Fighting with the Sky

Problematizing Buffy

Posted on: September 3, 2009

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post on the feminist aspects of the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer for Feminist Flashback Friday.  While I got many positive responses to the post and supporters of the show, I also got some comments about why I didn’t address any of the problematic aspects of the show.  To clear that up, the purpose of the post for Feminist Flashback Friday was to sing the praises of the show.  I’m not denying that there are not problematic aspects of the show (as this post will prove), it just wasn’t the purpose of the post.  In this post, however, I plan on bring up some of these promblematic aspects of my beloved Buffy.

c11Buffy-Spike-Angel_lOne of the biggest problems that I see is the punishment that characters face for having sex.  The most straight-forward example of this is Buffy and Angel.  When Buffy and Angel have sex for the first (and last) time, Angel experiences a moment of pure happiness and is punished by having his soul taken away again.  Having his soul taken away is obviously a punishment for sex — the two are very much connected.  Additionally, after Buffy tries to end her relationship with Spike, he tries to rape her.  His reasoning?  Because she had sex with him already, so she should want to have sex with him again.  Have sex, be punished with rape for later refusing it.  Moving away from Buffy, let’s look at Dawn’s first date.  While Dawn didn’t have sex with him, she was moving away from the “innocence” of childhood into the realm of sexuality.  And then her date turns out to be a vampire.  Don’t start exploring your sexuality because your date will be a vampire.

Tara is killed by Warren right after having sex with Willow.  Tara and Willow had been having sex for a while by this point, but punishment for sex does not have to come immediately.  Another example that was offered to me was Faith.  When Faith was first introduced, she was a promiscuous party-girl.  Then she turned evil.  When Buffy’s mom started dating again, she’s dating a crazy robot who tries to kill everyone.  While Buffy is full of powerful and strong women, it is also full of a fear of female sexuality.  Women who express or try to express their sexuality are punished in some way, usually in death (or threat of death) of themselves or a loved one.

Another problematic aspect of Buffy is the lack of diversity and the demonization of people of color.  All of the main characters are white.  A majority of the vampires and other demons are white or portrayed as being white.  There is very little diversity even in the minor characters.  When people of color show up, they are often being portrayed as demons.  I can’t remember every demon that showed up on Buffy, but one example that I can think of is the episode “Once More With Feeling,” (I love this episode, just thought I’d say).  In “Once More With Feeling” the main demon is imagined to be a person of color who is there to take Dawn, a 16-year-old girl, as his bride and kills people by burning them from the inside out.  When people of color are in episodes of Buffy and aren’t portrayed as demons, they are often the first ones to die in that episode.

The main think about Buffy though that bothers me is the fear of female sexuality and punishment for sex, as discussed above.  The strength of the women portrayed in the show is diminished because they are not fully sexually empowered.  Showing punishment for sex implies an implicit fear of female sexuality within the show.

To continue reading about the problematic (and good) parts of Buffy and other Joss Whedon creations, please look at meloukhia’s series at this ain’t livin’ on Feminism and Joss Whedon.  Get ready for the season premiere of Dollhouse with her feminist analysis of the show and be prepared for my episode-by-episode analysis of the second season.


14 Responses to "Problematizing Buffy"

Great post, all very true! One correction though: Dawn’s 15 in OMWF (sorry, I’m a pednatic Buffy geek!).

Is it bad that the one typo there was “pedantic”? Hmm. Anyway, just wanted to add to the sex-guilt thing: Parker! His treatment of Buffy and her reaction to it always make me angry.

I agree there is a major lack of diversity; however, you failed to mention Kendra. Although she wasn’t a major character, it’s important to remember the brief impact she had on the show.

Kendra is considered to be the perfect slayer and the complete opposite of Buffy–Kendra follows orders, Buffy does everything her own way. Though her story arc was brief, and she does die, thus ‘giving birth’ to Faith the ‘evil slayer’ (which could easily become a full length paper…), she deserves more recognition.

There is also Principal Robin Wood, the son of the slayer that Spike killed during the 1980s. However, it’s pretty sad that it took 5 seasons to get another recurring character that is black.

Take heart from Buffy, the baddest, blondest vampire slayer there ever was. Straight Sex

It’s interesting that whenever people criticize Whedon’s shows for lack of diversity, people drag out the handful of people of colour as some sort of refutation of the argument. (You forgot to mention Mr. Trick, incidentally, when you were parading out the tokens.)

The argument still stands: no major characters in BTVS are people of colour. Angel at least had Gunn, Firefly had Zoe. The lack of people of colour in Buffy is especially glaring, since the show supposedly takes place in Southern California, yet there’s not a single Latino/Latina character. Not. A. One.

Meloukhia: I’m assuming that was aimed at my comment, but I wasn’t trying to refute the argument. I didn’t mention Mr. Trick, as she already wrote that the show demonizes people of color when they only appear as villains. However, I really like the character of Kendra and she’s often overlooked because she’s isn’t Faith and she dies. She also isn’t nearly as interesting as Buffy as she’s the “perfect slayer” according to the council, because she has no autonomy or agency (sadly, a trait with many female characters regardless of race). I wanted to mention her as she is a vital part of the overall story of Buffy, that through death the perfect slayer gives birth to Faith–the Anti-Slayer.

Also, I was only mentioning Principal Wood as a point that from season 2 to season 7 there were no other positive recurring characters of color.

Anyway… Just recently discovered your blog, and I love it. This is the kind of stuff I do as well (though not in blog form) and I enjoy seeing another woman’s take on popular culture. I haven’t read all, but have you looked at Veronica Mars? I would really enjoy seeing your take on it. Also, it’s one of the few shows that actually deals with diversity in Southern California–the latino PCH gang is named for their location to the wrong side of the Pacific Coast Highway.

I don’t think that the treatment of female sexuality was really that bad.

With Buffy herself, it was pretty symbolic – the stereotypical “we did it and then he changed” thing blown way out of proportion with Angel, the sex-crazed power thing with Riley. She also had the stereotypical one night stand as a freshman in between the two.

And although the rape scene with Spike was traumatic, it was a really messy situation. Spike and Buffy’s relationship was based on this angry-sex thing where they were constantly abusing each other. He misread the signals, and is not excused, but he did realize that what he was doing was wrong, and worked hard to redeem himself by going on his own spiritual quest, apologizing to Buffy, and giving her space and respect to deal. Not saying its okay, not saying “rape is a gray area.” Just saying that there was a big miscommunication (on Spike’s part – Buffy was being clear), and an attempt to atone.

Plus, Buffy generally has some crappy luck with normal things turning out horribly. You know, Slayer-Hellmouth thing. I don’t think that the portrayal of sexuality was any worse.

Joyce and Giles had some awkwardness for their sexual relationship, but no serious consequences. Willow and Oz didn’t have sex related problems. Anya was very sexual but never was punished for it. Tara dying after make-up sex with Willow just made it hurt us more, they were sexually active for a long time before, and always portrayed as a pretty positive thing. Willow and Kennedy, too.

I think that if everything turned to crap in Sunnydale except for sex, it would feel off-kilter. The only thing that surprised me was that in seven seasons pregnancy was only mentioned once in passing – between Xander & Anya after Joyce’s death.

I’ve been wanting to write about Buffy for my own blog for months, and just have too many thoughts to figure out how to put them together! Thanks for posting on it for me!

“Willow and Oz didn’t have sex related problems.” Yeah, except for that whole “Oz getting involved with a lady werewolf” thing, but who’s counting. And, of course, it’s Whedon’s habit to destroy every functional relationship on his shows, often by punishing the female in some way, but, curiously, people are very resistant to seeing this.

And yes, Liz, my comment was aimed at you, because I felt like you were dragging out the old list of characters of colour to refute the argument that Whedon’s lack of diversity is a problem. I think Laura was right not to get into the details of the few people of colour on the show, since the post is so short; there’s a lot of ground to cover and only so much room to do it in.

I definitely have some problems with Kendra. I think there’s a tinge of the Magical Negro about her, and her accent was godawful. The racial overtones of the First Slayer were also troubling (OF COURSE the First Slayer had to be Black, because Africa is all mystical and tribal, etc).

Laura, I’m astounded you’ve never seen Veronica Mars! You will LOVE IT! It’s a terrific show.

No. The First Slayer was African because that’s where the first people were. The Slayer line is supposed to be ancient and having the First Slayer coming from Europe or the Americas would imply the battle between slayer and demon wasn’t as epically old.

You can’t focus on just Willow and Oz without remembering that she hurt him first with Xander and Cordelia got hurt there without them ever having sex.

I’m uncomfortable throwing the whole Angel Buffy sex in with the sex punishment aspect since the first 2-3 seasons were just about high school experiences. The boyfriend that changes after you sleep with him, the growing seperate from your parents, lying, cheerleading, being popular, being unpopular.

I would not argue at all the Joss as messed up dynamics with POC and generally does a one step forward two steps back thing. aka Firefly: Book and Zoe and then the appropriation of Chinese culture/language

However, I don’t know if I see the punishment after sex, at least not that it was specifically against the women. I think that Joss does have a love of ripping apart relationships but it’s unfair to say the women is always unfairly punished. Oz was punished when willow cheated on him as well as by becoming a werewolf affected their relationship which punished him as much, remember he came back and Willow didn’t choose him. Also, in the beginning, Buffy used Spike as much as he sed her, perhaps even more so. I have had multiple sexual relaltionships, some have ended because of something they did, some have ended because of something I did, some have just ended

I enjoyed this post because, while I loved Buffy and even own the dvds, I always had problem with Buffy and sex. Joss Whedon and sex, in fact, all through everything of his I ever watched, including Dr Horrible. Also, racially, Joss is fucked up. I listened to the Commentary musical on Dr Horrible, and there is a song about being Asian in Hollywood- and apparently, the girl who sings it is engaged to him, so I really don’t get it. I might be able to blame the Hollywood- absolutely, I can believe that they demand hot young white people- but even in the DH non-Hollywood musical, everyone is white as rice. That said, I was wondering about how you took the demon in OMWF to be a POC, and I knew he was some Broadway legand, and now I am looking him up and he is Black, so I conceed the point, though I am not really certain how someone under two hours of blue makeup can be a POC (Demon of Color?). Anyway, I enjoyed Buffy while I was in school, so it breaks my heart that the older I get, the more I realize Joss is kind of a jerk.

Why is everyone glossing over all of Xander’s sexual experiences. In the first and second season every single girl/teach he falls for turns out to be a mummy or praying mantis. Whedon makes everyone pay for their sex drives, not just the ladies.

[…] Problematizing Buffy : Adventures of a Young Feminist – I do love me some Buffy, but Laura makes some good points […]

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