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Femininity In Buffy The Vampire Slayer Film Studies Essay

1) Analyse how gender (masculinity or femininity) and/or sexual orientation is constructed in one television drama, OR reality television show, OR comedy. In doing so, you will need to view a number of episodes and then closely examine at least one episode in close detail. You will need to consider the following issues:

The genre to which the program belongs, and the extent to which it incorporates, challenges or negotiates conventions of the genre

Narrative structures

Visual conventions

In this essay, it is important not to simply discuss whether or not the representations are ‘realistic’, but to examine how they operate as signs within a system of signs (drawing on your understanding of semiotics). The purpose of this essay is to construct an argument about the program, not merely to describe it.

In every generation there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer. In this close analysis, I will endeavour to examine the ways in which femininity and sexual orientation is constructed in the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, while negating the popular argument that Buffy herself is a feminist idol. Buffy the Vampire Slayer directed by the famed Joss Whedon, is a television series which aired from 1997-2003. It featured the exploits of Buffy Summers and her group of friends as they protected the Hellmouth in Sunnydale, California from various vampires and demons. Since its inception, Buffy has become a cult figure of media and popular culture, with a large Internet presence of academics and scholars dissecting the various themes and moral issues presented by the series. A fandom of millions continues to devour reruns and DVDs of the 144 episode series, writing (occasionally atrocious) fan fiction. Buffy the Vampire Slayer popularised such terms as the “Buffyverse” (literally, the universe in which the show is constructed), “Buffyspeak” (The show itself deals with a broad range of complex issues, endeavouring to provide viewers with some form of “moral message” at the conclusion of each episode. To name but a few, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” broaches the social issues of duty, sexuality and balancing various aspects of life. From Episode One, Buffy has sparked passionate debates among the public, academic audiences and critics alike as to the "feminist political potential" of the show. Buffy the Vampire Slayer illustrates the way in which gender is nothing more than a social construct; the Buffyverse is a world where gender stereotypes exist.

It is pertinent to consider Joss Whedon’s vision of the character and the series. During various interviews, he often explained his desire to create an alternative ending for the “typical” horror movie; from the outset, Whedon aimed to challenge the conventions of the horror genre:

It was pretty much the blond girl in the alley in the horror movie who keeps getting killed … I felt bad for her, but she was always much more interesting to me than the other women. She was fun, she had sex, she was vivacious. But then she would get punished for it. Literally, I just had that image, that scene, in my mind, like the trailer for a movie what if the girl goes into that dark alley. And the monster follows her. And she destroys him. (Quoted in Vint, para. 6)

While it is evident here that Whedon originally intended to subvert the conventional horror/slasher genre, he runs the risk of merely replacing the “female victim” with a “female hero”, she is still fun, she is still a pretty blonde girl, still “Barbie with a kung fu grip.” Hence, it is not completely clear whether Whedon succeeded in fulfilling his intention; as Buffy herself, far from being a symbol of femininity, is a mere construct, a narrative function. Despite the fact that the Slayer is always, eventually, the victor, one of the most disturbing elements is the sustained violence against women, especially Buffy. In her nightly battles with the undead, she is pummelled, kicked and physically thrown into objects. While the fact that the Slayer is always victorious can seem empowering, Whedon creates a space in which violence against women is legitimised. On one hand, the combating of female fragility commends feminist readings; her strength allows her to meet her (generally) male foes on an equal “playing field”. However, it seems as though Whedon justifies violence of this nature by providing Buffy with supernatural healing capabilities, super strength, and the ability to maintain a stylish appearance. She can crack jokes while employing “Mr Pointy”; she looks good in the heat of battle; these assets are added to the fact that as the “hero”, Buffy will always triumph. These factors combine to make violence against her acceptable in the series.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a difficult series to classify into a single genre. Many classify it as “horror”, however, this is not entirely true, because the show has many more concepts and themes than a typical horror series. The show also uses some elements contained in more fantasy orientated horror films, such as say, Dracula and Interview with the Vampire. The show’s title centres on the theme of vampires, mythological creatures that are not always contained within the “straight” horror paradigm. Further, the very fact that Buffy Summers herself constantly demands to be treated “like a normal girl” highlights the issues surrounding the series. When it comes to evil, Buffy Summers is something of a teenage superhero, a powerhouse. But viewers are also alerted to her vulnerabilities, making Buffy seem more human, more personable, somebody with boy troubles and typical bad hair days, someone they may actually relate with. While the narrative arc of the show generally aims in the direction of eliminating the “Big Bad” for that season, there are also deep, personal issues surrounding the characters that are impacted by, or impact upon major directive decisions in regards to maintaining the “horror” genre. From Buffy’s inability to maintain a normal, steady human relationship to her struggles with vampire boyfriend Angel, the show deals with issues not atypical of the lives of ordinary teenage females, albeit in a fantasy setting.

The episode “Dead Man’s Party” epitomises this notion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer “straying” from the conventional restraints of typical horror; Joyce, Buffy’s mother, hangs a Nigerian mask up on the wall in her home, where, unseen, it begins to wreak havoc on the emotions of the characters in contact with Buffy. Emotions run high in the episode; Buffy herself has recently returned home after leaving at the conclusion of Season 2, and is feeling distant from the so-called “Scooby Gang”. She feels every jibe, every insult directed at her, magnified as a result of her sensitive mental state, and though viewers are made aware that the mask itself is behind all the emotional upheaval, the characters are not, and so, arguments break out. The mask also raises the dead, leading to a massive influx of zombies descending upon Buffy’s home, fulfilling the “horror” aspect of the show. Buffy is left feeling slighted, to say the least, and contemplates leaving home again. However, at the conclusion of the battle with the zombies, Buffy is reconciled with her friends; the mask is destroyed by her Watcher, Giles, who realises the mask for what it is: cursed. On a personal level, this episode deals with an ordinary teenage girl’s emotions as a result of being distanced from her friends for some time. On the urban fantasy paradigm, the Nigerian mask causing emotional rifts has strong mythological grounding, as revealed by Giles in his research.

Although Buffy herself is not a staunch feminist, she seems to commend the support of feminists everywhere. However, Buffy’s role in itself is encoded as a patriarchal rather than feminist fantasy. Though she can be considered a “hero” in the traditional sense of her fulfilling her destiny as “The Chosen One”, she is also controlled by the Watcher’s Council, a British and inherently patriarchal institution which co-ordinates and controls the training and actions of Slayers. Buffy is not given a choice; she is coerced into her role by a patriarchal dictate. In the earlier seasons, she attempts to renounce her role as the Slayer, only to realise that she cannot.

Many of those academics and scholars referred to earlier, view Buffy as something of a feminist icon, due to the unnatural physical strength bestowed upon her which renders her capable of standing up to unimaginably powerful villains, in the form of demons and vampires. She is also quite outwardly beautiful, balancing the somewhat masculine nature of her strength with the external appearance of a pretty blonde female. Perhaps it is this duality which leads to such allegations of Buffy being a feminist; her ability to fight evil, typically the job of a male (“Superman”, “Batman” being but a few of the typically male fighters-of-evil) while maintaining polished nails, heels and an unforgiving prom dress. Buffy’s “look” features a palette of femininity juxtaposed with more edgy pieces. She often paired a soft dress or blouse with a leather jacket and knee-high boots. She chose simple jewellery, usually a crucifix necklace or the claddagh ring given to her by Angel, and of course, the aptly named “Mr Pointy” (her trusty stake). Toward the end of the show’s run, Buffy’s style transformed from somewhat girly to more sophisticated. Opting for classic pieces, with the occasional leather thrown in, Buffy’s look became almost timeless.

In her feminist critique, Anne Millard Daughtey alluded to Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a show which “obviously promotes female strength and power” (159). Daughtey continues to state that Buffy herself is a “symbol of female empowerment” (149); she refers to her feminist peers, saying that we can all take comfort in the fact that Buffy “kicks butt and so can we all” (164). Sheryl Vint agrees that Buffy is a “positive role model for young women, one which feminism should celebrate” (paragraph 3). Personally, I find this understanding of Buffy (both the character and the series) to be flawed and potentially problematic.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not the feminist beacon Daughtey and Vint profess it to be. The series both advocates and refutes feminist readings; this, in itself is a defining feature of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Joss Whedon himself aimed to portray Buffy as “Barbie with a kung fu grip”, alluding to his actual intention. He wanted his character to be a “fun”, “sexual” and “pretty”, “blonde” with superhuman strength. I propose that women in the series are portrayed in stereotypical ways; indeed, the entire Buffyverse is a product of a traditional patriarchal view of the world. These stereotypical views of the series’ female characters have been generated by patriarchy throughout the ages, all of which serve to empty femininity, leaving the women as functional narrative symbols, nothing more. First, the “bluestocking”, the women who know “too much” and are punished for it (Willow Rosenberg, Jenny Calender); the dumb but beautiful cheerleader (Cordelia Chase and later, Harmony Kendall); the witch (Willow again, and her lover, Tara Maclay); the sexual neurotic (Drusilla or Dru, former lover of Spike), and the crazed madwoman (Glory or Glorificus, also known as That Which Cannot Be Named and The Beast. Also a god from the hell dimension)

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