In ‘Life Serial’ (season 6, episode 5) Buffy suffers a series of mishaps which the episode strongly hints should be interpreted as examples of social constructivism.
‘Social Constructivism’ is explained in a sociology class at UC Sunnydale. Buffy is auditing with Willow and Tara while deciding how to plan her life. A charismatic teacher, Mike, gets the clads to participate in a fast moving question and answer session in which he asks class members to explain how reality is socially constructed. Willow herself has clearly gasped the issue and makes a good intervention.
The points that emerge in class include: reality is not independent of our point of view, there are multiple social realities, reality is not neutral.
These kind of points tend to get philosophers working metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of science steamed up about the alleged threat to truth, reality, knowledge and all that is good and decent. Maybe they should relax a bit and think about how the points made by constructivists can be taken up. I’m taking Buffy as a paradigm.
What happens in the episode to illustrate constructivism?
Buffy is seeking a life plan. Three very adolescent young men, who are absurdly obsessed with super hero and science fiction popular culture, are plotting to take over Sunnydale and are trying to track and weaken Buffy. The Trio are clearly a parody of Joss Whedon and the other writers on Buffy, this is confirmed on the DVD commentaries.
The trio find three ways to disrupt Buffy’s life and monitor her reactions.
1. Buffy is auditing at college. Warren puts a micro transmitter on Buffy which speeds up her perception time. Time rushes past, punctuated by short episodes of normal time. At first Buffy thinks she is passing, which the audience can take as the naturalistic explanation of what happens. She is stressed in general and is stressed by her return to college. Because of this her perception of time changes.
2. Buffy starts working at Xander’s building site. The construction workers are bemused and hostile when they meet this small thin girl, but her super hero strength enable her to do the heavy lifting. Her work is interrupted by the Trio. Andrew calls up demons who attack the male workers. Buffy fights them off and kills them. The workers deny seeing the demons and perceive what has happened as Buffy freaking out, it must be ‘her time of the month’. Their response is crass but again gives the naturalistic reading, Buffy is unstable and violent because of the stross of being a Slayer.
3. Buffy starts working at the Magic Box co-owned by her Watcher (trainer and mentor) Giles and by fellow Scooby (demon fighter) Anya. The Trio is monitoring the Magic Box through a camera, significantly hidden in a skull. Jonathan uses magic to create a time loop, that can only be broken by satisfying a customer with a difficult request. The customer wants a live Mummy’s Hand, but the hand is aggressive and dangerous. Either she gets a deadly hand or she gets a dead hand. Time keeps looping as Buffy realises, and she becomes more and more frustrated. She does eventually fşind the solution, but has a disagreement with Anya and hands back her staff badge. The naturalistic explanation is that Buffy is unbearably bored by retail.
All these misadventures put Buffy in situations where she is not the hero-Slayer-leader. At university Tara and Willow are more in command. At the building site, Xander is the boss not the loyal friend. At the shop, Buffy is the badly treated employee of Anya who is often inclined towards rudeness.
These misadventures leads to Buffy spending an evening with Spike, the semi-reformed vampire who is in love with her. She drinks more whiskey than she can handle and Spike wastes her time taking her to a demon poker game when she asks for his help. That aspect of the episode continues the theme that Buffy is alienated from her friends and from her younger sister Dawn. Spike’s evil past and shadowy life make him more able to understand her alienated tendencies resulting from the burden of her mission as a the Slayer, constantly dealing with evil and death (think of that skull in the Magic Box).
Buffy’s shifting sense of reality, could be seen as episodes of alienation from reality, rather than shifts of reality itself. However, reality is our sense of reality. The three incidents or reality shift deal with the following
1. Subjective experience is variable
2. Stress can lead to extreme shifts in the sense of reality, to the point where the supernatural becomes real.
3. The alienated experience of the supernatural is also a form of hyper reality, where the experience of some aspect of reality becomes extreme: the passing of time becomes an incomprehensible rush; the boredom of waiting for moments to pass becomes a repeating loop in time; anger with boorish male colleagues resting on restrained violence becomes a violent struggle with demons.
In one way the episode undermines social constructivism, because it makes a distinction between normal reality and alienated experience. However, it also suggests that the sense of reality is extremely variable according to mood, and that fantasy is a way of bringing attention to aspects of reality. The social constructivism is more moderate than Mike suggests. There are different realities according to relations with other people, as Mike suggests, but the variations in Buffy’s experience are more about her subjective sense of reality and the changing social context rather than in turning reality into something that is constructed.