Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gender: How Buffy takes on the Patriarchy and Why

A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Shawn Hill

One thing I’ve done over and over online is analyze Buffy the Vampire Slayer, my favorite TV show, to death. I enjoyed almost every minute of that groundbreaking, total geekfest of a stereotype-overturning show, and my only regret regarding both it and Angel is that Angel didn’t last for seven seasons,
too.

Since Joss is now a committed and successful comic book writer, a writer who avowedly writes about women by preference and who has given many strong female characters to our genre (of sci-fi/horror), I thought it might be interesting to look at each season of Buffy to see how he plays with established gender expectations, tropes and stereotypes. What clichés of the genre can I find (which of course traditionally finds women as screaming victims, needing men to protect them from the evil slasher, etc.), and what do Whedon and his confreres do to subvert them?

This consideration will be greatly aided by Whedon’s decision, within the ongoing serial narrative, to make each season a self-contained arc of its own, culminating in a clearly demarcated finale. We were clued in, by the narrative itself, about both debut and closure of thematic concerns, and developed a trust, as regular viewers over the years, that each year would bring a new and more challenging problem for Buffy to face. Overview of these will be
somewhat simplified and crude in the interest of brevity.

Her principal foe in Season One is the Master. With an absent father of her own (a consistent trait for Whedon characters), she is destined to find or choose or fight off a succession of father substitutes. Giles is a stern taskmaster who becomes a loyal supporter. Snyder is the bureaucratic and conformist drive of patriarchal society, albeit in bitterly impotent form. The Master is an old-world king, demanding feudal devotion. Though he manages to kill Buffy, her lovestruck admirer Xander revives her, and while she empowers her fellows to fight off his hordes, she kills him, impaling him on a spire. Darla, his minion, is a dark version of what Buffy would become under the Master’s sway, and she is quickly dispatched.

Season Two introduces another early villainess, Drusilla, who will prove a more lasting, if illusive, threat. Decidedly non-physical, her threat to Buffy is through Buffy’s intuitive, sensitive side, the “Slayer sense” that gives her precognitive warnings. Drusilla shares this gift (a witchy feminine one) as well, in far greater capacity. While she mucks with Buffy’s mind, Spike threatens her body, and he possesses a fan-favorite bad boy sexual allure. It turns out, though, that they were just the pre-show. Her foe this season will be more devastating, her own lover Angel (many times over old enough to be her father) turned evil and predatory. To save Sunnydale she must destroy her lover, which she does, at great emotional sacrifice.

Season Three again returns to Patriarchy, this time in the person of the corrupt and intelligent Mayor, whose plans to destroy the world depend on destroying Buffy. Interestingly, he is not simply anti-woman, but instead draws distinctions between good girls and bad ones. This season also introduces Faith, another dark version of Buffy, this one without female mentoring (Buffy still has her mom, and Willow), flailing about and finding guidance at last with her own surrogate daddy, the Mayor. Buffy refuses his guidance, and engineers his and Faith’s destruction. She must give up, however, her fantasy of life with a restored Angel, who leaves town.

Season Four finds Buffy out of high school, contemplating a move into an adult world as a woman. She becomes estranged from her mother, and at first we think Dr. Walsh will provide the first significant female "Big Bad." Certainly she challenges Buffy on key issues of diligence, insight and responsibility. That proves another red herring, however, as the big bad is yet another bad boy, Adam, a Frankenstein creation of spare parts. His name is meaningful, because he is the symbolic primal man wishing to engender a new race of similar constructs. Buffy’s challenge in fighting him brings her to the very origins of her role as the Slayer, a primitive Eve figure that gives us hints that even Buffy’s seeming gifts of super-strength and endurance and awareness were a curse engineered by men. Eve defeats Adam, and order is restored, but harder trials await.

Season Five at last gives us what most female protagonist stories start out with, a female antithesis of ultimate evil in the ironically named Glory. It’s as if, in finally getting around to this stereotype, Joss decided to invest completely in the explorations of the female realm. This season Buffy loses her mother utterly (in the most moving episode of the series, entitled so as to place emphasis on the nurturant female body, while the visuals show Joyce only as an empty relic), and gains a sister, thrusting her into the motherhood role without birth or husband.
Meanwhile Glory, stronger than Buffy, needs to destroy Dawn to get her way. This collapses Buffy’s established protective warrior role into the mother lioness role, emphasizing Buffy’s strength and dedication while threatening her at her core self-identity. It’s a risky move, as Buffy has so often resisted gender expectations and the sexy glamour of the series relies on that insouciance defiance, but it works as Buffy does actually, in death, achieve her trial into adulthood.

Season Six reveals adulthood as a whole other barrel of nails, as no one deals well with marriage, love affairs or drug addiction. But it does have the fun of pitting our two heroines, witch and warrior, against each other in the brilliant final episodes.

Season Seven is almost as much Willow’s story as Buffy’s. Faith returns with a clearer head on her shoulders, Dawn matures noticeably, and is the model for the real theme of the season. Buffy’s final gift, with Willow’s vital aid, is to extend her girl power as wide as it will go, and fill her demon-beset world with empowered women ready to face such an array of metaphorical threats.
The little bad is a religious zealot with sexual issues (summarily
castrated), and the big bad is gloomy Buffy herself as her own death-urge. Once again, with the help of her friends, she steps into the light and refuses to engage in secret cutting or self-sabotage.

Even in the weaker seasons, there were classic episodes. This is true even of Season Six, which has some of the most challenging themes but bungles the handling of most of them with too much weakness from Willow and too dour a depression from Buffy. In presenting new challenges each season, at times the characters seemed to regress, taking two steps back for every step forward. But the ultimate through-line was towards self-awareness, power and mastery.

Buffy lost a dad, but gained a mentor. She lost a lover, but her friends stood by her. She lost a mother, but gained a sister. She dropped out of college, but she found her life’s calling, and transformed the curse that cost her so much. And she finally traded in her bag of stakes and crosses for a shiny multi-function scythe.

This symbolic melding of staff and axe, of stake and blade (of thrust and slash), was an integrated power she could then pass on to others. From student, she had become teacher. She’d earned it. Now pretty blonde girls, when pursued by nameless threats with grasping hands and sharp teeth (and, metaphorically, anyone feeling overwhelmed and threatened), can turn around and fight back. Mission accomplished.

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