Feminism and Joss Whedon: The Demon Women & Slayers of Buffy

(The earlier entries in this series are “Is Joss Whedon a Feminist? The Women of Firefly/Serenity” and “Is Joss Whedon a Feminist? Buffy and Female Empowerment.” They are not required reading, although if you haven’t read the previous Buffy entry, you might want to. Obviously, please assume that there are spoilers in this post, and that a basic knowledge of Buffy the Vampire Slayer will make it more enjoyable for you to read. Also, please note that these posts are very, very, very long, so you may want to set aside some time to read/digest them if you’re interested in the topic.)

This ongoing series is an exploration of the female characters in the television shows of Joss Whedon. As a self-declared feminist, Whedon’s depictions of women come in for a lot of scrutiny. Feminist or anti-feminist, the portrayal of women on his shows has been a topic of intense discussion and debate, and for good reason, because Whedon’s women are very complicated, and sometimes very problematic.

Since certain people appear to be having a reading comprehension problem in re: the title of earlier posts in this series, let me stress, yet again, that I am not saying that there is only one way to be a feminist, nor am I saying that Joss should be stripped of his feminist cookie. What I am saying is that when someone publicly declares himself to be a feminist, his work can and should bear up to scrutiny, and that questioning Joss’ treatment of female characters on his shows is not akin to saying that he isn’t a feminist. No one person gets to say that, and I’m not even sure that a whole committee gets to say that: I’m just trying to explore his work from a feminist perspective, as someone who also considers herself a feminist, which I wouldn’t be doing if I didn’t think that it was good, or if I didn’t think that it would be interesting to explore.

Everyone who publicly presents themselves as feminist/anti-racist/etc runs the risk of being challenged when they do/say things which appear to run contrary to their supposed beliefs; I get called on things all the time, as well I should, and I in turn call other people out when I think it is appropriate. I would like to think that if Joss ever read this series (which would be awesome!) that he would hopefully find it interesting and informative, and that it would not be read as an attack, but as a legitimate exploration of his work. I always say that if you’re not sparking debate/pissing people off, you’re not doing your job right, and I refuse to blindly worship at the Buffy altar when there are legitimate criticisms to be made. Do I like the show? I love it! But that doesn’t mean that it is 100% perfect. People seem to be getting really hung up on a catchphrase here, so instead of actually engaging with the series, they’re just scrolling to the comments section and lambasting me. I’m over it. Those comments will be deleted in the future. If you want to actually have a discussion, please, by all means, join the party; challenge my reads on the characters, argue with my interpretation of plots, dispute my claim that his work can and should be evaluated from a feminist perspective, debate me on the actual content by all means, please. That’s the whole point of this series.

Now, let’s get to the fun part.

In the fantasy world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one girl is chosen to fight the powers of darkness with supernatural powers, but who are those powers of darkness, and how does their depiction fit into the framework of the show and Whedon’s own avowed feminism? The demons, vampires, and other supernatural women of Buffy deserve their own discussion, because they are all very complex and interesting characters, and they are critical to the show. They also cannot be viewed in the same way that the human woman can, because they lack the critical human trait of a soul.

I’m also discussing other Slayers in this post. While the Slayers are human, they are in touch with some very interesting and intense supernatural powers, and also I just didn’t have room to talk about them in my previous installment on Buffy. They are also a part of the supernatural world which infuses the show, and that makes them interesting as female characters.

Demons

Anya is a fascinating and enigmatic character who is both human and demon at various points in the series. She’s spent a long time as a vengeance demon, and retains many characteristics treated as demon-like by the show, such as a blunt personality and a disregard for others. Yet, Anya also struggles with very human issues, both as a human and when she is turned back into a demon. She is deeply in love with Xander, and deeply hurt when he leaves her at the altar. She’s also mercilessly merchantile, running the Magic Box with Giles and expressing a constant love for money. Indeed, in many ways, she has a lot of stereotypical female characteristics, like greed and emotional insecurity, but you can’t write her character off as antifeminist. She cares too deeply for others, and her greed is a matter of emotional pragmatism, practicality, and desperation in a world she can’t really navigate, because it’s so new and unfamiliar. When you work as a vengeance demon, it’s not like you need to worry about making rent.

The experience which turned her into a vengeance demon is also very classic; she’s a trodden-on and abused housewife, and she gets fed up with it. Yeah, it was in medieval times, but there are commonalities with the modern world. Anya, in a way, is a very empowering character, because she gets to do that thing we all dream of: executing vengeance on the people who abuse and use us.

Darla and Drusilla are also important and interesting demon characters. We don’t see very much of Darla in Buffy, because Angel kills her, but we do get a chance to meet her. We learn a little bit about the complex relationship between vampires and their sires as Angel kills her. And we also learn a great deal about the nature of vampires. Darla, who transcends the usual vampire role as monster of the week, is there to show us that vampires are very complicated individuals. She will be explored in more detail in the Angel post in the series.

In Buffy, we see Drusilla as a sadistic, deeply twisted woman who likes to torment puppies and play with dollies. It isn’t until Angel that we learn how Drusilla came to be: Angel made her that way. I’m kind of sad that we don’t get to see that story in Buffy, because it is very dark, and of course very allegorical. As Angelus, Angel tormented and abused Drusilla, literally driving her insane, and then he turned her into a vampire. As a vampire, Drusilla is merciless and truly chilling.

One of the things about Buffy is that we rarely get to see the human side of monstrous characters like Drusilla, as we do in Angel. In Buffy, Drusilla is creepy and dark and unnerving, but she’s actually a very tragic character in reality. Her tremendous capacity and thirst for violence becomes more understandable when you know where she’s coming from. The dehumanization (as it were) of demon characters in Buffy is sometimes a bit unfortunate, and I was glad to see that situation rectified in Angel. (It was also interesting to see how characters dealt with it in Angel, because humans like Buffy and Cordelia were very uncomfortable with Angel’s relationships with demons and with the fact that they were treated as individuals deserving of respect, which is something I will discuss in greater depth when this series of posts moves on to Angel.)

I can’t talk about demons on Buffy without at least briefly addressing Xander’s relationships with demon women, from “Teacher’s Pet” (season one) to “First Date” (season seven). Everyone struggles in the dating world, but Xander is faced with a series of disastrous dates in which the women he thinks are perfect for him are, literally, demons. (Not least of which is Anya herself.)

Xander’s disastrous attempts at romance become a running joke in the series, but I think there’s also something subtly feminist and excellent about them. For most male characters on television, when a date goes bad, it’s all the woman’s fault, because she’s a bitch or a witch or a demon in the metaphorical sense. For Xander, the women he tries to establish connections with are actually demons, and yet he keeps coming back for more, eventually settling into a devoted relationship with a demon woman, and being criticized for it by his friends. It’s a fun way to play with a common stereotype, and I like it.

Slayers and Potentials

It’s called Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which means that inevitably, we are going to meet other girls like Buffy. They are strong and gifted, and they have complex personalities of their own.

In the second season, we are introduced to Kendra (one of the few people of colour), a Slayer who was called when Buffy died in the first season. (Fortunately, Buffy only died for a little while, but death is death.) Kendra introduces us to two things: the natural succession, in which a Slayer dies and another is called, and a totally different way of approaching Slaying.

Kenra lives to be a Slayer. She is very tightly controlled and she is raised and trained to be very single minded.

Kendra is strong, and very skilled, but as Buffy points out, she doesn’t have emotion. It’s emotion and heart which make a good Slayer, and Buffy aims to show Kendra that. Kendra may be the classic obedient woman who does “exactly as her superiors” tell her to do, but we learn as viewers that this is not enough: she also needs to be a human being. Of course, right as she is humanized for us, she is murdered by Drusilla. Joss has never been shy about killing characters off.

We also meet Faith, a Slayer introduced in season three. Faith is a Bad Girl. A Damaged Girl, even. When we meet her, we learn that mistakes were made and her Watcher died. We also see that Faith has experienced some serious problems, and it’s a sobering lesson for Buffy. But for the support of friends, Buffy too could have been isolated and alienated to the point that she turned into someone like Faith.

Faith lacks a strong moral compass. To paraphrase her, she wants, she takes, she has. This is pretty much the opposite of Buffy, who has been raised with very strong personal and moral values, by both Joyce and Giles. And, ultimately, Faith goes bad, killing a human being by accident and slipping over to the dark side.

Faith’s fall is a lesson for viewers, and also a lesson for Buffy. Things started slipping out of control and bad decisions were made, and Faith ended up allying herself with the Mayor, seeking out the only thing she wanted: a father. It is a bit troubling to see both Buffy and Faith battling daddy issues, because it reinforces very heteronormative values, but the fact of the matter is that many people do indeed have daddy issues, and they can become all consuming and very damaging if they aren’t addressed.

Buffy is also forced to make the difficult decision to kill Faith (or so she thinks) in the season three finale. Unlike Faith, who relished taking human life or treated it very lightly, Buffy really struggles with it, and I get the sense that she is secretly relieved when Faith turns out to be alive, even if she does switch bodies with Buffy. (Foreshadowing of Dollhouse!)

Faith also eventually seeks out redemption, in episodes which primarily play out in Angel, and the process of redemption also drives a wedge between Buffy and Angel as Buffy is inclined to write Faith off, while Angel sees potential in her and refuses to give up. This highlights a key difference between Buffy, who sees things in black and white, and Angel, who sees shades of grey. In the end, Faith returns to help save Sunnydale, and is briefly the leader of the Scooby Gang when Buffy is ousted in season seven. Yet, the reformed Faith doesn’t lord it over Buffy or abuse this opportunity: she drives everyone just as hard as Buffy would have, and she ends up making a tragic mistake, but she recognizes it as a mistake and is genuinely horrified, showing us the tremendous progress she has made.

If Faith is an object lesson, showing us what could have happened to Buffy, she is also an example. She shows us that even people who seem irredeemable have a chance to reform, and that if people have faith (ha ha) in them, they might just turn out with a surprise or two. It’s unfortunate that Whedon chose to make her a stereotypical Bad Girl, but I think he managed to at least partially redeem her characterization to avoid making her totally repellent from a feminist perspective.

The Potentials, girls who could be called as Slayers in the future, are introduced in season seven, when the paradigm of Watcher’s Council and Slayers is turned on its head. Some of the Potentials are ordinary girls who have no idea of what they could grow into, while others are aware that they are Potentials, and they are in training. In a way, this mirrors the position of women in the real world: some of us know the powers that we are capable of, while others are muffled. The Potentials are being killed off by the First Evil, the big daddy of all Big Bads, and Buffy gradually gathers them up, brings them to Sunnydale, and tries to protect them.

There are a lot of them. We don’t get to know them all. Some of them die, sometimes even before reaching Buffy’s house and shelter. Others lash out and end up being killed. One hangs herself. They are all interesting young women because they are suddenly faced with huge responsibilities and an immense amount of stress, and it’s interesting to see how they all deal with it. Some become authoritarian, while others meekly give up. All of them are given at least a brief chance to develop as characters, something which is pretty challenging when a cast gets that large and complex.

In a way, the Potentials are a microcosm of the show. They show us all of the different ways in which people can deal with a heavy burden of responsibility, and they also show us how everyone is flawed in the end. When Buffy makes the realization that she can share her power, allowing many women to become Slayers, we also get the Feminist Self-Actualization Moment we’ve all been waiting for, when the girls are infused with the power of the Slayer and they turn into lean, mean, fighting machines.

Or do we? One critic, whom I unfortunately can’t find to reference here, pointed out that the spell which shares the Slayer’s power is akin to the rape-like scene in which the First Slayer was created. Women have this power forcibly thrust upon them, whether they are ready or not, and whether they want it or not. Yes, the circle of potentials which reaches Sunnydale gets to make a choice, but all those other women around the world who are caught up in the spell don’t. Whedon portrays the scene as tremendously empowering: the battered woman fighting back, the girl in a baseball (softball? I’m not very sports-savvy) game going up to bat, but the scene is problematic. As we’ve seen from the Potentials, not everyone is ready for or even wants this power: is it fair to forcibly empower women?

I like that the Slayers are women, that they get to turn the superhero stereotype upside down and challenge assumptions. That’s what Buffy is about, at heart, as Joss says: changing the way you see the blonde in the dark alley. We see that women can be powerful, they can be leaders, and that they are also allowed to be complex and flawed. We also see that even powerful women can be oppressed by a system larger than they are, but that they can also break free of that system, if they opt to do so. That’s a pretty strong message to be leaving viewers with.

However, at the same time, the Slayers also highlight one of the big problems with the show, from a feminist perspective, which is the fetishization of strong women. Is Buffy a show about strong, empowered women, or it is a show for men who enjoy the idea of dating/capturing strong women? I touched on this briefly with River Tam in the discussion of the women of Firefly/Serenity, and I think that it bears further exploration.

Some of the most emotionally intense and gripping movements in the show occur when Buffy is forced to turn to a man for help and support. And, I’m sorry, but that’s pretty much the wet dream of a lot of men I know: a strong, physically fit, powerful woman who is capable of handling a lot on her own, but is ultimately forced to seek refuge with a man when push comes to shove. I wouldn’t say by any stretch that Buffy is dependent on the men in her life, and there are a lot of examples in which she is strong and independent and doesn’t need a man at all, or opposes the men in her life, but at the same time, her strange mix physical perfection and strange dependence makes me very uneasy at times.

The heavy integration of the supernatural on the show has been legitimately criticized as well. Is the show really an allegory about female empowerment when women primarily become empowered through supernatural means, rather than their own strengths? It’s hard for ordinary women to relate to the characters in Buffy because they’re not role models, in the traditional sense. I’m not sure I entirely agree with this reading, however, because I think it ignores the fact that most of the supernatural events in the show are metaphorical and allegorical versions of real-world happenings, and viewers can relate to them, if they view them in the abstract.

For example, voices are taken away and restored by supernatural means in “Hush” (season four), but the episode could also be viewed as a depiction of what happens when someone develops the bravery to speak up and break a silence. Tara’s mind is stolen in “Tough Love” (season five) via magic, but her subsequent condition as an effective vegetable who requires constant care is something which can be seen in the real world. In “Beauty and the Beasts,” (season three), a girl blames herself when her boyfriend turns, literally, into a monster, and she uses the same kind of language we see from battered women who keep returning to abusive relationships. Buffy sacrifices herself for Dawn in “The Gift” (season five), and while the circumstances may be magical, they reflect very real situations throughout history in which women have sacrificed themselves for each other. Or, in season six, we see a heavy handed metaphor for drug addiction as Willow struggles with her growing magical powers. These are simply a few among many examples in the show in which theoretically fantastical events actually mirror the real world.

This is a show which cannot be read on surface values alone. If you just scratch the surface of Buffy, it’s a fantasy romp with attractive characters, witty dialogue, and fun action. But it’s actually a very deep, very complex show in which characters deal with actual issues. The issues may be disguised as magical events, but they are things which many of us have experienced, or will experience in the future, and we can learn valuable lessons from the characters.

Whedon himself proclaimed on numerous occasions that Buffy was a feminist show. And, in many ways, it was. But there were also some serious problems with the show which bear scrutiny from viewers. When you’re making “feminist television,” do you get to do some of the things with female characters which Joss has done with Buffy? I was saying to a friend the other day that when you’re a feminist, or any kind of activist, you need to strive to be one all the time, and I think that in some cases, Buffy fell short of the mark: out of ignorance, out of a need to advance plot, and for other reasons. But the ability to identify and discuss those weak points is what makes Buffy so great, as a show: if there were no weak points and controversy, there wouldn’t be very much to draw me, as a fan.