Sunday, May 18, 2008

Buffy and (a distinct lack of) sex

OK I'm not quite sure how this is going to turn out, it's been meandering around my head for quite a while now but I'm not sure how much sense I'm going to be able to make. The title of this post isn't a very good description of what I think I'm going to write about so please bear with me here. I still can't quite believe I'm putting out opinions on the internets, I keep waiting for people to tell me I've gotta get off cos I'm talking crap. *ahem* Enough of my fragile self esteem. Back to the case in point.

Buffy. Buffy and her cohorts attitudes to sex. Now I adore the show, always have done since I first saw the film, made back in, what, 1992? I think the show has a lot going for it in terms of feminism and it's portrayal of women and it becomes my comfort viewing when I'm low or just plain bored. I adore the fights, the monsters, the plots, Giles Britishness and need for jaffa cakes, Drusilla's wacky madness and accent, the wonderful Anya, the strength of Tara, the gay total fanboyishness of Andrew, Willow's naivete, Faith's kickassness, Spike's hotness and Buffy's reliability to do the right thing, make the hard choices and be a hero. Have I missed anyone out? I loath Angel, I think Riley's an utter drip and Dawn's was one of the most annoying and overly melodramatic characters I have ever seen. Xander is currently annoying me as in season 3 he's still being a teenage sleaze. Cordelia is still rather one dimensional although I know this changes mostly when she moves to LA in Angel. And the slayerettes. Awesome. The last episode was breathtaking for me.

So far as I can remember Buffy was the first action show with a female lead. This counts for a lot. It first aired in the UK in what, 1996? If I think back to my regular cult viewing then and I'm coming up with Red Dwarf and the X-Files. There must have been other sci-fi/fantasy stuff around then, but as I can't remember show titles they obviously didn't make a big impression on me. Red Dwarf was all male and the X-Files, whilst having a female lead as important as the male lead, wasn't action orientated. I like me some action films. I like explosions and I like fire and I like ninja kicks to the head and I like big narratives about good vs evil. Aliens had a female lead. I think Sigourney Weaver/Ripley was one of my first female crushes. I totally fell in love with her upon seeing Aliens 3 - shaved head, tough, action lead. I can't think of any other action films from then (that I saw) that had women as more than a supporting character - as more than a love interest. Even if they were scientists they were relegated to being a love interest and giving the male lead a reason to keep fighting. Bleurgh.

Then in 1996 Buffy came along. Vampires? Check. Women in the lead? Check. A hot cast? Check. (I was 16 and a bag of hormones). Great - this was new and exciting. Actually looking back on it now I'd say that Giles was framed as being as big a lead role as Buffy was. If you watch the opening credits for the first 3 (2? 4?) seasons the last shot of the Scooby gang leaving the library (or wherever) has Giles leading the group. Later on as Buffy grows more into her role and matures she leads the gang.

But anyway, it was all pretty cool. And yes I love it, even the bad episodes. However I still think there's a need to pull it apart and examine what's wrong with it. I've previously written (here) about the Innocence storyline and the somewhat warped morality tale it offers. I want now to talk about other ways that the show deals with sex. In my mind, it takes a rather a conservative approach.

Bearing in mind that I'm currently on season 3 and Faith turned up a few episodes ago. The first time we see Faith is in Faith, Hope and Trick. She is dancing in the Bronze with a vampire (we discover later) and Cordelia comments:
"Check out Slut-O-Rama and her Disco Dave"*
Nice Cordy, real nice.
I hate sexual swear words. They generally are used only for women and they imply two things, one, that our worth as human beings is measured by the activity between our legs, and two, that it is a bad thing for women to have sex, or think about sex, or look like we're going to have sex, or god forbid, to enjoy sex.

Earlier on in the episode Buffy, Cordelia, Xander, Willow and Oz are sitting outside school grounds having a picnic. A possible new boyfriend for Buffy is spotted, this is the dialogue that follows:
Xander: Oh, you wanna date. I saw that half-smile, you little slut. (chuckles)
Buffy punches him on the arm, and none too lightly.
Xander: (smiles and chuckles) Ow. (winces and holds his arm)

Yep Xander it's not nice to call someone a slut. Or imply that by smiling at a bloke it means she's easy. Because being easy is baaaad. Whatever. Come to think of it, easy implies a certain passivity from the woman, another outdated stereotype. Outdated because it puts all agency into the hands of men and denies women their sexuality.

Anyway, diversion aside, there are loads of example of this type of language used throughout the show:
During Homecoming when Cordelia and Buffy are fighting about the Prom Queen title:
Cordelia: (to Buffy) You crazy freak!
Buffy: Vapid whore!
Xander: that!
He pulls Cordelia away from Buffy.
Cordelia: (incensed) What did you call me?!

During Halloween:
Buffy: It's come as you aren't night. The perfect chance for a girl to get sexy and wild with no repercussions.

OK. So we get subtle hints throughout the show's history that women liking sex is a bad thing. Faith turns up, is first spotted dancing with a vampire in the Bronze, I think we can assume she knows he's a vampire, and then goes outside to stake him, much to the surprise of Buffy. She later relates tales of naked mud wrestling with alligators (crocodiles?). This is about as far removed from Buffy as we are ever likely to get. I very much doubt Buffy sleeps in the nude and she wouldn't be so unashamed or confident in herself to talk about naked wrasslin' to people she's just met. I think Buffy and Faith are put forward as the virgin/whore dichotomy (is that the right word?).

Faith openly states, many many times, that she uses guys for sex. She has no problem with this and she continues to act as such until season 7 where she hooks up with the new principle. Buffy sleeps with 4 people throughout the TV show, 3 of which she's in a long term relationship with. (Yes, I count Spike as long term relationship). The 4th guy she sleeps with is someone she meets at Uni who then treats her like dirt the next day. Faith by contrast sleeps with who she wants, when she wants and doesn't suffer any repercussions.

Buffy is set up as the hero, the highly moral one with ultimate responsibility for the world. Faith is always a second stringer to Buffy, but she's also seen as the impure, dirty one. Neither Buffy nor any of Buffy's friends or other acquaintances sleep around**. Odd really, considering that they're teenagers and most teenagers I knew where at least having short flings when I was young. Even Spike doesn't sleep around, he's faithful first to Drusilla then to Buffy. Yet the only irredeemably evil character, who murders a human even though she has a soul and should know better is also the only portrayed as a slut-o-rama. I think that's grossly unfair.

Maybe this wasn't an intentional link made by the writers. Maybe I'm being paranoid and it's all in my head. Quite probably I'm not exploring or explaining this very well. I've been here for quite a long time now. I still don't like it.

I think there are other odd attitudes to sex and sexual relations too. Take Go Fish. One of the sports guys tries to assault Buffy in his car. She slams his head into the steering wheel and looks utterly affronted. Too damn right! She knows he's wrong and she won't stand for it. Later on, in the nurse's office the conversation is as follows:

Buffy: I wasn't the attacker, Principal Snyder. I was the attacked.
Snyder: That's not how it looked from where I was standing.
Cameron: I don't know what happened. I mean, first she leads me on, then she goes schizo on me.
Buffy: (steps over to him) Lead you on? When did I lead you on?
Cameron: Oh, come on. (to Snyder) I mean, look at the way she dresses.

When Buffy steps over to him she looks incredibly indignant, angry and like she's about to fry him with her laser eyes (if she had laser eyes). She looks strong and totally sure of her position. After Cameron's last comment she looks down at herself and appears wilted. She's doubting herself, she thinks it's her fault. And she continues to doubt herself and this isn't dealt with at any point later in the episode. Nowhere is it made clear that you cannot lead someone on by wearing clothes, by simply having a female body. You can't even argue that he gets him comeuppance because the swim team as fish creatures aren't destroyed, or evil or trapped. They swim out to sea to be free.

Buffy's moment of self doubt only takes a couple of seconds but it's so important. Especially because Buffy is emotionally fragile anyway and this only contributes to her inner feelings of turmoil, finely honed and hardened through another 4 seasons.
It's really frustrating and could Cameron's accusation could have been dealt with very differently. Buffy only had to glare at him, it would fit in better with the picture we had of her earlier where she broke his nose.

Are there other interpretations to this sequence? Am I too sensitive? I'm not calling this scene misogynistic or sexist because I think it adds to Buffy's character and is used to build her inner turmoil, but, there are other ways this could have been done that didn't involve sexual violence. It's not fair on Buffy, it's not fair on us as viewers and it muddies the waters of an otherwise sure of herself kick ass action heroine you want to become.

I'm perfectly happy to have people tell me I'm talking rubbish, just so long as it's done politely and your reasoning is explained. I like having my views challenged.

*Note: All script transcripts taken from Some may be slightly wrong.
**Note number 2: I know Buffy finally gets a one night stand in the comics (season 8). Good for her. But that's too little, too late.


Joshua said...

I don't think you're talking rubbish at all. :-) I completely agree that the sexual morals in Buffy are a bit prudish at times, especially as regards one-nighters. I have a whole rant on Parker arc from "The Harsh Light of Day" to "Beer Bad" that I'll let loose eventually.

Regarding Faith, though - I think she's given a more complex treatment than you're letting on here. I'm sure you're right that the "vigrin/whore" double standard is at work with her to some extent, but they make it clear in other ways that Faith has trust issues, probably owing to an abusive or neglected childhood. Her using men for sex is really a defense mechanism, convincing herself she doesn't need anyone, etc. So I agree it would've been better if Buffy hadn't been so timid sexually, but I also don't think how they handle Faith is entirely wrong. There are emotionally healthy one-nighters, and then the kind where you're just acting out your issues on unsuspecting people, using them as a kind of psychological punching bag to hit back at the world, and I think Faith is meant to be doing this latter.

Devin said...

One of the things I think you need to remember is that Buffy is not the heroine because she wants to be. She has no choice and must play that role. While it is empowering, you also have to realize that the character would rather be at the mall, hanging out with her boyfriend during the day, etc. than fighting bad guys. And I don't think that's a flaw in the writing.

I think that's why season 5 is so important. Because Buffy realizes what her life means and what it can mean. She realizes that this role that she hates so much brings so much good to so many, even those who never realize it. Her selfless act of taking Dawn's place shows how far the character has come. And this can also be seen in Season 7 when Faith challenges her authority. She lets someone else take over because she's tired but realizes that things get really messed up and she must take control again. It's a battle within herself that we don't necessarily see the end result of.

Good post though, I like where you went with it, and it looks like I really have to re-watch the series! :)

Feminist Avatar said...

I agree with the overall problem with sex in Buffy, but I also think in regard to Buffy's response to sexual assault that there is a tension here between how we would like our feminist hero to behave and how real women behave- and I think the writing is intentionally trying to make Buffy more complex and vulnerable to the same doubts that all women have. This isn't great for feminists, but how many feminists manage to do the feminist thing all the time. I think especially in Buffy's case, she is meant to have great instincts but gets in trouble when she has to overthink stuff- so this builds into this picture of her.

Saranga said...

Hi all, thanks for the comments.
Joshua: You're right about Faith, I knew I wasn't writing a fully complex and investigative/thoughtful piece about her, it was just what sprung to mind as I was watching season 3 yesterday. Regarding the Buffy/Faith relationship purely as a Virgin/Whore dynamic is too simplistic a way to read the text, but I do think it has value as a symbol. What Joss or the other writers was meaning to say about this relationship (if it was intentional and if they even had something to say about it) would be something worth looking at.
However my brain wasn't capable of doing that yesterday!

Devin: I think I disagree about Buffy being the heroine because she's forced into the role. I read what you said on your blog about this topic and was having trouble articulating my thoughts. Here goes: I think Buffy is inherently a good person and has heroic traits. When she starts at Sunnydale she befriends Willow in part because she sees Cordelia being nasty to her. When Jonathan is being bullied by the swim team in Go Fish she steps in. She's saved Xander from school bullies. Admittedly it is easier for her to do these things because she knows she's not gonna get hurt, but i think the will to be a good person is already there. And that's what I think ultimately makes her strong. I don't think that is at odds with her wanting to hang out at the mall and have a boyfriend, (not that you are suggesting it is). Buffy (usually) does the right thing, and that's not cos she's got superpowers it's cos she's a good caring person.

Feminist Avatar: I'll get back to your post a bit later!

Saranga said...

Right, I'm back.
Feminist Avatar:
there is a tension here between how we would like our feminist hero to behave and how real women behave- and I think the writing is intentionally trying to make Buffy more complex and vulnerable to the same doubts that all women have.
Agreed, on both points. I don't want Buffy to become a Mary Sue (??)character but something about that scene really jarred for me.

Your comment about Buffy's instincts and overthinking stuff is good. I hadn't thought about it like it.

Ciella said...

Dissecting Buffy is like, the best fun ever :D I really see where you're going with the virgin/whore, Buffy/Faith dichotomy. Buffy is good, Faith is bad, and with bad comes sex, because women having lots of sex is bad. But here's the weird thing. We're meant to think Buffy=good girl and Faith=slut, but in the show we're actually shown the opposite. Buffy has 4 sexual partners (5 including the comic), she's sleeps with Angel once (twice if you include the weird time travel episode of Angel she crossed over in) and Parker once and comic person once (don't wanna spoil people). But with Riley and Spike she has lots of sex. Faith on the other hand slept with Xander once and Wood once and talks about this other guy with a bullwhip (ouch!). Granted Buffy is the main character, but I think it's interesting that despite a huge difference it the amount of sex referenced/shown in the show, Faith is still coded as the "slut". She's called one, she's "dressed like one" and Buffy and Anya in season 7 are still wary when she's around their guys. It kinda goes back the high school thing where once a girl is named a slut, she is forever known as a slut, even if she's never had sex. In Faith's first episode she was coded "slut" and was slut forever more, even with less sex than Buffy. Which I think brings us back to the bad girl stereotype. She's "bad" and she's got ovaries, therefore she's a slut, it comes with the package apparently. Now that I'm thinking about it, Lilah from Angel was coded as kinda promiscuous as well. Now I have to go watch some Angel episodes...

Saranga said...

Interesting point Ciella. I think the difference is that Buffy has sex within long term relationships, or at least with people she wants to have a long term relationship with, e.g. the asshole guy in college.
Faith on the other hand has sex with people just for the sake of having sex, because she enjoys it. So even though she has less quantity of sex (at least from what we see on screen), she's seen as the morally 'loose' one.
Plus, Faith is open and flagrant about her sexuality. She flirts with men (and women?) and she's makes dirty jokes. Buffy doesn't.
On the surface they are coded as opposites and therefore, Faith is coded as slut.

Ide Cyan said...

Buffy began airing in the US as a mid-season replacement in the spring of 1997. It wasn't the first action television series with a female lead. It was notably preceeded by Xena: Warrior Princess, which began in 1995. And there was the Wonder Woman TV show in the 70s, and Charlie's Angels, as well.

Anonymous said...

I would like to say this right now before I forget... the world of Buffy isn't supposed to be THAT different from our world... I mean, yes there's magic and monsters etc, but the attitudes towards things are supposed to mirror our world.
(I think that was really redundant).
I think that the way people deal with each other in Buffy accurately represents what a lot of people have gone through, good and bad. Being called a slut for dancing with guys, being told you were leading someone on because of what you were wearing, these are all things I've gone through, and I'm sure there are a hell of a lot of girls (or guys) that can say the same. I don't really think it's the shows responsibility to combat these views anymore than they already did. Unless the show was supposed to be set in a utopia, then I don't think everything can be feminist... if that sentence made sense.

I'm having trouble getting across what I'm trying to say. Possibly because it's noon and I still haven't eaten.

Oh, and when Xander jokingly calls Buffy a slut, I take that as a joke, and I think that it is a tad hypersensitive to take it as anything more. I think that he's playing on the fact that it IS an outdated idea that the girl cannot pursue the guy. (Plus there's the added tension that Xander has a huge crush on Buffy... even when he is dating Cordy).

I'm going to stop rambling now...