When I was about 7 years old, I was watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer religiously with my family on TV. I was mesmerized with Buffy, had a huge crush on Angel and my ultimate life goal was to become a vampire slayer. Rewatching Buffy as a 28 year old was a completely different experience. After every episode, my mind would buffer a bit revising all the witty lines, cultural references and social commentary the writer so skillfully structured. The series had such an inventive narrative system, after i finished watching it, I was obsessively googling Joss Whedon, the creator of the TV Show. I discovered there's an association for the study of his works called Whedon Studies co-founded by David Lavery, an English professor at Middle Tennessee State University. I immersed myself in all the research I could find to further explore the writer's mind.
Academics have found that Whedon did a significant fictional representation of reality expressing the subconscious fears and fantasies of society. In Buffy, monsters act as physical stand-ins for societal differences, oppressive authority figures, meaningless rules, confining social norms, loneliness, redemption, group conformity, hierarchies and anti-intellectualism—in other words, the terrors of growing up and finding one’s way in the world. Every season in BTVS we are introduced to a new monster, a new apocalypse that highlights the theme and tone of the episodes. In April 2003, Whedon was asked how he designed each unstoppable season villain to be unique and threatening. The writer said "It was never about the unstoppableness. It was never about the monster. It was about the emotion. The monster came from that. What was important was how the audience related to the characters and that's what made them unique." On a more personal level, Joss says of his interest in horror: “I’ve always been interested in vampires, I think, because of the isolation they feel. They’re in the world, but not of it. As a child I always felt the same way, and Buffy deals with that kind of alienation”
BTVS defies patriarchal structures, a general structure in which men have power over women and a system in which men have more power than women. Patriarchy is a process developed over a period of almost 2500 years, Gerda Lerner argues in her book The Creation of Patriarchy, that before this social structure, male dominance was not a feature of human society in general. Women were key to the maintenance of human society and community, but with a few exceptions, social and legal power was wielded by men. Aristotle encouraged patriarchy, he said that "the courage of a man lies in commanding, a woman's lies in obeying", he also described females as deformed males. Sigmund Freud also had this misconception, in his view, normal human was male. He indicated the position of women as second sex as they do not have a male sexual organ, which makes them naturally passive, inferior and powerless in society. Over centuries, the norms that defined women as inferior to men, are still present everywhere in our families, social relations, offices, etc. BTVS's influence on popular culture provides opportunities to challenge and contest these dominant ideas, motifs, and practices.
In Season 3, episode “Helpless,” Buffy loses her slayer strength by the Watcher’s Council, a secret society of men in suits determining what slayers are allowed to do. They drugged her, kidnapped her and locked her up in a room to fight a vampire without the aid of her powers or allies, in order to prove that she’s a capable slayer. Buffy experiences the horror of being a normal girl in a world dominated by men.
In season 7, Buffy goes up against Caleb, an evil priest who is a sadistic sociopath with a pathological hatred of women. He’s not a demon, he’s not a machine, he’s not a monster, he’s just an empowered sadistic man who enjoys hurting women. He doesn’t hate Buffy because of her slayer role, but because of what she is, a woman. The perfect way to end the series was to have her defeat a misogynistic man, a notion of bringing down the patriarchy.
"I may be dead. But I'm still pretty."
From infancy women learnt that femininity is essential. Many girls and women go to great lengths to achieve the ideal feminine appearance. Feminists have been pointing out for decades that there is no connection between having genitalia and performing femininity, Beauvoir's most famous line capture's this concept perfectly "one is not born, but becomes a woman". Whedon makes it visible through BTVS how identity and body are social constructs.
Buffy's performance of femininity during the series is always at risk of failure due to the physical powers she inhabits as a slayer, which are not qualities associated with femininity. Her role as the slayer has marked her as an outcast from society, constantly feeling the pressure to fit in social norms which alienates her in many ways from herself. When Buffy was resurrected from death, it added more complexity and difficulty to how she feels about herself, which marked a drastic shift in the series in tone, content and in Buffy's character arc. Buffy symbolizes the gothic world women faces offscreen, the overwhelming emotional turmoil a female goes through in society and even then women are still cornered and limited to focus on beauty standards
and/or gender roles, not as human beings who are figuring themselves out in the world without societal or cultural influences.
Buffy’s female characters embody different types of female power. Like Willow Rosenberg, Buffy’s best friend who embodies mystical and mental powers, in other words a witch. Willow is the most undermined female character in the series, portrayed as the geek sidekick. But, unlike Buffy she was not chosen, supported by a coven or prepared for a great role, she chose magic herself.
She taught herself increasingly powerful spells, which was a means for her to explore her feelings of isolation and rejection, while also gaining a sense of purpose and empowerment. In the series, the demon D'Hoffryn recognized the role of emotion in Willow's magic, telling her that her anger and pain are what makes her magic powerful. In the first seasons she was eager to dabble in witchcraft where multiple spells go wrong. In season 4, she attempts a spell to make “her will be done” so that she can control things in her life and make herself happy. This backfires as she accidentally gets Buffy and Spike her nemesis, get engaged. Giles go blind,
and Xander attracts female demons.
In season 3, in the episode “Doppelgangland” she accidentally summons Vampire Willow from a parallel universe. Through her doppelgänger, Willow sees a different side of herself, a side that is confident and takes charge, even though evil, sexually aggressive and sadistic, it ultimately leads to Willow being able to be more confident in herself by the end of this episode and throughout the seasons. This episode symbolizes how we should accept our shadow self, the shadow is a psychological term for everything we can’t see in ourselves, our dark side of our personalities. The shadow tends not to obey rules, it has a sense of the exotic and can be disturbingly fascinating. It seeks to be known, It yearns to
be understood, explored, and integrated. Any part we disown within us turns against us, Vampire Willow represents a collection of these disowned parts. It's like what Thomas Lloyd says “Believing you are good is like believing in the half moon.”
However, over the seasons, as willow becomes an increasingly accomplished witch, her pleasure in her skill is criticized as selfish. Willow experiences a full-blown addiction to magic during season 6, at the end of the season she absorbed forbidden black magic and it took over her completely, she lost control of her emotions, unleashing rage, revenge and pain threatening the world with her powers, trying to bring forth yet another apocalypse as a way of mourning the death of her partner Tara. In this season Whedon was trying to highlight that not only evil monsters can destroy the world, but it can easily come from within a normal person who carries difficult emotions and how the process of coming out the other side of the dark
changes us. It’s hard to maintain a moral structure, but its the most important part of adulthood.
In the subject of shadow self, Buffy's three main love interests Angel, Riley and Spike often act as physical manifestations of identity crises including Buffy. Angel with two distinct personas, a vampire with a soul working towards his redemption and a soulless vampire wreaking destruction. The series demonstrates that Angels's identity, his strength and power is defined by the presence of both Angel and Angelus. He continues to struggle in restraining Angelus, always in fear of losing control as his shadow self lurks underneath, waiting to seize control. Riley mirrors a classic gothic persona, Dr Frankenstein's creature, he's an experiment of Dr Maggie Walsh, she fed him chemicals that made him stronger and implanted a behavior modifier chip within his chest that could be used to control his actions. He represents the individual whose identity is defined by an external power structure.
Spike acts as the fusion of both hero and villain, his character unsettles the meta-narratives regarding the wholeness of the self, the idea that we have not one but multiple identities which contend for dominance, he symbolizes that we are neither fixed nor stable over the course of our lives. His character development throughout the series was evident through the presentation of multiple Spikes, He went from being 'bad', to being 'chipped' (an implant which prevents him from harming humans), to being 'mad', to being 'ensouled', to being a 'hero'. Spike represents a fragmented self that is looking for unity, and it is only when he recognized and accepted his fractured nature did he contribute to one of the show's lessons. Each love interest provided an interesting insight on Buffy's struggles and on her personal growth journey. It is no surprise that she is romantically drawn to men who are similarly struggling with themselves as much as she's struggling to navigate what it means to be Buffy the slayer and Buffy the girl.
In a world of absurdity, Buffy foregrounds the emotional experiences of people who are standing between reality and society's constructions of it. The series asks us to question dominant paradigms, to act without relying on the learned assumptions, or “recipe knowledge” that characterize group behaviors. Whedon created an unreal world that felt real. A world filled with multiplicity and fluidity of ideas, meanings, and a diversity of beliefs, all shaken up and slammed together allowing us to see which of all these elements are left standing.
"I think, living in any fantasy or science fiction world means really understanding what you're seeing and reading really densely on a level that a lot of people don't bother to read."
Most of Whedon's stories underline the concept of: Human life is a mess, but it's a mess worth fighting for. He prefers to tell stories about communities, groups of people united by life or circumstances beyond their control, which they later discover that they become more powerful together. Other concepts exist in the Whedonverse, like the suspicion of any forces or corporations seeking to bring order to an organically chaotic world. He makes it clear in the series and specifically in this dialogue shared between Buffy and her mentor Giles, that the confusing complexity of reality is better than the fabrication of truth, making up unintelligent simplifications of the real world.
Buffy Summers : Does it ever get easy?
[kills a newly risen vampire]
Rupert Giles : You mean life?
Buffy Summers : Yeah. Does it get easy?
Rupert Giles : What do you want me to say?
Buffy Summers : Lie to me.
Rupert Giles : Yes, it's terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true. The bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats. And, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies and... everybody lives happily ever after.
Buffy Summers : Liar.