JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Sunnydale's mayor aspires to become a demon and his "ascension" takes place at high school graduation.

Representing entrenched patriarchal power, hidden behind civility and cleanliness, and apparently invincible ...

... the mayor becomes a demonic snake, an explicit phallic symbol that Buffy must destroy.

The graduating seniors take up arms.

Buffy taunts the mayor with the knife she used to stab Faith. She takes on the role of castrating bitch, using verbal violence.

"WWBD?" mechandise does not aim its criticism at Jesus' ethics, but more at how U.S. popular culture represents Christian ethics and violence. The show focuses on and contests two approaches to violence often associated with Christianity — military aggression and female submission.

The episode Lie to Me focuses on how hard it is to make ethical decisions in an ambiguous world. Childish tales of black vs. white hats may offer comfort but are dangerous and untrue. The show offers a language and a landscape to discuss complexites of ethics, sex, and violence.

 

Notes

1. Not all Buffy fans would find Buffy an adequate ethical guide, and surely many would refrain from any comment on Jesus’ adequacy in that regard. Indeed, there are even Christian Buffy fans who find room for both Jesus and Buffy as figures worthy of imitation. But given these various disclaimers, the WWJD and WWBD merchandise shows that, within some portion of these two groups, there is an impersonal debate going on, being carried out through capitalist communications.

2. My understanding of what it means to be “culturally Christian” began when reading Niebuhr.

3. For an introduction to some of the issues involved in moral exemplar ethics, examined in terms of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, see Kawal.

4. There are many excellent feminist Christian theologians. Two originary texts of the field are Russell, “Human” and Ruether. For a mere glimpse of how this analysis has expanded, see also Williams; Tamez; King, “Feminist”; and Jones.

5. For some of the issues involved in feminist interpretation of patriarchial texts, see Russell, “Feminist;” Trible; and Fiorenza.

6. For example, see 2.10, What's My Line? Part Two and 4:21, Primeval.

7. The final episodes of Season Six, while not focusing on Buffy’s violence, are pertinent here.

8. Sometimes presented as a distinction between slaying and killing.

9. In 4.19, New Moon Rising, Buffy explains to Riley that not all demons are evil.

10. Regarding Buffy the Vampire Slayer, feminism, and anger, see Helford.

11. For example, on July 11, 2000, 53 women and girls were attacked in broad daylight in Central Park. Reports estimate up to 60 men were involved in robbing, sexually assaulting, and stripping the women and girls. There were witnesses and bystanders; ten videotapes were made of the events. Few tried to stop the violence. Several women reported that when they went to the police for help, they were rebuffed. This example illustrates that violence against women is such a pervasive part of U.S. culture that it can happen spontaneously and en masse. Also interesting is what did not happen next. There were no riots. Riots happen in the United States as a physically violent reaction to group oppression. One could question whether, if 53 men who could be loosely categorized into a group—based on race, economic status, religious affiliation, or whatever else—were attacked on a hot summer day in Central Park, the whole group to which these 53 belonged would not be looting in the streets by midnight. Women protested, held vigils, called for legislative action, demanded indictments, and pressed charges. Women did not riot. No doubt there are many reasons for this, including the complexities of grouping women together across ethnic boundaries. I do not mean to indicate that violent rioting would have been a more appropriate response than the ones in which women engaged. What I intend to illustrate is that violence is less accessible as a tool for women than it is for men. I suspect that when women watched the videotape of the events replayed again and again on the television, this did not make them seek out violent responses, in part because the video reminded women that we are not safe in this society, that walking through the park on a sunny day can lead to group assault, that the men standing near us on the sidewalk—even those in uniform—might not come to help.

12. These structures include racism and heterosexism. While the issues of race and sexual orientation are therefore quite pertinent to any discussion of feminism in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, constraints of space and time place them beyond the scope of this essay. Please see Helford and King, “Brownskirts.”

13. In the context of postcolonial studies and drawing on the work of Michel Foucault, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak uses the phrase “epistemic violence” to implicate first-world intellectual discourse in the multi-layered silencing of the subaltern by imperial and patriarchal forces. Here, I develop the term in a different context, in which I am primarily concerned with the ethics of violence in feminist movement. I intend to invoke the pervasiveness of sexism as a way of knowing the world, as well as the gravity and radical nature of attempts to resist oppression. See also Khatun, who uses this phrase to characterize resistance in a different context and in explicit relation to Spivak.

14. Although there is not space to address this related issue in this essay, let me note that Helpless presents a lovely exploration of father/daughter relationships, particularly of the ways in which fathers betray their daughters by upholding and participating in patriarchal structures that ultimately oppress women. This is deepened in Graduation Day, Parts I and II, in which the Watcher’s Council serves as a metaphor for patriarchal structures of authority. The Watcher’s Council is not demonic, indeed is formed to fight demonic power, yet their behavior to women is deeply problematic. One of the problems, seen in all three episodes, is their adherence to ethical principles in lieu of attention to particular situations.

15. The issue of a slayer’s humanity is explored most explicitly in Season Six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it is already present in less pronounced form early on. In 3.18, Earshot, Willow says of Buffy, “She’s hardly even human anymore.”

16. After their first sexual encounter resulted in Angel losing his soul, Buffy and Angel cannot have sex again after Angel’s soul is restored without risking the same result.

17. In 3.17, Enemies, when Angel is acting the part of Angelus, he says to Buffy, “You know what I just can’t believe. In all of our time together, we never tried chains.”

18. See 2.5, Reptile Boy, for more Buffy castration of demons symbolic of patriarchy.

19. For a starkly different interpretation of Buffy’s punning, see Helford.

20. Note this assessment is based on Seasons One through Six. There is a moment in Season Seven where she says she would sacrifice Dawn or anyone. Buffy says “sacrifice,” not “kill,” but, especially given that she kills Angel in 2.22, “BECOMING, Part Two,” it does open up the possibility of killing a human being in order to save the world.

21. Indeed, many Christians might find this ethics of violence acceptable. In her 1999 Gifford Lectures, Marilyn McCord Adams discusses the ways in which Jesus’ actions and parables shattered the oppressive meaning-making structures of his culture.

22. For an example of such interpretations, see King, “Brownskirts.”

23. There is a distinction between submission to violence and self-sacrifice. While both themes are present in Christianity and can be problematic for feminists, I am here addressing only the issue of submission to violence.

24.Indeed, even the dangerous stranger who first follows Buffy down an alley is Angel, both demon and hero. At some point in the series, nearly every character has a double, shadow, or split self, such that the ambiguity of the best and worst of humanity is repeatedly underscored.

25. This conversation follows an earlier one in which Buffy asks Angel to tell her the truth about his past. He says lies can be easier, but she assures him she can take the truth.

Many thanks to Seth Craigo-Snell, Cynthia Hess, and Jennifer Ho for their careful readings of drafts of this text.

Bibliography

Adams, Marilyn McCord. Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Daly, Mary. Beyond God the Father: Towards a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. Boston: Beacon Press, 1973.

Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schussler. Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984.

Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Pantheon Books, 1965.

Forster, Greg. “Faith and Plato: ‘You’re Nothing! Disgusting, Murderous Bitch!’” Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale. Ed. James B. South. Chicago, Illinois: Open Court, 2003.

Helford, Elyce Rae. “‘My Emotions Give Me Power:’ The Containment of Girls’ Anger in Buffy.” Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Eds. Rhonda V. Wilcox and David Lavery. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman &Littlefield Publishers, 2002.

Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Jones, Serene. Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace. Minnapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.

Khatun, Saiyeda. “A Site of Subaltern Articulation: The Ecstatic Female Body in the Contemporary Bangladeshi Novels of Taslima Nasrin.” Genders, 30, 1999.

Kawal, Jason. “Should We Do What Buffy Would Do?” Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale. Ed. James B. South. Chicago, Illinois: Open Court, 2003.

King, Neal. “Brownskirts: Fascism, Christianity, and the Eternal Demon.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale. Ed. James B. South. Chicago, Illinois: Open Court, 2003.

King, Ursula, Ed. Feminist Theology from the Third World: A Reader. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1994.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Responsible Self. San Francisco, Harper &Row Publishers, 1963.

Russell, Letty M. Human Liberation in a Feminist Perspective—A Theology. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974.

Russell, Letty M. The Future of Partnership. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1979.

Russell, Letty M, Ed. Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1985.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon Press, 1983.

Sakal, Gregory J. “No Big Win: Themes of Sacrifice, Salvation, and Redemption.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale. Ed. James B. South. Chicago, Illinois: Open Court, 2003.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and The Interpretation of Culture. Eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Tamez, Elsa. Ed. Through Her Eyes: Women’s Theology from Latin America. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1989.

Phyllis Trible. Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Augsburg Fortress, 1986.

Wilcox, Rhonda V. “‘Who Died and Made Her the Boss?’Patterns of Mortality in Buffy.” Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Eds. Rhonda V. Wilcox and David Lavery. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman &Littlefield Publishers, 2002.

Williams, Delores. Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenges of Womanist God-Talk. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1993.

Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972.


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