"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 22 July 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.

The Uses of Enchantment


[I alway's wanted to be in a ganag.  You know, have a cool jacket, a secret handshake......  Gnags are cool, and then I could hang out after school, across from the 7-11 smoking Chesterfield Kings and comb my hair.   MMMMMMMM-gang.]

Television shows about

adolescence in general, and high

school in particular, have

always been somewhat

supernatural; how else to

explain a host of teens

inhabiting the bodies of people

obviously half again their real

age, or the curious warping of

time, where major activities

tend to cluster around

homecoming, Christmas, and the

prom, and these events

themselves occur over and over

again, allowing for a

matriculation so unnaturally

lengthy that it would seem to

make manifest the common lament

that high school is hell.


Well, not if your ratings are

solid, I guess.


[I saw my first episode of BTVS, and I was unimpressed.  I thought, personally, it sucked.]

It is, of course, a specific sort

of high school hellishness

that's created the first Warner

Brothers Network show to attract

enough ratings and acclaim to

distinguish it from the rest of

the digital slop trough that

undulates at the far end of the

dial. Thanks in part to some

savvy scheduling and a heroic

marketing push, Buffy the

Vampire Slayer looks to drive a

stake through the heart of

non-major network television's

other teen-angst franchises,

Beverly Hills 90210 (where the

preternaturally youthful class

has taken a page from the

yearbook of Dorian Gray) and

that gothic melodrama in Gap

clothing, Party of Five.


[Claire is kind of one dimensional, don't you think?]

In turning a suburban high school

into a scary-but-sexy

battleground for good and evil,

where Lycra-clad she-wolves,

cheerleader succubi, and hunky

warlocks go head-to-head with

the brave and buff Buffy (though

her most obviously gutsy act is

a willingness to bare her

navel), the show has created a

hilariously accurate depiction

of adolescence's psychic toll,

if not its actual form. For

that, one would have to go back

to the sepia-toned moodiness of My

So-Called Life (whose ghost

haunts MTV to this very day) - a

show whose untimely demise is

unfortunate testimony to how

accuracy fails as entertainment.

A horrifically honest flashback

to the stunning revelations of

human cruelty that come with

first dates and lunchroom

hierarchies, My So-Called Life

was emotional truth with

commercial breaks - part spell,

part curse. While it at first

held the titillation of reading

someone's diary, it soon became

clear that, like most people's

diaries, not much was going to

happen, and what did would be

incredibly, devastatingly

obvious, especially to the

people to whom it wasn't



Buffy borrows equally from the

otherworldly antisepticness of

Saved by the Bell and from

Xena's feminist fantasy to

synthesize a truth that doesn't

exist in either of those

universes on their own. To be

sure, Buffy casts blindingly

white magic (Sunnydale High

appears to share the same

dopplegraphic, not to mention

the same campus, as 90210), but

the monochrome faces that

populate the halls are just a

human gesso for producer Joss

Whedon's ironically technicolor

portrayal of high school's

chiaroscuro nightmares. At no

other time does life have the

same clarity, the same sharp

delineation of right and wrong

and punishment and reward. The

encroachment of adult

responsibilities (and adult

desires) onto what is still

plainly, troublingly childhood,

doesn't muddy the waters so much

as provide for variation in

torment and salve.


[Reading is a screa,`m, and don't-choo ferget it.....]

Grade school can be grisly as

well, but its squabbles and

triumphs are comparatively

monotonous, and usually end up

with someone getting either

grounded or a cookie. The

liminal maturity of postpuberty

opens up whole new vistas of

both fear and pleasure. In high

school's ridiculously short-term

social economy, getting grounded

pales against the knee-knocking

humiliation of getting (or not

getting) asked to dance. And

what's a cookie when there's

nookie to be had?


Sex, of course, carries its own

caduceus of punishment and

reward, and when you're not

quite ready for its

consequences, it can seem that

getting pregnant is by far the

shortest end of the stick. If

you're going it alone, even more

so. In the high-relief

topography of adolescence, an

obstacle as unscalable as

motherhood might even call for a

response that's equally

unthinkable: murder. It's a

solution that only makes sense

if you're looking through a lens

that sees no middle distance,

only the instant gratification

of parking lot humping or the

petrifying forever of



[All I can say is JEEEE-zus christ.  That's all.]

The vilification of the New

Jersey high school senior who

gave birth on prom night has

allowed much of the press and

the people who speak to it to

drink of a fountain of moral

youth, shrinking them into a

judicial Lilliput just as

small-minded as your average

bully. Their speedy damnation is

an exercise in the same petty

moralizing that can create

lifelong exiles out of the

temporarily maladjusted, proof

that you're only as young as you



As a nation, we seem determined

to keep kids from growing up by

keeping them in lockup. A

Republican-backed bill would

make it easier to treat youthful

offenders as adults and it could

force states to transfer large

numbers of juveniles to adult

prisons in order to be eligible

for federal funds. Think that's

not quite punishment enough? A

study by the Justice Policy

Institute found juvenile

offenders five times more likely

to report being raped, twice as

likely to report being beaten by

prison staff, and 50 percent

more likely to be attacked with

a weapon. And if you're worried

about repeat offenders, well,

the same study showed minors

in adult institutions were eight

times more likely than their

incarcerated elders to commit



[I saw this movie in Utah.  I thought it was a fake, but here I am now realizing that it was real....... SHEEEE-it.]

Kids can be cruel, but it takes a

grown up to send a kid to death.

Childish vindictiveness and an

immature inability to get beyond

superficial differences were at

the heart of the case against

the "West Memphis Three," a

group of imprisoned teenagers

for whom "tragically

misunderstood" is a morbid

understatement. Documented in

the chilling Paradise Lost: The

Child Murders at Robin Hood

Hills, the story of Jason

Baldwin, Damien Echols, and

Jessie Misskelley - whose only

certain crime was an unfortunate

taste for Metallica and black

denim - illustrates just how

easy it is to move from social

outcast to community scapegoat,

from accusations of witchcraft

to a witch hunt. Anyone can

outgrow acne, baby fat, or even

a fondness for heavy metal's

overblown histrionics, but a

jail term tends to leave a mark

- if they ever get out, that is.

According to latest reports, it

looks like they've all bought

fares of varying classes to

Never-Never Land.


[ I have no idea.]

As a recent essay in The New York

Times pointed out, it's been two

decades since Bruno Bettelheim

wrote that children shouldn't

necessarily be shielded from

what the FCC is now calling

"fantasy violence." Bettleheim

argued that fairy tales, even

and perhaps especially violent

and morally ambiguous ones, give

children a way to understand a

world in which good and evil are

hopelessly intertwined:

"Children know that they are not

always good; and often, even

when they are, they would prefer

not to be." What's more,

Bettleheim believed that these

stories show children that "a

struggle against severe

difficulties in life is

unavoidable," and those who see

in folklore's villains the

shadow of their own real-life

tormentors - whether they be

neighbors, siblings, or parents

- were given a valuable lesson

in overcoming the powerful, even

monstrous forces in their lives.

These days, in a painful

reversal of Bettleheim's thesis,

it's adults who've turned kids

into monsters.

courtesy of Ann O'Tate

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