By Carrie Evans (this piece also appears on the Workers Liberty website and in the present issue of Solidarity):
On 10 March 1997 something was created that changed my world forever. This is not using hyperbole to illustrate a point. Buffy the Vampire Slayer shaped my world. Unfortunately for me (or fortunately depending on context) I’m not the only person who feels this way. Which is why Buffy has launched a thousand think-pieces.
But Buffy’s originality still stands up today because it took every cliché and trope and turned them on their heads. To the people who still think Buffy is exclusively for hormonal teenage girls who long for the “bite” of a vampire and basement-dwelling neck-beards — where have you been for the last 20 years?
The first time I saw Buffy I was seven years old and BBC 2 just happened to be on. There was this new American show with a stupid name, but the title sequence caught my attention… Episode One opens as a horror genre show would open. A beautiful blonde, with a petite frame and soft voice, wearing a Catholic school uniform, is being talked into breaking into school by her bad boyfriend.
The boyfriend is an archetypal creep who is simultaneously trying to impress a girl with his badness and bully her into “making out” with him. I remember the rush of fear and excitement I had knowing she was about to die. “I’m scared. I think I can hear something outside” says Darla. (“Owww, she’s definitely about to get it”, thinks me.) “Baby, there’s nothing out there” says creepy boyfriend. Then in a plot twist that my seven-year-old mind could barely comprehend, Darla says “Good”, transforms into a vampire and sinks her teeth into creepy boyfriend’s neck. “OMFG! She was the monster!”
From then on I was completely and utterly hooked. I was a Whedonite (fan of Jess Whedon, the show’s writer). I wasn’t disappointed by the rest of the show. Whedon purposefully makes the opening scene a microcosm of what is to come.
Buffy started out simply. Firstly, what if a young woman walks down a dark ally at night and gets attacked by a monster. But instead of dying as she would in a horror show, she kicks that monster’s arse. Secondly, growing up and going to secondary school is hell for most of us. But what if your school was built on the mouth of hell?
Buffy is a typical teenage girl in every respect apart from the fact she is the vampire slayer. The one girl on earth with the supernatural strength and skill to fight the forces of darkness. Horror is a brilliant medium through which to represent society’s fears. It is why “penny dreadfuls” and Dracula became widely popular during the 19th century’s industrial upheaval and intense urbanisation. Buffy is simply the last and in my opinion best example of this tradition. On the surface it a show about vampires, demons and the forces of darkness. However the demons are metaphors for our own demons. They allow us to safely process and analyse our own deepest fears.
For instance, Angel, the love of Buffy’s life, is a vampire cursed with a soul. In the buffyverse the demon takes your body when you’re “turned” and the soul quits you, unharmed. All that’s left should be a remorseless killing machine with no empathy or morality. However Angel is thought to have killed the most beloved daughter of a gipsy clan. They exacted the perfect revenge by putting his soul back into his body to spend the rest of eternity fighting with his demon.
Angel has a conscience. Angel has to be suffering all the time. If he feels even one moment of true happiness the curse will be broken and his soul will be freed. Here’s the real kicker though, guess what makes Angel happier than anything else? You’ve got it, Buffy. Or more specifically, sex with Buffy. In the episode Surprise Buffy turns 17 and loses her virginity to Angel. Only to wake up the next day with a boyfriend that’s a monster. The story is fantastical yet completely truthful at the same time. Many women experience this phenomenon of going to bed with one person and waking up with someone else. The phrase “He wasn’t like this when I first met him” is a cliché for a reason.
Demons and magic also act as devices through which to analyse wider society. Sometimes this takes the form of long overarching narratives, as with the dark and brilliant Season Six, with three separate but intertwining story lines painting a grim pictures of what it’s like to be a twenty-something woman in the modern world. A lot of this season focuses on Buffy trying to reconnect with humanity.
The Scooby Gang (Buffy’s friends) accidentally bring Buffy back from heaven, thinking that they were saving her from a hell dimension. Only her mother has died, so she’s pulled out only to face being the primary carer to her kid sister, having medical debts her mother’s brain tumour incurred and having no prospects except menial jobs and poverty wages. The season is a great big metaphor for the depression you face in your mid-twenties. Buffy is directionless and lacking inspiration. She isolating herself, alienating her friends and engaging in risky sexual behaviour. Meanwhile two “big bads” are developing right under her nose in the forms of Dark Willow and The Trio.
Dark Willow is the storyline in which Buffy’s best friend becomes addicted to magic. She transforms from being everyone’s favourite shy geek into the world’s most powerful and out-of-control dark witch. Buffy is unable to stop this from happening or even recognise it because she is so lost herself.
The Trio is a group of super villains who are in fact just three misogynistic men, who can’t cope with not being popular, athletic or sexy and decide to turned their frustrations on the Scooby Gang. The Trio start out as comedy villains — typical sad, hapless, kind of pathetic, misogynists, but morph into something a lot more sinister. By the middle of the series, one of the Trio has bewitched his ex-girlfriend into being his sex slave. Fortunately for her his spell goes wrong; she wakes from the spell, confronts him with the reality of what he did, telling him that this isn’t just some sick fantasy but that he has repeatedly raped her. He freaks out and murders her.
Whedon and his gang of merry writers often analysed society’s ills in a single episode, often directly critical of capitalism. In the episode Double Meat Palace, Buffy is forced to take a job in a fast food restaurant but soon realises that her co-workers are disappearing at an alarming rate. At first we think the secret ingredient in the double meat medley is in fact human meat, but there is actually a demon who is picking the workers off one at time. In our culture, workers are just disposable pieces of meat; they come, they go and no one notices. Buffy: “Wow they’re all so identical”. Boss: “Yeah they all start to look the same to me too.” Buffy: “No, not the employees. The chicken slices”.
Similarly in the episode Life Cereal, Buffy takes a job in retail and gets caught in a time loop, forcing her to live the same day over and over again. This is a pretty obvious (even heavy handed) metaphor for the monotony of working life. In the same episode Buffy gets a job in construction but is fired because the men can’t cope with her being stronger than them. In The Wish, the vampires work out how to mass-produce and start factory farming humans. They reflect on their activities: “Undeniably we are the world’s superior race. Yet we have always been too parochial, too bound by the mindless routine of the predator. Hunt and kill, hunt and kill. Titillating? Yes. Practical. Hardly. Meanwhile, the humans, with their plebeian minds, have brought us a truly demonic concept: mass production!”
Marx delved into the world of gothic horror when explaining capitalism and often (quite poetically) compared it to Vampirism: “Capital is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.”
Another favourite episode was Anne. Here Buffy runs away to LA and takes a job in a diner. Again, she notices young runaways are disappearing with no trace. She follows the trail and it eventually leads her to a church group that are doing outreach work with the young and homeless. But free meals come at a cost. If you allow the group to baptise you, you get sucked into a parallel hell dimension where you are forced to slave in a factory until you die, for a boss class of demons. As a final cherry on the cake for communist buffy fans, when Buffy does lead the factory rebellion, she picks up two tools to fight with — a Hammer and Sickle. Buffy literally destroys the exploitative class and frees the slaves using a Hammer and Sickle!
I don’t think every staff writer on Buffy was a Bolshevik; I think they saw the opportunity for a joke and ran with it. But there were a lot more thoughtful criticisms of capitalism, state power and modern culture in Buffy than in most popular TV.
Buffy was one of the first shows to treat TV as a complex art form, rather than just cheap entertainment. It established a reputation for innovation, experimentation, witty dialogue and meta humour. It broke new ground in what a prime time TV show could do. When Whedon was accused of using witty, pithy dialogue as a crutch for the show, he decided to do a whole episode, The Gentleman, in silence. It is still one of the funniest and scariest things I’ve ever seen. Here, The Gentlemen come into town and steal everyone’s voices in order to help them harvest organs. When they rip out your heart no one will hear you scream.
There is also a musical episode, a few episodes set entirely inside dreams and an art house episode called The Body which has absolutely no score — a first for television. Another stand-out arty episode is Normal Again. In this episode we find out (or do we? no we don’t. Wait, maybe we do? No. Fuck, I have no idea what is going on…) that the whole Buffyverse is actually just the complex delusion of an institutionalised girl. By doing this, the writers were able to tear down the fourth wall and critique their own work without being obnoxious. Psychiatrist: “But Buffy, it all fell apart when you introduced this sister character into your delusions didn’t it? You can’t just invent a sister out of nowhere.”
Breaking new ground was very apparent in the way the show dealt with gender and sexuality. Buffy isn’t just one super-woman in a man’s world. The whole show centres around amazing women. Women who are powerful, intellectual, magical, caring and sexual. Some of them butch, some of them fem, some of them gay, some of them straight. Most of them are a mixture of both bad and good. All of them however, are belittled, talked down to and held back and physically abused by men who couldn’t even dream of being in the same league as them.
Then when you think you’ve seen it all, Buffy goes and pulls the ultimate socialist feminist move by giving her super powers away to every woman in the world. She is no longer the chosen one, nor is she the burdened one. We all share the power and work together. Buffy: “What if you could have that power now? In every generation a slayer is born because a bunch of old men made up that rule. Those were powerful men. This woman is more powerful than all of those men combined. So I say we change the rule… From now on, every girl in the world who might be a slayer, will be a slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up. Slayers everyone of us. So make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?”
So yes, Buffy may look like a show about vampires and high school, with cheap production and a painfully outdated wardrobe, but there’s a reason it consistently features in “best TV ever made” lists. It is camp, complex, beautifully moving and never patronising. It inspired women and girls all over the world to stand up and be strong. It got a generation of writers to treat TV as art and push the boundaries on what is acceptable.
Forever a Whedonite.
In Alex Gibney’s film Wikileaks: We Steal Secrets there were scenes of a modest house in Reykjavjik where Julian Assange and some selfless Icelandic volunteers were working on making a video of Americans killing Reuters journalists and other civilians in Iraq.
It turns out one of the selfless volunteers was an Icelandic snitch, Sigdur Thordarson, who had got bored with being a hacktivist and wanted to move on to something else.
“Unlike many drawn to WikiLeaks, Thordarson does not seem to have been principally motivated by a passion for the cause of transparency or by the desire to expose government wrongdoing. Instead, he was on the hunt for excitement and got a thrill out of being close to people publishing secret government documents.”
Adolescent capacity for mischief to alleviate boredom can end up destroying whole infrastructures for kicks, while taking a few drugs.
Thordarson got into contact with another hacking organisation called LulzSec which among other achievements had brought down the CIA website and asked them to investigate the Icelandic government’s attitude towards Wikileaks. He then became an FBI informant himself, and as one of the main men in LulzSec had also been recruited by the FBI, the Feds could then verify his credentials and use him as a Wikileaks insider.
Wikileaks and the Anonymous style hacking groups seem to be like far left political groups in that they are always being infiltrated by forces of the state, there’s a blurred line between what you could call productive engagement and sheer vandalism in their activities and they are full of in-fighting.
There does however seem to be very little ideological glue holding the hacktivists together. It’s a kind of Against the Man, Fuck the Headmaster attitude. Quite a few of the hackers graduate to becoming security experts for large companies and governments. On their CVs they list under Achievements:-
- Broke into Bank of England website and covered it with insulting pictures of Mark Carney
- Released rogue algorithm onto Amazon database, so those ordering Harry Potter books received 50 Shades of Sado-masochism and vice-versa
- Hacked Richard Dawkins’s twitter account so he sent out tweets of the Thought for the Day kind, like “At the end of Ramadan, we feel a spiritual closeness to.. ” or “the time of Easter is a reminder of”
and those credentials get you a solid job as a gatekeeper for Big Company Inc or Big State Surveilliana.
In our new digital world the state can often find and even turn the hacking known knowns but there are a mass of known unknowns and unknown unknowns in cyberspace. For an upbeat look at how the rogue Digimeisters like Assange and Snowden are the challenging usurpers of the digital world, have a look at this brilliant essay by Bruce Sterling:-
If you’re NSA, as so many thousands are, you’ve known from the get-go that the planet’s wires and cables are a weapon of mass surveillance. Because that is their inherent purpose! You can’t get all conflicted, and start whining that Internet users are citizens of some place or other! That is not the point at all!
Citizens and rights have nothing to do with elite, covert technologies! The targets of surveillance are oblivious dorks, they’re not even newbies! Even US Senators are decorative objects for the NSA. An American Senator knows as much about PRISM and XKeyScore as a troll-doll on the dashboard knows about internal combustion.
Julian Assange. Yeah, him, the silver-haired devil, the Mycroft Holmes of the Ecuadorian Embassy. Bradley Manning’s not at all NSA material, he’s just a leaky clerk with a thumb-drive. But Julian’s quite a lot closer to the NSA — because he’s a career cypherpunk.
If you’re a typical NSA geek, and you stare in all due horror at Julian, it’s impossible not to recognize him as one of your own breed. He’s got the math fixation, the stilted speech, the thousand-yard-stare, and even the private idiolect that somehow allows NSA guys to make up their own vocabulary whenever addressing Congress (who don’t matter) and haranguing black-hat hacker security conventions (who obviously do).
Sterling makes the point that Assange and Wikileaks had more clout than all the human rights groups put together when it came to rescuing Edmund Snowden:-
the solemn signatories of the recent “International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance.”
… Obviously, a planetary host of actively concerned and politically connected people. Among this buzzing horde of eager online activists from a swarm of nations, what did any of them actually do for Snowden? Nothing.
Before Snowden showed up from a red-eye flight from Hawaii, did they have the least idea what was actually going on with the hardware of their beloved Internet? Not a clue. They’ve been living in a pitiful dream world where their imaginary rule of law applies to an electronic frontier — a frontier being, by definition, a place that never had any laws.
He sums up:-
Digital, globalized societies — where capital and information moves, and where labor and human flesh doesn’t move — they behave like this. That is what we are witnessing and experiencing.
Sterling may overstate the uncontrollability of the net. But most of us with a job know these days if the network goes down, we stop producing. That the security of our bank accounts may be jeopardised. That computers trading derivatives on miniscule profits can go awry and destroy the economy. It’s a sense of vulnerability. We’ve most of us wandered into our shanty towns at the edge of Digital City, but we have no idea who the mayor is, who the Council is and who runs the police.
Having read all about Alex Gibney’s film Wikileaks: We steal secrets I went to see it, and recommend that everyone does. It was also great seeing a documentary in the cinema where you can’t be distracted, as when you watch something on the telly or the I-player at home.
The film shapes itself round the story of two men, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning. At the beginning Assange appears admirable. He’s a dedicated anti-establishment hacker and also a charmer, full of humour. You see him rising from smart-arse hacking in Australia – breaking into government systems because he can – to uncovering corrupt banking in Iceland. He and a couple of co-activists seem like heroes when they work together in a tiny house in Reykjavik to make a video of American soldiers killing Reuters journalists. (The event had already been documented but it was the video that made the public impact).
Meanwhile Bradley Manning, an American soldier roasting in Iraq, is a figure of pathos. In a civilian niche working with his considerable computing skills and hanging out with sympathetic friends he would have been fine. But he is a fish out of water, or as he says, “The CPU is not made for this motherboard”. He finds himself, an effeminate guy with a conscience, in a highly macho environment holding a job which gives him to access to the reality of the war that the USA is carrying out in Afghanistan and Iraq. His sense of isolation, working on his computer in the desert and being horrified at the revelations of civilian casualties, is painful to watch. He starts leaking the material and that increases his loneliness. So he confides in a soul mate he met on-line, Adrian Lamo, who shopped him.
Everyone knows how these stories have panned out, with Assange stuck in the Ecuadorian embassy dodging rape charges and Manning on trial in a military court for aiding the enemy. As for Adrian Lamo, type his name on Google and you’ll get “snitch”.
Assange’s story is a comedy of ironies. He, a hacker with monikers, became a media celebrity with his face on Time magazine. A transparency absolutist, he pressured his assistants to sign non-disclosure agreements. A pure anti-power activist began misusing his own power. He became an activist rock star who attracted groupies – and, it’s alleged, treated them as rock stars have often treated groupies.
Gibney got an interview with one of the women who made the rape allegations and of course like any woman who annoys males throughout the digital world, she was hideously targetted with rape threats and the usual vile stuff by some sites that would see themselves as progressive revolutionaries.
The most likable character to appear is James Ball, who volunteered to work for Wikileaks, got to know Assange’s modus operandi, and observes that Assange had the delusions of those working for a greater cause – that if they do wrong, it’s all right. If he tells a lie, something he’s prone to do, it’s a noble lie. One of his on-line names was “Mendax”.
Wikileaks: We Steal Secrets is a fascinating story that suggests various themes. It sets up a dozen signposts that could be followed, as distinct from the Adam Curtis style, which acts like a SatNav bossing you along the journey of the theory with your only view being billboards of footage selected to illustrate the point. When Gibney’s witnesses talk about their experiences of transparency, of the power of the state and the organisations that challenge the state, or the flow of information that can empower the small as well as the large, they point to ideas that all could be profitably explored and which are as complex and as in the shades of grey as Wikileaks itself – though some of the USA’s activities are as black as can be.
Gibney touches briefly on Anonymous, the vigilante/resistance (depending on what they have done to you) loose group of hackers who did a DDoS sabotage of PayPal, Visa and MasterCard when the US governemnt was leaning on them to block donations to WikiLeaks. Anonymous form a power base of their own, and though they were right enough to sabotage illegitimate force by the USA government, they can start chucking their digital grenades at any net organisation who has displeased them politically – and your only redress is in fact via the government. (They have now dumped Wikileaks since it became the Julian Assange show).
So this is the new world of the internet, where Assange was a warlord (or bandit, or outlaw) carrying out skirmishes against the empire. It’s only been in common use for about twenty years. The industrial revolution must have been like that. Suddenly there are new cities, and fast transport, whole different ways of working and whereas the average person once only knew their immediate neighbours, they could now seek out the like-minded. We have only just started to guess how the digital revolution is affecting political as well as cultural and personal life. For Manning of course it was a disaster. He made a friend online, and was betrayed online, and to those who don’t spend half their life online “friend” and “betrayal” where you have never met in the flesh may make no sense – but in fact they are emotional tangibilities in the digital world.
Assange knows the internet like a spy knows safe houses and the weak points of the fortress, and how a mechanic knows a car, and this specialized knowledge is one reason for his egomania. His life swimming in the digital world did give him a slightly fantastical way of engaging with the real world, and his superior knowledge of one system gave him an over-estimation of his political judgement, with a callousness about collateral damage as bad as a government’s. He had his own political view of the war in Afghanistan, and those Afghans who collaborated with the Coalition forms were traitors (to the Taliban?) so never mind if they were killed by careless redacting of the leaked cables.
In fact, a cruel and unusual punishment for Assange would not to be cooped up in a flat in Knightsbridge with wi-fi, but to be given freedom to roam the United Kingdom – with no internet access. That would be virtual, and real, banishment.
Dave Osler got seven. I got nine. Test your knowledge in this jolly quiz:
Goodbye, papier-mâché head. You made me laugh, anyway.
How the hell is it that in the course of today no less than three people have linked to Shiraz from…here?
The highlight of my Christmas was not meeting up with my long-lost relatives, or tucking into some horrible turkey and vile vegetables…it was catching a TV showing of Galaxy Quest, a fillum that makes me laugh out loud. I’d kept quiet about this for some years, prefering to adopt an image of being a Bergman kinda guy (that always used to impress the chicks), until the novelist Lionel Shriver admitted, in the Graun, that she likes it (“In tandem with my enthusiasm for ‘Dumb and Dumber’, my enjoyment of this goof-ball film certifies once and for all that I have no taste”).
So now, I’m out…I LOVE THIS FILLUM!!
The fact is, I laughed ’till I cried :
I recently read on Andy Newman’s hilariously misnamed “Socialist” “Unity” website, an attack upon my goodself, closing with this, from the site’s proprietor, Mr Andy Newman, hisself!:
“Jim: I would consider being called ‘reactionary scum’ a compliment from your lips. The AWL are a cancer in the labour movement, and you personally are the most malignant part of that cancer.”
Andy Newman (16 December 2007, @ 8.14 am).
Well, you have to get out of bed early to beat Mr Newman to it, eh?
Anyway: I have no particular objection to Mr Newman’s attack…except for this: he then, immediately switched off the “comments” facility on his blog, so that I couldn’t reply.
This from someone who quite happily allows a physically violent thug like Ger Francis, and a mentally-unstable woman-beater like Ian *******/******* (who needs help) to contribute on a regular basis to his blog…
Nooman: you’re a wanker:
Any thoughts, readers? For myself, I actually think they were right to kick out Hoveman and the other Galloway groupies. However it also seems to me that they’re trying to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted. Possibly we’re witnessing the collapse of the last of the “big three” trot groups from the 1970s and 80s, following the explosion of the WRP and the implosion of Militant. Also one wonders whether the rats are about to leave the sinking ship in light of the crisis. This thread’s open – feel free to comment if you wish.
Just wanted to point out my utter contrition at that Dick Dastardly of the Left, Mr Denham’s gross misuse of my nickname to engage your pure and holy self in debate on your blog. I have chastised him most thoroughly. Here’s a little song by way of recompense (I couldn’t find any frankincense or myrrh as befits your unsulliable purity):