Sunday, September 18, 2011

Reading Buffy Synoptically: Musings on Buffy as Feminist

Buffy raises issues that “second wave” and “third wave” feminists argue about all the time and probably will be arguing about until the apocalypse actually does come. The question they keep debating is can you be sexy, wear short skirts and short shorts, show cleavage and still be an empowered feminist?

Second Wave Feminism, the feminism that arose in the 1960s and 1970s, the feminism of equality particularly economic equality, says no. For many Second Wave Feminists the portrayal of women in the media is generally all about the portrayal of women for the male gaze. For John Berger and Laura Mulvay, who developed the notion of the male gaze, a theory founded on Marxist and psychoanalytic or Freudian theory, women are portrayed sexily in advertising, films, and TV programmes and some paintings because they are there for the male gaze. They are eye candy for men. Third Wave Feminists, on the other hand, argue that today’s woman can be both sexy and equal particularly when they are performing roles that males usually perform.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which Joss Whedon claimed in several interviews was a feminist show, raises the issue of the male gaze because Buffy is, at the same time, the chosen one, the sole woman in all the world who protects us against the vampires and the monsters out there, the girl who kicks ass, male and female ass, but is also the woman who sometimes wears short skirts, shows some cleavage, and occasionally meditates on the joys of shopping at the same time. So is Buffy a feminist? Can an empowered woman like Buffy be powerful and be sexy?

This issue has divided academic and intellectual commentators on Buffy from the very beginning. A sampler: For Frances Early (Frances Early; “Staking Her Claim: Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Transgressive Woman Warrior”, Journal of Popular Culture 35.3 (2001): 11-28, also at Slayage 6, Buffy is both sexy and powerful. For Rachel Fudge (“The Buffy Effect or, a Tale of Cleavage and Marketing”, Bitch 4.1 (1999): 18-21, there is some of the sexy Buffy for the male gaze in Buffy but there is also, at the same time, some kick ass feminism, much of it done by Buffy, making Buffy a good role model for the modern woman. For others (Michael Levine and Steven Jay Schneider, Elyce Rae Helford), however, Buffy is basically eye candy for the male gaze.

The problem here is one common in intellectual and academic culture, namely each side judges the theories of the other on the basis of their own very different ideologically and utopianly driven perspectives. Second wave feminism, in other words judges third wave feminism by second wave ideological standards and third wave feminism judges the perspectives of second wave feminism by third wave feminist standards and vice versa. Speaking personally, I sometimes find second wave feminism verging on puritanical in that it sometimes seems that for second wave feminists a "true" feminist" (something determined on the basis of their own ideological standards, of course) is someone who dresses like what they think a feminist should dress like. Third Wave feminism, on the other hand, assumes that women can kick ass and dress sexily (whatever sexy is since perceptions clearly vary) downplaying the role cleavage and short skirts play into the sex and pretty sells mentality .

One of the fundamental problems with second wave feminism is metaphysical. Second wave feminists seem to assume that their brand of feminism is the sole One True brand of Feminism. This notion is basically a fundamentalist approach to feminism. The empirical way to define feminism, on the other hand, is to note that there is no such thing as feminism. There are feminisms just as there is no such thing as Islam or Christianity or Judaism there are Islams, Christianities, and Judaisms.

I want to return to briefly to the issue of the male gaze for the remainder of this short musing. There are, in my opinion, problems with the notion of the male gaze as propagated by Berger and Mulvey. The concept of the male gaze raises all sorts of questions. Do all males view women in the media and beyond in the same way? Do some guys identify with female characters, some females with male characters? What about the gay and lesbian "gaze"? How does that play out if at all?

I would argue that issues of males and females and straights and gays, has always been more complex and complicated than some academics have made them. The fact that some women liked Buffy, for a variety of different reasons, some sexual, seems to suggest that the rather simplistic notion of the male gaze postulated and popularised by Mulvay is somewhat problematic. For me it is essential to do empirical research (archival research, interviews, ethnographies) to ascertain how people, non-academic people, “read” characters in TV shows, films, books, or painting is essential here.

And when one does empirical research beyond the text one finds that contrary to Levine and Schneider Buffy does not seem to me to be the proverbial blond every girl next door they claim her to be. As the show’s creator Joss Whedon has said on a number of occasions Buffy was intended to turn the horror genre upside down and inside out. Instead of its sweet, petite, young blond thing dying a horrible death at the hands of serial killing evil, Buffy is the “Chosen One”, the one who does the killing, the one who repeatedly saves the day, the one who transforms Slayerhood from one forced on one girl by the shadowy Shadow Men to one given to all female Slayer Potentials by the female Slayer (“Chosen”).

Probably no episode of Buffy better expresses the conflict between Buffy’s female Slayer power and patriarchal authority better than “Checkpoint”. In this episode Buffy is put down by a male history professor, the male dominated Watcher’s Council, attacked by the male Knights of Byzantium (all of which are portrayed as parallel forms of pompous male power), and the “big bad” of season five, Glory (who we later learn in this episode is a god). Instead of folding under these attempts to make her feel low and powerless, however, Buffy learns that it is she who has the power, something she makes clear to the Watchers later in this episode. Later in aeason seven Buffy will teach Dawn and the Potentials this lesson (“Lesson” 7001 and “Chosen”) and will fully break away from the patriarchal power that created Slayers (“Get it Done”). Needless to say this struggle between Buffy and patriarchal authority is one of the central themes of the series.

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