Friday, October 31, 2008

Buffy and the power within - Tallulah Grey

Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, while it can be seen as a leader in the modern occult phenomenon, has also helped break down barriers and demolish stereotypes that have in the past severely damaged our views and beliefs. Buffy has become a source of power for many individuals and groups which had previously lacked either the strength, the will or the faith to stand up and be counted. Buffy is, in its very essence, counter-hegemonic: going against the tide in every way. Buffy Summers becomes a Patron Saint of feminine strength, and her best friend Willow becomes quite literally a Goddess.

The standard in television is usually a hero: a young man with some sort of power, whether it be intelligence, strength or the ability to breathe fire or jump back in time. This hero either works alone or with a small group of companions. Romantic entanglements are short-lived, especially for the romantic character, who often dies almost immediately after a relationship is begun. Villains are irredeemable, and sometimes in some way demonic. Buffy breaks the mould in many ways.

The hero is a heroine: a teenage girl gifted (or cursed) with the task of being the Slayer. Normally the Slayer is a one-man (or in this case woman) show, but Buffy has a group of friends who help her. Each of her friends embodies a different strength: Giles has the knowledge, Willow has the magic as well as the tech-savvies to hack into any system, Anya has the experience, Cordelia has the guts, and Xander has the heart. Buffy’s romantic relationships, while often ending in heartbreak and, on occasion, violent death, last for much longer than most television heroes seem to be able to manage. While Buffy’s villains are almost always literally demonized, they usually have a human aspect. In most cases, they love someone or something, and this leads to either their salvation or destruction. (Wilcox 3 – 17)

The article “Willow’s Queer Transformations on Buffy the Vampire Slayer” by Susan Driver deals with issues of “coming of age, coming out, [and] becoming powerful.” (Driver 91) Using the character Willow Rosenberg as an example, Driver discusses lesbians in the media, or the lack thereof. Driver states that often in television, while male coming out plotlines can be drawn out and complex, lesbian characters get pushed to the backburner, getting ignored unless necessary for a bit of “erotic fascination”. (Driver 92) “On rare occasions when girls are portrayed, they become reduced to an immature phase of bisexual indecision”, (Driver 92) suggesting that the media is implying that teenage girls are less likely to have as much of a decisive will as their male companions. When Willow came out, teenage girls flocked to this new guide through a complex and confusing time in their lives. Willow’s relationships had as much screen time as the heterosexual relationships in Buffy, and she had just as much depth as, if not more than, any other main character. Her arc was overwhelmingly powerful. “Willow went from innocent and geeky and adorable to confident and intelligent, and then to frighteningly evil but still sexy, and then to unsure” (Driver 95) and from there to an all-powerful Goddess.

One of Willow’s most attractive aspects is her imperfection. In high school, she is not the sexy girl who stood out from the crowd. She’s just another teenager wearing dorky clothes, not knowing where her life is going to take her. A twenty-year old girl, Helen, is quoted in Driver’s article as to why a character like Willow is so necessary to the young queer community.

“I work at Taco Time. I don’t have a girlfriend, and haven’t in over three years. I wear normal, boring clothing and dirty shoes. I listen to Broadway musicals and obsess over TV shows. I love my friends, but don’t fall in love with them. Every person I’d like to be with doesn’t necessarily want me back, and vice versa. I have an accepting family where there is no drama whatsoever related to being gay. I’m not a sex object used to please the male viewers. I am a real person who happens to like girls.” (Driver 96)

Rather than waking up one morning to discover a new set of truths, Willow, like many other teenage girls, “become[s] ‘gay’ slowly and patiently, beyond the linear progression and finality.” (Driver 97) Again, this is important, as a realistic view of gay women helps to not only give young questioning women the confidence to believe in themselves and truly understand their feelings, but also to educate a society in which young lesbians are still often considered to be seeking attention, or just simply experimenting. Willow becomes a beacon of hope for a more accepting future.

Returning now to Buffy herself, it is easy to read the Slayer as a metaphor for female power. A beautiful, sassy young woman with super strength and a destiny, while being an attractive feature in any television program, becomes a symbol. “In Buffy, we see no heaven, no God, no Christ,” (Erickson, 114) just the demons and the girl here to save us. None of the main characters in Buffy are particularly religious. Buffy herself, although she has died and gone to what she thought might be heaven, is still unsure of the existence of any higher power. It is mentioned on occasion that Willow is Jewish, but as she delves further into the world of witchcraft this life is left behind and she becomes her own symbol of power. On occasion a character will quote the Bible, but it is almost always a demon or vampire doing so. Does this make a statement regarding fundamental religion, or perhaps those who are drawn to it? Religion is wisely ignored during Buffy whenever possible. While Buffy is a show that relies heavily on occult and religious imagery, there is never a need to shove these images down our throats, although at times Buffy may feel the need to shove one of these religious images, such as a crucifix, down a vampire’s throat.

Buffy has become a symbol of strength and power for those unable to stand up for themselves. Throughout so much of history, women have not had equal rights to men, and it is only in the past hundred years that this has begun to change. In our supposed enlightened and free western society, there are still many women who are downtrodden and controlled. Even some who do not realize it are manipulated by their families, friends or partners. They become less than their potential. Buffy gives us all the opportunity to take the power back, and to fight those who have crushed our spirits. Whether we’re men or women, straight, gay or undecided, black, white or purple, living or undead, Buffy shows us that we all have the power to be strong.


Driver, S. “Willow’s Queer Transformations on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: coming of age, coming out, becoming powerful.” in “Queer girls and popular culture: reading, resisting, and creating media”, New York, Peter Lang, 2007, ch.3 pp.91-126.
Erickson, G. “Sometimes you need a story: American Christianity, Vampires and Buffy” in “Fighting the Forces: what’s at stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, Oxford, Rowman and Littlefield, 2002, pp. 108 – 119.
Pender, P. “Kicking Ass is Comfort Food”
Playden, Z. “What You Are, What’s to Come: feminisms, citizenship and the divine” in “Reading the vampire slayer: an unofficial critical companion to Buffy and Angel”, London, Tauris Parke, 2001, ch.6, pp.120-147.
Wilcox, V. “Who died and made her the boss? Patterns of Mortality in Buffy” in “Fighting the Forces: what’s at stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, Oxford, Rowman and Littlefield, 2002, pp. 3 – 17.

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