March 10, 1997 marked the birth of a strange pop culture phenomenon, a fusion of “vampire mythology, horror revival, teen angst, and kick-ass grrlness”: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Fudge). Sixteen-year-old Buffy Summers, Joss Whedon’s eponymous heroine, is a deliberate and sassy refiguring of genre stereotypes. Instead of “bubble-headed blondes wandering into dark alleys” where they are preyed upon by typically male monster antagonists, Whedon envisioned a fragile-looking young woman who is attacked, “and then turns around and destroys her attacker” (Wilcox and Laverly xvii). Indeed, as the teenaged defender of Sunnydale against the forces of darkness, Buffy’s character features quite an interesting juxtaposition, occupying an indistinct position between physically empowered heroine and ultra-feminine girly girl:
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 martyr-like grace. Her makeup is impeccable, her eyebrows well-groomed. . . . She may have returned from a night of heavy slaying, but her frosted hair is still in its pigtails, her sparkly makeup intact. (Fudge)
In the wake of a socio-political climate “saturated . . . with mixed messages about feminism and femininity” (Fudge), Buffy’s appearance in American pop media is not unexpected—nor are the hundreds of books, journals, and other academic writings that have emerged in order to discuss Buffy’s feminist potential as a pop culture icon. Yet these numerous feminist voices are hardly in agreement. On the one hand, Buffy’s popularity as a strong-headed, demon-slaying female character has much potential in its self-conscious rejection of stereotypical portrayals of women in pop culture. On the other, Buffy is determinedly girly in a way that subscribes to traditional patriarchal standards of beauty and femininity: she is “young, blond, slim, and vigilantly fashion conscious” (Pender 36). Some feminists argue that her conventional femininity undermines her agency as a powerful female character, revealing that she is ultimately unable to escape gender stereotypes. Is Buffy the vampire slayer a refreshing and politically potent female role model or a return to oppressive male-imposed traditions of femininity? Is Buffy feminist?
At the heart of this issue is a need to define the meaning and purpose of feminism itself. Though “feminist” and “feminism” are loosely applied terms that take on numerous different interpretations, according to Joanne Hollows, the author of Feminism, Femininity and Popular Culture, it is at least,
generally accepted that feminism is a form of politics which aims to intervene in, and transform, the unequal power relations between men and women. . . . Feminisms of the 1960s and 1970s—and, arguably, of the present—did not simply seek to explain the inequalities between men and women but to use this as a basis for change. (Hollows 3)
In other words, feminism is inherently and ubiquitously concerned with action and agency. What sets disparate feminist practices and theories apart are disagreements of method—how exactly to achieve social change—which in turn shape feminists’ reading of ideas and social behaviors. For instance, for second-wave feminists, adhering to society’s standards of femininity consists of bowing down to patriarchy, which effectively implicates women in their own oppression (Hollows 10); in contrast, some forms of third-wave feminism (such as “Riot grrrl” and “Girlie feminism”) sought to embrace and reclaim femininity and female sexuality for the sake of promoting self-confidence, individualism, and social empowerment (Archer and Huffman 73-74). These two ideological stances contest femininity as a either a harmful institution or a “power tool” for the downtrodden (Karp 7). As Christina Köver puts, it, “Feminist Theory is always interested in the pragmatic ‘use’”, or the strategic helpfulness of a text or theory to the feminist agenda. This potential for helpfulness is exactly what many feminists try to identify when reading Buffy.
Seemingly inevitable to this critical process is a polemicizing of the issue. As feminist writer Patricia Pender describes it, “Feminist critiques of popular culture frequently mobilize a similar strategy to Buffy’s slaying technique . . . is it friend or foe?” (Pender 35). The implication is that any idea or item of pop culture must help feminism in its socio-political goals, or it hurts it. As a result, the question of whether or not Buffy is helpful or unhelpful has been regurgitated and rehashed continually. For instance, Rachel Fudge of Bitch magazine writes: “Is Buffy really an exhilarating post-third-wave heroine, or is she merely a caricature of 90’s pseudo-girl power?” Alternatively, Anamika Samanta and Erin Franzman of “Women in Action” posit the same question a slightly different way: “No longer damsels in distress, women are kicking ass and saving the world from doom—in Hollywood technicolor. But is happiness really a warm gun? . . . Are we on our way to mass physical empowerment? Or are we just headed for a whole new pack of stereotypes to live down?” (28) The concerns of these (and many other) feminist writers largely deal with the same “helpful-unhelpful” question: Can Buffy serve as a transgressive and empowering female role-model, confident in her own strengths and embracing her femininity, or is she too much a slave to her own femininity and the oppressive patriarchal traditions of a sexist society?
The answers that have been supplied to this query have naturally been just as dichotomous. Lynette Lamb, author of the article “Media Criticism: The Sad State of Teen Television,” for instance, unequivocally rejects Buffy and similar television programs for their superficial female characters and damaging use of gender clichés. She says of 90s TV series popular amongst teen girls:
Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sabrina the Teenage Witch may have magical powers, but they have no real power outside their supernatural ones. . . . Like so many teens on prime time TV, Sabrina’s and Buffy’s major preoccupations are their appearance and their boyfriends, in roughly that order. (Lamb 14)
Lamb clearly condemns these programs for perpetuating the notion that young women should be concerned first and foremost with beauty, next with romance. Her outright and unqualified disdain for Buffy for these particular reasons are very reminiscent of second-wave feminist ideals—she views Buffy’s well-groomed ultra-girlishness and love of shopping as frivolous and without substance, negative ideals invented by a male-dominated society. Any powers these characters do display are literally imaginary. Lamb also takes a very firm stance on the “usefulness” of Buffy and other teenage serials to the feminist agenda: “the values that TV cultivates and the worldview it presents—especially insofar as women are concerned—are not likely to be those you’d want your girl to learn” (Lamb). Present in this is the fear of ‘colonization,’ the socialization of arbitrary feminine and masculine ideals by pop culture, society (Hollows 10). This view considers Buffy to be not just unhelpful to feminism, but outright harmful and pernicious to impressionable young audiences.
Jennifer L. Ponzer, in “Thwack! Pow! Yikes! Not Your Mother’s Heroines,” takes the opposite stance on such female figures in television. Rather than becoming disheartened by the state of media culture, she rejoices that “pro-feminist options are springing up on almost every network,” citing shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena: Warrior Princess, and The Simpsons as some of the most “subversive programs in television.” Unlike Lamb, she believes young female viewers should take the physically and intellectually empowered women that populate these series as role models. On Buffy specifically, she says “cornered by three snarling freaks, [Buffy] does what most high school girls wish they could do—thanks them for dropping by, tells them she’s not in the mood, and kicks them into another dimension, literally. . . . How’s that for a role model?” (qtd. in Pender 37). Ponzer is the other side of the “helpful-unhelpful” Buffy coin: While Lamb reprimands Buffy’s conventional femininity, Ponzer considers the juxtaposition of Buffy’s deadly vampire-slaying skill and unabashed girlishness an excellent example to young girls. Buffy’s embrace of both masculine and feminine stereotypes is, to Ponzer, a delightful transgression, a novel and empowering concept that has great political potential. As such, the same femininity denounced by Lamb is not, to Ponzer, considered a surrendering to stereotypes about gender roles, but a reclaiming of girly qualities in order to remove any sense of feminine inferiority to masculinity.
Despite their opposite stances on Buffy’s usefulness as a feminist agent, Lamb and Ponzer are similar in the way they attempt to unambiguously evaluate the political worth of her character. Even less resolute opinions on Buffy’s potency as a pop culture icon tend to cling to similarly black-and-white binaries. The previously mentioned Fudge, for instance, at first concedes that Buffy, with her “refusal to be intimidated by more powerful figures (whether the school principal or an archdemon),” has “deeply feminist potential.” Fudge distinguishes Buffy from “other eponymous TV heroines, who spend more time gazing at their navels than thinking about injustice,” and praises her for her martial arts prowess, her sassy, intelligent quips, and her supreme confidence. Interestingly, Fudge even compares Buffy’s eternal crusade against darkness to the feminist call to duty:
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 [feminists] to spend endless hours discussing the feminist potentials and pitfalls of prime-time television. . . . 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.
Clearly, Fudge finds a wealth of feminist subtext to discuss in Buffy, and has much to say about Buffy’s feminist potential. Fudge seems to consider Buffy the Vampire Slayer a brilliant, self-conscious, and complex work, but despite the powerful case she makes in favor of Buffy’s subversive feminist agency, Fudge ultimately believes Buffy lacks feminist efficacy. Despite Buffy’s strengths, Fudge believes that these fail to negate her barefaced femininity: “Yup, she’s strong and sassy all right, but she’s the ultimate femme, never disturbing the delicate definition of physical femininity.” Even as Fudge praises Buffy’s “spunky girlness,” she paradoxically calls her girly foibles a “limitation inherent in the Buffy phenom,” reducing Buffy to a “diluted imitation of female empowerment.” Even as Fudge celebrates Buffy’s strength, she cannot help resorting to the same “helpful-unhelpful” binary that Lamb and Ponzer use—introducing contradiction and irresolution to her position. In this case, loyalty to this “Good Buffy” versus “Bad Buffy” method of evaluating feminist agency robs Fudge’s argument of weight: Despite the excellent case made for Buffy as an effectual and exciting feminist role model, Fudge reduces Buffy to an unhelpful femme, and ultimately dismisses any feminist promise Buffy has. The problem here is that no middle ground exists in the valuation process, and Fudge’s conclusion on Buffy’s worth is unsatisfying.
The problem with all of these interpretations of Buffy is, as mentioned before, the tendency to reduce the discussion of Buffy to her being “helpful” or “unhelpful” to the feminist agenda. This “transgressive-or-oppressive” attitude tends to cause a dismissal of a great diversity of interpretations, and forgoes an opportunity for more complex discussion. Instead, the academic conversation on Buffy’s feminism is restricted to vacillating between those two extreme poles. The difficulty becomes trying to definitively declare any text as completely and perfectly empowering before assigning it any political value; in Fudge’s case in particular, any productive discussion that might have been had about Buffy’s feminist agency is lost because she largely dismisses her own analysis in favor of a binary classification of Buffy’s worth. In his book “Sexual Dissidence,” queer-issues writer Jonathan Dollimore makes a similar case: “Containment theory often presupposes an agency of change too subject and a criterion of success too total. Thus subversion or transgression are implicitly judged by impossible criteria” (Dollimore 85). The containing of Buffy’s feminist agency would then be due to her inability to satisfy all feminist standards, which is quite an impossible task—by such difficult and ambiguous criteria, all figures in pop culture and media must necessarily be labeled as damaging or useless to the feminist agenda. Theories and texts under feminist examination should not have to be absolute vehicles of the feminist agenda or else be dismissed as useless or harmful to gender equality.
A better construction of feminist agency and political subversion is perhaps one that is “less based on an intentional and autonomous female individual or subject and more on the discursive power of language” (Köver). Notably, a recurring obstacle that encumbers Buffy as a feminist agent is the issue of her femininity. Perhaps the reason it is all too easy to fixate on the insufficient “helpful-unhelpful” binary is because the concept of gender itself is a false dichotomy. To think of Buffy as a subversive of patriarchy, or as an empowered redeemer of femininity is to think of her only in terms of gender clichés of masculinity and femininity—another arbitrary and unnecessary division. Judith Butler, the feminist philosopher, in her book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, introduces this concept of gender performance. She argues that
gender attributes, however, are not expressive but performative . . . there is no preexisting identity by which an act or attribute might be measured; there would be no true or false, real or distorted acts of gender, and the postulation of a true gender identity would be revealed as regulatory fiction. . . . Gender reality is created through sustained social performances . . . [which] conceal gender’s performative character. (Gender Trouble 180)
In other words, Butler argues that no true identity exists behind the concept of gender; rather, gender norms are simply imagined constructs perpetuated by socialization and reiteration, which give them the illusion of being stable, normal or natural; “male” and “female” are in fact cultural clichés that individuals perform, drawing from what an individual thinks or expects about gender. Thus, gender is a product of language and discourse, reified by the dialogue that is had about it in the form of socialization and exposure to popular attitudes. Viewed from this lens, any discussion of Buffy in relation to patriarchal power structures or girlishness is not only unfruitful due to the meaninglessness of masculinity and femininity, but perpetuates the false dichotomy of gender, and “restricts the production of identities” (Gender Trouble 34) to this binary.
If repetition and reiteration is what perpetuates restrictive and oppressive gender norms, then the important question becomes “What kind of subversive repetition might call into question the regulatory practice of identity itself?” (Gender Trouble 42). Or, what can be done to destabilize the arbitrary gender constructs currently in place? In “Feminist Contentions: For a Careful Reading,” Butler returns to the concept of using language and dialogue as a tool for change and subversion; she writes “‘Agency’ is to be found precisely at such junctures where discourse is renewed” (“Feminist Contentions” 135). Feminist agency, therefore, should rely on the “resignification” (Gender Trouble 42) of gender norms through texts, ideas, pop culture icons and individuals that stimulate productive discourse and dialogue in order to shake the illusion of expressive gender.
Considered this way, the feminist agency of Buffy no longer relies on a denial of either masculine or feminine stereotypes, but on its potential for resignification, illuminating discourse, and what Butler calls “gender trouble,” the revealing of gender norms to be performances. Thus, as a strange hybrid of ultra-girlishness and physical brawn; of the traditionally masculine existing within the deliberately culturally feminine, Buffy serves to call into question the definition of such gender norms. Buffy participates in feminist discourse very meaningfully as a source of debate and negotiation over both the purpose of feminism and the validity of gender norms. Rather than limit her political potential to the unproductive “helpful-unhelpful” binary, it is more useful to consider her an important “site of intense struggle over the meaning of femininity” (Köver).
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