CAN’T PIN A GOOD SLAYER DOWN:
POLITICS, IF ANY, OF BUFFY THE VAMPIRE
SLAYER AND ANGEL
[NOTE: The following is a longer version of my chapter, “Old Familiar Vampires: The Politics of the Buffyverse,” in James B. South, ed., “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale (Chicago and La Salle, Illinois: Open Court Press, 2003), pp. 254-67. The present document incorporates material from several different drafts of that piece, and much that was cut from the final version. I have tried to shape it all into a coherent, slightly updated form here. This document was first posted in September 2003, and may be cited, but the book chapter should be consulted and cited first.]
Of all the philosophical themes that run through the Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe, none
seem to be more elusive than the political ones. As the intelligentsia’s
favorite show and a pop-culture reference in heavy rotation, Buffy has been analyzed many times, with
amusingly bipartisan results. Initially greeted as an exemplar of the “girl
power” feminism trend, Joss Whedon’s creation has been lauded since by everyone
from the liberal American Prospect
and Salon to the rightist National Review. Among its big newspaper
supporters have been Britain’s leading left-wing paper, the Guardian, and its venerable
conservative organ, the Times, joined
in the U.S. by the stuffy, quasi-liberal New
York Times and by Middle America’s primary-colored cheerleader, USA Today. At the same time, the shows
have been attacked by liberal anti-violence advocates keen to count up the
number of flying kicks and vampire impalements and by right-wing
Christian groups on the lookout for satanic pop culture.
It is not difficult to see why the intellectuals and
pundits and activists have had such a hard time. Overtly, Buffy and Angel are among
the least political shows on television. To a certain degree, they are designed
to defy pigeon-holing, in term of genre and tone as well as politics. Joss Whedon and his lieutenants have spoken
of their desire to keep viewers off balance. “It’s a mandate,” Whedon told The Onion A.V. Club in what seems to be
the most extensive interview he has given. “Don’t give people what they want,
give them what they need.” His primary commitment is the telling of emotionally
powerful, entertaining narratives: “The story is god.”
This is a
common enough rhetorical ploy for filmmakers faced with criticism, but Whedon
seems to mean it. His shows have studiously avoided cheap moralizing,
hot-button pushing, and “very special episodes” (with the possible exception of
“Wrecked,” in which Willow suddenly becomes “addicted” to magic and even visits
a kind of mystical crack house).
Indeed, the Buffy and Angel writers have usually gone out of
their way to undercut the few “statements” that might have been made. Even
“girl power” has not simply been celebrated. Faith, the swaggering East Coast
slayer who showed up in season 3, outdid even Buffy in the female empowerment
department, but she turned out to have far too much of a good thing. Physically
and sexually more aggressive than Buffy and comfortable with her power and her
warrior’s role (or so it seemed), Faith initially swept everyone in Sunnydale
off their feet (“Faith, Hope, and Trick”), only to prove unreliable and even
dangerous in the long run. Filled with self-loathing, Faith had become a rogue
slayer by the end of season 3 and began to amass a record of villainy that
includes trying to torture a captured Buffy (“Enemies”), nearly raping (and
murdering) Xander (“Consequences”), and beating and torturing her old Watcher,
Wesley (“Five by Five”). As feminist as the show is, the message seems to be
that power can be abused as easily by women as men.
Most recently, Whedon chose to sidestep the
“statement” opportunity presented by Willow’s turn to homosexuality, even as Buffy the Vampire Slayer was celebrated
in the gay and lesbian community for providing the first committed same-sex
relationship in the history of series television. Well aware that they were
breaking new ground and being closely watched, the Buffy braintrust elected to depict the relationship honestly but
unsensationally, avoiding the prurient ballyhoo that had accompanied fleeting
homosexual encounters in other series like Ally
McBeal and Party of Five. “It
would start to get coy and, quite frankly, a little offensive, for two people
that much in love to not have any physicality,” Whedon explained. “But the
whole mission statement was, ‘We’ll put it where nobody expects it, and we’ll
never talk about it.’”  Sex between
Willow and her lover Tara was implied now and then from “New Moon Rising” on,
and Willow’s best friends Buffy and Xander were allowed to feel briefly
uncomfortable with her switch in sexual preference (“The Yoko Factor”). Yet by
design the relationship was treated matter-of-factly, with little comment made
on its lesbian nature and little overt change in the characters’ behavior. Love was love, whatever the partners’
gender, and indeed for a long period from the end of season 4 to the middle of
season 6, Willow and Tara were the Buffyverse’s happiest and most stable
Joss Whedon’s basically apolitical intentions showed
in his obvious surprise at the bitter, politically charged reaction to Tara’s
death, by accidental gunshot, late in season 6 (“Seeing Red”). Though rooted
primarily in the anguish viewers felt over the death of a beloved character,
the criticism converged on the idea that Whedon had lapsed into the “Dead/Evil
Lesbian Cliché,” a subset of the broader pop culture cliché in which a minority
character is introduced only to be killed or turned into a villain.
Recognition of the cliché was quite widespread by the spring of 2002 thanks to
a highly entertaining documentary called The
Celluloid Closet (1995)
that happened to be showing frequently on cable television. Full of alternately
hilarious and chilling clips from old movies that few Buffy viewers were likely to have encountered, the documentary gave
the impression that every third film made in the 50s and 60s featured a
predatory lesbian villain or a tortured young woman, often trying to “go
straight” after falling inadvertently into lesbianism, who dies tragically in
the last reel. A good deal of screen time was given to atypically outrageous
items such as the notorious Al-Pacino-undercover-in-the-leather-bars thriller Cruising (1980) and the Tennessee
Williams freakfest Suddenly, Last Summer
(1959), in which the central though largely unseen homosexual character is also
a pederast and not only gets killed but eaten
in the film’s big flashback climax.
It is arguable how close the Buffy storyline actually came to matching this tradition. Tara had
been on the show for almost three years, so she could hardly be seen as mere
cannon fodder. The elements of self-loathing and violence that the Celluloid Closet films associated with
homosexuality were never shown to be part of Willow and Tara’s relationship.
The two characters’ story arc showed the women becoming more confident and
powerful as an acknowledged couple than they had been before. The Evil/Dead
Lesbian Cliché generally involves a partner killing herself or her lover, but
Willow’s murderous rage was directed outward at her lover’s murderer. Perhaps
the worst mistake that Whedon and his writers made was waiting until Tara’s
last episode to actually picture her naked in bed with Willow and then having
the murder occur immediately after, thus apparently linking death with a
homosexual act. That put it close enough to the Celluloid Closet paradigm to bring many politically minded critics
and fans down hard on Buffy the Vampire
Slayer and destroy much of the political cachet it had acquired since Tara
came on the show.
Suddenly denounced in many quarters where he had
previously been a darling (liberal-leaning pop culture journals, Buffy fan websites, the gay press), Joss
Whedon expressed dismay that his reluctantly made decision to kill off Tara
“made people I actually like angry. . . . it didn’t anger a bunch of morons.”
His response to the criticism was to spell out more clearly than ever that his
shows have no intentional political messages to deliver. “I never court
controversy,” Whedon told E! Online.
“I don’t really care about issues. I didn’t care about the one I introduced
with Tara, and I didn’t care about the one when I killed her. I cared about
narrative and what I needed to do to Willow.”
What he needed to do at that point was turn an enraged, recolored, magically
supercharged Willow into the show’s primary villain for the last few episodes
(“Villains,” “Two to Go,” and “Grave”), underlining season 6’s “Oh, grow up”
theme of young adults as their own worst enemies.
It would be wrong to declare Buffy and Angel free of
politics based solely on their creator’s intentions. The fans outraged by
Tara’s death have bored in on the idea that, in the words of a leading
Willow/Tara fan website, “creative freedom, ignorance, and/or absence of malice
on the part of Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy do not excuse the social harm this
storyline has caused.” Social harm seems a bit extreme – one doubts that the
death of cult television character will really contribute much to increased
homophobia in society or have a “catastrophic effect” on the lives of gay and
lesbian teenagers. 
Nevertheless, it is surely true that two of most intelligently written and
emotionally resonant series ever put on television, shows Whedon designed “to
be loved in a way that other shows can’t be loved,” have affected viewers’
thoughts and feelings concerning matters far removed from the world of vampires
Moreover, once the shows have been released to the culture, their themes belong
to the audience as much as to 20th-Century Fox, the networks, and
Joss Whedon. Many intelligent members of that audience have found political
ideas embedded in the Buffyverse as they have experienced it, and that alone
makes them worth investigating.
On the most superficial level, the politics of the Buffyverse appear to be a conventional form of Hollywood liberalism.  We see the typical good/evil codings that Hollywood has employed since the 1960s: People and personal relationships are good and fulfilling, institutions and authority figures are evil and repressive (the Mayor, Wolfram & Hart, Prof. Maggie Walsh) or stupid and repressive (Principal Snyder, the Sunnydale Police, the Watcher’s Council). Love and magic are good, science and technology are bad or at least dangerous (except for the Internet, where plucky, freedom-fighting, technopagans like Willow and Ms. Calendar can find anything they need, from City Hall blueprints [“Choices”] to criminal records to medieval German newspapers [“Gingerbread”]). Young people seek justice and see the world clearly, while adults rely on power and habit, and through fear, self-delusion, or corruption, refuse to acknowledge the world’s evils and put themselves and their children in danger. Those who loudly denounce sin or proclaim their own goodness are likely to be the greatest evildoers of all.
Being the creed of extremely wealthy and entrepreneurial liberals, Hollywood liberalism has tended to have a libertarian and personalistic bent, shying away from more broadly social and economic issues in favor of those relating to individual health and happiness: the personal traumas of war, the dangers of environmental poisoning, the horrors of prejudice (be it racism, sexism, or homophobia), and, in recent times especially, the heavy psychic costs of repression and violence within families and relationships. These are the typical themes of the few openly liberal productions to dribble out of Hollywood in recent years, and where appropriate – Buffy never squared off against any polluting demons – Joss Whedon’s shows seems to share a similar set of values.
Conservative critics have long complained about Hollywood’s promotion of permissive sexual mores and alternative lifestyles, and indeed it sometimes seems that trying to suppress the inner feelings and self-expression of children is the worst crime Hollywood can imagine. As in the acclaimed recent film American Beauty, within every overly strict screen parent seems to lurk a cauldron of violence, neurosis, and unacknowledged sexual tension. The villain of “Where the Wild Things Are,” named after a classic 1960s picture book that celebrated the inner wildness of children, was a seemingly nice old Christian lady who, while headmistress of an orphanage, had psychologically terrorized and physically abused her charges lest they be “shut out of the Kingdom, lost to lust.” This led to the repressed desires of the children haunting the house and tormenting Xander and Anya (“Shut up! Repressed crybabies”) after the ghosts are awakened by Buffy and Riley’s lovemaking.
Tolerance is upheld not only for lesbians and nerds, but also for certain types of demons; rehabilitation and redemption are depicted as possibilities for even the most depraved beings, such as vampires and lawyers. Besides the two vampires (Angel and Spike), two witches (Willow and Tara), and three demons (Anya, Doyle, and Lorne the Host) who have served in the main casts of Buffy and Angel, it has been well established in the shows that “demon” is not a pejorative term signifying the evil minions of the Christian Satan, but rather a more neutral term denoting a diverse array of supernatural beings. As Anya put it in “Family,” there are “lots of different kinds” of demons, some “very, very evil,” but some “considered to be useful members of society.” Earlier she had informed the gang that most “demons” on Earth were actually human-demon hybrids (“Graduation Day, Part 2”), further blurring the line between which beings are permissible to hate and kill and which are not.
This partial decoupling of biological origins and moral character has been carried furthest, and most specifically linked with an antiracist message, in Angel. The early episode “Hero” dealt with the need to protect a group of innocent demon refugees from a Nazi-like corps of racist “pureblood” demons called the Scourge. During Angel season 2, one of the show’s primary locations was the karaoke bar Caritas, where the owner and patrons were demons depicted mostly in comic terms. Early in season 3, human racism was brought into the mix, and the question of demon morality was further complicated. In “That Old Gang of Mine,” the Buffyverse’s one black regular, Charles Gunn, finds himself caught between Angel and the demon-fighting street gang he once led. The old gang has become much more violent and indiscriminate, murdering a harmless “balancing entity” (a fat childlike demon shown in the teaser slurping on a Big Gulp) and then besieging Caritas to kill all the monsters and “monster lovers” gathered there. Gunn is accused of betraying his race (as a black man and a human being) by siding with Angel and Lorne, and he begins to question his decision to leave the gang.
Following a grand tradition in liberal pop culture, men with guns are the most distasteful villains of all in Buffy’s world, snarling macho caricatures who lack the verbal wit possessed by non-gun-toting baddies such as the Master, Principal Snyder, Spike, Angelus, and the Mayor. Representing the worst tendencies of both testosterone and technology, they tend to meet with humiliation, like the werewolf hunter Cain (“Phases”), whom Buffy symbolically castrates (by mangling his big gun), or grisly, ignominious death, as visited on the Initiative’s doomed martinet commander, mauled during the demon prison riot in “Primeval.” Warren, leader of the season 6’s evil nerd trio and the murderer of Tara, receives the combination platter: symbolic castration by Buffy in “Seeing Red”-- she crushed two magic orbs on his waist that granted superhuman strength -- followed by torture and live skinning at the hands of a black-haired, black-eyed, floating Willow in “Villains.”
The punishment meted out to men with guns underlines
the dominant form of liberalism abroad in the Buffyverse, feminism. Not the
more radical, overtly politicized feminism of the 1970s, of course, but rather
the more marketable, sex-positive, “girl power” feminism of the 1990s. Girl
power was built into the very premise of Buffy
the Vampire Slayer and formed a key aspect of its early publicity appeal.
Most weeks, a powerful but still feminine young woman battles and defeats male
figures who dwarf her physically or claim patriarchal power over her. Joss
Whedon has repeatedly said that his inspiration for Buffy was sympathy for “that blonde girl who would always get
herself killed” in horror movies. “A beautiful blonde girl walks into an alley,
a monster attacks her, and she’s not only ready for him, she trounces him.” In
other words, Whedon sought to subvert or invert the horror genre’s notoriously
misogynistic sexual politics. He hoped that his literally empowered heroine
would not only be better for girls to identify with, but also might help reform
the attitudes of boys who might resist feminism if it were presented directly
or abstractly: “If I can make teenage boys comfortable with a girl who takes
charge of a situation without their knowing that’s what’s happening,” Whedon
told Time during his show’s first
season on the air, “it’s better than
sitting down and selling them on feminism.” 
Inadvertently but fortuitously, Buffy’s spring 1997 debut coincided with the rise of a cultural
flap over the allegedly low self-esteem of adolescent girls. The show entered
the vanguard of a still-burgeoning trend toward entertainment franchises built
around empowered female role models, or as the New York Daily News more bluntly put it, “Butt-Kickin’ Babes.”
Buffy’s colleagues in butt-kickin’ included her immediate predecessor Xena: Warrior Princess, buxom videogame
heroine Lara Croft, La Femme Nikita,
two out of three leads plus the main villain of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Max of Fox’s Dark Angel (a blatant Buffy
ripoff that was actually scheduled against, and named to confuse viewers with, Buffy’s own spinoff), Agent Sydney
Bristow of ABC’s Alias, Officer Sara
Pezzini of TNT’s Witchblade, the far more violent big-screen Charlie’s Angels, the animated Powerpuff Girls, and many more who have
achieved less success. At the same time, male action stars like Sylvester
Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger saw their careers decline.
and largely ecstatic nature of the media coverage that Buffy attracted in its early years, despite relatively low ratings,
owed not a little to its feminist reputation. “Think of Buffy as Whedon’s take on Reviving
Ophelia [a 1995 book that was one of the self-esteem for girls movement’s
bibles],” wrote Entertainment Weekly TV
critic Ken Tucker, justifying a lavish 24-page spread on the series in October
1999. With notices like that, Buffy’s
auteur even earned an admiring profile in Ms.
feminists have concurred with their journalistic counterparts and then some,
anointing Buffy as a “transgressive woman warrior” who offered “possibilities
for re-imagining gendered relations and modernist American ideologies” and
“reconfigur[ing] some of the relations of power in the body rhetorics of horror
and action,” whatever those might be.
Though definitely surfing a trend, Whedon was not
merely posturing, and Buffy’s
feminism is not solely of the “post-feminist” backlash variety, as some conservative
writers have claimed. True, Buffy is an unapologetically girly girl with more
than a passing interest in boys and clothes, not to mention school dances,
stuffed animals, and figure skating, but both her show and Angel have returned again and again to core liberal feminist
concerns with the victimization and subjugation of women in a patriarchal
society. Some of the series’ more heartfelt episodes have dealt with typical
feminist topics such as domestic violence (“Beauty and the Beasts” & “Billy”)
and date rape (“Dead Things” & Willow’s first vampire experience in
“Welcome to the Hellmouth”), rendering them as usual in a heightened
supernatural form. Buffy’s abusive future stepdad turns out to be a
misogynistic robot (“Ted”), and leering frat boys drug Cordelia and Buffy at a
party not for sex but instead to feed them to the phallic snake-demon they
worship (“Reptile Boy”).
One season 5 episode (“Family”), penned by Whedon
himself, directly addressed a Reviving
Ophelia scenario. Tara’s conservative family shows up take her home,
claiming that she (like her mother before her) is a demon whose “true face”
will show itself on her twentieth birthday. Her budding self-esteem and sense
of belonging crushed, Tara begins stuttering again and, to protect her secret,
performs a demon-hiding spell on her friends that nearly gets them all killed.
In the end, Spike proves that Tara’s alleged demonism is just a convenient
patriarchal fiction, a “bit of spin to keep the ladies in line.” This fiction
is linked explicitly to a demand that Tara abandon her college education and
limit herself to traditional female domestic duties. “There’s a house needs
taking care of,” her cousin Beth clucks, “Donny and your dad having to do for
themselves while you’re down here living God knows what kind of lifestyle.”
More subtly, arcs reflecting feminist ideas were
developed for various male characters, chronicling men’s misguided, often
destructive struggles to shore up their fragile male egos in the face of
women’s power. Episodes centering on Buffy’s friend and would-be lover Xander
usually employ this theme: Two prospects for losing his virginity nearly result in death when the women in question are revealed to be a giant praying
mantis (“Teacher’s Pet”) and a lifeforce-sucking Inca princess (“Inca Mummy
Girl”). Then havoc results when a love spell affects every woman in Sunnydale
but the person Xander intended (“Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”); later
he starts running with a tough crowd to assuage his feelings of inadequacy for
being weaker than his two female, superpowered best friends, only to have his
new friends turn out to be zombies (“The Zeppo”). In this last episode, Xander
finally does succeed in getting “up with people,” but the occasion is a near
rape by the rogue slayer Faith, who later tries to strangle him during an
attempted repeat performance (“Consequences”).
The feminist thematics declined somewhat after Buffy
graduated from high school at the end of season 3 and began to face more female
adversaries, including the most powerful Big Bad of them all, the “hellgod”
Glory. (Of course Glory had lots of girl power herself, mowing down a small
army of crusader-type knights in “Spiral.”) Yet at times, the theme of
threatened masculinity was dominant, especially during season 5, over the
course of which Buffy’s outgoing and incoming paramours, besotted with the
Slayer yet reduced in their physical powers, go through life-changing
breakdowns. Deprived of super-soldier drugs that once made him nearly a match
for Buffy, the hulking Riley turns to vampire prostitutes to understand why
Angel and Dracula, sexy vampires who had been permitted to bite Buffy in
previous episodes, “had so much power over [her]” when Riley did not. He flees
back to the military when Buffy discovers his extracurricular activities (“Into
Then there was Spike, a former villain and a
specialist in Slayer-slaying who was first introduced running over the “Welcome
to Sunnydale” sign and declaring the place his “Home, sweet home” (“School Hard”).
His whole history on the show has been a campaign to undermine and finally
dismantle his pretensions to alpha-male dominance. Besides being repeatedly
outmuscled and outsmarted by Buffy, Spike was cuckolded and then dumped by his
vampire lover Drusilla (“Lover’s Walk”) and subsequently fitted with a brain
implant that prevents him from attacking humans (“The Initiative”). Neutered in
this fashion, Spike then developed a crush on his former nemesis and headed
into a downward spiral, mooning outside Buffy’s house (“No Place Like Home”),
sneaking in to sniff her clothes (“Shadow”), building a shrine to her in his
crypt (“Crush”), and occasionally trying misguided, Taxi Driver-like attempts to court her (“Fool for Love”). When
Buffy made it clear that she considered Spike “beneath [her],” echoing a
putdown received on his last night as a human in Victorian England, Spike began
accepting substitutes, the moral equivalent of masturbating over pornography or
copulating with inflatable women. He convinced airheaded vampire girlfriend
Harmony to dress up as Buffy for sex games (“Crush”) and then, like one of the
bloodless suburban husbands in The
Stepford Wives, commissioned a
“Buffybot” programmed to adore him unconditionally and submit to his every sexual
whim (“I Was Made to Love You,” “Intervention”).
Finally, the former Big Bad lost his last shred of
vampiric self-respect and became Buffy’s self-admitted platonic love slave,
swearing to protect her sister for life and choking up at the prospect of the
Slayer’s treating him even a little more respectfully. “I know that I’m a
monster,” Spike tells her earnestly in the season 5 finale (“The Gift”), “but
you treat me like a man, and that’s…,” he trails off, unable to speak. Almost
by itself, the fall of Spike from strutting icon of punk-rock machismo to the
devoted babysitter who opened Season 6 (“Bargaining, Part 1”), proves that the
post-high school Buffy retained its
original agenda of, as one academic treatise put it, “relocating narrative
agency from masculine to feminine.”
More than one writer has detected radical or even
Marxist tendencies in the Buffy and Angel
that go beyond Hollywood’s “lifestyle liberal” pieties. Unsurprisingly, of the
three major sets of commentators, self-consciously radical academics have been
more likely to take this tack than entertainment journalists or fans. Yet it
requires no great feats of exegesis to see what they mean.
In Buffy and
Angel, there is a persistent
association of capitalist values — among them excessive self-interest,
cutthroat competition, the accumulation of wealth, the rationalization of
production, and the commodification of labor — with literal inhumanity.
Following a long left-wing tradition of depicting economic exploiters as
“bloodsuckers” and vampires as privileged figures exploiting a defenseless
populace (such as Bram Stoker’s castle-dwelling nobleman, feeding off the peasants who should be under
his feudal protection),
the association of demonism and capitalist values is often made quite
explicitly and directly. The only really
avid capitalist among the main cast members is the once and future vengeance
demon Anya, whose greed and failure to master human behavior have been running
jokes since the end of season 3. In “Doublemeat Palace,” Anya even states her
motivations for fighting evil, shown to be extremely grudging and unsteady over
the course of the series, in narrowly capitalist terms: “Supervillains want
reward without labor! To make things come easy. It’s wrong! Without labor there
can be no payment and vice versa! The country cannot progress!”
When inhumans grow powerful on the show, capitalism
rises. The hellgod Glory is depicted as an uber-consumer. In the alternate
universe of “The Wish,” the vampires’ domination of Sunnydale leads directly to
the industrialization of the human body.
Bored with “the mindless routine of the predator,” the Master introduces
the vampire world to “a truly demonic concept: mass production,” opening a
blood factory where live humans will be transformed into a tasty, nutritious
As with the lifestyle liberal themes, anti-capitalism
is taken to the greatest extreme in Angel,
where Los Angeles capitalists of both the corporate and street-criminal variety
are shown to be actual monsters whose interests are protected by the satanic
law firm Wolfram & Hart. The basic insight, not entirely original to this
series, is that the secretive, exploitative, amoral world of corporate
capitalism would naturally attract any vampires and demons who might happen to
be living in the modern world. (For instance, the Blade films depict vampires as a hidden financial and political
elite, managing the world’s affairs from behind the scenes.) In the first
episode’s climax, Angel barges into a plush corporate boardroom to confront
that week’s villain, Russell Winters, a vampire businessman who preys in every
sense on desperate young actresses. Winters turns coolly to Angel and explains,
in effect, that the inequality and moral indifference of capitalist society
affords a respectable, stable place for vampires like themselves: “We do things
a certain way here in L.A.” Winters plays along with the system, keeps his
crimes discreet, and “in return I can do anything I want!” Angel disproves this
by asking, “Can you fly?” and pushing Winters and his leather chair through the
office tower window.
Winters was only the first of many such figures that
Angel encountered. Until its apparent destruction in “Habeas Corpses,” Wolfram
& Hart always remained Angel’s arch-nemesis because of the role the firm
played in maintaining the system that made Russell Winters possible, an almost
too-obvious analogy to the role that real lawyers (along with judges and the
law itself) play in the maintenance and protection of American corporate
structural nature of this role is underlined by that fact Wolfram &
Hart continued as villain despite the fairly high death and turnover rate among
the particular characters we saw running its supernatural “Special Projects”
The anticapitalist theme goes much deeper in the shows than these rather unsubtle examples might suggest. The whole Buffyverse mythology identifies the essence of humanity with the capacity for non-capitalist, unselfish feelings and actions: compassion, altruism, love, and self-sacrifice. Indeed, the moral sense or conscience has usually been defined on the shows as the very function of the human soul and the most important thing separating humans and demons. When a human becomes a vampire, his or her soul departs, leaving behind most aspects of the original self — including memory, personality, and appearance — except the conscience and moral values that restrained (or should have restrained) the former person from destroying others to serve his or her own needs. Alienate a human being from his or her soul, and he or she is liberated from the ethical qualms and sentimental feelings that impede the ability to compete and dominate. The Mayor indicates that he literally alienated his soul, in the legal-economic sense, in order to gain power and immortality and pave the way for full demonhood (“Lovers Walk”): “I swear, I would sell my soul for a decent short game,” he jokes to his assistant while putting in the office. “Of course, it’s a little late for that.” As revealed in “Primeval,” the evil plan of Prof. Maggie Walsh and her human-demon-machine creation Adam is to create a new race of hybrids who would combine the intelligence and adaptability of humankind with the inhuman strength and killer instincts of demonkind. The first of their new warriors, Riley’s former friend Forrest, sounds like a sales seminar graduate in describing his new hybridized state: “This is the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m free of all my weaknesses — my doubts.”
Vampire Slayer frequently advances
the idea that non-economic, altruistic values and structures are absolutely
critical to the preservation of human freedom and must be protected from the
selfish, aggressive forces that threaten them. The goal pursued by Adam, the
Mayor, and most of the other seasonal Big Bads, including the Master, Angelus,
and Glory, involved breaking down the barriers standing between the human world
and the demonic ones: the forcefield keeping the Master in his underground
prison, the magicks that banished pureblood demons from the Earth in prehistory
(“The Harvest”), or most strikingly, the dimensional walls separating our reality
from other far more horrifying ones. Angelus tried to get the Earth sucked into
one of the many hells (“Becoming, Part 1”), while Glory intended to use the Key
(reshaped to be Buffy’s sister, Dawn) “to open the gates that separate
dimensions . . . all the gates” (“Spiral”). With the walls broken down, Giles
explains in “The Weight of the World,” “Dimensions will pour into one another
with no barriers to stop them. Reality as we know it will be destroyed, and
chaos will reign on Earth.” In “The Gift,” we get to see a little bit of what
this means. The world does not end so much as get opened up to free trade with
many hellish, faraway places: A dragon suddenly cruises across the sky. An
apartment building is suddenly exchanged for a nest of Alien-like monsters. Even before the Glory story arc, the opening
of dimensional gates was almost the working definition of apocalypse, as in the
Hellmouth openings of “Prophecy Girl,” “The Zeppo,” and “Doomed.”
Allegorically, the Big Bads’ schemes can be seen as nightmarish
replications of the rise and globalization of the capitalist market economy.
The history of capitalism has been a story of the structures that blocked or
impeded the free play of market forces being gradually neutralized, from
physical obstacles to religious beliefs to local customs to cultural traditions
to national boundaries themselves. In the Buffyverse, most humans most of the
time can live relatively unaffected by, and ignorant of, the mighty magical
forces lurking under and around their world. This is because a whole host of
traditional structures and institutions (like the church and the nation-state)
shelter them: the Slayers, the Watcher’s Council, the Powers That Be, the
magical limitations that constrain vampires and demons operating in this
dimension, the dimensional boundaries themselves. The Big Bads want to knock
these barriers down, and once they do, the relatively
altruistic and communal human order would be replaced by a new laissez-faire
regime of free competition between humans and supernatural creatures, where the
only thing regulating their interactions would be raw force and the willingness
to use it. In this new arena, as many Buffy
villains have pointed out, the weaker, less aggressive, conscience-laden human
race would be wiped out or become slaves or livestock. Compare this to Marx’s
description of the bourgeoisie’s impact on traditional society and its
institutions in the Communist Manifesto:
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors,” and has left no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment.” It has drowned out the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
For orthodox Marxists, of course, the dissolution of traditional society is a positive development representing progress on the road to communism. Obviously, Joss Whedon and his writers see no such upside to demon realities overwhelming our human one. The dimensional portal-opening metaphor in BtVS comes much closer to the ideas of neo-Marxist “dependency” and “world-system” theorists who describe the destructive impact of intercourse between developed capitalist nations and the poorer, less developed places they colonized. Such theorists, and the scholars influenced by them, cast sympathetic eyes on the less individualistic, less economically competitive traditions of tribal and peasant societies.
Historians of Native American culture have been particularly eloquent on this theme. Brought into contact with the world market and European culture, Richard White writes, Indians who “had once been able to feed, clothe, and house themselves with security and comfort” and maintain political self-determination, soon found their accustomed means of subsistence impossible, their political and economic choices dictated by outsiders, their cultures rapidly and involuntarily changing, and their societies divided, impoverished, and collapsing. The evocative title of Elizabeth A.H. John’s book on southwestern American Indian history captures this idea in a way that closely tracks the fiery tableaux of dimensional conversion seen in “The Gift”: Storms Brewed in Other Men’s Worlds.
Apologists of globalization love to celebrate the strange juxtapositions brought about by the penetration of modern consumer goods into incongruous places, like cell phones on the Wailing Wall or McDonald’s restaurants in communist China. Yet for many formerly isolated societies, exposure to world market forces has produced devastating results much more like Sunnydale might have experienced if Glory’s dragon or the mayoral serpent had been allowed to stay. European microbes brought by traders and fisherman wiped out much of the coastal North American population in “virgin soil epidemics” before English colonization proper even began. Firearms and metal weapons made Native American warfare far more deadly, while hunting to serve the European market for deerskins and furs led to the rapid disappearance of the game along with increased warfare and the beginnings of social breakdown as Indian men ranged farther and father from home in search of animals. When the supply or demand for furs and skins finally collapsed, Indians found themselves economically and politically dependent on whites.
The heroes of Buffy
the Vampire Slayer (and, to a slightly lesser extent, Angel) are specifically
set up as champions and users of traditional, nontechnological, uncommodified
forms of knowledge and power. Buffy and her friends operate as an informal collective
altruistically serving the common good. Beginning undercover in the high school
library with funding from the Watcher’s Council of England, the Scooby Gang’s
demon-slaying operation has moved systematically away from sanction or
association with any hierarchical, bureaucratic organization, be it the police,
the Watcher’s Council, or the military. Buffy herself is too absorbed with her
personal life and Slayer duties to pay attention to money matters. Yet even
when left destitute after the death of their mother, she and Dawn angrily
reject Anya’s suggestion that they “start charging” for killing monsters (“You
provide a valuable service to the whole community. I say, cash in”
[“Flooded”]). Buffy thinks of Slaying as anything but a service to be exchanged
for money: it is her calling, her destiny, and she will not have it “stripped
of its halo” and converted to a form of wage labor, as Marx observed that
capitalism had done to “every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with
reverent awe.” Angel
Investigations is a more complicated case — something must be paying all those
salaries and maintaining that hotel. Yet money is rarely shown changing hands,
and Angel’s biggest battles are clearly handled on a pro bono basis.
Armed with pointed sticks, crossbows, axes, dusty old
tomes, and magic (supplemented only by Willow’s plot-convenient computer
hacking and the occasional rocket launcher or bomb for magically unkillable
foes), Buffy and her friends are the “primitive rebels” of leftist lore and scholarship.
As developed by postwar social historians such as E.J. Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson,
and George Rudé, this interpretation transforms the criminal classes of world
history — the bandits, poachers, gangsters, and rioters — into
proto-revolutionaries, resisting by traditional means the forces threatening
the common folk and their traditional way of life. Robin Hood, Jesse James, and
the pirates thus become “social bandits” in the eyes of some historians.
Buffy’s experience with the Initiative in the second half of season 4 established her most clearly as a “primitive rebel.” Buffy briefly joined this secret, demon-fighting branch of the military, even carrying a gun for one episode (“The I in Team”), but it all backfires: the gun is sabotaged, and Prof. Walsh, the Initiative leader, wants her dead. Later discovering that Adam, the Initiative’s own Frankenstein, cannot be hurt by their technology, the “young radical” Buffy (“The Yoko Factor”) realizes that she can only defeat the menace with the traditional, supernatural means that are her birthright. The Slayer and her friends march into the Initiative’s lair with only a spellbook and a magic gourd (“Primeval”), and Buffy warns the facility’s clueless replacement commander to butt out:
This isn’t your business. It’s mine. You, the
Initiative, the boys at the Pentagon… You’re in way over your heads. Messing
with primeval forces you’ve got no comprehension of.
And you do.
I’m the Slayer. You’re playing on my turf.
for the radical interpretation of the Buffyverse, the Slayer and her friends
are “primitive rebels” in one other way. Theirs is only a piecemeal resistance
rather than any sort of revolution. Viewers and heroes alike are constantly
reminded that the fight can never be conclusively won, that evil will abide no
matter how often it is defeated. “For us, there is no fight,” explains Holland
Manners, top official of Wolfram & Hart, after Angel has killed one of the
firm’s “senior partners.” “We go on, no matter what. Our firm has always been
here in one form or another. The Inquisition, the Khmer Rouge . . .”
(“Reprise”) Though their efforts are frequently hindered by corrupt or
incompetent human institutions, and though it has been demonstrated often that
demonic evil permeates the power structure of Southern California, the shows’
heroes have never developed any strong sense that the larger social order is
unjust enough, or changeable enough, to overturn. Based on their conversations
and the posters on their walls, the youth of Sunnydale seem to be enthusiastic
consumers of popular culture and (outside of their occasional run-ins with
principals and the police) generally seem to regard their apparently prosperous
California suburb as a place worth saving rather than one in need of
Moreover, the anticapitalist themes have been balanced
by other storylines that depict money-making in a far more positive light. In
the Angel series and the post-high
school Buffy episodes, running a
small business like the Magic Box or Angel Investigations is presented as a
perfectly decent and darkness-free activity if one doesn’t get carried away.
Indeed, Whedon and company seemed to be following the uncritically
procapitalist zeitgeist of the late 1990s when they shifted Buffy’s primary setting from the university
to a retail store at the beginning of season 5. While investigating the latest
murder of a local magic shop owner, the unemployed Giles makes a startling
discovery in the deceased’s account books: “I had no idea the profit margin for
a shop like this could be so high” (“The Real Me”). Giles eagerly goes into
business, and the characters are rather genial about the fact that the magic
supply business involves a good deal of commodification and mystification,
deriving inflated profits from the ignorance of the clientele — the truly
useful stuff is kept mostly away from the customers in a loft or behind the
counter. “Congratulations, you’re now an official capitalist running dog,”
Willow jokes as Giles burbles over his first sale (“No Place Like Home”),
riffing good-naturedly on communist rhetoric in a vein that recalls the
advertising tagline for Forbes, the conservative business magazine:
“Capitalist Tool.” Even “Doublemeat Palace,” a satire on the horrors of life on
the bottom rung of the economy (and the only episode to get Buffy in hot water with the
advertisers), ended with Buffy concluding that her fears of corporate
conspiracy were unjustified and resigning herself to the job.
Finally, the standards of heroic behavior expressed and modeled on the shows hew much more closely to liberal notions of incremental reform and the rule of law than to the radical drive for “justice now” “by any means necessary.” Whedon has cited comic books as one of his major influences in the development of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and with that in mind, it is easy to see that the Buffy and Angel characters are essentially superheroes, with deep roots in a comic book tradition that has always been liberal at heart.
Superman originated during the New Deal years as the liberal
Reformer of Steel, punishing corrupt businessmen, exposing stock market
swindles, and freeing death row prisoners. Superman also pioneered the ethical
code that came to be standard for all costumed vigilantes meant to be taken as
heroes: he avoided the use of firearms, protected helpless creatures at all
costs, and never killed human beings, or even allowed them to die if he could
help it, however great the justification.
In the 1960s, Marvel’s signature hero Spider-Man debuted, committing himself to
the same superhero code and adopting a motto that incorporated the principles
of selfless community service and the duty of the powerful to the powerless:
“With great power there must also come — great responsibility.”
The unarmed liberal superhero was a sharp revision of the heroic model
presented in older genres like the western and the hard-boiled detective story,
where everyone had guns and the heroes killed all the time.
Though both Buffy and Angel have been shown in dark
periods where they abandoned the superhero code, usually drawing criticism from
other characters and incurring serious repercussions, they have always come
back to the code and occasionally even vocalized its precepts on the
shows. In “She,” Angel aids Princess
Jhiera’s campaign to save the enslaved women of Oden Tal but warns her not to
kill humans who happen to get in her way (several had already been incinerated
for reasons that require too much exposition to explain here). Their last
exchange is a fairly classic rendition of liberal reformist vs. radical
revolutionary tactics, as well as Angel’s adherence to Supermanian canons of
If you’ve vowed to protect the innocent, Jhiera — it shouldn’t matter which dimension they’re from.
An easy sentiment, when your people are free.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t fight — just know I’ll be
here to stop you if you cross the line.
fights for the oppressed, but he would never condone revolutionary bombings,
shootings, or hijackings no matter how good the cause.
Buffy’s commitment to the code has been even more steadfast than Angel’s — he went on a ruthless loner streak for much of the spin-off’s second season, while Buffy’s only serious lapse was her failed attempt to kill Faith in “Graduation Day, Part 1.” In less desperate times, she even extends the helpless creatures rule to nonviolent demons and defanged vampires like Angel and Spike. Certainly the most stirring endorsement of the superhero code in Buffyverse history came near the end of Whedon’s “The Gift.” Buffy has finally defeated Glory but cannot bring herself to execute the now defenseless human, Ben, whose body the hellgod shared. Giles takes it upon himself to kneel down and suffocate Ben, destroying Glory forever while preserving Buffy’s liberal values: “Sooner or later, Glory will reemerge and make Buffy pay for that mercy, and the world with her. Buffy even knows that, and still she wouldn’t take a human life,” Giles explains, with great admiration in his voice, to the man he is about to kill. “Because she’s a hero, you see. She’s not like us.”
Murder, terror, and other radical or final solutions are for ordinary humans, the shows seem to argue. Liberalism is for heroes, who must at least model the superhuman values of mercy and altruism for the rest of us. The 2002 season premiere of Angel featured an actual lecture on this theme, delivered to the hero’s vengeful, wayward son Connor (“Deep Down”): “Nothing in the world is the way it ought to be. It’s harsh, and cruel. But that’s why there’s us. Champions. It doesn’t matter where we come from, what we’ve done or suffered, or even if we make a difference. We live as though the world was what it should be, to show it what it can be.” That is as clear a statement of Joss Whedon’s liberal, incrementalist vision as we are likely to get.
Though a conservative interpretation of Buffy has been put forward in the press rather often, it frankly requires some suspension of disbelief to even entertain it. Given the prominent role of explicitly Christian, proudly old-fashioned “family values” in recent conservative politics, it makes a lot of sense that Buffy and Angel would be, in Christianity Today’s words, “Must Flee TV” for right-leaning Americans.
The sexual content would be the first thing for
conservatives to flee. Buffy
presented the most appealing and realistic portrait of lesbian love in
broadcast television history at a time when conservative psychiatrists and
clergymen were promoting “cures” for homosexuality. At the same time, Joss
Whedon and his writers obviously relished their ability to sneak raunchy sex
scenes past the censors. Season 6 of Buffy
depicted primary characters engaged in lesbian sex, oral sex, and
sadomasochistic sex. Buffy must undoubtedly be the first television superhero
to fellate a man onscreen, though she was invisible at the time (“Gone”), and
the last verse of Tara’s song in “Once More, With Feeling” was largely a
description of what Willow was doing to her just below the frame: “Lost in
ecstasy/ Spread beneath my willow tree/ You make me com-plete!” If any of the
kids received abstinence education in high school, it clearly didn’t take.
Then there is the matter of religion in the
Buffyverse. The dominant strains of conservatism in early 21st-century
America uphold organized religion, especially of the evangelical/fundamentalist
Christian variety, as the indispensable basis of a decent and moral society and
government. Nothing could be further from the worldview on display in Buffy and Angel, where the characters eschew Christianity almost completely,
despite the use (lessening over the years) of crucifixes and holy water as
parts of the traditional vampire-fighting arsenal. No “good” character, except
the corn-fed Iowa soldier boy Riley, a stereotyped Hollywood Midwesterner, is
ever shown attending Christian worship (“Who are You”), unless one counts
funerals and two non-weddings: Xander and Anya’s, where half the guests — the
better behaved half — are demons (“Hell’s Bells”) and Buffy and Angel’s, which
takes place only in Angel’s nightmare (“The Prom”).
Christianity’s relatively infrequent appearances in
the 232 episodes of Buffy and Angel aired as of this writing have
usually been comic, dismissive, or negative. Looking to swear off men, Buffy
visits a convent in “Triangle” but quickly discovers a stumbling block: “Do you
have to be, like, super-religious?” she asks one of the sisters. The Thanksgiving episode “Pangs” gets some
laughs out of the secular Jew Willow’s moral opposition to the holiday, but
then more or less endorses that view, putting some of the blame for the Native
American holocaust squarely on Christianity. A vengeful Chumash spirit hangs a
priest in retaliation for his people’s mistreatment at the local mission, but
much more time is spent guilt-tripping about the Indians than mourning for the
slain padre. The only counter-example would be Angel’s exorcism episode, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” in which a
nun recognizes Angel as a vampire when he and Wesley visit a church looking for
an exorcist. Even here, the last act of the episode inverts the theological
message of The Exorcist, the Catholic
Church-approved film from which many of its elements are borrowed: it happens
that the demon was trying to exit the
possessed boy, who tries to murder his little sister after he is exorcised. The Church’s power over evil in such a
classic case turns out to be sharply limited.
The most devout characters in Buffy and Angel are in
fact the villainous vampires and demons, who are constantly shown performing
evil rituals and spouting twisted biblical-sounding rhetoric. This motif was
introduced in the very first episode (“Welcome to the Hellmouth”), in which a
vampire cult called the Order of Aurelius works to free the Master, who is
trapped in a buried church and frequently reads aloud to his followers from a
“sacred” text. In the cliffhanger, the Master’s “vessel” Luke advances on the
young Slayer reciting a vampire prophecy that Whedon wrote in a kind of evil
Old Testament-ese: “And like a plague of boils, the race of man covered the
Earth. . . . But on the third day of the newest light would come the Harvest.
And the blood of men will flow as wine.” This demonic penchant for that
old-time religion is consistent with the explicitly anti-Christian cosmology
that was set up in Buffy the Vampire
Slayer’s earliest episodes. “This world is older than you know, and
contrary to popular belief, it did not begin as a paradise,” Giles explains,
taking down the Book of Genesis in his very first library exposition speech to
the newly assembled Scooby Gang (“The Harvest”).
Spike snuffed the Order of Aurelius early in season
two — by exposing its messiah, a child vampire called the Anointed One, to
sunlight (“School Hard”) — but since then evil religious sects have shown up
again and again, sometimes in contexts that closely mimic an anticlerical view
of Christianity’s role in world history. When the Angel cast visits Lorne the demon Host’s homeworld, Pylea, at the
end of season 2, the ultimate villains turn out to be an order of priests,
something like demonic Jesuits, who secretly control the government and use
magic and religious mumbo-jumbo to keep humans enslaved and Pylean society in a
cruel, ignorant, sub-medieval condition (“Through the Looking Glass” and
“There’s No Place Like Plrtz Glrb”).
As if to underline these antireligious and
anticlerical messages, and give final notice to conservative Christians and
other zealots about where his shows stood, Whedon ended BtVS and the
2002-2003 season firing on religion with both barrels. The last story arc of BtVS introduced
a psychotic super-powered preacher named Caleb as the First Evil’s chief
henchman, endowing him with both folksy biblical cadences and a nasty case of
misogynistic bloodlust to go with it. In his very first scene, Caleb cried
“Hallelujah” after burning one of the potential Slayers with a cigarette
lighter, prefatory to murdering the “whore” as a message for Buffy (“Dirty
Girls”). Over on Angel at the
same time, a touchy-feely goddess/Messiah named Jasmine was rapidly bringing
harmony and happiness to L.A., only to be revealed as a worm-faced,
mind-controlling fiend that lived by consuming human beings.
One very important dissenter from the irreligious
interpretation of Buffy is star Sarah
Michelle Gellar herself. Bristling at Christian attacks on her show, Gellar
ranted to Entertainment Weekly that
hers was “the most religious show out there! We’re more religious than 7th Heaven! . . . we answer
the big questions.” She was quite right in a thematic and
allegorical sense. On those levels, television rarely gets more Christian than
the season 5-6 arc in which Buffy learns from a spirit that “death is [her] gift”
(“Intervention”), submits to death
(arms outstretched like Christ) to save the world (“The Gift”), then
goes to heaven (“After Life”) and gets resurrected (“Bargaining, Part 1”).
Buffy’s struggle to understand and endure the divine sacrifice required of her
cuts far closer to the heart of the Easter story than most of Hollywood’s
explicitly biblical epics. There’s also no doubt that Buffy’s mysterious but
powerful encounter with the divine is far more theologically correct than the
weekly direct interventions that occurred contemporaneously over on Touched By An Angel, a conservative
Yet the problem with conservative religious traditions — for Hollywood claims of religiosity — is that they take the details of their faiths really seriously. Many Christian denominations hold that every word of the Bible is literally true (the doctrine of “inerrancy,” it is called), and no allegories need apply to interpreting Christian doctrine, especially in terms of magic and the occult. In evangelical circles like these, Satan, demons, and witches are treated as beings that actually exist, hurt real people, and must be constantly hunted and fought. Conservative Christian influence has gotten Halloween banned from many schools and localities for being a Satanic holiday, and many churches hold Hell Houses (showing how sinners will suffer in Hell) to compete with the haunted ones. Even Sarah Michelle Gellar is not going to convince serious fundamentalists that her show reflects the Christian religion as they understand it. 
With those extremely important reservations in mind,
we can proceed to considering what basis there might be for a conservative
interpretation of Buffy the Vampire
Slayer. As a hip show made in a conservative era, it is not surprising that
Buffy sometimes takes shots at
favorite conservative targets. “Big government” does not win a ringing
endorsement. Voluntaristic and spiritual solutions to society’s problems are
favored rather vehemently over anything resembling statist or political
solutions. Government plays no very active or salutary role in the lives of
Sunnydale’s citizens, and when it does appear, it appears only in foolish
and/or threatening guises. The police hide when monsters rampage and then try
to arrest those (meaning Buffy) who actually fight evil. A suspicious social
worker questions Buffy’s ability to raise her sister, and the script (“Gone”)
resolves the situation by having an invisible Buffy torment the petty
bureaucrat for laughs. In season 3, we discover that the city government is
controlled by an immortal professional politician who “built this town for the
demons to feed on” (“Enemies”). In
season 4, the federal government shows up in town, embarking on a sweeping and
dangerously foolish piece of social engineering, the capture and technological
rehabilitation of vampires and other monsters.
In the early seasons, inattentive, psychobabbling baby
boomer parents and teachers came in for a good deal of satire, often by means
of rather unsubtle allegories. One whole episode (“Band Candy”) had Sunnydale’s
adults magically induced to act like teenagers so that neglected babies could
be sacrificed to a demon. The touchy-feely Principal Flutie had so little
control over his students that they literally ate him alive (“The Pack”). As
seen in “Gingerbread,” Willow’s mom, Sheila, turned out to be a conservative’s
stereotype of a liberal feminist college professor (or perhaps a psychologist).
She specializes professionally in adolescents but is so absorbed with her
career and her theories that she knows almost nothing about the adolescent in
her own house. Jane Espenson’s script
describes her as “sweet and well meaning — but definitely of the woolly
intellectual variety.” Confronted by her mother about her witchcraft (“Honey.
You don’t have to act out like this to prove your specialness”), Willow retorts
with a lampoon of her mother’s politically correct approach to child-rearing,
as conservatives have often done regarding public educators and child
psychologists, complaining that “the last time we had a conversation over three
minutes it was about the patriarchal bias of the Mr. Rogers show.”
Joss Whedon’s shows also occasionally poked more
direct fun at political correctness, as when Buffy snaps at Angel, “You’re a
vampire. Oh, I’m sorry, was that an offensive term? Should I say ‘undead
American’?” (“When She Was Bad”) On Angel, when a police precinct is forced
into sensitivity training, the trainer proves to be a demon worshipper, and the
oversensitized cops literally let the criminals run wild in the streets (“Sense
and Sensitivity”). Conservatives just love that “undead American” line and
conclude from the above and Buffy’s skimpy outfits (which gave way to more
functional sweaters and jeans in later seasons), that “what Buffy might really
be driving a stake through is old-school liberalism and the dated notion of
On balance, however, the mild digs at p.c. seem to be
more a style of humor than emblems of a considered or consistent political
message. The send-ups of modern education and parenting have almost universally
been undercut. Buffy meets effective, supportive teachers along with the
slackers, though the ones who befriend her tend to get killed by monsters
(“Teacher’s Pet,” “Passion,” “Beauty and the Beasts”). The character of Joyce,
Buffy’s nice but clueless liberal mother, was treated with greater and greater
respect as the seasons wore on, to the point that her death could sustain an
entire shatteringly powerful episode in which the characters do almost nothing
but mourn her (“The Body”). Buffy’s “undead American” remark to Angel came in the context of an episode in which
Buffy was depicted as emotionally out of control; after mistreating nearly all
of her loved ones, the Slayer repented of it all by the end of “When She was
Bad.” This early episode (the Season 2 opener) was also the beginning of some
serious consciousness-raising for Buffy, who grew so tolerant of
other-dimensional Americans by Season 6 that she was playing poker and attending
parties with them (“Life Serial,” “Older and Far Away”). She just drew the line
at currently active killers of humans.
At the same time, the alternatives to liberal permissiveness and sensitivity usually looked far worse. The swimming coach who turned his team into sea monsters (“Go Fish”) was certainly no bleeding heart, but he’s no hero either. The liberal Principal Flutie was replaced by his ideological, managerial, and pedagogical opposite, Principal Snyder, but the ultra-conservative authoritarian Snyder proved to be a petty tyrant who hated children and delighted in persecuting Buffy and her friends. Snyder was also a partially witting servant of the dark forces in Sunnydale, covering up supernatural occurrences and reporting to the evil Mayor (“I Only Have Eyes for You”). It was Sunnydale’s monsters who seemed to delight in punitive, conservative solutions to social problems. Under the influence of demons pretending to be murdered children, Buffy and Willow’s good liberal moms turned vigilante; they started a pressure group called MOO (Mothers Opposed to the Occult) — modeled on the kind of local Christian organizations that lobby school boards to remove Harry Potter books from libraries — and eventually tried to burn their own daughters at the stake (“Gingerbread”). The Initiative looked far worse when its real agenda turned out to be demonic weapons development rather than advanced supernatural penology.
Buffy’s only explicit depiction of politics, the Mayor character from season 3, is one of the hardest arcs to pin down politically. The Mayor seemed intended to satirize most 1990s American politicians, of whatever party: he was a smarmy centrist who had mortgaged himself to the darkest forces imaginable in order to prey upon the youth of America while pretending to protect them. In classic Buffy fashion, Mayor Wilkins planned to eat the senior class on Graduation Day as the final stage in his campaign for full demonhood, a nice little metaphor for the way children and parental worries about them are exploited for political benefit: “The children are our future. We need them. I need them” (“Faith, Hope, and Trick”). At the same time, the Mayor was marked as a conservative by his 50s-sitcom-dad demeanor and often stated commitment to clean living and family values. In what might be a comment on the political ruthlessness lurking behind the smiles and prayers of many a compassionate conservative, the Mayor’s nastiest threats were often linked with goofily prudish advice, as when he told his henchmen to “watch the swearing” after instructing them to kill the graduates quickly and brutally (“Graduation Day, Part 2”). He also lectured Buffy and Angel on civility, foresight, and personal responsibility while threatening Willow: “You kids, you don’t like to think about the future, don’t like to plan; but unless you want Faith to gut your friend like a sea bass, you’ll show a little respect for your elders” (“Choices”).
The most accurate observation conservatives have made
about Buffy is that, as the National Review put it, it is one of the “most morally serious”
shows on television.
Wrong actions always have consequences in the Buffyverse, and lapses in
judgment or character bring severe costs. Whedon and his writers love to put
their characters through the wringer and rarely allow problems to be solved
easily or without repercussions. In addition to horrible self-esteem issues,
poor Faith’s cavalier approach to Slaying and sense of entitlement (“We’re
Slayers, girlfriend. The Chosen Two”) led her to accidental murder (“Bad
Girls”), then cold-blooded murder, madness, a year-long coma, and, finally,
Sex was never treated lightly, either, and never
separated from questions of love and commitment, making Buffy and Angel quite
distinct from other popular shows of the time, such as Seinfeld or Ally McBeal or
Friends. For a pretty girl in a
modern Hollywood production, Buffy was quite chaste in high school. She had sex
only once, and that one time with Angel (“Surprise” & “Innocence”) resulted
in so much anguish, terror, and death that she understandably did not try again
until college. In Buffy’s most famous
allegory of teen trauma, the boy who took her virtue not only abandoned her,
but then reverted into the ultra-evil Angelus, with torture, rape, and
world-destroying nihilism on his r¾sum¾ along with the usual bloodsucking and murder. The
supposedly slutty Cordelia may have
had some wild times early in high school, but viewers witnessed only one sexual
encounter, in six years of shows, before she finally hooked up with the
virginal Groosalugg, the royal champion from her days as Princess of Pylea
(“Couplet”). Cordelia’s single post-college one-night stand (“Expecting”)
resulted in a demonic pregnancy and temporary zombification. “Oh God, I’m being
punished,” she sobs, and that does sometimes seem to be the intention of those
who manage the Buffyverse.
But does this moral seriousness and penchant for
punishing characters mean that Buffy and
Angel are shows with a conservative
message? I would argue not, at least not in any political sense. For one thing,
the conservative interpretation of the Buffyverse is grounded in one of modern
conservatism’s most tendentious and debatable premises: that only conservatives
understand the difference between good and evil and that liberalism is a
philosophy of nihilistic relativism. Starting from that baseline belief,
conservative cultural critics like to argue that any television show, book,
film, or play that deals seriously with questions of ethics, religion, and
morality, or shows evildoers being punished, is ipso facto conservative.
Suffice it to say that this premise is misleading and inadequate at best. If
postwar liberals were once too sanguine about the possibility that progress,
reason, and government action could solve social problems, and too optimistic
that the defects of human nature could be corrected, they were and are also
highly moralistic, condemning the evils of war, violence, poverty, inequality,
and concentrated power.
The difference lies in the scope of the moral compass
that liberals and conservatives use. Conservatives focus almost exclusively on
individual, personal morality, as seen in matters of sex, substance use,
religious faith, and deportment. They also tend to be pessimistic about human
nature, doubting the possibility that those who commit moral transgressions can
ever change and believing fervently that evil actions stem from the evil intent
of irredeemably evil people. Liberals, on the other hand, acknowledge
collective notions of morality as well as the personal ones, believing that
moral duties and moral transgressions can apply to societies, nations,
corporations, and economic systems as well as individuals. Liberals are much
more willing to see individual transgressions in the context of these larger
structures. Conservatives approach the collectivities and structures of human
life either by denying their influence or else by simply demanding that people
choose sides: the good guys (us) vs. whatever the current “axis of evil”
happens to be. “You are either with us or against us” is not just the Bush
administration slogan for the “War on Terrorism,” but a whole conservative
approach to politics that has rarely varied over the course of U.S. history.
Moral seriousness does not necessarily mean the kind of moral simplicity, the clear boundaries, that American conservatives instinctively seek and assert. Moral simplicity is also not the kind of moral seriousness that Buffy and Angel provide. Every character, including the two main ones, have gone through morally ambiguous periods, and while viewers were led to be concerned about these developments, they were not led to judge. The characters suffer and grow through it, but the scripts do not endorse their travails as deserved punishment, and they always hold out the promise of redemption and reform: “You’re not being punished,” Wesley assures the pregnant Cordelia (“Expecting”). Even the notion of what constitutes a monster and how they should be approached became increasingly murky and gray as the Buffyverse developed, including not only conscience-stricken vampires and good demons, but also the possibility that bloodsucking itself could be a victimless crime. In the season 5 episode “Into the Woods,” Buffy ruthlessly dispatches a nest of vampires who have been biting consenting humans, finishing up by staking the “vampire junkie girl” who bit Riley as she runs away. Marti Noxon’s shooting script opines that this act “stinks of pointless vengeance.” Xander, usually the most conservative of the core Scoobies, criticizes Buffy for her brutality, and she herself feels less than great about it.
It is nice that not all conservatives have put Buffy and Angel on their enemies list, but these are not conservative shows.
Alone: Buffy and Civil Society
“You guys are gonna
have a prom. The kind of prom everyone should have. I will give you all a nice,
fun, normal evening... if I have to kill every single person on the face of the
Earth to do it.” — Buffy, “The Prom”
Before concluding this essay, it be would wise to come back to Joss Whedon’s non-political intentions. The fact that so many contradictory themes can be found in the two shows demonstrates that he has probably succeeded in not sending any particular political message and might make it seem foolish to keep looking for one.
Yet there is one theme in recent political thought that does shine through fairly clearly and consistently from the Buffy mythos. It comes more from the world of philosophers and think-thank scholars than partisan or revolutionary politics. That theme is the critical importance of “civil society,” the intervening institutional and social space between the state, the family, and the market, or in some formulations, between public life (government) and private life (the family). Classically, “civil society” refers to the realm of non-state churches, charities, clubs, lodges, political groups, and other “voluntary associations,” but modern renditions have expanded it to include any space or practice or institution that takes people out of their homes and workplaces to gather and interact with others members of their community, from amateur sports teams, choirs, and reading groups to casual socializing at neighborhood gathering places like parks, coffee shops, or bars. The relationship of commerce and business to civil society seems to vary with the political perspective of theorist, with the left idealizing a public sphere independent of the market and property, and the center and right depicting private property and business as the essence of civil society.
Though varying in their definitions and prescriptions, a wide range of social and political theorists have argued in recent years that a healthy civil society forms the indispensable basis for a healthy democracy. Much effort has been expended studying and fostering the growth of civil society in countries emerging from communism and dictatorship, and there have been many calls for the rejuvenation of civil society in the United States, where by most measures it has badly decayed since the 1960s. Political scientist Robert Putnam’s “bowling alone” thesis is probably the most famous recent application of the civil society idea. Putnam argues that the declining level of social trust and political participation in America is related to the declining level of “social capital” that most Americans accumulate in their lives. Simply put, Americans don’t join groups any more — more Americans bowl than ever, Putnam observes, but bowling leagues are disappearing. People’s social networks are shrinking, and their sense of connection to their communities along with them. Thus the average American’s political capacities are shriveling as well.
We never saw the Sunnydale Lanes, but it seems to be civil society that the Slayer fights to protect. Individuals in their private lives usually do not need her to rescue them. Under the established rules of the Buffyverse, vampires cannot invade private homes without an invitation, and most of the other demons seem to keep to themselves unless summoned or attracted for some reason. It is only when the local humans venture out of the house and make use of Sunnydale’s community institutions — its streets, parks, schools, hospitals, museums, stores, coffee shops, and bars — that they become vulnerable. Angelus points this out in “Passion” when Jenny Calendar asks him how he got in the high school building: “The sign in front of the school: ‘Formatia trans sicere educatorum.’ ‘Enter, all ye who seek knowledge.’” The monsters can and do penetrate any place that is public, where all are invited indiscriminately. It is in these places (or in the alleys behind them) where Buffy fights so many of her battles: the Bronze, the high school, the magic shop, a playground, the UC-Sunnydale campus, some woods that are probably part of a park, even the local branch bank (“Flooded”) and fast food restaurant (“Doublemeat Palace”).
Before its destruction in the BtVS series finale (“Chosen”), Sunnydale seemed to function fairly
well as a community, considering its location atop the Hellmouth. It was
pedestrian friendly, and people went out at night downtown without seeming to
feel terribly endangered. The high school maintained a normal round of events,
and they seemed to be fairly well attended despite the occasional supernatural
incident or shooting (“What’s My Line, Part 1”). Social capital was being
generated, even if it was not always put to good use, as we saw when Joyce’s
fling with civic activism (“Gingerbread”) ran into witch-burning. Buffy wanted
nothing more than to participate in this sort of normal community life, but
even if she often couldn’t, she evinced a steely determination to seeing that
her fellow citizens could do so. Hence her vow, quoted above, to save her prom
from a lonely geek who trained hellhounds to attack people in formal wear.
Maintaining the conditions under which civil society or community life can flourish is one of the Slayer’s primary purposes. This shows in the periodic glimpses we viewers were given of what might happen if the Slayer were neutralized or monsters openly roamed the streets. When Cordelia wished that Buffy never came to Sunnydale, we were transported to an alternate universe where the people of Sunnydale fled inside before the curfew at sunset, no living person willingly went to the Bronze, and the big school event was a Winter Brunch (“The Wish”). Even in daylight, the school and the streets had an empty, derelict quality. After Buffy’s death in “The Gift,” the Scoobies quickly grasped (off-screen) that things would fall apart without a Slayer, so Willow repaired the Buffybot and everyone worked to create the illusion of a Slayer (“Bargaining, Part 1”) and thus maintain order. When the ruse was exposed, demon bikers descended on Sunnydale and social breakdown commenced immediately. Downtown was looted, and people cowered in their homes; one frightened homeowner menaced the just-resurrected Buffy with a shotgun (“Bargaining, Part 2”).
The civil society theme also resonates with the explanation the shows frequently give for Buffy’s (and Angel’s) unique effectiveness and longevity as demon fighters: unlike the typical Slayer or “rogue demon hunter” who works alone and rarely lives very long, Buffy and Angel are connected to the normal world — the community — around them. “A Slayer with family and friends,” Spike grumbles after Buffy first defeats him (“School Hard”). “That sure as hell wasn’t in the brochure.” This is why Buffy survived while the more traditional Slayer, Kendra, raised by her Watcher and forbidden to have a social life, was easily overwhelmed by Spike’s hypnotic girlfriend, Drusilla (“Becoming, Part 1”). Buffy’s participation in civil society also formed the basis of the stand she makes when the First Slayer tried to murder Giles, Willow, and Xander in their dreams (“Restless”). “The Slayer does not walk in this world,” the First warns in Buffy’s dream. “I walk,” Buffy replied in her chirpy Valley Girl mode. “I talk. I shop, I sneeze. I’m gonna be a fireman when the floods roll back. There’s trees in the desert since you moved out. And I don’t sleep on a bed of bones.”
This insistence on a hero who stays connected to her society and draws strength from that, rather than being weakened by it, is somewhat unique in the superhero genre. In the movies, at least, Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man keep much more secret secret identities and shy away from relationships lest their loved ones be threatened. Buffy (and Angel) fall apart and get beaten when they go it alone. Social capital is their secret weapon, and that gives us the key to understanding the political message, such as it is, of their adventures.
© 2003 by Jeffrey L. Pasley
(this essay only, obviously – BtVS and Angel are the intellectual
property of Mutant Enemy and 20th-Century/Fox)
 Tasha Robinson, “Joss Whedon,” The Onion A.V. Club, 37, no. 31 (5 Sept. 2001), available at http://www.theonionavclub.com/avclub3731/avfeature_3731.html. See also, Rhonda V. Wilcox, “`There Never Will Be a “Very Special” Buffy’: Buffy and the Monsters of Teen Life,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 27 (1999): 16-23.
 The most extensive survey of these criticisms that I have found is “The Death of Tara, the Fall of Willow and The Dead/Evil Lesbian Cliché FAQ,” formerly at the Willow/Tara fan site, “The Kitten, the Witches, and the Bad Wardrobe.” The FAQ was accessed most recently on 8 Sept. 2003 at http://www.stephenbooth.org/lesbiancliche.htm.
 The documentary was based on a book: Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (New York: Harper & Row, 1981).
 The documentary actually treated the cliché as mostly a thing of the past, charting the emergence of more positive, less stereotyped gay and lesbian themed films in the 1970s and 80s. Unfortunately, it still crops up fairly often on television, and the decade before “Seeing Red” was broadcast had seen the release of one commercial hit (1992’s Basic Instinct) and a number of well-reviewed art house films (including Heavenly Creatures, High Art, Lost and Delirious, and Mulholland Drive), that depicted tortured, suicidal, and/or murderous lesbians.
 “Watch with Wanda,” 29 July 2002, accessed at http://www.eonline.com/Gossip/Wanda/Trans/Archive2002/020729c.html on 30 July 2002 .
 “Lesbian Cliché FAQ.”
 Onion A.V. Club interview.
 For appreciations of Buffy that have appeared in liberal publications, see Garrett Epps, “Can Buffy’s Brilliance Last?,” The American Prospect, 28 Jan. 2002; Zoe Williams, “The lady and the vamp: A buff’s guide to Buffy,” London Guardian, 17 November 2001, http://www.guardian.co.uk/weekend/story/0,3605,593851,00.html; and the numerous articles on BtVS by Joyce Millman and Stephanie Zacharek at http://www.salon.com .
 Quotations from “Interview with Joss Whedon and David Boreanaz,,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete First Season on DVD, Region 1 edition, Disc 1; Ginia Bellafante and Jeanne McDowell, “Bewitching Teen Heroines,” Time, 5 May 1997, 82-84.
 Lewis Beale, “Attack of the Sexy-Tough Women: In movies & TV, sisters are kicking butt for themselves,” New York Daily News, 19 Oct. 2000, Final Ed., 52; Ken Tucker, “High Stakes Poker,” Entertainment Weekly, 5 Oct. 1999, 20 ff.; Heather Olsen, “He Gives Us the Creeps,” Ms., Aug./Sept. 1999, 79-80.
Quotations from Frances H. Early, “Staking Her Claim: ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ As Transgressive Woman Warrior,” Journal of Popular Culture 35 (2001): 11-27; and A. Susan Owen, “Vampires, Postmodernity, and Postfeminism: Buffy the Vampire Slayer ,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 27 (1999): 25. Feminist interpretations abound in the first two collections of academic essays on Buffy, Roz Kaveney, ed., Reading the Vampire Slayer: An Unofficial Critical Companion to “Buffy” and “Angel” (London & New York: Tauris Parke, 2001); and Rhonda V. Wilcox and David Lavery, eds., Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).
 Quotation from Owen, “Vampires, Postmodernity, and Postfeminism,” 30.
 The examples include Owen, “Vampires, Postmodernity, and Postfeminism”; Brian Wall and Michael Zyrd, “Vampire dialectics: Knowledge, institutions, and labour,” in Kaveney, ed., Reading the Vampire Slayer, 53-77; and and James South, “‘All Torment, Trouble, Wonder, and Amazement Inhabits Here’: The Vicissitudes of Technology in Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Journal of American and Comparative Cultures 24 (2001): 93-102.
 Joseph Valente, Dracula’s Crypt: Bram Stoker, Irishness, and the Question of Blood (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2002), 55-56.
 “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” in Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: Norton, 1978), 475.
For overviews of development theory, see Alvin Y. So, Social Change and Development: Modernization, Dependency, and World-System Theories (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1990); Colin Leys, The Rise and Fall of Development Theory (London: James Currey, 1996).
Richard White, The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change Among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos (Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1983); Elizabeth A. H. John, Storms Brewed in Other Men’s Worlds: The Confrontation of Indians, Spanish, and French in the Southwest, 1540-1795, 2d ed. (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996).
 Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2000).
White, Roots of Dependency; William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill & Wang, 1983); James H. Merrell, The Indians’ New World: Catawbas and Their Neighbors From European Contact Through the Era of Removal (New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1991); Daniel K. Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992).
 Ibid., 476.
 For examples, see E. J. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1965); and Richard White, “Outlaw Gangs of the Middle Border: American Social Bandits,” Western Historical Quarterly 12 (1981): 387-408.
 For instance, see Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder, The Watcher’s Guide (New York: Pocket Books, 1998), 242, and Joss Whedon’s introduction to Jim Krueger, Jean Paul Leon, Bill Reinhold, and Alex Ross, Earth X (New York: Marvel Comics, 2000), quotation on 3. Whedon has actually written a number of Buffy-related comics himself, including the Dark Horse Comics series Fray, about a Slayer of the future, and several sections of the anthology Tales of the Slayers (Milwaukie, Ore.: Dark Horse Comics, 2001).
The no-killing code was not at all universal in early superhero comics, which could often be quite brutal. See Jules Feiffer, The Great Comic Book Super Heroes (New York: The Dial Press, 1965), for an introduction to the variety of heroes in 1930s and 40s comics. By the same token, certain 1930s pulp characters (notably Doc Savage) provide earlier examples of the saintly superhuman hero who models humanity’s highest values. For example, see the “Doc Savage Code” at http://www.kakuta.com/thomas/docsavage.html.
Bradford W. Wright, Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 10-13, 210-11.
 On the tradition of the gunfighting western hero, see Richard Slotkin’s books, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1973); The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890 (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1986); and Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: HarperPerennial, 1993).
 For conservative readings, see Jonah Goldberg, “Buffy, the U.N. Slayer,” Washington Times, 25 September 2002; Chandler Rosenberger “Morality Tale…From the Crypt: Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of TV’s most morally serious shows,” National Review Online, 26-28 May 2001, http://www.nationalreview.com/weekend/television/television-rosenberger052601.shtml; Alex Strachan, “An old-fashioned girl: In her own sweet way, Buffy the Vampire Slayer drives a stake through TV’s PC heart,” Vancouver Sun, 20 November 1999, Final ed., E22; Brian Appleyard, “A Teenager to Sink Your Teeth Into,” London Sunday Times, 10 December 2000.
 Ted Olsen, “Buffy’s Religion,” Christianity Today, 8 July 2002, 10; Parents’ Television Council, “Top 10 Best and Worst Shows on Network TV,” http://www.parentstv.org/PTC/publications/reports/top10bestandworst/main.asp.
 Jeff Jensen, “To Hell and Back,” Entertainment Weekly, 7 Sept. 2001, 61.
 For instance, see Michael W. Cuneo, American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty (New York: Doubleday, 2001); Vincent Crapanzano, Serving the Word: Literalism in American From the Pulpit to the Bench (New York: The New Press, 2000).
 Strachan, “An old-fashioned girl.”
 Rosenberger, “Morality Tale…From the Crypt.”
 The moralism of the Federalist and Whig parties, respectively, is emphasized in Linda K. Kerber, Federalists in Dissent: Imagery and Ideology in Jeffersonian America (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970); and Daniel Walker Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979).
For an overview, see John Ehrenberg, Civil Society: The Critical History of an Idea (New York: New York University Press, 1999).
Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).