Why Don't We Pay Athletes Or Vampire Slayers?
A very Buffy newsletter
Last week, I was fortunate enough to be a guest on the fabulous The End of Sport podcast. It probably comes as no surprise that I rambled on for so long that they had to divide my interview into two parts. Please give it a listen if you want to hear me wax poetic about Simone Biles, the camaraderie between the Russians and the Americans, and rail against dumb white men who yell “‘Merica!” at the top of their lungs every time a young woman of color voices an opinion. Here’s part one and part two to listen to as you wash the dishes or clean your apartment.
Also, I made a cameo over at the IX Newsletter, answering smart questions from Unorthodox Gymnastics’ copyeditor/contributor, Lela Moore. Lela, in writing a bio for me—I didn’t respond to her request that I do it since I usually come up with something very silly and self-deprecating—called Lizzie “the best dog ever.” So now it’s in print, written by someone other than me. The motion has been seconded and passed. Lizzie is the best dog ever.
And finally, Shana Tovah to everyone! May this be the last Jewish New Year we celebrate amid a raging pandemic.
As I’ve noted in the previous two newsletters, I’ve been listening to Buffy the Vampire Slayer podcasts of late; my favorite one is Still Pretty, which is hosted by Lani Danielle Rich and Noelle LaCroix. Their analysis is entertaining, erudite, and very nerdy. It was inevitable that this would seep into the newsletter and gymnastics/sports analysis. So here it is, the analysis that no one asked for and no one needs.
(Disclaimer: This post will reference events from the whole run of the show so if you’ve been intending to watch it but still haven’t gotten around to it, well, you can’t expect to not hear spoilers about a show that premiered more than two decades ago. Sorry guys!)
In Season 6, Buffy Summers has money problems. She died heroically to save the world and her younger sister Dawn; was resurrected some months later by her witchy best friend Willow; and then learned that while she was six feet under, she was hemorrhaging money. Her friends had moved into her house and were looking after Dawn, and plowing through the funds that Buffy’s late mother Joyce had left behind for her daughters.
Shortly after being brought back to life, Buffy is appraised of her financial predicament and is basically told that she needs to get a job. Anya, former vengeance demon, suggested, “Start charging” for slaying. “You’re providing a valuable service to the whole community,” she told Buffy.
This suggestion was treated as ludicrous by the rest of the group and it is, at least to some degree: you shouldn’t charge people for saving their lives, whether it’s a rescue from a burning building or a doctor performing CPR or a slayer dusting a vampire. Vampire slaying shouldn’t follow the model set by the U.S. ambulance system.
But just because the people Buffy saves shouldn’t be hit with a bill doesn’t mean that Buffy shouldn’t be able to earn any income off her slaying. Someone should be footing the bill. But who?
Now let’s go back to Season 3 when Giles, Buffy’s watcher—who is something of a mentor/teacher to the slayer—defied the Watchers’ Council’s orders and intervened in the cruel test that Buffy was being subjected to. As a result, he was fired from the Council. They sent a new watcher, Wesley, to mentor Buffy. A little later that season, Buffy told Wesley that she is quitting the Council.
From the end of Season 3 to the middle of Season 5, we didn’t really hear much from the Watchers’ Council. Then, as Buffy and her crew were facing down a new Big Bad who seemingly didn’t have any weaknesses, they reached out to the Council to see if they could help. That’s when the Council returned and subjected Buffy and her friends to “evaluations” to see if they were worthy of receiving the critical info.
At the end of this episode, Buffy put a stop to the hoops the Council had her and others jumping through, by asserting the power that she has over them. She is the slayer and they need her, not the other way around. “You’re watchers,” she said. “Without a slayer, you’re pretty much just watching Masterpiece Theater.” (Because they’re British!) She then demanded that Giles be reinstated as her watcher. “Reinstated at full salary…to be paid retroactively from the month he was fired,” Buffy said as she lays out her terms to Quentin, the Council’s leader.
From this exchange, it’s clear that some people in the demon killing game are getting compensated. Giles was drawing two salaries for most of his run on Buffy—that of a high school librarian and Buffy’s watcher. (At least until they blew up the high school at the end of Season 3 to defeat the mayor.) The one person not drawing a salary was the person at the center of the demon slaying web: the slayer herself.
This begs the question: Giles was receiving a salary then why not Buffy? This is something that the hosts of Still Pretty have brought up a few times already in the course of 50+ episodes I’ve plowed through. This is fundamentally different from charging people for their own rescue. People will still get rescued for free as they should be but the system that depends upon people not murdered left and right by demons will be the one to foot the bill.
I’m not well-versed in either comics or superhero mythology though I imagine that the “good guys” typically don’t accept payment from anyone for saving lives. Some, like Batman, are independently wealthy and despicably capitalist. Others, like Superman, have day jobs as a journalists. (Have they updated the comics to factor in the current upheaval in media? Or have they included the “pivots to video” and the rounds of layoffs into the storytelling? Are the villains the hedge fund managers who are destroying media organizations and selling them off in parts?) Using your superpowers to save lives is seen as a “vocation” or a “calling,” which is a way of simultaneously elevating what they do and devaluing it, at least from the material side of things.
But what Giles did as watcher was no less a calling than what Buffy did. It’s not like Giles went looking for a job that could make use of his research skills and happened upon a classified ad for a job as a watcher. As we learned in Season 2, he was fated for this role when he was very young and initially rebelled against this obligation. But there is little doubt that he was “chosen” for this role, and not the other way around. So why was Giles getting a salary and Buffy wasn’t? Or why was it that in Season 3, when Faith, the other vampire slayer, arrived in Sunnydale, she was forced to stay in a ratty motel room for lack of funds? Why wasn’t the Council paying for her accommodations? As we later see, Faith formed an alliance with an evil mayor, in part, because he treated her like a daughter and bought her nice things.
This is somewhat analogous to how elite athletes in sports, particularly Olympic sports, are treated. Everyone in their orbit is being paid—coaches, administrators, trainers—except for them. Or they might get a very paltry stipend that keeps them at or near the poverty line. The “compensation” that they receive is in the form of “dreams.” They’re getting a chance to make their dreams come true, we’re told, what more could they want? This is one way that athletes’ legitimate claims to compensation are delegitimized and they’re made to appear ungrateful for wanting more than to struggle to get by.
The plight of female gymnasts even more closely aligns with that of the slayer. As Georgia Cervin pointed out in her history of women’s gymnastics, the West, particularly the U.S., turned to young child athletes as a way of skirting amateurism rules while also not providing any forms of material support to athletes. Since a child has all of their needs met by their parents, it made sense to favor young athletes, which is exactly what happened. (The reasons for the decline in the ages of female gymnasts was more complex than just “seeking out ways to circumvent amateurism rules,” but that is certainly one of the factors. I get into all of that complexity in this long piece for FiveThirtyEight.)
The slayer, as we’re told, is often a young girl, a teen in high school or in that age range. We meet Buffy when she is just 16 years old and a sophomore. She’s living at home with her mother and being supported by her, and judging by her impressive wardrobe, Joyce Summers is doing a more than adequate job of providing for her daughter. We don’t really hear about money problems for the slayer in the Buffyverse until the part I mentioned up top in Season 6.
(As a side note, it’s so weird that everyone was acting like Buffy was some sort of failure as a grown up for struggling to earn money. I mean, the girl was 19 or 20, had died, and was now caring for her younger teen sister on top of being the slayer, and Giles was all like, “I need to go back to England so you can learn to stand on your own two feet.” I know that Anthony Stewart Head, the actor who played Giles, wanted a less prominent role in the series since he wanted to be able to spend more time in England with his family, but couldn’t the writers have come up with a better reason for Giles to leave that didn’t seem to suggest that Buffy was some sort of fuck up when she was actually doing quite admirably under very extreme circumstances? And why wasn’t he sending her some of his paycheck every month???)
Slayers tend not to live very long once they’re called so figuring out how to earn a living and plan for retirement doesn’t usually enter into the equation. The Council’s functioning was dependent on this fact. They burned through slayers quickly and they never had to pay them. There was always another slayer there to replace the murdered one.
But Buffy was exceptional in many ways, one of which is that she kept living, even after she died. (In Season 7, we do learn that one of the slayers that Spike killed was a woman with a child so I guess other slayers did make it to adulthood, but this might also be a function of when this slayer was called up. Perhaps she had been slaying for years before she was killed or maybe she was a recent, albeit, older slayer.) A slayer living longer than a couple of years is an obvious good—she grows in power and experience—but it does mean that the institution that backs her needs to rethink how it supports its most important worker. There’s really no excuse for not doing it—up until the very end of the series, there was only one or two slayers active at any given time until the series finale completely shifted that paradigm. It shouldn’t have been too difficult to pay them or look after their material needs. While there is nothing wrong with working in fast food, there was no reason that Buffy needed to work two jobs, one of them unpaid, in Season 6.
In the real world, if we’re going to endorse the idea that female gymnasts should be older, which I certainly support, we have to think about the structures we have in place to support older women to pursue sports as a full-time job. We can’t simply rely on them being being supported by family. (Countries like Russia do a fairly adequate job of compensating their athletes, including the gymnasts.)
“Go back to your council and tell them that until the next slayer comes along, they can close up shop,” Buffy tells Wesley at the end of Season 3. She recognized that she was at the center of the demon fighting enterprise. I just wished she used this knowledge as leverage to get a salary.
And so are the athletes when it comes to sports. We could live without commentators, coaches, even sports writers. But there are no sports without the athletes. Which is why athletes and vampire slayers should get paid.
(P.S. I didn’t read the Buffy comics so I don’t know if the slayers in those stories were compensated. Please let me know if Council policy changed.)