There are two reasons for choosing Cordelia as a subject to study conversion. The first is that she begins the series as the most thoroughly privileged conventional main character. Her shift from a conventional worldview to an agent against evil is a dramatic revolution of life. It is, however, the consequences of her subsequent conversions within the mystical worldview that make her case the most extreme of all. She is the icon of the successful conventional world; who eventually accepts becoming a demon herself to continue her vocation in the communal fight. Other characters have changed and evolved and converted, but only Cordy has chosen to holistically sacrifice her conventionality – her human-ness - for the sake of the mystical common redemption. To examine her conversion I will utilize the conversion process explained by Dr. Lewis Rambo in Understanding Religious Conversion, including context, crisis, quest, encounter, interaction, commitment, and consequences. Following the discussion of the process of Cordelia’s initial conversion, I will examine the typology of her 2 subsequent intensifications or further conversions.
“Being this popular is not just my right, but my responsibility”
The first episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BTVS) establish the foundational themes of the Buffyverse (BV). Particularly vital to the first three seasons is the metaphor of high school is hell. Sunnydale High is a typical upper middle class, Southern California public secondary school – except for its geographical situation on top of a Hellmouth. Students are faced with the everyday pressure of academic achievement and parental transference, confronted with the physical and mental confusion of becoming adults, and perhaps most pervasively, the fearsome social caste system.
However, in Sunnydale the everyday crises are exaggerated, intensified and incarnated due to the demonic energy beneath. The transformation of a common expression allows the Buffyverse to confront the emotional turmoil of high school more effectively than a run of the mill after school special. The embodied metaphor takes on sacramental qualities – outer signs of inner truths. The concrete usefulness of the classroom objectives vary in later life, but the success, scars, and lessons of the social scheme of high school are crucial formative forces – demonic or not. Academic achievement is approached in Buffy for its emotional and social content – perhaps the most lasting effect of the contemporary curricula. This is the context of Sunnydale High and therefore the context of Cordelia’s initial conversion.
The formal systems of access and control in this setting are functionally limited to parents, teachers and administrators and practical power rests with a few detested social elites. The upper-middle-class American culture rewards consumerism and achievement relatively regardless of moral merit. The demonic forces and mystical dimension that exist in relationship with the conventional go largely unnoticed rationalized and suppressed. Formal religiousness is shelved, but people and ordained objects and methods have the ability to directly manipulate the mystical and conventional world: crosses and holy water repel vampires regardless of the faith of the wielder. Weird things go bump in the night – but people choose not to make anything of it. This para-normality and its effects on a high school population is the framework of influences and therefore the first phase of experiences that lead Cordelia into conversion.
When we first meet Cordelia Chase she is not only solidly set in the context of the conventional worldview, she is the reigning queen of the high school social order. While not a brainiac, she demonstrates that she is a critical thinking and articulate young woman, even if her point of view is neither egalitarian or politically correct. It is perhaps true that Cordelia is smarter than the average bear on the top of the social scheme. This judgment is confirmed because she can correctly asses the crisis of a situation she does not understand and seek out help from those she realizes do understand and can intervene. It is this capability that leads her away from complete diva-ness, from being the self-absorbed master of her own world order.
Her particular series of crises comes from her position at the top of the high school social pecking order. Cordy garners as much respect as revilement from her classmates. Given the macro context of Sunnydale High, its literal hellishness exaggerates and perverts the micro context of emotional desperation in the social outcasts. In this context the energy of the Hellmouth disintegrates the boundary between Cordy’s conventional world and the mystical, putting her life in danger and forcing her to step from one into the other. It is a series of crises in the first season that develop the second phase of Cordelia’s conversion. She seeks a practical solution to a concrete threat, rather than an experimental or intellectual frame for conversion.