copyright 2006, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 48, winter 2006
What would Buffy do?
Feminist ethics and epistemic violence
by Shannon Craigo-Snell
As the violence in Iraq escalates while the television news reports that things are moving smoothly, I miss Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I am not interested, at the moment, in escapist drama or distracting comedy. I want the kind of substantial fictional world that certain shows and movies offer, worlds that make our own reality clearer and help us to think and speak more thoughtfully about real issues in our lives. Buffy the Vampire Slayer provided a space to think about violence from a feminist perspective, and we need that kind of thinking now.
Before the bracelet market was cornered by Lance Armstrong, there was a small trend of jewelry with the acronym “WWBD.” This merchandise is a play on a Christian slogan, “WWJD,” that reminds Christians to make ethical decisions by first asking “What Would Jesus Do?” The altered question, “What Would Buffy Do?” places Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the position of moral examplar. Buffy represents a violent female saviour who mirrors and counters the traditional image of Jesus as the gentle male saviour. The marked difference between the moral stances exemplified by Buffy and Jesus, particularly in relation to feminism and violence, suggests that the “WWBD” merchandise serves as a critical commentary on contemporary Christian ethics.
In this article, I analyze Buffy the Vampire Slayer as an alternative feminist paradigm of redemptive violence. In acknowledging the destructive force inherent in feminism, Buffy the Vampire Slayer provides access to feminist ethical discourse concerning violence that is pertinent to women’s lives and yet inaccessible in much popular U.S. Christianity. The fairly complex ethical stance towards violence presented in this series criticizes physical violence while calling for the destruction of simplistic and hurtful ways of seeing the world.
Choosing an appropriate moral exemplar:
a consumer kitsch critique of Christian ethics
Given that “WWJD” merchandise is most popular among conservative Christians, the juxtaposed marketing of these two ethically-provocative acronyms presents an abbreviated theological conversation between two somewhat similar constituencies. Both Buffy fans and conservative Christians engage in rituals (TV watching on Tuesday nights, church-going on Sunday mornings) and partake of mythologies (the Buffyverse, the Bible) in which evil is taken seriously and the language of the demonic is used to signify the strength of social ills and personal challenges. Both groups share a collection of symbols, such as the Cross, although their understanding and use of these symbols vary. And members of both groups allow themselves to be influenced by narratives that portray life as a fight between good and evil, their imaginations shaped by stories that valorize the struggle for good.
Scholars disagree about the relationship between Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Christianity. Some find the series to be deeply Christian, while others are adamant that the moral and symbolic framework of the show is not Christian. (Forster; King, “Brownskirts”; Sakal) I consider Buffy the Vampire Slayer to be culturally Christian, meaning that while the series does not claim to be Christian and does not consistently assume Christian theology, it is steeped in the stories, symbols, language, and professed values of Christianity. Arising within a culture profoundly influenced by Christianity, it is little wonder that the epic battle between good and evil depicted in Buffy the Vampire Slayer should have a more or less Christian orientation. The Christian elements of the show appear strongly in the characterization of Buffy, who is often crafted as a Christ figure. At various times she chooses to befriend outcasts, gathers a band of devoted followers, wanders in the desert, is tempted by the possibilities of her own power, sacrifices herself to save the world, harrows hell, and is raised from the dead.
Despite these similarities, the kind of actions called to mind by the questions “What Would Jesus Do?” and “What Would Buffy Do?” are quite different. It is difficult to imagine Jesus responding to a moral dilemma by thrusting a wooden stake through someone’s heart or snapping off a sarcastic remark about someone’s fashion sense. It is difficult to imagine Buffy choosing not to defend herself verbally, sitting silent while her sentence is passed. Or washing the feet of twelve men.
The reasons why Buffy and Jesus might call to mind different ethical responses are numerous (21st century Sunnydale vs. 1st century Jerusalem, etc.), especially to a Christian (fictional character vs. son of God). Yet if we abstract from their particular settings and situations, and abstain from evaluations regarding the historicity and divinity of Jesus, at least two significant differences in moral stances remain. The first is violence. The Bible presents Jesus as choosing not to engage in violent revolution, but rather allowing himself to be executed at the hands of the Roman authorities. While he did overturn the tables of the money changers and chase them out of the temple, there is no evidence that Jesus used physical violence as a means of change or a way to fight evil. Indeed, there is significant textual evidence that Jesus rejected physical violence. (See Yoder) In contrast, Buffy uses physical violence regularly as a primary tool of ethical action.
The second difference between their ethical stances is feminism. Many people find Christianity to be a deeply patriarchal religion that supports the oppression of women. (See Daly) Many others find Christianity to be liberating, affirming of women, and condemning of all forms of oppression. There is textual evidence to support both positions, although much of contemporary American Christianity upholds stereotypical gender roles. Most Christian feminists acknowledge that Christianity is sexist at least on some levels, even if they find the overall truths of Christianity to be liberating. In sharp contrast, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an explicitly feminist show. Although the consistency and kind of feminism espoused by the show are often debated, the series self-consciously attacks certain cultural systems and assumptions, using wit, symbolism, and metaphor to fight sexism and patriarchy. I believe that the urge to make Buffy into a moral exemplar, and the criticism of Christian ethics implied in asking WWBD, is rooted in the series’ presentation of a feminist ethics of violence.
The production and consumption of WWBD merchandise suggests that Buffy’s ethical behavior, which clearly includes violence and advocates feminist principles, appeals to viewers as an alternative to the normative ethical claims presented by contemporary American Christianity. By replacing “Jesus” with “Buffy” in a Christian slogan, instead of generating some completely distinct affirmation of Buffy’s ethics, the WWBD merchandise proclaims Buffy a superior moral exemplar.
Violence in Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
“Little Miss likes to fight”
Buffy the Vampire Slayer valorizes physical violence on both a practical level (how to survive in a dangerous world) and a religious level (how to save the world from evil). It is clear within the series that the world is infected by violence. Sunnydale is a dangerous place, where assault and murder are everyday realities. In this context, physical violence is presented as a necessity. Frequently it is the only way to survive the evening and/or save the world. Yet the show does not condone all physical violence; significant norms and restrictions are given regarding appropriate violence. Some of these norms are spoken clearly, while others are communicated more dramatically by being associated with either heroic or demonic characters. For the most part, Buffy’s behavior (at her best) is presented as exemplary, revealing the characteristics of appropriate use of violence.
First, Buffy’s violence tends to be personal and physically intimate. It is not the anonymous, antiseptic killing made possible by modern technology. The most significant fighting takes place between Buffy and demons or vampires that she knows; they know her name and she knows theirs.
A second, related, point is that Buffy’s violence is local. Buffy is involved in an epic battle upon which the fate of the entire world rests. Yet it remains a decidedly local conflict, not mediated by governmental policies and determined by structured hierarchy. It’s a small group of geeks in a library or a living room, learning the particular details about the demon of the week or the big bad of the season. While Buffy’s violence is spoken of as “war” at different times, it bears little resemblance to the realities of modern warfare in its organization, weaponry, strategies, or connection to government.
Third: While Buffy is repeatedly tempted to embrace the role of the slayer as the lone warrior, again and again she resists this temptation and fights alongside her friends. The theme of community runs deep in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy saves her friends’ lives and they save hers. Many enemies can only be overcome by the combined efforts of Buffy and the Scooby Gang. While the tradition of the Slayer would regard this as a weakness, Buffy’s community is her greatest strength. In the series finale, Buffy shares her slayer-powers with women and girls everywhere.
The fourth characteristic of Buffy’s use of violence is perhaps the most remarked upon. She usually combines her physical violence with verbal assault: Buffy puns. She uses sarcasm, wry wit, and dark humor as both strategy and accompaniment to her fighting. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is known for its creative use of language. And Buffy’s constant pairing of witty wordplay with physical violence suggests an understanding of language as a remarkably powerful weapon.
A fifth trait of Buffy’s violence is that it takes place in decidedly feminine trappings. Against all considerations of practicality, Buffy chooses to fight demons while wearing high heels, tight skirts, elaborate updos, and nail polish. One of the ways the series combats sexist gender roles is by portraying Buffy as both stereotypically feminine and physically powerful. While this acceptance of stereotypical markers of femininity is problematic in its own right, within the ironic context of the show it undoes its own assertion. Buffy’s feminine fight-wear makes the point that one does not cease to be female or feminine when one is strong, aggressive, and even violent, because stereotypical gender markers are inadequate to the complexities of identity. It isn’t just that Buffy can’t be contained in gender stereotypes; none of us can.
The sixth characteristic of how Buffy uses violence relates directly to ethics. Buffy’s violence is usually directed toward evil beings that appear in pure and monstrous form. Demons are neither humans nor animals. Others have noted that demons in Buffy the Vampire Slayer are metaphors, societal ills that are symbolically manifest in monstrous form. (Such as Wilcox, “Who.”)
There is a clear prohibition against killing humans, as humans are never purely evil. Buffy explicitly mentions a “rule that slayers don’t kill people.”(3.11, “Gingerbread”) In situations where humans become monstrous against their will, such as werewolves, moral statements prohibiting life-ending violence are voiced explicitly and repeatedly by Buffy, Willow, and Giles. (2.15, “Phases,” 2.6, “Halloween”) Twice Buffy mistakenly believes she has killed a human and is devastated. (2.11, “Ted,” 6.16. “Dead Things”) When Faith, another slayer who represents the shadow-side of Buffy, accidentally kills a human being, it is regarded by Buffy and the Scooby Gang as a terrible, monumental occurrence.Faith defends her actions by saying the victim was a likely a bad person, and that her other actions had saved countless lives, Buffy responds that it is not their “job to judge people.”(3.15, “Consequences”) Buffy frequently beats humans up while defending herself and others, but she does not kill them.
Thus far, Buffy the Vampire Slayer seems to present a fairly tidy morality: kill demons, not humans. However, this clear distinction serves as a backdrop for the explorations of moral ambiguity that are at the heart of the series. In Season One we meet Angel, a vampire with a soul. Buffy lets him live and falls in love with him. At the end of Season Two, Buffy kills Angel, whose soul had just been restored, in order to save the world. In Season Four she refrains from killing Spike because, even as a soulless vampire, he presented no threat to the world since he had a chip implanted in his brain that prevented him from harming humans. In Season Five, Giles both breaks the rule that humans must not be killed and upholds it, killing the human Ben in order to prevent the destructive god Glory from returning. Intimately closing his hand over Ben’s mouth and nose, he smothers him while explaining that for the good of the world he must be killed but Buffy cannot do it, because she is “a hero.”(5.22. “The Gift”)
Throughout the series, Buffy engages in difficult ethical choices of deep moral ambiguity. The ethics of violence presented is not completely clear-cut, but it is fairly consistent and sturdy. Violence is necessary in a violent world. In relation to pure evil that poses a continuing threat to humanity, deadly violence is appropriate. In regards to morally ambiguous beings, including all humans, violence is used with restraint, and deadly violence is only used in extreme cases.
Two other important aspects of how violence is portrayed in Buffy the Vampire Slayer need to be mentioned. First, committing unethical physical violence, such as killing a human, is presented as dangerous to one’s own soul. In Season Three, after Faith kills a human, different characters on the show talk about how hard this must be for her, imagining feelings of guilt and grief. They are confused and troubled that Faith does not exhibit these expected emotions. Angel has a different view of the situation. He says, “She’s taken a life. She’s got a taste for it now.” (3.15, “Consequences”)
Finally, violence in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is frequently linked to sex. The series does not eroticize violence as sexy. Rather, it recognizes that sexual relationships take place within a violent world and are thereby infected with violence. Likewise, violence takes place within a sexist world, and is therefore shaped by sexual politics that oppress and victimize women. In the first five seasons, characters in the series who enjoy violence as sexual, in the sado-masochistic sense of giving and receiving pain, are morally deficient beings. The primary example is vampires, who frequently exhibit, refer to, or invoke images of sado-masochistic activity. Faith also finds violence sexy, using similar words, motions, and sounds to describe sex and slaying a vampire. (3.14, “Bad Girls”) When Xander comes to talk with her after she first kills a human, Faith acts as if he’s there for sex, maneuvers him into a sexual position, and nearly kills him. (3.15, “Consequences”)
Later, after Buffy is brought back from heaven and must try to resume her life in Season Six, she engages in a violent sexual relationship with Spike, as an attempt to feel, however briefly, alive. While this relationship is developed at length and presented as somewhat sympathetic, in the end it is presented as a shameful, self-destructive relationship from which Buffy must walk away because Spike has no soul and Buffy is just using him. The violent sex is not identified as the major reason this relationship is wrong. Yet the ultimately negative evaluation of their sexual relationship is consistent with the presentation of violent sex throughout the series: it is not ideal, or even appropriate, sexual behavior. Sexualized violence is the domain of the vampires, a temptation to Buffy that is indulged by her shadow-side, Faith, and by herself when she is soul-sick.
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. 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.
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.
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. 
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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 group of 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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, 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.
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. 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.”
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.
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.
24. 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.
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