Kicking Butt in a Mini-Skirt: The Complicated Feminism of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
This is an academic paper. You DO NOT have permission to reprint/reproduce this material. Copyright 2011 Megan Karius.
As someone who spent her formative years glued to the television every Saturday night in order to get her weekly dose of ‘girl power’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Buffy) was a show that represented a compelling brand of feminism, not to mention fantasy, for a teenage girl. The show’s feminism (or lack thereof) has been the subject of debate amongst media scholars and feminists since its inception. Buffy can be read multiple ways; there are arguments for its feminism and there are arguments that it is not feminist at all. For instance, Joss Whedon, the show’s creator, has even revealed that it was his intention to create a show with a somewhat feminist agenda (Levine 168); on the other hand, it could be argued that Buffy communicates a very post-feminist message. The show is sometimes self-reflexive (and a little tongue-in-cheek) about the whole slayer-woman-power theme, which serves to reinforce and undermine it all at once. By restating and mocking the slayer’s source of power, Whedon almost brings it up in order to downplay its importance. This draws a parallel to Angela McRobbie’s argument that post-feminism “positively draws on and invokes feminism as that which can be taken into account, to suggest that equality is achieved . . . [in order to] emphasize that it is no longer needed” (28). In this paper, I set out to examine the multiple aspects of the show that can be regarded as feminist. What do we make of all these differing perspectives? Is it possible to view the show through an ironic, third-wave feminist lens, and does this change our understanding? I argue that, while it is not a perfect feminist show, Buffy’s value lies in the fact that it provides feminists with so much material with which to grapple. Since television shows are interpreted by the audiences that view them, I am attempting to decode Buffy in a new way – one that takes into account, and struggles with, a third-wave perspective.
First, it is necessary to define the terms of the discussion. For the purposes of this essay, I draw a clear distinction between the terms ‘post-feminism’ and ‘third-wave feminism’. Described by Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra, “post-feminism broadly encompasses a set of assumptions, widely disseminated within popular media forms, having to do with the ‘pastness’ of feminism, whether that supposed pastness is merely noted, mourned, or celebrated” (1). In essence, a post-feminist perspective works under the assumption that the goals of second-wave feminism have been achieved, and thus, there is no longer a need for feminism. Post-feminism encourages women to de-politicize their personal lives, and instead opt for individual self-fulfillment through conspicuous consumption (Tasker & Negra 2). Third-wave feminism, on the other hand, is usefully described by Elana Levine as a movement marked by the contradictions of contemporary feminists’ desires and strategies (173). In other words, third-wave feminism must be able to “accommodate ambiguity . . . [in order] to contain the contradictions that today’s women feel about feminism (and femininity) and about their identities generally” (Walker, qtd. in Levine 173). While Buffy at times exhibits aspects of post-feminist thinking, my goal here is to frame the show in the context of third-wave feminism. It should be understood that, while I am attempting to use a third-wave perspective to unlock some of the show’s latent feminist potential, I am in no way pardoning Buffy from its sometimes post-feminist portrayal of female empowerment.
That being said, you cannot talk about Buffy without talking about feminism. Arguably, there are many overtly feminist moments throughout the show’s seven series run. Buffy, the show’s title character, is a petite, blonde cheerleader-type who would typically be seen as the damsel-in-distress in any conventional show or movie in the horror/fantasy genre. The initial hook of the show is that underneath the valley-girl façade, Buffy is actually a vampire slayer with the strength to efficiently deal with any monster that gets in her way. It must be noted that Buffy is an active female body that constantly disrupts the traditionally male public sphere. She has the power to go anywhere she wants, anytime she wants, and feel safe. Based on that description alone, Buffy seems to encompass a second-wave feminist utopia. It may indeed, but a major criticism levelled at the show is that it has a very liberal-feminist agenda. This is feminism for the privileged, white, middle-class. As Elana Levine notes, “women outside the white, middle class face different, and sometimes fewer, choices about their social roles, but the post-feminist stance is unable to acknowledge this. Nor is [Buffy] fully able to acknowledge this with the white, middle-class, heterosexual character of Buffy at its center” ( 176).
While the feminism of Buffy may not be wholly complete or inclusive, I argue that, to put it bluntly, it’s better than nothing. One major vein of feminism in the show is found in its handling of patriarchy, most notably represented by the Watchers’ Council. Wilcox suggests that Buffy clearly resists the hierarchical control of the patriarchal Watchers’ Council (4) by flouting their rules regarding her secret identity and generally refusing to take orders from them. She eventually rejects the council altogether, telling them that she really does know best. In terms of succession of the slayer line, Buffy, along with her tight-knit group of friends (affectionately referred to as the Scoobies), upsets this tradition; Willow, Xander and Giles often intervene to help or save Buffy and the strength-in-numbers theme is revisited often. Indeed, Buffy could not have progressed past Season One, and again after Season Five, were it not for the Scoobies bringing Buffy back from the dead. Community is valued over individualism at almost every opportunity. The other two slayers that appear throughout the series, Kendra and Faith, serve to reinforce this lesson about the value of community. Buffy is the slayer that needs her friends, and in this regard, she stands in direct opposition to the patriarchal philosophy embodied by both Kendra and Faith. Wilcox discusses Kendra as the “perfect” Slayer who embodies the ideals of the masculine, hierarchical Watchers’ Council and who learns from Buffy that “her emotions can give her power” (6). Faith, on the other hand, is the renegade slayer who gets a high from abusing her power; throughout the series, she is shown as the slayer who stands on her own, too defensive and insecure to rely on friends or a watcher. Eventually, Faith chooses evil over good and begins working for the forces of darkness in Sunnydale. Ultimately, the lesson the viewer is taught from Faith is that, “paradoxically, this hyper-individualistic, super self-reliant mode of autonomy makes Faith vulnerable to destructive emotions like jealousy” (Miller 47).
As well, there is only supposed to be one Slayer at a time, but Buffy disrupts this idea of entailment from the beginning. When she dies briefly in Season One, Kendra is called; after Kendra is killed by Drusilla, Faith is called. By the Season Seven finale, Buffy and the gang have figured out how to share Slayer strength with all potential Slayers, thereby eradicating the “there can only be one” mantra forever. On the other hand, despite Buffy’s rejection of the authority of the Watchers’ Council, authors such as J.P. Williams argue that “Buffy’s power is directed by her Watcher, Rupert Giles . . . Being part of a female slayer tradition does not help Buffy since Giles controls what she knows about slaying” (61). Williams seems to focus on the beginning few seasons of Buffy, when Buffy is still figuring out who she is, where her power comes from and what it really means. It should be noted that, by Season Seven, Giles is more of a father figure than a Watcher to Buffy, and she explicitly rejects Giles’ authority when she thinks she knows better. By the end of the series, Buffy, not Giles, is definitely the boss.
However, critics of Buffy point out that this vision of female empowerment is only allowed to exist within certain very strict and narrow notions of femininity. In her discussion of the protagonists of shows like Buffy and Xena: Warrior Princess, Susan Douglas argues that, “the warrior women in thongs asserted that to exert power, women had to be a lot more like men . . . and, at the same time, true to their socialized female selves that were not like men at all” (99). Is Buffy feminist only within certain very anti-feminist frameworks? Rachel Fudge supports this argument, stating that “[Buffy is] strong and sassy all right, but she’s the ultimate femme, never disturbing the delicate definition of physical femininity” (Bitch.).
It seems to me that all of these conflicting opinions are correct at one time or another. In some ways, Buffy can be read as overtly feminist; in other ways, the show seems to be caving in to popular demand for young, sexually attractive female television leads. Herein lies one of the possibilities for a third-wave feminist reading of Buffy’s character. Perhaps her appearance actually allows for an even more disruptive reading of traditional femininity. The hook of the show is that it focuses on a young girl who, by all outward appearances, should be girly and weak but who we know, kicks monster butt on a regular basis. Is it not, then, more jarring for the viewer to see this petite young female breaking traditional codes of femininity by shooting her mouth off and using violence all the time? As Symonds notes, “It has frequently been noted that Buffy fights with words as well as blows, that language for her is a weapon” (128). Buffy embodies the tough-talking, assertive role usually reserved for males in this genre. “In placing Buffy in the traditionally male stance of the sardonic hero, the show participates through language in gender reversal, as it does when it gives male characters like Xander the more traditionally feminine self-mocking and self-deprecating lines” (Symonds 128). Buffy is a young woman that refuses to be silent or silenced and that is one of the places we can find Buffy’s feminism.
Again, there are a number of ways of reading this aspect of Buffy. Authors like Douglas and Fudge would argue that Buffy is only ‘allowed’ to fight monsters and talk back to authority figures because she follows other codes of femininity perfectly. In her discussion of the 1990s television phenomenon of “warrior women in thongs” (Douglas 76), Susan Douglas examines the factors that led to the proliferation of young, strong, female action heroes on TV in the mid to late 1990s. While she points out some major flaws with Buffy, Douglas asserts that the warrior woman character, seen in shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena: Warrior Princess, La Femme Nikita, Dark Angel and Alias, was a “progressive response . . . that gave full, metaphorical expression to girl power” (77). Douglas contrasts this trend to the “regressive tendrils of enlightened sexism . . . beginning to sprout in 90210 (girls are defined by shopping and boys), or Melrose Place (women who seek power are lethal vixens)” (77). Thus, even critics of Buffy’s character recognize the feminist potential of the show. Additionally, like Symonds, Douglas recognizes the power of language within the ‘warrior woman’ genre: “Most of these women were not just formidable physically, they were tough verbally as well, armed with sarcastic comebacks and cutting put-downs. These were not catty remarks; this was muscular verbal jousting” (Douglas 77). Critics like Rachel Fudge also can’t help but comment on the integral role that language plays in creating Buffy’s feminist appeal; she notes that the show “suggests . . . that the most powerful person in town is a petite, wisecracking Valley Girl” (Bitch). Furthermore, Fudge suggests that the show’s very feminist potential lies in the fact that Buffy’s power comes from her spunky girlness and teenage fallibility (Bitch). Joss Whedon took the well-known teenage female bubble-head character and decided she could be powerful. Rather than Buffy’s character being taught to discard her markers of femininity in order to more effectively wield power, Buffy embraces her femininity and her strength. On the one hand, this move points to a valuing of femininity not often seen on television. On the other hand, it is easy to think that a show like Buffy was only able to exist because its lead character was attractive and hyper-feminine.
Once again, we are at an impasse with post-feminist thought. Buffy manages to be feminist and anti-feminist all at once. While there is something empowering about a female character that gets to be strong, powerful and girly at the same time, the show ignores the factors that may prevent some women from ‘having it all’, as Buffy seems to. In many ways, Buffy’s character embodies the ideals put forth by post-feminist thought; in other ways, the show seems driven by generally feminist ideals. In her discussion of Buffy and feminism, Levine argues that “Multiply-positioned identity is no longer a site of multiple oppressions or multiple empowerments; instead it is a matter of individual choice” (176). This is one of the ways in which Buffy strays from strict post-feminism. We must remember that Buffy was never given a choice about being the slayer; it is her birthright and she is duty-bound to protect people from demons. Thus, Buffy’s multiple and intersecting identities – student, daughter, slayer, friend – are less a matter of individual choice for her than for, say, her friends. Because of this, Buffy must make the best of her situation; being the slayer does not stop her from wanting to be a ‘normal’ teenage girl and she is determined she can be both. I would argue that this is a major part of the show’s basic feminism: Buffy refuses to be put in her place by sexist notions of teenage femininity or by the members of the patriarchal Watchers’ Council. Buffy inhabits multiple spaces simultaneously, thereby refusing easy categorization, and in this way, she exemplifies many ideals of third-wave feminism.
Conversely, it is important to note the factors that aid Buffy in straddling this third-wave intersectional identity so well. To begin, Buffy is straight, white, petite, (super) able-bodied, and relatively privileged, despite the fact that her mother is a single parent. While it is often difficult for Buffy to juggle all her responsibilities, she is likely not in danger of being oppressed in multiple ways. Additionally, we almost never see women of colour in the whole ‘Buffyverse’. When non-white characters are introduced, they are peripheral and/or evil and usually die relatively quickly. Kendra, the second slayer, appears to be from Jamaica, though her origins are never discussed, and she is introduced and killed off all within the Second Season. Another black character, Lissa, is introduced as a potential love interest for Xander in Season Seven, but she turns out to be evil and is killed in the same episode. As for the main characters, race is simply a non-issue. It seems that in Buffy’s world, at least until Season Seven, racialized characters are either invisible, evil, or in need of saving. In Season Seven, two black characters are introduced: Robin Wood, the principal of Sunnydale High School, and Rona, one of the potential slayers. Wood, especially, becomes a main character and it should be noted that this marks a shift in representation from earlier seasons. My purpose in this paper is not to conduct an analysis of race in Buffy, but these points are worth mentioning. What I would like to focus on is how Buffy’s whiteness and privilege factor into her position as a post-feminist emblem. As Elana Levine explains:
The post-feminist mindset takes feminist arguments about the social injustice of women’s competing social roles (mother, worker, activist) and argues that it is women’s responsibility (as opposed to, say, society’s) to manage these competing roles either through choosing one over others or through the balancing act of the superwoman. Not only does this stance evacuate any critique of a patriarchal society (in which it is only women who are forced to make such choices) from its sympathetic view of women’s multiple identities, it also fails to acknowledge that not all women have the luxury of making such choices. (176)
Buffy quite literally takes on the superwoman role, managing to save the world, go to class, and still have time for dating. As evidenced by the lack of characters who are underprivileged in any significant way, Buffy ignores the ways that race and class affect the lives of women. In fact, the only time class is mentioned is through the character Cordelia, who is juxtaposed to everyone else, especially Xander, by being framed as a rich, shallow, mean girl. While, from time to time, the show alludes to the fact that Xander’s family has less money than some, this fact doesn’t seem to affect Xander’s daily life. He looks and dresses similarly to all the other students at Sunnydale High; we know that Cordelia gets to go on summer vacations to Europe and Xander doesn’t, but wealth and privilege or the lack thereof are not shown as barriers to important opportunities. In fact, when Cordelia’s family loses its wealth due to her father’s tax evasion, Xander pays for Cordelia’s prom dress. Somehow, Xander is able to come up with the money when Cordelia cannot, even though Xander has no income. Furthermore, Buffy herself faces some financial stress after she is brought back from the dead in Season Six, but this stress is quickly alleviated. As Levine describes:
Even when Buffy’s privilege seems jeopardized, such as when she finds herself in a financial bind after her mother’s death and takes a job in the fast food industry to make ends meet, this condition lasts only a few episodes. With a surprise check from Giles and, eventually, a new job as the guidance counsellor at Sunnydale High (acquired despite her status as a college drop-out), Buffy’s economic woes cease. She comfortably returns to the position of privilege from which the post-feminist perspective derives. (176)
Buffy is only able to occupy her multiply-positioned, third-wave feminist identity because she is privileged enough to not have to worry about money and other social inequalities.
This is an academic paper. You DO NOT have permission to reprint/reproduce this material. Copyright 2011 Megan Karius.
In Season Seven, the final season of Buffy, the audience is given more back story as the show begins its journey to the end. One of the themes of the show has always been the distinctly female power inherent to the slayer line. As mentioned earlier, this theme is sometimes alluded to in a joking manner, but it is always present. For example, during a discussion of the ‘potentials’ – girls with the potential to become the next slayer when Buffy is killed – Andrew recites this inspired description: “It’s almost like this metaphor for womanhood, isn’t it? The sort of flowering that happens when a girl realizes that she’s part of a fertile heritage, stretching back to Eve and – “ (7.12). It’s no coincidence that Andrew, an often annoying character with a flair for the dramatic, gets this line. He is cut off by Xander, compelling him to talk about anything else, and then by Anya, who insists that “This isn’t about womanly power” (7.12). What this tells us is that, while the show is somewhat concerned with the basic tenets of feminism, it isn’t about to take itself too seriously. The fact is, Buffy has always been a humorous show, and just about everyone and everything get made fun of at some point in the series. Where there is potential for some real feminist grappling is during Episode 15 of Season Seven, in which Buffy travels back in time to gain further knowledge about how to defeat ‘The First’ (the first evil that has declared war on Buffy and all the potentials). Traveling back in time through a portal, Buffy returns to the desert in an un-specified ancient time. While there, she meets three men – the men who created the first slayer. She learns that they created the first slayer by chaining a girl to the earth and infecting her with the heart of the demon. Opening an ancient box, the Shadow Men tell Buffy, “Herein lies your truest strength. The energy of the demon. Its spirit. Its heart . . . It must become one with you” (7.15). In other words, the slayer line was created by men, to protect other men, and they did it by forcing a girl to become infected with part of the life force of a demon. This theme has been touched on in Buffy’s past dealings with the Watchers’ Council, but this is the first time we are shown the violence used to create the slayer line. This is a clear allegory for rape. Buffy has come to seek knowledge, but the Shadow Men tell her all they can give her is power. They chain her to the earth, re-enacting the ritual performed on the first slayer. In order for Buffy to become more powerful, she must become one with the demon and therefore, less human. Outraged at this prospect, Buffy breaks free from her shackles and the following exchange takes place:
Buffy: “You guys? You’re just men. Just the men who did this. To her. Whoever that girl was before she was the first slayer.”
Shadow Man: “You don’t understand.”
Buffy: “No, YOU don’t understand! You violated that girl. Made her kill for you, because you’re weak, you’re pathetic, and you obviously have nothing to show me.” (7.15)
At this point, the show doesn’t seem very feminist. All this female power actually came from three men metaphorically raping a young woman? Perhaps J.P. Williams was correct in arguing that Buffy’s feminist potential is limited due to the fact that her power is controlled by men (61). What redeems the show is the fact that, by Season Seven, Buffy has taken control of her slaying and her power. She refuses the power offered to her by the Shadow Men, determined to find another way to fight The First. By the season’s finale, Buffy and the Scoobies have figured out a way to imbue all potentials the world over with slayer power, thereby breaking the line of entailment and creating a community of powerful girls and women. Buffy opts for power-in-numbers over power from men, and significantly, Willow is the one to cast the spell that gives the potentials their power.
But what of power? How is it represented and used within the Buffyverse? Simply put, power is represented by violence. Buffy is a superhero and she exerts her power by killing demons, vampires, and anyone generally evil. As Lisa Coulthard notes, It is necessary to “emphasize and signal the importance of the ambivalence, complexity, and disruptive and consoling dimensions of violence in cinema” (156). Since Buffy is a show where something or someone usually gets beat up or killed each week, it is important to consider the use and function of violence in the show. There is fighting in Buffy, but it is far from graphic. The fights are choreographed, but often very staged looking. There is rarely blood (though its visibility increases as the shows seasons progress), and when a vampire is killed, they explode into dust. This may lead some to consider Buffy a relatively non-violent show. As Kendrick explains though, “We can see film violence as having two primary components: the referential component (that is, the behaviour depicted) and the cinematic treatment (what Prince terms ‘stylistic amplitude’), which is a function of graphicness and duration” (13). Thus, we can say that that violence in Buffy has a high referential component, but relatively little stylistic amplitude.
It is important to examine screen violence because of the multiple purposes it can serve. Though the violence in Buffy is not graphic, there is still a reason to show it. It has been stated by Fraser that:
The complexity of mediated violence is immense, and it can and has fulfilled numerous and varied functions: ‘violence as release, violence as communication, violence as play, violence as self-affirmation, or self-defence, or self-discovery, or self-destruction, violence as a flight from reality, violence as the truest sanity in a particular situation, and so on. (qtd. in Kendrick 8 )
This quotation can be related back to Buffy in a number of ways. Arguably, violence used by Buffy and the Scoobies is almost always for self-defence, but self-affirmation, discovery and destruction have all been major themes of the show as well. While it would be far too general a statement to say that women acting as agents of violence is automatically feminist, it is important to at least note the fact that Buffy is a show that largely centers on a violent girl/woman. I will discuss the implication of the fact that she is necessarily violent due to her being the slayer, which justifies her violence to the audience. Still, Buffy was an anomaly – one of the first of its kind. It showcased a female character that was not only emotionally, but physically strong, as well as able and willing to use violence when necessary. If part of being feminist means breaking from traditional gender roles, then the violence within Buffy serves an important feminist function.
Why was Buffy’s violence acceptable to audiences though? Violent women in film are often pathologized in some way, but Buffy is portrayed as a relatively normal woman throughout the series – she just also happens to be a vampire slayer. Susan Douglas argues that Buffy was ‘allowed’ to take on more traditionally masculine roles, like fighting and killing, precisely because she adheres to strict codes of femininity in all other aspects of her life (99). This argument can help us to understand why a character like Buffy was embraced as she was, but there is more to the discussion. Kendrick argues that:
Most mainstream films use violence in ways that conform to social norms; that is, we are asked to deplore violence when it is used by villains or other characters deemed disreputable within the film’s narrative and moral universe while at the same time we are asked to not only accept but applaud the use of violence when it is ‘deployed’ by heroes or other ‘good’ characters.” (Kendrick 18-19)
This idea relates well to the use of violence within Buffy; violence is a constant throughout the series, but the valuation of that violence as acceptable or not depends entirely on who is enacting it. When Buffy uses violence, the audience is meant to understand that, as the one and only slayer, she is justified in doing so. As Jason Kawal explains in his article “Should We Do What Buffy Would Do?”, “Buffy holds deep moral commitments that lead her to an ongoing pattern of heroic and saintly actions. As such, we have good grounds to treat Buffy as a moral role model” (150). She uses violence to protect the (usually) innocent humans from the (usually) evil demons. As Symonds notes, “Buffy appears empowered as a slayer because the violence she uses works in the fight against evil and saving the world” (127). Thus, Buffy must remain the virtuous, good female in order to be empowered. When Faith uses violence in the service of evil, the show depicts her as no longer empowered. Her roles changes from empowered slayer to puppet of the mayor.
In the Buffyverse what seems to matter most is the moral agency of the character enacting the violence. Buffy is a supposedly moral person because she is the slayer and has a duty or ‘higher calling’ to protect the weak and helpless. Vampires are generally evil and must be killed because they do evil deeds, but, their violence is often excused because vampires do not have souls. Thus, while the things they do are still wrong, the slayer and her gang expect no better from them. Violence is depicted at its most heinous when enacted by characters who have traversed the divide between good and evil, especially when those characters have the moral faculties to know the difference, and choose, between good and evil.
There are a number of cases-in-point: Angel/Angelus, Slayer Faith/Rogue Faith, and Willow/Dark Willow. When Angel turns evil after having been good for so long, his violence is more pronounced and despicable. He does not always kill to feed, but often just to inflict pain on others and revel in their agony. For instance, he murders Giles’ lover, Jenny Calendar, simply by snapping her neck; he does not feed on her. Angel’s only purpose in killing Jenny is to hurt Buffy and those who knew her. Faith, having accidentally killed a human, as well as being fed up with constantly being in Buffy’s shadow, embraces the dark side and begins working for the evil mayor of Sunnydale. Thriving on the recognition she receives from this surrogate father, Faith begins working as a contract killer. Now, instead of slaying vampires, we witness Faith murdering humans with a large, imposing blade, given to her by the mayor. The knife is very large, and is shown to be Faith’s favourite weapon. She seems to relish killing and her attachment to the knife signifies this to the audience. Finally, there is Willow. Having witnessed the accidental shooting and subsequent death of her lover Tara, Willow resorts to using black magic to exact revenge on those responsible. Having previously lived by Buffy’s moral code – killing humans is wrong – Willow lets herself become blinded by grief and driven by revenge. Even though she participated in condemning Faith for killing humans, Willow goes on a rampage through Sunnydale, hunting down and eventually killing the person responsible for shooting Tara. Though Buffy admonishes Willow that she cannot kill humans, no matter what they may have done, Willow disregards her old moral code and kills anyway. Again, the use of violence is made more reprehensible to the audience by its graphic nature. Warren Meers, Tara’s murderer is flayed alive by Willow. Here, the violence is more heinous because it is inflicted by someone who knows better. Conversely, the use of violence at this point serves to show the audience how far Willow has fallen. I think, perhaps, the use of violence in Buffy is best summed up in this statement of Symonds:
The audience or reader does not need to be convinced by the authenticity of the violence but by the authenticity of the exploration of what it means to be human for which the violence is the metaphorical launching point. When the setting for that violence is fantastical in some way . . . then the violence itself can be convincingly authentic more because it is emotionally charged as a vehicle for characterization than because it is graphic or indexical to actuality. (126)
The characters on Buffy often work out their feelings through violence. What marks the show as unique is that most of the characters who use violence regularly are female. Buffy and Willow end up being the most powerful people on the show and by Season Seven Willow has even used violence to kill someone. Of the main male characters, Angel and then Spike are the two who use violence the most effectively. Giles and Xander are often seen on the receiving end of violent behaviour, whereas Buffy, Willow, Anya, and the potential slayers are all inflicting it. Thus, Buffy participates in a rather generic form of feminism by showing male characters like Giles and Xander being rescued by Buffy and other female characters on a regular basis.
It is at this juncture that we can make a useful connection between violence, morality and feminism on Buffy. As discussed, there are certain characters whose violence is justified and others whose is not. Buffy, a character committed to doing good, is portrayed as justified in using any means necessary to save the world from evil. This commitment runs deep and leads the audience to treat Buffy as a moral role model (Kawal 150). Because I am interested in a feminist reading of Buffy, it necessary to investigate what role, if any, Buffy’s femininity plays in her portrayal as a moral character. Is Buffy portrayed as more moral because she is female? Essentialist notions of moral femininity have plagued women and feminism for decades. Social reform feminists of the early twentieth century were adamant that women were natural mothers, with an innate sense of morality, one that was superior to men’s (McClung 15). Perhaps we should assume that a female was chosen to start the slayer line because women are more moral than men, and therefore, more likely to stay committed to helping others and fighting evil than men would be. While I cannot say that all brands of feminism reject an essentialist notion of womanhood, I do assert that third-wave feminism would more often side with the constructivist side of the debate. Thus, if we are trying to read Buffy through a third-wave feminist lens, an essentialist understanding of the slayer would have to be critiqued. Fortunately, I argue that the show deliberately moves away from this sort of understanding. Buffy continues to be shown as a character with deep moral commitments to slaying, but she does not remain a virtuous woman, in the traditional sense. Throughout the series, Buffy is represented as a sexual agent in charge of her own pleasure. The audience often sees her sleeping over at a boyfriend’s house, but is not led to judge her because of this. There is no ‘fall from grace’ for Buffy simply because she engages in sexual relationships. This marks a difference from other representations of strong, violent women in film and television (Douglas 77). This is not to say Buffy is never hurt or made vulnerable in her romantic dealings, rather, she is not punished for a lack of morality. On the contrary, her sexual experiences serve to represent all women’s “entitlement to express their full sexualities and makes clear that they are entitled to do so without losing social respect, being victimized, or being held accountable for their own exploitation” (Phillips, qtd. in Symonds 140). Were Buffy a character in a typical horror movie, she would have been killed soon after having sex for the first time; only the virtuous female, the ‘final girl’, can survive to the end. As Carol Clover has pointed out, in the traditional slasher film of the 1970s and ‘80s, the “’final girl’ is usually the only person to escape a murderous criminal who has killed all her friends . . . [she is] clever and determined to live, but also young and innocent” (qtd. in Neroni 31). In contrast, Buffy’s innocence is all but destroyed within the first two seasons. Despite this fact, Buffy continues not only to survive, but thrive, and save the world countless times in the process.
These contradictory themes, woven together throughout the series, give Buffy potential for a feminist reading in the third-wave. The show and its characters are impossible to pin down as only one thing or another. This is perhaps one of the reasons the show resonated so much with its audience; it is not a perfect example of feminist television, but rarely does one find a perfect feminist. The characters on Buffy are all the more human for the contradictory aspects of their personalities. A good example of this theme of contradiction can be found in Buffy’s relationship with Spike in Season Six. While Spike has taken to helping Buffy and the Scoobies fight demons, this is not due to a sudden change of heart, as it were. Spike has a ‘chip’ in his brain, put there by a secret government agency called The Initiative, which prevents him from harming humans; the chip triggers intense pain in Spike’s head if he harms anyone with a soul. The loophole is that he can harm demons, and since Spike loves violence in general, he signs on to help Buffy fight evil. Thus, Spike has stopped harming humans, but he is still a demon without a soul when he and Buffy embark on their sexual relationship. The experience is different from the last time Buffy was involved with a vampire – Angel had a soul. As the show becomes more complex, Buffy’s choices become less black and white. As Symonds argues, “her sexual relationship with Spike, embodying the sexuality of violence and the violence of sexuality, supports and questions our sense of Buffy’s empowerment and, ultimately, affects the overt feminist ideology of the show” (133). Buffy and Spike experiment with dominance games and rough sex, and their encounters generally involve violence. Because Buffy struggles with her desire for Spike and this type of sex, so does the audience. Yet, the show does not instruct us the judge Buffy; rather, her character becomes more complex and realistic because we have to struggle with discomfort over some of Buffy’s choices. Likewise, Willow and Xander are understandably shocked when they learn of Buffy’s relationship with Spike, but they eventually accept it, as well as Buffy’s right to make that choice. As Symonds argues:
Joss Whedon’s vision of female empowerment, in the context of Buffy’s use of violence, her sexual identity and search for a life and love, has been encapsulated in an exploration of primal human urges that takes dramatic risks which do not support a simplified, gendered reading of the text as about ‘girl power’. (147-48)
In this way, Buffy can be read as a third-wave feminist text. The show makes room for ambiguity and contradiction, two feature characteristics of the third-wave. While we may not always agree with Buffy’s choices, or see them as empowered, the very fact that she is free to make those choices without judgement or punishment makes the show feminist.
The fact that these contradictions exist mean that the show’s feminism will always be questioned. In her discussion of Buffy’s feminist potential, Rachel Fudge asks, “Is Buffy really an exhilarating post-third-wave heroine, or is she merely a caricature of ‘90s pseudo-girl power?” (Bitch). Fudge ultimately comes to the conclusion that, due to Buffy’s pre-occupation with her appearance and strict adherence to traditional markers of femininity, the show has limited feminist potential. While I do agree that Buffy sometimes embodies a post-feminist or even anti-feminist perspective, the overarching themes of the show assert again and again that female empowerment is a positive thing. Furthermore, regardless of what messages the show’s writers attempted to encode, it is possible for us to decode Buffy through a third-wave feminist lens. Discussing the fact that Buffy is a girlie girl and a slayer, Elana Levine states, “Buffy is perhaps most distinctly an emblem of third-wave girlie style in the ways these traditional markers of girlish femininity are combined with those more frequently associated with the masculine” (178). Levine argues that Buffy is able to embody feminine and masculine traits without either one detracting from the other (179). The question remains: is Buffy is challenging the gender binary or simply reinforcing it? Douglas and Fudge argue that Buffy can take on the more masculine traits involved with slaying because we can easily point out other characteristics that mark her as feminine. Levine, on the other hand, insists that “markers of femininity do not define one’s identity” (179). Buffy is more empowered for refusing to strictly adhere to the codes of femininity or masculinity. In true third-wave style, she insists on both. Where Buffy falls short of being a truly progressive show is in its reliance on both genders. While Buffy challenges many traditional notions of femininity, the show never questions the larger idea of the gender binary itself. Buffy was able to embody characteristics of both the masculine and the feminine, but could she ever insist on embodying neither?
While Buffy is obviously not a perfect show, nor a shining televisual example of progressive feminism, it remains a show worthy of serious academic study and analysis. My purpose in this paper was to examine the multiple ways in which Buffy might be seen as embodying certain feminist ideals. Buffy’s character, while a great example of a strong female lead, is by no means a perfect feminist and it would be a mistake to label her character as such. Buffy the slayer is empowered, but for her it’s about saving the world with her friends. If that means taking down the occasional sexist villain, great, but Buffy’s not about to organize a woman’s collective or overthrow the patriarchy. We must remember though, that the feminist movement itself is fraught with tensions, contradictions, and conflicting ideas. It would be almost impossible to create a show that encompassed every type of feminism. Thus, Buffy’s value lies in the fact that it provides feminists with so much material with which to grapple. My goal here has been to decode Buffy through a somewhat ironic, third-wave feminist lens. Having ended its television run in 2003, Buffy has new and different meanings in current third-wave and post-feminist contexts than it did when it aired. In other words, Buffy is open to interpretation. I have attempted to draw a clear distinction between third-wave and post-feminism, the latter being much more concerned with celebrating the supposed ‘fact’ that equality has been achieved. While Buffy’s character seems to derive from a post-feminist perspective of privilege and individuality, I argue that the over-arching themes of the show are ultimately more third-wave. There are many ways in which we can conduct a simplistic analysis of Buffy that determines the show to have a generally liberal feminist agenda, but I agree with authors like Gwyn Symonds and Elana Levine when they argue that the show and its characters are complex enough to allow for a much more complicated reading. Buffy’s contradictory girlie style (Levine 179), her insistence on occupying multiple identities, and her complication of traditional ideas of female sexuality and empowerment mark the show as distinctly third-wave and feminist. Ultimately, the most important aspect of Buffy is not whether or not we are able to label it as feminist, but the fact that it makes us ask these questions about feminism, femininity and empowerment. I assert that the show often had an un-refutably feminist message; other theorists and feminists disagree. What matters is that we can choose to interpret Buffy the Vampire Slayer in multiple ways, and this creates the possibility of fruitful and progressive feminist discussion and debate.
This is an academic paper. You DO NOT have permission to reprint/reproduce this material. Copyright 2011 Megan Karius.
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