Feminism and Gender Studies in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Chloé Campbell is a third year BA English and American Studies student, and an avid fan of Buffy. Her interest is in media portrayals of women and witchcraft, particularly from a feminist perspective. See more in our student profiles.

I’ve been a zealous fan of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer since I was about 12 years old when I first stumbled across the show. Naturally, I was bewitched with the show’s premise and I was instantly charmed by the witty, feisty, pint-sized blonde heroine. I was enchanted by the supernatural concepts in the episodes and I loved the characters. Heck, I even loved the monsters. But what drew me in further was the strong female ethos that governed Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For those unfamiliar with the series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer depicts the life of the teenage Buffy Summers, who appears to be the average Californian high schooler, yet she is actually the Chosen One and the latest in the line of female vampire slayers. The show is set in the fictional town of Sunnydale, a town which is conveniently located on top of a Hellmouth (a hub of mystical activity). Along with her Watcher (a wise British guy who serves as educator and guardian) Rupert Giles, and her school friends (nicknamed the Scooby Gang, because of their panache for mystery solving activities) Buffy & co. set out to keep the monsters of Sunnydale dead and buried.

The show is obviously influenced by the elements seen in Gothic fiction; there is always a spooky setting, an atmosphere of mystery and suspense, ancient prophecies galore, omens, visions, supernatural events and tyrannical figures. In this blog post I will be focusing on feminism and gender roles in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer  TV series.The show is full of strong women, and full of men who appreciate and respect the strong women. Firstly, the notion of being a slayer is one that relies on female strength and empowerment. There is usually only one slayer at a time, and a slayer is always female. When one slayer dies, the slayer power is passed onto another female. The show’s creator Joss Whedon stated that he wanted the series to focus on a serious look at violence and women’s empowerment” and the “very first mission statement… was the joy of female power: Having it, using it, sharing it.” Buffy is a blonde, feminine cheerleader, with supernatural strength, speed, stamina, agility, reflexes and rapid healing abilities. She also has enhanced intuition and prophetic dreams. Whedon wanted to take the stereotypical female victim of the horror genre, and turn her into the hero. Vivian Chin stated that Whedon took “an antifeminist model, the helpless blonde, to represent an alternative feminist possibility” and Lorna Jowett agreed that from the outset, then, Buffy plays with role reversal: the female is a vampire slayer, not a victim.” It is clear to see how Buffy (the show and the character) “inverts the male power embodied in the traditional vampire and its slayer”. Previously, the only notable vampire slayer in popular culture was the male Abraham Van Helsing, yet Buffy modifies the perspective of vampire slaying as a male role.

Female power in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is represented as a spectrum, and not just as a binary. Buffy’s female characters (and there are many) embody many different types of female power. Buffy herself represents physical strength, as she often uses her own body as a powerful weapon, seen in her use of martial arts. Willow Rosenberg, Buffy’s best friend and a witch, embodies mystical and mental power. Willow is not only extremely talented  in a magical sense, she is also the show’s resident technology and science whiz.  Throughout history, literature and television/film the role of ‘witch’ is almost always considered to be a feminine one, and an affinity for technology and science is usually a trait assigned to male characters. The show turns these gender roles on their head by assigning both to Willow, and by making resident librarian and Watcher Rupert Giles a ‘witch’ too. Jowett asserts that “the show challenged gender constructions by reversing generic (and gendered) roles by allocating characteristics regardless of gender.”Cordelia, the resident prom queen of the TV show represents financial power and the  incredibly influential power of status that women can harness. The inclusions of Anya, a former demon, and the evil ‘Hell God’ Glory, show that women can be monstrous in the same ways that males can be and that women do not have to be sexual femme fatale types in order to be dangerous and deadly. The character of Tara represents the emotional strength that women embody, and the character of Dawn Summers represents the power that ordinary, non-magical, non-slayer females have.

Six out of twelve of Buffy’s main characters are female, which is a realistic representation, as females make up around 51% of the U.S population. Many similar prime time American TV shows only had a 37% female cast. A lot of the time the majority of female characters on American television shows only appear to serve as love interests, but this is not the case for Buffy.The show also dispels the assumption of what it means to be a feminist. The cultural assumption that feminists are man-hating, butch, hairy, lesbians is challenged by the feminine, heterosexual feminist of Buffy. Whedon objected to making “Buffy the Lesbian Separatist” as he wanted people to reassess their notions of feminism and femininity, rather than objectifying women through the ‘male gaze’. Similarly, Willow doesn’t conform to a typical femininity. Willow isn’t conventionally ‘feminine’ throughout the series and she lacks female social structures, as her best friend in the show is the male character of Xander. Willow refuses to be just an accomplice, she asserts  “I’m not your sidekick” (Fear Itself, season 4) In characterising Willow and Buffy as both being heroes in their own right, Whedon dispels the assumption that there is only room for one alpha female. Early on in the series, during a self defence class, Willow reminds Buffy, “don’t forget, you’re supposed to be a meek little girlie girl like the rest of us” pointing out Buffy’s variance from traditional gender norms, while Buffy’s answer, “spoil my fun” highlights the pleasure to be had from seeing those norms transgressed.” (Jowett, 2005)

The character of Buffy represents the modern feminist question, can women have it all? “Buffy has been described as a wry, ongoing parable of the modern woman’s greatest conflict: the challenge to balance personal and professional life.” It is also notable that the show doesn’t punish or publicly shame the sexually active female characters, women and their sexuality are respected. When Willow starts a relationship with her girlfriend Tara, there is no sexism, no misogyny and definitely no homophobia. The whole cast respects their relationship, and it isn’t even made a big deal of. The theme of lesbianism isn’t sexualised either.Finally, it is clear to the audience that Buffy often goes against oppressive, patriarchal figures and institutions. In Season 3 Buffy detaches herself from the “male dominated hierarchy” of The Watcher’s Council. When Buffy learns that the First Slayer was violated by three men, she objects to this even when it will give her more power (seen in episode Get it Done) In Season 6, Buffy takes down ‘The Trio’, a group of three extremely misogynistic 20-something males who systematically objectify and violate females. And in the show’s final season, Buffy goes up against probably the most misogynistic, sexist character to ever grace out TV screens: Caleb, an evil priest who is a sadistic sociopath with a pathological hatred of women. But fear not, Buffy efficiently destroys Caleb, (an entirely feminist notion of bringing down the patriarchy if you ask me.) In Season 6, Spike, the loveable rogue of a vampire, asserts that men’s assertion of women’s power as monstrous is just “a bit of a spin to keep the ladies in line”, “thus the show offers a ‘feminist explanation of how potentially powerful females are subordinated and ‘bad’ women are demonized.”

Of course, the show has been criticised as lacking in racial diversity, has been accused of as being heteronormative and concerned with only white, American privilege – but it is evident that Joss Whedon created a fang-tastically, feminist TV series. ___________________________________________________________________

All the quotes included are from: Jowett, L. 2005. Sex and the Slayer: A Gender Studies Primer for the Buffy Fan. Wesleyan University Press

Statistics from: http://www.missrepresentation.org/about-us/resources/gender-resources/

About spectralvisions

Spectral Visions is an annual Gothic conference hosted by the University of Sunderland. It explores the dark, the decadent and the terrifying aspects of Gothic literature and language. This blog is a student-run initiative, where Visionaries showcase their creative talents and learning in short stories, poems and essays on the Gothic. For more information, please email colin.younger@sunderland.ac.uk, or check out our website at sunderland.ac.uk/spectralvisions You can follow us on Twitter at @UoS_Gothic or like us on Facebook at facebook.com/uosgothic
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One Response to Feminism and Gender Studies in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer

  1. Pingback: Reflections Upon Turning 21 | Aspiration and Might

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