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. Part 1 discusses sexuality and gender. Part 2 will be posted next Thursday and will discuss masculinity, femininity and gender hybridity. *Note*: there are some mature themes discussed in this post.
Please join me at the end for a discussion about Buffy, feminism, gender and sexuality!
When Buffy the Vampire Slayer first hit TV screens in 1996 it was met with some scepticism at first - apparently a lot of people have trouble taking a woman named Buffy seriously - but this quickly turned to praise as the show became known for its girl-power messages. Some preliminary research even suggests that watching shows, like Buffy, that depict strong women can help reduce sexism among men! However, while the show challenges the status quo (particularly in regards to gender and sexuality), it also reinforces many dominant ideas as well. Buffy’s fantasy world, filled with vampires and various other monsters which serve as complex metaphors, takes place in contemporary North American society. Thus, while feminist ideas are embedded into the program, as per the wishes of its creator, Joss Whedon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer exists in a society based on patriarchy and ideas of masculinity and femininity in order to be a relatable program.
One way in which Buffy excels at being a largely sex-positive show is that it “opens up a space for non-normative sexual practices where these experiences are acceptable, pleasurable and empowering for girls and queer viewers”.1 The series does so by challenging the idea of fixed sexuality through its characters, which are a mix of heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual and experimenting. For example, throughout the series characters such as Angel, Willow, Spike and Drusilla move between different categories of sexuality.
However, the show also reinforces dominant, patriarchal ideas regarding sexuality and sex. For example, numerous times the concept that women can solicit sexual attention, but actual sexual activity is dangerous and condemned (for example, Buffy’s experience losing her virginity to Angel). Slut shaming is prevalent throughout the series, especially in the show’s first few seasons when it is directed at Cordelia Chase.
Yet, women in the series are also given a fair amount of freedom when it comes to sexual activity. For the most part, women are allowed to be sexual aggressors without it being considered “bad” or “scary” (except for Faith, who is seen as reckless).2 In regards to sexuality, Buffy then presents some mixed and confusing messages.
One of the most prominent messages of empowerment in Buffy is her ability to take the traditionally masculine role of defender and aggressor and to ‘kick butt’. However, the danger in placing a female lead in this role is that of gender reversal. Reversing the gender roles only switches which group is empowered and which is disempowered - this is not true progress or feminism, as it would further associate masculinity and heroism.3 Some scholars claim that certain characters and relationships in Buffy embody this concept of gender reversal. This is most evident in the Buffy/Angel relationship that spans Season 1 and 2.
o Angel appears passive, while Buffy is the protector and defender.
o Angel is portrayed as the feminine supporter and sufferer. On various occasions he needs rescuing.
o His body is “eroticised” which is commonly associated with female characters. Often shirtless, and as a sexual object. High degree of penetrability (his tattoo and ability to be staked).4
However Angel’s character is not a static representation of gender reversal. As a prototype of sorts for the development of a new masculinity, the writers of Buffy illustrate how destructive society can be without a change in our constructions of gender when Angel reverts back to Angelus in the episodes “Surprise” and “Innocence”. This transformation restores patriarchal society’s construction of gender, with Angel now the active character, as he stalks Buffy.5 A subtle but important change is the restriction of Angel’s body from the viewers, with it no longer being soft and vulnerable, but “hard, violent, defensive and impenetrable”.6 It is through Angelus that “normative masculinity is presented as monstrous and tragic”.7 Other characters, like Cordelia and Riley, are introduced in order to contrast traditional gender constructions and the new masculinity and femininity that the series presents, in effect, coding these new representations as good.
Riley Finn and Cordelia Chase are two examples of patriarchal archetypes in Buffy. Riley is portrayed as the tough-guy, conservative and traditional in his masculinity. He wants to be the protector, and the dominant one in his relationship with Buffy. The fact that Riley, along with many of the other traditional masculine characters, often leave, are killed off of the show, or are presented as a problem implies that “tough-guy masculinity is an unnatural construction”.8
On the surface, Cordelia appears to be the female counterpart of Riley, with a traditional sense of femininity that is exaggerated. Her “power is entrenched in patriarchy: her power is privilege based on her father’s wealth and the ability to manipulate her own image to gain (sexual) power over males”.9 However, later in Season 3 Cordelia’s character evolves as she loses her privilege and begins to reject many of the social norms that she once strictly adhered to, allowing the viewer to see her in a much more positive light.
Thus, the patriarchal society and the constructions of gender that are present in Buffy serve to ground the series in reality. Angelus, Riley and Cordelia bring integrity to the program. The show recognizes that we need to look to the past to see how “rigidly defined sex differences have been constructed around fear of the other [and that] we need to think about ways of transcending polarity that has only brought us pain”.10
1 Allison McCracken. “At Stake: Angel’s Body, Fantasy Masculinity, and Queer Desire in Teen Television.” Undead TV: Essays on Buffy the
Vampire Slayer. Ed. Elana Levine and Lisa Parks. (2007), 117.
2 Carol Siegel, “Female Heterosexual Sadism: The Final Feminist Taboo in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Anita Blake Vampire Hunter
Series,” Third Wave Feminism and Television. Ed. Merri Lisa Johnson. 80.
3 Lorna Jowett, Sex and the Slayer: A Gender Studies Primer for the Buffy Fan. (2005), 20.
4 McCracken, 118, 120, 122.
5-7 McCracken, 128.
8 Jowett, 96.
9 Jowett, 30.
10 Gwyn Symonds, “Solving Problems with Sharp Objects: Female Empowerment, Sex and Violence in Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” The
Aesthetics of Violence in Contemporary Media. (2008), 127.
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 sex, sexuality, and/or sexual orientation?
- 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. 19)…