Sunday, August 30, 2009


I love Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I'm a little too old for "fandom" in all its weird Internet forms, but I love Buffy. The "vampires, and the woman who slays/fucks them" (or in Twilight's case: "vampires, and the woman who stands around not doing much") genre is well-worn, but Buffy brought something new--agonizing emotional realism. The joy and pain of Buffy is that it's not a show where killing the bad guy makes it all okay. The heroes are in way over their heads just going through the normal transitions of adolescent life and dealing with the frictions within their own side; supernatural monsters are often the least of their worries. The fact that Buffy's much older boyfriend who breaks her heart when he turns ugly after they have sex is also a vampire is nearly irrelevant.

So is Buffy feminist? Oh yes, of course. But not for the obvious reasons. A physically strong female hero is nothing new and often crops up in utterly Neandersexual drivel. (Joss Whedon's tendency to depict waifish girls kicking ass has given me the same worry I have about Randall Munroe's tendency to draw female scientists--at first I thought it was feminist, now I think it might just be his fetish.) There's more than that separating Buffy from Lara Croft and Anita Blake.

Often, the vampire-fucking genre is used as code for the whole "women want bad boys" thing. In Buffy there's some of that, but more often it seems like she sleeps with vampires (especially Spike) because they're the only men who understand her life. Even if she could tell other men about it, they still wouldn't share in the underground, embattled world where she spends much of her time. In other words, she doesn't fuck vampires because women like that sort of thing, but because she does.

Maybe the most feminist thing about Buffy is the near-total lack of a male gaze. Buffy, Willow, and Anya are all very attractive, but they are never ogled. Their clothes are casual and practical, and the camera doesn't linger on their bodies. There's no particular effort at modesty, but you know how when many shows introduce a particularly good-looking female character, there'll be a little "va va voom, fellas" shot, a sweep up her body or a shot of her flipping her hair in that apparently irresistible way? Buffy doesn't go for that shit. Not that Buffy et al. aren't sexy, but they're sexy in that unconscious way that men on TV so often are. They're sexy while they go about their lives, rather than stopping to be sexy at the camera.

The feminism in Buffy also comes off as somewhat unconscious (although listen to Joss Whedon talk, and it's clearly not). Buffy doesn't see herself as a champion of women but of Sunnydale. There aren't any strawman sexists telling her she's just a girl. She's not prickly toward men in the way overt "feminist heroes" sometimes are and she (and the show) never rejects or resents the help of strong men. Buffy isn't out to prove she's as good as any man, she's just out to be the best she can be.

What I like best about Buffy is the strong and real personalities of all the main characters. You watch a few episodes (or, okay, all of them in a marathon can't-sleep-can't-eat spree) and you know how Buffy thinks and what sort of person she is. She's no paragon, she's not perfectly rational and she's not unfalteringly strong--but she's a person. She's not "a girl", not "a woman", not "a heroine." She doesn't exist to titillate or educate or symbolize. She's Buffy Summers.

That's feminism for ya.


  1. I used to watch Buffy religiously when it was on TV. I love her very much, for all the reasons you mentioned, and because, frankly, she's also very likeable. :) You make me want to watch Buffy all over again. I wonder if it will look different to me at 30 than it did at 18. heh.

  2. This reminds me of something I was discussing recently that I'd meant to address here: Firefly is the most sex-positive show I can think of. Most characters have sex lives, the sex worker is treated as an equal, the randy mechanic is depicted as cute rather than slutty or domineering, the married couple is in love and still has sex, etc.


  3. Bruno - I think Firefly is about (or rather, includes without being about) adult sex, while Buffy is about teenagers. Which means that sex will naturally be a bigger and more conflicted deal in Buffy, because it really is confusing when you're that age.

    And <3 <3 <3 Kaylee. :)

  4. I really liked Buffy's evolution from a mostly-teen-oriented show in the first few seasons to a much darker, "grown-up" show in later seasons (i.e. after high school). The first season was largely demons-as-metaphors-for-teen-angst, but it grew into much, much more than that.

    And whatever the show had to say about feminism, I'm sure we can all agree that the worst possible thing for a characted to do was to call Buffy a "bitch." Nothing good ever came from that.

  5. I hated seasons 6 and 7, though. I didn't even watch all of season 7. It's like everybody forgot how to do their parts: the writers forgot how to write, the actors had acting burnout, director(s) got lazy, etc. It was too painful to watch, and not in a good way.

    I remembered thinking in season 4 during the episode where Tara was introduced they were going to pair her with Willow, and only after the episode did I think, no wait, they don't actually do that on television, they're just going to be friends or something. (Note: I rarely watched TV, so I didn't know that shows did show same-sex relationships occasionally since, like, a few years before.) I was happy to be wrong.

  6. The thing I like about Joss Whedon (although I haven't seen Dollhouse), is his ability to tell the story without relying on any kind of crutch.

    The episode "Hush" came about because someone told him "You write such great dialog". Which is true: he can write AWESOME dialog. But he never turned any of his shows into soliliquay fests.

    Although his first three shows were sci-fi/fantasy, there was never a feel of "look what the effects department can do!". Yes, there were some great effects, but they were used to advance the story (and the occassional bad effects didn't detract).

    To me, THE most endearing aspect of Whedon's work is that it is character driven: he creates characters that you WANT to see more of, want to know "what happens next". Unfortunatly, there aren't enough writers in the world doing that anymore...

  7. Not Me - I disagree. Season 6 had some low points, although they were more low points in Buffy's life than in the quality of the show. The only thing I really disagree with is that the Spike relationship turned out so ugly--I'da thought those two crazy kids were meant for each other.

    But Season 7 was redemptive, and it did an excellent job of a huge buildup to a truly grand finale. I liked the hell out of it.

  8. I must admit that while I liked Firefly allot I never watched Buffy while it was on TV and still don't understand all of my friends fascination with it. In fact my dislike of Buffy was so great that it took seeing the preview to Serenity to convince me that firefly might be something worth watching. I was rather underwhelmed by Dollhouse. The fact that my personal morals demanded the deaths of most of the non doll characters is more or less what did it in for me.

    As far as feminism goes I have to wonder when something stops being feminist and simply becomes humanist or what have you. I certainly think a persons sex, age, religion, etc should be irrelevant compared to their respective abilities, but I do not consider my self to be feminist. I support male equality too, should I go around telling people I am a masculinist?

    It's gotten to the point where many so called "feminists" seem to think that females are not only equal, but superior to males. This is the same bunch that realities that if we ever do have full sexual equality that their entire purpose in life will cease to exist. These people are like generals who don't want a war to end because they think it's fun.

    This kind of thinking can have disastrous results, such as teaching 100lb girls to fend off rapists via waif-fu rather than more...solid...means. Another thing that bugs me is females that roll out the feminist line so long as it is advantageous to them, but then run back towards the week and helpless woman act when it suits them.

    Obviously not all feminist are like the ones I mentioned above, Holly for example. However the concept of feminism has be so perverted by various persons and groups with political agendas that it can no longer be taken seriously.

  9. Keith - My problem with calling it "humanism" is that men and women didn't start out on equal footing and in some ways still aren't. Calling feminism "humanism" is like calling the gay rights movement the "people with sexualities rights movement"--that may be the ultimate goal but it takes the focus of the people who are currently getting the shorter end of the stick.

    My view of feminism (which is not particular to me, which is in fact very abundant in the real world) is absolutely pro-man. I have no interest in fighting or punishing men and I don't think many feminists do.

    Another thing that bugs me is females that roll out the feminist line so long as it is advantageous to them, but then run back towards the week and helpless woman act when it suits them.

    Another thing that bugs me is when someone is in the middle of making me seriously think about whether "feminism" is an appropriate label or not, and then says something this obnoxiously sexist.

  10. Unfortunately Holly, there ARE a lot of women that will hoist the appropriate flag with changing circumstances.

    Used to see it a LOT in the Navy: we'd have women screaming about "treat us equal!", but would skate out of a fair amount of work with "but I'm a girl, I can't handle THAT". Kinda "hurts the cause"...

    Buffy (as a character) wasn't like that: she just did what she felt she had to, and damn whether or not she was a girl or not. THAT is the kind of person I'd want any daughter of mine to grow up to be...

  11. Maybe I exaggerate a bit. But I wasn't talking about how season 6 was extra-dark and pushed the envelope in the pissing-off-the-audience department. The whole thing just seemed lackluster and shoddy somehow. Half the episodes I was kind of expecting the core cast (Gellar, Hannigan, Brendon) to break character and say, "Bored now. Where's my paycheck?" Too many filler episodes - actually, that started in season 5, but still. Over-use of retconning (assuming that certain things have been true for awhile now, we just never saw it). Metaphors became too blatant and heavy-handed. And so on. Since even an hour a week was a luxury in my time-starved life, I wasn't about to waste it on a show that by then seemed to have lost its touch.

    I did see the finale, though. Maybe I didn't quite get the "redemptive" part due to missing too much of season 7. What the finale did look like from that perspective was that it was a strong reminder of how, despite the generally upbeat nature of the show, it is still set in a cosmic horror universe. Yes, they stopped the super-vampire invasion, but at a cost of blowing up a small city. Yes, no more hellmouth, but that just means superhuman evil's gonna be more spread all over the world now and harder to find. Yes, there are a great many slayers now, but considering that messing with powerful dark magics like that always seems to have severe consequences... You have to wonder if maybe the First actually planned that to happen. But hey, it's still upbeat, so Buffy gets to have her moment of victory and belonging right before the show ends.

    (As it turns out from the official post-TV series continuities, the "Buffy season 8" and "Fray the future slayer" comics, both written [but not drawn] by Whedon, the apparent consequence of creating so many slayers is that no new ones will be called for over 200 years. And none of the current ones survive for anywhere near that long. During that time vampires and demons come back in force and things get worse than ever. As I said, you can't help but wonder...)

  12. @not me:

    Sorry, you really missed important bist of the story. One is that there does clearly exist a difference between good and bad magic in the Buffyverse, signified by willow either becoming 'black' (eyes, hair) or 'white' (hair, halo) when using it a lot. Another is that not only there were no slayers for 200 years, there were also no vampires or demons 'in force', nor significant magic. The new slayer Fray is called precisely when those dark forces start to come back.

    Also, I never understood why nobody ever punched Riley in the face after he came back married and failed to tell her so...

  13. I love Buffy too but I'm not sure I agree with you about the women being less visually sexualized than usual. What about Faith? She had that whole sexualized look going and it was because she was The Bad Girl. I'll give them props though for not changing her look and attitude after she reformed.

    (Love your comment about Whedon's possible fetish.)

  14. Just recommenting to subscribe to comments.

  15. I agree with Strings. In residency there was a lot of talk of equality, until an anaerobic perirectal abscess needed to be drained, or the wife (always the bloody wife) needed to pick up the kids. The married and unmarried males took up the slack and soldiered on.

  16. William - Shit, really? Well, I don't do that; I don't ask a man to do anything I wouldn't do except sometimes reach very high-up things. When I have to deal with an unpleasant rectal situation at work, I dive right in. So to speak.

  17. Holly I do not understand why you think my statement is sexist. It's just what I have seen happen. It is only done by a small number of females, but it does happen and it bugs the hell out of me. Please note that I am not talking about things that someone legitimately needs help with. I am happy to get stuff on high shelves for people, regardless of their sex. Being 6'5" it has become a bit of a calling for me.

    To be fair the manly man shit bugs me too. It bothers me to see a man "helping" a woman when she clearly did not need to want help.

    Hell if anything I go to far in the other direction. I will assume that a small female has as little to fear from a late night solo walk as I do. I had to have it explained to me why this was a bad idea.

  18. @ Keith

    I understand what you mean, sometimes it bothers me when minorities (blacks, indians, gays etc.) claim they want equal rights and then turn right around when it suits them and do things like "black history month".
    These so-called "anti-racists" and "gay-rights" should just be "treat everyone the same" and not pay attention to people having special needs in certain parts of society, or that certain groups are MUCH more discriminated against.

    I'm not saying that ALL minorities are like that, of course, but a LOT of them are.

  19. @Anonymous:

    Thing is, you get things like 'Black History Month' precisely because black history is largely left out of more conventional history curricula. It's not raising blacks at the expense of whites, it's just trying to pick up the slack. We don't have 'White History Month' because white history is what we study during the other eleven months.

    Honestly, I have a limited amount of sympathy for white able-bodied upper middle class straight men who think oppressed classes should just shut up and stop whining.

  20. The "treat everyone the same" attitude only works when everyone recognizes that everyone SHOULD be treated the same. The sad reality is that this is not the case, and so those who are treated as lesser need to call attention to that injustice until it is fixed. Being direct about things often gets better results than beating around the bush or being general.

  21. "We don't have 'White History Month' because white history is what we study during the other eleven months."

    I know this was the case at one point, and I don't know where you went to school, but I felt that my history classes were very balanced. The way to solve the problem of over studying white history is not to create a special month of history for each race, but to redesign the whole curriculum so that everyone is properly represented.

  22. I know this was the case at one point, and I don't know where you went to school, but I felt that my history classes were very balanced.

    Well, peachy for you.

    Unfortunately, that isn't the case everywhere, which is why things like Black History Month are really great for those of us who grew up in communities that had shitty schools. I agree with you about changing the curriculum, but that's something that doesn't happen overnight and I don't see how it hurts to give a little extra focus to people who have been historically overlooked. It's a leg up for people who need it, nothing more.

  23. High school history, specifically US History and World History, concentrates on the memorable and the REALLY BIG FIGURES. Apart from those figures actually covered in US History, how many of those left out can truly be considered to be in that category. As for World History, apart from that one gold-obsessed kingdom, what of major importance has come out of Africa in all recorded history?

  24. >As for World History, apart from that one gold-obsessed kingdom, what of major importance has come out of Africa in all recorded history?<

    Some dandy little brush wars?

    Actually. if you look at the entire world just before the colonial period, EVERYWHERE had developed civilization except for 2 places: Africa and North America. Food for thought...