Feminist critique of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has tended to describe Buffy as a symbol of female empowerment. In this essay, Gwyneth Bodger considers both the character and the series to be very problematic, and undertakes a revised feminist critique of the show. Exposing the Buffyverse as patriarchal fairy tale that seeks to subvert rather than promote feminism, she suggests that women in the series are portrayed in stereotypical ways that serve to empty femininity, leaving the women as functional (fantasy) symbols only: the bluestocking (Willow, Jenny Calendar), the dumb but pretty cheerleader (Cordelia and Harmony), the witch (Willow, Tara), the sexual hysteric (Dru), the madwoman (Glory). The defining feature of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a liminality that, at once, advocates and refutes positivist feminist readings.
I wanted her [Buffy] to be a cultural phenomenon. I wanted there to be dolls, Barbie with a kung fu grip – Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy
Theoretically there would be no such thing as woman She would not exist – Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman.
In her feminist critique of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Anne Millard Daughtey described Buffy as a show which "obviously promotes female strength and power" (159). Buffy herself is a "symbol of female empowerment" (149); as feminists we can all take comfort in the fact that Buffy "kicks butt and so can we all" (164). Sherryl Vint agrees that Buffy is a "positive role model for young women, one which feminism should celebrate" (para. 3). I find this understanding of Buffy, both the character and the series, to be very problematic, and with this paper I aim to undertake a revised feminist critique of the show, and expose the Buffyverse as the product of a very traditional patriarchal world view which pays lip service to a superficial feminist fashioning. This is not to deny Daughtey and Vint’s reading of the Slayer completely; a defining feature of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the liminal position it occupies, at once advocating and refuting positivist feminist readings. However, it is my contention that women in the series are all portrayed in stereotypical ways which have been generated by patriarchy throughout the ages, and all of which serve to empty femininity, leaving the women as functional (fantasy) symbols only: the bluestocking (Willow, Jenny Calendar), the dumb but pretty cheerleader (Cordelia, and to a greater extent Harmony), the witch (Willow, Tara), the sexual hysteric (Dru), the madwoman (Glory).
To return to Irigaray, in the Buffyverse there is "no such thing as woman", only artificial constructions of femininity, a theme neatly encapsulated in the character of Buffy’s ‘sister’ Dawn. Dawn suddenly enters the show in season five in an initially bewildering series of episodes, as her complete absence in former seasons is not referred to. Later it emerges that Dawn is not really Buffy’s sister, she is not even a human being, but rather a ‘key’ desperately sought by Glory. Before Buffy and her friends discover this, Dawn has a number of unnerving experiences, in which people walk up to her staring, saying "There’s nothing there, you’re not real, there’s nothing there". Truly, in the Buffyverse, there is "no such thing as woman".
Prior to embarking upon my own analysis of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it this pertinent to consider Joss Whedon’s envisioning of his series, and in particular, his heroine, Buffy. In interviews he has often explained his desire to create an alternative ending for the horror movie:
It was pretty much the blond girl in the alley in the horror movie who keeps getting killed … I felt bad for her, but she was always much more interesting to me than the other women. She was fun, she had sex, she was vivacious. But then she would get punished for it. Literally, I just had that image, that scene, in my mind, like the trailer for a movie what if the girl goes into that dark alley. And the monster follows her. And she destroys him. (Quoted in Vint, para. 6)
Whilst we see here that Whedon’s intention is to subvert the conventional horror movie/slasher genre, I’m not sure that he is successful. He is running the considerable risk of merely replacing the fetishised female victim with a fetishised female hero; she is still a pretty blond girl, she is still fun, she is still sexual, she is still "Barbie with a kung fu grip". Although Whedon’s comments imply the potential of a positivist feminist fashioning of the horror/slasher film pattern the girl destroys the monster he compromises the possibility of this with his problematic representation of female power. Despite the fact that the Slayer is always the victor, one of the most disturbing elements of the series is the sustained violence against women, especially Buffy. She is repeatedly pummeled, kicked, and thrown in her nightly battles with the undead.
On one hand, this can be seen as empowering; it combats the image of feminine fragility. Buffy can look after herself, and her strength allows her to meet her male foes on a plane of equality, thereby commending a feminist reading. However, this seems to me too superficial a reading, and subverting the adventure story in the way that Whedon does is not that simple. Problematically, he is creating a space in which violence against women is legitimized. Buffy has super strength and super healing capabilities, she can wisecrack whilst staking, her stylish hair, make up and clothes keeps her looking good in the heat of battle; all these assets added to the fact that as the ‘hero’ she will always triumph combine to make violence against her acceptable in the series. However, this contextualisation is not justification for violence against women. Indeed, it can be seen as a variation on the pornographers excuse that women participate in pornography because they want to; Buffy attacks and is attacked because she wants to in her role as Slayer. But as outspoken feminist Andrea Dworkin points out, what we are seeing is not necessarily what women want to do, but rather "the will of women as men want to see if’ (127). Indeed, the centrality of the image of Buffy as Slayer, as heroine, problematises feminist readings, as her role is encoded as a patriarchal rather than feminist fantasy. Although she could be considered heroic in the traditional epic sense in that she is fulfilling her destiny and following her fate as the chosen one, she is also a pawn in the hands of the Watcher’s Council, a British and inherently patriarchal institution which co ordinates and controls the training of Slayers. Buffy has no choice in what she does; she is coerced into her job by a standing patriarchal dictate. On a number of occasions, especially in the early series, she attempts to renounce her calling, only to find that she cannot.
This underlying patriarchal thematic construction in the series combines with character representation to deny a positivist feminist polemic in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When asked about the lavish employment of violence in the series, Whedon replied:
I felt a responsibility about the way 1 portrayed violence the first time 1 picked up a pen. [ … 1 But you feel it, and at the same time and I’ve said this before a writer has a responsibility to tell stories that are dark and sexy and violent [ … ] because that’s what makes stories into fairy tales instead of polemics.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a fairy tale; more than this is, at root it is a patriarchal fairy tale, which seeks to subvert rather than promote feminism. It is dependent upon the central motif of prevailing male domination which emerges from masculine anxieties about female autonomy. Through an exploration of both location and some of the principle characters in the show, I aim to expose ways in which the series operates to deny feminist ideology and encode Buffy as a ‘feminist slayer’.
Living on the Hellmouth
The geographical fantasy that constitutes the setting of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is central to an understanding of the Buffyverse. Sunnydale is ostensibly a typical sunny Californian town, with one significant difference; it is situated on the Hellmouth. This is the point at where the barrier between the real world and the hell dimensions is most easily breached. As the Slayer, Buffy is the chosen one whose role is to keep this monstrous gateway sealed, and in the event of breach, vanquish anything that emerges from within.
A consideration of the meaning of the Hellmouth can have interesting ramifications from a feminist point of view. I think that the Hellmouth can be read as a manifestation of male insecurity, an anxiety about women which is central to any patriarchal world view. As the Hellmouth threatens the stability of Sunnydale and the whole world by its existence, so the autonomous female represents a threat to the stability of a patriarchal order. Thus, the Hellmouth becomes linked to the idea of a threatening female power, and notions of hell and femininity become surreptitiously aligned. This threatening female power can be further identified more specifically as the fear of castration, which Barbara Creed notes as a prevalent theme in horror/fantasy films. Creed discusses the motif of the vagina dentata in a way which is very reminiscent of the Hellmouth. She writes: "The vagina dentata is the mouth of hell a terrifying symbol of woman as the ‘devil’s gateway "'(106). The link between female genitals and hell is nothing new; Shakespeare used the same terminology; in King Lear for example:"Beneath is all the fiends; there’s hell, there’s darkness There’s the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding, Stench, consumption! Fie! Fie! Fie! Pah! Pah!" (4:vi, 124 6)
The on screen depictions of the Hellmouth show tunnels, caverns, holes ripped through into the hell dimensions. The threat of the Hellmouth is the same as that of the vagina dentata; the capability to devour, engulf and consume. Creed suggests a further reading of the motif, saying that "it also points to the duplicitous nature of woman, who promises Paradise in order to ensnare her victims" (106). It is, then, hard to recognize this central motif of the Hellmouth/vagina dentata as contingent with a feminist reading of Buffy. The series is pre occupied with sealing the Hellmouth, preventing anything emerging from the Hellmouth. Essentially then, Buffy can be read as little more than an agent employed by patriarchy in order to combat and allay fears of the castrating woman. It is this male anxiety about the potential of female power then that informs the constructions of masculinity and femininity in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As this is a series which situates masculinity in a superior position to femininity, it seems pertinent to first address representations of men in Buffy.
The Place of Men in the Buffyverse
Ostensibly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer presents an inverted society in which female communities and friendships are championed, especially in comparison to the representations of masculinity in the series. Demonstrating a secure female family unit, Buffy lives with her mother, and in the later series, her "sister" Dawn. Buffy’s father left them when she was still a young girl. Whilst in the early seasons of the series, Buffy’s mother Joyce has no knowledge of her daughter’s extra curricular slaying activities, her later discovery of Buffy’s vocation allows the portrayal of a mutually strong and supportive female community. This motif of the absent father contributes to the ongoing theme in the series of a society that is potentially exclusive of men, as is suggested by the representations of strong female friendships, for example Willow and Buffy, and the homosexual relationship between Willow and Tara.
Men in the series are largely presented as emasculated beings, and endowed with traditional "female" characteristics. They are physically weak in the face of Buffy’s super strength. This is comically reinforced in a scene in which Buffy is preparing to go on patrol in the double episode "Welcome to the Hellmouth/ The Harvest. Her friends Willow and Xander, who refer to themselves as the "Slayerettes" or the "Scooby gang" in an acknowledgment of their role as Buffy’s side kicks, are offering to help her in her mission. Enthusiastically, Xander tries to take on the role of macho hero: "So what’s the plan, we saddle up, right?" Buffy replies as tactfully as she can, "No. I’m the Slayer and you’re not …. Xander this is deeply dangerous". Xander’s wounded male pride replies "I’m inadequate, I’m less than a man". Willow tries to console him, "Buffy doesn’t want you getting hurt".
The idea of male inadequacy is further explored in an episode with Spike. Spike is a vampire, and in series four he is captured by a scary government organization called "The Initiative", which seeks to fight vampires and demons with high tech science and technology. They place a chip in Spike’s head which "neuters him", that is renders him unable to bite humans. In the episode entitled "The Initiative", there is a scene in which he tries to bite Willow, but is unable to due to the immense pain that the chip punishes him with when he tries to attack a human. The scene becomes comically sexualized as Willow turns to a frustrated and vampiracally impotent Spike and says in a hurt voice "it’s me isn’t it? I know I’m not the kind of girl vamps like to sink their teeth into".
However, beneath these comic tones of male inadequacy and female power and control, there is still an insistence upon male domination over women. The figure of Giles is particularly interesting in this respect. As her Watcher, or guide to all things "Slayerific", he is a passive figure, maintaining a supportive and nurturing, rather than active role. Indeed, he acts as a substitute father for Buffy, and it is here I would argue that the series departs from a feminist ideology. As a powerful figure in the series, Buffy has the potential to become the figure of the unruly or disorderly woman. In order to prevent this, she must be "owned"; her power must be channeled and controlled by a man, in this case, a father figure. The risks of Buffy not submitting herself to Giles’ authority are eminently portrayed in the figures of Willow and Faith, the "bad" Slayer, accidentally called when Buffy dies for the first time. Both Faith and Willow, in her incarnation as a witch, are as powerful as Buffy, yet they have no controlling patriarchal figure to guide them; as a result they use their powers for evil. They are represented as having no sense of responsibility; Faith uses her powers to operate her life on a system of "want, take, have". The message seems clear; female power is acceptable only when authorized by men. Strong femininity is only permissible when governed by a stronger masculinity.
To turn to another crucial male figure in Buffy’s life, it is interesting to look at the character of Xander. In occupying a space of tokenism as the only male in the "Scooby gang", Xander inhabits a role traditionally reserved for the woman, thereby seemingly upholding a matriarchal fashioning of society in Sunnydale. When we first meet him, Xander is arriving at Sunnydale High, confidently skating through the throngs of students arriving back for the new school year. In this scene he functions simplistically as an exemplifier of the male gaze; when he sees Buffy walking up the steps to the school building he cannot draw his eyes away from her, and the camera momentarily shares his view.
However, the camera then shifts perspective to see Xander crash into a stair railing and fall comically to the ground due to concentrating his gaze on Buffy, the woman, rather than on his personal direction. Camera shot and action combine to implicitly ridicule and reject the validity of the male gaze; as the camera pulls back from Xander’s view in order to reveal the entirety of the action, the narrowness of the male gaze is criticized and scorned as the all American high school boy becomes the subject of a universal derisory gaze, as opposed to being the possessor of a sexual male gaze. This moment serves to introduce an understanding of Sunnydale as a matriarchal society, as Xander is arguably feminised through the inversion of the gaze.
However, a closer analysis of the character of Xander suggests otherwise. Here I refer specifically to ‘The Replacement’ episode, in which a demon splits Xander into two bodies, each possessing different aspects of his personality. An Irigarayan reading of this episode suggests a further feminisation of Xander. In her essay ‘This Sex Which is Not One’, Irigaray presents femininity as plural and multiple, in terms of anatomy, form and psychology. However, this is not to simply suggest that Xander in his dual form accords with Irigaray’s interpretation of femininity; the biological essentialism which necessarily pervades Irigaray’s thesis means that the application of her theories to a male subject will not stand up to rigorous analysis. Despite this it is possible to locate echoes of Irigaray’s theory of female sexuality in the character of Xander in this episode. However, rather than endorse femininity, this episode seeks to subvert Irigaray’s theory of plurality as positivist. Xander’s two forms are antagonistic rather than harmonious, it is made clear that he cannot function in a dual form. Each Xander is embroiled in a battle to kill the other, each presuming the "other" Xander to be an evil incarnation of the "real" Xander.
The Scoobies are preoccupied with "saving" Xander from his feminized dual form by finding a way in which to return him to a single masculine form. In this way, they are implicitly rejecting the Irigarayan model of female sexuality as dual, as "the sex which is not one", in favour of the monolithic singularity of male sexuality. Interestingly, at the end of the episode, as the spell to unify the two Xanders is about to commence, his girlfriend Anya asks if they can postpone casting the spell until the next morning so that she can take the two Xander’s home for a night of passion. Whilst this is superficially an unashamed expression of female sexual desire, it also problematically suggests that the only worth of Xander’s feminized self is located within parameters of lust and sex. This perception actually reinforces the view of woman as a purely sexual object and so contributes to the ongoing theme in the series of situating masculinity in a superior position to femininity.
Having explored these representations of men in the series, it is now pertinent to consider the ways in which women are portrayed. 1 will argue that the figures of femininity in the series operate within a society constructed according to traditional masculinity, evidenced both thematically and by their existence as established female tropes.
The Place of Women in the Buffyverse: Intelligence, Unruliness and Evil
Willow is an interesting character to look at in terms of her multiple incarnations, all of which I would argue act to subvert a feminist reading of Buffy . When we first meet Willow she is a typical geeky high school girl. She lives in her dungarees and sensible striped jumpers, particularly noticeable in comparison with her more glamorous classmates, Buffy and Cordelia. She is highly intelligent, which in itself does not bode well for a female character in Buft. A typical representation of the intelligent woman can be seen in self styled "techno pagan" and teacher Jenny Calendar, whose very name is reminiscent of the patriarchal tradition of privileging a woman’s appearance over her intelligence; she may have brains, but ultimately Jenny is literally a ‘calendar girl’. Furthermore, both Jenny and Professor Walsh, university lecturer and head of the Initiative programme in season four, suffer for their intelligence and come to a sticky end. Jenny is murdered by the vampire Angel, and Professor Walsh is portrayed as a crazed Frankenstein figure eventually murdered by her own creation.
On Jenny’s death, Willow inherits her computer disks which hold all of Jenny’s magical research, and it is at this point that she becomes deeply embedded in witchcraft. Whilst feminists are seeking to reclaim the witch as a positive female icon, in Buffy , the witch conforms to male proscribed stereotype. Diane Purkiss considers the relationship between feminism and witchcraft to be problematic, for whilst modem witchcraft is predicated upon the worship of a Goddess rather than a God, the understanding of this Goddess is flawed. She writes that:
The Goddess as envisaged by modem witchcraft is not the female authored figure she appears to be, but a male fantasy borrowed from men’s writings, and women have not altogether evaded the problem this creates. (32)
Willow is an example of the witch encoded according to male fantasies. As a witch she is portrayed as an exotic female deviant, exciting but ultimately flawed. Looking more closely at this idea, 1 would like to consider that way in which witchcraft becomes a metaphor for female deviancy in the series. It comes to represent both the lesbian relationship between Willow and Tara, and later Willow’s (and by extension woman’s) inability to handle power’ as she becomes ‘addicted’ to magic in a sustained witchcraft/drug analogy.
Both communities (witch and gay/lesbian) are defined by their participant’s position outside the mainstream, sharing a life world, and participating in some aspect of politics. (Helen Berger, quoted in Winslade, para 14)
The representation of witchcraft and the way in which it is bound to the portrayal of lesbian sexuality is problematic in Buffy, and crucial to a feminist critique of the series. The two factors are closely aligned through the use of the aforementioned metaphor of witchcraft as sexual experimentation. Configuring women as witches and/or lesbians is an inherently politicised act, despite Whedon’s claims to the contrary. In an interview he stated: "Our whole mission statement was that we would bury their first kiss in an episode that had nothing to do with it, and never promote it [ … ] The whole reason we had them kiss was because if they didn’t, it would start to get coy, and quite frankly a little offensive, for two people that much in love to not have any physicality. But the whole mission statement was, "We’ll put it where nobody expects it, and we’ll never talk about it."
This act of marginalisation, of placing Willow and Tara ‘outside the mainstream’ is significant, for whilst Whedon is clearly attempting to avoid accusations of exploiting "lesbian chiC, the effect produced is in fact evidence of a patriarchal male anxiety about female sexuality. Kisses and eroticism between Buffy and Angel, Buffy and Spike, and Xander and Anya for example are momentous occasions in the Buffy narrative, yet lesbian sexuality is denied this significance afforded to heterosexual couplings. The fact that lesbian sexuality is inextricably bound to the figure of the witch is particularly interesting. Sexuality has always been central to the representation of the witch in history, and this sexuality has always been recognised as threatening to men. In the Malleus Maleficarum the witch is acknowledged as a figure which threatens male sexuality and by extension the patriarchal order.
Witches were credited with the power to "take away the male organ" (262); envisioning Willow and Tara in a lesbian relationship which is exclusive of men is simply an updated view of the ‘deviant’ woman as threatening to male sexuality. Thus the binding together of witchcraft and lesbianism in Buffy. This is a recurring theme in the series: the all powerful demon god Glory is portrayed as madly intent upon world domination; Dru can handle her powers as a vampire and is represented as a bizarre child/sexual predator hybrid; Buffy herself always walks on a thin line between good and evil, with Kendra and Faith playing the parts of these polar opposites. This is a politicised statement on behalf the patriarchal order; deviant women are a threat and must be eliminated.
The elimination of the ‘deviant’ woman is a key theme in Buffy. Willow’s developing deviancy in the series marks her as a target for eventual elimination. To expand upon this point, it is important to consider the progression of Willow in the series. Purkiss refers to the conventional view of witchcraft ‘largely formulated by men’ (32) as being a religion based on biologically defined eras; the maiden, the mother, the crone. A close examination of Willow shows that she passes through each of these phases. Initially she is a maiden, naive and innocent; significantly, in this phase she is involved in a heterosexual relationship with Oz, and is therefore uninitiated into the ways of ‘deviancy’. Her maturation into the mother phase comes when she ‘gives birth’ to Buffy by bringing her back to life at the beginning of season six. Suffering physical ‘labour pains’ in her rebirthing of Buffy she rewrites the experience of maternity. Her magickal labour pains culminate in her spewing forth a giant snake; it is hard to avoid reading into this an expulsion and rejection of the phallic image. Whilst having her friends to support her, Willow essentially performs her rebirthing ritual alone, adopting the role of both mother and father, thereby disregarding the need for a distinct paternal figure. The creation of life becomes a solely female experience which denies the necessity of a male partner, and it is in this marginalising of men in both her sexuality and her experience of maternity which marks her as deviant, and therefore a legitimate target for elimination.
Willow is shown to eliminate herself in becoming entirely self destructive, as it is at this point that Whedon employs the witchcraft/drug addiction metaphor. Willow becomes unable to go through the day without performing a spell, spells which notably go against contemporary readings of witchcraft as a healing, regenerative female spirituality, and are instead recognisably powerful and often harmful acts of magick. For example, in the "Tabula Rasa" episode, Willow casts a spell which she hopes will make the gang forget their problems; instead they forget everything about who they are, and are consequently placed in great danger when they are attacked by vampires. Witchcraft begins to control Willow, and hold the potential to destroy her completely. This notion of witchcraft as a destructively controlling force is treated curiously ambivalently in the series.
Whedon seemingly acknowledges the feminist viewpoint that accusations of witchcraft have been used throughout history by a dominant patriarchal (often churchled) authority to control ‘unruly’ women. This is exemplified in the treatment of Tara by her family. Her father attempts to control the women in his family by claiming that they have evil witching powers which emerge in their early twenties, powers which can only be tamed by enslaving the women in a punishing domesticity. His claims turn out to be false, and it is made clear that the reason her father employs this myth is a fear of the independent autonomous woman who must be controlled. This incident represents a valuable feminist understanding of the relationship between accusations of witchcraft and patriarchal control. However, having exposed this, Whedon them goes on to exert the same control over Willow; when she becomes powerful as a woman/witch, she must b punished. Her attempts to possess autonomous female power can only destroy and not enhance her.
Willow’s transition into the ‘crone’ phase, and all its unpleasant associations come with the loss of her magickal ‘fertility’. When Tara is shot dead and killed by Warren, Willow tries to bring her back as she did with Buffy, but finds she is unable to. Despite the transgressive nature of Willow’s fertility, in her mother phase Willow was able to channel her power into paths of ‘normal’ femininity; when she loses this ability, she directs this power into revenge. Her revenge, significantly, is first aimed towards the man and his criminal fraternity who killed Tara. The murdering of Tara is far more than a simple shooting; it represents the destruction of a female society (their lesbian relationship which threatens men by excluding them) by a patriarchal order. Thus, Willow’s actions are not simply a lover’s revenge, but are rather transformed into an attack by the woman against the patriarchal order. The representation of Willow as deviant woman is complete.
Unsurprisingly, the only conclusion to this is that Willow, or at least her power, must be eliminated. The instrument of her destruction is Buffy. As demonstrated in my consideration of the Hellmouth, Buffy functions here once again as an agent to defend patriarchal order. She must be patriarchy’s heroine, and protect the existing order against the unruly woman. This final battle between Willow and Buffy is patriarchy’s greatest victory, and the point at which any feminist reading of the series is ultimately buried; patriarchy operates to use women to control women. Female power is vanquished by one who seemingly expounds it, and woman becomes her own enemy.
In conclusion, the aim of this essay has been to subvert the notion of Buffy as a feminist narrative. Vint suggests that: "It is imperative that feminism find a way to connect with the cultural life of young women, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer strikes me as one productive avenue through which this work can be done". (para 7)If a consideration of Buffy can be considered to be a pedagogical exercise, then the damaging lesson that it promotes, in both character portrayal and underlying thematic construction, is a rejection of feminist values in the face of patriarchal triumph. Whilst Vint acknowledges that there are problems in reading Buff as a feminist text, I think it goes further than that, and ultimately presents an anti feminist ideology. Through the character of Buffy we see that female power in the series succeeds only under the protection and guidance of male domination. Female power operating under female authority for example, the character of Willow is ultimately deviant and must be suppressed. The fact that Buffy "kicks butt and so can we all" no longer seems to champion feminist ideology, but rather exemplifies the hollow irony at the heart of Buffy the feminist slayer.
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Kramer, Heinrich, and Sprenger, James. Malleus Maleficarum. Trans. Montague Summers. London: Arrow Books, 1971.
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