“Just a girl”: Feminism, Postmodernism and Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Jim Thompson

In this era of postfeminism, new avenues are being sought to spread the ideals of feminism and the potential of possible vehicles, such mass media, are being realised. However, when using mass media, such as television, in such a fashion, the intellectualizations of the highbrow modernist/feminist movements have been largely stripped away, leaving little but an easily digestible skeletal foundation. The aim of such a method is to target a younger demographic than traditional critique would usually focus upon. The television program Buffy the Vampire Slayer is such a vehicle, presenting feminism in a postmodern form ‘for the masses’. While this works to reveal an ‘acceptable’, albeit feminist, perspective of gender and identity, following such an avenue problematises both feminism and postmodernism. This in itself is not necessarily a ‘bad’ thing; it simply ruptures the machinations of said ideologies, placing them in an arena whereby discursive discussion is a viable option.

buffyIt seems fitting that the ‘marriage’ of feminism and postmodernism is one fraught with both difference and argument. The fact that these disagreements occur within the realm of the intellectual undoubtedly puts a wry smile on the face of either party. While feminism and postmodernism share several characteristics, most notably the deconstruction of the masculinised western ideology, feminism chooses to place itself within the absolutism of the modernist movement. While feminism argues for the continuation of the subject/object dichotomy, aiming largely to reverse the feminine position of the latter to the former, postmodernism would have the modernist movement deconstructed in its entirety, including all such metanarratives.

Postmodernism also champions the fragmented self, the idea of a unitary ‘whole’ existing only within a fictitious reality. This idea is one which feminism has taken up in recent years. In this era of postfeminism, new avenues are being sought to spread the ideals of feminism and the potential of possible vehicles, such mass media, are being realised. However, when using mass media, such as television, in such a fashion, the intellectualizations of the highbrow modernist/feminist movements have been largely stripped away, leaving little but an easily digestible skeletal foundation.

The aim of such a method is to target a younger demographic than traditional critique would usually focus upon. The television program Buffy the Vampire Slayer is such a vehicle, presenting feminism in a postmodern form ‘for the masses’. While this works to reveal an ‘acceptable’, albeit feminist, perspective of gender and identity, following such an avenue problematises both feminism and postmodernism. This in itself is not necessarily a ‘bad’ thing; it simply ruptures the machinations of said ideologies, placing them in an arena whereby discursive discussion is a viable option.

To begin with, I will attempt to define both feminism and postmodernism. In its simplest form, feminism can be summarized as a “movement from the point of, by, and for women” (Moi, 1988:9). Extending this further, feminism aims to reverse the power directives of modernist metanarratives while remaining “both historically and theoretically a modernist movement” (Hekerman 1990:2). Feminism aims to subvert the ‘traditional’ roles that masculine and feminine play within the modernist dichotomy of subject/object. Historically, women have been prescribed the category of the object. In regards to the masculine subject, this works to further weaken the agency of the object by labeling the object as ‘other’.

In effect, it was this very labeling of the female as ‘other’ that “was the starting point for contemporary feminist theory” (Mascia-Lees & Sharpe, 2000:22). By labeling the female as ‘other’, the dominant patriarchal discourse of modernism retains its position as subject (2000:22). Feminism aims to reverse the power relations of such modernist binary arguments, allowing those labeled as ‘other’ the chance to claim the title of ‘subject’ (2000:23). Nevertheless, the fact remains that modernism is ultimately a patriarchal discourse, a discourse effective only in its entirety and is thus unable to be ‘cropped’ to the liking of feminists (Hekman, 1990:6). As a result, by remaining within the modernist ethos, feminism finds itself existing solely within a patriarchal discourse (2000:22).

Postmodernism works to undermine this dilemma through its goal of dissolving all metanarratives, the “absolute grounding for knowledge” (Hekman, 1990:4). While the politicized feminism retains its 1960’s roots, postmodernism floats upon an ocean of uncertainty, deconstructing all that has come before it in an effort to explore the workings of power, and through power, knowledge. Both feminism and postmodernism walk the same path of upsetting the discourse of the masculine, but while feminism aims to subvert the accepted power relations between male and female, postmodernism aims to create a space whereby such a dynamic no longer exists.

buffyIn a direct attack on the absolutism of modernism, postmodernism proposes a non-unitary approach to knowledge (Hekman, 1990:1). In the realm of the postmodern metanarratives are history; intellectual dinosaurs who’ve wasted away after expending too much energy searching for non-existent ‘truths’. The search, in postmodernism, is for something far less stable, it is a search for the intricate constructions of identity, and the result these constructs have on society at large.

Assuming for a moment that we abide in a postmodern world, a world that contains no absolutes, no truths, a world where boundaries can barely muster the strength to be fleeting, how can the finite reality of feminism be realised? In a postmodern world, feminism as unified ideology cannot exist in such a state. It comes as no surprise then that since the 1990’s feminism has begun the process of disowning it’s singularity (Mascia-Lees & Sharpe, 2000:3). This disownment of unification stemmed from the outcry of ‘others’ within the subject of the female, namely women of colour and/or ethnicity. These ‘others’ were not granted the subjectivity that that white western feminine appropriated. In fact, it was this very fragmentation of ‘the woman’ that led to feminist scholars and intellectuals siding with the postmodern ideology (2000:3).

With this fragmentation of feminism in mind, what exactly are the similarities with said movement and that of postmodernism? In her 1990 article Hekman argues that “both feminism and postmodernism challenge the epistemological foundations of western thought” (1) . They jointly, albeit separately, critique and work to deconstruct the machinations of the masculine subjectivity. Feminism aims to appropriate the masculine power as its own, while postmodernism aims to dissolve this power completely, divulging an equal subjectivity for all parties. Postmodernism takes this dissolution a step further by critiquing any and all dichotomies of the Enlightened modernist doctrine, be it subject/object, rational/irrational or male/female (Hekman, 1990:2). On the other hand, feminism purposely prescribes to these same dichotomies, basing its arguments firmly within these easily discernable power relations (Hekman, 1990:5), insisting on being at the “center (of the modernist ideology) rather than at the periphery” (1990:155).

Problematising this position is the postmodern assertion that feminism is striving to lay claim to an inherently masculine discourse. Postmodern scholars argue feminism will fail in this aim as it has not “attacked the dichotomy that constitutes the female as inferior” (Hekman, 1990:6). While on this count, it would make sense for feminism to join the ranks of the postmodern, there are dangers inherent with this ideological positioning. If feminism joins with postmodernism in the deconstruction of metanarratives, namely the object/subject dichotomy, it will lose the subjectivity it has only recently laid claim to (Mascia-Lees & Sharpe, 2000:25).

It is the possible loss of such a subjectivity that is the main concern for feminism in its coupling with postmodernism. Yet it is apparent that both ideologies could greatly benefit from such a relationship. Feminism brings with it the dilemma of gender, a dilemma largely ignored by postmodernism, while the latter’s deconstruction of metanarratives is seen, by those who champion it, not as a destructive force, but as a chance to understand the workings of such ideological concerns. Judith Butler argues that “to deconstruct is not to negate or to dismiss, but to call into question and, perhaps most importantly, to open up a term, like the subject, to a reusage or redeployment that previously has not been authorized” (1992:15).

buffyIt is the ‘opening up’ of terms that is paramount here. Butler states that the negotiation of such terms works to diffuse their inherent power and creates a space for positive change, found in the wake of a disempowered modernist ideology (1992:6). The terms of subject, object, male and female (among others) all become available for reinterpretation, a reinterpretation that is at the heart of both feminism and postmodernism. It is this reinterpretation of the accepted usage of terms and identities that can be found within the television program Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BtVS).

At once a horror film, comedy and drama, BtVS charts the exploits of a female Vampire Slayer, Buffy Summers, who, along with a group of friends (The Scooby Gang – Willow, Xander, Cordelia, Giles and Angel), fights various demonic evils. The evils attack Buffy’s hometown of Sunnydale USA in an effort the harness the energies of the Hellmouth, over which the town is situated. I will study three episodes in depth, Welcome to the Hellmouth (WttH) and The Harvest, the first two episodes of Season One, and The Gift, the final episode of Season Five, to chart the maturation of these largely feminist/postmodern characters.

In terms of popular culture and mass media, there has been a large push towards the postmodern tendency of “bricolage, pastiche and intertextuality” (Altman, 1999:141) in recent years. In regards to BtVS, the series creator, Joss Whedon, has stated when he was forming the character of Buffy he thought of “the little girl, the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed, in every horror movie. The idea of Buffy was to subvert that idea, that image, and create someone who was a hero where she had always been a victim. That element of surprise, that element of genre busting is very much at the heart of.the series” (2001). The notion of “genre busting” is found in the postmodern mixing of horror, comedy and drama, and results in the playful deconstruction of genre conventions, forcing the audience to question their assumed knowledge of the ‘rules’ of a particular genre, such as the formal repetitive structure of horror films (Dika, 1987:87).

The opening ‘teaser’ of WttH is such an example; a young blonde woman and her assumed suitor break into an abandoned high school in the middle of the night. She protests, stating fears about the dangers that could be lurking inside. The male assures her he will protect her. “Anybody who is well versed in horror movies knows what’s going to happen in this scene, and the idea is to always try and surprise them, to subvert the obvious.” (Whedon, 2001). The ‘surprise’ is that the girl is a vampire, who attacks and kills her suitor. While this works to subvert the ‘rules of genre’ it also acts as a precursor for what’s to come, namely the subversion of gender roles.

In BtVS, it is females, not males, who hold a position of power (Owen, 1999:24). Buffy is “the chosen one, one born with the strength and skill to hunt the vampires”. Willow may be socially inept, but she is also an illegal computer hacker, willing to bypass the laws of patriarchy to obtain information she needs. As the series progresses, she discovers her innate Wicca powers, becoming so formidable that Buffy says to her in The Gift; “I need you Will, you’re my big gun, the strongest person here”. Even Cordelia, the archetypal high-school cheerleader ‘bitch’ has a strength of character which males in the series cannot match.

Jesse, a male friend of Buffy’s is used as “bait”, in order to draw the Slayer into a trap. This is a direct reversal of the historical damsel-in-distress scenario which viewers are accustomed to. This trope is reversed again in The Gift when Buffy’s younger sister, Dawn, is used as “bait”. Dawn however, may well be the most powerful character of all, as she is the Key, living energy in the form of a human which can be used to destroy the boundaries between all realities (how much more postmodern can you get?). In The Harvest, when the Scooby Gang discover that Jesse is being held hostage, Xander, wanting to rescue him, is told that he won’t be doing anything because Buffy “is the Slayer and (he’s) not”. Xander’s reply; “I knew you’d throw that back in my face.I’m inadequate, that’s fine. I’m less than a man.” is an indicative reaction of one who is used to living in a world where the patriarchy holds the power. Initially threatened by Buffy’s power, he soon learns to respect it, as do the multitude of (mostly male) demons that Buffy faces (Fudge 1999:5).

buffyBuffy’s love interest, Angel, has a “pretty” name, and is “dark, gorgeous in an annoying sort of way”. He appropriates the weaker, ‘feminized’ position when he states that he is “afraid” of the demon’s Buffy faces on a daily basis. This fear is usurped when it is later revealed that he is himself a vampire, albeit one with a soul. For the most part however, Angel is sexualized in a fashion that Buffy is not. David Boreanaz, the actor who plays the character of Angel, was cast largely because he turned women “into puddles the moment he walked into the room” (Whedon, 2001). Angel assumes the role of the ‘babe’, the ‘eye-candy’, who has little do other than look attractive.

This sexualisation of the male figure works to actively subvert Mulvey’s cinematic ‘male gaze’. In the world of BtVS it is Buffy’s agency that drives the narrative (Owen, 1999:24). She is clearly a leader, calling the shots and making the tough decisions. In a traditionally male domain, Buffy refuses to follow the rules of the patriarchy and is often seen as a ‘rebel’ because of this. “She refuses to remain in the house, and.rarely appears at home” (Fudge, 1999:3). In a scene at The Bronze, “the only cool place in Sunnydale”, it is Buffy who controls the gaze, and because of this, the viewer ‘sees’ the vampire preying on Willow at the same time that Buffy does. Buffy’s journey is one we readily follow, it ruptures genre, narrative and gender conventions. This rupturing is clearly postmodern in quality, but what of other postmodern markers? Where is the fragmented identity, the lack of the ‘real’ self? (McRobbie, 1994:63) On a narrative level, great pains are taken to juxtapose Buffy’s extraordinary-ness with the fact that she is “just a girl”.

The opening scene from The Gift shows Buffy slaying a vampire and saving a male in the process.

Buffy: You should get home.
Dude-in-distress: How’d you do that?
Buffy: It’s what I do.
Dude-in-distress: But you’re just a girl.
Buffy: That’s what I keep saying.

Buffy is friend, daughter, sister, slayer, lover and protector. She is a girl, yet she has power. Through the character of Buffy, the viewer is invited to deconstruct what it is these labels ‘mean’. Obviously postmodern, can we say that Buffy is also a feminist figure? Within the primary text of the television show it is safe to assume that Buffy acts as a role model for female viewers, which count for 55% of the audience of horror films (Dika, 1987:87).

There has been much critique on the wardrobe of Buffy, which seems to be at odds with the feminist ideals of the character. In the first two seasons, Buffy fought evil dressed mostly in flimsy spaghetti tops and short skirts. Her image, for some feminists, was seen to be too ‘girly’, edging from feminist to overtly feminine. As the series progressed, Buffy’s wardrobe matured along with her character. Although clearly dressed in a “stylish yet affordable” fashion, Buffy has dropped the somewhat ‘girly’ attire for something more appropriate. In The Gift, when Buffy enters the final showdown with the HellGod Glory, she wears pants and a loose, long sleeved top, giving her greater maneuverability and a more ‘masculine’ appearance. However, Vint argues that this image of woman as strong yet fallible is contradicted by the secondary texts of magazine articles in which the character of Buffy is conflated with the highly erotisised image of the actress who portrays her, Sarah Michelle Geller (2002).

buffyThese texts work to deconstruct the powerful image of the feminine, subverting it through a return to the male gaze. These mixed messages are yet another example of the postmodern fragmented identity, leading Vint to ask; who is the real Buffy? Her answer is deceptive in its simplicity. “For each individual fan, the real Buffy is “my Buffy,” the representation that best fits my desires about who the character should be” (2002). Vint states the females who are familiar with the character of Buffy and the postmodern-feminist ideals she stands for are intelligent enough to sift through the erotisised images of Geller/Buffy and appropriate the qualities they believe benefit them the most. Whedon argues that “if I can make teenage boys comfortable with a girl who takes charge of a situation without their knowing what’s happening, it’s better than sitting down and selling them on feminism” (Fudge, 1999:4).

Postmodernism and feminism are complex and developed ideologies, yet that’s not to say that they cannot evolve further. The fragmented self is a condition of current social constructions that both movements readily accept, albeit to different degrees. This is also the case in respect to upsetting and deconstructing the patriarchal discourse of modernism. While feminism acts to subvert the male/female dichotomy and appropriate the power of the former for its own, postmodernism strives to deconstruct both terms to reveal the hidden machinations of each one.

The relationship between the two movements is problematic, which is simply another way of stating that they can learn much from the other as their development continues. Much like Buffy the Vampire Slayer fights a never-ending battle against those hell-bent on claiming the world as their own, so to do postmodernism and feminism work to stop the patriarchal ideology of modernism from staking a claim of intellectual monopoly. Nothing, however, is infallible and with this in mind it would appear that such battles are worthy of fighting, as victory is a very real possibility. Buffy the Vampire Slayer may well be “just a girl”, but we’re quickly learning that no one yet knows exactly what ‘a girl’ is capable of.

References:

Altman, Rick, Film/Genre , British Film Institute, London, 1999.

Butler, Judith, “Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of ‘Postmodernism’ , in Butler, Judith and Scott, Joan W. ed.s, Feminists Theorize the Political, Routledge, New York, 1992, pp 3 – 21.

Clover, Carol J., “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film”, The Dread of Difference , ed. Grant, Barry Keith, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1996, pp 66 – 111.

Dika, Vera, Walker, “The Stalker Film, 1978-81”, Walker, Gregory A. ed., American Horrors: Essays of the Modern American Horror Film, University of Illinois Press, USA, 1987, pp 86 – 101.

Fudge, Rachel, “The Buffy Effect: A Tale of Cleavage and Marketing”, Bitch Magazine 10, Summer 1999, pp 1 – 10.

Givens, Darin, “Buffy the Patriarchy Slayer”, http://daringivens.home.mindspring.com/btps.html , accessed 15/4/2002, 8.48 am.

Hekman, Susan J, Gender and Knowledge: Elements of a Postmodern Feminism , Polity Press, Oxford, 1990.

Looser, Devoney, Kaplan, E. Ann ed., Generations: Academic Feminists in Dialogue , University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1997.

Mascia-Lees, Frances E., Sharpe, Patricia, Taking a Stand in a Postfeminist World: Toward and Engaged Cultural Criticism , State University of New York Press, USA, 2000.

Mc Robbie, Feminism, Postmodernism and the ‘Real Me’, Postmodernism and Popular Culture , Routledge, London, 1994, pp 61 – 74.

Moi, Toril, Feminism, “Postmodernism and Style, Recent Feminist Critique in the United States”, Cultural Critique 9, 1988, pp 3 – 22.

Owens, Craig, “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism” in Foster, Hal ed., The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture , Bay Press, Port Townsend, 1983, pp 57 – 82.

Owen, Susan A., “Vampires, Postmodernity and Postfeminism: Buffy the Vampire Slayer “, Journal of Popular Film and Television , vol. 27, no. 2, Summer 1999, pp 24 – 31.

Vint, Sherryl, “‘Killing us Softly?’ A Feminist Search for the “Real” Buffy”, Slayage, The On-line International Journey of Buffy Studies , http://www.slayage.tv/essays/vint.html , accessed 15/4/2002, 9.05 am.

Whedon, Joss, Audio Commentary: Buffy the Vampire Slayer , Season One, Welcome to the Hellmouth & The Harvest DVD, 2001.

Wilkinson, Sue ed., Feminist Social Psychologies: International Perspectives , Open Universities Press, Buckingham, 1996.

Filmography:

Smith, Charles Martin, Welcome to the Hellmouth, Buffy the Vampire Slayer , Episode 1.1, 1997.

Kretchmer, John T., The Harvest, Buffy the Vampire Slayer , Episode 1.2, 1997.

Whedon, Joss, The Gift, Buffy the Vampire Slayer , Episode 5.22, 2001.