In Phases, Larry sets the stage by knocking the books out of a girl's hand so he can ogle her as she bends to collect them.

Phases explores the complications of ethics and gender. Werewolves do not choose to turn into beasts and are still human. Although they are very agressive, anyone can be turned into one by a bite.

Cain, a gun-toting misogynist, ignores all such complexity and kills werewolves for their pelts.

This werewolf turns out to be gentle Oz, bitten by his young cousin.

Cain berates the Scooby Gang as not "man enough" to kill monsters. Buffy responds by bending his gun. She does not kill humans, who are always morally ambiguous.

Larry's harassing behavior turns out to be the overcompensation of a closeted gay male. He is also a victim of cultural norms about gender and aggression.

Cordelia is harassed by a boy at school. Buffy's slayer powers are chemically repressed (in the Helpless episode) so she is as weak as a normal girl. She tries to pull the boy away, but he throws her to the ground.

This episode takes on a Red Riding Hood theme. The vulnerable Buffy does not confront the men on the street making catcalls.

Without her slayer powers, Buffy can barely lift the bag with her weapons in it and she cannot use them.

Instead of fighting the crazed vampire, she tricks him into drinking Holy Water.

Faith, as Buffy's moral foil, represents Buffy's shadow side and temptation.

Buffy could become Faith through unethical violence. In Enemies, they fight and hold a knife at each other's throat. Faith says, "What are you gonna do, B? Kill me? You become me? You're not ready for that." She releases Buffy with a kiss on the forehead.

After Faith shoots Angel with a poisoned arrow, his only cure would be to drink a slayer's blood. Buffy goes to kill Faith ...

... and take Faith to Angel to drink, but is so stunned at stabbing Faith that she cannot go through with it.

Instead, in a blatantly sexual scene, she offers her own blood to Angel and makes him drink it.

While Faith sits in chains, she and Angel talk about trust-games. The show presents s/m negatively but borrows the concept of trust-game to explain how men and women need a balance of power for ethical sexual relationships.

Buffy offered her blood to Angel once before. In season 1, after she discovers he is a vampire, she sets out to kill him, When he explains he has a soul, she decides to trust him. She offers her neck to him — a challenge, test, and statement of faith in him. He does not bite her. Their relation continues as a trust-game between people of equal power.

Willow and Oz, the werewolf, have their own trust-game, negotiating sexual relations in a violent and sexist world.

[Images continued on next page]




Episode 3.12, Helpless

This illustrates how Buffy the Vampire Slayer acknowledges connections among sex, gender, and violence, while also providing an empowering example of a woman successfully fighting back. The Watcher’s Council has a tradition that goes back twelve centuries, “a time-honored right of passage,” that if a slayer reaches her 18th birthday, she must undergo a test, in which her slayer powers are chemically suppressed and she is trapped with a vampire whom she must slay. Giles protests that it is cruel to trap Buffy with a vampire when she is “weakened and defenseless.” The Council’s representative responds, “A slayer’s not just physical prowess, she must have cunning, imagination, a confidence derived from self-reliance.”[14]

Thus the stage is set. The ordinarily thin veil of metaphor through which Buffy the Vampire Slayer addresses real life issues is intentionally made even thinner. In this episode, Buffy is not a seemingly ordinary girl who has superpowers, she is just an ordinary girl. The show then depicts the kind of situations women find themselves in all the time, yet the unjust power relations appear in stark relief because they are not ordinary for Buffy.

Early in the episode, a male high school student is harassing Cordelia, grabbing her shoulders while he berates her for embarrassing him in front of his friends. Cordelia defends herself verbally, physically extricates herself from his grasp, and attempts to end the discussion. When the boy grabs her again and pushes her against a tree, Buffy intervenes. To her surprise, she cannot pull him away from Cordelia. The boy throws Buffy to the ground and is chased off by Cordelia, who pummels his chest with weak fists in hyper-feminine style. Buffy complains to Giles: “I have no strength. I have no coordination. I throw knives like…” “A girl? ”Giles interrupts. “Like I’m not the slayer,” Buffy responds. Without her slayer powers, Buffy is just a girl, faced with a sexist and violent world in which women are unsafe. Buffy discusses this with Angel, afraid of what will happen if her powers do not return. She says, “I’ve seen too much. I know what goes bump in the night. Not being able to fight… What if I just hide under my bed, all scared and helpless?”

The show takes on a Little Red Riding-Hood theme as Buffy, clutching her red coat around her, walks through a residential neighborhood after sunset. Two men are standing on the curb and one calls out, “Hey sweet girl. How much for a lap dance for me and my buddy?” Buffy begins to turn and respond, thinks better of it, and walks on. Without her slayer-powers, Buffy is an ordinary girl and ordinary men are as frightening as vampires. The metaphor is thinned in regard to the vampire she must slay, as well. Giles explains that his name is Zachary Craig: “As a mortal he murdered—tortured—more than a dozen women before he was committed to an asylum for the criminally insane.” Craig would be a horror to encounter even if he weren’t a vampire.

Craig escapes the Council’s control and captures Buffy’s mother in order to lure Buffy to the test-site. Buffy takes her bag of weapons, which are useless now as she can barely hoist the bag and cannot aim the crossbow accurately. Craig mocks the weapons as “sweets” she’s brought to Grandmother’s house. Eventually, Buffy kills Craig by tricking him into drinking Holy Water. After drinking it, he turns to Buffy and says, “You don’t seem to understand your place in all of this…” His words trail off as he begins to feel the effects of the Holy Water. Buffy remarks just before Craig turns to dust, “If I was at full slayer power, I’d be punning right about now.” But of course, Craig provided the verbal humor at this dusting. Buffy refuses to accept the place assigned to her in this Red-Riding Hood tale, refuses to be a helpless woman. The viewers know that Buffy’s real place in all of this is that of the slayer.

Episodes 3.21 and 3.22,
Graduation Day, parts one and two

The final episodes of Season Three again acknowledge the violence of the world in its connection to sex and gender, empower women to fight back, and symbolically manifest the violence of feminism. These two episodes serve as the culmination of a rich dramatic arc throughout the season (including the relationship between Faith and Buffy), and the consummation of several themes that develop from the beginning of the show (such as the trials of high school, the isolation of the slayer, the relationship between Buffy and Angel, etc.).

Faith is portrayed as the shadow-side of Buffy, both as her moral foil and as the manifestation of Buffy’s own temptation. She is less controlled than Buffy; she enjoys violence and finds it sexy; she is promiscuous; she does not have the stabilizing power of a family and friends. Faith is not a caricature, but she clearly serves to represent the kind of violent and/or sexual behaviors that fall outside the ethical pale within the Buffyverse. Faith stretches the limits of humanity in two directions. She is a slayer with superhuman powers.[15] Faith also chooses to do evil things. Faith is portrayed as enjoying an uncontrolled form of violence that does not abide by ethical norms. She switches sides in the battle of good and evil, placing her slayer power at the disposal of the would-be-demonic Mayor, thereby damaging her own humanity. Yet Faith remains a morally ambiguous human—she is never presented as the purely monstrous evil Buffy can slay with moral ease.

As graduation day approaches, Buffy and Friends try to find a way to stop the Mayor’s ascension, in which he will become a pure demon. In 3.21, Graduation Day, Part One, it becomes clear that killing Faith would make sense as a strategy to thwart the Mayor, yet Buffy does not consider it seriously. She says, “I don’t kill people…I can’t kill her.” Buffy’s opinion changes by the end of the episode, after Faith shoots Angel with a poisoned arrow. The only antidote to this fatal poison is to drain the blood of a slayer. Faced with the prospect of watching Angel die, Buffy decides to kill Faith. Xander is concerned about Buffy’s course of action, afraid that taking a human life will affect her the way it affected Faith:

Xander: I just don’t want to lose you.
Buffy: I won’t get hurt.
Xander: That’s not what I mean.

Buffy is undeterred. She dresses in black and red leather clothes, similar to Faith’s outfit, and goes to Faith’s apartment to kill her. Faith, always eager to voice the connection between them, remarks that Buffy is “all dressed up in big sister’s clothes.” Buffy tells Faith, “You always told me that I was just like you, that I was just holding it in.” Faith asks if Buffy is “ready to cut loose?” Buffy says, “Try me.” Faith begins the battle by saying to Buffy, “Give us a kiss.” In the midst of deadly combat, Faith and Buffy are equal players on the opposite sides of the epic conflict. They mirror one another’s appearance and behavior; at one point Buffy handcuffs them together so that they move as two sides of one creature fighting itself. The handcuffs are broken, and Buffy stabs Faith in the stomach with Faith’s own knife. Faith says, “You did it. You killed me.” However, Faith does not die. She falls into a passing truck and goes into a coma. Buffy remains motionless and mute while Faith gets away. The emotional effect of killing a human is such that Buffy cannot pull herself together enough to bring Faith back to Angel and fulfill her goal. Buffy said earlier, “I don’t kill people. I can’t kill her.” This proves to be true. Even when she expressly attempts to violate her own ethical norms, the best she can manage is a verbal killing, whereby Faith pronounces herself dead and yet lives.

Buffy returns to Angel so that he can drink her blood and live. Angel is unwilling, yet Buffy manages it by striking Angel until his vampire nature visibly appears, then crushing his mouth to her neck. This scene is blatantly sexual, with this drinking serving as a second consummation of their relationship.[16] Buffy falls to the floor with Angel on top of her. At the last possible moment, Angel releases her and rolls to her side. He rushes her to the hospital, where she lies in a hospital room next to Faith’s, both of them suffering from severe blood loss.

While on its own this scene might be understood as a problematic image of a woman letting her boyfriend take her life-blood, such a view does not fit within the larger context of the relationship between Buffy and Angel. The lens for interpreting this scene is made explicit earlier in the season, in episode 3.15, Consequences. Faith has recently killed a human for the first time and then threatened Xander’s life in a sexualized context. Buffy thinks Angel might be able to help her, so he talks to Faith while she sits chained to a wall in his home. S&M allusions abound. Angel asks if Xander forgot the safety word. Faith replies, “Safety words are for wusses.” Angel says, “I bet you’re not big on trust games, now are you, Faith?” Given how Buffy the Vampire Slayer uses sado-masochistic imagery in general, this exchange bears an unexpected twist. As mentioned above, the series associates the enjoyment of giving and receiving pain with evil or immoral characters, including vampires and Faith.[17] Further, Buffy the Vampire Slayer does not eroticize relationships of domination and subordination or present unequal power relations as sexy. Particularly in Season Five in regard to Riley Finn, it is articulated that Buffy has trouble having relationships with normal men because she is too powerful and an appropriate relationship requires equal partners. However, in Consequences we have Angel mildly insulting Faith because she is “not big on trust games,” presenting this element of S&M behavior in a positive light.

With this in mind, we can see Angel and Buffy’s entire relationship as a kind of trust game among equals who do not want to hurt each other. When Buffy first finds out Angel is a vampire in Season One, she is confused and bewildered. Testing if he is evil (and trusting that he is not), Buffy bares her neck to Angel and invites him to drink her. He does not. Later in that early episode, they agree it would be best for one of them to walk away, then they kiss for the second time. In 3.22, Graduation Day, Part Two, this is mirrored in reverse. Buffy bares her neck to Angel. He does drink her, and he walks away. From start to quasi-finish, their relationship is a trust game between two powerful people who pose an equal threat, one to the other. Buffy trusts Angel to drink enough of her blood to cure him without taking so much that he kills her.

There is another, less violent, trust game being played out sexually in this rite of passage episode. Willow and Oz, who had their first kiss after it was revealed that he could devour her as a werewolf and she was quite capable of shooting him down, have sex for the first time. Their relationship seems much more normal than Buffy and Angel’s, yet they too have an equal balance of power and a tremendous amount of trust. Both relationships are problematic and burdened with conflicting identities. Neither couple lives happily ever after. Yet their relationships are also presented as loving and true. The slayer and the vampire, the witch and the werewolf—both pairs actually model a positive possibility for heterosexual relationships in a violent and sexist world.

After saving Angel, Buffy and Co. must take on the Mayor. In confronting the Mayor, who functions as a “representative of patriarchal order,”(Wilcox, “Who”13) Buffy exemplifies the stereotype of the feminist as castrating bitch. This trope is set in motion when the Scoobies are all gathered in the library. When the ineffectual Watcher Wesley offers his help, Buffy says she’ll call him if she needs someone to “scream like a woman.” The intentionality of this ironic line is emphasized when Wesley repeats it, and then again when Buffy comments, seconds later, that Xander and Angel are like a couple of “little old ladies.” Preparing to go into battle, Buffy verbally castrates the men around her. The theme continues graphically as the battle unfolds. Mayor Richard Wilkins III ascends, transforming into a giant, phallic, demonic snake. While Xander, Willow, Cordelia, Oz, and the rest of the graduating class all engage in serious combat with the Mayor and the vampires who serve him, Buffy does not throw a punch. Her role in this fight is verbal. Brandishing Faith’s knife, still stained with Faith’s blood, Buffy taunts the demon: “Do you remember this? I took it from Faith. Stuck it in her gut. It just slid in her like she was butter. You want to get it back from me…Dick?” With these words Buffy riles the Mayor and lures him into the school building, following her into the center of the building, the “inner sanctum” of the library. The library is filled, not with books, but with explosives. Buffy runs out and Giles detonates the lot, destroying the Mayor.

In this particular battle, Buffy plays the role many women are limited to, using words to manipulate emotions in the hopes of disempowering the patriarchal systems that threaten them. The graphic physical violence of the episode, and the explosive results of Buffy’s plan, make manifest the epistemic violence involved in feminist use of language to combat sexism. Buffy embraces the denigrating stereotype of the feminist as castrating bitch, saving Sunnydale by using language to metaphorically castrate the men around her and orchestrate the physical destruction of the phallic demon.[18] In Sunnydale, the verbal violence women in the real world engage in everyday is manifest as physically violent, destructive, and successful. And the epistemic violence symbolized in Buffy’s quips and puns translates outside the Buffyverse into an affirmation of the epistemic violence of feminism in the real world.[19]


In these episodes and others, Buffy the Vampire Slayer functions symbolically to acknowledge the violence of the world and its relation to sex and gender, to present alternative visions of gender roles that empower women to fight back, and to make manifest the destructive force of feminism’s epistemic violence. Buffy can use not only jibe and jest but also stake because the evil forces on Buffy the Vampire Slayer are frequently presented in pure and monstrous form. In the real world, evil is rarely so conveniently unambiguous. While the series does not present a complete and thorough ethical system, it does have enough ethical complexity to generate and maintain sturdy norms that severely restrict the use of physical violence against humans, as all humans are morally ambiguous. It is only because Buffy the Vampire Slayer displays a sturdy ethical structure regarding the use of violence that the show's graphic violence can function symbolically in ways that empower women.

The honoring of Buffy’s ethics in the slogan “WWBD” does not enjoin a wholesale valorization of violence. The series uses metaphor to acknowledge the violence of the world and of feminism, while also presenting a view of the appropriate scope of physical violence that translates into the real world of human ambiguity as quite limited. For example, the answer to “What Would Buffy Do?” would never be to kill a human being.[20] As a moral exemplar, Buffy would represent an ethics of acknowledging the reality of evil, refusing to be disempowered, fighting back with appropriate available tools, using violence for self-defense and the defense of others, and valuing humanity such that taking a human life is against all norms.

This picture of what Buffy would do might not seem as starkly different from what Jesus would do.[21] Yet, given that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is culturally Christian and not directly and explicity Christian, I suggest that the criticism implied in replacing “Jesus” with “Buffy” in a Christian slogan is not a direct negative evaluation of what Jesus would do. To answer the question “What Would Jesus Do?” with any hope of integrity or accuracy would require intensive study, complex attempts to negotiate temporal and cultural differences, and a lifelong Jesus-based spirituality. I think the criticism is aimed, instead, at the general representations of Christian ethics present in popular culture in contemporary United States.

While there are diverse, rich resources within the Bible and historical Christian tradition, the ethical views regarding violence in current U.S. Christianity as presented in popular culture are less impressive. At least two of these are soundly rejected by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The first is militaristic, stereotypically masculine rhetoric that encourages physical violence in the form of warfare. While Buffy is fighting a war, it is a local struggle with supernatural, demonic forces, not an organized, international, governmental method of problem-solving in which vast numbers of morally ambiguous, anonymous humans are pitted against each other in mortal combat. “WWBD” can be interpreted as a criticism of political use of Christian rhetoric to demonize entire countries of people. Contrary to authors who assert that Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ use of demons is a way to demonize those who are Other,[22] I interpret the use of demons in the series as a means to reject the demonization of people. Even the people who choose to serve demons remain morally ambiguous humans, protected by the ethical condemnation of killing human beings. The second view of violence present in popular representations of Christianity and rejected in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that of submission. Gender stereotypes of women as weak and passive are linked to Christian inculcations to meekness, submission, and forgiveness. The way in which the women of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fight back rejects this model of responding to violence.[23]

In lieu of sound political reasons for the current war in Iraq (if such reasons ever exist for war) or clear strategy for ending it, some people in the U.S. use Christian rhetoric to garner support for, or at least submission to, the Bush administration’s current policies. This is not only a shameful twisting of Christianity, it is also fairly effective method of cutting off productive discussion about violence and morality. Religious rhetoric is used to provide simplistic answers, maintain stable (if false) worldviews, and prevent Americans from engaging in the intellectually challenging work of thinking through this political, military, economic, and religious mess. It is used to turn humans into demons, against whom violence is acceptable. Although more and more Americans are resisting this masterfully spun worldview, many Americans continue to choose it. While Buffy understands the appeal of simple views, she knows they are not true.[24] In Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode 2.17, Lie to Me, Buffy laments the confusing complexity of life and asks Giles if life will get easier. “What do you want me to say?” Giles asks. Buffy responds, “Lie to me.”

Giles: “Yes, it’s terribly simple: the good guys are always stalwart and true, and the bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats. We always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies and everyone lives happily ever after.”

Buffy: “Liar.”[25]

There have been numerous Christians and Christian scholars who have rejected the use of Christian rhetoric to gain support for military violence, and who are drawing on the many resources of Christian traditions to start discussions about ethics and violence. However, contemporary popular U.S. Christianity does not readily make available resources to grapple with the issues of violence that are important to women’s lives. This deficit is highlighted by the WWBD merchandise. The question “What Would Buffy Do?” opens up conversations about violence within a narrative and symbolic structure that provides a language and framework for exploring the complex interrelations of sex, gender, and violence that women face everyday. The series valorizes fighting back, while also articulating an ethics of violence in which physical violence must be severely limited. It criticizes the acceptance of militaristic violence and supports the shattering of false and hurtful worldviews. The kind of violence among humans that Buffy the Vampire Slayer whole-heartedly endorses is not physical, but epistemic, the cultural and linguistic guerrilla warfare that attempts not only to save the world, but to change it.

(Continued: Notes and bibliography)

To topPrint versionJC 48 Jump Cut home