Buffy Wars: The Next Generation

By Paula Graham

[1] BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER is the most recent cult hit to bounce over the Atlantic and work its considerable appeal not only on its teenaged core segment, but also on more mature fans of post-modern self-reflexivity. On both sides of the Atlantic, it has become something of an icon of postmodern and post-feminist savvy. Tina Ogle in the Guardian, for example, described Buffy as 'the coolest fighter of evil this side of heaven' [Guardian Review, Sunday, 24/10/99]. It has generally been received not only as a thoroughly enjoyable spectacle offering the unlikely joys of a petite, wisecracking, Valley-babe righteously kicking 'date-rapist' (aka vampire) butt, but as a 'subversive' or 'transgressive' text. Buffy has also been associated with extra-textual subcultural activity. Although Buffy makes obvious reference to extra-textual mileux such as 'goths' in particular, I will be concentrating primarily on the articulations of the BTVS fanbase itself (which does not, on the whole, actually include 'goths').

[2] Concepts of textual subversion or transgression derive from literary/film studies models and proceed by identifying textual effects which tend to 'estrange' the viewer/reader from dominant representational regimes seen as (re)productive of cultural subordinations or exclusions. Subcultural analysis is a sociological approach which tends to associate 'subculture' with excluded or oppositional socio-economic sub-structures. Buffy's cult appeal is, however, the calculated product of marketing strategy, and it seems worth exploring it's 'transgressive' reputation within the context of current forces of production and practices of consumption, using a materialist and micropolitical approach.

Buffy as Icon

[3] Subtextual elements commonly identified in reviews and analyses of the show relate to generically routine topics such as dating, competitive, achievement-oriented and corrupt American high-school culture, adolescent transformation and alienation, the fragmentation of the family, instability of gender-role, and the generation gap. [Wilcox, 1991; Owen, 1991; Auerbach, 1995] BTVS also appeals to grownups in its 'postmodern' reflexivity and 'post-feminist' agendas. The series' narrative and metanarrative strategies are generally acknowledged to be fundamentally complicit, if refreshingly candid. Buffy is nevertheless characteristically seen as a slick and self-reflexive take on the 'final girl' of the horror genre, kicking off in Halloween (1978), and argued by Clover (1992) to transgress the traditional gender boundaries of the horror genre (as defined by de Lauretis, 1984). Basically, any disruption in terms of Mulvey's (1975) 'men act, women appear' axiom can be (and usually is) read as 'subversive' or 'transgressive':

The series offers transgressive possibilities for re-imagining gendered relations and modernist American ideologies. At the same time, however, the series reifies mainstream commitments to heteronormative relationships, American commodity culture, and a predominantly Anglo perspective. . . . But there can be little doubt that Buffy's agency drives the narrative and saves the world. Moreover, she talks back, she looks back, and she can take a blow as well as she can land one. [Owen, 1991: 24]

[4] Disruption in gendered role or representation can usually be relied upon to appeal to lesbians as already (gender) resistant readers, and kick-ass heroines often become iconic in lesbian subcultures. For example, Xena's [Xena: Warrior Princess, Tx: 1995-2001] unapologetically tough image as reformed bad-girl, together with the celebrated lesbian subtext of the show, did seem to mark Xena off as a new departure and attracted a devoted lesbian following. Previously, cinematic representation of 'tough girls', such as Ripley (The Alien cycle, 1979-1997) and Connors (Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991), took palpable care to suppress subtextual lesbian implications potentially opened out by disruption of Mulvey's axiom. [Graham, 1994a, 1994b] Alien: Resurrection (1997), slightly post Xena (and scripted by Buffy's very own Joss Whedon), finally rewarded the Alien cycle's lesbian following with a whiff of subtextual steam between Ripley and Annalee Call. Xena, however, positively revelled in camping up a queer subtext. Xenaphilia is searchable through lesbian and gay internet portal sites, lesbian-themed fanfic is commonplace, and the letters pages of Xena fanzines endlessly chew over the lesbian subtext. It therefore might seem odd that there is little evidence of lesbian subtexting of BTVS [Tx: 1997-2002]. Furthermore, whilst BTVS links do come up through some lesbian and gay portals, the postings seem mostly to come from young gay men rather than from lesbians, whilst Xena appears to have generated very little gay male interest. The conventional hetero-feminine glamourisation of Buffy's/Gellar's image is the most common explanation given by lesbians of the show's lack of appeal. This Xena/Buffy divide seems to follow a classic pattern of gendered 'camp' appropriation [see Graham, 1994a].

[5]A lesbian subplot has subsequently been included in BTVS (Season 5) [Buffy News at March 2000]. It is interesting to note, however, that this lesbian subplot does not involve Buffy herself (as Xena is subtextually associated with Gabrielle) - and would not, therefore, compromise Buffy's identificatory appeal for young, heterosexual women (the show's core segment). In any case, the inclusion of lesbian subtext or subplot does not seem to reduce mainstream appeal or even to associate shows primarily with 'minority' audiences. On the contrary, post 'lesbian-chic', it may even enhance their popularity and their profitability. By 1996, the 22 gay and lesbian characters on US Networks were associated with the most commercially successful primetime shows [Tickled Pink, Tx: C4, 1997]. In practice, what seems to have happened is that the lesbian storyline and developing maturity of the show's emotive content in Series 5, together with new audience elements picked up via the Angel spinoff, has increased it's appeal to young gay men and mature women rather than attracting a more substantial lesbian audience [see Rewriting Buffy below].

Subtext and Subculture

[6] Textual approaches to Buffy ultimately refer back to Mulvey's classic (1975, 1981) essays and subsequent discussion of the subversive or transgressive effects of female protagonism. Over the last two decades, however, butt-kicking heroines have become a somewhat routine feature of action genres and this commercially successful formula effectively normalised to what X-philes might call the 'military industrial entertainment complex' [Reeves et al, 1996: 23]. Ripley, Terminator II's Sarah, Red Sonja, GI Jane, Voyager's Janeway, Xena, Buffy, et al seemed to exercise considerable institutional appeal by the late 90s:

The new bunch are organized, trained, and are probably, in some not so subliminal way, advertisements for women in the military … Of all the rough girls, Xena is the roughest. Madeleine Albright claims to have adopted her as a role model - clearly without much success. Xena would have chopped up Saddam and Slobodan years ago. [Andrew Stuttaford, National Review, 51: 8, 09/13/99: 68]
In 1998, Gellar (who plays Buffy) came in second to Elizabeth Dole in the George list of '20 Most Fascinating Women in Politics'. [Wilcox, 1991: 16] The 'final girl' became such a routine feature of action/horror genres that she finally succumbed to parody in midnight movies such as Scream 2 (1997) - featuring Gellar herself as a non-final girl. Despite ongoing feminist arguments over the precise gender-political valences of the kick-ass heroine, arguments that her screen presence transgresses established value systems do seem to be wearing thin. This is not to say that women, and particularly young women, do not feel validated and encouraged by such representations - they clearly do, and this is equally clearly a good thing (not least for marketers). But is it a transgressive thing?

[7] In feminist discourse, textual approaches developed in the 1970s in critique of less interpretatively agile 'positive images' politics [for an overview of the debate see Moi, 1985]. 'Cult', on the other hand, was defined in socio-economic terms primarily by anomalies in marketing and consumption practices (and was primarily associated with males). However, marketing and consumption practices (which include the coding and decoding of text) have changed radically over the past few decades. Both textual 'transgressive' and subcultural explanatory models' may already have been superseded by quite fundamental shifts in textual, cultural, and commercial practices.

Cult and Commerce

[8] Cult film practices developed two main forms. Cult 'classics' had once been popular Hollywood box-office successes aimed at a mainstream audience. Their elevation to cult status occurred when they became mere filler material on TV networks in the 1950s and acquired a devoted following. As a result, even films which had been box-office flops on theatrical release might find subsequent cult status through the small screen - particularly as the video sell-through market developed. Whether or not the films had originally been commercial or critical successes, their cult success found a different measure:

[T]he conjunction of a limited audience and a limited, even unconventionally measured success becomes significant. For it underscores how that 'love' aspect of the cult film functions: it works in a realm of difference - from normal film viewing practices and from marketing customs. [Telotte, 1991b: 7]
Mast (1986), however, had already problematised such arguments - pointing out that cult itself had already begun to be exploited as a potential market as early as the 1960s.

[9] The experimental, 'underground' and 'exploitation' film genres of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, on the other hand, were marginally produced for minority audiences and dealt with issues and modes of representation which popular film ignored or suppressed. Their formal strategies began to cross over into popular cinema in the 1960s as both filmmakers and audiences became more sophisticated as 'readers' of film [Cook, 1985: 217]. This led to a field of cult production usually associated with auteurs such as Altman, and to the genesis of the art-house circuit of the 60s and 70s which provided the alternative viewing location. But, and perhaps more to the point, competition with TV was also motivating new marketing practices of segmentation and targeting of film audiences. Most usually cited in this context are nascent minority-targeted genres such as blaxploitation and sexploitation, whose products had made a respectable return on small initial investment by addressing audiences marginalised by mainstream media production. Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971) marks the crossover point:

The fact that Sweetback's domestic theatrical rentals . . . amounted to $4,100,000 indicated that producers could make significant profits by creating black action films for young blacks. [Reid, 1988: 29]

[10] The content and formal strategy of these minority-targeted exploitation genres drew from socio-political movements such as the New Left, Black Power, Feminism and Gay Liberation, which had generated underground cinema. These extra-textual references facilitated the 'cult' bonding process among their primarily young audiences. Exploitation movies were produced to develop profitable minority segments, but also to popularise the politicising aspirations of minority cultural producers. Rebellion and marketing were already, albeit uncomfortably, in bed together. 'Alternative' cultural producers could not work out whether to rejoice at the popular dissemination of 'subversive' form and content or to mourn the crass commercialisation of revolutionary ideals in the commercial teen market:

Sweetback was the first black action film that attracted large black-teenage audiences. Van Peebles had decided to make a film for the 'unpoliticised' black filmgoer… The 'loving product' that constituted … [the 'alternative'] sector of the print media was most confused and ambiguous in its treatment of Sweetback. While struggling to endorse the anti-establishment messages provided by Sweetback, the alternative press could not fully identify with the young black urban spectator who seemed to be Van Peebles' primary target. [Hartmann, 1994: 26, 385]

[11] The teen-segment 'midnight movie' of the 1970s and 1980s was delivered of both classic and exploitation primary cult forms and shows many of the same characteristics. Midnight movies may be associated with an auteur (such as Erasorhead) and/or with a 'exploitative' marketing appeal to the 'Oxy 5' set, its feelings of alienation from the mainstream, and rite-of-passage angst - The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1983), the dreaded Freddy, Night of the Living Dead (1990), and, latterly, Scream (1996). The midnight slot in an otherwise standard mall exhibition context provides the alternative viewing context necessary to facilitate a subcultural bonding experience:

Whilst classical cult films project appealing images that speak to the contradictions in our present lives, midnight movies fashion a context of difference - of rebellion, independence, sexual freedom, gender shifting - that helps us cope with real-world conformity. In common, they offer a kind of loving understanding that acknowledges our own sense of difference or alienation, even as it mates us to other, similarly 'different' types in the audience or the films themselves. [Telotte, 1991b: 11]
Whether connected to existing social networks or agendas of opposition or not, this bonding experience - or even 'illicit' pleasure in itself - was seen as productive of a mode of engagement or identification which is not already commodified or institutionalised. That is, in terms of audience, a cult film may be defined either as productive of an alternative social context through the repetition of devotional activities, or as appealing to an already subordinated community by citing extra-textual marginal cultural agendas and pleasures, and thus reaffirming pre-existent bonds and interpretative strategies.
The cult film has most often been defined in two ways: as any picture that is seen repeatedly by a devoted audience, and as a deviant or radically different picture, embraced by a deviant audience. [Kawin, 1991: 18]
Both modalities have been positively associated with 'abject' status:
To speak as a fan is to accept what has been labelled a subordinated position within the cultural hierarchy, to accept an identity constantly belittled or criticized by institutional authorities. Yet it is also to speak from a position of collective identity … [Jenkins, 1992: 507]
Indeed, the discourse of 'subcultural resistance' is often highly romanticised in that 'subcultural' activity actually appears to transcend capitalist practices altogether:
The role of McLaren and Westwood was also downgraded for the similar reason that punk was seen as a kind of collective creative impulse. To focus on a designer and an art-school entrepreneur would have been to undermine the 'purity' or 'authenticity' of the subculture. [McRobbie, 1989: 193]

[12] This conceptualisation of subcultural or cult activity as transcending capitalist practices and thus as 'always-already' transgressive is ultimately based on a repression thesis fundamentally at odds with postmodernity. In the 1960s, the legacies of McCarthyism, the Cold War, sexual puritanism, and racial segregation were seen as repressive in an authoritarian (or Freudian) sense rather than productive in a Foucauldian sense. The 'estrangement' (through repetition and/or recontextualisation) and recoding of dominant representations was rebelliously deployed to reveal the 'truths' of authoritarian corruption behind repressive 'masks' of moralistic hypocrisy, creating 'alternative culture(s)' and the iconography of 'cult' in the process:

The cult fascination with 1950s 'bad art' seems largely to stem from the commonplace assumption that the era was repressive … for to be sure, while the sixties drug culture seemed obsessed with mysticism, its primary project was the irreverent demystification of American culture … what was 'hidden' was a sense of life and self directly at odds with postwar morality … The revered symbols of fifties morality, battered by such persistent mockery, easily dissolved into comic stereotypes - and cult icons. [Graham, 1991: 110]
If the 1970s saw an exploitation of the commercial potential of popularised subcultural activity, by the 1980s, no longer searching for 'truths' behind the 'masks' of hypocrisy, postmodern culture eschewed 'truth' altogether in favour of the uncontrollable multiplicity and play of the text. The 1990s then saw the movement of 'positive representation' of minorities into mainstream media both in terms of segmentation and the routine inclusion of black/gay/pro-feminist characters in blockbusters, soaps, and sitcoms. By the end of the 1990s, 'outsider' status and its 'deviant' (re)coding techniques, began to emanate a positive cachet.

[13] In this diverse, micropolitical, and segmented environment, boundaries between 'margin' and 'mainstream' become more difficult to locate or define. Although members of dominant social groups clearly do not suffer the same 'anguish of invisibility' as do cultural minorities, dominant cultural traditions have frequently been argued also to have reached a condition of painfully confusing collapse:

The revered 'master narratives' of the past … survive in truncated form, influencing but not dominating social discourse. Instead, a multivocal and contradictory culture that delights in difference and disunity seems to be at the core of contemporary cultural consciousness. [Lipsitz, 1997: 351]
A tendency towards breakdown in cultural hegemony and the proliferation of microcultures can also be seen as the product of shifts in the organisation of the American enconomy from 'Fordism', associated with classic patterns of consumerism, to the 'flexible accumulation' model. In the context of hyperproductive capitalism, identity is no longer seen as a human property, or even as a primarily cultural product, but as a product of patterns of consumption. You are what you consume.
[F]lexible accumulation typically exploits a wide range of seemingly contingent geographical circumstances, and reconstitutes them as structured internal elements of its own encompassing logic....the result has been the production of fragmentation, insecurity, and ephemeral uneven development within a highly unified global space economy of capital flows." [David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), 294, 296]
Marginal identificatory practices have, of necessity, always been highly improvisational and adaptive. Marginal groups have thus been uniquely equipped to cope with (and exploit) these changes. This has effectively moved 'alternative' lifestyles from margin to mainstream. Gilroy (1987), for example, argued that it is no longer possible to theorise black culture in Britain without re-theorising British culture as a whole. Mercer (1987) reached a similar conclusion:
Western cultural traditions are radically transformed by this neo-African, improvisational approach to aesthetic and cultural production. In addition, there is another 'turn of the screw' in these modern relations of interculturation when these creolized cultural forms are made use of by other social groups and then, in turn, are all incorporated into mainstream 'mass' culture as commodities for consumption. [Mercer, 1987: 430]
Mercer's argument holds across a range of subcultures. Besides doing good box-office, Thelma & Louise (1990) could be redeployed to sell cars to young, post-feminist, women. Lesbian and gay 'subtexting' and 'synchretising' expertise could be exploited in 'window' techniques which enable media to produce not only advertising but programming which appeals to a gay audiences whilst avoiding 'negative association':
But 'gayness' remains in the eye of the beholder: gays and lesbians can read into an ad certain subtextual elements that correspond to experiences with or representations of gay/lesbian subculture. If heterosexual consumers do not notice these subtexts or subcultural codes, then advertisers are able to reach the homosexual market along with the heterosexual market without ever revealing their aim. [Clark, 1991:188]
Marginalised groups' flexibility and expertise in 'subtexting' and 'recoding' can thus be seen as key to this new cultural order:
Their exclusion from political power and cultural recognition has allowed aggrieved populations to cultivate sophisticated capacities for ambiguity, juxtaposition, and irony - all key qualities in the postmodern aesthetic. [Lipsitz, 1997: 351]
Cult practices, in this decentred context, may begin to appear as complicit - even pivotal - rather than as 'oppositional' or 'outside'. By the 1990s, one might suggest that 'subcultural' activity had become the very motor of hyperproductive western capitalism, which is crucially dependent on cultural innovation and diversification.
The Buffy Business - Love for Sale

[14] Reeves et al [1996], in an analysis of cult TV, developed a distinction between 'casual', 'devoted' and 'avid' viewers [26] and argued that devoted viewing is becoming increasingly central to media marketing practices:

In fact, it could be argued that the serialization of prime time … is at least partially attributable to the heightened competition for viewer attention in the TVII era - a competition that has encouraged the networks to develop programming forms that inspire devoted rather than casual engagement. [Reeves et al, 1996: 26]
For, in marketing terms, 'devotion' translates as 'brand loyalty'.
'We believe that we are in the collector market. Our customer has a really strong attachment to these series, whether they grew up with them or have some other emotional attachment,' says Columbia House VP of video Harry Elias. [Anne Sherber, Billboard, 112:7, 02/12/2000: 57]
It is the avid (cult) viewer, however, via whom marketers can really maximise profits.
Avid fans will not only take special pains to watch every episode of the show but … enthusiastically purchase or consume ancillary texts related to the program and often join interpretive communities that have formed around the show [including] … online discussion groups. [Reeves et al, 1996: 26]
Whilst avid viewers constitute a small and economically negligible market sector, their activities as fans nevertheless provide a most effective form of 'direct marketing'. Star Trek was the first TV show to be marketed in this way, evolving new marketing strategies out of the activities of the fans themselves. Initially, Star Trek followed an accustomed pattern in the development of media cults. An unpopular and unprofitable show was taken up by a small, but highly enthusiastic and interactive fan-base - whose activities turned it into a highly profitable enterprise. At the same time, Trekkies effected a far-reaching renegotiation of the terms of marketing and consumption in general:
In short, the extraordinary audience engagement generated by Star Trek in the 1960s had been transformed into a full-fledged cult by the mid-1970s - and in the process, Paramount became the preeminent syndicator in the industry, completely altering the marketing of [sic] structure for offnetwork series television and ushering in a new economics of popularity associated with the systematic fragmentation of television's mass audience into lifestyle sectors, psychographic segments, and niche markets. [Reeves et al, 1996: 28]

[15] The increasing sophistication as 'readers' of the MTV-literate, post modern, viewer further facilitates the development of cult marketing strategies. The X-Files, for example, was able to exploit an existing fan-base for Twin Peaks yet avoid the failures of the earlier show. The serial narrative of Twin Peaks had made it difficult to replace viewers who had abandoned the show. On the other hand, serial narrative is an important factor in promoting cult loyalties. Since cult viewers are, of course, adept at interpreting metanarrative, subtext, and supertext, Chris Carter was able to construct a complex supertextual structure for The X-Files which was able to reward regular viewers with continuity without alienating new viewers, since each episode's plot could be understood without knowledge of previous episodes yet the hemeneutic supernarrative developed through the whole run.

[16]Buffy follows a similar pattern. The BTVS series is a spin-off from the film of the same name (1992) - a critical and box-office failure which nevertheless generated respectable video sales and a modest cult status. Its small-screen incarnation is the product of a successful attempt by a struggling emergent network to cash in on the current high-profitability of the 'Oxy 5 set' (the teen and twenties market segment) and also to tap into an existing cult base. BTVS' existing cult status achieved not only instantly significant viewing figures for the TV networks, but highly profitable horizontal sales adding further value to the broadcasts themselves. [Anne Sherber, Billboard, 112:7; 2/12/200: 57; Catherine Applefield Olson, Billboard, 111:43, 23/10/99: 20; Todd Wasserman and Gerry Khernouch, Brandweek, 40:9, 18/10/99: 12]

About 4.1 million viewers sank their teeth into each of Buffy's first two episodes; the 2.94 rating may be teensy by Big Four standards, but it's given The WB its highest Monday numbers yet. [Entertainment Weekly, #376, 2/5/97: News & Notes]
Given the crucial function of cult in contemporary marketing and representational strategies, it seems increasingly difficult to argue that cult practices function in a realm of difference from mainstream commercial or cultural practices. These are not so much (vertically) 'sub' cultures as (horizontally) microcultures. The subtexting or recoding practices constitutive of subcultural groups are themselves no longer primarily marginal. Popular cult shows ranging from The X-Files to Ellen have taken to interacting subtextually both with detractors and admirers. Shows reward their adorers with subtextual acknowledgement and punish their opponents with subtextual satire. For example, BTVS received a hail of complaints from evangelist groups - which were wickedly sent up in the episode Gingerbread:
Ultimately, it is the counter-cult movement MOO [Mothers Opposed to the Occult] that id [sic] dangerous and even prone to murder while the 'white' witchcraft practised by girls such as Willow and Amy is gentle and inoffensive. And, ironically (but symbolically), the counter-cult movement is ultimately controlled by a demon. [Introvigne, 2000]
It might, indeed, seem difficult to effect a reading which is rebelliously 'against the grain' of such smart, self-reflexive, 'knowing' productions as BTVS, which so actively pursue a subtextual love-affair with audiences. Subtexting was originally a clandestine mode effecting the reinterpretation and recirculation of dominant culture by those whom it excludes, or as a means of communicating 'forbidden' meanings from textual producer to textual consumer, or between consumers in opposition to producers, and to effect or reaffirm a communal bond in counter-identification. BTVS clearly is functioning on this level of clandestine communication and its (gay) creator, Joss Whedon, clearly feels a strong personal commitment to 'cult':
I designed Buffy to be an icon, to be an emotional experience, to be loved in a way that other shows can't be loved. [Whedon, interviewed by Tasha Robinson, The Onion, #37: 31,]
As did its camp progenitor, cult effects a bond between producer and consumer in mutual opposition to the reproduction of cultural dominance - articulating the flippant bravura of 'outsider' status with (highly marketable) flamboyance and charm:
He [Whedon] says his storyline inspiration for Buffy involves not only his own experiences in school, but the universal woes of others. [BBC Cult,]
BTVS nevertheless knowingly exploits these techniques to manufacture identification with and loyalty to the show, which would seem to effect an alienated commodification (and a profitable popularity) at odds with the concept of a 'transgressive' bond between producer and consumer. And yet, as the MTV generation piles irony on irony, the more nimble nerd is still out in front:
And ultimately, what was interesting about that show [is that] we played the entire show as about [Tara] being gay - it was very strange to play a gay metaphor [witchcraft] about somebody who's openly gay! [Whedon interviewed by Sarah Kuhn]
But is this precocity 'transgressive' or merely productive of exceptionally amusing TV?
The Cyber Slayerettes

[17] Notwithstanding the exploitation of 'cult' processes, fans will inevitably subtext in excess of any authorial or commercial intentions. Despite being largely ignored by established media cult sites as mere teen-fodder, BTVS rapidly threw up a proliferation of fansites, 'zines, chatrooms, forums, and fanfic. Is this where a more radical 'transgression' effect might still be located?

[18] It is interesting to note that, whilst it is often difficult to discern a webmaster's [sic!] gender by their 'nick', it nevertheless seems clear from themes and language use on fansites that the majority of Buffyphiles are young women. McRobbie and Garber (1975) argued that 'ethnographies' of subcultures more or less ignored female activity and also noted that female teenagers' subcultural activities were characteristically confined to the home. [McRobbie and Garber, 1975: 115] However accurate this statement may or may not have been at the time, this is clearly no longer the case as, for example, Arthurs' [1995] analysis of women's very public responses to Thelma & Louise, the Madonna phenomenon, or the wave of Spice 'Girl-power' of the late 1990s demonstrate. Male commentators, nevertheless, predictably figured Buffy's female fandom as both trivial and 'privatised':

The sites are the internet equivalent of taping posters of favourite actors to a bedroom wall. [Kevin V Johnson, 'Show's Fansites Fight off 'Demon' Fox' USA Today, 23/12/99]
The extension of teenaged girls' subcultural activities into the technological, and allegedly male, preserve of cyber-space might be seen as a new and interesting development, providing a means for a relatively autonomous female cultural productivity and a more public mode of its re-circulation. Buffyphilia appears as a classic, autonomous and transformative 'subcultural' formation by which a disempowered or excluded demographic group (young women) re-appropriates, re-codes, and re-circulates popular media products, creating an alternative and empowering cultural space:
Fandom is typically associated with cultural forms that the dominant value system denigrates - pop music, romance novels, comics, Hollywood mass-appeal stars … It is thus associated with the cultural tastes of those disempowered by any combination of gender, age, class and race. [Fiske, 1992: 30]
Brower [1992], however, problematised the ubiquitous association of fandom with subordinated or excluded groups in her analysis of a predominantly female group of fans, Viewers for Quality TV. She noted that the membership of this group, whilst predominantly female, was also predominantly professional and privileged. The young, female, Buffyphiles who form online communities must have access to expensive hardware, ISP, domain and connection fees, as well as the skills to put up a fansite, and thus probably also represent an economically privileged group. BTVS fandom does, nevertheless, effectively rewrite the male/technological cultures of cyberspace and sci-fi/horror genres into a specifically female order. The character Willow's hacking credentials and an online women's pagan circle acknowledge this female domain in the BTVS official scripts themselves.
Rewriting Buffy

[19] Fanzines have always been mainly written and published by women [Jenkins, 1995: 197]. Fanfic also seems a specifically female textual form in that most women, girls, and lesbians tend to cite personal/romantic relationships between characters as their main, or at least as a very important, source of pleasure - even in action genres. This, in itself, transforms the generic 'masculine' focus on narcissistic identification with the active-phallic action hero whose violent and investigative actions control and propel the preferred narrative. Originary forms of female-authored fanfic (Star Trek, Blake's 7, etc) characteristically articulated a female desire for more mutual and equal (hetero)sexual relationships by fantasising homoerotic relationships between male protagonists and their male sidekicks - who are gender-peers. These stories are categorised in fansites' digital 'libraries' according to the characters involved in the homoerotic romance (for example, Kirk/Spock, Blake/Avon) - giving the 'slash' genre its name. Jenkins inteprets this homoeroticising strategy as a negotiation of gender contradictions in the representational regime in the series themselves:

For the female fan writers, one of the most acutely felt contradictions within Star Trek's ideology was the programme's treatment of its female characters. Extra-textual discourse stressed its commitment to gender equality, while the aired episodes fit women characters in miniskirts and put them into the constant service of the male protagonists. [Jenkins, 1995: 197]

[20] For Maddison, this strategy provides 'the means to enact an empowering identification with a subject position through which they [heterosexual female fans] may exhibit power (such as Chakotay), whilst being able to avoid such an identification slipping into a ventriloquism of patriarchal dominance.' [Maddison, 2000: 100] In other words, women want to be able to identify with the empowering aspects of active male protagonism without becoming identified with male dominance (over women). What, then, happens in the case of female protagonism? Does the capable and controlling female protagonist in action genres equalise hetero-gender relations within this localised (generic) ordering of signs? And if so, what female desires still exceed the representational order of BTVS and motivate such prolific fanfic production?

[21] Buffy fanfic does, on the whole, indeed, differ from established slash formats. Most BTVS fanfic, particularly that related to the first three Seasons, mainly develops heterosexual relationships from the show itself - focusing primarily on the romance between Buffy/Angel, or eroticising the relationship between Buffy/Giles, or mixing and matching the various het-teen-romances in the show's own plotlines. BTVS Fanfic indexes nevertheless categorise these heterosexual romances by the same formats (Buffy/Angel, Buffy/Giles, etc) which gave the homoerotically-themed slash genre its name. The dominant form of BTVS fanfic does, therefore, seem relatively complicit with the representational order of the show itself and, arguably, merely realises a wish to extend and share the fantasy beyond the parameters of broadcast content. This refocus to a relatively hetero-normalising treatment of sexuality in BTVS fanfic seems surprising given that female protagonism in action genres has so often been associated with feminist rebellion and lesbian-erotic subtexting.

[22] Dissident forms do exist on BTVS sites, addressing various persistent contradictions in the representation of female protagonism in the BTVS series. Jenkins' quote from one of the earliest Trekkie fanfic writers seems illuminating in this context:

If any man tried to treat me the way Romantic heroes commonly treat 'their' women, I'd punch his darkly-handsome-broodingly-rich front teeth out! [Jenkins, 1992: 193 citing Fish, 1984: 5]

Buffy may confidently quip and kick her phallic-cool way through the action sequences, but her male lover of the first three Seasons, Angel, is darkly romanticised in a more 'gothic' tradition. Buffy's romantic response is highly hetero-feminised - despite her ability to kick Angel (literally) to hell in the action sequences. Darkly brooding through the centuries, Angel mythologises the more banal mystique of the college boy for American teenaged girls. [Pic 1:] Female protagonism in BTVS seems, in effect, to have done little to challenge the heterosexual pattern of male erotic dominance and the sexualisation of women as spectacle in popular culture. Indeed, this contradiction seems to reflect 'real life' in the sense that women's widespread entry into managerial life historically appears to be accompanied by an ever more explicit eroticisation of women in popular culture.

[Picture 1: "Madness of a Rollercoaster"]

[23] It has been argued that Giles' nurturing role and Xander's 'geeky' status challenge these conventional sex-gendering patterns [Owen, 1991: 24], and the Giles/Buffy slash subgenre often extends this nurturing aspect of their relationship into sexual intimacy. There is also a substantial thread 'writing in' much more intimate relationships between Buffy/Willow, Buffy/Cordelia, or Buffy/Faith, and homoeroticised Xander stories [ April, 2000] in which his 'geek' status is equated with 'gayness'. The teen-alienation theme of Buffy's secret life as a slayer has also been treated as analogous to lesbianism:

I hate how we have this secret from everyone, why is society so mental? I wish we could just walk down the hallway at school and hold hands, or even kiss each other in public. Cordelia smiled as she pictured that scenario in her mind. It seems like Buffy would be the kind of person who wouldn't care what people thought of her, after all she's already used to being a little different than most. [Sonja Marie, April, 2000]
Even these homoeroticised slash forms are barely explicit, however - particularly in relation to the highly graphic standards of ST, HLX, X-Files and other slash genres. There is an 'angsty' sub-category, which overtly takes on more challenging themes such as sexual abuse (which are often implied in the show's official themes):
She loves me. I know she loves me. She holds me in her arms and whispers it in my ear before we go to sleep at night. She says it after we fight vampires, holding me close as she checks for any injuries. She protects me from the world outside, from myself, from everything because of it … she loves me. I know it because she hits me. [ April, 2000]
Fantasies of intra-female intimacy more often seem to dramatise a more conventional teen angst between best friends:
This fic is dedicated to my best friend, well I'm not sure if she still is because we had a fight, but I just thought it'd be fun if I put Buffy and Willow in our shoes. [Morrigan, 'Don't Take Me For Granted' April, 2000]

[24] During the first three seasons, it was noticeable that there was relatively little 'adult' BTVS fanfic in general. This may be simply because BTVS's core audience, for the early seasons in particular, is teenaged - and thus so are the tone and preoccupations of most BTVS fanfic. More 'adult' BTVS slash seems based on fanfic formats from other shows with a more mature core audience:

Um, it does involve some adult content, not graphic mind you, but to be safe I'll rate it an R. I don't know, since my perceptions have been muted by the ST adult fic and HLX fic. [Tiffany A White April, 2000]
Given that BTVS's core audience does not usually go in for graphic representations even of heterosexual relationships, perhaps non-sexualised representations of female intimacy in BTVS fanfic might be read as 'proto' lesbian. But Buffyfic authors seem self-consciously to refuse such identificatory 'labels':
Look: it's nobody else's business what we call ourselves. Maybe we are lesbians. Maybe we're bisexual. Maybe we're lovers, or maybe just fuckbuddies. I think we're just best girlfriends who have taken it a little further than most. [Janet F. Caires-Lesgold, 'Bizarre Love Triangle' April, 2000]
BTVS fanfic's female-intimacy themes therefore probably reflect little more than teenaged girls' emphasis on female intimacy (the 'best friend'), implied but marginalised by the shows' own plotlines in the earlier series. Overtly sexualised gay or lesbian themed BTVS fanfic usually has a primarily parodic and provocative intention, and seems marginal to the cult. The established forms of BTVS fanfic generated a subgenre, 'BadFic'. Sacrileges perpetrated include sexual pairings between various monsters and Slayerettes, sending all the male characters to The Bronze in drag, and figuring Buffy in later life as a washed-up stripper. [ April, 2000] These more challenging forms of BTVS fanfic seem to articulate an intra-female bond constituted in rebellion against heteronormative expectations of adult femininity, rather than a fantasy resolution of heterosexual relations through the homoeroticising practices characteristic of S-F slash writing. Rather than forming the Buffy cult, however, these writers seem actually marginal to it. It is therefore interesting to note that the show's own plotlines began to exhibit elements of 'badfic' by Season 5.

[25] It was not until Season 5, with its much more adult emotional themes and plastic sex-gender boundaries and the launch of the Angel spinoff, that BTVS fanfic produced a more 'classic' slash format. BTVS crossed with the Angel spinoff series in the Spike/Angel and Zander/Angel subgenres. This more classical slash is primarily female-authored (both nicks and apparently real names of authors are clearly feminine), and is sufficiently graphic to be corralled to an 'age-restricted' area at Yahoo Groups [], with the classic slash double-inversionary twist that dominant male characters are erotically 'topped' by subordinate or 'effeminate' male characters. [Pic 2:]

[Picture 2: "Bite Me"]

[26] It would seem to be primarily a desire to represent female intimacy as community and support rather than homoerotised desire for a more plastic sexual performativity which motivate representations of female intimacy in the more normative type of BTVS fanfic. And, in the show itself, when BTVS introduced a lesbian relationship between Willow and Tara in Season 4, homoeriticism is downplayed both on and offscreen. Indeed, it plays as 'no biggie' at all:

It doesn't feel gutsy. In fact, I was shocked that everybody was making a fuss. I was like, "Guys, do you live in the world?" I mean, honestly, some people are gay. I mean, a lot of them! Most of the gay people I know are gay. [Whedon interviewed by E! Online,]
Inevitably, there is some graphically homoerotic Willow/Tara slash but this seems also to be associated mainly with gay fansites crossing BTVS with the Angel spinoff series:
Homoeroticism Yay! is a clique for anyone who likes their TV a little For people who cheer when a naked Angel falls on a surprised Wesley, when Willow and Tara do another one of their "spells," when Xander bends over and calls himself a "nummy treat," when Faith and Buffy dance, whenever Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel feels just a bit more rife with homoerotic subtext than usual. []
BTVS Season 4 did, however, overtly problematise the disruption of heterosexual feminine adjustment as an effect of Buffy's protagonism in its narration of the breakdown of her relationship with the conventionally masculine commando, Riley. Riley also represents an attempt by corporate-masculinist DoD forces to gain control of Buffy's powers, successfully repulsed by the sex-gender-motley Scooby gang. In Season 5, culminating in Buffy's Ripley-esque swan-dive into self-sacrifice, the female community formed by Buffy, Dawn, Buffy's mother, Willow and Tara, and the diurnal heroine-ism of mature domestic responsibility, are overtly contrasted to masculinist corporatism.

[27] This might be seen as further testament to the responsive acuity of the show's writers and the role of the fanbase in defining the show's content and address. Community seems to be a key concept to the cyber-Slayerettes themselves. The Scooby gang homepage is titled: 'Your portal to the Buffy and Angel community' [emphasis mine]. [] It is a complex networked environment, updated daily, featuring contests, chatrooms, bulletin boards, articles, fanfic, merchandise, etc. There is even a 'Scooby-to-English' dictionary. Buffy fans are clearly forming a discursive space considerably in excess of the exchange and consumption of commodities - this is a highly productive microcultural formation capable of sustaining contradiction and recycling opposition.

[28] This formation of online culture and community through sharing emotional and creative responses to the show (as well as circulating merchandise and paraphernalia) seems a purposive rather than an accidental effect. The 'Scooby-gang' in the show apparently functions as an idealised female-centred community which the fans struggle to reproduce and extend online. Thus, whilst the Buffy cult is formed as an effect of the exchange of commodities, it very clearly exceeds commodification - and perhaps fulfils a perceived lack in consumptive culture and identification. But here's the twist - this cult activity was also part of Whedon's original plan:

I wanted people to internalize it, and make up fantasies where they were in the story, to take it home with them, for it to exist beyond the TV show. And we've done exactly that. [Whedon, interviewed by Tasha Robinson, The Onion, #37:31,]
Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that the Buffy cult as a whole seems to display relatively little oppositional intent except insofar as it appears to be fulfilling a need for a female-centred discursive space capable of sustaining a relatively empowered female subjectivity - as planned by its producers. However, the cyber-Slayerettes are prepared to emulate their heroine's battles with the masculinist corporate body in a 'netwar' to defend the integrity of their virtual realm.
Buffy Bites Back

[29] Besides providing enhanced corporate communication, direct marketing, e-commerce, and the formation of 'fluffy' online community, the internet is also seen as providing an unprecedented means to evade or resist capitalist modes of cultural commodification and thus to facilitate the formation of more 'spiky' networks of resistance [see Ronfeldt and Arquilla, 2001]. Buffy sites do sometimes feature links to hacker or cracker community sites. There is, indeed, an overt discourse of resistance on the less 'official' BTVS sites, often couched in a kind of manifesto-speak pitched somewhere between 1970s political pamphlets and teen-angst-drama. 'Bringers' is one of the campaigning BTVS sites:

I apologize, in advance for yelling, but IS THAT HOW WE THINK WE CAN DEFEND OURSELVES??? Is that how we plan on taking our poison? Well, I don't know about you, but that's not how I'm going to go down. If I'm going down I'm going down in flames and I will leave a brilliant crack of thunder in my wake. I hope all of you believe in your power enough to follow. [Untitled, April, 2000 - emphasis in original]
But this is not a response to an oppressive state regulatory or ideological apparatus. The issue in question is the closing down of various BTVS fansites by injunction, a petty tyranny committed by 20th Century Fox in an effort to regulate what it sees as the copyright abuse rampant on BTVS fansites - bringing the cyber-slayerettes to the cutting edge of conflict with transglobal corporate interests. Matters came to a head when, in deference to tabloid criticism of the violence of teen-TV in the wake of a spate of high-school massacres in small-town USA, the WB Network decided to cancel the scheduled broadcast of an episode featuring high school students fighting off a monster-serpent with bows and arrows (Graduation Day II, the finale to Season 3). Fans responded by distributing a digitised pirate version over the web, inspiring Village Voice journalists with vicarious transgressive impulses:
It's hard not to get off on the sense of sneaky rebellion you feel watching something that was pulled from U.S. airwaves only to be piped through the Net by entertainment freedom fighters who probably aren't yet old enough to drive… This turn of events is rather poetic, given that the WB has relied heavily on the Net to reach out to fans. [Steve Wilson, David Kushner, Richard A Martin, Village Voice, 44:24, 22/6/99: 36]
The networks are, of course, keen to wrest control of the largely toll-free exchange of BTVS paraphernalia from the fans. The exploitation of the web as a powerful direct-marketing tool inevitably leaves the networks vulnerable to piracy, and BTVS has become involved in a wider struggle between online nerd networks and transglobal corporations for control of new media. The weapons of this struggle are technological, as well as rhetorical:
Before GeoCities could shut down the page that supposedly originated the data by way of Canada … where the show aired on schedule, Graduation went viral on fan sites, making it virtually impossible to detect and inoculate each carrier. [Wilson et al, ibid]
Resistance is repackaged and sold back in the blink of a modem, however. Besides the traditional method of litigation, the networks are, at the moment, largely powerless to control the unauthorised circulation of digitised copies - along with audio files, screen-shots, and other electronic commodities. Thus, the networks have even considered redeploying this phenomenon to a new direct-marketing strategy - to 'bootleg its own work as a marketing ploy'. [Wilson et al, ibid] At the same time, however, websites continue to be shut down, and webmasters threatened with lawsuits from Fox if they do not suppress copyright violations. ['Buffy Cyber Fans Slayed by Fox', April, 2000]

[30] Buffyphiles are fighting back, as have Trekkies and X-philes before them; mostly with a remarkably traditional liberal civil-rights strategy promoting First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, lobbying for clarification of copyright 'fair use' on the internet, and negotiating guidelines with Fox. These negotiation-oriented websites also reasonably point out that fans' cyber-activities might more profitably be seen as promotional rather than piratical - a view already shared by many within the industry itself. To avoid closure, fansites are now addressing the copyright issue - the only area in which there is apparent conflict between the Slayerettes and the 'military industrial complex'. Most unofficial BTVS sites now prominently display copyright disclaimers. The more direct-action oriented sites continued defiantly to bootleg BTVS materials. [Kristen Baldwin, 'Rebuffed', Entertainment Weekly, 28/1/00,] but there seems to be less illicit Buffy paraphernalia around. There was a one-day blackout of all BTVS sites planned to demonstrate to Fox and WB the importance of the publicity generated by fans. Media commentators remain cynical that such direct actions will have any effect at all on the corporations. [, April, 2000] Yet the power of devotion is becoming an increasingly significant market force:

In a rare case of a hit show leaving one broadcast network for another, 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer,' a program that was crucial to the original success of the WB network, will move to UPN, its fiercest rival… The program has been credited with making WB what it is today - a leading network for young women. The network boasts a larger overall prime-time audience than UPN, which is geared more toward young men. Both networks started in 1995 as smaller alternatives to the large broadcast networks. [Rutenberg, 2001]

[31] This recent focus on online community is also an effect of a drift towards 'convergence' between (media) content and 'point-to-point' (personal) communications:

In general, content is distributed by "mass" or "broadcast" communications systems. Until a few decades ago, such services could be distinguished easily from "point-to-point" (or, more precisely, "person-to-person") communications, which included first class letters and phone calls, and were specific to the people involved in the transaction… During the last few decades, the distinction between point-to-point and broadcast communication began to blur… Individuals were able to reach large audiences through postings to netnews, or, more recently, through their personal Web pages. We can expect this evolution of communications to continue, and eventually to achieve that convergence in which there will be a continuum between point-to-point and broadcast communication… [Odlyzko, 2001]
What this means is that media industry will find it difficult to utilise the internet as a hyper-expansive dissemination channel for the remunerated transmission of content with centrally controlled interactive technologies. New technologies will undoubtedly overcome the shortcomings of a primarily text-based Internet Protocol in the convergence of communications/media technologies, but content/point-to-point and comms/media convergences with a technical shift to symmetrical connection nevertheless remains a more likely model than the a-symmetrical dominance of content provision:
The main reason to question whether content will ever make giant contributions to network costs is that by the time convergence is likely to occur, at least a decade into the future, content transmission is likely to be a small fraction of total traffic. Further, most content will probably be distributed as ordinary file transfers, not in real-time mode. [Odlyzko, 2001]
The industry is already aware that new media technologies will need to facilitate point-to-point communications and services rather than merely downloading pay-content to consumers and point-to-point is also becoming more focal in direct marketing techniques. In short, online cult activity appears as perfectly synchronous with the post-Fordist world order rather than as its abject 'other':
Online, the peculiar spatial qualities of cyberspace as a domain for dispersion, decentering, and discontinuity come into their own… A crude functionalism is not in play here. One instead sees the digital architectures of the Net remediating the elective affinities of capital by drawing technologies of the self (consumer decisions to exercise purchasing power) together with technologies of production (producer choices to organize adding value) in 24x7 I-Marts that provide new goods and services recast as bits. Information and goods might even be "given away" as "free" in online opium war of ads, promos, and banners known as "service provision", but ideologies of exploitative hypercompetition are enscribed [sic] on each and every commodity delivered to consumers as proof of their collective liberation. [Center for Digital Discourse and Culture, Virginia Tech, Digital Fordism:]
Virtual networking and a sense of personal 'connectedness' to communities of consumption are becoming the holy grail not only of media marketing but of transglobal capital as a whole.
Brave New Buffy

[32] The contemporary dominance of the construct of 'lifestyle' and its marketing analogues, the drift toward convergence, the increasingly pivotal role of 'lifestyle communities' in media economies, and the relative ease with which the MTV generation handles textual postmodernity all seem to question received conceptualisations of cult activity as subcultural or transgressive. Fandom now plays a crucial and largely accepted role in negotiations between cultural producers and consumers and between old and new-media. Constructs and regulatory institutions of liberal democracy are disintegrating as a result of economic restructuring and yet continue to be appealed to in articulations of control and resistance online. Similarly, whilst groups such as gays continue to experience regulatory discrimination, the mode of gay identity production is now indistinguishable from the 'dominant' lifestyle model. The 'outsider' status of microcultures may be no more than a romantic illusion but they are still, if not independent of, at least in excess of, their patterns of consumption. Notwithstanding their often-complicit articulations, Buffy's cyber-slayerettes have challenged the marginality of young women in their creation of female-centred networks of cultural production and exchange, as well as creatively addressing anomalies in 'post-feminist' representation (in the process making and breaking the fortunes of 'dominant' cultural producers). The online communities, cracking, and bootlegging associated with Buffyphilia appear as still more ambiguous productions of the new virtual order. On the one hand, point-to-point communities of virtual exchange and consumption appear entirely naturalised to new 'technologies of the self' but, on the other, toll-free exchange (and attacks on corporate digital infrastructures perpetrated by less fluffy online communities) represent its greatest perceived threats. This power struggle between quasi-autonomous networks and media corporations is productive of fragmentary and highly contradictory formations among which cultural boundaries of dominance and subjection are difficult to locate or define and existing models of cultural production (along with most other regulatory discourses) are stretched to the limit.


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