The new bandwagon to jump on appears to be refuting Joss Whedon’s self-proclaimed feminism. A lot of very intelligent people have posited that Joss is not truly a feminist and they’ve had some good reasons and some bad ones. A few examples can be read here and here. I’m not going to respond to them point by point, but I am going to tackle the question myself.
Is Buffy the Vampire Slayer a feminist text?
I’m going to relieve you some tedious reading and say yes. Not unequivocally, but definitely yes. The main arguments against this conclusion basically come in three categories: the universe created is misogynistic, the female characters are not feminists, and the show treats certain subjects in an anti-feminist way. So let’s dive into these questions and see what we find.
1. The Buffy Universe is Misogynistic
Agreed. This universe is totally misogynistic. Vampires represent a brutal and violent form of sexuality, much of it tied up with rape or even pedophilia, since Spike says he prefers “veal” in the second season. The Watchers are primarily a bunch of bullying and manipulative old men, and they originated as a bunch of old men that forced an unwilling girl to merge with a demon essence. So Buffy’s very powers are the resulted of a fully-body, full-essence rape. Her powers themselves are forced upon her, even though she doesn’t want them.
So what about this could possibly considered feminist?
Well, firstly, feminism does not mean that you create a story that does not involve patriarchy, chauvinism or sexual predators. That would be a world entirely unrelated to the American life that so many of us women grew up in. Instead, Whedon gives us a world that looks very much like ours. A swimmer tries to feel up Buffy in the parking lot in Season 3 and she defends herself, only to get in trouble by Principal Snyder, who always takes the athlete’s side. That’s life. That’s happening right now. Vampires are usually male and usually prey on beautiful girls. That’s a metaphor for sexual violence and coercion and it’s also happening in our world. What Joss Whedon did was take the victim of every typical horror film, and he allowed her to fight back. He equipped her with not only the physical ability to fight rapists and predators, but a strong personality.
Even though she’s a whiner, Buffy makes her own decisions, leads the group wherever she wants them, and quits the Council when she disagrees with them. Her anger, (typically ascribed as a male attribute in film) does not force her into foolish decisions that must be fixed. Her anger gives her power. The world Whedon created is dangerous for women, and he created a female character that could defend herself against that danger. Don’t blame the circumstances for being “unfeminist.” A truly, ideally feminist world is one we wouldn’t recognize in today’s society, and it would have little relevance on the ordeals that women go through every day.
2. The Characters Aren’t Feminists
You’ll notice I didn’t pose the question “Is Buffy a Feminist?” In many ways she is not. First of all, she fights against the attributes that make her strong and capable. She doesn’t want her powers and she doesn’t want responsibility. She wants to be a vapid cheerleader and wear girly clothes and get noticed by all the boys. Also, she’s involved in quite a few unhealthy relationships that tangle up sex and violence. Buffy’s not a feminist paragon.
But that doesn’t mean that the text isn’t.
The episode “Beauty and the Beasts” is a great example of this. People are being found mauled to death all over the place. And there are a lot of damn suspects. Most notable among them are Oz, Willow’s boyfriend and Angel, Buffy’s sometimes-lover. Both of these men are sweet, adoring boyfriends (Angel to the point of being an irritating little puppy dog at times.)
They both have an animalistic viciousness buried within them. At the end of the episode you find out that an abusive guy was killing off anyone who got close to his girlfriend. Then he beats her to death. But the last shot is of the dead couple paralleled next to Buffy and Angel.
The point could not be more blatant. Buffy is attracted to things that are dark and primal and vicious. And unlike Twilight, that attraction isn’t going to lead to happy-ever-after. The dead couple on the floor is evidence of their likely future. We are reminded that Angel was mistaken for a brutal killer. Buffy the character may not be feminist, but the text is. It’s not glorifying or condoning the actions of people. It’s showing repercussions.
3. The Show Approaches Subjects in an Anti-Feminist Manner
These are the big issues. Buffy is repeatedly coerced into sex with Spike throughout Season 6. Tara and Willow come to epitomize the “You’re either a victim or a serial killer lesbian” stereotype of television. Buffy allows Riley and then Xander to bully her into feeling that she’s wrong to seriously question Riley’s loyalty to her after he lets vampires suck all over him, and the show makes it seem like a tragedy when she lets him get away. All the actresses are insanely attractive and thin.
I agree with some of these points. While it’s amusing that the thin, attractive blonde girl is the one kicking ass, it doesn’t really portray average women very well. That being said, Joss Whedon fought fairly hard to keep Amber Benson in the show. Tara has a normal body type, and he highlights that in the episode “The Body”, where Buffy and Tara sit next to each other.
There are some aspects of the show that I strongly disagree with. Buffy is punished far too often by the writers for the “sin” of having sex, first with Angel and then with Parker. Willow’s sexuality is just changed, quite suddenly, without allowing her to be bi or something equally gray-area. And I don’t agree with the way Tara and Willow end up. Joss Whedon has a “no happy endings” policy that I’m not a huge fan of, and Tara’s death is sudden and pointless (which works well from a story line angle.) But I think that Willow’s ensuing psychosis makes sense. Her tendency to fall back on magic coupled with her addiction coupled with the protective fury she’s felt for Tara before makes her character’s fall to the dark side totally believable. It’s not feminist, but it comes from a deep place of love and grief that is something the audience can understand.
Same goes for Spike’s rapey attitude. His rape attempt that happens at the end of Season 6 is preceded by his constant taunts that Buffy “make him stop” in their earlier, violent copulation. Buffy feels guilty for sleeping with him, even when she shouldn’t. That’s not feminist behavior.
But the question I keep coming back to is: so what?
Why do we want to force deep, real characters to be feminist? Why don’t we just want to see them in their entirety, flaws and all? Why don’t we want to see what causes them to be feminist and what causes them not to be feminist? Why do we look for a variety of character types in our male-centered story lines but just one “ideal” type in our female ones?
Buffy is a strong character. Willow is a strong character. Tara is a strong character who kills a grand total of one demon, proving that typical “strength” is not what makes a good female role model. So let’s stop defining a feminist as “Never has a weak moment,” “Never does something stupid or degrading,” “Always puts her jobs before her relationships,” “Never runs from a fight,” or “Always makes emotionally mature decisions.”
Let’s stop getting outraged that there are sick, misogynistic characters and that we actually like them. Spike is a brute and a beast and also a weak, emotional, deeply attached man. That’s what makes him interesting. To make him not sexually violent is to undermine his character. To make Buffy not attracted to that is to take away something vital about her character. Some people seem to want feminist stories to have cardboard cutout characters that only embody the best of feminine heroism. I’d rather not do that.
I’d like to define a feminist text as something that presents a female as more than just a romantic option, or a character that only talks about men. I’d also like that female to be presented as more than just a badass, more than just an independent fighter who doesn’t need a man. A feminist text should be one that shows a woman’s struggle in a realistic environment, and allows her to both succeed and fail, to make relationships and screw them up. To make her just as rich and deep and varied as any male character seen onscreen.
And that, I believe, is what makes Buffy a truly feminist text.