Why Buffy The Vampire Slayer is not a feminist show

Buffy The Vampire SlayerDon’t get me wrong I do like the show. When you are a teenage girl and watching mainstream television, Buffy is simply a relief to watch. She does not need a lot of saving and is not a passive extension to the live of a male character, as what happens to a lot of female characters on popular tv shows. She is also not the “aggressive”, “sexually promiscuous” cautionary tale that we are clearly not suppose to identify with or even like.

However, just because Joss Whedon allows her to be a complete character by herself (the male love interests come and go), is not enough to make it feminist in my eyes. For starters the show never mentioned the word even though Whedon has said several times he meant for Buffy to be a feminist icon. The show also occasionally pokes fun at feminism such as when when a friend of Anya tells her: “You got that whole Take Back The Night thing going on.” Because Anya has a habit of avenging women who have been wronged by men. However the type of wrong doing the show meant  is cheating, though that is not even remotely what Take Back The Night is about.

The vampires on the show are mostly hyper-masculine characters with most of their victims being women. So even though the shows allows one or two women to kick ass (Buffy and Willow) the rest are mostly helpless and can’t defend themselves. (No body bothered to learn some martial arts?)

Most characters on the show are white and whenever there does happen to be one or two character who are not white, they are merely used as plot-tools. In Season 7 slayers from all nationalities appeared, yet only one of them was black and another was an Asian woman who wasn’t even allowed some knowledge of some English. They kill off Kendra and replace her with Faith who is then allowed a much greater role in the show.

KendraFaith

Most of the characters are straight and especially in the beginning we don’t see Willow and Tara having sex in the way it is portrayed when, for example, Buffy and Riley are having sex or in the way that Xander and Anya are having sex.

Alyson Hannigan

Riff Regan

Also most of the characters have a fair amount of beauty privilege and none of them are fat. They even replaced the actress who originally played Willow in the original pilot. She was fat, but the show was never clear about why they replaced her. I suspect her body type was at least one of the reasons if not the only one.

I hate how the show forces a kind of bullshit sexual morality on it’s audience about women and what they think their sexuality is suppose to be. If we compare Buffy to Faith the contrast is pretty noticeable. Faith has casual sex and doesn’t care about emotional attachments and there are no direct consequences for her having sex. But later on the show makes it pretty clear that Faith is crazy and not exactly a character we should take for a role model.

Buffy on the other hand is kept almost virginal and is punished severely almost every time she has sex. First Angel loses his soul (something which I also find a fucked up metaphor, because apparently a person has to be soulless to do all the things he does, so we can distance ourselves from such behavior?), Parker treats her like dirt and her sexual encounters with Spike are very violent and abusive almost every time. With Riley she is not punished for having sex, but their relationship is none the less disturbing to me.

Riley tells her outright that he thinks women can’t handle themselves and need men to protect them and has a huge problem with the fact that Buffy is stronger.  He makes it very clear he feels emasculated when he loses the super powers he had, due to the government issued drugs. Also there is a confrontation between him and Parker that shows Riley to be a bit of a misogynist.

Parker tells Riley that he thinks Buffy is needy and then compares all first year female college students to toilets. Riley then punches him. You’d say that Parker more than deserved getting his ass kicked over such a comment, but only a scene later we see that he didn’t punch Parker for comparing women to toilets, but because Parker said it about Buffy. Which shows that Riley doesn’t care if men insult women, just the women he wants to have sex with. His friends are no better in that regard and they are actually surprised that he punched Parker, because “they have heard worse”. Like that makes such comments acceptable.

Finally the relationship between Buffy and Spike is one of the elements of the show that fascinates and horrifies me the most. They compare Spike’s inability to kill people to an erectile dysfunction (this to me is like a synonym for men using their penises as weapons to dominate and control), but that’s isn’t even the worst of it. When Spike confesses to Buffy he has feelings for he, she talks about this with Willow and her mother. Her mother says something along the line: “Honey, did you sent him signals or did you lead him on in some way?” Both Willow and her mother then pressure her into confronting him to get him to change his behavior. Why the hell are they even holding her accountable for his behavior in the first place? This yet again perpetuates the message that men are incapable of controlling themselves and it is the duty of us women to make sure they don’t victimize us or do other reprehensible things. This message is extremely anti-feminist and is still perpetuated in courtrooms today where it is rape victims that are usually on trial and not the perpetrators.

In season 6 when Buffy is severely depressed and is having difficulties being around her friends, a curious friendship develops between her and Spike  of brutal honesty (despite the fact that he often tried to kill her before and the people close to her). The next thing the show does is throw that friendship out the window and introducing the violence between them again, by making the chip ineffective toward her. (So that male audiences don’t have to feel emasculated by the fact that Buffy is obviously more powerful then Spike?)

The sexual relationship is an unhealthy one with all the violence and the frequent sexual assault from both sides. I don’t even want to count the times I heard: “No!” “Don’t!” “Stop!” “Go away!”. All signs of the people clearly not consenting. Then the show portraits a rape scene to as mark the other stuff as not being rape. I thought this was very judgmental and was an attempt to teach the audience what rape is and what is isn’t according to the show’s creators. Also when Spike made the final attempt to rape, Buffy tells him this:
“Ask me again why I could never love you. Because I stopped you.”
There are plenty of rape victims who have been unable to stop their attackers and a lack of physical strength is in most cases not even the reason. So what do the creators mean to say with this sentence? That if a victim fails to stop her (I say her because most victims are women) attacker, she wants it? She is in love with her attacker and that makes it OK for the attacker to force her? She is asking for it? Again, this made me cringe when I saw it.

Please tell me the difference between these:

Wrecked"Wrecked""Gone""Seeing Red"

Because they all look pretty coercive.

The sexual violence really wasn’t necessary and I often hear people say that what Buffy did was unwise. However it didn’t need to be if they had left the general violence and sexual assault out of the picture. Then it would have been a casual sexual relationship. Which many women I know of sometimes engage in when their lives aren’t doing so well, when they are simply looking for a distraction or simply a sexual encounter. And they can do this without sexually assaulting anyone or abusing their sex partners.

When Spike asks Buffy why she won’t sleep with him anymore, she answers: “Because I don’t love you.” What has love got to do with it? Why are “good women” expected to be in love with their sex partners? Why should that be a requirement at all?

Finally Spike blames Drusilla, Harmony and Buffy on several occasions for his problems. And Finally Buffy accepts responsibility by apologizing to him and tell him  she is “using him”. When I saw that I felt like crying because I know too many women beating themselves up over similar situations and it really is never a fair accusation. But too often women are told they’re responsible for it all and they feel bad over it.

There are other reasons and I learned a lot from analyses in papers from this website: http://slayageonline.com/pages/Slayage/site_map.htm

But my reasons for not finding the show feminist is that it has too many anti-feminist sentiments and simply too many problems that didn’t need to be there.

Additional problems other people pointed out to me:
Buffy always seems to look for male approve, while not caring that much about female approval.

The show normalizes pornography by having one of the main characters use it (Xander owns several issues of Playboy, as mentioned in “Gingerbread”)

The way Spike learns he “impotent” is very much set up like a rape scene (he’s violent, he turns up the music). When Spike notices that he can’t bite/rape Willow, she feels sorry for him and wonders if she is not attractive enough to be bitten/raped.

53 responses to “Why Buffy The Vampire Slayer is not a feminist show

  1. Pingback: Feministische leesgroep: Buffy the Vampire Slayer | FEL feminisme

  2. Interesting review, thought-provoking, but I can’t escape the conclusion that you’re judging Buffy for portraying attitudes that *are* rather than those which “should” be.

    Buffy showed numerous co-dependant, unhealthy and outright abusive relationships. Should it instead have shown only sugar-coated Disney fantasies of idealized relationships? As other comments have pointed out in various terms, Buffy and Spike’s relationship featured both of them acting abusively, both motivated by complex and powerful emotions. Both were shown to go through trauma and recovery; the whole cast could be analyzed for depictions of PTSD in fiction.

    The use of fantasy imagery in the show was a legitimate storytelling device; Vampire attacks as a metaphor for rape are part of the vampire metaphor anyway. The show also used both vampires and magic as metaphors to tell stories about drug addiction. Both are valid; fantasy imagery is essentially an externalization of internal themes, inner character psychology expressed through external action.

    Many of the themes and incidents you criticize in Buffy as betraying anti-feminist are more fairly viewed as discussions of those very themes within society. Buffy may not have been overtly or expressly Feminist, but it definitely explored complex issues like gender equality, sex, relationships, alienation, addiction, sexuality, and more, through nuanced drama and storytelling.

  3. I just want to address one thing you brought up, that the word “feminism” is never brought up on the show. Just because it is never said, does not mean that none of the characters are feminist. Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Cordelia are 16 when the show begins. What 16 year old completely understands feminism, especially in our society, which places it in such a negative light? Most take their time to learn and grow into feminism and the confidence that goes into expressing it. I think the show actually does a great job of showing Buffy, Willow, Cordelia, Anya, Tara, and Dawn’s (among other characters) feminist development. NONE of the female characters are helpless. Of course, they all have times where they feel defeated, but doesn’t everyone? This show, and these characters, are real. Their growth, including their feminist development, is real. Their mistakes are real. It’s not perfect, but it’s feminist and groundbreaking and incredibly awesome, which makes it pretty close.

  4. To be honest, you missed several points in most of the storylines you looked into. You are right about the lack of “racial” diversity in the show, but that didn’t happen to Angel (Buffy’s sister show) and Firefly, both from the same creator; it simply wasn’t intentional. Also, you mentioned the Asian girl who couldn’t speak English and, ta-da, that’s supposed to be comical relief. It’s not simply because she’s Asian or a girl, but for the comical device they wanted to use. Miscommunication is a recurring comical effect in the show.

    Willow and Tara as a lesbian couple was affected by the television standards of the time. Their frist on-screen kiss was long delayed and put into an episode where it would NEVER be the highlight because producers didn’t want the network to promote the series based on it or even censor it. Like it happened A LOT of times. It continues to be “dangerous” for a show to put gay sex scenes even today.

    I could agree with the fact that Riff Regan was fired for being overweight, but when you watch the original pilot and see her performance, you see that she was not right for the role and wouldn’t be even if she had a different body type.

    You are about the sex morality stuff. It actually started with Cordelia instead of Faith, as both were antagonists in their own way and both were comfortable with sex. But Buffy’s stories with sex actually have a point beyond the sole morality of having sex. The first of which is the metaphor of having sex with a guy who turns out to be looking only for that. The point is not “shame on you, Buffy. Shame on you, girls. Stay virgins”, but “shame on you, guys. You are soulless monsters for doing that to girls”. And then there’s the Parker incident, which happens to SUCH A LOT of girls that you can’t even start complaining that it’s being used in a show for demoralizing sex for girls. Also, Buffy gets to punch Parker and overcome this incident IN HER OWN some episodes later.

    Characters like Riley, Parker and Xander were created for, ta-da, showing what misogyny means and how common and accepted it is. How “emasculated” men feel when a girl or woman is stronger then them. That’s the purpose. If you look seriously into the show, all of its women simply overcome the men in their lives without even thinking that that’s what they are actually doing. Only the men acknowledge this, because that’s how they were raised to think of the reality they live in. Think about it: Giles, as an older, well-educated man, used to this reality where women easily overpower any men, has never displayed misogynistic traits. Yet the younger and less experienced Riley and Xander are always fighting against the fact that they are weaker. Here’s a point you missed.

    The storyline featuring Buffy and Spike’s violent relationship is seriously misguided and wrong and considered the worst in the show’s history by a big majority of the fans. But what you forgot is what made Buffy do the things she did was her depression and her desperation to feel something, which she found in having sex with Spike. She’s never portrayed as being coerced by Spike into their relationship, rather than wanting it for extremely wrong reasons. And her “break-up” with him is not intentionally portrayed as women owing men something, but as Buffy feeling bad about her decisions and behavior and actually wanting to change them, which her speech makes very clear (“… and it’s killing ME”, not him). With the mutual, consensual relationship ended, any advance Spike made was rape. And the line “because I stopped you” is not evocative of being able to stop a rapist, but of being able to not want it. The show established from its beginning that Buffy, as the slayer, is one of few women that are physically able to repel an attacker and that is the point: it is wrong because they ARE NOT able to repel a man that overcomes them in size and strength. Buffy’s an allegory.

    The storyline is still obviously wrong and poorly written, but look into the show’s history: that was the first time that a WOMAN was the showrunner of the show. Yes, season 6 was the year that Marti Noxon took over the development of the show from Joss Whedon (he was developing Firefly at the time). She was the one that devised the sex relationship that is so rejected by the show’s most dedicated fans. And Marti Noxon actually considers herself a feminist or a person who can write feminist icons (http://artattheauction.blogspot.com.br/2009/07/marti-noxon-to-pen-feminist-centered.html).

    Problems like her mother suggesting it’s her fault and Spike blaming her for his problems are wrong, but are also reflective of reality, just like Spike’s “impotence”. Buffy seeks for male approval, but people seek approval from people. Partners seek approval from their partners. The instances in the series are not reflective of misogyny, but of insecurity. Xander seeks approval for female approval from time to time. Spike is EXTREMELY dependent on both Drusilla and Buffy throughout the series. And Willow’s main reason for abandoning magic and overcoming her addiction was TARA’S APPROVAL. Female seeking female approval. How about that?

    Here’s a question: do you think pornography is a problem when it comes to people being treated like sex objects for their appearance or that just applies to women? If we were not part of a patriarcal society and men were actually the main objects of pornography, would it be as serious? Can’t women have the freedom to show their bodies, like the male models in underwear glued to stupidly tall buildings, without being part of a problem? I sense a lack of sexual freedom for women in this thought. To me, the only problem with pornography is the women who work in it being simply considered sluts when the men are treated like “they are THE Men”. They should be “THE Women” and do whatever they want to do without being judged. A big part of these women are actually doing it for the sake of their freedom and earn.

    Searching for misogynist problems doesn’t transform a series into the opposite of its purpose. A show is not simply what it shows in its surface, but also what it actually means in an overall sense. Buffy shows reality when it’s wrong and because it’s wrong. Ignoring the reality as it is does not make a good, feminist show.

    You should watch Firefly. There’s this character called Kaylee, portrayed by Jewel Staite, who is a sweet, bubbly girl, very much in love with an oblivious guy, portrayed in such a typically virginal fashion. But she’s the mechanic of the ship (a job associated to men) and has casual sex when she feels like it without being punished or considered evil for it. There’s Zoe, who’s strong in her own and is actually the head of her marriage (which shouldn’t have ANY head, but in this case it has a reason).

    We should never forget that there is ALWAYS a big picture. One-sided relationships are ill-fated and that’s true for a lot of situations in life. Even though it has problems, Buffy is and will always be a pioneer and very acclaimed mention when it comes to feminism in television. That’s why it matters. The surface of scenes that are analysed out of context doesn’t make them what they are.

  5. You make some very good points and you wrote yourself that you generally liked the show. So i don’t feel the need to get defensive about liking the show even if there are things that could have been better.

    I mostly wanted to comment on the Buffy/Spike rape thing. I don’t think what Buffy said, (“Ask me again why I could never love you. Because I stopped you.”) is indicating in any way that if a woman can’t stop it, she wants what’s happening. First of all there is a pause between the sentences that alters the meaning a bit “Ask me again why I could never love you.” pause and a meaningful look between both of them. “Because I stopped you.”. Both Spike and her know that she is much stronger than he is (see Season 5: when he couldn’t even move the trollhammer one bit while she apparently picks it up with ease.)
    There were a lot of situations when she told him to stop and he says something like: “Make me.” indicating that he knows she could stop him if she really wanted to. He doesn’t completely understand the situation because he doesn’t have a soul (at least that’s what we are told again and again). When she violently stops him, that’s the point he understands he was out of line. Before he was convinced that she was still attracted to him so why not have sex? Like you said: What’s love got to do with it? Why is it wrong if she doesn’t love him? She is the one who says that it kills her to use him like that. He had other unhealthy relationships before – we know that even if we don’t know all of his history. He spent a hundred years with Drusilla and thought he could just “torture her until she likes him* again” and apparently they spent one more year together after that. So, there can be no doubt that he’s pretty twisted even if he learned some things since he got chipped.

    I am actually pretty fond of the episode “Seeing Red” when the rape-attempt happens. It helped me to deal with a situation where I was the victim of a similar attack. I can’t count how often I watched it when I couldn’t sleep because of the nightmares. I only feel sorry for the actor James Marsters because he talked about his difficulties with the scene in a few interviews.

    *in the series he says “I’m gonna tie her up, torture her until she likes *me* again”

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