The Buffy Effect
In the early 1990s, vampire mythology, horror revival, teen angst, and kick-ass grrlness congealed in a new figure in the pop culture pantheon of the paranormal: the vampire slayer. Not just any vampire hunter, mind you, but Buffy, the Valley-dwelling teenage slayer. Before Buffy, vampire stories and horror movies alike focused primarily on the male monster antagonists who preyed on innocent nubile young things. But in 1992, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s eponymous protagonist kickboxed her way, via the big screen, into our heroine-starved, media-junkie feminist hearts, along the way reconfiguring the popular vampire/horror text.
Buffy was explicitly conceived as a feminist reimagining of the horror genre: Screenwriter/tv producer Joss Whedon has said in interviews that his very inspiration for Buffy came from years of watching horror movies in which “bubbleheaded blondes wandered into dark alleys and got murdered by some creature.” Whedon wanted to make a movie where the blonde “wanders into a dark alley, takes care of herself, and deploys her powers” to kill the monster. Buffy’s exploits implicate the audience in a witty defiance of genre conventions: Instead of shouting, “Don’t go in there!” to the naive gal traipsing through the darkened vacant house, we shout, “Go, girl!” as Buffy enters the dark alley to dispatch the monster of the moment with her quick thinking and martial-arts prowess.
Buffy the movie didn’t quite live up to these noble intentions. A poorly reviewed, little-seen, campy one-liner—albeit an amusing one, with a kung fu–fighting heroine to boot—it told the story of a Southern California cheerleader in “the lite ages” who discovers that she has been fated to become a vampire slayer even though she would rather just go shopping. Full of Valley talk, workin’-hard-now training montages, an arena-rock soundtrack, cheesily sardonic vampires (courtesy of Paul Reubens), and an incongruous Luke Perry as the sensitive boy, the first incarnation of Buffy was more self-parody than wish-fulfillment vehicle for would-be feminist freedom fighters.
A scant few years later, however, the girl-power mantra had sung its spicy way through the ranks of pop culture. Scream revitalized the slasher genre in one ironic fell swoop, while teen-oriented tv solidified a lucrative market niche for savvy media-makers. The time seemed ripe to resuscitate Buffy and restore a little of her dignity. With Joss Whedon in full creative control as producer (and head writer), Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted on the WB network in 1996. Buffy is still the chosen one, the “girl born once in every generation with the strength and skill to hunt vampires.” But this time we get a bit more background: Because her hometown of Sunnydale sits upon a portal to hell, an unusual number of vampires and other assorted underworld denizens congregate there. It’s Buffy’s job to slay them one and all.
She’s not without help, though: Buffy is under the care and training of her Watcher (who doubles as the school librarian) and is often assisted by her geek-chic pals Xander and Willow. No one else seems to be much concerned about the large number of bizarre, unexplained killings in Sunnydale—Buffy’s career-focused single mom doesn’t wise up to her daughter’s vocation until the end of the show’s second season, the teachers are all but oblivious, and the mayor himself is in league with the undead.
It’s not surprising that a character like Buffy would surface in this particular pop cultural moment, saturated as it is with mixed messages about feminism and femininity, all tied up in the pretty bow of marketability. Buffy could be the poster girl for an entire decade of girl-oriented mass media/culture. For better and most certainly for worse, she’s Sassy incarnate, an angsty alternateen with a penchant for Delia*s-style slip dresses. She’s feisty and moody and won’t let anyone push her around. Her ever-present tank tops showcase her rack quite efficiently. She has a passion for justice and goodness—even when it means killing her boyfriend, Buffy performs with martyrlike grace. Her makeup is impeccable, her eyebrows well-groomed. She’s a girl’s girl, fiercely loyal to her best girlfriend. She may have returned from a night of heavy slaying, but her frosted hair is still in its pigtails, her sparkly makeup intact.
Imagine the boardroom pitch for such a show: “It’s all about a girl who trains in martial arts and the use of deadly weapons. She and her friends explore the powers of witchcraft. Every week she’ll confront and conquer a new foe, all while rebelling against paternalistic authority, sticking up for sisterhood, and saving the fate of the world.” Just add girl power and stir. For added appeal, toss in a cute star with a hot bod and rilly cool clothes. A kickboxing, demon-slaying, wisecracking teenage tv heroine—sounds promisingly subversive. But is Buffy really an exhilarating post–third-wave heroine, or is she merely a caricature of ’90s pseudo–girl power, a cleverly crafted marketing scheme to hook the ever-important youth demographic?
clearly, unlike other eponymous tv heroines, who spend more time gazing at their navels than thinking about injustice, Buffy has the sort of social conscience that appeals to the daughters of feminism’s second wave. For many of us born in the post-Roe era, a certain awareness of gender and power is ingrained and inextricably linked to our sense of identity and self-esteem—call it feminism’s legacy. The impulse that propels Buffy out on patrols, night after night, forgoing any semblance of “normal” teenage life, is identical to the one that compels us third-wavers to spend endless hours discussing the feminist potentials and pitfalls of prime-time television. Armed with the knowledge that the world is ours to make—and that no one else will make it for us—we can’t simply sit back and watch the show: We have to try to change the ending. Buffy, for her part, is resolute in her conviction that the world can be a better place, and that she can help forge it.
Buffy is an ongoing lesson in this sisters-doing-it-for-themselves ideology: She never claims to be “just a girl.” She never denigrates herself, nor is her girlhood ever depicted as a detraction. By contrast, it’s the very source of her strength. Buffy’s small-screen cosmology—which suggests not only that the most powerful person in town is a petite, wisecracking Valley Girl with blond locks and pink-passion lips, but also that the source of this slayer’s power is her teenage fallibility, her spunky girlness—has deeply feminist potential. Her anti-authority stance, her refusal to be intimidated by more powerful figures (whether the school principal or an archdemon)—these are her most important assets, the ones that make her more successful than previous generations of slayers.
While she may not be your typical feminist activist, Buffy’s birthright is to do good and fight for the weak. Unlike the (anti)heroines of other high-school-in-hell creations (Heathers, The Craft), Buffy is fighting to save her school and her classmates from total destruction. Despite her pastel goth tendencies toward alienation and disaffection, Buffy is actually trying to maintain order in Sunnydale-on-Hellmouth. True, Buffy’s enemies are more often demons than date rapists, vampires than patriarchal politicians. Buffy’s not a riot grrl renegade out slaying frat-boy harassers or destroying all vestiges of sexism—at least not literally. But evil in Sunnydale often takes a nicely metaphoric slant.
Critics writing about the show have been quick to pinpoint the parallels between Buffy’s demonology and real-life high school horrors, focusing heavily on the high-school-as-hell metaphor: Demons are the gangs; the transformation of gullible kids, victimized and “turned” by demons, represents the effects of drugs; the helplessness of grown-ups in the face of all this, well, that’s just life (according to Psychology Today). Then there are the parallels to real teenage life—as opposed to parents’ fears about drugs and gangs. You can’t bring your boyfriend home to meet your parents ’cause they just won’t understand (or, well, he’s a recovering vampire); the boy you lose your virginity to turns mean and nasty the morning after (vampires, even recovering ones, don’t respond well to human bliss); your parents will never understand you or your problems (they may even try to burn you at the stake for being a witch). It’s no accident that most of the demons are male and adult, or that the teenage demons often look a lot like those we all know, such as the “nice guy” whose science experiments have turned him into a possessive Mr. Hyde who beats the shit out of his girlfriend. Buffy even gets to survive her sexual mistake, both defying the horror-film convention dictating that virgins are the only ones who ever get out alive and alluding to the all-too-real emotional turmoil of that first failed relationship.
Buffy also earns feminist points for her martial arts proficiency (and penchant for nasty weapons), which pays homage equally to the women’s self-defense collectives of the ’70s and to ’90s collegiate date-rape awareness training seminars. Unlike other such prime-time displays of “self-defense” (who can forget Tori Spelling smacking a purse snatcher while yelling “No! No! No!” on 90210?), Buffy really means it. And while her incredible strength may seem unlikely for a girl of her stature, she isn’t endowed with superpowers. Buffy wasn’t chosen for her strength and fightin’ skills—being chosen revealed strengths she never knew she possessed.
Physical prowess, and a real knack for turning ordinary items into deadly weapons, is certainly a big part of it, but Buffy’s verbal slaying abilities are no less celebrated. Indeed, the first thing you learn in women’s self-defense class is the power of a loud, confident voice: The ability to yell and talk back to sleazy would-be attackers could save your life. Even cheerleader-cum-megabitch Cordelia taps into the power of words to scare the pants off a hillbilly vampire, proving you don’t have to be the chosen one to get rid of the nasties. Slaying could well become a grassroots movement.
In a distinctive nod to the feminist battle cry to reclaim the public realm as a space for women’s participation, Buffy eschews the domestic sphere for the public one. With her preternatural strength and supreme confidence, she can literally go wherever the hell she pleases. Her domain is a traditionally male, conventionally dangerous one: the darkened streets, abandoned buildings, and stinking alleys that girls have long been cautioned to beware of. She refuses to remain in the house, and in fact rarely appears at home. While her peers impassively dance to bands performing at an all-ages nightclub, Buffy never seems to linger for more than a few minutes—she’s always got somewhere else to be, some fight to pick or supernatural crisis to avert. It’s many a girl/woman’s dream: to be able to walk down any street of any town at any hour of the day or night, knowing she can defeat any monster who crosses her path.
in keeping with the parameters of contemporary girl culture, Buffy’s strength doesn’t negate her exaggerated femininity. She’s no scarred, deep-in-shit Tank Girl—this slayer’s tank tops are pastel and pristine, revealing plenty of creamy, unmarred cleavage. Her scars are internal only; that chip may never leave her shoulder, but you can bet it’ll be color-coordinated. Yup, she’s strong and sassy all right, but she’s the ultimate femme, never disturbing the delicate definition of physical femininity. Unlike the high school coven of The Craft, whose members become markedly less “feminine” as their powers grow, the Buffster, for all her bravado and physical strength, is a girly girl through and through.
Herein lie the limitations inherent in the Buffy phenom: “Girl power” as articulated in the mass media (and mass marketing) is often misrepresented as de facto feminism, when in fact it’s a diluted imitation of female empowerment. Indeed, for some people, it’s a way to bypass the complexities of feminism—it’s a lot easier to wear a “girls kick ass” t-shirt than to learn how to defend yourself physically. The problem with girl power is that all too often it relies on style over substance, baby tees over action. While girl power and the accompanying mania for girl culture has certainly helped spread pro-feminist, pro-female messages throughout the land, it also threatens to turn empowerment into yet another product. Like those clothes Buffy wears? Or how ’bout Willow’s incense burner? Now you can go to the megamall and buy them, thanks to cross-marketing from the WB and clothing retailer Hot Topic. Or you can follow Glamour’s exhortations to “get Buffy’s buff butt”—with actress Sarah Michelle Gellar’s gluteal-toning secrets, not Buffy’s martial-arts prowess.
Buffy constantly treads the fine line between girl-power schlock and feminist wish-fulfillment, never giving satisfaction to either one. Producer Whedon acknowledges this very intention: “If I can make teenage boys comfortable with a girl who takes charge of a situation without their knowing that’s what’s happening, it’s better than sitting down and selling them on feminism.” Call her a Hard Candy–coated feminist heroine for the girl-power era. And it isn’t just the pubescent boys who like their heroines sweet: This pastel veneer might just be the necessary spoonful of sugar to make the pro-feminist message palatable to network honchos, the marketing crew, and teen viewers alike.
It’s a point well-taken, but Buffy’s unreconstructed, over-the-top girliness in the end compromises her feminist potential. Though this excessive femininity veers toward the cartoonish, in the end it’s too earnest—too necessary—to be self-parody. We’re never allowed to forget that Buffy is a girl—indeed, the show’s hook relies on the “joke” of a petite cheerleader being chosen to save the world from evil. If the slayer had been quirky, brainy Willow rather than pert ’n’ pastel Buffy, the show would never have gotten off the drawing board. Despite the fact that Willow is a much more likely feminist role model (supersmart Wicca-practicing computer whiz—be still my heart!) and has become the fave of many hard-core Buffy fans (male and female alike), she lacks the babe quotient necessary to forge a hit show. It may be wrong, but it’s true nonetheless: Just as the girl- power phenomenon created a market for the show, the show’s viability and commercial success depend upon this narrow definition of femininity and sex appeal.
Within the context of mass culture, however, we may be able to look past her girly foibles. While Buffy is most definitely a babe, and this is certainly part of her mass audience appeal (not to mention a great reason for magazines like Rolling Stone to put her on the cover), her babeification is confined to the marketing realm. As cute and perky and scantily clad as she is, she’s not overtly sexualized within the show, which is a pretty dramatic shift from the jiggle-core of most other kung fu–fighting women on tv (Xena, Wonder Woman, you may sit down). In spite of the obvious sexual-predator symbolism, the vampires are not (for the most part) leering, drooling lechers who ogle Buffy before they get kickboxed and staked. Instead, they generally respect her position as the slayer, her power and strength.
In the end, it’s precisely this contextual conflict that sets Buffy apart from the rest and makes her an appealing icon. Frustrating as her contradictions may be, annoying as her babe quotient may be, Buffy still offers up a prime-time heroine like no other. Caught between demands that initially appear to be in conflict—be pretty, be smart; be homecoming queen, be savior of the world—Buffy finds a balance, a middle ground that may be lonely but is undeniably empowering. Femininity—girlness—is a slippery slope, and at least Buffy honors our intelligence enough to allow us these contradictions and even occasionally poke fun at them.
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