Buffy, the Vampire Slayer


Today’s post is by Angela Fowler.

I was at first reluctant to watch Buffy. It was a ridiculous show with an even more ridiculous title, and the concept of a petite blonde in cute clothes fighting vampires sounded a bit fetishy to me.

The first episode I watched was the Season Three opener. Buffy has run to LA after slaying her occasionally evil vampire boyfriend, where she works as a waitress at a diner. Haunted by nightmares and handsy male patrons, she’s rudely pulled out of her funk by a girl who has lost her boyfriend (compliments a demon using the homeless as a work force). Buffy eventually rescues the homeless and kills the demon.

Buffy is undisputedly the hero. Not only in strength, but because of her actions. The girl who asks for help, Lily, knows that Buffy can and will confront the “demons” (which often act as metaphors for real-world problems). The “demon” for this episode is identity and power.

The demon strips the homeless of their identities, forcing them to answer “no one” when asked who they are. Buffy responds, “Hi, I’m Buffy, the vampire slayer.” She refuses to be stripped of her identity, autonomy, and power.

Lily, on the other hand, completely lacks identity. Each time she changes boyfriends, she changes her name: Lily, Chaterelle with the vampire cult, Sister Sunshine with the traveling preacher… Buffy not only saves Lily from the demon, but gives tools for identity: her job and the name “Anne,” Buffy’s alias. We see Anne later in the spin-off Angel running a homeless shelter. Lily/Chanterelle/SisterSunshine has become Anne, emulating Buffy as a woman who exercises her power constructively.

The story of Buffy is the hero’s journey, yet it’s not “feminized.” She’s not weakened or domesticized, as we’ve seen for so many other female superheroes. While we might see a pair of leather pants, we won’t see the usual cut-out leotards.

Buffy is a character that anyone can relate to, not just women. She deals with parental issues, relationship issues, poor grades, fights with friends, not being ready for adulthood: it’s a coming of age story as well, and the show never tries to write the “female coming of age” as remarkably different from the male experience.

I was used to female characters being a decoration. Buffy isn’t exclusively determined by her relationships or her narrative role. While she certainly makes mistakes, her solution isn’t found in a man. Buffy resists and rewrites those comfortable narratives, and that was a relief to me as I grew more and more uncomfortable with those narratives.

The episode ends with Buffy hugging her mother. Buffy takes up not just the mantle of hero but the role of a human being. So many times the heroic journey ends alone, or with the female partner that seems more reward than relationship. The point of Buffy, then, becomes to explore what it means to be human, and I can’t think of anything more inspirational than that.

Angela is a doctoral student in Victorian literature at Auburn University. You can follow Angela on Twitter @angelcakes83


Christina Rossetti


Today’s post on Christina Rossetti is by Sanjoy Banerjee. 

I was six years old or thereabouts when I first read Christina’s Rossetti’s Hurt No Living Thing, first in class, then in front of parents in the school assembly. When Mrs Griffiths told everyone how I had only stumbled on the word “gnat”, I was the picture of pride in short pants. Some years later, looking for this childrens’ poem online, I found it. It is short and outwardly very simple, and runs thus:

Hurt no living thing:
Ladybird, nor butterfly,
Nor moth with dusty wing,
Nor cricket chirping cheerily,
Nor grasshopper so light of leap,
Nor dancing gnat, nor beetle fat,
Nor harmless worms that creep.

I noticed the comments beneath it, some of which were complimentary. Others said things like “What about her gut flora and pathogens after infections?” or “So I guess she lived on dirt, hair and toenail clippings.”

There is a curious commonality between this and the recent Twitter storm as first Caroline Criado-Perez and then Stella Creasy became victims of persistent, gut-wrenchingly foul abuse, the first following her successful campaign to have more women put on banknotes, the second when she sprang to the other’s defence.

Lest we forget, the individuals who sent the abusive tweets, though they were a deluge for one person to face, are but a minority of a minority of the online community. I imagine most people who heard this story were to a greater or lesser degree as dumbstruck, outraged and depressed as I was. Indeed as much was demonstrated by the overwhelming outpouring of supporting and solidarity extended to Criado, Creasy and others caught in the crossfire. But what has this to do with Rossetti or her poetry?

Although at opposite ends of the spectrum, both suggest the same cultural dissonance. One merely bespeaks of a pedantic, rather literal emphasis, which sees something at face value and reads into it only a small part of its meaning. If Rossetti had been coding in C sharp (a computer language) the point may have been valid. The other, I grant you, crashes through the basement into the cravenly sordid. Yet I could discern in both the same want of empathy, that ethical wellspring that might otherwise deliver us from evil. If we do unto others as we would have them do unto us, not because it wins friends or keeps us on the right side of the law, but because we suffer on others’ behalf, we are immediately kinder, better people.

I imagine Rossetti understood well that children are a good audience for poetry, both because their minds are unformed, and can be shaped positively by exposure to beauty, but also because they see the world with new and fresh eyes. They can be marked and moulded by lyricism in a way that is diminished as the clay tablet sets. We are all aware of how powerfully vivid and mysterious our childhood impressions were compared to those we receive today. When I think of the poem, I am suffused by a recollection of colour and sense that is usually reserved for music. The poem does not seek to tell us why we should not hurt any other living thing. Instead its interest is in portraying what Gerard Manley Hopkins would have termed “inscape”, the secret beauty of the world around us. We think of the “chirp” and “creep” and somewhere below our surface mind, we experience something akin to spiritual rapture.

The sister of Pre-Raphaelite artist Gabriel Dante Rossetti, Christina’s life was marked by what was expected of women up to the nineteenth century and beyond. Remarkably, Rossetti emerged in spite of being pinioned socially and intellectually by the society she lived in. In one poem she compares her development towards womanhood with that of an Italian friend, Enrica:

We Englishwomen, trim, correct,
All minted in the selfsame mould,
Warm-hearted but of semblance cold,
All-courteous out of self-respect.

She, woman in her natural grace,
Less trammelled she by lore of school,
Courteous by nature not by rule,
Warm-hearted and of cordial face.

Where her brother was free to follow his artistic muse wherever it should take him, she by contrast was obliged to assume a more clandestine approach, such that when she died, she had over three hundred unpublished poems. In spite of this, by dint of an outstanding talent she marked a revolution that informed the development of contemporaries who read her poetry and understood its extraordinary vigour. Indeed, she was even considered for the post of Poet Laureate when Wordsworth died. Her work strongly influenced the work of later writers including Ford Madox Ford, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Jennings, and Philip Larkin, yet throughout her life the same moral voices were as uneasy at her reputation for literary merit as were those presumably perturbed by Criado’s wish to celebrate the contribution of women in our cultural and intellectual life.

Rossetti died in 1894, the year the Oxford English Dictionary lists as the year of the first appearance of the word “feminist”. Yet the recent ugly spat almost demands that we reappraise how far we have in fact travelled in spite of the suffragettes, in spite of the sixties, in spite of Clara Fraser, of Andrea Dworkin, or Caroline Criado-Perez.

The comparison might be made with Barack Obama and his reference to Sam Cooke’s beautiful A Change Is Gonna Come in his presidential acceptance speech. How vivid that night still seems? How, heavy-lidded, we watched amazed as state after state we never dreamed would declare for Obama, Virginia, Indiana, duly did so. Yet even then, as much of a milestone as it was, I sensed it was not equality that an outstanding Harvard lawyer should become the first black president of the United States, but rather would only be so when a black man as disliked as George W Bush became became elected and was subsequently reviled by us every bit as much. Only a handful of years later, George Zimmermann is acquitted of all charges in the shooting of Trayvon Martin and we find ourselves wondering if anything had changed after all.

The common denominator here is that change is always spasmodic and liable to thumb its nose at us as soon as we think we have it nailed down. Yet the important thing is the direction of travel. Depressing as it may have been, before we get too down, we should indulge ourselves by honestly acknowledging all that has been achieved since Christina Rossetti was self-censoring such that she might appear the woman preferable to the Victorian patriarchy.

By all means, let us explore any option that rid the platform of the utterly vile. Yet, as others have observed, the trolls are a symptom and not the root cause. To that end then, let us take our inspiration where we find it, revert to type and challenge, articulate and educate the need for respect, for consideration, lest we too should trample the beautiful, fragile things.

An excellent account of Christina Rossetti’s life, literary career, and the currents of the society in which she lived may be found in Kathleen Jones’ Learning not to be first: The Life of Christina Rossetti

Sanjoy works as an I.T. Analyst. He studied history at the University of Southampton from 1994-97. He lives in Birkenhead on The Wirral, and his hobbies including playing chess, watching cricket, distance-running, drinking tea, literature and left-wing politics. You can follow Sanjoy on Twitter @SanjoyBanerjee

Caryl Churchill

Today’s post about the British playwright Caryl Churchill is by Dan Rebellato. 

In the Department of Drama and Theatre in the university where I work, we’ve recently built a new theatre. One of the complicated decisions you have to make when you build a theatre is what to call it. We managed to stop the university insisting on naming it after a major donor (The British Petroleum Theatre?). We weren’t keen to give it a bland name reflecting a local landmark (The Runnymede Theatre? The Windsor Theatre?). We wanted to name it after someone who inspired us. For a Drama Department, we’re quite big and that’s a problem in this instance, because who could we find who was equally important to the playwrights and the live artists, to the scholars and dance and political theatre, to the internationalists and the historians? We wanted someone who commanded immediate recognition and respect, yet still had a sense of edge and risk; since Royal Holloway began life as a women’s college, we also thought it would be good to find a woman. All of these boxes seemed at first glance impossible to tick. And yet, it turned out to be very simple. We called it the Caryl Churchill Theatre.

I can’t think of anyone in British theatre who has so continually pushed her own boundaries, refusing to repeat herself, working with restless creativity to reinvent theatrical form with every play and performance text she writes. Caryl Churchill has been writing since the 1950s and is still as active and vigorous as when she first began to make an impact with a series of densely inventive radio plays in the 1960s. Political without ever being preachy, more interested in asking difficult questions than providing easy answers, what marks her work is a constant determination to find new theatrical forms appropriate to the times in which we live. Every play is a new discovery about the way things are and a new discovery about the capacity of the theatre to capture the texture of contemporary life. Top Girls (1982) is a three-act play that investigated the significance of Britain’s first woman Prime Minister to the meaning of feminism. The central act takes place in the offices of a successful business run by a woman, Marlene. The final act flashes back a year to pit Marlene against her left-wing sister, Joyce. The first act takes place outside any recognisable time, at a restaurant where Marlene hosts a celebratory meal with a series of successful women from history as the guests. The argument of the play, the experience of the play is not to be found precisely in the dialectic of the things individual characters say, though what they say is beautifully observed; it emerges in the complex relations between the scenes, between the times represented, in the juxtaposition and jumps between times. Described thus, this complicated structure may seem alienating or clever-clever; in fact, it produces moments of heartfelt emotion and startling enlightenment. The play has been performed internationally and twice has had successful runs in the West End.

Top Girls is a terrific example of the way this extraordinary writer is continually creating new forms to interrogate the world. (The first act of Top Girls is marked by a motif of continually overlapping dialogue, which requires a complicated typographical arrangement; Churchill invented this a couple of years before in Three More Sleepless Nights [1980] and it has become a standard tool for all contemporary playwrights, even though Churchill herself has long left the device behind.) A lesser writer would have perhaps reused the technique in a few more plays; Churchill has never written another play like Top Girls. In fact she’s never written another play like any of her plays. She never looks back, never repeats herself, always moves on. Cloud Nine (1979) explores identity politics: the first half is a farce set in the Victorian era; the second time gives us the same characters, twenty-five years on, yet it is set in the present. Serious Money (1988) is a vast, ambitious play in ragged verse that explores the newly-released amoral energies of the post-big-bang City of London. This is a Chair (1997) juxtaposes a series of short fragmentary scenes with portentous scene titles (‘The Northern Ireland Peace Process’, ‘The Labour Party’s Slide to the Right’) which the scenes rarely, if ever, reflect, the play as a whole beautifully capturing a sense of dissociation between political discourse and everyday life. The three scenes that make up Far Away (2000), take us from the domestic, through the political, to the global, making a series of links that ask profound questions about the duties we owe each other and predicts the reinvention of war in the twenty-first century. A Number (2004) explores the ethics of cloning in a series of scenes between a father and his various cloned sons, all played by the same actor. Last year’s Love and Information (2012) was made up of approximately 60 different scenes, some moving, others riotously funny, several of them no more than a few seconds long, to capture and ask questions about the information bombardment of modern life. She’s written for dancers, singers, performance artists, actors; she’s developed shows in long collaborative processes and at other times in isolation. I could go on. Churchill seems endless; indeed her ceaseless exploration of theatrical form has been the only true constant in her work.

It is always a wonderful thing to see a new Caryl Churchill play, to see where her quicksilver mind has taken her now. She is, in many people’s view, the greatest playwright alive. She is a truly inspiring woman.
Theatre critics discuss Caryl Churchill’s work:

Dan is Professor of Contemporary Theatre and Head of the Department of Drama and Theatre at Royal Holloway University of London.You can follow him on Twitter @danrebellato. His latest book, Modern British Playwriting 2000-2009, is available for pre-order here


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