When it comes to horror movies, there are a number of trends that have become traditional and the norm. There is usually a young girl who, despite her best efforts, ultimately becomes the target of whatever creature it is that lurks in the shadows and places her in a position of vulnerability where she needs to be saved.
Playing on this stereotype and turning it on its ear, creator Joss Whedon created a show for the WB network called Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Buffy Summers is a powerful woman, instilled with ancient and powerful forces in order to become the chosen one, the one person in all the world with the power to fight the vampires, demons, and forces of evil that threaten mankind. Buffy is an important and unique figure in popular culture because she is a woman who is self reliant, strong willed and able to take care of herself in a tough situation, often saving a number of male characters in the show. Buffy breaks the mold of the woman as the damsel in distress and offers an interesting alternative. The character of Buffy Summers and her friends, including the fascinating and dynamic Willow Rosenberg, reflect the growth of modern women in relationship to a number of feminist ideals.
One only has to watch an episode or two of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to determine that Buffy Summers is a very different role model for young women than those normally presented in the media. Buffy is strong, fast, and willing to fight any number of opponents to protect the world. Through her actions and decisions Buffy, in the words of Dominic Alessio, shatters “restrictive female stereotypes” and singlehandedly reverses the historical tradition of women needing rescue from dangers that she cannot face on her own (Alessio 731). Because of these traits, Buffy stands next to Wonder Woman as a figure of feminine strength and potential: she is a superhero, one that is able to both defend herself and others.
But the problem that faces both Buffy and other female superheroes is that their trials for acceptance are much more difficult than those of male superheroes. In the public eye “femininity and aggression” are very different traits, which tend to skew the usual abilities and drive of superheroes towards masculine traditions (O’Reily 280). Women with power, such as Buffy Summers, have to not only struggle against their adversaries but also the public perception that these abilities and traits naturally belong with men. This makes the feminine hero at a disadvantage if they want to fit in as both individuals with extraordinary prowess and as a woman.
Despite the disadvantages that she faces and the extra work required of feminine heroes in our culture, Buffy manages to persevere through it all. Because of this tenacity, Buffy is seen as an important figure and role model for young women that they can connect to. According to scholars such as Frances Early, Buffy’s adventures resonate with young women because she not only undermines the image of warriors being associated with men, but she is also able to confront the challenges before her and do the right thing, whether it is confronting a demonic invasion of her hometown or ignoring the petty squabbles and clique formations that are prevalent in her high school (Early).
Buffy is a unique and positive role model for women because despite her youth, she realizes the sacrifices that need to be made and she is willing to do what needs to be done. Buffy is one of the few examples of women in popular media who are able to stand on their own when confronting their enemies without having to be saved by some knight in shining armor.
One of the most inspiring aspects of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that Buffy is a woman that does not fit into the molds that she is expected to by society. She carefully walks the line that is usually reserved for more masculine heroes and is written in such a way that none of the characters alienate the audience despite their blend of femininity and masculinity.
However, our concept of what is masculine and what is feminine is largely determined by how we perceive each category. According to R.W. Connel’s selection in our text, there are a number of different societies in which there is not a concept of “masculinity” as we know it (Connel 232). If this container for masculinity is subject to interpretation depending on the culture, then it should be possible for heroes such as Buffy, Wonder Woman, and Xena to follow through with their deeds without having to hide or sacrifice the fact that they are women too. The writing for the women of Sunnydale, ranging from Buffy and Willow to many of the secondary characters, reveal a great amount of detail and strength that allows for an audience to relate to them while still accepting the supernatural elements.
What truly makes Buffy the Vampire Slayer an entertaining and engaging program is that there were many female characters besides our heroine who were fleshed out and given dimension that would have likely not have been anywhere near as developed on other shows. A prime example of this is the character of Cordelia Chase, Sunnydale High’s most popular (and obnoxious) student. She is depicted as mean, spiteful, and willing to do anything that it takes to get her way without a single thought about who her actions may hurt. Although the writers of the show could have left Cordelia as a simple background character, they instead added depth to her and revealed that she, like Buffy, transcended her role in order to become something more.
It is revealed that Cordelia, despite being oblivious to many of the supernatural occurrences that take place around her, is actually very good at standardized testing. When Buffy and her friends look at her in disbelief, she asks “What? I can’t have layers?” (Hendershot). This statement, although not a major feature in the episode, reveals that the women in the show were designed to be more complex than simple caricatures to fill the scene. These are women that, like Buffy, are much more than meet the eye and have their own strengths and weaknesses that are unrelated to their social status.
Although Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a television show that expresses the power of women and their potential individual strength, even Buffy is not completely immune from the influence of men. Although she herself has been gifted with this incredible power to combat the forces of evil, Buffy is expected to adhere to the wishes of a group of men known as the Watchers Council. Each slayer, when chosen, is assigned a Watcher who is supposed to train her and educate her in the ancient ways of tracking and killing vampires. For Buffy, this Watcher is a man named Giles who works as the librarian of her High School when he is not training her.
What is interesting is that it is the women in this series control the actual powers and abilities, such as Buffy’s ability to identify vampires and Willow Rosenberg’s gradual education in witchcraft, but men still play a role as authority figures that confine their potential (Owen). It can be inferred from the established relationship between Watchers and Slayers that women need some sort of masculine influence in their lives to control them, and the writers of the show address this in later seasons. Fortunately for Buffy, Giles does not see her the way that other members of the Watcher’s Council view her, leading him to ultimately become less of a mentor to her and more of a father figure in her life.
Whereas Giles presents Buffy with a great deal of freedom as they become more accustomed to one another, the remaining members of the Watcher’s Council soon speak out against this decision. While Giles takes Buffy under his wing as his daughter, the other members see her as a soldier in their army against evil. This is an important distinction because Giles’ method of training is designed to ultimately leave Buffy in charge of her own actions and take charge of her own life, while the rest of the Council does not wish to grant her this freedom or autonomy.
As one member of the Council tells Buffy that it is they who are actually battling the forces of darkness and evil and she is nothing more than a tool to be used until her death (Miller 46). Although this perspective was respected by the Slayers that came before her, Buffy proves herself as a true hero by standing up to the members of the Watchers Council and rejecting their instructions. She demonstrates her prowess as a powerful woman by choosing her own destiny and defining her own position in the world. Although the source of her power comes from men, Buffy ultimately becomes a stronger woman by turning her back on them and making her own decision. In many ways, this action reflects the feminist ideals that we have covered in this course as Buffy defines who she is as both a hero and a woman on her own terms, not on those of men or even other women.
Although the Watcher’s Council would use her as a weapon, Buffy’s true strength comes from her emotions and her humanity.
In the early seasons of the show, we are introduced to two other Slayers who lack Buffy’s individuality or her humanity. Whether it is Kendra, the Vampire Slayer who is more than willing to do what the Council demands, or the rouge and dangerous Slayer Faith, neither of them succeed against Buffy because she remains grounded in the world and remains in touch with her humanity. Although she possesses the same powers as Buffy, Faith ultimately becomes an antagonist to Buffy and her friends because she enjoys the rush and power that she gets from slaying vampires, stating that if Buffy does not enjoy the emotional high she gets from the violence, then she is doing something wrong (Forster 14).
Throughout season 3, Buffy and Faith would break from being close friends to mortal enemies because of their different outlooks. Ultimately, Buffy proves victorious because she resists the temptation and does not let the power that she wields go to her head.
Despite the differences in social status found between the many women in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, most of them are depicted as stronger and more self reliant than women in other media. In her selection from our textbook, bell hooks writes that feminism is not the united cause that is popularly portrayed in the media. To hooks, feminism is not the quest for woman to gain the same rights as men, but rather to end the oppression that they face based on their sex (hooks 52). The women in Buffy do not desire to gain equal rights with men, but instead grow beyond that to the point where they transcend this goal. At the very end of the final season, when the gang is facing their greatest opponent yet, Buffy and Willow cast a spell that grants the power of the Slayer to all of the young women in the world who have the potential to become the slayer.
This power provided to them gives them strength and purpose to accomplish their goals. Being a strong woman becomes the norm, and the message of the show is once again reinforced.
When one is looking for examples of feminist growth in the characters of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the one woman in the show who experiences the most dramatic changes is Buffy’s best friend in Sunnydale, Willow Rosenberg. Willow begins the series as one of the unpopular girls at the High School. She means well, but she is shy, has low self esteem, and is a self confessed nerd who prefers books and computers to the stresses of interacting with others.
She has a crush on her longtime friend and companion of Buffy’s, Xander Harris, and goes out of her way to try and earn her romantic affection. However, this Willow of season one bears little resemblance to the woman at the end of the series. This Willow is strong, confidant, and a powerful magic user after she accumulates many months of study in the mystical arts. It is interesting to analyze the growth of Willow from the shy girl of season one to the powerful and outspoken woman that she becomes.
One of the most dramatic and somewhat controversial changes that Willow goes through the course of the show is her gradual shift in sexual orientation. She confessed to having a crush on Xander very early on in the show, but she eventually did find a relationship with the musician and friend Oz.
Yet when she was either pursuing or in a relationship with both of these men, Willow defined herself by her relationship to men. She was always the submissive one, always willing to play the role of the lackey or the sidekick. She was one of Buffy’s friends that suffered from Whedon’s depiction of high school as hell…literally. The very mouth of hell was located under the high school, bringing the metaphors of high school as a living hell to life (Ramet). In this first season, Willow was often the one in danger who needed to be rescued by Buffy.
All of this changed in season 4 when she met a woman named Tara McClay. Tara, like Willow, had an interest in magic and they awoke a passion in each other. Gradually embracing the fact that both she and Tara had feelings for each other, Willow stepped out of her shell and the two of them began to develop a relationship.
Yet with everything that her new relationship brings her (increased skill in magic, affection, and power), Willow still suffers from a great deal of psychological pressure that she was burdened with throughout the show’s run (South 140-141).Although accepted as a lesbian by her friends, Willow begins to dabble more and more in the mystic arts. In essence, once she began to identify herself as a woman and not through the men she was with, Willow was able to flourish into one of the most powerful characters in the show, capable of rivaling almost anyone.
Willow’s newly discovered power did come at a high price. She soon began to use magic to solve her relationship problems with Tara, prompting the two to split up and driving Willow into a deep depression. When the pair did finally reconcile and come together, Tara was abruptly killed by a stray bullet fired by one of Buffy’s enemies.
This death not only sent Willow over the edge to the point where she turned against her friends, but it was highly criticized by audiences and seen as a very tragic moment in the show. The relationship between Willow and Tara was largely positive, and many fans criticized the choice to kill off Tara because it seemed to send a message against lesbian relationships (Burr). Although writers of the show did not intend for this to be a message of the episode, many viewers felt that killing off Tara and Willow’s decent into dark magic in her quest for vengeance was punishment against Willow for accepting a lesbian lifestyle and for taking on more masculine traits, breaking traditional gender roles.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a multifaceted show that provides a very different take on women and gender roles. Buffy Summers is a girl whose life closely reflects a teen slasher movie, but she breaks the stereotype of the damsel in distress by single handedly combating the forces of evil that no one else could. Her best friend, Willow, also defies the traditional gender roles by embracing a lesbian lifestyle and becoming much more powerful and successful without having a man in her life. However, the resulting death of her girlfriend and her development into the villain for season six does send some contradictory messages. Both women manage to throw off the men who would seek to control them, serving as strong role models for young women when much of what they watch on television does not portray strong women in such a positive light. Although the series has been off the air now for almost 8 years, there are a number of similarities between this show and the feminist theories that we have covered this semester. In my personal opinion, we need more shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer to overturn the stereotype that women are unable to take care of themselves and stand up for their beliefs.