Can we talk about Buffy the Vampire Slayer for a while?
My husband and I are re-watching the series and finding that, for the most part, it still holds up 20 years later. We last watched the series eight years ago, I think, when my oldest was a nursing baby who never slept and I still identified with Buffy, or maybe Willow in her glorious nerdiness.
This time around, I’ve decided that I want to be Giles when I grow up: fond of the children, proud of what they can do and who they are becoming, but a bit exhausted by their youthful energy.
It’s still one of my favorite shows, even with some uneven episodes (don’t do drugs, kids, or you might turn into an ugly fish monster!). The great episodes — “Hush,” “Becoming,” “The Body” — distill our hopes and fears into poignant moments that defy simplistic resolution.
But watching in an era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, and after the piece written by Whedon’s ex-wife Kai Cole about his serial infidelities, I want to talk about Buffy and sex.1 Specifically, I want to talk about Buffy’s positioning as the virgin to Faith’s whore and the many ways in which Buffy is punished for her sexuality.
(Major plot spoilers ahead, if that still matters after 20 years.)
Buffy, despite all her teenage habits that irritate her watcher Giles, is the golden slayer. Blond, bronzed, young, smart and supernaturally strong, she represents the revenge of the vapid cheerleader who dies in horror films: she’s the one who scares the monsters. But she’s also a good person: a good daughter, good friend, a good person who does what she must even when it’s hard, something firmly established with her first death in the season 1 finale.
But her sexuality sits uneasily alongside these other characteristics, as we see first with Angel and then even more sharply with the arrival of Faith. Most clearly, Buffy is punished for her emerging sexuality when she sleeps with Angel: he literally loses his soul and becomes evil. Buffy’s first time results in the death of multiple people, including Giles' love interest Jenny Calendar, and ultimately requires Buffy to send Angel into a horrific demon dimension from which he may never return.
Talk about an abstinence-promoting message.
This arc with Angel/Angelus sets Buffy up as the virginal slayer who cannot express her sexuality without causing harm to those around her. And throughout season 3, as the sexual tension mounts between Buffy and Angel, Faith’s sensuality contrasts the restraint that Buffy must show to prevent Angel from once again losing his soul. Buffy’s ability to control her sexual desire for Angel marks her as good, even as it causes her pain and distress.
Faith is Buffy’s shadow: another slayer, but one whose dark hair and wardrobe signal her separation from Buffy’s preppy skirts and halter tops in summery tones. And beyond her fashion choices and bad-girl vibe, Faith’s sensuality also separates her from Buffy. Faith flirts, has casual sexual encounters, and explicitly links slaying and sex. She’s the bad girl, the opposite of Buffy in her edgy wardrobe, her questionable ethics, and her pronounced sexuality.
As the virgin in this virgin/whore dichotomy between the two slayers, it’s thus not surprising that Buffy is punished for her sexuality. (I’m using “virgin” loosely to indicate the trope of the woman whose sexuality stays within socially-approved boundaries; in the Buffyverse, that means sex within a committed relationship but never with Angel.) But it’s still a problematic dynamic.
This is where it gets tricky as a Christian to critique the sexual ethic in Buffy: I agree that sexual restraint is a good thing; I also agree that sex is an intimate activity that should take place in a loving and committed relationship. But at the same time, sexual desire is part of human nature. To punish Buffy for her sexuality suggests that there is no good way for Buffy to be a sexual being; she cannot be both the golden slayer and a woman who desires sexual intimacy in committed relationships. This tension diminishes Buffy’s personhood.
If Buffy’s relationship with Angel was the only one where she is punished for her sexuality, I would chalk it up to the inherent drama of a star-crossed romance between vampire and vampire slayer, not a reiteration of the tired virgin/whore dynamic that shames and punishes women for their sexuality.
But when Buffy goes off to college, her first post-Angel sexual encounter is a disaster. She falls for the soulful, smooth-talking Parker who is so, so sorry that Buffy thought they had anything more than a momentary physical connection. Certainly Parker is portrayed as a jerk — but Buffy also comes across as naive. The tone of the brief Parker arc is that guys will be seductive jerks, but Buffy should have been smart enough to see through him.
And then comes Riley. Oh, Riley of the unfortunate early-aughts haircut. In some ways, Buffy’s relationship with Riley is the first time she can be sexual without losing her standing as the virgin of the trope. Riley is a good Iowa farm-boy-turned-loyal-soldier who genuinely cares for Buffy and is a much more age- and species-appropriate match than Angel.
Over the course of their arc, Buffy ruins Riley’s life. Not directly. But she causes him to lose his job, his identity as a good soldier, his chance to become an enhanced super-soldier. She threatens his masculinity with her strength and with her previous relationship with Angel. She undermines his sense of self. It isn’t all bad, of course; working for the Initiative wouldn’t have been sustainable for Riley long-term, anyway. But she upends Riley’s life while he barely affects hers.
Plus, there’s the season 4 episode in which Buffy and Riley’s sexual desire releases a hoard of angry, horny essences who attack a frat party. I don’t think it’s a mistake that this episode opens with Buffy and Riley overcome with desire after a hunt and kill; like Faith, Buffy is linking slaying and sex as physically satisfying, and this leads to trouble. It’s not a great episode anyway, and it reinforces the idea that Buffy’s sexuality is dangerous.
And then Spike. I love Spike, truly; his arc is one of the best in the series. And his love for Buffy, as complicated as it is, leads to the return of his soul. But Buffy and Spike’s season 6 relationship once again portrays Buffy’s sexuality in a negative light.
After being resurrected, Buffy has a difficult time reintegrating into her old life. She starts having sex with Spike not because she loves him or wants a relationship, but because she wants to feel sometime and because he’s someone she loathes even more than herself. They have a deeply dysfunctional relationship: it’s violent and destructive, based on each one taking what they think they want without considering the needs of the other person. It ends with both parties hurt, physically and emotionally.
After this, Buffy doesn’t have any more relationships. She ceases to be a sexual being in order to do the work required of her in season 7. Once again, we are left with the idea that Buffy’s sexuality is dangerous, distracting, damaging. Even though the sexual ethic in the Buffyverse allows sex within committed relationships for other characters, Buffy must be the virgin in order to be the ideal Slayer.
If this were a clear requirement, the show could frame it as a sacrifice, a form of monasticism, a dying to self for the good of others. But instead, Buffy is punished for her sexuality until she gives it up. This simply reinforces the notion that women’s sexuality is dangerous and must be controlled before it destroys the world.2
For me, personally, the revelation that Whedon was a shitty husband doesn’t undermine the positive, and sometimes feminist, aspects of his work. I recognize, however, that we all have different thresholds for when bad behavior from artistic creators destroys our ability to enjoy their work and I have no intention of defending Whedon as a paragon of feminist cultural messaging.↩
Which it once again nearly does in the comics that trace the arc of Season 8 and Season 9, as Buffy and Angel’s reunion very nearly destroys the entire universe in order to create a new one for them.↩