Meg reports on ‘Blood, Text and Fears’: the first Buffy The Vampire Slayer conference
How could I resist it? An academic conference on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: I could talk about one of my favourite topics and it would be work. My only concern was that the other delegates would be so jaded by the inevitable teasing from their colleagues that they would come across all solemn, stuffy and Giles-esque in order to make their research seem legitimate and sensible. A glance around the conference venue quickly put my mind at rest. The high prevalence of Buffy T-shirts, long black coats and big boots suggested that these may be academics but they were also serious fan-boys/girls and definitely my people. In fact I soon realised that the sure-fire way to make sure your paper went down well was to give up at least a few of your precious twenty minutes to playing a clip from the show. Vaguely amusing moments from the series became hilariously funny when viewed in a room packed with Buffy freaks all waiting for the familiar punch-line.
There were several bi-relevant papers. My favourite was Dee Amy-Chinn’s presentation entitled ‘queering the bitch’ about how Spike embodies ‘queer’ sexuality, challenging boundaries, not only between man and monster but also between masculine and feminine and dominant and submissive. In fact Spike was by far the most popular character amongst the Buffy academics if the number of papers devoted to him was anything to go by. Dee quotes Spike as saying ‘I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it’. She says that he is presented as an erotic masculine object for the female gaze, with his tight trousers and phallic name. But he is also image-conscious like a woman, spending a lot of time on his appearance, especially his hair, and displays femininity in his liking for daytime soap operas and empathy for the female characters. Dee concludes that Spike is an accomplished ‘switch’, because he is as comfortable taking either the man’s part or the woman’s, being completely submissive or completely in control.
Perhaps these ideas explain one of the results of my own research for the conference: the fact that Spike is one of the most popular characters to be included in slash stories. For the uninitiated, slash is fiction, mostly written by women, that portrays same-sex relationships between characters from TV series, movies, books etc. who are not in relationships in the original version. The ‘slash’ refers to the punctuation mark used to signify these relationships. For example, Spock/Kirk (one of the first slash pairings) or Xander/Spike (the most popular pairing in Buffy slash).
In my research with slash authors I found that the majority defined themselves as bisexual, which is interesting because slash has mainly been written by heterosexual women in the past. There is much more slash about female/female relationships in the Buffyverse than there has been in slash about previous series, possibly because of the strong female characters in Buffy and the references to characters’ sexualities. Faith/Buffy stories are the most popular after Xander/Spike, and it is suggested that Faith is attracted to women in the series. Tara/Willow is another popular combination, although there is debate over whether this is strictly slash, since they have a relationship in the series. Those who write Tara/Willow argue that they are filling in all the missing scenes that don’t appear in the show due to censorship: ‘their first kiss, first time making love, first real conversations about how they felt about each other’.
Some authors suggested that the vampire element in Buffy enabled them to explore more S/M themes because vampires have no souls and have to inflict pain on others. Slashers also enjoy playing with masculinity, and the show often represents masculinity in crisis. For example, in series 6 Giles feels that he isn’t needed, Warren uses his ‘magic balls’ to gain power over women, Xander feels ineffectual and Jonathan wants to be a supervillain if he can’t be a superhero. Slashers look for clues in Buffy to use in their Slash, often very cleverly weaving their stories into events that actually happen in the programme. For example, many pick up on the time in ‘Intervention’ when Xander describes Spike as ‘compact and mysterious’ and says he can see why Buffy would like to sleep with him. Buffy responds ‘I’m not having sex with Spike, but I’m starting to think that you are’. There is some great slash written about the time in ‘Hush’ when Xander is in bed with Spike tied to a chair next to him.
There was some discussion of bisexuality in Buffy amongst my participants and at the conference. Emotions seem to run high about the question of whether Willow is bisexual or lesbian. Those who argue the former point to her deep relationship with Oz and earlier feelings for Xander before she got together with Tara. Those who argue the latter point out the Willow herself says that she is ‘gay now’. I would argue that the lack of recognition of bisexuality in Buffy is part of the general invisibility of bisexuality in our culture and the binary thinking which says people have to be either gay or straight, nothing in between. Also, Willow describes the evil, vampire version of herself as ‘kinda gay’, implying that she might also be ‘kinda straight’ and therefore pretty much bi! Only one slash story that I found explicitly presented a character as bi. It is a story based on ‘The Zeppo’ episode. Xander is left in the car with Jack by Katie. After Jack and Xander have sex, the following scene occurs:
‘Jack smiled at Xander as he straightened again. “Thought you weren’t gay.”
Xander only shook his head, exhaling shakily, but still not opening his eyes. “I’m not,” he responded after a moment.
“Then why…” Jack cut off and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. He gave his companion another winning grin. “Then why’d you wanna make Katie happy?”
It was Xander’s turn to grin. “Bisexual.” He leaned in for another kiss.’
Sadly there isn’t space to give detail about all the other excellent papers at the conference. Ones I particularly enjoyed were Esther Saxey’s exploration of slash stories about Xander: why he is always coming out in slash, and why slashers like to see him suffer so much. Hannah Sander’s paper on teen witches and their responses to representations in Buffy was also fascinating. And I loved Gerry Bloustien’s presentation about Buffy fans in Adelaide getting together in pubs to watch the show on ‘Buffy Night’. It was also very exciting to meet Roz Kaveney, who not only edited ‘Reading the Vampire Slayer’ but has written with Nail Gaiman. I’m not worthy. But perhaps the high point of the conference was getting a sneak preview of Series Seven. The kind man from ‘Kultureshock’ comic shop let a whole bunch of us come down on Saturday night and sit there eating takeaway pizza, drinking his G&Ts and oo-ing and ah-ing over the first few episodes, which someone had brought over from America. I won’t spoil it for you, but I was gratified to see ‘the look’ that passes between Spike and Xander when a new character asks if any of the Scooby Gang have not slept together. Very slashy.
Where do we go from here? Well I definitely want to carry on researching slash and slashers. In order to do so properly I think I have to try my hand at writing some myself. I have a fun little scene going round my head starring Spike (obviously) and Jonathan (sigh!) I also used the Buffy conference to promote a conference that I’m co-organising in May 2003 on Vampires, which I hope will feature several Buffy-related sessions. Anyone interested should contact me for details (historic email address deleted) or look on www.wickedness.net. Finally, I’m very much hoping that the Buffy conference will become an annual event. It was great fun and very academically stimulating – honest!