It's About Power: Gender Dynamics in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"

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Title: It's About Power: Gender Dynamics in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"
Creator: Laura
Date(s): February 2003, revised May 2003
Medium: online
Fandom: Buffy: The Vampire Slayer
External Links: All About Spike - Gender Dynamics, Archived version
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It's About Power: Gender Dynamics in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is a Buffy: The Vampire Slayer essay by Laura.

This essay was posted to the All About Spike website.

Introduction: "This essay was written after season six and has been on this website for about four months (as of February 2003). During that time I've received vast amounts of feedback, so I've decided to revise the essay with many of those comments in mind.

One consistent criticism of this essay has been that "It's just a TV show." I object to this complaint on a number of levels. Many of us watch several hours of television every day; it is one of the most influential aspects of modern life. Television has created huge cultural community; it shapes and reflects our perceptions, desires, and beliefs. To say "It's just a TV show" is terribly disengenuous; yes, it is a TV show, and as such its influence and its reflection of our cultural values are often immensely significant.

I am a Spike fan. I am neither driven by my hormones nor blinded by James Marsters's abs. If you can't deal with that, please go away.

Finally, I should add that while this essay takes one point of view and runs with it, that point of view is certainly not the only lense through which I view the show. (Also, I tend to use lots of definitive statements, because that the way I was taught to write essays. I'm trying to get avoid this since it usually sounds more extreme that I mean, but if you notice anything that sounds over-the-top, feedback me).

As always, I greatly appreciate feedback.

This essay contains spoilers for season 7."


Buffy the Vampire Slayer has been widely acclaimed as a feminist television series. The show was included in the National Organization for Women's Feminist Primetime Report, and its writers have proclaimed that they intend to tell the coming-of-age story of a young woman from a feminist perspective. According to creator Joss Whedon, the very first mission statement of the show was the joy of female power: having it, using it, sharing it. In many ways, Buffy has succeeded in its portrayal of a strong, multi-dimensional female character. Yet upon closer examination, the series' portrayal of gender roles becomes problematic. An underlying paradigm of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not that men are women are equal, but that women are superior to men. Buffy often reverses traditional gender roles and places women in positions of power previously held by men. But where men would be criticized for abusing their power, the women get excused and forgiven (often because they are portrayed as "victims" of men). We see this in the show's portrayal of most men who attempt to assume active roles as dangerous and destructive, while men who remain in passive positions are accepted. Meanwhile, women are celebrated for escaping the position of oppressed and becoming the oppressors.

The question then arises as to whether Buffy is feminist at all. If a women abuses her power, shouldn't she be held to the same standard as a man? How can a woman truly be empowered if she is not held responsible for her own behavior? If women are just weak victims of men who aren't responsible for their own actions, how can they ever be expected to assume roles of power and responsibility in society?

The assumption that men are bad underlies the very foundation and structure of the Buffyverse. In her nightly patrols, the monsters Buffy destroys are almost always male, with exaggerated masculine qualities: they are physically large and muscular, and their behavior is violent and aggressive. Their victims are almost always females (yet these male vampires are mostly inclined to attack women; wouldn't they be likely to turn more women in into vampires as well?).

Despite these exceptionally negative portrayals of masculinity, there are a few men who are portrayed positively on the series. Without exception, these men are portrayed positively because they assume passive roles; they become dangerous when they attempt to become active.

Buffy's "watcher," Giles, is one such positive male figure. Giles exists is a passive position, supporting Buffy by training her and researching demons for her. He offers advice, but rarely interferes in her life. Yet even Giles has a dark side (apparent from his youthful "Ripper" persona, during which time he experimented with dark magic and that later endangers everyone in "The Dark Age"). Most notably, Giles betrays Buffy in "Helpless" by poisoning her so that she loses her Slayer abilities. He also abandons her during her depression in season six, which only exacerbates her problems.

Buffy's close friend, Xander, is also portrayed positively. Xander is the only main character with no special skills or supernatural powers. He is accepted because he is powerless and passive-he follows Buffy almost unconditionally. Xander's masculinity is frequently undermined: he is a figure of comic relief and the butt of many jokes. He is less intelligent than the women, and he is the only main character who never attends college. Although he engages in heterosexual relationships, there are often hints that Xander is homosexual. In "Phases" and "Earshot," the character Larry assumes that Xander is gay and encourages him to come out; in "Intervention" and "Beneath You" Xander makes comments that imply that he is attracted to Spike. In "Buffy vs. Dracula," Xander is easily hypnotized into becoming Dracula's "spider-eating man bitch," and later (fairly accurately) describes his role in the group as "everybody's butt monkey." Xander is acceptable because he is passive; he has no power of his own, but simply acquiesces to the female characters.

While men are portrayed as inherently bad, women are portrayed as inherently good. An active male is dangerous and threatening; an active female, such as Buffy, is usually heroic.

The idea that female life is inherently more valuable than male life is also emphasized in the episodes "Sleeper" and "Never Leave Me," when Buffy discovers that Spike has been brainwashed into killing women without his knowledge. Throughout the episode, much is made of the fact that Spike killed "girls," as if a crime against a women is worse than a crime against a man. (Why not just say "Spike killed people"?) When Spike realizes what he's done, he begs Buffy to kill him, encouraging her by telling her stories of girls he's murdered ("Never Leave Me").

From the portrayal of the show's lesbian relationship between Willow and Tara, we see the theme that women are pure and only become corrupted when they are touched by the evil that comes from men. Willow and Tara are always gentle and supportive with each other. Their relationship is characterized by frequent hugging and cuddling ("Real Me," "Tough Love," "The Gift"). They only argue twice in their two year relationship. In fact, they fit perfectly with Simone de Beauvoir's claim that lesbians are "marked by especial sincerity" and that their similarity "engenders complete intimacy" (420). Compared to the heterosexual couples, Willow and Tara are almost certainly the most peaceful, most calm, and most loving couple on the series.