buffy and "empiricism"

Paul Henry Rosenberg rad at gte.net
Tue Feb 23 12:52:04 PST 1999

Liza Featherstone wrote:

> Paul--
> >Sorry, Liza, but there's not ONE iota of proof to back up Yosie's
> >assumption.
> >
> >I am way past tired of all this theory-heavy postings that are
> >oh-so-resolutely contemptuous of anything within a country mile of an
> >empirical observation.
> what exactly has been so empirical about *your* observations? In your posts,
> despite your assertions, I didn't see any ratings #s to show that Buffy was
> more popular than the crummy WB teen shows. I didn't see any demographic
> breakdown to show how few adults watch the show.

All true.

There are lots of empirical data I could have brought into the discussion that I didn't. I was simply willing to accept for the sake of argument the perception of Buffy's relative popularity, including it's broader appeal to an older demographic, as has been noted by various critics. This could certainly be checked out more thoroughly, but for the sake of argument I was willing to set it all aside.

Still, what did make my argument more empirical is that I was talking about SPECIFICS, about one particular program that I can discuss with a fair degree of familiarity, having seen virtually every episode.

> and there isn't a whole lot of empirical data on the relationship
> of desire to TV watching, but that doesn't mean people with a bit
> of sense can't speculate usefully about it.

This is true. But the less data you have, the more careful you ought to be in grounding your argument in specifics.

> why must leftists believe that because THEY enjoy a TV show it
> must be ideologically above all criticism and analysis?

I can't answer this in general. But for me specifically it's just not so. I don't think "Buffy" or "Law & Order" or "Homicide" or even "The Simpsons" is ideologically above all criticism and analysis. That's just the point. While there are plenty of intelligent criticisms one might raise (the new "babe" factor on "Homicide", bugs my sister no end) I think that the criticisms offered have been particularly overblown, underspecificed and inept. I think this is because MOST current criticism suffers from these same problems, and I just happened to use these shows as an example to poke holes in the pretensions of piss-poor theory.

For the record, the near-total absence of any poeple of color on Buffy DOES bug me and I think it's a real detriment to the show. A real California high school would look a LOT more like "My So Called Life," the last teen show that caught my interest before "Buffy".

I had real hopes with Kendra, the first second slayer last year. She seemed to have a lot of possibilities. The show could obviously do a whole lot more than it is doing. But -- so far as I can see so far -- this doesn't lend itself to anything in the way of a sophisticated critique of the show. It's a VERY obvious one. That doesn't make it less true, or less important, but it does sort of limit the amount of writing one can intelligently devote to it. It certainly IS a topic that is more fruitfully addressed, IMHO, at other levels, such as that of the entire industry.

It's quite a different story when you've got a program like NYPD Blue which has a major black character that the writers just seem to have no idea what to do with. Because he's there and all these other things having to do with race are part of the show, you have a LOT of content to talk about, and there's a lot you can say.

> that's the inane flip side of the Frankfurt Schoolish left that
> thinks it's all poison.

Yup. But I'm not down with either one.

> you sure do have a smugly authoritative tone, but it's difficult
> to see where your authority is coming from

Well, I watch the show and take it seriously. This is one of the things that art is supposed to do to you -- fill you with authority. Just look at a pre-teen Spice Girls fan if you have any doubt.

> >
> >So kindly reread the pompous foolishness I quoted:
> >
> >"The only perfect bodies under late capitalism are those of teenagers,
> >male or female."
> >
> >Oh? Gee, I guess someone forgot to tell Baywatch, Xena, Melrose Place,
> >etc., etc., etc.
> >
> So maybe "only" was an exaggeration. but big deal. anyone who reads fashion
> magazines or watches TV commercials knows that teen bodies are WAY
> fetishized under late capitalism. by adults.

Yes, but this is so obvious I don't know why it needs saying. So I'm supposed to respect a statement that careless exaggerates the obvious?

> now, I'm not saying that's a
> bad thing all by itself. it's neither good nor bad. but look how poorly we
> manage/understand this desire and the results of that mismanagement: teen
> pregnancy (most fathers in "teen pregancies" are adults); incredible
> restrictions of teenagers' lives (curfews, drug testing for extra curricular
> activities); and a sexualized fear of teenage boys' (especially nonwhite)
> that's contributing to the most out of hand juvenile incarceration boom in
> years.

Yes, of course, there are important issues aplenty here. And Yoshie's off-hand remark had NOTHING to do with illuminating any of them. Instead it was a lead-in to a silly comment about Buffy.

If anything, Buffy actually provides some criticism of this whole process. Everyone from her mom to the principal to the Council of Watchers wants to control her body, her desires, her self-expression, her every minute of her life. The motives range all over the place. With her mom it's a very human struggle with the process of letting go, but then it gets transmorgified into something really evil -- as shown dramatically in couple of episodes this season.

So, in sum, I just don't see where listing all those issues about adults running control trips on teen eros serves to justify Yoshie's remark. If she seriously wants to make that argument, then the way to make it is by discussing the ACTUAL CONTENT OF THE SHOW.

This really doesn't seem all that complicated. I learned it in something like 2nd or 3rd grade when we first started doing oral book reports. If it's good enough for Cowboy Bob (I only read one of them, under extreme duress!), it's good enough for Buffy.

-- Paul Rosenberg Reason and Democracy rad at gte.net

"Let's put the information BACK into the information age!"

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