JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

The show often blurs distinctions between demons and humans. Buffy refrains from killing Angel, a vampire with a soul. She falls in love with him.

Buffy kills Angel (end of season 2) when it is the only way she can save the world.

Faith's enjoyment of violence is destructive of her own soul.

The show acknowledges how sex and violence interact without condoning sexualized violence. Vampires are linked with s/m enjoyment of violence as sexual. The vampire version of Willow, Buffy's timid and sweet best friend, is a dominatrix.

Like vampires, Faith finds violence sexy. When Xander tries to talk to her about her attitude, she maneuvers him into a sexual position and nearly kills him.

After another return from the dead (season 6), Buffy has a violent sexual relation with the vampire Spike. Sexualized violence, the domain of vampires, tempts Buffy. Faith indulges in it, and so does Buffy when she is soul-sick.

Real-world feminism rarely uses physical violence as a means to change the world. But feminism is destructive as it tries to dismantle our entire culture's patterns of organization and to destroy traditional ways of knowing the world.

Buffy harrows Hell. She holds up the gates of a hell dimension while homeless victims trapped there escape.

Buffy traps Ken, a demon disguised as a Christian minister to lure people into Hell, beneath the gate. "Hey, Ken, wanna see my impression of Gandhi." She then crashes his skull with a large club. "Gandhi?" asks a shy girl. Buffy replies, "Well, you know, he was really pissed off." A thin veil of metaphor makes the epistemic violence used by movements for social change physical, graphic, and blatant.

Violence in Sunnydale represents an extreme version of ...

... the pervasive violence of the real world, erupting in schools, cars, football games, streets, and churches.

Buffy has exceptional physical strength and abilities to combat the forces of darkness. Being around her encourages other women to join the fray.

Knowing the world is a dangerous place does not make the women hide in fear. Instead it makes them see the need to fight back.

 

 

Violence in feminism

Regarding violence, feminists have primarily focused their attention on violence done to women. There is much to investigate here, as the breadth and depth of violence against women performed and condoned by modern culture is astonishing. Attempting to expose and combat the cultural dynamics that support and sustain violence against women is an ongoing battle, waged internationally by local groups in their own communities, in libraries, living rooms, classrooms, etc. Here I would like to focus on the feminist side of the struggle, and suggest that feminism is itself violent.

Although there may be some number of individuals or groups that consider themselves to be feminist and choose to engage in physical violence as a means of social change, for the most part the struggle for equality among the sexes has not been waged by violent means. Significant analysis has been done regarding anger as a legitimate and empowering tool for women, but by and large feminism has eschewed violence (beyond self-defense) as a part of the patriarchy that oppresses women.[10] Both physical realities of strength and size, and cultural mores that teach women to be passive and gentle, render physical violence an unlikely tool for women’s liberation. Physical violence is used in contemporary U.S. culture to enforce sexism, not combat it.[11]

Yet while feminism does not use physical violence as a strategy or tool, it does employ a different kind of violence. The ultimate aim of feminism is to create a more just, and therefore more peaceful, society. At the same time, it is also a destructive movement. Feminism attempts to change the way our entire society is organized and understood, such that the subjugation and degradation of women is no longer part of our culture. Feminism intends to destroy structures of meaning that include or entail oppressive hierarchies.[12]

In her book, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, Christian theologian Marilyn Adams attempts to categorize some of the nastiest forms of evil in this world as “horrendous evil.” She defines horrendous evils as those that seem to render the lives of those who participate in them (as victim or perpetrator) apparently not worth living. They are the kind of evils that cannot be outweighed or counterbalanced by other good things in life. She writes,

“In most (if not all cases) their destructive power reaches beyond their concrete disvalue (such as the pain and material deprivation they involve), into the deep structure of the person’s frameworks of meaning-making, seemingly to defeat the individual’s value as a person, to degrade him/her to subhuman status.”(Adams, 26-27)

According to Adams, part of what is so horrendous about these evils is that they shatter meaning-making structures that support a person’s sense of their own worth and identity. This insight grants some perspective into the destructive force of feminism. While feminism does not aim to defeat or degrade persons, it does attempt to shatter meaning-making structures in which the inferiority of women is foundational. People deeply invested in that kind of meaning-making structure would find the insights of feminism shattering and painful. One could identify this meaning-shattering element of feminism as a kind of epistemic violence. It intends to destroy a way of knowing oneself and the world. [13]

In everyday life this epistemic violence takes many different forms, whenever feminists (male or female) attempt to undermine the patriarchal ordering of our culture. Language is the primary medium in which feminists enact epistemic violence. One example of this would be the efforts to make the language of religious texts and rituals gender inclusive. Increasingly over the last 20 years, using language in unexpected ways in order to evoke cognitive dissonance has become a hallmark of feminist writing. For example, the pun has become a trademark of feminist discourse. French feminist theorist Luce Irigaray writes in a bewildering, postmodern poetic style, retelling the story of Plato’s cave with relentless double entendre that remaps the cave into the womb. (Irigaray, 133-242) She attempts to break language open, to push hard at the cracks and fissures within the worldview it inscribes, in order to move (haltingly, impossibly) forward into new modes of meaning.

Christian feminist theologian Letty Russell uses creative wordplay throughout her writings to surprise readers into encountering the Christian tradition in a new way. Whereas the Greek term used in the New Testament to refer to God’s plan for salvation (oikonomia) is traditionally translated as “economy,” calling to mind market imagery of exchange, Russell points out that “‘oikonomia’ is derived from the Greek word for the administration of a household."(Russell, 26-27) By shifting the metaphorical power of this term, Russell generates a new vision of God’s actions for salvation. Instead of a commercial model of action moving towards a political rulership (economy and kingdom), Russell writes of God’s actions in terms of stewardship, partnership, mending, and household. Irigaray’s intricate linguistic acrobatics and Russell’s transformative resurrection of dead metaphors are not physically violent, yet they both aim to destroy whole patterns of knowledge, and in some circumstances, their epistemic violence is powerful.

Watching Buffy as feminist catharsis:
“Great thing about being a slayer,
kicking ass is comfort food.”

With an outline of violence in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the epistemic violence of feminism, some of the reasons for Buffy’s appeal, to feminists (as defined above) and specifically to female feminists, appear in clearer relief. Buffy the Vampire Slayer portrays the world as infected with violence. It is unsafe for anyone, but particularly for women, to walk through Sunnydale after dark. But violence doesn’t just strike those who place themselves in situations known to be dangerous. It can erupt in classrooms and stores, football fields, frat parties, and churches. Violence is constantly knocking on the door; it seems the safest course of action is to stay home with the shades drawn. Yet violence is so deceptive, and comes in so many forms, that it is easy to bring it home yourself, or even to give it a cordial invitation. The first reason watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer can serve as feminist catharsis is that, through its fairly thin veil of metaphor, the series gives a presentation of the violence of the world that rings true. Surely we are not beset by vampires and hellhounds in any literal sense, but the number of women who are physically assaulted each year makes the death toll at Sunnydale High look, well, realistic.

The “girl power” theme of Buffy the Vampire Slayer also makes the show an enjoyable form of fantasy fulfillment. In the Buffyverse, physical violence is a tool that is accessible to women. Buffy first and foremost, but also Willow, Cordelia, Joyce, Tara, and other women kick demonic ass. For Buffy, physical violence is accessible because she is stronger than men and as strong as vampires. For the other women on the show, it is not that their strength or stature is changed to equalize access to physical violence, but that, within the world of the show, the socialization around acceptable female behavior is changed. When we watch, some of that re-socialization transmits right through the television. Being nice doesn’t seem nearly as important, being strong seems downright sexy, and being aggressive is the way to survive in a violent world. Buffy and Co. encounter abundant mortal peril, which can (and does) cause profound and deadly harm. But in the Buffyverse, the dangers they encounter do not disempower them. Instead, they fight back every time.

Finally, by using physical violence to symbolically embody feminism, Buffy the Vampire Slayer highlights the epistemic violence of feminism and portrays that force as redemptive. I suspect that many feminists experience themselves, at least occasionally, as embattled. They are fighting dark and powerful forces that threaten them, yet are constrained by ambiguous contexts to do so primarily in the mode of sharp words—more deadly if witty—and while remaining within societal norms of femininity. In watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, feminist viewers see their own attacks on sexism mirrored back, validated, and violently fulfilled in a simpler symbolic context. The epistemic violence of feminism is metaphorically acknowledged and affirmed as redemptive, without condoning or encouraging physical violence in the world of human ambiguity.

I believe that these three symbolic functions of Buffy the Vampire Slayer indicate some of the primary reasons why viewers might desire to make Buffy a moral exemplar and ask the question “What Would Buffy Do?” The series metaphorically acknowledges the violence of the world and its association with both sex and gender such that women are likely victims. At the same time, it presents women—even those who are attacked—not as helpless victims but as people who fight back. Through their contact with Buffy, even ordinary women like Cordelia and Joyce shuffle off the cultural coil of stereotypical feminine weakness and passivity, picking up stake and axe against demonic forces. Finally, by making the fight against sexism into an actual physical battle, Buffy the Vampire Slayer makes manifest the destructive force, or epistemic violence, of feminist efforts to destroy worldviews that rely on female inferiority. Particularly in the pairing of physical staking with verbal skewer, Buffy the Vampire Slayer symbolizes the epistemic violence of feminist language, exposing the true nature of the witty barb and sarcastic slam. It thereby validates the valiant combat of all the women who, like Buffy, use whatever tools are at hand to battle the evil around them. These symbolic functions can be traced in the sample episodes, “Phases,” “Helpless,” and “Graduation Day, Part One” and “Graduation Day, Part Two.”

Episode 2.15, Phases

This ethical stance is articulated in the episode “Phases,” in which Oz first becomes a werewolf. The relentless irony of this story is set against a sexual backdrop, as Willow and Oz, and Xander and Cordelia, attempt to negotiate their relationships. Issues of sexual violence are raised explicitly through the character Larry, a large football player who sexually harasses girls, and a gym class focused on self-defense. The threat of sexual violence facing women and girls in everyday situations is bluntly represented and positioned as a problematic background against which women attempt to have satisfying relationships with men. This is made even more explicit in the library, when Giles explains “the werewolf is…a potent, extreme representation of our inborn, animalistic traits…Acts on pure instinct. No conscience. Predatory and aggressive.” Buffy responds, “In other words, your typical male.” Giles reminds them that gender stereotypes are not helpful here, as anyone—male or female—may be turned into a werewolf through a bite.

In planning a course of action, Giles makes clear that this werewolf should not be killed, saying, “No. No bullets. No matter who this werewolf is, it’s still a human being.” Buffy agrees, “So tonight we bring ‘em back alive.” Buffy’s quest for the werewolf is complicated by the appearance of Cain, a gun-toting misogynist who kills werewolves for their pelts. When Buffy fails to capture the werewolf, Cain tells her, “This is what happens when a woman tries to do a man’s job. You know, Sis, if that thing out there harms anyone, its gonna be on your pretty little head.” When Giles and Buffy mistakenly believe that the werewolf has killed someone, Buffy berates herself: “Cain was right. I should have killed it when I had the chance.”

Although it has been stated that all it takes to become a werewolf is to be bitten by one, the Scooby Gang looks for suspects by profiling aggressive students. The error of this stereotyping is made evident when the most aggressive student is found to be Buffy, the werewolf turns out to be gentle Oz, and Larry’s harassing behavior is identified as the overcompensation of a closeted gay male.

Willow, encouraged by Buffy to be more assertive in her relationship with Oz, goes to his home just as he turns into the werewolf. Meanwhile, Cain is making bullets, Giles is assembling a gun for Buffy, and when Willow escapes it looks like everyone is trying to kill Oz. Willow runs to the library and informs them that Oz is the werewolf. Seeing the gun, she says, “You’re not going to kill Oz. Yea, he’s a werewolf, but he doesn’t mean to be!” Giles and Buffy assure her that they were never planning to kill the werewolf; the gun is loaded with tranquilizer. Cut to the forest, where Cain is taking aim at Oz the werewolf. Buffy kicks the gun from his hand and uses it as a blunt instrument to knock him to the ground. Fighting Oz, she uses the gun as a cudgel but does not fire it. Giles is trying to shoot him with the tranquilizer, but in the struggle the gun is knocked from his hand. Willow picks it up and shoots Oz to save the day. Cain stands up and says, “No wonder this town’s overrun with monsters. No one here is man enough to kill them.” Buffy replies, “Well, I wouldn’t be too sure of that,” and bends his gun, which she is still holding.

The story wraps up with Larry, released from the closet, thanking Xander and politely helping a girl who has dropped her books. Oz assumes that Willow might not want to see him anymore, now that he is a werewolf. But Willow is still interested, and the two agree on a “no biting”clause to restart their relationship. Willow, emboldened by the events of the night before, bestows on Oz an unexpected first kiss.

(Continued:Helpless episode)


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