Buffy: Hero for the Columbine Generation
Friday, July 16 1999, 2:33 AM
The censored season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer finally aired on July 13, several weeks after its scheduled air date on May 24. I have a collection of Buffy episodes on videotape, and I saved the disappointing message that was broadcast on May 24. A deep male voice read aloud from white letters glowing over a black screen: "Mindful of recent tragic events affecting America's schools, the conclusion of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Graduation Day,' originally scheduled for tonight's broadcast, will air at a later date."
Delicately worded, succinctly vague, the epigraph could have referred to any number of "recent tragic events" — the Columbine shootings, the copycat violence in Georgia, or the thousands of bomb threats that swept the nation's high schools in the wake of both.
The question is, why this "mindful" sentiment instead of the season finale of Buffy? After all, creators of Buffy had already yanked another episode last season in which Buffy developed telepathy, discovered that one of her fellow students had plans to shoot his classmates, and stopped him before it was too late. It's clear why this episode got censored: too close for comfort. But why censor the season finale? As thousands of fans asked themselves this question, as the Buffy-less weeks rolled on, the news media were saturated with images of the war in Kosovo, where blood and guts were brought to us care of NATO and the United States. A train bearing real live children was accidentally destroyed by NATO forces, and yet Buffy, who lives in an obviously fantastical universe of witches, demons, and vampires, took the blame for teen violence.
This whole cultural fubar reminds me of another partially censored piece of media aimed at the under-18 set: the South Park movie. In this film, parents come to believe a raunchy cartoon has inspired their children's bad behavior, discover that the cartoon is Canadian, and through a series of comic circumstances initiate a full-scale war with Canada to stop Canadian culture from influencing "our" children. A musical number features the parents waving placards and singing, "Blame Canada!" each time they are confronted with problems they don't want to face. When Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park, took their film to the ratings board, it was slapped with an NC-17; with some fiddling, they bargained it down to an R. And thus a film aimed at children and teens which parodies media witch hunts and parental advisories cannot by seen by children "unless accompanied by an adult."
Clearly, what's being rated R (and effectively censored for a young audience) in the South Park movie aren't just a bunch of "fucks" and "donkey dicks." It's a critique of the whole adult way of wielding authority through violence, censorship, denial, and cynical, patronizing lies. What children will learn from South Park — aside from the song "Uncle Fucka" — is that their adult leaders' values are corrupt and arbitrary.
This is likewise the case with the season finale of Buffy, whose content could not have been more unrelated to high school shootings, those "recent tragic events" about which the show's censors were so admirably "mindful." "Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Graduation Day" was the second of a two-part episode in which Buffy and her semi-supernatural pals race against time to stop an evil, power-hungry adult, the mayor of Sunnydale, from turning into a demon and initiating the end of the world. The mayor plans to begin his demonic reign during Buffy's graduation ceremony, because there he will have an audience packed with teens he can eat immediately to gain strength. Buffy manages to stop the mayor by alerting the entire graduating class and arming them with various weapons (carefully hidden under graduation gowns). When the mayor turns into a giant serpent, the teens are ready to fight back — and obviously they win, blowing up Sunnydale High in the process.
"Buffy: Graduation Day" is a fable about the dangerous power adults have over teens. Adults, we learn, are not all benevolent, and some will even try to destroy you. The only way to fight back is to be ready with the right weapons. So why was this episode censored, when events like Columbine were about the horrifying ways teens treat each other? Perhaps because most adults realize, at some level, that children learn to kill each other from the real live adults around them--adults who murder children, who go to war and murder each other. But why blame ourselves? Why not blame Canada? Or, just as absurdly, blame Buffy.
The season finale of Buffy tried, however faintly, to suggest that adults are to blame for teen violence. Buffy's teenagers use weapons in self-defense, to keep the demonic grown-ups from eating them alive. Ironically, of course, most teenagers don't need to learn Buffy's lesson: high school has already taught many of them that adults are not their friends, and people with authority cannot be trusted. Censoring this episode of Buffy is probably more for the benefit of adults than it is for children. It's one more way we can put the blinders on and dismiss the obvious: nothing is more psychologically disturbing than what goes on in real life, especially when youth makes you an easy victim for authority.
As long as we continue to forbid young people from hearing stories about the menacing nature of adults, they will not have learned the most valuable lessons we can teach them about what we have done wrong and why we should have changed our own bad behavior long ago.
A final shot of the Buffy season finale features a charred high school yearbook balanced on some rubble. "The Future is Yours!" the cover trumpets. But we know the future is not theirs, because they have learned nothing from our censored history, our R-rated present. The future is just a bunch of fake adult sentiment written in cheerful white letters over the wreckage of these young people's lives.
Annalee Newitz is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.