July 23, 2007

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (television)

buffy and angelFirst, let me put my history and allegiances on the table: I didn't watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer when it was first aired (1997-2003). I watched the entire series on DVD over the space of the last few weeks. I've been through every episode at least once and many twice (so far). I do not believe the show deteriorated when it moved to the UPN (season six); I unmitigatedly loved it from start to finish, but thought it was actually better in the later seasons.

All that being said, I've never seen anything on television so in need of feminist and anti-racist analysis as Buffy. The show gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, "so close but so far away."

There is a LOT of analysis on Buffy floating around out there. Multiple books, endless websites, some lay, some scholarly, some quite good, some less so. I can't claim to have read all of it, though I've read a fair bit. If I miss major points that other people have addressed (and I am sure I will) please attribute it to ignorance and not intent. There is a lot of there there in Buffy, and I am by necessity only scratching the surface.

First, then, race. All of the major characters in the Buffyverse, up until the season seven addition of Robin Wood (D.B. Woodside), are white. The line of slayers and potential slayers is shown to be diverse, starting the Aboriginal first slayer, moving through the Chinese and African-American slayers shown in Spike's memories, and culminating in Islander slayer Kendra in season two and the mixed group of potential slayers in season seven. However, none of these non-white slayers are real characters--the only one besides Buffy who gets any real screen time is Faith, and she's an American white girl. The other supporting roles filled by people of color are few and far between (Giles' friend Olivia, Riley's friend Forrest) and have little impact on the story.

Jackie Esmonde wrote: "Whether people of colour appear as charity cases, entertainment, plot devices, or foes, they are portrayed as expendable once they outgrow their utility to white folks." This is, unfortunately, true. There is a sense of non-white/Christian othering in some episodes of Buffy that makes me distinctly uncomfortable. It comes up first in the second season, when we meet the vengeful Angelus-cursing Gypsies, moves into the third season's Mr. Trick, and continues with the clear Jewishness of season six villain Warren, the demon Sweet in the musical episode, and the not-quite-likable nature of season seven's two Black characters, Robin and Rona (Indigo, who is quite possibly the most annoying Buffy character ever). While I would not go so far as to call any of these things out and out racist in and of themselves, the existence of all of them, in conjunction with the overwhelming whiteness of the show's major players, leaves quite a bit to be desired when it comes to racial equity. (For a more metaphorical perspective on race in Buffy, check out this article by Naomi Alderman and Annette Seidel-Arpaci.)

Buffy's complex relationship to feminism and (ug) "girl power" is probably the most widely written-about subtopic in all of Buffy-studies. It has been hotly debated for years. I think there are very legitimate points on both sides of this argument. It is easy, for those of us who are or have been immersed in Buffy, to forget how very radical the basic premise of the show actually is--in a world of supernatural bad assness, the biggest baddest bad ass is a little blonde woman. She doesn't get saved, she saves. Over and over again. That may be basic, but it's also big, and has to be kept in mind when leveling feminist critique at the show.

The super strength of Buffy herself is really just the base of the feminist iceberg on Buffy, though. The show consistently presents women in positions of great strength and power, both for the good and the bad (think not just of Buffy and Willow, but also of season two Drusilla, season four Maggie, and season five Glory). These women are not only strong; they are markedly stronger than the men around them (not just Xander, but also Giles, Riley, and even Angel and Spike). This, to my mind, is where Buffy creator Joss Whedon gets really brave. It's one thing to show women who are strong, but quite another to show women who are strongest. In particular, the interaction between Buffy and Riley calls attention to male intolerance of self-sufficient and even heroic women, which is really notable.

Feminism in Buffy goes beyond strong female characters, though, pervading many of the plots of individual episodes and the narrative arc of the entire show. In episodes like "Ted" and "Reptile Boy," Buffy takes on specific threats to women (a misogynist father-figure and a frat house, respectively) and crushes them. Later, misogyny is presented as a season-long villain in the forms of season six's Warren and season seven's Caleb. Buffy's adversarial relationship with the patriarchal Watcher's Council, and the history and tradition of slayerhood itself, and her ultimate triumph over both institutions, is a series-long theme that speaks feminist volumes.

But even though Buffy is arguably the most feminist thing I've ever seen on TV, it's far from perfect. There are countless legitimate arguments for Buffy's anti-feminism, more than I could ever address here, so I'll just talk about two of the major ones. The first, and the one I find the most powerful, is more about the world behind Buffy than about Buffy itself. The show is populated with thin, traditionally pretty white women, and as it got more acclaimed, the women got thinner, particularly Buffy herself (Sarah Michelle Gellar). This is hardly Hollywood news--we've watched it happen in show after show--but that doesn't make it any less infuriating, or any more feminist. It gets hard to believe we've gotten anywhere when we're forced to watch our heroines physically disappear before our eyes.

Another common critique of the show's feminism has to do with Buffy's relationships with men, and in particular her sexual relationship with Spike (James Marsters) in season six and the aftermath in season seven. The relationship is violent, even brutal, and their season six interactions culminate in Spike attempting to rape Buffy in "Seeing Red." Many feminists object to Buffy ever having had a relationship with Spike, a soulless vampire who spent the previous season stalking her, as well as to the violent nature of the relationship and especially to the attempted rape. Even those who object to none of the above often object to Buffy's embrace of the newly-souled Spike in season seven, after he tried to rape her.

This feminist doesn't object to any of these things.

The show's writers make it clear that Buffy's relationship with Spike in season six isn't healthy. It's not presented as a romantic ideal (though the sexiness of it isn't denied, either). The fact that many of the shows viewers saw it in a romantic light has much more to do with James Marsters' chiseled beauty (and acting chops) and with our cultural predisposition towards connecting sex and violence than with the storyline itself. Season six Buffy is depressed to the point of near collapse, completely disconnected from herself and her friends, numb. Her choice to enter into an unhealthy, violent, sadistic relationship makes sense in the context of the rest of her life, and it doesn't go unexamined by the show, even if it does go unexamined by some of the viewers.

We are past the point of needing perfect heroines who don't make mistakes. We deserve more. Buffy is not only a supernaturally strong evil-slaying superhero, she's also a woman moving through her late teens and early twenties--the most traumatic period I've lived through lately. It would be a disservice to her story and to the viewers of the show if she didn't make mistakes, some of them colossal. It doesn't, to my mind, make her anything less of a feminist icon; it just makes her a more relatable one.

There are moments of truly terrifying misogyny in Buffy. The sickening creation of the Franken-girlfriend in "Some Assembly Required," Warren's first appearance as a sexbot mastermind in "I Was Made to Love You" and the subsequent creation of the Buffybot, and (particularly) the Trio's brainwashing, attempted rape, and murder of Katrina in "Dead Things." However, I find the inclusion of these real-life monsters not anti-feminist, but illustrative of how committed to feminism the show really is. Misogo-geek fantasies of robotic girlfriends and hot chicks made compliant through mind control are not allowed to reign, but are instead called out as what they are--dangerous and disgusting objectification of women. Given the multitude of similar violence against women that passes through prime time unnoticed and uncommented on, I credit Buffy's creator and writers for bringing these things up and treating them like the demons they are.

Buffy is not a perfectly feminist show, and it is certainly not a perfectly anti-racist show. There are big problems with it, especially in regards to race, and those are worth acknowledging. At the same time, though, I think it's absolutely essential that we give Buffy her due respect for being the most feminist thing on contemporary network television. I'm giving the show three stars--I'd have given four for gender issues alone, but I am taking one off for the poor job it does with race.

18 Comments

Hi,

As a Buffy fan who is also a critical thinker, I enjoyed your take on this issue. I agree that much of the "critical celebration" of Buffy is more of the latter and less of the former.

I am particularly bothered by the invocation of racist symbols and stereotypes. Both Buffy and the X-Files loved to play up the vengeful dead Indigenous character, to name one manifestation.

I haven't finished season seven yet (I too have only watched Buffy on DVD), so I've just been introduced to DB Woodside's character - but yes, aside from Willow's occasional references to Judaism, Principal Wood is the first racialized character who is not a villian.

I enjoy the show, although its lack of race analysis irks me. It "appears" that most of the creative forces behind the show were white people, so perhaps it's not surprising, but still upsetting. (I say "appears" because I'm just going off what I've seen in the DVD interviews).

You lost me in your opening paragraph -

"I do not believe the show deteriorated when it moved to the UPN (season six); I unmitigatedly loved it from start to finish, but thought it was actually better in the later seasons"

'Buffy' is probably my favorite TV show but few shows went downhill as thoroughly as it did after it jumped.

Yeah, a lot of people (most?) think that, Parker. I really, really don't. The dark, painful sixth season is actually my favorite of the show. I liked the first few seasons, but they were a little too upbeat, I thought, considering the subject matter, and it took several seasons for the writers to get into just how incredibly painful and difficult this life, both the literal one and the metaphorical one, is. I thought they did an exceptional job moving from a teenage world to an adult one, and showing just how bleak that move can be. It was just bloody brilliant.

I'm curious as to why you (and this is a general question) feel so negatively about the later seasons. What, in specific, bothers you about them? I've read the TWOP commentary, and honestly, the gripes made there just don't resonate with me at all.

I'm glad you wrote this.

I enjoyed season 6 less because I felt the writing was deteriorating, and stopped watching somewhere in the middle of it. Reading the later criticism, the race gripes made sense to me but some of the other stuff... less so. It made me feel like I needed to rewatch the whole series from start to finish. Which I may still do, one of these days.

But I came away from the criticism with a very similar reaction to yours.

"It's not presented as a romantic ideal (though the sexiness of it isn't denied, either)."

This is what eluded me and may be part of what I found so detestable about the two of them together. What, exactly, was supposed to be sexy about Spike and Buffy's abusive relationship? Why did it have to be framed as sexy? These are two very broken people repeatedly hurting each other. I didn't find it appealing at all and I shouldn't. But they kept trying to smack it into me that it was until I found the entire mess intolerable.

It seems to be it was the show that was conflating sex and violence, not the audience.

Do you want an actual answer to that, or was it just a smack down?

Assuming you did want an answer, I'll give it a shot. I found the relationship sexy, mainly, because it was presented as passionate, consuming, etc. And, to be totally honest, probably also because James Marsters is just so damn sexy himself. He could read the phone book and I'd be there.

If I was the only person who found the relationship between them sexy, I'd cop to it just being my issue, but I think it's short-sighted to say that there's no cultural conflation between sex and violence--if there weren't, there wouldn't be so many people who found it so sexy (and look around the Internet if you don't think there are). And it's hardly like this is the only example of a similar relationship.

"The show is populated with thin, traditionally pretty white women, and as it got more acclaimed, the women got thinner, particularly Buffy herself (Sarah Michelle Gellar)...It gets hard to believe we've gotten anywhere when we're forced to watch our heroines physically disappear before our eyes."

Well said, and that is a legitimate complaint about the show. In comparison, the casting on Xena was generally better in that regard.

Grace, I did want an answer, and I agree that Spike/Marsters was sex on two legs. I also understand the cultural connection, but I feel that's a place BtVS dropped the ball as a show with feminist elements. Sexy violence isn't cute when it's a woman getting used, beaten, and discarded; I didn't understand how it became so because Marsters was in the role of the battered girlfriend instead.

I did like Spike and Buffy's relationship in general. But it's specifically the shoddy way, IMO, Spike's abuse was dealt with that led to my dissatisfaction with S7.

Oh! I misunderstood your original comment, then. I thought you were reacting to the way Buffy was treated in their relationship, not the way Spike was treated.

Really, I think the relationship between Buffy and Spike calls for an essay all its own. Which I may try to write, at some point. In the meantime, though, I'll definitely be thinking about it, and I really appreciate your input.

Season 6 was also my favorite season, although it also had a couple of my least favorite episodes. The villians were disappointing, as they started off with some potential to be interesting, but then became lame caracatures of geeks then worse, although not Jonathan so much. Anyway, what I loved about the Buffy/Spike storyline was that it showed how Spike changed DESPITE the fact that he did not possess a soul. I could never understand how Buffy could not see that that point in particular proved Spike's love for her almost more than anything else. Obviously, he was still a vampire and he could not help enjoying some of the more brutal attention that Buffy gave him, but I believe that he would have also been perfectly happy with a more tender relationship if Buffy had allowed it. Throughout the series, we have seen Spike's true character and it has not been truly evil in the overall sense. Yes, he gave in to that part for a while, he was testing his new vampire wings, but eventually, he gave in to his true calling and spent most of his life loving as he was meant to, first with Drusilla, Harmony for a very short time (poor Harmony, she never really stood a chance, even though she seemed to understand him the best of all the women he loved), and finally Buffy.

I agree with many of your comments here, particularly with the fact that the issue of feminism in Buffy can (and has) been written by people far more knowledgeable on the subject than me, so I won't embarrass myself by stating something that probably has been said a million times before.

I just wanted to add, on the topic of female characters on television kicking ass, that although Buffy still remains my all time favorite TV heroine, you really should check out the kick-ass women on Battlestar Galactica. I know, Grace, that I have mentioned this to you before, but I mention it again because I would really be interested in reading your take on this series. Does your site have a suggestion box for things we would like to see reviewed?

I agree with the comment about the lack of racial diversity on "Buffy," and for that I too would take off a star, dearly as I loved the show. But it puzzles me that no one's mentioned the episode in Season Five, where Spike endures murderous torture from Glory, because - soulless vampire or not - he'd rather die than live with the awareness of the pain that the loss of Dawn would cause her. And again, at the end of Season Seven, it's Spike who gives Buffy back herself, after she's been rejected by every one of her friends - and her sister - by holding her all night. Not making love - just holding her. Speaking as a man, I must say that that dreadful Victorian poet knew perhaps more about love than any character in the show.

I guess I'm the opposite, I preferred the early seasons, with 2 and 3 being my favourite, and found 4 and 6 to be the weakest, mostly because I felt they had the weakest villains (I was really not a fan of Adam, although I did find Maggie interesting). Season 7's bodyless evil was saved by Fillion's Caleb, who was just so detestable. But anyways, on with the critique!

I'm going to overwhelmingly agree with you about race. The show dropped the ball. This was discussed on your post about Dollhouse, I chalk it up to Whedon's own perspective, and his growth in cultural and racial awareness as he has moved on in his career.

I actually found very little, outside of the relationships front, to gripe about from a feminist perspective. I think DM above had a valid point about Spike being poorly treated, I agree that it would not be cool if the gender roles were reversed, so this should be condemned too. However, I also feel that the attempted rape, in addition to Buffy's truthful admission of what she wanted in the relationship, mostly negate the "battered boyfriend" concern. Count me among those who were hoping Spike would get staked by either Robin or Xander, as by that point had stopped sympathizing with his character.

I know you said you couldn't touch on anything, but 2 quick things in particular I noticed you didn't bring up. First of all, although I did not notice this upon watching it, I have read about the concern that Tara's death and Willow's reaction constitutes a negative and homophobic stereotype. Second of all, I was concerned about Dawn's treatment in the 2nd half of S7, she was the only female character who did not possess some form of powers, and seemed to have been denigrated for that reason. Your thoughts on either of these?

Hrm.

First, on Tara's death and Willow's reaction: no, I didn't find it homophobic. Willow was already going that way--it was foreshadowed for more than a full season. I think it was an indictment of misused power, and I don't think Willow being a lesbian had anything to do with it.

Secondly, Dawn: I can't stand Dawn, at any point, ever. She doesn't ever seem to me to be a likable or sympathetic character (until the comic, oddly). I don't think it's because she doesn't have powers, though--I think it's because she is put into this weird role of taking on everybody's immaturity. She ends up being the immature, teenage part of Buffy that Buffy never really gets to be.

Hello. Just stumbled across your site.

I’d like to say that I don’t consider Buffy a feminist show. There is a lot of things anti-feminist about it. It’s better than most, but not feminist.

The one thing that reeeeeeallly pisses me off about Buffy is how Spike was made to be such a martyr even after the attempted rape. We're supposed to give a shit about him, and forgive him because he was sexy in the other seasons? No. If he wasn't controlling his actions when he didn't have a soul, then it was the demon in him who was the "sexy" and charming funny man, not the tortured annoying prick in the 7th one. Up until the seventh season, we've never actually met the “real” Spike, we've only seen the soulless asshole. Why are we supposed to care about a rapist, or someone we've never met with the charm of a brick?

And then they have the audacity to shift at least a little blame Buffy in the 7th season when Spike says she “used” him for sex (which she was very upfront about). Buffy’s also somewhat shamed in the series for having non-romantic sex; sure Faith has casual sex, but she’s later made to be a villain.

Stalking is also romanticized with Angel, which is probably how Edward Sparklepants came to be.

Pornography is normalized in the episode “Gingerbread” when Xander claims to have Playboys in his locker.

To be honest, I've never understood the whole "soul" thing in Buffy. When Anya became a demon again, Buffy didn't try to kill her; is this because she has a soul? If that's true, then why does she indiscriminately kill any other demon that crosses her path?

I agree that the tone of despair and anguish was better in the later seasons, but Spikes inclusion into the main cast was just horrible. It became Spike the Rapist Vampire Show!, and Willow and Tara, hell even Buffy, were somewhat shunted to the side.

I think the relationship with Spike and Buffy was exactly what was trying to be portrayed. The writers constantly say "It was a relationship based off lust" on both sides. Buffy herself doesnt really understand the relationship constantly saying that Spike disgusts her.
Both sides were equally abusive. It didnt show a man beating up a woman etc. Both were equally as strong as the other.
Spike wasn't a black n white character, we were constantly discovering things about him. One of the things discovered is that tho yes hes souless he is very much capable of love.
Later on in season 7 which delves into alot of these issues Spike himself realizes what he couldnt before. Buffy was in a time in her life where she hated herself, she took it out on the one person she could take it out on. Spike would forgive her no matter what she did.
He tells buffy he loves her not because of anything having to do with him, it had to do with her, her strength and kindness, the way she always tried and cared. Something no one really had even said to her, not angel or riley.
The relationship with angel was idealistic at best, and Riley was the uncomfortable guy feeling useless because his girlfriend was way cooler than he was. (Sorry riley fans I hated him)
Spike saw all sides of her, and loved her regardless.
As far as the attempted rape, sad to say it was more of a plot device to get spike to leave. The writers themselves say "he had to do something so out of character that it would make him leave to return with this soul." I dont want to shrug it off as something as trivial as that, James Marsters himself states it was the hardest scene he ever had to do. We cant think because Buffy herself is the hero and Spike most of the time was portrayed as the villain that she was right and he was wrong in their relationship both had sides had abusive parts, the point of season 7 was the trust between them had to be formed again...

I disagree with the notion that a show must equally and positively represent every group on earth or be considered racist. Do we really want every show on television to be the "Super Friends" with an Apache Chief, and Black Vulcan and Samurai and El Dorado to round things out?
I say write the best show you know how with characters that speak to you. Try to please everyone and you are going to end up writing crap. Instead write from the underlying ideas that are common to all people and no one is unrepresented.
Buffy was a story about the adventures of a particular group of people, much like Madea's Big Happy Family is a story about another group of people and Sex in the City yet a third, and if I have more in common with some of these people than others, the concepts of friends and families and friends who become family are Universal.

I love to think about the "soul" dilemma that seems, to me, to permeate the fabric of the show's and character's ethical standards.

In the beginning, all demons are evil. Demons aren't humans. Buffy kills demons. It appears simple.

Angel is a vampire, but has a soul. So Buffy doesn't kill him, although she is willing to kill him to save the world even when he has a soul, as shown at the end of season 2. HOWEVER, she isn't willing to kill a human (Ben, Glory's male "twin") in order to kill Glory and save the world. Something in this seems to reflect some kind of symbolic racism.

Other things in the show that don't seem to have much to do with real issues at all have symbolic roots in race issues, inequality, discrimination, and marginalization. (Though I have noticed a lot more of it in Angel, both obvious and more subtle/symbolic as in much of Buffy.)

The other thing is that, as we discover from the experiences of both Angel and Spike, souls seem to be...well, obtainable. I can't help bringing up the question of why the other vampires aren't worth it. Why they don't "deserve" their souls back as Angel does?

Other stuff...I think so much about the symbolism of every single episode. I think very critically about what it really means to be a human in the Buffyverse and deeply about the show's religious truths and meanings. I find the symbolism and truth more important than the cultural and situational stigmas such as the race of the majority of the cast.

No kidding though, I really, really love the philisophical debates this show easily presents within a fun, not-boring context.

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