Femininity and Conflict in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

The following is an essay I wrote for my final English project at the beginning of last year.  A few people have voiced an interest in reading it.  It’s long, it’s formal, it uses citations and the like, and certainly isn’t for everyone.  But for those who like 20 page essays about television characters and femininity in the media… well, here you go:


Femininity and Conflict in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

When the popular movie Twilight first appeared in theaters, it did not take long for fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BtVS) to shame Twilight’s Edward with a fan video smackdown (“Buffy Vs. Edward”). The video shows Edward stalking Buffy and professing his undying love, with Buffy responding in sarcastic incredulity and staking Edward. While it may appear that this “remix” of the two characters was about Buffy slaying a juvenile upstart and reinforcing her status as the queen of the genre, there was more at stake, so to speak. Buffy slaying Edward says more about the perceived masculinity and virility of the vampire in question than about Buffy herself as an independent woman. Buffy was never given that much agency in her own show. Buffy’s lovers stalked her, lied to her, and often ignored her own wishes about their relationships all in the name of “protecting” her. Many of these things are what fans of BtVS pointed out as anti-woman flaws in the narrative of Twilight, yet Buffy did not stake the vampires who denied her agency in her own relationships; instead, she pined for them! This is only one area in which BtVS as a vehicle fails to respect the ideals of a generation of young girls who crave a positive female icon. In family life, romance, and success outside of her primary role as Slayer, the show revolves around not Buffy’s strength and independence but the struggle she finds herself in because of it. The constant conflict Buffy suffers sends a mixed message to viewers; women can be granted strength but will be punished for it.

Dressing to Kill

One cannot watch BtVS without noticing the sometimes outlandishly girly way that Buffy is costumed, as well as the berating she often faces as a result. It isn’t uncommon for Buffy to climb into the sewers to head off an impending apocalypse wearing a pink sequined halter top. It is also likely that Buffy will face criticism from her watcher, mother, friends, or teachers the more girlish her garb becomes. While Buffy’s wardrobe may seem to contradict her warrior role, in actuality her feminine appearance helps to “normalize” her in the eyes of the viewer by reassuring them that she retains her female self despite her masculine strength (Jowett 23). When asked to patrol with the military Initiative, Buffy rejects their offer of camouflage garb, stating, “I’ve patrolled in this halter top before” (“The I in Team”). This rejection of the male warrior’s need to wear protective clothing in battle does not weaken Buffy, it instead positions her as a transgressive icon of female strength (Early). Buffy wields her girlish appearance like a weapon, using it to disarm and distract her opponents. Buffy’s unique approach to her role is also evidenced in the way that she and her friends often “resolve conflict nonviolently, through rationality, tactfulness, compassion and empathy” (Early, 20).

Deborah Tannen explains the way in which women are denied a “default” state in the way they dress and portray themselves, stating that “if a woman’s clothing is tight or revealing (in other words, sexy), it sends a message… …If her clothes are not sexy, that too sends a message, lent meaning by the knowledge that they could have been” (622). If Buffy were portrayed as butch, she would just be a girl pretending to be a man. If she were portrayed as too vanilla in the way she dressed, spoke, and acted she would be less interesting; her plainness would also send a message to the viewer by making her more androgynous. Buffy may be saucy and sexy and contrived in the way she dresses, but that is part of what makes her character complex. She is a warrior but also, undeniably, a woman.

Thus it is interesting that the plot and dialogue of the show often does not reinforce Buffy’s feminine dress as a positive thing, but instead condemns her for it. In the episode “Bad Eggs” Buffy and her mother are shopping and Buffy wants a new outfit. Joyce says no, “it makes you look like a streetwalker”. Buffy pouts and replies, “but a thin streetwalker, right?” This scenario is sadly common. Buffy’s peers, her mentors, and authority figures criticize her appearance as if it were offensive, and Buffy deflects such comments with sarcasm instead of defending her right to determine her own physical appearance.

Life Outside of Slaying

The punishment Buffy receives for her appearance is the least troubling aspect of the way in which Buffy is treated. From the first episode, Buffy is perceived of as a delinquent by those who do not know her dual identity as student and slayer. Buffy burnt down the gym of her old school, forcing her mother to quit her job and move to Sunnydale. Despite the fact that telling her mother the truth would assuage some of the resentment Buffy faced at home, Buffy chooses to lie to her mother to “protect” her. This pattern, in which Buffy stoically faces the judgment of others without defending herself repeats with her principal, teachers, and peers; in this way, Buffy accepts punishment that could have been avoided while reinforcing the idea that her treatment, while not deserved, is just.

As the show progresses and Buffy moves out of high school and into college and pursuing a career, she continues to encounter difficulty in her everyday life because of the dual identity slaying forces her to concoct. When her mother dies Buffy takes on the role of provider for her household. Buffy works a minimum wage job at Double Meat Palace to make ends meet as she is incapable of securing better employment. Buffy is eventually offered a position as a school counselor by the new principal in town, Robin Wood. In the episode “First Date” Principal Wood reveals that he knows that Buffy is the Slayer, and this is why he offered her a job. Buffy says, “so you didn’t hire me for my counseling skills?” and Principal Wood responds with a chuckle. Buffy may be powerful as the Slayer, but as a provider for her family and as an employee, her skills are portrayed as laughable.

Buffy’s necessary efforts to cloak some of her actions and engage in subterfuge to protect those unaware of vampires also constantly weaken her standing in society. Dramatic irony is often engaged as a plot device in BtVS, wherein Buffy is posed almost clownishly trying to hide the truth from an ignorant and often judgmental public. It is humorous as well as endearing to see how poorly Buffy lies, and Buffy’s lack of finesse outside of slaying does lend her character a great deal of humanity. Yet one must question why dramatic irony so often has Buffy playing the part of the bozo. Buffy is too often percieved of as flaky, inconsistent, or downright delusional. As one character says, a lot of people think Buffy “is some kind of high-functioning schizophrenic” (“Potential”). While Buffy may be possessing of super-human strength and a higher calling, it greatly impedes her ability to function as a normal member of society. She faces humiliation, prejudice, and conflict on a daily basis.

They Say Not to Take Work Home

As JP Williams writes in Choosing Your Own Mother (Mother-daughter Conflicts in Buffy), Buffy is “over-fathered and under-mothered” (61). She is reliant on the men around her for her survival, but denied an adequate female role model. For the first two seasons of BtVS, Buffy hides her true identity from her mother, Joyce. When Joyce does find out the truth about Buffy’s powers, they fight bitterly. Joyce tells Buffy, “if you walk out of this house don’t even think about coming back” (“Becoming”). Buffy has to leave or risk the world ending; so she walks out of her home and does not return to it until the third season. Buffy’s powers in this case strip Joyce of the ability to mother because Buffy’s calling must take precedence over her family obligations. Yet Buffy’s relationship with her mother suffers from far more than just the tension created by slaying. Joyce doesn’t seem to know how to properly communicate and often offers meaningless anecdotes, with Buffy reassuring her mother in an apparent role reversal. In “The Witch”, Joyce is attempting to encourage Buffy to follow through on trying out for cheer squad. Buffy says, “what was I trying out for?” and Joyce fumbles for words, having already forgotten. Buffy says, “that’s okay, your platitudes are good for all occasions.”

As the series progresses Joyce becomes portrayed as less neglectful, but in the first few seasons especially there are serious questions to be asked about her role as a mother. She has a teenage daughter who sneaks out nightly, lies to her, skips classes and bucks authority and Joyce is largely incapable of informing her daughter’s actions. Much of the early dynamic between mother and daughter comes down to the fact that Joyce does not realize the reality of Buffy’s “dual identity as Slayer and Student… a greater failing than Lois Lane’s traditional inability to envision Clark Kent without his glasses” (Williams, 64). The fact that Joyce is kept ignorant and Buffy routinely shuns her mothering is not entirely Joyce’s fault. The Slayer cannot respect her mother’s authority because the Slayer’s role is more important than mother-daughter relations.

Buffy the Relationship Slayer

Buffy’s relationship with her mother is not the only one which is strained. If her relationship with her mother is tense, then her romances are strenuous. Her first romantic pairing is with Angel, a vampire who is cursed with a soul. Unbeknownst to Angel, he will lose his soul if he experiences even a single moment of pure happiness. He finds this happiness when he and Buffy consummate their relationship in Season 2. When Angel then transforms into the demon Angelus, Mary Magoulick writes, it “culminates in a graphic, brutal, and bitter fight scene” (738). This is “particularly disturbing” as it comes in the second part of the episode in which Buffy makes love to Angel for the first time, giving the viewer the message that “being in love is more torment than pleasure” for Buffy (Magoulick 738).

Buffy’s later relationships may not be equally as tormented in terms of scale, but they do continue to revolve around themes of pain and conflict. This conflict is evident not only in romantic relationships, but in all her close relationships with men. Buffy even comes to blows with her mentor, Giles. While often their fighting is only in words, twice she resorts to hitting him. The first time occurs in the final episode of season one, “Prophecy Girl”. When Buffy realizes that Giles is going to sacrifice himself to save her life, she knocks him out in order to protect him. This action does lead to Buffy’s death by drowning, but she is resuscitated by her close friend Xander. The second time Buffy punches Giles echoes the first. In “Passion”, Giles is inflamed with rage after Angelus kills the woman Giles loves. Giles pursues Angelus in a suicidal rage. Again, Buffy resorts to blows in order to get through to Giles where words failed, to save his life. No matter how close the relationship, how deep the trust between two people, Buffy always seems to have to resort to her role as Slayer and her superhuman powers in order to make herself heard. This repeated theme has a serious connotation; Buffy as a girl is powerless. Her authority is intrinsically tied to her physically strength, which comes from her role as Slayer.

The Troubling Issue of Being Female On TV

One might ask how much any of this matters. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a television show, and much of the drama it depends on for ratings necessarily comes from conflict. No one watching the show should be surprised that Buffy’s interpersonal relationships are constantly disrupted, that she wears revealing clothes, or that she has to struggle in some areas of her life. The only problem with such thinking is that it assumes that such tensions could not have been written in a way that strengthened Buffy’s character rather than weakened her. It was not necessary to deprive Joyce and Buffy of a healthy mother-daughter relationship. A strong mother who supported her daughter’s calling would not necessarily have been less interesting to viewers than a mother who fumbled for words and appeared helpless. Nor was it necessary for Buffy to date men who stalked her, lied to her, and deprived her of agency in her relationships. While there is inevitably a price to pay for living a double life, the way in which Buffy is punished for her duplicity speaks volumes when viewed as analogous to the feminist struggle.

Often Buffy resorts to saying “I’m the Chosen One” when her authority is questioned; she is the Slayer, and that truth defines the way in which she acts and relates. Because of her power Buffy is forced to struggle in every area of her life. What message does this send to a young girl watching the program who is imagining being as powerful as Buffy? Rather than being an encouragement for girls to picture themselves as superheroes as boys so often do, BtVS sends the opposite message. Don’t pursue power, because that power will define your circumstances and those circumstances will define you. You will be forced to lie, to cheat, to sacrifice healthy relationships and to face constant conflict as a result of your independence.

It is unfortunately true that many shows that feature women as primary characters employ the same kind of storytelling. Xena: Warrior Princess, La Femme Nikita, The Closer, Alias, In Plain Sight, Saving Grace, Weeds and Battlestar Galactica all feature women as primary characters. All of the women in these shows have just a few things in common aside from their beauty: their intelligence and capability is challenged regularly; they face conflict in their private lives and homes; and they are punished for their physical and emotional strength. It is almost inevitable that any strong woman on TV would face the same treatment, especially those who play a traditionally masculine role. Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica, Xena, Nikita, Sidney Bristow of Alias, Mary Shannon of In Plain Sight and the Closer’s Brenda Lee Johnson all play traditionally masculine roles. All of those women face conflict and physical violence in almost every episode. Not only do they have to fight for respect, but their good works are seldom rewarded. Appreciation, respect, achievement, and victory are few and far between and must be won at high cost; home is not often a safe haven and interpersonal relationships are constantly disrupted. What is true for all of these female characters is especially true in the case of Buffy; she is a singular icon for female strength as well as for the punishment of feminine power.

Male Superheroes do not receive the same treatment. Spiderman, Batman, and Superman may engage in conflict in their everyday lives as a result of their necessary deceptions, but it is certainly not to the measure which Buffy does; their familial ties are free from extreme stress. They all have close relationships with older figures who mentor them and preserve their familial ties (Aunt Mae, Alfred, and the Kents respectively). They have places they can go home to which are a respite from the pressures their dual identities create. Each of the male superheroes mentioned also receives a certain measure of success both in their chosen careers outside of crime fighting and their romantic lives. While Batman does not have any long term romantic relationships he is a millionaire and dates often; he is rewarded for his power. Buffy is not afforded the kind of pleasures these male superheroes enjoy. It is because of that truth that Buffy’s story is far from empowering. Rather than showcasing a character who has achieved full agency as a woman and been rewarded for it, Buffy the Vampire Slayer instead chronicles one girl’s fight to be respected; a fight it sometimes seems she will never win.

The fact that women recieve unequal treatment in today’s society is made wholly apparent in the fact that feminine strength is not showcased or rewarded in television media as masculine strength always has been. Until women are allowed to be feminine and strong without fear of their homes and lives being disrupted, or facing constant judgment and critical backlash, women will remain less than men. While Buffy the Vampire Slayer may have gone further than any show before it in creating a female character who was independent and powerful, the fact that her strength could not go unpunished leaves a gaping hole. Young women are still hungry for a role model who can navigate all of the complexities of modern womanhood successfully. Buffy’s final fight, the fight for respect, must not be left unwon. It’s time for a female superhero to get equal treatment: strength, intelligence, achievement, and reward.

Works Cited

“Buffy Vs. Edward”. Jonathon McIntosh, ed.

http://www.rebelliouspixels.com/2009/buffy-vs-edward-twilight-remixed viewed 10/28/11

Early, Francis. “Staking Her Claim: Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Transgressive Woman Warrior.” Journal of Popular Culture 35.3 (2001): 11-17.

Jewett, Lorna. Sex and the Slayer: A Gender Studies Primer for the Buffy Fan. Middletown: Wesleyan, 2005. Print.

Magoulik, Mary. “Frustrating Female Heroism: Mixed Messages in Xena, Nikita, and Buffy.” Journal of Popular Culture 39.5 (2006): 729-55.

Tannen, Deborah. “There is No Unmarked Woman.” Signs of Life in the USA: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers. Ed. Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon. 6th ed. Boston: Bedford St. Martins, 2009. 620-24. Print.

Whedon, Joss. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Seasons 1-7. Television Program.

Williams, JP Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Ed. Wilcox, Rhonda, and David Lavery. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002. 61-68. Print.


6 thoughts on “Femininity and Conflict in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

    • Joss goes further than any other writer in creating trong women, as far as I know. I just wish he’d go further still. You see the same thing with Zoe and Inara in Firefly. Zoe’s femininity is constantly called into question and she fights bitterly with her husband because her masculine role apparently threatens his position in her relationship- and Inara, posed as one of the most powerful people in the show (as shown by her superior position in society, greater agency within the government, and more desirable resources) is mocked in almost every episode because she’s a “whore”. Fortunately in Firefly these issues get a more fair shake, and the storylines reflect that the punishment both women face is not entirely fair and the men that subject them to it are portrayed as buffoons… But, still… I want to see a female Batman who can behave with all of Bruce Wayne’s agency and not be punished for it.

      It’s very sad.

      • Ron D. Moore’s president character – Roslyn – on BSG is pretty 3-dimensional.

        I think Starbuck is on a knife edge re. her sanity, especially in the final season. It’s hard to watch at times.

    • Stephanie, I looked at that website and it seems like it would be a great fit. If you need to contact me directly my email address is linkees(at)gmail.com. Thanks for reading!

  1. Pingback: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Week: Femininity and Conflict in Buffy the Vampire Slayer | Bitch Flicks

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