -- but she tends to focus her chapters on her own particular reading of a situation or scenario without much acknowledgment of the conflict among viewers about what those things mean and whether they are positive or negative developments. The first chapter, "There Will Never Be a 'Very Special' Buffy," represses the fact that of course there were several of those, hyped by Buffy's broadcasters as such; trying to pretend that Buffy is anything other than a commercial product being positioned to sell seems not only disingenuous but ridiculous. Wilcox insists over and over that Joss Whedon and his crew were making art, not commerce, but those costumes Bergstrom symbiotically worked out with Gellar are only one component of Buffy's complicated investment in selling everything from advertising time to action figures to books like Wilcox's.
All that said, there's some fine and interesting analysis in the volume. I particularly liked the analysis of "The Body" and how specifically female and feminine issues of connection, self-image and loss come into play, and the analysis of the music both in the sung "musical" episode "Once More, With Feeling," and in various other episodes where songs are played, quoted, or echoed in the non-diegetic score in the background. However, Wilcox lost me with what seems to me a very superficial (though it's full of Jungian psychology) analysis of Buffy and Spike's romantic relationship, which was written so painfully at one point that I actually stopped watching the show; the dismissal of an attempted rape as a step in metaphoric transcendence really pisses me off. Wilcox does not even acknowledge the degree to which Buffy's relationship with Spike split both organized fandom and the interest of casual viewers. To sit down with any group of long-time BtVS watchers, whether they label themselves fans or critics or just people who watched the show, is to discover how pivotal this event was in how viewers saw Buffy, Spike and the series overall.
Wilcox tries to pretend that everything that happened on Buffy was part of a brilliant master plan, but for those of us who followed the series, it was obvious that there were false starts, characters introduced and then dropped because the actors weren't generating chemistry with other cast members, relationships scripted and then ended because the writers decided it would stir things up to take the characters in different directions. There's no denying that Whedon, Marti Noxon and the show's other writers did a better job of cleaning up their messes in the show's final weeks than, say the writers of The X-Files and Star Trek: Voyager. But even as a long-time fan of Buffy, I am uncomfortable with Wilcox's insistence that Buffy has the weight, importance and particularly the consistency of Shakespeare, Joseph Campbell, Charles Dickens and the numerous other big-name literary canon writers she invokes. If you love BtVS and collect essays attempting to prove that it's the most important TV series ever, this volume is certain to delight you; if you adore Buffy as a character and want to read about why she represents strength and depth for modern women, you're likely to be pleased as well. But I'm not convinced that Wilcox has explained for the rest of us why Buffy matters at all.
Green Man Reviews