Female empowerment in "Buffy - the Vampire Slayer"

Bachelor Thesis, 2010

38 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Feminism and the woman on the screen

3. The female hero

4. The women in BtVS
4.1. Buffy in Helpless(3x12)
4.2. Anya in Selfless(7x05)

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Throughout the past centuries information has been conveyed between people through different media. In the last century the most important and successful medium has developed, namely television. It has never held more power than at the turn of the last millennium. In the western world, especially the United States of America practically every household possesses at least one television set, and this not only for information purposes, but mostly for the personal pleasure. This is why a lot of work and thought is being put into television programs that are designed for entertainment, such as films and series. In order to be successful, such a television series has to combine many factors. Besides having an entertaining plot, it also has to deal with issues that concern the viewer and are important to him, since in our medialized culture, television seems to be the one medium that reaches out to the largest amount of people. One of the most mesmerizing programs is the format of television series, where every week, the viewer can follow the development and lives of characters that have grown close to his heart because of the viewing frequency. Throughout the age of television, which can be seen as the second half of the 20th century, there have been many different series which have attracted a broad viewer range and glued the American public to the television screen every night. Not only sitcoms, such as Friends and Seinfeld have been such successes, but many series have used a Hollywood movie format, to captivate their viewers even more. Mostly these shows dealt with the issues that concerned their target, for example friendship, family lives, action, and of course romance. After the huge feminist movements in the 1960s, shows like Mary Tyler Moore or Charlie’s Angels tried to emphasized women’s strength, although the accomplishment of that can be argued about.[1]

The 1990s brought big changes with them, a fact that was also reflected in television shows. There were more women in powerful professional positions, so programs like Ally McBeal and Sex and the City became very popular. Also, since the end of the millennium was nearing and many people believed it to bear some special kind of mystical change, a couple of drama series that dealt with mystery and the paranormal emerged, such as Twin Peaks or the X-Files. These topics have not lost their popularity amongst the public until today.

There was one television series, however, that started in 1996 and ran for seven years until 2003 on network television that combined different television and film genres, such as action, horror, mystery, comedy, teen drama, romance and even soap opera. This show will be the topic of this thesis and is titled Buffy – the Vampire Slayer. Written and directed by Joss Whedon[2], the show is based on the homonymous movie, released in 1992, the screenplay for which has also been written by the abovementioned Joss Whedon. The movie, starring Kristy Swanson and Luke Perry, admittedly, was a medium success at the box office, which definitely cannot be said for the series. Not only a broad viewer range but also a large fan community speaks for its success. The show can be seen as a cultural phenomenon that had its effects not only on the fans, but on fashion, trends, and television itself. Even until today, years after the end of the show in 2003, the plot and characters are still discussed in internet forums, there is a lot of scholarly interest in Buffy – the Vampire Slayer, [3] even academic conferences are held where scholars discuss the series. As a matter of fact, “BtVS may be the most studied television series in the medium’s history.” (Levine & Parks, 2007:10)

The series consists of seven seasons with 22 episodes each, except for the first season, which has only twelve episodes. The airing is tied to the American school year, since high school students are the target of the show, and especially the first three seasons take place in a high school of a “typical” Californian small town, which just happens to be built on the “mouth of Hell” (Welcome to the Hellmouth 1x01). The reason for this is the original idea of BtVS presenting itself as a metaphor for the perception of many teenagers of high school being hell, as Joss Whedon himself has remarked in numerous interviews. Thus, every problem a typical American teen might face, is symbolized in this show by real monsters, such as vampires, werewolves and demons. The premise of Buffy – the Vampire slayer is the story of a typical Californian teenage girl, Buffy Summers, who happens to be the “one girl in all the world, a Chosen One, one born with the strength and skill to hunt the vampires, [...] to stop the spread of their evil […]” (Welcome to the Hellmouth, 1x01), the Vampire Slayer. She is helped by a group of friends, who are all outsiders in the society of their school: the smart, but mousy girl Willow (Alyson Hannigan), the nice but goofy Xander (Nicholas Brandon), and the librarian Giles (Anthony Steward Head), Buffy’s Watcher, who is part of the Watcher’s Council, a patriarchal authority that overlooks the Slayer. Buffy, who is played by the actress Sarah Michelle Gellar, known from slasher films, such as I know what you did last summer, is a very petite blonde girl that meets Hollywood’s beauty standards, but has supernatural strength and knowledge in martial arts, which gives her the ability to fight demons. The creator of the show, Joss Whedon, who describes himself as a feminist, has said that the idea for Buffy came from his love for horror movies, where “beautiful vivacious blondes got themselves killed. [He] realized [he] wanted to see a movie in which the beautiful girl was the hero – that she was confronted and trounced [the monster].” (Duda, 2008:130) Basically Whedon wanted to deconstruct “the label of blonde (that is dumb) femininity and link it with power and strength.” (Genz, 2009:160) “I thought it’s time she had a chance to take back the night”[4], he says himself in an interview for the special features on the DVD with season one of BtVS. But is the show really as feminist and subversive as it claims to be? Does Buffy fight not only vampires, but the patriarchal order of society as well? Or is her strength simply a sugar coating for the reinforcement of patriarchal world order? These questions have been very interesting to scholars in the past and I will try and answer them in this paper. For this purpose I will look at the development and place of the female on the screen, and analyze two episodes of BtVS in particular: Helpless (3x12) and Selfless (7x05). The first one, taking place in the third season, deals with the power of the Slayer, which is metaphorical for a woman’s power, and whether or not the woman is still powerful, if stripped of supernatural strength.

The second episode, which takes place much later, in the last season of the show, deals not with Buffy, but another female character, Anya and her (and with her, all women’s) search for an identity of her own.

Rachel Fudge poses in her essay The Buffy Effect or, a Tale of Cleavage and Marketing the following question:

“A kickboxing, demon-slaying, wisecracking teenage TV heroine sounds promisingly subversive. But is Buffy really an exhilarating […] heroine [and television show], or is she merely a caricature of ‘90s pseudo-girl power, a cleverly crafted marketing scheme to hook the ever-important youth demographic.” (Köver, 2005:16)

Her question is a very legitimate one, since many critics have argued against the subversive character of BtVS, as all the women on the show are portrayed as very conventionally feminine, especially through costuming. I extend Rachel Fudge’s question and ask whether BtVS has really managed to defeat patriarchy and shown women that they can be strong and achieve whatever it is they want or does it only confirm the traditional views on women? This thesis hopes to find an answer to all these questions.

2. Feminism and the woman on the screen

For thousands of years, women in the western world have been considered the weaker and less significant sex whose sole purpose it is to bear and raise children and manage the household, while the men provide for the family and engage in public life. The woman was objectified as an instrument or a function performer, and in the Middle Ages it was even a topic of debate, whether woman had a soul or not, since, according to biblical mythology, she was made out of Adam’s rib. (Kaveney, 2004) This patriarchal order of society has prevailed, but despite that a women’s movement has emerged, when in the 20th century women fought back and finally succeeded in gaining rights. After the Women’s movement, that started at the end of the 19th century and brought with it the all important right to vote, the women became quiet for a while, since America had the two World Wars and the Great Depression to deal with.

It was not a long time coming though, that the so-called second wave of feminism developed, as women still were looked down on and believed to have to be restricted to home and kitchen. But, as always, in a mass of power, there will be resistance. (Fiske, 1992) The second wave had its climax in the 1960s and 1970s and feminists fought not for basic rights (as did the feminists of the first Women’s Movement) but for political, economical and social equality as well as a respectful attitude towards women in the society.(Smyczynska, 2007) This wave is mostly known for its radicalism and the “rejection of the view of women as sex objects.” (Wood, 2005:65) The best known and most important foundation was laid down by Betty Friedman’s work The Feminine Mystique (1963), which deals mostly with the middle-class woman’s discontent with her domesticity. This became a very political issue. By means of marches, protests and even radical acts, such as the famous protests against the Miss America pageants in 1968 and 1969[5], second wave feminists tried to win appreciation and achieve their goals. Although there were different directions, such as liberal or cultural feminism, that even had “conflicting ideologies, [which] lead to diverse rhetorical goals and strategies” (Wood, 2005:59), feminists were much misrepresented by the media and could not rid themselves from the reputation of having an anti-male attitude, and being man-hating radicalists. This caricatured stereotype is not at all fallacious, since “in order to pursue the ideal of equality, feminists in the […] 1960s [and 1970s] were keen to abolish markers of difference – such as [traditional] femininity – that they saw as fundamental to understanding women’s oppression.” (Genz, 2009:38)

They believed that it was not natural for a woman to be, what was commonly regarded as feminine. Indeed, as Stephanie Genz says in her book Postfemininities in popular culture: “Femininity is not an origin in itself but always an outcome of a historically, culturally and socially distinct process of gendering.” (2009:6)

But the traditional views of femininity that have been built up by centuries cannot be made redundant by a movement and a series of protests. They prevail and still make up part of the identity of women even now. Despite its radicalism, second wave feminism had its success and by the time of the last decade of the 20th century, society saw some changes. Women were more often successful in professional life, even in professions that were male monopolies before, and held office in political positions[6]. Thus the third wave of feminism came of age. The definition of what feminism itself means changed, because the goals that were set by second-wave feminists were considered as more or less achieved. Characteristic for the third wave is the term “girl power”; mostly know to the public as the slogan of 1990s British girl band, the Spice Girls. Among academics this era is also often referred to as “new feminism” or “postfeminism”. (Smyczynska, 2007) Although the term “postfeminism” does imply that feminism is over, it deliberately distances itself from the radicalism of the second wave feminists. Katarzyna Smyczynska says that “the profound transformations of gender power relations […] include media emphasis on the emergence of a girl culture” (2007:27) and therefore, especially in media there is a need for “strong, demanding, professionally successful women” (Smyczynska, 2007:27) who will reflect the society. Furthermore, the new feminists proclaim that “being feminist does not conflict with being feminine, but it does mean being reflective about how we define and embody femininity.” (Wood, 2005:3) So, while third wave feminism is still critical, it is linked to the consumerist culture that has dominated America in the past decades. As opposed to the second wave, the third wave of feminism has shifted its focus from politics into popular culture, which is justified by the notion, that “popular culture is the politics of the 21st century.” (Lenzhofer, 2006:21) Third wavers claim to combine feminist achievement and traditional values, especially the trait of femininity, which is still defined by the traditional beauty standards. Critics, however say that under the premise of sexual freedom and “new feminism” simply the return of traditional traits and patriarchal views of the woman are hidden. (Genz, 2009) It has also been often criticized, that while arguing to celebrate “girl culture”, third wavers take the symbols of female oppression, such as the overly sexualized appearance, and consider them as the alleged culture. The conflict between the second and the third waves is comparable to a mother-daughter conflict. Two different, consecutive generations, that strongly represent different points of view, will probably never be able to reduce their views to a common denominator.

Now, being a popular medium, television has always served the purposes of expressing the views and opinions, not of individuals, but of the masses and of the society in general. As it is widely known, the masses and society are not keen of abrupt changes of their opinions and try to cling to traditions through means of popular culture such as television. Therefore, despite the successes of feminism, and even though “since the 1950s the dominant position of white heterosexual middle-class American males has faced a series of challenges from the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the gay rights movement, altering the way people think about race, […] gender and sexuality […]” (Jowett, 2005:3)

it took a while for these changes to be represented on the television screen. Mostly, “media offer us gender portraits that depart from traditional gender stereotypes.” (Wood, 2005:231) Hence, before analyzing the television series Buffy – the Vampire Slayer, it is important to look at the traditional and general representation of the woman on the screen. Since, according to its creator Joss Whedon, the idea for BtVS came from watching horror and action movies, and the series has, as mentioned before a movie format, I will restrict my discussion to the horror and action genres, without, however, going into deeper definitions of these genres or genre itself.

Generally women always have been underrepresented in media. (Wood, 2005) Traditionally, in horror and action movies or television shows, the women, if they did appear at all, have played a secondary part. In the classical horror film, the role, or put more precisely, the function of the woman was always the victim.

“Often […] there weren’t even other female characters in the movie or show, and although the victim was part of the story, the story was never about her, but about the hero,” (Karras, 2002)

who was inevitably male and through his quest to rescue the victim had the ability to show all his masculinity, strength and heroism. Heather Duda says in her book The Monster Hunter in modern popular culture: “because the monster hunter has agency in a horror text, the character has to be male,” (2008:101) as opposed to the victim, who is passive and therefore has to be female. Mostly the victim was blond, attractive, the hero’s love interest, but, as was considered appropriate for women, passive and helpless in her actions. This stereotype of the blond and beautiful victim was taken by Joss Whedon and reversed into the hero of his own show, but more on this in later chapters.

On the matter of the function the two opposite genders have on the screen, Carol Clover has to say the following:

“Gender inheres in the function itself – […] there is something about the victim function that wants manifestation in a female, and something in the monster and hero functions that want expression in a male. Sex, in this universe, proceeds from gender, not the other way around. A figure does not cry and cower because she is a woman; she is a woman because she cries and cowers. […] Those who save themselves are male, and those who are saved by others are female.” (Köver, 2005:61)

Indeed, the traditional movie and television texts operated their characters in this way. Beside the role of the victim women were portrayed as inferior and dominated by men, focused on their looks and housekeeping. “The feminine ideal is young and thin, preoccupied with men and children and enmeshed in relationships or housework.” (Wood, 2005:236) Normality was only achieved when the woman took on the role of a damsel in distress. This ideal has not changed much even despite the achievements of feminism. However, Judith Butler is of the opinion that gender is performed and stylized only through the actions of a character, their authenticity being possible through the repetition of these actions. “Dekonstruierende und subversive Möglichkeiten eröffnen sich [also] gerade aufgrund des konstruierten Charakters von Geschlecht und Geschlechtsidentität.“ (Lenzhofer, 2006:48)

But even at the beginning of the 21st century, women on the screen still are allowed to be successful and strong only if they meet the above mentioned ideal. Popular television shows of the 1990s, that claim to be the result of new feminism, do show strong and assertive women, but only if they are “beautiful, compassionate and identified with one or more men.” (Wood, 2005:239) For example Charlie’s Angels have to report their actions to a male authority and the allegedly revolutionary series Sex and the City, deals with women, who although self-reliant and successful, are mostly concerned with looks, dependent on their relationships to men, or expressing an excessive sexual desire, which may characterize them as sex objects. (Wood, 2005) This tendency is known as the

“postfeminist moment of female disorientation and anxiety. […] The [emancipated] 1990s woman was seen to be in danger of serious mental and physical damage – of ending up ‘all alone, half-eaten by an Alsatian’ as one well known fictional singleton put it.[7] ” (Genz, 2009:2)

In the genre of horror and action, however, there were two other functions, besides the victim, which a woman was able to execute: the Vixen and the Final Girl. The Vixen was always the evil character and the antagonist of the (male) hero. Active, aggressive, and overtly sexual she is portrayed as a monster and is punished for her incoherence with the passive ideal of femininity in being killed by the active male hero. (Duda, 2008)

The Final Girl on the other hand, conforms to every standard society imposes on women, and although she does not become active, she is strong enough to be the one left standing at the end, meaning, she survives long enough to be rescued by the active male. In order to obtain this strength she is provided with attributes that differentiate her as well from the victim as from the vixen. She is passive and timid, her costuming is mostly very conservative and not revealing, so that she cannot be viewed as a sexual object. (Duda, 2008)

“She is represented as less conventionally sexually attractive, favoring boyish, practical clothing; she is not sexually promiscuous; she possesses a detective-like curiosity; and she has and ambiguously gendered name such as Stretch, Will, Joey or Max.” (Middleton in Levine & Parks, 2007:161)

Thus the Final Girl is masculinized, which legitimizes her to be strong enough to survive. So, even if she does have some kind of power, it comes from her deferring from other females. Her otherness brings her closer to the maleness of the hero, and therefore justifies her actions. Apart from that, the woman in horror and action movies in shows remained passive and powerless.

However, the efforts of the several feminist waves, especially the third wave that concentrated on popular culture, were not fruitless. Especially in the last decade of the 20th centuries television shows became popular, which featured a female hero. This female hero is going to be the subject of the next chapter.

3. The female hero

As the society changed towards the end of the 20th century, so did its mirror, the television screen. The struggles of feminists and their successes were even more noticeable in popular culture than they ever could be in politics. Especially in the genre of action, a phenomenon developed, which changed the fate of the women on the television screen. Formerly passive and powerless, women gained power and many television series had a hero as their main character that was female.

But first one has to look at what a hero in the action essentially means. In his essay Authenticating Realism in Medieval Film, William F. Woods writes the following:

“In heroic narratives, the action occurs in precisely the ways necessary to show off the hero’s courage and limitations […] the plot mechanism is that he or she must make choices.” (In: Driver & Ray, 2004:43)

The classical hero represents the viewer’s ideal of heroic behavior. Of course every viewer defines “heroic” differently, depending of his cultural, educational and biographical background, but there are some traits, that are considered heroic by the majority of society. These traits have a medieval knight’s character: the hero is loyal, honorable, has faith, but is also reflective and suffers in order to achieve his goal – the victory of “good over evil”. Traditional heroes are “set apart from their enemies by their brawny physiques, their devotions to God, king and lady, and their fighting abilities – which are used to promote justice.” (Butvin Sainato in: Driver &Ray, 2004:133) The traditional hero in the action genre, besides being male, tends to be a solitary, military general, a tough guy, who does not need others in order to show off his heroism.

So, the action genre is a masculine one; the women are marginal participants, which used to correspond to the society. As the society changed, and women became more successful, stronger and had a say in political life, hence became more important in society, they also became more important in American television.


[1] In Charlie’s Angels for example, although the angels do fight and are portrayed as strong women, they still have to report to a male superior, so that the male superiority of a patriarchal society is still maintained. (Wilcox, in Inge & Hall, 2002 )

[2] Although single episodes did have other writers and directors throughout the long run of the show, the development of the story and the production was always supervised by Joss Whedon.

[3] Further on referred to as: BtVS.

[4] Here Whedon deliberately uses the phrase „take back the night“, which was a feminist slogan for anti-porn marches in 1978, which then developed into numerous university lectures about sexism and violence against women. (Köver, 2005)

[5] These protests later brought the notion of the bra-burner for the feminists, since it was discussed to burn bras in front of the building where the Miss America pageant took place as a sign of disapproval. As a matter of fact, it was never done, but feminists became stigmatized by the media as “bra-burners” anyways. (Wood, 2005)

[6] For example: Hillary Clinton.

[7] The fictional character referred to here is Bridget Jones from Helen Fielding’s bestseller Bridget Jones’s Diary, which was published in 1999.

Excerpt out of 38 pages


Female empowerment in "Buffy - the Vampire Slayer"
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald
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Buffy the vampire slayer, gender studies, literature, textanalyse, medialer text. female empowernment, frauen im tv, women on tv
Quote paper
Natalia Gubergritz (Author), 2010, Female empowerment in "Buffy - the Vampire Slayer", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/412991


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