Ghoul power: Buffy sticks it to the system

Issue 

BY JACKIE ESMONDE

"I've always been a huge fan of horror movies. And I saw so many horror movies where there was that blonde girl who would always get herself killed. I started feeling bad for her. I thought, it's time she had a chance to 'take back the night'. The idea of Buffy came from the very simple thought of a beautiful blonde girl walks into an alley, a monster attacks her and she's not only ready for him, she trounces him." — Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Now in its seventh season, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a television cult based on the premise that there is "one girl in all the world" — the slayer — chosen to fight vampires and demons. The show revolves around Buffy Summers' weekly battles with evil in the fictional town of Sunnydale. Buffy is a show that defies pigeon-holing, continuously alternating between campy comedy, gothic horror, adventure and drama.

Buffy, played by Sarah Michelle Geller, is a strong woman in every sense. Many of the secondary characters are also strong women — from Willow the powerful witch to the no-nonsense demon Anya. Watching these characters kick demon arse is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the show and a great antidote to the mewling female characters that tend to populate most popular television show and films.

The show quite deliberately sets out to reverse typical depictions of women. Joss Whedon, the show's creator, has stated that one goal of the show is to use entertainment to popularise feminism: "If I can make teenage boys comfortable with a girl who takes charge of the situation, without their knowing that's what's happening, it's better than sitting down and selling them on feminism."

Buffy, then, is a consciously "feminist" show. But "feminism" encompasses many different political perspectives, from the conservative to the revolutionary. So just what kind of feminism is Whedon selling?

The difficulty with celebrating Buffy as a "transgressive woman warrior" is that, in many ways, the show merely reaffirms race, class and gender hierarchies. Buffy is young, white, blonde, beautiful and she has become progressively (even alarmingly) thinner with each season. A discussion of the two other slayers that appear on Buffy throws this problem into sharp relief.

Racism

There can only be one slayer in service at a time (she is replaced upon her death). When Buffy temporarily dies in the first season, a new slayer, Kendra, a woman of colour with an accent of indeterminate origin, is called forth. Though she arrives in Sunnydale by plane in the second season, it is never clear where she came from. Buffy initially sees Kendra's presence as a threat, stating that Kendra "creeps her out".

Buffy treats her as slow-witted and makes fun of her speech and dress. For example, when Kendra asks Buffy the meanings of slang words like "wiggy", Buffy responds in pidgin English: "You know, no kicko, no fighto". On other occasions, Buffy mimics Kendra's accent. Since Kendra's origins are unknown to the audience, as well as Buffy, we are invited to view her as utterly strange and thus participate in Buffy's racism.

Buffy eventually befriends Kendra, giving her advice on how to be a better fighter — and a better dresser. Ultimately, Kendra is killed, leaving the viewer with no doubt as to Buffy's intellectual and physical superiority. Kendra shares the fate of most characters of colour on the show, who if they are not the musical guests, are either innocent victims or are evil. In either case, they are usually dead by the end of the show. People of colour are portrayed as expendable once they outgrow their utility to white folks.

Faith, the slayer who replaces Kendra, first appears in the third season. Unlike Buffy, Faith comes from a working-class background. Faith's skills as a slayer are inferior to Buffy's, but she is more dangerous. Faith represents the "dark" side of the slayer's power.

The show continuously highlights the differences between the two: Buffy's conservative clothing signals her restraint and moral balance; Faith's dark, revealing clothing highlight her promiscuity and unpredictability. Faith eventually becomes a homicidal "rogue" slayer, fighting for the bad guys. The show makes it clear that Faith's working-class roots make her incapable of wielding power responsibly.

Celebrating Buffy merely because it shows a white woman kicking arse treads awfully close to the vacuous "girl power" politics so pervasive in the Spice Girls-saturated 1990s — a politics that is all surface presentation but poses no real challenge to oppression. Rather, Buffy reinforces white supremacy and depictions of the "dangerous classes" as intellectually and physically inferior.

In spite of these problems, there is more to the show.

Demons as social problems

While many feminist writings on Buffy the Vampire Slayer tend to focus on whether Buffy's appearance negates the show's feminism, it is worth looking past Geller's cleavage to ogle the demons she fights. From the very first show, where we learn that Sunnydale High School is on top of a "hellmouth", the show is steeped in symbolism, with the demons serving as stand-ins for social problems.

Like many young people, the characters face difficult personal problems. But when you live on the hellmouth, these problems may look a little different: Tara, a young woman discovering her sexuality and power in a loving same-sex relationship, fears that she is a demon; high school athletes under pressure to excel take steroids that turn them into monsters; and immediately following Buffy's first sexual experience with her lover Angel (a vampire with a soul), he becomes evil and begins to stalk her.

However, the show goes beyond fighting personal demons and takes aim at oppressive social institutions. In season three, Buffy and friends fight Sunnydale's mayor, who has sold his soul for political power. The fourth season is devoted to a battle with a military "initiative" to create a super-soldier out of demon and human body parts, putting the whole world at risk.

One of the most chilling evil villains is Warren — a white, male, techno-geek and misogynist. He uses his technological prowess to create a female robot sex-slave and to rape his ex-girlfriend. He attains super-power when he gets his hands on two magical "balls", only to have Buffy crush these symbols of male power. Unable to deal with this emasculation, Warren attempts to murder Buffy, but kills another central character by accident.

Work is hell

Buffy is a busy woman. Even though she has a relatively privileged socio-economic background, her experience is not unlike that of most women. Buffy's experience reflects the insecurity of neoliberal labour markets characterised by part-time and temporary work, low wages, lower rates of unionisation, and a corresponding insecurity for workers that disproportionately affect women.

Slaying is viewed as a job, involving uncertain and unpredictable working hours. Buffy occasionally attempts to take some time off and relax, but is always foiled by her slayer duties. As a result, she is constantly working and cannot predict what new problem will arise — though she can be certain one is always coming.

She longs for an unattainable "normal" life, but knows she cannot change her social position or leave Sunnydale. Buffy is also downwardly mobile. Like the majority of women workers, who are forced into service-industry work, Buffy takes a job at the Double Meat Palace in order to pay the bills. The zombie-like behaviour of her co-workers leads her to believe that evil is afoot.

Although it turns out that there is a demon disguised as a customer killing the workers, their behaviour is ultimately attributed to the drudgery and monotony of their working conditions.

This realism is sorely strained in the current season, when Buffy is handed a cushy job as a high school guidance counsellor. But given that the high school is on the hellmouth, it is doubtful that her working life will greatly improve. Instead, the symbolism has shifted from "high school as hell" to "work as hell". In both cases, the audience sees how alienation — the loss of control over our lives — can distort the human condition into the monstrous.

Overall, Buffy recognises that there is more to fighting women's oppression than a good right hook and a cute outfit. Women face demons in many forms, from misogyny to patriarchal social institutions and alienating working conditions. It is also clear that these problems can only be addressed by targeting social institutions that perpetuate male power and violence.

Through these battles with evil, Buffy's characters strive to create a better and safer world for all. Unfortunately, the show's vision of a better world fails to substantively address race, class, ability and other hierarchies. But, given the options, Buffy the Vampire Slayer remains one of the most interesting and, ironically, realistic shows on television.

[From New Socialist. Visit <http://www.newsocialist.org/magazine.html>. Jackie Esmonde is a member of Canada's New Socialist Group and a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.]

From Green Left Weekly, March 26, 2003.

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