Friday, July 13, 2012

Screed of Anti-Buffy Feminist Criticism


(See also the video version)

Reconsidering the Feminism of Joss Whedon” by Natasha Simons is an article that harshly criticizes Joss Whedon’s shows Buffy, Firefly, and Dollhouse, asserting that they’re quite anti-feminist. While she does make a few good points, for the most part her article makes it clear that she doesn’t understand the shows at all, which actually does feminist criticism a disservice by connecting it with what amounts to angry slander. I’ll tackle this one point at a time, starting with the Buffy article.

First of all: the huge picture at the start. It shows a large male vampire (Luke) with his hand wrapped around Buffy’s throat, glaring down at her menacingly. Well… HE’S A VAMPIRE. SHE’S A SLAYER. Menacing is what he does, and by the end, she kills him. Yay, Buffy. Happily ever after. The whole point of vamps was to represent the problems that come up in high school and how they can be overcome, giving girls an adversity-defying role model. The idea of a vampire attacking the Slayer being representative of male dominance—even when taken out of context—is just ridiculous.

The famous exchange between Whedon and a reporter – Why do you write these strong female characters? Because you’re still asking me that question – is bandied around the internet on a frequent basis. (Although this exchange was of his own imagining.)

While someone somewhere (besides the author) may have mistaken that for a real exchange, for the most part, it’s always understood that Joss says it as part of a speech. It’s the fact that he made that speech that’s regarded as cool. If he actually used that line in an interview, it wouldn’t make any sense because it’s out of context. In the speech, he describes how he was asked that question a million times and really thought about his answers. He uses the structure of the exchange to deliver his various thoughts, but it’s not supposed to be a collection of quotes, just some insight into his psychology and writing as fit for a feminist audience. It all makes sense in context, and it isn’t some big reveal that this beloved Joss quote came from a speech he wrote.


The infamous Season 5 Buffybot was Whedon’s winking homage to The Stepford Wives, an automaton that existed literally to please men. While the Buffybot was an over-the-top mockery of Buffy Proper’s insecure need to please, a story gimmick ultimately discarded in favor of the real thing (in the reasonably well done episode “Intervention”), the under girders of the Buffyverse were deftly exposed.

Okay, let me try to get this untangled. Warren’s sexbots in general are in homage to The Stepford Wives, but only April in “I Was Made to Love You” was a parody of Buffy’s “insecure need to please”. After Riley leaves her, making the fourth guy in a row who ditches her (though the third was entirely a jackass), Buffy starts thinking maybe she’s the problem and needs to change to be liked. April is an extreme example of why basing yourself on men liking you is sexist and damaging. Buffy interacts with her and realizes that she doesn’t need a man to feel fulfilled, and she then rejects Ben’s romantic advances. Then, Spike, who has a creepy crush on Buffy, forces Warren to make him a Buffy-shaped sex toy. In “Intervention”, Buffy goes out of town and the bot gets mistaken for her; hilarity ensues. The Buffybot is only there for comic relief and making a contrast between Spike’s uber-creepy side and his genuine compassion at the end of the episode. At this point, Buffy does not have an insecure need to please, and the Buffybot is not in imitation of it, thus not really exposing anything.

Buffy, for all her killing vamps and breaking stuff, is rather a weak character.

I’m inclined to agree. Buffy was specifically created to subvert sexist stereotypes and as a result is kind of a flat character too wrapped up in angst, in contrast to interesting characters like Willow and Fai— Oh, wait, “weak” as in in-universe? U mad, sis?

Let’s consider that she, as a Slayer, descends from a line that was literally created by men – a formation that stems directly from the male anxiety over an inability to create life the way that women do. And inherently problematic is the idea of the Watcher, a predominantly male presence that is the male gaze made manifest – a source of constant looking that is an explicit form of control.

And let’s not also forget that the show constantly depicts people trying to drink people’s blood without their permission, even killing them. A show that promotes that is just unethical. Oh, wait, they’re the antagonists and the entire show is based around slaying them.

Okay, when applied to the early show, this is good criticism. When the story was conceived, Joss probably didn’t consider the Watcher-Slayer dynamic too problematic given his homage to more pretentious vampire fiction. From season three on, however, the Watcher’s Council is depicted as an awful controlling patriarchal force that is ultimately subverted in an overt feminist message in the series finale.

Buffy: “In every generation, one Slayer is born… because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. They were powerful men. This woman [indicates Willow] is more powerful than all of them combined. So I say we change the rule. I say my power should be our power. Tomorrow, Willow will use the essence of the scythe to change our destiny. From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer, will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up. Slayers, every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?”
–“Chosen”

It is appallingly dishonest not to even mention this development in the show. From season three on, the Watcher’s Council’s patriarchal nature is overtly used to create an antagonistic force, making such feminist criticism entirely displaced. It really is just like saying the vampires are evil and that therefore the show promotes evil, as it ignores basic narrative function.

Also, how are the Watchers “male gaze made manifest”? Just because they’re mostly men and they “watch”? The “male gaze” as I understand it is a concept in feminist film theory describing how the camera focuses on female attractiveness in order to appeal to the male audience (and alienate the female one). Giles isn’t there to ogle Buffy and allow the male viewers a figure with which to identify as with Tony Stark in Iron Man, so this criticism doesn’t make any sense to me.

And Buffy is textually weak in all her relationships.

And that’s why she never physically abuses Spike to a bloody pulp while he pitifully moans about always hurting the ones you love. She’s just too darn weak.

She falls apart not only when Angel leaves her, but when Parker (yeah, you don’t remember him, either) doesn’t want to pursue more than a one-night stand with her, too.

Buffy is supposed to be the typical teenage girl/young woman everyone can easily relate to, and thus she doesn’t have a superhuman apathy when it comes to men she cares about betraying her trust. Even though the Buffy/Angel romance may not be perfectly realistic, Buffy’s emotions are supposed to be genuine, relatable emotions. She cares about Angel, and he leaves her because her mom interferes and convinces him it would be best for Buffy if he left. Of course, she would be broken up over it! I wouldn’t want her to be a sociopath! (Unless her soul gets sucked out, of course.)

As for Parker—whom I do remember—he manipulates her into thinking they’re going to have a long-term relationship so the sex would be more passionate, and then he breaks up with her by simply not calling and letting her figure it out. When she asks him about it, he acts like she’s being ridiculous and then makes crude jokes to his buddies about this casual abuse of women’s feelings. He’s just a jackass, and Buffy gets stung by him because that’s how normal people react to that kind of betrayal. A girls’ role model shouldn’t be just some apathetic warrior, but a real person with real emotions. Weakness in this way makes for a good character. Then when Buffy saves his life and he comes crawling back to her, Buffy—whose mind is at the time affected by a curse—knocks him out for cathartic appeal the Scoobies appreciate.

And Riley, well. Riley. Despite being an almost universally despised character,

Because he’s bland, not like he’s sexist or anything like that. It’s like how Superman isn’t liked as well as other superheroes.

Whedon sends Riley out in a flurry of pique at Buffy, after being caught having his blood sucked by a vampiress in a modern-day opium den. Let’s get that one sorted: Riley sexually undermines his girlfriend of over a year with a vampire, then delivers her an ultimatum that she must essentially get over it, or he’s leaving on a jet plane, don’t know when he’ll be back again (never come back, Riley). She reacts with the appropriate level of scorn, before Xander, the Chronicler of Buffy’s Failures, lectures her on her failure as a girlfriend to Riley, her lack of adequate emotional support, her once-in-a-lifetime chance with this hulking cornfed sad sack – and she goes running after the helicopter like a dog in heat! It’s truly infuriating.

Yeah, with regard to the Riley breakup, they went for drama over feminist portrayal, and I do agree with this criticism. However, it is insulting to refer to Buffy chasing the helicopter as like a bitch in heat. She’s not after him for his sexual prowess. Reducing women to sexual urges is classic anti-feminism, and this is performed by the article’s author, not Joss.

To top things off, Xander goes home to his loving, suitable girlfriend Anya – whom he near-constantly belittles, but who makes him feel “like a man.”

Okay, now that is a complete misrepresentation of that scene! So, the general trend of Xander (and Willow) belittling Anya is something I dislike, especially given how Anya is essentially a foreigner honestly unfamiliar with American social conventions, but he doesn’t belittle her in that scene. He wants Anya to know he loves her because he doesn’t want to end up like Buffy, who was left because her significant other didn’t realize she loved him.

The main part of that scene is Xander giving his declaration of love, not him celebrating his manhood. Xander says she makes him feel like a man as in an adult, something Xander has struggled with due to his friends moving on with their lives. He’s saying that his love for her makes him feel like a legitimate person, which is a huge compliment. If the author equates manhood with dominating women, she’s got her own issues in need of feminist analysis.

….WHEDONNNNN!

Well, I like that Big Bang Theory reference, anyway.

And this is how it goes, time and time again on the show. The strong female characters are sublimated to the weaker, childish males’ needs – and Xander is the worst perpetrator of them all. Aside from the whole ditching-a-1000-year-old-demon-at-the-altar thing,

He does so afraid of turning into an abusive husband because of who his father is! Though foolish, I can see where he’s coming from. It’s not like he leaves her so he can go on a road trip and blast “Free Bird” from his stereo.

I’m sure you all remember Cordelia? Cordelia, of course, was one of the two most sexually aware and confident women on BtVS (I’ll get to the other in a minute). What this meant was that she needed to be punished, and shamed, before being sent packing to Angel.

The frak? There’s no need to punish and shame anyone for their sexuality! And it’s not going to Angel means she’s kicked off the island. She stays a Buffyverse main character, just in a different timeslot.

Xander, who was always so far beneath her that the show acknowledged it before daintily pushing that fact aside,

“Beneath her”. So, harsh social hierarchies should be respected and maintained? He’s a dork with no fashion sense, so he’s disrespected by the popular crowd, but doesn’t mean his inherent value as a human being is somehow lesser than hers. She grows as a person and is able to respect him despite his coming from a lower class in the high school stratification.

made Cordelia into his girlfriend and then routinely degraded her in the way women have been so quickly depleted for centuries – sexual humiliation.

Like calling her a bitch in heat?

Take this exchange:

    CORDELIA: I can’t even believe you. You dragged me out of bed for a ride? What am I, mass transportation?

    XANDER: That’s what a lot of the guys say, but it’s just locker room talk. I wouldn’t pay it any mind.

Okay, that is worthwhile criticism. The show is not immune to sexism, and that kind of thing is worth criticizing. That is a good point, but then the next part…

Of course, after she breaks up with him, he plans to take her by force – in “”Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” Xander casts a spell to make Cordelia fall in love with him.

Wow. She entirely missed the point of that plot. After she breaks his heart, Xander wants to get back at her by breaking hers. He casts the spell to cause her to fall in love with him just so he can dump her. It’s not nice, but it’s far from sexual assault!

The fact that it backfires doesn’t make this episode any less horrifying, since every woman in town begins to throw herself at Xander – which is the fantasy of every Nice Guy ™ that ever walked the planet.

Xander doesn’t initially realize how the spell backfires, but as soon as he does, he backs off from any romantic advances. Even when Buffy, the girl he loves, sexually propositions him, he rejects her because it’s not right to take advantage of anyone like that. And then the women go yandere, and it’s far from a fantasy come true.

And then, once Cordelia and Xander are back together, he cheats on her with Willow, a romance that exists literally to shepherd her off the show.

…And onto another show that has her as one of the main three characters. Not a demotion, you know.

For good measure, Whedon writes in a plotline that leaves the intelligent Cordelia destitute and unable to go to USC, Duke or Columbia.

Thereby keeping her on a Buffyverse show instead of vanishing from the story entirely. Willow loves Buffy and Xander, so her staying in town while continuing her academic career makes sense for her character, but Cordelia needs plot turbulence to stay a Buffyverse character. She goes off to Angel as a main character, and she gains powers and character development. It’s not a demotion!

And any show tortures its characters for drama. It’s how storytelling is done. It’s not like Joss tortures female characters specifically so male viewers can get off. It’s just dramatic storytelling.

Welp. Surely there are some intelligent and sexual women who are allowed to flourish on this show, right?

Hey, Faith!

As has been pointed out by the magnificent Buffy scholar Eleusis Walks (to whose blog you should go post haste following this article), Faith is essentially a foil for Buffy, her shadow self. Whereas Buffy has approved-by-Whedon sex with her steadfast boyfriends whom she loves, Faith is a sexual free agent.

This is referenced in the show when Buffy, reading her teacher’s mind for analysis of Othello, says of Iago, “He sort of admits himself that his motives are spurious. He does things because he enjoys them. It's like he's not really a person. He's the dark half of Othello himself.” Given that this scene soon leads into Buffy feeling jealous of Faith, I highly suspect the Iago analysis to be commentary on Faith’s role in the story.

When Buffy has a one-night stand, it leaves her scarred and miserable; when Faith has one-night stands, she uses them for revelry around a table at the Bronze.

Buffy has a one-night-stand in the same way that she engages in foreplay with Spike on the bathroom floor. Parker has a one-night-stand with her; Buffy has sex with a boy with whom she just entered into a long-term relationship and then is horribly betrayed.

She’s allowed to enjoy this privilege for about half a season before we find out the truth – she’s crazy! A hysterical womb on two legs. After this point (Season 3, “Bad Girls”),

Faith is never presented as crazy! She accidentally kills an innocent, and refuses to admit guilt. She bottles up her emotions inside and, because she refuses to deal, she becomes addicted to the thrill of killing and becomes the Mayor’s assassin. Villain, yes; crazy, no.

Faith is verbally and physically abused for her sexual agency. Willow regularly calls her a slut.

Like with slut-shaming Cordelia, this is worthwhile criticism. References to a woman being sexually free shouldn’t be the go-to insult (like calling one a bitch in heat when chasing her supposed perfect boyfriend).

Tara can smell something off about her when Faith is in Buffy’s body.

Because she can read auras! Faith’s aura corrupted Buffy’s aura! Auras have nothing whatsoever to do with sexuality!

Her inability to restrain her out-of-control desires leads her to pursue seduction of Angel, who resists, and delivers her into Buffy’s pure and inviolable waiting hands.

What? When? In “Enemies”, the Mayor sends Faith to sleep with Angel to make him lose his soul. That’s intelligent manipulation, not an out-of-control desire. When Angel pretends to lose his soul to go undercover, Faith pursues a relationship with the sexily sadistic Angelus to torture Buffy together, completely in control of herself, if twisted. When Angel and Buffy learn all they need to, they just leave.

In the Angel episode “Sanctuary”, Faith surrenders to Angel after realizing she can’t run from her mistakes anymore. This has nothing to do with sex, just rampaging as a superpowered villain. Buffy comes to kill her, but Angel protects her because he recognizes himself in her as someone who can find redemption.

So, yeah, I have no idea where this summary of her out-of-control sexuality comes from.

You’ll recall when Angel did take Buffy, he lost his soul and killed another charming brunette, Jenny Calendar – an act that several of the characters explicitly blame on Buffy’s sexual agency.

Anyone besides Xander? Xander can be kind of a jerk, you know. I think Giles’ words to Buffy at the end of “Innocence” make it clear that he’s on Buffy’s side and she has the right position in the conflict.

The next time Buffy gets out of control in bed, she’s trapped in a vacuum of endless sex and nearly brings a house down around the Initiative’s ears (Season 4, “Where the Wild Things Are”).

She doesn’t get “out of control in bed”. She and Riley inadvertently awake a bunch of sexually insecure ghosts who were the victims of abuse committed by a woman who thought punishing people for their sexuality was moral. They do nothing wrong—and it really should be “they”, since Riley’s there too. They’re the victims of a cycle of abuse first carried out by a woman who was honored by the community for her Christian values. Surely, it’s that kind of person the show attacks, not victims.

Again and again, we’re shown that a woman’s sexual actions are dangerous

It’s Sunnydale! Looking at linoleum is dangerous! Anything dramatic, like sex and relationships, is going to be connected to the main plotline, which is usually doing to be about dangerous things due to the nature of the show. On the other hand, Anya constantly has sex with Xander and talks about sex, and nothing happens. To her, sex is nothing strange or scary, and therefore it cannot be milked for drama and only for humor.

unless, of course, they’re done by a robot. Then it’s all fun and games.

Yeah, April wasn’t dangerous at all, was she? Of course, that all reflected negatively on Warren as the misogynistic geek. As for the Buffybot, that was all to make Spike look creepy. Her main humor came from stereotyping Buffy, not the sex part.

After this, the article starts talking about Firefly, but I’ll leave that to another post.

No comments: