Saturday, 12 August 2000

From "Buffy the Vampire Disciplinarian: Institutional Excess and the New Economy of Power"

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BtVS), the hit television series featuring a teen-age girl with super-human powers who fights vampires and other forces of evil, has inspired increasing critical attention over the last few years. This attention is largely focused on three propositions: Buffy represents a liberatory feminist figure (Wilcox; Harts); the show’s vampires and demons represent the failure of reason, science, and technology to solve contemporary social problems (Owen); and the show offers a moderately Marxist critique of culture (McMillan and Owen). Implicit in each of these propositions is the notion that, in her struggle against vampires and demons, Buffy subverts concrete and often callous political, social, economic, and educational institutions, such as the high school, the mystical Watcher’s Council, and the military-industrial complex called The Initiative. This apparently subversive project seems to have been extended in the spin-off series Angel and the title character’s struggle with the law firm Wolfram and Hart. However, more recent critics, such as Kent Ono, have begun to perform resistant readings which suggest the show is not as subversive as it appears. While Ono focuses on the show’s representations of race, this essay argues that the show’s representations of institutional power are also less transgressive than they seem. Rather than simply exposing the evils of institutions, a project which might seem in line with Foucault’s study of punitive systems in Discipline and Punish, both BtVS and Angel actually offer an alternative system of power and control which is, as Foucault describes the modern penal system, “more regular, more effective, more constant and more detailed in its effects” (80). Therefore, these apparent subversions of institutional power merely signal a resistance to the excessive use of power, to outdated institutional models rather than to institutional power in general. In other words, while these programs may be read as supporting Marxist or feminist subversions of institutional constructions, they ultimately reaffirm the role of institutions in maintaining social order.

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