Stephanie Burt

Run-of-the-mill sticks, run-of-the-mill stakes

If you are, or ever were, a serious fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you may know that Mr. Pointy was Buffy’s favorite stake. She kept it beside her when she slept, like a sharp wooden security blanket, and cracked jokes about it the rest of the time. You might also remember that Mr. Pointy originally belonged to the Jamaican American slayer Kendra Young, who was introduced and then killed off in season two; you can, if you want, think of the stake—brought from the black diaspora by a black girl who made it herself to a white girl who then cherished it as her own—as a symbol of cultural appropriation.

You can also use Mr. Pointy, as many viewers use Buffy, to make other points: it is a symbol of girls’ empowerment, a comically phallic object that only a powerful woman can ever wield; it’s also a way to remember that serious claims and extended allegories about sex, power, skill, and patriarchy hold the potential for comedy. The stake is both a verbal and a visual pun. Unlike Buffy’s run-of-the-mill stakes, made from run-of-the-mill sticks, Mr. Pointy has visible whorls and curves—it is, in other words, like the show’s fandom, not quite straight. (The character Willow had yet to come out as lesbian or bi when the stake first appeared.) Sarah Michelle Gellar, who played the title character, said in 2015 that she took Mr. Pointy home from the Buffy set; Buffy, the character, once said she’d had the stake bronzed (which would have rendered it ineffective against vampires). Transformed from weapon to trophy or souvenir, Mr. Pointy is like the knife in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Crusoe in England,” or the disassembled hammer in Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time: when deprived of its original utility, its original point—killing vampires—it becomes fit for contemplation, what Heidegger called the present-at-hand.

And yet—unless you know what to look for, know it by name, recognize its slight curve—Mr. Pointy looks like any piece of wood such as you might use for a garden fence. Similarly, unless you’re already a fan, many Buffy episodes might look and feel like episodes of other superhero or supernatural-teen TV shows. Fans make fine distinctions and sustain long arguments about the meaning, use, and importance of TV shows (and comics, and novels, and poems) in which, to outsiders, not much is at stake. For them, though, the show is its own reward for being, its own point—or else it has helped make a point that would otherwise have been harder to see.

For many Buffy fans the point was pop-culture-friendly, teen-oriented feminism. The show arrived on TV soon after the Riot Grrrl movement, during the optimistic 1990s, when many non-techies—many of them teens—could live online for the first time, forming communities not mediated by teachers or authority figures or the speed of US mail. Some of these communities embraced the show and its consistent messages: you, too, might discover your hidden powers; teen sexuality might be dangerous, but it’s not something adults can control; if you want to slay demons, get help from your friends.

Those messages helped make creator and show-runner Joss Whedon famous as a straight man with a feminist message, an adult guy whose work could empower women and girls. Joss, as his fans learned to call him, would go on to cocreate four more TV series, including Firefly and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.; well-regarded X-Men comics; a black-and-white Shakespeare film; the delightful web-only musical superhero satire Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog; and 2012’s The Avengers, to date the top-grossing superhero movie ever. Earlier this year, though, Whedon’s rejected script for Wonder Woman hit the internet, where it was widely panned as a straight-male fantasy; this summer, Whedon’s ex-wife, the architect Kai Cole, alleged in an open letter that Whedon “hid multiple affairs… with his actresses, co-workers, fans and friends” over their fifteen-year marriage. Cole’s letter suggested—without quite stating it—that he was sleeping with several much younger, and by definition less powerful, female employees. Marriages (and opinions about them) differ, and it’s often a mess when they end, but Cole’s letter frames Whedon decisively as not, in her words, “one of the good guys.”

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? The premier Whedon fan site promptly shut down. “Nobody wants to see their heroes crash and burn,” remarked pop-culture critic Gavia Baker-Whitelaw. But maybe we saw this point before it hit home. It’s hard not to ask whether Whedon—like plenty of geeky guys before him—set out to celebrate strong women in part so they would like him, and sleep with him. Is that so wrong? It sure is if they work for you.

And yet it’s also wrong to consider Buffy—a show that had many actors, and many writers (Marti Noxon, for example), and many virtues, from the sexy bits to the cowritten musical episode—coterminous with Whedon. No films, no TV shows, and very few comic books are the work of one artist alone. At the end of the show’s seven-season run, in an episode Whedon wrote and directed, Buffy ceases to be the slayer; no one knows how many girls get the powers she once held, but it’s certainly a lot. It’s as if the show had asked us to find new fandoms and new heroes, and never to put all our trust in any one person or thing. If you can’t see Buffy without seeing Whedon’s mixed motives, without asking what one creator wanted, you might be right. But you might also be missing the point.

Stephanie Burt

Stephanie Burt is professor of English at Harvard and the author of several books of poetry and literary criticism. Her latest book of poems, Advice from the Lights, was published by Graywolf Press.

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