Joss Whedon, Eliza Dushku Help People of Uganda’s Civil War

What’s Trending’s Shira Lazar hosted a panel with Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku at a ThriveGulu fundraising event in San Francisco to chat about how they promote change to better humanity and help survivors of Uganda’s civil war: Check it out! WT’s main website is here, and you can visit ThriveGulu as well.

Samuel Scott is the founder and publisher of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Online. You can follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and Twitter as well as on his personal website.


Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill, and Buffy

utilitarianism john stuart mill buffyEditor’s note: Want to contribute a guest blog? Contact us.

By Samuel Scott

In a prior post, we addressed the issue of whether Aristotle (through his work “Nicomachean Ethics“), would think Buffy is an ethical person and warrior. In this essay, we wanted to examine the same issue — but in the context of the utilitarian philosophy advocated in the nineteenth century by John Stuart Mill and his mentor, Jeremy Bentham.

In contrast to ethical systems that rely on idealistic axioms (such as Aristotle’s “Golden Mean” and Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative), utilitarianism is more practical and based on realistic, worldly concerns. Without going into too much detail here, the core concept of utilitarianism is the following (from Mill’s “Utilitarianism”) summary by SparkNotes of the so-called Greatest Happiness Principle:

This principle holds that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.” Pleasure and the absence of pain are, by this account, the only things desirable as ends in themselves, the only things inherently “good.”

In other words, the most-ethical choice between two or more actions, according to utilitarianism, is that which will create the most pleasure and/or the most absence of pain among the greatest number of people. All other concerns are secondary at the most or irrelevant at the least. In fact, one can argue that “the ends justify the means” in utilitarianism since the end (pleasure or the lack of pain) is what determines whether an action is ethical.

So, if we accept this paradigm as our guide for moral behavior, then the next question comes naturally: Is Buffy a utilitarian? At first, the answer seems to be “yes.” After all, Buffy — just like all of the slayers before and after her — has a role whose duty is to do whatever it takes to slay demons and vampires while preventing apocalypses from occurring from to time. The general role of the slayer is strictly utilitarian — the job is to minimize the amount of pain that humans will feel by being killed by vampires, sucked into a “hell dimension,” or suffering another of many other possible, painful ends.

Buffy’s Transitions in Utilitarianism

From what we see of other slayers, they were certainly utilitarian. The slayer mother of Robin Wood, the last principal of Sunnydale High School, neglected her young son because, as she told him, “the mission is what matters.” Kendra, who was called to duty after Buffy briefly died in Season One, was raised as a potential without friends, worldly concerns, and interactions with “boys.” The First Slayer tried to kill the Scoobies in the finale of Season Four because Buffy’s behavior was, in her view, unnatural — she had friends and was not wholly devoted to her utilitarian duty.

Buffy deviated from the behavior of prior slayers at the outset. Quickly and over the years, her actions were decidedly not utilitarian:

  • Buffy does not kill Angel because he is a vampire with a soul
  • Buffy does not kill Oz because he is a werewolf only three days out of the month
  • Buffy does not kill Spike once he had a government chip inserted into his brain that renders him harmless (and, later, had a soul as well)

Each of these actions resulted in later pain suffered by humans. Angel, when he lost his soul, killed Jenny and tried to end the world (not counting the pain he sometimes caused in his spin-off TV show). Oz’s life as a werewolf caused suffering to Willow and others in Seasons Three and Four. Post-chip Spike, before he fell in love with Buffy and while later under control of the First, killed people, plotted against the Scoobies, and tried to rape Buffy in Season Six. In just these three examples, less pain would have been caused to people had Buffy killed the people in question. (This leads to another question: Is Buffy, then, ultimately responsible for the deaths and suffering caused by these people later?) As such, it is clear that Buffy — whether right or wrong — had always considered moral factors other than just practical utility. After all, the slayer told Kendra in Season Two that her friends are “total assets.”

The two most prominent examples of Buffy’s anti-utilitarianism (to create a word, perhaps) are in Seasons Five and Seven. In the former example, hell-god Glory is going to kill Buffy’s sister Dawn as part of a ritual that will open a gateway to her home dimension and destroy the world as a side-effect. In cold, rational terms, the utilitarian would say that Dawn should be killed before the ritual. After all, the pain caused to one person would be overcome in ethical terms by preventing the pain caused to billions of people. But Buffy eliminates that option (whether out of familial love or an adherence to a different moral system). Just remember this exchange in the Season Five finale “The Gift”:

Buffy: Pretty simple math here. We stop Glory before she can start the ritual. We still have a couple of hours, right?
Giles: If my calculations are right. But Buffy —
Buffy: I don’t wanna hear it. (turns away)
Giles: I understand that —
Buffy: (whirls back) No! No, you don’t understand. We are not talking about this.
Giles: (jumps up from the table, yells) Yes, we bloody well are!
Giles: (quieter) If Glory begins the ritual … if we can’t stop her…
Buffy: Come on. Say it. We’re bloody well talking about this. Tell me to kill my sister.
Giles: (whispers) She’s not your sister.
Buffy: (pause) No. She’s not. She’s more than that. She’s me. The monks made her out of me. I hold her … and I feel closer to her than … (looks down, sighs) It’s not just the memories they built. It’s physical. Dawn … is a part of me. The only part that I — (stops)
Willow: We’ll solve this. We will. Don’t have another coma, okay?
Giles: (quietly) If the ritual starts, then every living creature in this and every other dimension imaginable will suffer unbearable torment and death … (looks up at Buffy) including Dawn.
Buffy: Then the last thing she’ll see is me protecting her.
Giles: (quietly) You’ll fail. You’ll die. We all will. (turns away from the table)
Buffy: I’m sorry.


Buffy: Everybody knows their jobs. Remember, the ritual starts, we all die. And I’ll kill anyone who comes near Dawn.

However, in Season Seven, Buffy does become more utilitarian. Whether it is a result of her post-resurrection malaise, her getting older and more cynical, or her reaction to the nature of the fight against the First, she does act as a cold general of her army of potential slayers. Just as officers send soldiers into battle knowing that some will die but try to minimize the number of deaths, so does Buffy do the same through her speeches and actions. Her (utilitarian) goal is to save the world no matter what the cost. Buffy tells Giles in “Lies My Parents Told Me” that her earlier decision not to consider a sacrifice of Dawn was wrong:

Giles: We’re on the verge of war. It’s time you looked at the big picture.
: Hello! All I do is look at the big picture. The other day, I gave an inspirational speech to the telephone-repair man.
: It takes more than rousing speeches to lead, Buffy. If you’re going to be a general, you need to be able to make difficult decisions regardless of cost.
 Giles, we had this conversation when I told you that I wouldn’t sacrifice Dawn to stop Glory from destroying the world.
:: Ah, yes, but things are different, aren’t they? After what you’ve been through, faced with the same choice now, (paces) you’d let her die.
: If I had to…to save the world. Yes.

Earlier that same season, Buffy immediately decided to kill Anya after discovering that she had chosen (for a second time) to become a vengeance demon and kill humans. (Earlier, Buffy did not kill fellow Scoobies who posed potential, future threats, and she did not kill Willow after she had killed Warren and tried to end the world in grief after Tara’s accidental death in Season Six.) Buffy also held a knife to a crying Andrew’s throat and made him believe in Season Seven’s “Storyteller” that she was going to kill him to close the seal leading to the Hellmouth below Sunnydale High School. Buffy did not start out as a utilitarian, but she became one.

The Utilitarian Watchers’ Council

As we can see, Buffy’s behavior specifically was less than utilitarian until Season Seven — she was usually motivated by additional factors including her own moral paradigm and her desire to help her loved ones. However, the true utilitarians in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” had always been the Watchers’ Council itself — and, thereby, Giles himself as well.

Since time immemorial, the Watchers’ Council had guided slayers in the fight against evil. They had been the generals leading the slayers over the centuries. (Although, as we learn in Season 7, there was someone watching the watchers.) As such, they had a utilitarian responsibility: To oversee the battle against evil, no matter what the cost. As a result, their tactics have always been viewed as controversial (to say the least). In the Season 3 episode “Helpless,” they had Giles inject Buffy (on her eighteenth birthday) with a serum that would eliminate her supernatural strength while fighting a psychotic vampire. The goal was to see whether the slayer could think “on her feet” as an average human without the slayer ability. After the successful test, which the council had always done to slayers on their eighteenth birthdays, we see the following dialogue:

Quentin: You think the test was unfair?
Buffy: I think you better leave town before I get my strength back.
Quentin: We’re not in the business of fair, Miss Summers, we’re fighting a war.
Giles: You’re waging a war. She’s fighting it. There is a difference.

The theme of the episode, of course, was that the Watchers’ Council is evil at worst or misguided at best. However, I would argue that their utilitarian motivation is understandable — even if, perhaps, their tactics were not morally reputable all of the time. In war, motivations matter. If a soldier dies in a country’s fight to, say, gain land or an energy resource, then that has less of an altruistic element. A utilitarian strategy — sacrificing soldiers to achieve the goal — is less ethical in this case. However, the goal of the Watchers’ Council is indeed altruistic — they want to save the world. In “Helpless,” they wanted to ensure that the slayer was as good as possible. Just as generals must sent soldiers into battle knowing that some will die, so does the Watchers’ Council know that another slayer will be called if something were to happen to Buffy.

The strain of utilitarianism in the Watchers’ Council is evident in Giles’ behavior in Season Five. After all, he could not have undergone all of the years of training and later service without subconsciously adopting at least some of the organizational culture. After Glory had been stopped but still had shared bodies with Ben, a human doctor, at the end of Season Five, Buffy refused to kill a critically-injured Ben even though doing so would have prevented Glory from re-emerging ever again. Giles, however, did not refuse:

Giles: Can you move?
Ben: Need a … a minute. She could’ve killed me.
Giles: No she couldn’t. Never. And sooner or later Glory will re-emerge, and … make Buffy pay for that mercy. And the world with her. Buffy even knows that…  and still she couldn’t take a human life.
Giles: She’s a hero, you see. She’s not like us.
Ben: Us?

[Giles suffocates Ben.]

In this short but powerful scene, we see the difference between “warriors” and “heroes.” All heroes are warriors, but not all warriors are heroes. The Watchers’ Council, Ben, and Giles are warriors — they do whatever it takes to achieve their military goals and are essentially utilitarians. Buffy, at least for most of the series, is a hero — she balances the need to win the battle with the need to act in a moral and ethical manner as well. As such, a warrior could kill Ben but a hero could not. Heroes, like Achilles in ancient Greece, are not strict utilitarians — they ultimately serve a higher, moral calling (like showing mercy) and not just the need to win a war. Buffy is just the latest example of this long-running archetype.

Samuel Scott is the founder and publisher of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Online. You can follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and Twitter as well as on his personal website.

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Vampire Meme: When Should You Stake a Vampire?

Don’t know when you should stake a vampire? Since it’s Friday, we created this fun “Buffy” flowchart and vampire meme to help you out! Use the embed code at the bottom to add this to your website!

vampire meme

If you come across a vampire, we hope this helps you out! Please “like,” share, and forward however you want! But if you copy the image to put on another site, please credit us at “Buffy the Vampire Slayer Online.”

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Samuel Scott is the founder and publisher of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Online. You can follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and Twitter as well as on his personal website.


How “Buffy” Saved My Life

how buffy saved my lifeEditor’s note: Want to contribute a guest blog post? Contact us.

The author has wished to remain anonymous.

The big difference between me and Buffy is that I was always a slayer. I wasn’t “called” or “chosen” – I was born into the violence and the suffering. But if I were to pick a moment when I knew I was different, it would be a little under two months before my fourteenth birthday.

My parents were going through their divorce at the time, and that is pretty normal. But my dad, he went psycho – not that he wasn’t a little bit already, but then he started talking about sacrificing me to God and molesting me. I eventually pressed charges. I didn’t turn to drugs or sex – I just kept trying to be good. I kept thinking that maybe if I kept being good, someday good things would happen – because, well, my life so far had been hell. I guess living in a Cinderella, karmic mind-frame helped me to cope.

My mother soon re-married – and, well, so entered another villain. His pathological lying contorted my mother, who was super desperate to be loved. It came down to months of her telling me to quit school and become a prostitute because even though I was basically a virgin despite a rape that happened at fifteen, and my stepfather kept telling her that I was “giving it” to everyone.

I spent as much time as I could quietly hiding from him and his yelling – often times spending whole weekends in my bedroom pissing into cups so I wouldn’t have to see him. I guess I was a coward, but the court battle was all the fight I had in me. And then, having to face all the kids at school who didn’t like me – well, I just couldn’t take anything else. My stepdad gave my mother the ultimatum: me or him. She gave me the choice of her killing herself if I stayed or moving out. Not really much of a choice.

I guess I should mention that I’m the youngest child in my family. At sixteen, I left to live with my most-psychotic sister because one sister didn’t have the room or the money for an extra person, let alone her own kid, and another was married to a complete pervert. So, I went and lived with the sister who came in at night, waking me up with punches and yelling.

I lived there for six months, and while I never hit back, I was not allowed to use the furniture or eat the food in the house. A plum tree grew in the back yard, and the outside of the fruit was almost black but inside was a golden sweetness that has left every other plum bitter with envy.

Winter came, and my diet went to eating out of trash cans and dog food. I was the “new girl” and had no one in whom I could confide. I was so alone. On my way to school one day, I blacked out and spent my early-morning, ballroom-dance class passed out in the snow. I did get to school after a car horn woke me up.

I kept losing consciousness in classes, and my grades went from As to Fs – being beaten and starved will do that to a girl. After school, I had a full time job at a restaurant. I guess I could have eaten the food from the plates as I bussed the tables, but even starving, I couldn’t bring myself to steal. My vampires were creeps who waited outside for me or followed me as I tried to get home. I got smart real fast on not taking the same routes to school or home from work.

Well, with all of this stress, I forgot to change the laundry or take out the trash, and so my wonderful sister who – in addition to throwing things at me and hitting me – began telling everyone how ungrateful I was. Eventually, more family came to visit to tell me what a horrible, ungrateful burden I was.

Well, I broke down and snapped. I decided to let the light rail pop off my head after school. I guess had I wanted to see everyone one last time. My dad was giving me driving lessons on the way to school, but despite having a driver’s license, I did not know how to drive.

A brief interlude while I explain about Daddy not being in jail.

I didn’t want my dad to go to jail. Even though he spent years throwing me down stairs and such, even though he beat one of my sisters so hard that he gave her brain damage, even though he broke another’s tail bone and gave her many other injuries, he was the good parent. I was never in any danger from my mom – not physically, at least – but her idea of a good babysitter was one who had every sick and twisted fetish. When my dad walked in on anything like that happening to his kids, the perps got flung across rooms.

My dad is kind of like the Hulk. Make him mad, and there is nothing he can’t do. So, yeah, he went crazy and reached out for love in an inappropriate way, but he loved me but mom, well, she is incapable of that. She isn’t a bad person. It’s just that compared to her upbringing, mine was idyllic.

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What Would Xander Do?

xander harris, alexander harris, what would xander do, what would buffy doEditor’s note: Want to contribute a guest blog post? Contact us.

By Samuel Scott

In the first episode of Season Four of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Buffy is dejected and depressed as a result of her lack of success in transitioning into college and losing a battle with the vampire Sunday. The slayer runs into Xander, who had just returned to Sunnydale from an aborted cross-country trip after high school that resulted in him working at a male strip-club to pay for car repairs and who comforts her by telling her that whenever he faces a problem, he asks himself, “What would Buffy do?”

The phrase, of course, was a nod to (or perhaps a parody of) a movement among young, evangelical Christians at the time to wear bracelets and ask themselves, “WWJD?” — “What would Jesus do?” Years later, in one of the many books looking at “Buffy” in a philosophical context (see here, here, and here), one writer, Jason Kawal, asks whether people should actually do what Buffy does. Kawal, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, partly looks at the issue in the context of Xander himself:

… imagine Xander is confronted by a group of vampires, and asks himself what Buffy would do. Buffy would most likely take advantage of her unique abilities as a slayer and make short work of the vampires. But if we imagine Xander without these abilities, attempting to do the same things, it seems that we’ll end up with one dead Xander.

In his excellent essay, Kawal examines whether Buffy is an appropriate, moral example of behavior and then, in the end, argues that “…Buffy, as a hero and a slayer, lives according to different, more demanding standards than normal humans… for us to act morally appropriately, we need not always act as these others do.” He writes that, in the end, a better question is, “What would Buffy think we should do?”

Still, with all due respect to Kawal, I maintain here that his answer is not the correct one. After all, Buffy’s thoughts on what others should do — even when taking into account their non-Slayer limitations — are not always the best in objective terms. In just one example, in the finale of the fifth season, Buffy tells the Scoobies that she will kill anyone who harms Dawn, her little sister, even though doing so would prevent the end of the world. The question of whether it would be ethical or moral to kill Dawn — sacrificing one to save many — is an entire essay unto itself, so I will not address that issue here. The point is that Buffy’s own judgement and thoughts on what others should do are far from being objective.

In addition, role models like Buffy, Jesus, or the Buddha (among countless others) may recommend behaviors that would lead to anarchy should an entire society adopt them. (I mean no disrespect to these religions and philosophies — I am writing only in objective terms.) In Chapter 19 of the Book of Matthew in the Christian Bible:

Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

In addition, it seems that most of Jesus’ followers had abandoned their wives and families to join him. If everyone would do similarly, then a country would be full of lonely, impoverished people. (For more on this point, I recommend looking at Immanuel Kant’s ideas on the categorical imperative and how, perhaps, the question of whether an individual action is ethical depends on whether it would be good for everyone to do the same.) In a similar context, imagine if everyone would follow the Buddha’s advice and eschew any desire. No businesses would be formed, no men would pursue wives, and no women would pursue husbands. And so on.

My point, as I said, is not to denigrate religion (I am a religious Jew, and I addressed that idea in the context of Willow Rosenberg) — it is to argue that the idea of “What would [role model of choice, like Buffy] think we should do?” is not usually the best answer to the issue at hand. In a “Buffy” context, I would state that the best question is, “What would Xander do?”

Xander is the Everyman (see here for the background and here for the piece of English literature on which the term is based) among the Scoobies. Buffy, Faith, Kendra, and the Potentials are, were, or will be slayers. Willow and Tara are powerful witches. Anya is an ex-demon. Oz is a werewolf. Giles and Wesley have extraordinary amounts of occult knowledge. Angel and Spike are vampires. Xander is the only person (except, later, Dawn) who has no extraordinary or supernatural abilities.

We human beings without superpowers cannot be Buffy, but we can be Xander. As a result, the issue is whether we should be like Xander and, if so, how we can be like Xander. The core question, however, is “Which Xander?” In Season 1, he was largely an immature teenager who acted mainly on his desire to “hook up” with Buffy — he had little other motivation, at first, to fight evil. In the fourth season, he is unsure of his role in the world, a “townie” (as he is often described) who did not go to college, a guy who lives in his parents’ basement, and someone who hops from part-time job to part-time job. However, he grows immensely over the latter seasons. Xander becomes the manager of a construction crew, rents a nice apartment with Anya, and finally saves the world all by himself at the end of Season 6.

The character arc of Xander, in my opinion, reaches its conclusion in the first episode of Season 7, which is meant to refer “back to the beginning” of the show. Xander is first seen driving confidently to Buffy’s house in a suit and showing her the blueprint of the new Sunnydale high school while explaining the layout. In the first episode of Season 1, Xander is an awkward teenager who is riding a skateboard (badly) and then knocks himself to the ground when he hits the handrail of the stairs. His growth is enormous, and I would argue that the amount of change in his character is the second highest only to that of Willow.

Later in Season 7, he comforts a dejected Dawn in “Potential” — without the addition of an inappropriate, sexual comment like that with which he comforted Buffy as described earlier in this essay — and treats her like a cherished little-sister. Even after Xander loses an eye in battle, he does not wallow in self-pity like he did when Buffy rejected him at the end of Season 1 — he makes jokes that are as inappropriate as they are funny. (“There’s a party in my eye socket, and everyone’s invited!”) Despite the damage that Willow caused in Season 6, he accepts her later without question and does whatever he can to comfort her — hence, the sign in yellow crayon at the airport.

If one chooses to use “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as a moral guide for we mere mortals, the best question is not “What would Buffy do?” or “What would Buffy think we should do?” It is: “What would Xander in Season 7 do?”

What Would Buffy Xander Do?

We get our first insight into Xander’s true, independent character (what he does when no one is around), of course, in the Season 3 episode “The Zeppo.” By himself, Xander saves the day (while the other Scoobies are fighting another evil elsewhere) by thinking clearly and rationally even to the point playing chicken with a zombie by accepting that both of them would die in a bomb blast.

Later, no one else ever finds out what Xander did. He never told anyone, and he never bragged — not even to Cordelia, who had continued to make fun of him after their break-up. Instead of insulting her in return (as he would always have done), he just walks away silently, knowing what he did and that he was the better person. “The Zeppo” foreshadowed the mature Xander to come.

So, if we accept that Xander is the person who we Everymen (and Everywomen) should emulate, what would that mean?

  • Always putting others first, even if it hurts you. While Xander probably should have told Anya about his doubts (expressed first in the “Buffy” musical episode) long before the day of the wedding, he left her at the altar (was there an altar?) not out of any selfish reason but because he thought that Anya would not be happy with him years later. He did, rightly or wrongly, what he thought was best for her.
  • Taking pride and pleasure in your work. I know that in this economy, many people — especially young people with advanced degrees — are working part-time jobs in areas like food service or are otherwise underemployed. But Xander always found jobs to pay the bills, and he never complained. (Despite comments like one from Spike saying at the time that his sole contribution to society was “delivering cheese on bread” when Xander was delivering pizza.) Xander had probably never imagined that he would become a manager at a construction company, but he eventually found a job at which he excelled and that which he loved after a year or so of menial positions. The lesson: Whatever you do, do it well — and eventually you will find something good. (Personal example: I was a Boston newspaper editor who was laid off months before the economy crashed in 2008. Later, I did things like washing dishes in restaurants. Now, I have a job that I love in marketing. It worked out. See my personal website.)
  • Accepting your limitations and knowing your strengths. Helping others whenever you can. See Xander’s memorable and touching speech to Dawn in Season 7. Buffy chose Xander to take Dawn away (unsuccessfully) from Sunnydale before the final fight of the series, and she selected him to protect her during that fight.

If you have other ideas on whether and how we should emulate Xander, please comment below! We’d love to hear what you think.

Samuel Scott is the founder and publisher of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Online. You can follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and Twitter as well as on his personal website.

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Buffy Meme — What Buffy Actually Does

Our Buffy Meme

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In honor of a meme that has been circulating throughout Facebook and elsewhere, we decided to have a little fun today. We hope you like this! Feel free to like, share, and forward as you wish! Just, please: If you copy the image to put on a website, we ask that you credit us at “Buffy the Vampire Slayer Online.” Thanks!

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Samuel Scott is the founder and publisher of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Online. You can follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and Twitter as well as on his personal website.

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Buffy and College: Psychology and UC Sunnydale

buffy collegeEditor’s note: Want to contribute a guest blog post? Contact us.

By Samuel Scott

In the first part of this two-part series, we examined how Buffy’s experiences early in her sophomore year at Sunnydale High School in the first season resembled those actions and feelings of freshman high-school students as psychologists, educators, and sociologists see them. Although Buffy was a sophomore, her attitudes and behavior in an entirely-new environment made her just like a freshman in all but name. Here, I would like to examine her transition from Sunnydale High to being a college freshman in the same context.

First, one of the most-important transitions is that which occurs in the relationship between child and parent. After all, the child is now a legal adult, and the parent has less involvement in the child’s day-to-day life. However, this is undeniably a cause of stress. An article on the “freshman blues” in Psychology Today notes:

New York University’s Child Study Center has a wonderful website for college freshmen and their parents that says (among other things) that as parents get used to playing “a new role in their child’s life, they must re-adjust their identity as parents. The goal is to develop an adult-to-adult aspect of the parent-child relationship. Children always need parents, but the relationship may become more peer-like…”

As we see in the Season 4 opener “Freshman,” Buffy returns home after losing a battle with the local vampire-queen Sunday, and she finds that Joyce, her mother, has filled her bedroom with packing crates from her art gallery. Joyce remarks, with a certain degree of nonchalance, that she did not think Buffy would have returned so quickly to visit. Evidently, Joyce had already begun to accept the natural transition.

However, as Psychology today continues to note:

This period of change is a period of growth for parents and all of their children, including those left behind – and growth is almost always accompanied by confusion, doubt and disorganization. A parent’s job at this point is not to make it all better (even if we could) but to help our kids manage these feelings…

Almost every guide written for parents of college students these days agrees with University Parent’s  suggestion that parents cannot and should not do the work of this transition for our youngsters; but we can and should be available to remind them that they have our support and our concern and our love.

Buffy, as we see in the episode, had a much harder time than Joyce. Buffy, bruised and battered, sees the crates, hears her mother say that she did not think she would have come back so soon, and responds, sadly, “Neither did I.” Unfortunately, it seems that Joyce, who had begun to adapt to Buffy’s move to the University of California at Sunnydale, failed to realize that her daughter was in need — despite her obvious, physical injuries at the time.

Second, it is crucial to note how experts see how college freshmen view the differences between high school and college in general — and how they need to be helped. Prof. Drew Appleby of Indiana University writes:

The first stage in this strategy [to help college freshmen] is to bring their attention to the ways in which their college classes and professors are going to be different from their high school classes and teachers. For example, the work in college is harder, there is more of it, it must be completed in shorter period of time, and most of it must be done outside of the school environment… The second stage is to help them identify and value the knowledge, skills, and attitudes (KSAs) they will need to adapt to their new academic environment… The third stage is to engage them in assignments and activities designed to develop or strengthen these KSAs.

At the beginning, it is clear that Buffy has an idea about the difference in academic expectations. As this exchange with Willow during course selection early in the episode reveals:

— “‘Introduction to the Modern Novel.’ I’m guessing I’d probably have to read the modern novel.”
— “Maybe more than one.”

Then, Buffy selects a course on popular culture, thinking that it will be an easy alternative. However, when she is caught asking an innocent question of another student during the initial lecture, the professor calls her “blond girl,” says she is “sucking” the air out of the classroom, and kicks her out of class. Buffy, dejected, half-heartedly tells him, “I didn’t mean to… suck.” Later, in her freshman psychology course, Professor Walsh intimidates Buffy (and, presumably, everyone other student in the class) by referring to herself  as the “evil bitch-monster of death” and then saying that she talks fast, assigns a lot of work, and expects people to keep up.

Buffy, College, and UC-Sunnydale

Buffy’s unease at the rigor of the standards in college even arose when she and Willow first saw the UC-Sunnydale library and contrasted it to the library at Sunnydale High. Willow, after being “sushed” on their initial tour, says to the slayer, “See! We even have to whisper. It’s a whole new world!” Buffy’s non-verbal cues in response reveal that she is less than excited about this “new world.”

In contrast to my earlier analysis of Buffy’s teachers and principals in high school, the slayer’s professor’s at UC-Sunnydale were far less supportive of her. Buffy’s high-school superiors, in my opinion, understandably (since they did not know her “extra-cirricular” activities) viewed her as an at-risk student who needed structure and discipline in order to succeed. However, Buffy’s college professors initially provided her with nothing positive of the sort (in terms of what Prof. Appleby states that college freshmen need).

However, there is far more to the transition into college than familial relations and classwork. The most-important factor in a college freshman’s development, perhaps, is the degree to which he or she can maintain existing or develop new friendships. WikiHow offers some advice on doing exactly that:

  • Join clubs and groups.
  • Participate in sports or some other activities.
  • Go to events.
  • Talk to people.
  • Don’t do your homework in your dorm room or apartment.
  • Go to parties.
  • Get a job!
  • Sign up for electives.
  • Go downtown.

(Other articles are here and here.) Needless to say, Buffy did few of these things. While walking in the middle of campus, she receives party invites, people who want her to protest the cause-of-the-week, and religious missionaries, among others — and she dismisses all of them. Moreover, she is separated from her orientation group and is a little lost. Buffy never participates in sports or any other club — except for the occasional party. She never gains a part-time job until Season 6, she never enrolls in elective classes that interest her personally (as far as we see), and there is no campus “downtown” for her to visit unless one counts the bar at which Xander briefly bartends. Her Psychology TA, Riley, does not even bother to remember her name at first (but remembers Willow).

As such, it can be said that Buffy transitions into college, in standard psychological terms, less easily than she did into her first year at Sunnydale High. She has less support from professors, friends, and mentors (as Season 4 later reveals in terms of intra-Scoobie stress), and Buffy is barely active in what can be termed a normal, college life (of course, I am not counting the Initiative). This exchange between Xander and Buffy at the end of the first episode of Season 4 may be heartening, but when viewed in this context, it is not entirely accurate:

Xander: “So, college’s not so scary, after all?”
Buffy: “It’s turning out to be a lot like high school. I think I can handle.”

Of course, the larger point may have been “tough love” in that the university system, like Giles himself during this year, aims to treat new freshman at the start as full-fledged adults to push them to become as independent as possible. Still, it remains to be seen — whether in the real world or in a fictional one like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” — whether this is a good route to take.

Samuel Scott is the founder and publisher of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Online. You can follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and Twitter as well as on his personal website.

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Sunnydale, Buffy, and High School’s First Year

buffy season 1, sunnydale buffyEditor’s note: Want to contribute a guest blog post? Contact us.

By Samuel Scott

The transition from junior high-school to high school is difficult for anyone — and it is even harder when the person happens to be a vampire slayer.

In the series premiere of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” entitled “Welcome to the Hellmouth,” Buffy exhibits many of the behaviors and difficulties that come from the adjustments to high school, and it is conceivable that the events of the show — which, of course, always uses metaphors extremely well — may even be instructive to educators, psychologists, and the students themselves.

A report by the National High School Center states:

Students’ experiences in their first year of high school often determine their success throughout high school and beyond. However, more students fail ninth grade than any other grade…

…the first year of high school is pivotal… the transition into high school is often characterized as a time when students experience a decline in grades and attendance (Barone, Aguirre-Deandreis, & Trickett, 1991)… school systems must support first-year high school students…

Compared to their perceptions reported the previous year, ninth graders perceive less support and monitoring from teachers and principals and generally like school less than they did in middle school. On average, ninth graders report being less involved in school activities and perceive the need for more school organization. They also indicate lower self-esteem and higher rates of depression than middle school students (Barber & Olsen, 2004)…

Although moving from middle school to high school can be a very exciting time for students, the transition is filled with great anxiety and stress for many adolescents (Hertzog, Morgan, & Lena, 1997). Substantial research literature has emerged documenting the fact that the transition into high school is marked by increased disengagement and declining motivation, particularly for low-performing youth (National Research Council, 2004).

An article in the Middle School Journal adds:

Studies that have included students’ thoughts and feelings about moving into high school reveal that eighth grade students are both excited and concerned about going to high school. They look forward to more freedom, more choice, the opportunity to participate in more extracurricular activities, and the opportunity to develop friendships. However, they also admit to being “nervous” and “scared” about older students teasing them; getting lost in their larger, unfamiliar school; and making bad grades (Cognato, 1999; Maute, 1991; Mizelle, 1995; Phelan, Yu, & Davidson, 1994; Wells, 1996). They are concerned that high school teachers will be more strict and that teachers will give them much more and much harder work than they had in middle school.

From studies like these, it is clear that high-school freshmen often have these problems and exhibit these trends:

  • The performance of a student in ninth grade often sets the tone for his or her performance in the latter three years
  • High-school freshman have higher rates of absenteeism, dropouts, and low grades
  • Students have less oversight and support from teachers than in middle school
  • They are less involved in school activities
  • Freshman have higher levels of stress and depression
  • They are scared about being teased and making bad grades
  • They worry that classes will be more difficult and that teachers will be more strict

While Buffy was a sophomore in Season One and was probably in the same grade during the prequel film, this thought-experiment is still relevant because the experience of transitioning to a new school in an unfamiliar town is extremely similar to that of being a freshman in high school. The Slayer, in fact, exhibits many of these issues in the early episodes of “Buffy.”

When we first meet Buffy, she awakes in a still-disorganized bedroom in her and her mother’s new home in Sunnydale, California. After a night of bad dreams about vampires, she wakes up. When her mother calls out and says that she doesn’t want to be late for her first day of school, Buffy apprehensively says “No, don’t want that.” Evidently, Buffy is generally stressed about her first year at (a new) high school. It surely did not help that the last thing Buffy’s mother tells her after dropping her off on her first day was, “Honey, try not to get kicked out.”

In addition, some of Joyce’s comments — though certainly not the majority of them, since she is almost always supportive of Buffy — could have seemed condescending in a way that did not help her daughter’s confidence:

  • “The school is a very nurturing environment, which is is just what you need.”
  • “You’re a good girl, Buffy. You just fell in with the wrong crowd. It’s all behind us now.”

During her initial meeting with Principal Flutie, he looks at her file while saying, “Buffy Summers… interesting record. Quite a career.” He tells Buffy that she has a “clean slate” but then retapes her file when she sees that she had burned down the gym at her old high school (because of vampires). Principal Flutie says her that her transcripts are “colorful” and then slaps the file closed while stating “if your needs and our needs don’t mesh…” In this situation combined with most of her teachers thinking that Buffy is “a felon” (in Willow’s words), it is clear that most of Buffy’s high-school teachers — barring her short-lived biology teacher in the Season One episode “Teacher’s Pet” and the school psychologist in Season Three — were indeed not supportive of her. Principal Flutie also catches her trying to skip class (for slayer duties), and understandably keeps her on campus.

The first year of high school is also stressful because students, as I mentioned earlier, are scared that they will be teased and not make any friends. Buffy’s initial attempt to make friends is less than successful:

  • Xander hits on her and views her more as a crush than as a friend for much of Season One
  • Jesse asks her to share her deepest darkest secrets, and Buffy is visibly “freaked out” (“Everyone wants to know about me, how keen,” she says). Jesse, of course, later dies
  • Cordelia is initially the most-helpful and friendly person, but Buffy quickly learns that she is extremely mean — “Oh, that sounds like fun,” Buffy says to herself after Cordelia says she can tell her “absolutely everything there is to know” about her — and then mistakes her for a vampire later in the series premiere. After Buffy almost stakes Cordelia, she tells Giles that “my social lie is on the critical list.”
  • Willow is seemingly her only bona-fide friend at first

In two statements to Giles and one to a vampire, newly-arrived Buffy reveals her main anxieties — and they match what experts have often observed in people during their first years in high school (emphasis added):

  •  “It’s my first day. I was afraid that I was going to be behind in all of my classes, that I wouldn’t make any friends, that I would have last month’s hair. I didn’t think there’d be vampires on campus.”
  • “Prepare me for what? For getting kicked out of school? For losing all my friends? Or having to spend all my time fighting or my lie and never getting to tell anyone because I might endanger them? Go ahead, prepare me.”
  • “I just wanted to start over, be like everyone else, have some friends, you know, maybe a dog.”

Buffy, in yet another symptom of a lack of first-year acclamation to high school, never gets involved in extracurricular activities (except slaying, of course, and the fictional “crime club” in one episode of Season Two). Her one attempt — joining the cheerleading squad in Season One — ends in witchcraft, partial immolation, and paralysis. In short, Buffy Summers is indeed the model of an at-risk student — as described earlier — because of her violent tendencies, poor grades, and related characteristics.

Of course, the viewer may excuse her behavior and condemn the attitudes of parents, principals, and teachers towards her because the viewer will know the subtext — her duties as a slayer. However, neither her parents (at first), principles, and teachers knew about her dual identity. So, as a result, the question must be asked: Were their often-negative attitudes towards Buffy and efforts to punish and “keep her on a short leash” perhaps understandable and commendable in light of the help that first-year high school students need? (An article of psychologist Steven C. Schlozman, M.D., who has written about using “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in adolescent psychology, may offer some insight.)

I invite your comments below. The next essay on our blog will examine Buffy’s behavior as a college freshman in the psychological context of young people at that time.

Samuel Scott is the founder and publisher of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Online. You can follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and Twitter as well as on his personal website.

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