A Little Bit of Wonder is where I journal about the somewhat roundabout way that I have been working to establish a career and a strong sense of self--I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about "direction" and "identity." I have a Master's Degree in Literature, but I'm no longer working as an English Professor; I'm starting the next step in my life as I work to establish a career as a writer in the non-profit sector.

At my companion blog, Little Wonder's Recommended Reading, you will find reviews for both books and other blogs that I enjoy. The two blogs are inter-linked, so you can access my reviews and reading challenges from the sidebar on the left.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

(Un)Defining Myself

I wrote my Master’s Thesis about Buffy the Vampire Slayer: there are fifty pages on file at American University’s Library and another fifty pages sitting on my hard-drive that went off-topic. I also have at least fifty more pages of typewritten notes—meticulous observations about dialog, actor’s facial expressions, lighting, camera angles, sets, thematic connections… Yet I can honestly say that there was a time in my life when I was even more obsessed with Buffy.

I was thirteen years old when Joss Whedon’s TV show premiered on The WB; I was awkward and self-conscious and tongue-tied around boys, so I immediately identified with Buffy’s best friends Willow and Xander. In the first episode, Willow explains, “When I'm with a boy I like, it's hard for me to say anything cool, or-or witty—or at all. I can usually make a few vowel sounds, and then I have to go away.” I was elated when she made that comment—I had stumbled upon a television character that seemed exactly like me. As I watched Willow develop into a more self-confident teenager, partially as a result of Buffy’s supportive friendship and self-assured example, I thought, “If Willow can become more like Buffy, why can’t I?”

I started out with superficial things; I got my hair cut in a short, layered style just like Sarah Michelle Gellar’s. I began to wear clothing like the character’s and imitate the way she moved her hips while she was wearing those awesome knee-high boots. Then I tried to mimic the way that Whedon’s teenagers talked with witty grammatical liberties. Often, I would actually quote the show, feeling clever because no one recognized what I was saying as someone else’s words. Eventually I got pretty adept at inventing some of my own humorous and sharp-edged comments. I infuriated my father with all my Whedonesque lip.

This kind of imitation is a ritual of adolescence—look at all the boys who wear their pants down around their knees in order to be like a certain rap star. Unfortunately, many celebrities aren’t very positive examples to follow. But everyone—not just adolescents—needs role models, so for thousands of years civilizations have created stories that help the members of their society understand their place in the world. Mythology like the Greeks’ and Romans’ exists because these societies needed to explain the workings of the physical universe, and moreover, how people should respond to the world around them and others in their community. Myths, fables and other fictions have always provided examples of how—and how not—to behave.

My own previous role models had included Lois Lane (of the Teri Hatcher brand) and Nancy Drew; now I had found someone else who had the same poise and ability to handle herself. But although Buffy could deal calmly with a vampire attack or an apocalypse, she experienced the rejection and sense of isolation from her peers that I felt. She too was flawed: spoiled, often self-centered, resentful and snarky. In discovering Buffy, I had found a character who shared my teenage angst and my imperfections. She still managed, though, to overcome these character flaws in order to be a self-confident, successful and generally admirable person.

But as much as I love talking about Buffy Summers, this entry really isn’t about her. It’s about me.

People started to notice a change in me—not just in the way that I dressed, but in the way that I actually talked during class. As I borrowed Buffy’s self-confidence, I started becoming a different person. I made Buffy my model and my guide to social success—and it worked. But I was so excited by how the show had helped me that I started to talk about it all the time. I even decided that I would give a presentation to my religious studies class using clips from Buffy, where she and another character discuss moral accountability. That’s when people started to notice me because I talked so much more than usual—about Buffy. My classmates even began to call me Buffy, and I encouraged it. As you might imagine, though, this was less than positive for my social status.

I don’t remember many of the specific conversations that with people I had about the TV show, but in case I ever forget the way my classmates started to heckle me, I can go back and read the messages in my yearbook from junior year. Most of the messages were addressed to “Buffy” instead of Lauren, and many commented further on my obsession. Here are some of my favorite comments:

“What a year this has been, especially with Buffy entering the scene. I’m glad that you got to show your Buffy clip in Bible, and I’m sorry that you’ve had to fight with all those Buffy-haters out there. Well, I hope you get to marry Seth Green one day. You definitely deserve him! Thanks for your friendship.”

“Chica—how is my Buffy pal? Did I ever tell you that you kind of look like her? You do! Have a great summer…”

“Lauren, what happened on Buffy’s season finale? – I’m so confused.”

Roswell is better than Buffy.”

“Be a good Slayer for me.”

“You know, one day when you’re old, you will still have all those Buffy videos and not even know why. Then one day, you will think you are her, and jump out of bed and start killing vampire-looking people.”

“Let’s talk about the big issue – Buffy. What to say? How about ‘obsessed’… but that’s alright. Have a great summer.”

“When you find Seth Green, invite me to the wedding.”

“Learning of the extent of your Buffy obsession was astounding.”

“Hey, I had a lot of fun this year listening to you explain Buffy to me. (I still hardly understand it.)”

“You’ve been a great friend… How did Angel come back in last night’s episode? Anyway, we have been through a lot, like Buffy, Angel and Wednesday night sleepovers…”

“Don’t worry – I’m going to be the only one who signs your yearbook and NOT say anything about Buffy. Oops, nevermind.”

And then the Buffy-haters:

“Buffy, Don’t get too obsessed with Buffy. It isn’t healthy. She is definitely a hottie though. Have a great summer, my two-dimensional friend.”

“Buffy died. You need to stop lusting over that show. Watch something educational like the Discovery Channel. Well, have a great summer.”

“Buffy must die! Sorry… well, see ya.”

(Aren’t adolescents sweet? And they’re so eloquent.)

When recently reading over these entries, I also took a look at my yearbook from my senior year of high school and found something very different. It was only a year later, yet no one even mentioned my obsession. This was because my senior year was the year that I stopped babbling about the show to my uninterested classmates. Instead of constantly updating my Buffy website and chatting with members of my online Buffy fanfiction group, I joined the backstage crew for the school play, helped make the Homecoming parade float, cheered on my friends at their hockey and football games, went to parties and dances and prom. I stopped talking like Buffy and started being like Buffy – by going out and getting involved with other people.

So long ago, I learned that verbally defining myself is a lot like playacting and only has so much power. Calling myself “Buffy” and allowing others to call me by that name didn’t actually change who I was. Just because I want to be like Buffy in certain ways doesn’t mean that I should have identified myself as Buffy. Instead, I needed to go out and act like the person that I wanted to be. Maybe I even need to stop trying to verbally define myself altogether. For example, I’m not “Lauren the Buffy girl” or “Lauren the Dexter fan.” I’m not even “Lauren the English Professor.” I’m just… Lauren.

It seems unlikely that I’ll stop trying to define myself, since I’m such an incredibly verbal person… but maybe someday I’ll find the courage to allow myself to remain undefined.

1 comment:

Joy Houser said...

1. I appreciate the irony of some of the "buffy lovers" writing the "kiss of death" in your yearbook.

2. totally tried to guess who wrote what but I guess I can't. I don't think there's anything from me in there... as I'm pretty sure I took up a whole page.

3. Poor Mrs. Schuster having to grade all your Physics tests that were littered w/quotes.

4. It is thanks to you that I know what canape is.

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