Buffy's special gift to girls
David Bell's recommendation that we need more of the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in schools stirred up debate in the press - debate that is mirrored in the world of Buffy theory.
Yes - such a world does exist and it's a big one. A range of critical texts has been published about the show and the second international conference of Buffy studies takes place in Nashville, Tennessee, in May. (And in case you are thinking that this is just some crazy American phenomenon, the first was at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.) Why the debate? Buffy buffs can't agree on whether the wise-cracking pint-sized slayer is a healthy role model or a dangerous focus for aspiration. On the plus side, she stands up for herself and others, putting world-saving, albeit sometimes reluctantly, before her social life. Instead of being scared to walk out alone in the dark, she goes out looking for trouble with a view to staking it, decapitating it or just reducing it to a mushy pulp. Plus, it's a clever show which renders the metaphysical physical: working on the premise that high school is hell, the creator Joss Whedon puts his heroine through a series of paces in which the moral, social and emotional dilemmas faced by adolescents become real demons. Teen audiences can engage with the drama and laugh at the often very sharp humour, while pondering personal ethics and citizenship. Whedon himself declares that his intention in creating the character was to turn the tables in the favour of the typical teen slasher movie victim. So far, so empowering - so what's the problem?
Largely it's with Buffy herself. She is just too slim (and she gets skinnier by the season), too blonde, too pretty, too privileged. So is there a place in school for the Slayer? Should we only be using her as an example of all that is wrong with representations of a manufactured female ideal, or is she, as David Bell suggests, a positive role model for girls?
When faced with this sort of question, it is always interesting to go right to the source - ask the girls themselves. It was a group of bright Year 9 girls who first introduced me to the show. Their take on it surprised me at first by bypassing the feminist icon debate, to home in on what it meant to them. When asked why they related to the characters and issues portrayed, they cited not only the expected range of typical teen traumas, but also some which had particular resonance for themselves. The issue of the heroine's looks was fairly immaterial to them - it seemed that what these girls related to about Buffy was that her social survival depended on her ability to disguise her special abilities.
If this sounds familiar, then it should. Peer acceptance still ranks as one of the most tricky territories to navigate for clever girls. Even though the phenomenon in boys has had a higher profile in recent years, the danger of girls rejecting the identities and aspirations offered to them within schools is just as real.
In the show, Buffy's attempts to reject or qualify her identity and responsibilities are numerous. She constantly seeks the "typical" high school experience such as attending the prom and dating. Her friends, too, such as the computer prodigy Willow and her early boyfriend Oz, a werewolf with an off-the-chart IQ, offer a thoughtful and sensitive portrayal of issues for the gifted student. Part of the fun of exploring the show with students can be to work out the metaphor behind each character's special "ability".
Students' engagement with media texts can be seen as central to their developing perceptions of who they are and their place in the world. The modern breed of superhero shows such as Buffy, Smallville, Dark Angel, and Alias can provide a vehicle for identifying and discussing the difficulties gifted adolescents can experience. With David Bell's shifting of the spotlight on to girls, and current policy focus on raising aspiration through such initiatives as Gifted and Talented and Aimhigher, perhaps the exchange below is as prescient as its episode title suggests: WILLOW: "I'm a science nerd."
BUFFY: "Don't say that."
WILLOW: "I'm not ashamed. It's the computer age. Nerds are in."
(Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 1; Episode 12: Prophecy Girl) For a full text of Superheroes and Superlearning - enriching the lower school curriculum with Buffy the Vampire Slayer by Michele Paule and Laura Davison go to: www.brookes.ac.ukschoolseducationrescongandt.html! and click on 'Superheroes and Superlearning'. Michele Paule is a senior lecturer at the Westminster Institute of Education, Oxford Brookes University