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Feminism and Heroism in 'Buffy The Vampire Slayer'
Josh Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer successfully represents a female role model who displays many of the traditionally heroic ideals associated with masculinity while still retaining her femininity. Wielding a combination of phallic weapons and feminine devices to attack literal and metaphoric demons, Buffy works within the genre of fantasy and horror to challenge ideologies regarding the heroic stereotype, and is a strong protagonist due to the multiple levels of her identity. I will argue that this display of gender bending makes for a compelling new model of heroism that subverts the patriarchal system by establishing a new gender hierarchy where women are given greater agency.
As the ‘Chosen One’ Buffy Summers is the latest in a long line of powerful female Slayers born to fight against forms of evil and oppression. Often battling villains who seek world domination or its destruction Buffy can be viewed as a heroin that rallies against those seeking to dominate. As Debra Dudek and Wenche Ommundsen point out, “one of the reasons Buffy is so successful is the way it moves between the metaphoric and the literal. The demons Buffy fights and the supernatural events that occur are often embodiments of the problems people face” (Dudek, D & Ommundsen, W. 2006). These demons, which are both literal and symbolic, appear throughout the series to challenge social ideals and question various mythic traditions. Certainly the patriarchal system is one Buffy challenges on several occasions in various forms such as the vampiric Master; Caleb the misogynist priest, and Adam, who is a Frankenstein character comprised of a collection of male parts. Surely it is no coincidence that Whedon chose these names – one referring to male authority over women and the other referencing the first man created by God, given hierarchal supremacy over Eve. This self-reflexivity evident in Buffy The Vampire Slayer shows Whedon’s eagerness to raise and critique the gender ideals that are repeatedly normalised through culture, by having his heroin successfully attack them through the metaphoric demons she faces.
It is significant the way that Buffy goes about slaying these demons in that she often relies on phallic tools to defeat them. Her confidence in her ability to wield “Mr Pointy” becomes a metaphor for using the male phallus to strike back. She also directs her attack at the core of masculinity often kicking her male opponents in the genitals, breaking their staves and verbally confronting their assumptions about gender. Repeatedly successful, Buffy effectively uses her metaphorically masculine tools to conquer her foes while still being able to lay them aside and adopt the devices traditionally associated with femininity. As Frances Early observes, “although Buffy is male-identified, she and her friends also partake of traditionally perceived female gendered ways of thinking and behaving… [they] slay monsters but also often resolve conflict non-violently, through rationality, tactfulness, compassion and empathy” (Early, F. 2001). Buffy also exhibits femininity in her day to day life by clinging to traditionally feminine and domestic objects such as the cooking utensils in ‘Pangs’, the pink parasol she swaps her stake for in ‘The Freshman’ and the girly frock that replaces her practical fighting clothes in ‘Halloween’. This ability to pick and choose the gender ideals that offer the most assistance makes Buffy an interesting protagonist with a multi faceted identity and lends her a great deal more agency than most heroic stereotypes.
What makes Buffy so successful as a female role model is the fact that she is not limited by one gender role. While being a strong and courageous warrior possessing many of the stereotypical traits of the male hero such as honour, determination and fearlessness, she is also an attractive young woman who clings to her feminine ideals. Throughout the series she expresses her concern about looking good partly because she is so eager to fit into the trendy high school scene. “Tell me the truth: how's my hair?” she says after a particularly rigorous slay in episode ‘I Robot, You Jane’ (Whedon, J. 1997). She moves freely between gender roles in this way, with different aspects of her identity being prominent depending on the social situation. As Early points out Buffy’s fighting style is also gender non-specific: “She fights hand to hand and is powerful like a man, but Buffy also has an acrobatic agility and grace that cannot be easily categorized as either conventionally masculine or feminine” (Early, F. 2001). This oscillation between heroic and feminine ideals is uncharacteristic of traditional heroines in that they usually forfeit their feminine identity and inherit masculine characteristics. Saint Joan is an example of this, as she trades her femininity in order to be taken seriously as a soldier. But Buffy defies this limiting representation and successfully holds the position of a dainty female girl who is able to act as a role model due to her courage and marvellous abilities.
While portrayed as a petite, demur conformist Buffy does not embrace all female gender stereotypes such as passivity and innocence, nor does she subscribe to the belief that virginity is the source of strength for the female hero. Lyn McCredden argues that the ideal of virginity has an illustrious and stubborn history of impacting upon the way feminine virtue is construed (McCredden, L. 2006), but this does not hinder Buffy. Her transformation across the programs seven seasons is interesting to watch as she has several key sexual awakenings. Firstly and most significantly is her relationship with the hunky vampire with a soul Angel, which sees him transformed into the evil Angelus after he and Buffy consummate their relationship. It is interesting that it is Angel who loses his purity after having sex rather than Buffy, as it is common for women to be promoted as tainted after such an act. But Whedon allows his heroin to express her sexuality throughout the series, with punishment often aimed at the male rather than Buffy. It is Angel who is sent to Hell, Parker who gets beaten over the head for being a flirt and Spike suffers a broken heart. After losing her virginity Buffy’s innocence is diminished somewhat as she begins to wear increasingly provocative outfits, sheds some of her sexual inhibitions and is much less cautious when it comes to sex, despite the tragic scenario with Angel. She becomes sexually aggressive after newfound lover Riley leaves, and begins a relationship with Spike. Asserting dominance over him, Buffy’s tryst with Spike allows her to shed some of the sexual aggression that seems to go hand in hand with the violence of her slayer duties. While moving further and further from the idealistically ‘pure’ female she once was, she miraculously maintains her integrity and actually assumes a more authoritative role rather than let herself be the passive subject of male dominance. In this way she subverts the myth that women must be virginal and innocent in order to maintain moral purity.
Whedon repeatedly undermines the patriarchal system throughout the series by contrasting the capable Buffy against flaky ignoble men. Several reasonably heroic male characters are introduced, such as Angel, Oz, Riley and Wesley, but they all exhibit personal failings and weaknesses that render them subordinate to Buffy. One by one they are stripped from the show. Even the intelligent and loyal Giles is made redundant towards the series final, and the Council of Watchers, a predominantly male organization, is rejected by Buffy because she refuses to be an instrument to their cause. Instead Whedon promotes solidarity between woman by surrounding Buffy with reliable and loyal female companions and family. Buffy is raised by her mother after her father abandons her, and later gains a sister. As Whedon announced in the first mission statement for the show, Buffy is about “the joy of female power: having it, using it, sharing it” (Whedon, J. cited in Gottlieb, A.) The power of female bonding is evident throughout the series and is contrasted by the more isolated male characters and their shortcomings. The failing of the men in Buffy’s life is such a predominant theme that it is given a whole episode to be explored in ‘Fear Itself’. “I’m beginning to see a pattern,” Buffy says of her inability to rely on men (Whedon, J. 1997). Even Xander isn’t particularly helpful as a sidekick. He tends to fill the role of the ditzy helper who is constantly getting into trouble despite good intentions. Compared to Willow, who proves to be exceptionally clever and a powerful witch, he is somewhat superfluous. Despite Xander’s claim in ‘The Freshman’ that Buffy is his hero (Whedon, J. 1999) his insecurity about being weaker than she is brought to light in ‘The Harvest’ when he refers to the traditionally masculine cowboy as hero only to have it rejected by Buffy:
Xander: “So what’s the plan, we saddle up, right?”
Buffy: “No. I’m the Slayer and you’re not … Xander this is deeply dangerous.”
Xander: “I’m inadequate. I’m less than a man” (Whedon, J. 1997).
Here Whedon deliberately demolishes heroic traditions and replaces them with his new model of heroism. Though assisted by males throughout the series Buffy does not solely rely on them, largely because she doesn’t need to. As a self-reliant heroin she acknowledges that while help is sometimes necessary, ultimately it is her destiny and responsibility to fight the forces of evil.
The various layers of Buffy’s identity are mimicked by the show itself, which often communicates multiple levels of meaning. Whedon reflects on this idea in the episode ‘Hush’ which sees the fairytale villains the Gentleman steal the voices of Sunnydale residents. With all verbal communication removed the ‘Scoobies’ have to resort to alternative methods of communication. In the particularly comical scene where Buffy and her friends are trying to figure out what it is the Gentleman want, Willow taps her chest to indicate the heart. Xander misinterprets and thinks she means breasts. Shortly after, he once again displays his masculine tendency to think along a sexual trajectory when Buffy mimes staking the villains and he interprets it as masturbation. Here Whedon emphasizes the dichotomy between males and females and the differing ways that they generate meaning. It is important then that Buffy and Willow are the ones constructing a message to which Xander misunderstands, once again undermining the masculine and giving greater power to Buffy.
Embracing a wide range of masculine and feminine ideals to form a uniquely varied gender identity, Buffy successfully attacks the metaphoric and literal demons presented to her throughout the series. In doing so she destabilizes the patriarchal system and offers a new model of heroism, making her an engaging role model for women.
‘Fear Itself’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1999, season 4, episode 4, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, Moore Park, NSW.
‘I Robot, You Jane’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1997, season 1, episode 8, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, Moore Park, NSW.
‘Something Blue’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1999, season 4, episode 9, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, Moore Park, NSW.
‘The Freshman’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1999, season 4, episode 1, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, Moore Park, NSW.
‘The Harvest’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1997, season 1, episode 2, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, Moore Park, NSW.
Dudek, Debra & Ommundsen, Wenche. 2006, ‘Myth meets soap opera: Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, in Myth and Ideology 2: Supernatural and Superhuman study guide, Deakin University, Geelong, p.10.
Early, Frances. 2001, ‘Staking Her Claim: Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Transgressive Woman Warrior’, in The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 35, no. 3, p.16.
Gottlieb, Allie. Buffy's Angels, MetroActive, retrieved 25 May 2008.
McCredden, Lyn. 2006, ‘The female hero’, in Myth and Ideology 2: Supernatural and Superhuman study guide, Deakin University, Geelong, p.10.