Print credit: Tom Trager
Buffy seems like an unquestionably feminist show upon first glance - it has a strong female heroine, as well as many other strong, complex female characters. The show has some diversity in its character’s sexualities and represents some of the LGBTQ community. Yet, in the academic community there is debate over *how* feminist the show actually is. While it may excel in some areas, it lacks in others, such as depictions of people of colour, etc.
A few years ago in my Introduction to Women Studies class I tackled part of this issue in an essay. Below is a re-worked version of my essay (titled Gender & Sexuality in Buffy the Vampire Slayer). I’ve tried to pull the main arguments out, while shortening and simplifying for length & clarity. This is Part 2 of my essay. Part 1 can be viewed here. *Note*: there are some mature themes discussed in this post.
Please join me at the end for a discussion about Buffy, feminism, masculinity, femininity and gender hybridity!
While presenting traditional, patriarchal constructions of gender, Buffy also succeeds in breaking down many binary oppositions of male/female, active/passive, strong/weak, and good/bad that are part of the constructions of gender.11 This results in both new forms of masculinity and femininity and a hybridization of gender, most evident in the characters of Buffy, Xander, and Spike.
Buffy is the most obvious character that negotiates between masculinity and femininity to form a hybridized gender. While she is seen in the traditional masculine roles of the protector and aggressor she also retains much of her femininity, balancing the two genders. Buffy does not conform to the stereotypical representation of the “tough-woman” - she isn’t depicted as butch or masculine, but has a keen sense of fashion. She doesn’t suppress her emotions either, but frequently uses them as a source of power. In Seasons 6 and 7 Buffy cuts herself off from her family and friends as she deals with her struggles, but this illustrates the negotiating that the modern female must do to construct a new femininity for themselves.12
Perhaps the male characters are the most effective negotiators of new gender constructions in the series. While the female characters are generally about empowerment, the male characters must find a way to negotiate their new roles in society. Xander, as a social outcast, and Spike, as a vampire, are able to do this most successfully.
In the episode “The Zeppo”, Xander is clearly able to illustrate his hybrid identity, as he negotiates the lines between masculinity and femininity, active and passive, etc. In the opening scene, Xander is hiding during the fight, where the female characters of Buffy and Faith are the active heroines. Buying a fancy new car doesn’t help reinforce his masculinity, as his female friends see through this ploy. Xander also loses his virginity in this episode, and his is portrayed as submissive, with Faith being the authoritative one, the one satisfying her own needs. However, later in the episode Xander is also portrayed as aggressive, as he confronts a villain who plans to blow up the high school. Xander becomes the true hero of the episode, yet he does not tell his friends what he did because “… he does not need to brag to reinforce his [new] masculinity”.13 Xander comes to represent a hybrid form of masculinity, as he he is “both submissive (bedroom) and aggressive (fight)… [he] is negotiating an incredibly complex existence in which societal norms and expectations do not match the hidden sub-society in which women hold the bulk of the real power”.14 This is culturally significant as the producer of the episode, Fran Rubel Kuzuki, remarked “you can [educate] your daughter to be Slayers, but you [also] have to educate your sons to be Xanders”.15
Spike, even more so than Xander, negotiates femininity and masculinity, partly due to his vampirism which gives him the ability to naturally defy social norms and have a “perverse sexuality”.16 In his initial appearance in “School Hard” during Season 2, Spike almost immediately challenges gender norms when confronted by Buffy, who asks “Do we really need weapons for this?” referring to the axe she is wielding, and the pole spike is holding. Spike replies, “I just like them. They make me feel all manly,” then drops the “phallic” pole, which suggests “that either his confidence in his masculinity is not, in fact, linked to this traditional symbol of manliness or that he does not have a strong investment in defining himself in ‘manly’ terms”.17
Another area where Spike transcends the oppositional boundaries of male/female, reactive/passive, and unemotional/emotional is in his relationships - both platonic and sexual. Throughout the series the vast majority of Spike’s friendships are with women: Joyce, Dawn, and Anya. The nature of these relationships is also feminine, mirroring the supportive relationships between women.18
Spike recognizes his hybridized gender in “Lover’s Walk” when he states, “I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it”. He “… casts his identity as a forlorn lover in the feminine and the courage required to confront that identity in the masculine”.19 This mix of gender qualities is also evident in his relationship with Buffy during Seasons 6 and 7.
Throughout their relationship Buffy and Spike share gender roles. Spike is usually the ‘damsel in distress’ and always wants to analyze their relationship.20 Buffy, in comparison, is often the one in control of the sexual action and does not want to acknowledge the relationship.21 However, Spike is still the seducer. In the series finale, “Chosen”, Buffy and Spike continue sharing roles as they stop the apocalypse, saving the world.22
Through characters like Buffy, Xander and Spike, “viewers learn that it is possible to be a strong woman with vulnerabilities or a physically weak man with inner strength”.23 While “the traditional tropes of gender persist, they become so dissociated from their traditional correlations to physical sex that they often interrogate more than support the gender roles they typically define”.24
In conclusion, the show succeeded in challenging the status quo by providing sexual alternatives that are empowering, as well as by creating new forms of femininity and masculinity, combing these at times to create hybrid forms of gender, while remaining somewhat realistic and relatable by being based in a patriarchal world. Lastly, the mix of reinforcing (for contrast) and challenging dominant ideas of gender and sexuality has proven to be effective in spreading an empowering, feminist message across the world.
11 Jowett, 12.
12 Jowett, 27.
13 Marc Cameron, “The Importance of Being the Zeppo: Xander, Gender, Identity and Hybridity in Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Slayage
[6.3] (2007), par. 8-9.
14 Cameron, par. 15.
15 Kuzi as quoted in Jowett, 119.
16 Dee Amy-Chinn, “Queering the Bitch: Spike, Transgression and Erotic Empowerment,” European Journal of Cultural Studies 8 (2005) 22,
17 Arwen Spicer, “Love’s Bitch But Man Enough to Admit It’: Spike’s Hybridized Gender,” Slayage 7, 2.3 (2002), par. 14.
18 Spicer, par. 17
19 Spicer, par. 19
20 - 22 Symonds, 130-131.
23 Camron, 17.
24 Spicer, par. 5.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on masculinity, femininity and gender hybridity in the Buffyverse! Obviously, this is not a comprehensive essay, so there are many other areas that can be touched upon. Feel free to disagree and debate in the comments, but please keep it civil and polite :)
- Has Buffy influenced your ideas about masculinity, femininity or gender?
- Can you think of more examples of gender hybridity?
- Do you think it is necessary to have gender hybridity, or modern adaptations and combinations of masculinity and femininity to reflect our changing culture and meet our needs?
- Did watching Buffy have any influence on you surrounding ideas of feminism? Do you consider yourself a feminist?
- Do you believe Buffy the Vampire Slayer to be a feminist show? Why/why not? Have you ever noticed anything problematic about the show?
Previously on the Sunnydale Project (Sept. 26)…
- Buffyisms: Memorable Quotes from Season 4