This piece by Lindsey Keesling previously appeared at her Web site *! [emphatic asterisk] and is cross-posted with permission.
|Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 7|
Femininity and Conflict in Buffy the Vampire Slayer
When the popular movie Twilight first appeared in theaters, it did not take long for fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BtVS) to shame Twilight’s Edward with a fan video smackdown (“Buffy Vs. Edward”). The video shows Edward stalking Buffy and professing his undying love, with Buffy responding in sarcastic incredulity and staking Edward. While it may appear that this “remix” of the two characters was about Buffy slaying a juvenile upstart and reinforcing her status as the queen of the genre, there was more at stake, so to speak. Buffy slaying Edward says more about the perceived masculinity and virility of the vampire in question than about Buffy herself as an independent woman. Buffy was never given that much agency in her own show. Buffy’s lovers stalked her, lied to her, and often ignored her own wishes about their relationships all in the name of “protecting” her. Many of these things are what fans of BtVS pointed out as anti-woman flaws in the narrative of Twilight, yet Buffy did not stake the vampires who denied her agency in her own relationships; instead, she pined for them! This is only one area in which BtVS as a vehicle fails to respect the ideals of a generation of young girls who crave a positive female icon. In family life, romance, and success outside of her primary role as Slayer, the show revolves around not Buffy’s strength and independence but the struggle she finds herself in because of it. The constant conflict Buffy suffers sends a mixed message to viewers; women can be granted strength but will be punished for it.
Dressing to Kill
One cannot watch BtVS without noticing the sometimes outlandishly girly way that Buffy is costumed, as well as the berating she often faces as a result. It isn’t uncommon for Buffy to climb into the sewers to head off an impending apocalypse wearing a pink sequined halter top. It is also likely that Buffy will face criticism from her watcher, mother, friends, or teachers the more girlish her garb becomes. While Buffy’s wardrobe may seem to contradict her warrior role, in actuality her feminine appearance helps to “normalize” her in the eyes of the viewer by reassuring them that she retains her female self despite her masculine strength (Jowett 23). When asked to patrol with the military Initiative, Buffy rejects their offer of camouflage garb, stating, “I’ve patrolled in this halter top before” (“The I in Team”). This rejection of the male warrior’s need to wear protective clothing in battle does not weaken Buffy, it instead positions her as a transgressive icon of female strength (Early). Buffy wields her girlish appearance like a weapon, using it to disarm and distract her opponents. Buffy’s unique approach to her role is also evidenced in the way that she and her friends often “resolve conflict nonviolently, through rationality, tactfulness, compassion and empathy” (Early, 20).
|Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy, looking pouty in a halter top|
Thus it is interesting that the plot and dialogue of the show often does not reinforce Buffy’s feminine dress as a positive thing, but instead condemns her for it. In the episode “Bad Eggs” Buffy and her mother are shopping and Buffy wants a new outfit. Joyce says no, “it makes you look like a streetwalker”. Buffy pouts and replies, “but a thin streetwalker, right?” This scenario is sadly common. Buffy’s peers, her mentors, and authority figures criticize her appearance as if it were offensive, and Buffy deflects such comments with sarcasm instead of defending her right to determine her own physical appearance.
Life Outside of Slaying
The punishment Buffy receives for her appearance is the least troubling aspect of the way in which Buffy is treated. From the first episode, Buffy is perceived of as a delinquent by those who do not know her dual identity as student and slayer. Buffy burnt down the gym of her old school, forcing her mother to quit her job and move to Sunnydale. Despite the fact that telling her mother the truth would assuage some of the resentment Buffy faced at home, Buffy chooses to lie to her mother to “protect” her. This pattern, in which Buffy stoically faces the judgment of others without defending herself repeats with her principal, teachers, and peers; in this way, Buffy accepts punishment that could have been avoided while reinforcing the idea that her treatment, while not deserved, is just.
|Buffy working at Double Meat Palace|
Buffy’s necessary efforts to cloak some of her actions and engage in subterfuge to protect those unaware of vampires also constantly weaken her standing in society. Dramatic irony is often engaged as a plot device in BtVS, wherein Buffy is posed almost clownishly trying to hide the truth from an ignorant and often judgmental public. It is humorous as well as endearing to see how poorly Buffy lies, and Buffy’s lack of finesse outside of slaying does lend her character a great deal of humanity. Yet one must question why dramatic irony so often has Buffy playing the part of the bozo. Buffy is too often percieved of as flaky, inconsistent, or downright delusional. As one character says, a lot of people think Buffy “is some kind of high-functioning schizophrenic” (“Potential”). While Buffy may be possessing of super-human strength and a higher calling, it greatly impedes her ability to function as a normal member of society. She faces humiliation, prejudice, and conflict on a daily basis.
They Say Not to Take Work Home
As JP Williams writes in Choosing Your Own Mother (Mother-daughter Conflicts in Buffy), Buffy is “over-fathered and under-mothered” (61). She is reliant on the men around her for her survival, but denied an adequate female role model. For the first two seasons of BtVS, Buffy hides her true identity from her mother, Joyce. When Joyce does find out the truth about Buffy’s powers, they fight bitterly. Joyce tells Buffy, “if you walk out of this house don’t even think about coming back” (“Becoming”). Buffy has to leave or risk the world ending; so she walks out of her home and does not return to it until the third season. Buffy’s powers in this case strip Joyce of the ability to mother because Buffy’s calling must take precedence over her family obligations. Yet Buffy’s relationship with her mother suffers from far more than just the tension created by slaying. Joyce doesn’t seem to know how to properly communicate and often offers meaningless anecdotes, with Buffy reassuring her mother in an apparent role reversal. In “The Witch,” Joyce is attempting to encourage Buffy to follow through on trying out for cheer squad. Buffy says, “what was I trying out for?” and Joyce fumbles for words, having already forgotten. Buffy says, “that’s okay, your platitudes are good for all occasions.”
|Buffy and her mother Joyce|
Buffy the Relationship Slayer
Buffy’s relationship with her mother is not the only one which is strained. If her relationship with her mother is tense, then her romances are strenuous. Her first romantic pairing is with Angel, a vampire who is cursed with a soul. Unbeknownst to Angel, he will lose his soul if he experiences even a single moment of pure happiness. He finds this happiness when he and Buffy consummate their relationship in Season 2. When Angel then transforms into the demon Angelus, Mary Magoulick writes, it “culminates in a graphic, brutal, and bitter fight scene” (738). This is “particularly disturbing” as it comes in the second part of the episode in which Buffy makes love to Angel for the first time, giving the viewer the message that “being in love is more torment than pleasure” for Buffy (Magoulick 738).
|Buffy and Angel|
The Troubling Issue of Being Female On TV
One might ask how much any of this matters. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a television show, and much of the drama it depends on for ratings necessarily comes from conflict. No one watching the show should be surprised that Buffy’s interpersonal relationships are constantly disrupted, that she wears revealing clothes, or that she has to struggle in some areas of her life. The only problem with such thinking is that it assumes that such tensions could not have been written in a way that strengthened Buffy’s character rather than weakened her. It was not necessary to deprive Joyce and Buffy of a healthy mother-daughter relationship. A strong mother who supported her daughter’s calling would not necessarily have been less interesting to viewers than a mother who fumbled for words and appeared helpless. Nor was it necessary for Buffy to date men who stalked her, lied to her, and deprived her of agency in her relationships. While there is inevitably a price to pay for living a double life, the way in which Buffy is punished for her duplicity speaks volumes when viewed as analogous to the feminist struggle.
|From the episode "Hush"|
It is unfortunately true that many shows that feature women as primary characters employ the same kind of storytelling. Xena: Warrior Princess, La Femme Nikita, The Closer, Alias, In Plain Sight, Saving Grace, Weeds and Battlestar Galactica all feature women as primary characters. All of the women in these shows have just a few things in common aside from their beauty: their intelligence and capability is challenged regularly; they face conflict in their private lives and homes; and they are punished for their physical and emotional strength. It is almost inevitable that any strong woman on TV would face the same treatment, especially those who play a traditionally masculine role. Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica, Xena, Nikita, Sidney Bristow of Alias, Mary Shannon of In Plain Sight and The Closer’s Brenda Lee Johnson all play traditionally masculine roles. All of those women face conflict and physical violence in almost every episode. Not only do they have to fight for respect, but their good works are seldom rewarded. Appreciation, respect, achievement, and victory are few and far between and must be won at high cost; home is not often a safe haven and interpersonal relationships are constantly disrupted. What is true for all of these female characters is especially true in the case of Buffy; she is a singular icon for female strength as well as for the punishment of feminine power.
|Buffy and Faith|
The fact that women receive unequal treatment in today’s society is made wholly apparent in the fact that feminine strength is not showcased or rewarded in television media as masculine strength always has been. Until women are allowed to be feminine and strong without fear of their homes and lives being disrupted, or facing constant judgment and critical backlash, women will remain less than men. While Buffy the Vampire Slayer may have gone further than any show before it in creating a female character who was independent and powerful, the fact that her strength could not go unpunished leaves a gaping hole. Young women are still hungry for a role model who can navigate all of the complexities of modern womanhood successfully. Buffy’s final fight, the fight for respect, must not be left unwon. It’s time for a female superhero to get equal treatment: strength, intelligence, achievement, and reward.
“Buffy Vs. Edward”. Jonathon McIntosh, ed.
http://www.rebelliouspixels.com/2009/buffy-vs-edward-twilight-remixed viewed 10/28/11
Early, Francis. “Staking Her Claim: Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Transgressive Woman Warrior.” Journal of Popular Culture 35.3 (2001): 11-17.
Jewett, Lorna. Sex and the Slayer: A Gender Studies Primer for the Buffy Fan. Middletown: Wesleyan, 2005. Print.
Magoulik, Mary. “Frustrating Female Heroism: Mixed Messages in Xena, Nikita, and Buffy.” Journal of Popular Culture 39.5 (2006): 729-55.
Tannen, Deborah. “There is No Unmarked Woman.” Signs of Life in the USA: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers. Ed. Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon. 6th ed. Boston: Bedford St. Martins, 2009. 620-24. Print.
Whedon, Joss. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Seasons 1-7. Television Program.
Williams, JP. Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Ed. Wilcox, Rhonda, and David Lavery. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002. 61-68. Print.
Lindsey Keesling is a geeky English major who sets herself apart from the crowd with her pop culture and religious criticism writing for Harlot's Sauce E-magazine and *! [emphatic asterisk] as well as a venture into re-imagining the female superhero mythos in a serial novel online.