Early yesterday morning, while I lay in bed snoozing and listening to a podcast, I came across some unexpected insight into part of the disability experience, thanks to Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
The podcast I was listening to is called Dusted, in which husband and wife professional writers dissect and analyze every episode of Buffy, focusing particular attention to writing and storytelling technique.
The insight came when Loni and Alastair were talking about Joyce, mother of Buffy, (teenage slayer of vampires), and Giles, Buffy's “Watcher,” that is, her trainer, supervisor, and mentor. The thought that woke me up fully is that Joyce and Giles’ different approaches to Buffy and her “special” identity look a lot like the different perspectives we see on what it means to have a disability.
To be clear, Buffy isn’t disabled. The premise of the show is that she is more or less “chosen,” by mysterious forces nobody controls, to be “the one girl in all the world” endowed with the strength, durability, and instinct to slay vampires and demons … who in the universe of the show are quite real, though most people don’t know it. Buffy did not choose this role. Although it comes with near-superhero powers, being the “chosen one” is also a massive burden, and pretty much precludes living a “normal life.” In fact, being The Slayer means a rather short life is pretty likely. Much of the first two seasons of the show involves Buffy coming to terms with her identity and duty. She wants to be a “normal” teenage girl … go to school, have friends, have a boyfriend, go to dances … and she does all of those things to some extent. But as Giles often reminds her, her life can never be “normal.” Whether she likes it or not, there is an important part of her identity that she can’t change. She can try to deny it, even run away from it, but on the show it’s clear that she will only find a semblance of peace and fulfillment if she embraces it.
Joyce and Buffy
Joyce finds out that Buffy is The Slayer late in the second season, and while she accepts the truth of it rather more quickly than any real-world parent would, her reaction reminded me of a parent dealing with a child’s disability. Notably, there are one or two moments where the writers have Joyce draw direct parallels to having a child who turns out to be gay, another type of identity where some people mistakenly hope that a little determination might make it not be so. “Have you tried not being The Slayer,” Joyce pleads. Later, when Buffy gets great SAT scores, Joyce latches onto this like a life preserver. Buffy can go to a college far away and escape this Slayer thing! Obtain all the trappings of normalcy, look normal and act normal, and you will be normal.
Buffy and Giles
Giles has a more subtle view. He knows, and endeavors to impress on Buffy, that she will never live a normal life. However, she can live a good life. In fact, fulfilling her unusual “destiny” is an important part of Buffy living a good, and fulfilling life.
Buffy's "parents" both want the best for her. Neither wants to see her suffer or struggle with things a teenager should never have to struggle with. But Joyce still thinks there might be a way out, while Giles knows there isn't, but that it still can be OK for Buffy, if she is proactive and embraces her role.
I am not suggesting that having a disability is anything like being a superhero … a tempting but misleading comparison. Having a disability isn't much like being a mystically chosen vampire slayer with a life-long, world-saving mission.
Yet, there are similarities.
Disability is partly a condition, partly an identity, something nobody chooses, and most people can't really escape. Like Buffy, you can live a good life, but there's going to be some danger, hardship, and some very specific kinds of pain. Most people, even some of those closest to you, don't really "get" what your life entails.
What hit me like a freight train is that Joyce and Giles’ different understandings of Buffy’s “special” identity tells us a lot about how we view the road ahead for youth with disabilities.
The “Joyce" strategy is to turn away, mask the disability, don't acknowledge or "give in" to it. Try just the right things, try hard enough, and you might just make it go away. I think this works for some people with certain kinds of disabilities, but more often it simply delays a real reckoning. Still, it’s an understandable reaction, and it may be going too far to say that it is entirely wrong.
The “Giles" approach may at first seem bleak, but it is just as loving and optimistic. He knows that Buffy’s unique identity is inescapable, and that the best thing to do about it is make the best of it. He doesn’t see this as settling for less, either. Being the Slayer is a gift. Buffy has an important role to play. And, her life can be wonderful as much because of that as in spite of it. It’s just going to be very different from what Joyce, and even Buffy, may have had in mind. It is like that with disabilities, too.
Whether you are disabled yourself or have a friend or family member with a disability, what are you … a Joyce, or a Giles?