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Why Can't Buffy Save the World and have Sex?

Buffy title card
image via Wikipedia

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.

Buffy and Angel
image via Wikipedia

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.

Buffy and Riley
image via SyFy

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.

And yet.

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.

Buffy and Spike
image via Nerdist

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

Christianity and Feminism, part 3: Using the Tools of Feminism

Artemesia Gentileschi Annunciation
Artemesia Gentileschi, The Annunciation, 1630 | via Wikimedia Commons | public domain

Part 3 of a series on feminism and Christianity. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.

In the first two parts of this series, I looked at the ways in which God’s view of women aligns with modern-day feminism and also at the reasons why Christians are hesitant to embrace feminism. Today, I want to lay out a few of the ways in which Christians can benefit from the tools of feminism — what does feminism have to offer Christians, especially in an era of #MeToo and #ChurchToo?

Terminology: Feminist scholarship has developed a vocabulary for many of the issues facing women today, and understanding this vocabulary can help Christians name the obstacles that women face in churches. Naming a problem is the necessary first step in addressing it.

Terms like representation and tokenism give us a vocabulary for talking about whether, and where, women are involved in ministries and leadership — and whether those women actually have a voice, or are simply present to check a diversity box. Churches can certainly address issues of representation without using this vocabulary, but being able to categorize and define a problem can be useful.

For another example, understanding what feminists mean by “rape culture” (an environment that curtails a woman’s ability to consent to sex while also encouraging men to not take no for an answer) is fundamental to fostering a healthy sexual ethic. We need to identify how unhealthy cultural ideas about women and sexuality creep into our own sexual ethics as Christians, and feminism has the vocabulary to help us think through the implications of how we talk about sex and sexuality.

Defining patriarchy: Related to terminology, feminist thinkers have spent decades studying the ways in which patriarchy permeates society. This work is essential to locating patriarchy in the church and identifying the often overlooked, but insidious, ways in which it operates.

Christians, especially evangelical Christians, typically view themselves as separated from culture. This attitude, however, blinds us to the ways in which the separation is smaller than we think and the ways in which we accept certain cultural ideas without question or examination. Because patriarchy is so deeply rooted in society broadly and the church specifically, we need all the tools we can use to root this sin out of the church.

Additionally, understanding how patriarchy works will help us to better understand both the bible and other theological texts. Thinking carefully about how patriarchal societies view women will make the counter-cultural elevation of women by Jesus, for example, especially clear — and can also help us better understand Paul’s writings about women in the church.

Understanding gender: One of the sticking points in arguments within Christianity about gender roles is the creation narrative, and specifically the separate creations of Adam and Eve. Some Christians argue that this supports specifically created gender roles; other Christians stress the earlier account that mentions the creation of human beings broadly, arguing that God did not create men and women to be wholly different.

Some Christians may be surprised to learn that feminists have similar debates. These debates may not draw on the creation narrative in Genesis, but they boil down to the question of whether women and men are actually different in their essence, or if those differences arise from our society. The one side, the gender essentialists, understand gender as fixed, with feminine and masculine traits that are universal. The other side sees gender as socially conditioned, “performative” in the language of Judith Butler.

I personally fall firmly on the side of gender as conditioned by society. But Christians who want to argue that men and women have God-imbued differences can benefit from understanding the secular version of the argument, especially since most gender-essentialist feminists want to balance these differences between the genders with a strong affirmation of equality.

Recovering women’s narratives: Alongside all of the theoretical framework, feminist scholars have done us an invaluable service by recovering the contributions of women in myriad areas — literature, science, politics, philosophy, and many others — throughout history. For Christians, writers like Lynn Cohick have reminded us of the many crucial women in the church in its earliest days; others write about more contemporary women who are often overlooked in the church’s stories of giants of the faith.

Feminist scholars have also recovered for the church the apostle Junia, praised by Paul as great among the apostles — but whose name was changed to Junias by later copyists and translators who refused to accept a woman apostle.

Highlighting important women in the bible and in Christian history isn’t enough to reverse the effects of patriarchy. But if we expect the girls and women in the church to learn from the examples of a David or a Paul, why not also expect the boys and men to learn from Deborah and Priscilla? Highlighting women allows other women to see a place for themselves in the story of Christianity, but men also need to hear these stories so they can make space for, learn from, and be inspired by women.

Feminism and Christianity may seem opposed, but feminist thought has much to offer Christians who are committed to treating women as human beings fully created in the image of God whose gifts and callings are not limited by their gender. Let us use these analytical tools to dismantle the patriarchal sins that harm both the members of the church and its witness to the wider world.

Christianity and Feminism, part 2: Objections to Feminism

Artemesia Gentileschi Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting
Artemesia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638-9 | via Wikimedia Commons | public domain

Part 2 of a series on feminism and Christianity. Read part 1 here

Last week, I wrote about how scripture displays the importance of women to God, as women are frequently honored or elevated in ways that run counter to the patriarchy of the ancient world. Since feminism is a recent movement, nothing in the bible explicitly affirms it. But feminism affirms women as the equals, not the subordinates of men, and aligns with the liberation of the oppressed that occurs so often throughout scripture.

Just over 200 years ago, feminism begin to arise a social movement designed to elevate and dignify women in the face of patriarchal social structures. Early feminists, like Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill, primarily argued that women should be educated. They claimed that women were not naturally intellectually inferior to men; instead, they seemed inferior because they were denied the educational opportunities given to men.

From this modest beginning, feminism has grown and changed. Feminists have, slowly, won women in the western world the right to own property, vote, attend college, handle their own finances, and work after marriage and childbearing. Most broadly, feminists argue that men and women are equal and should be treated as equals; biological sex alone should not lead to different treatment.

Thanks to feminism, attitudes towards women have gradually shifted in American society. Most people no longer believe that women are too physically frail to run marathons or that higher education will make women go insane. Even in the church, only a small minority argue that women were created as inferior to men; women may be barred from certain positions, but the argument rests on roles, not female inferiority.1

Despite the many ways in which feminism has reshaped western society over the last two centuries, American Christians — especially evangelical Christians — tend to resist feminism (and not only Christians; many people outside the church are also reluctant to identify as feminists). Why does so much opposition to feminism exist in the church? What about feminism engenders so much resistance?

Given the progress that feminism has made over the last century, some in the church (and beyond) no longer see feminism as necessary. From this point of view, feminism is no longer about advocating for women’s full participation in society but instead about special treatment for women.

Others view feminism with suspicion because they see the tearing down of patriarchal structures as the equivalent of tearing down society or, worse, destroying the created order. It may be fine for women to vote, but when women out-earn men and take on leadership roles in churches, businesses and governments they threaten the often unquestioned and unexamined social power of men.

Yet another objection to feminism is its association with the sexual revolution and with abortion rights for women. Many, if not most, contemporary feminists argue that women should be freed from sexual double standards and not shamed for behavior that men engage in without censure. And many feminists do prioritize a woman’s control over her own body, elevating the woman above her fetus.

For some Christians, these objections are enough to rule out the possibility of Christian feminism.

But I think that feminism is too valuable a movement to simply dismiss. Christian feminists will no doubt differ from their secular counterparts (and even from each other), but feminism like Christianity itself has diverse and often conflicting strands. If Christians can recognize that women still need to be freed from the bondage of patriarchy, feminism can offer the tools to help us in that work.

To address the first objection, that feminism is no longer necessary: feminism certainly has made progress. Discrimination on the basis of sex is no longer legal in the United States; women can vote, own property, run for public office, and open their own bank accounts. Despite legal protections, however, women still face an uphill climb in many of their endeavors. Sexual harassment and assault is distressingly common even in the workplace, as the #MeToo movement is showing; women make up only a fraction of Fortune 500 CEOs and remain under-represented in political office.

Feminists are still working to highlight and tear down the barriers that women face on a daily basis. These barriers vary, of course, based on other intersecting aspects of privilege (as a white, straight, educated woman I have faced fewer barriers than others). But the obstacles women face are real and if women are to participate fully in society we must do the painful work of identifying the ways in which our culture holds women back from their full potential.

The point above is closely related to the second. Because much of feminism is about changing cultural attitudes towards women, it can feel like a tearing down of traditional society. The painfulness of this change points to how deeply entrenched patriarchy is in our society: smashing the patriarchy means rethinking myriad assumptions and traditions about everything from how families work to who gets to speak with authority (and without interruption).

For Christians who see patriarchy as part of God’s created order, feminism presents an existential threat. But if we recognize, as I believe scripture shows, that patriarchy is part of the curse and a sign of relationships disrupted by sin, then the work of feminism aligns with our work as resurrection people. Feminism is thus doing the work of combatting the effects of sin, and Christians should be the first to join in this work.

But the third objection, about sexual liberation and abortion, often holds Christians back from joining with feminists in this work. I can’t fully wrestle with either topic today, but we need to remember that feminists hold a range of opinions on these topics. While some see pornography and hook-up culture as empowering, others see them as damaging to women. Both, however, want to see women enjoying their sexuality in safe and healthy ways — and while Christians may define safe and healthy in slightly different ways, our goal isn’t actually that different.

Abortion is perhaps the thorniest issue, one that Christian feminists must wrestle with. And yet, few pro-choice feminists celebrate abortion; even as they fight to keep it legal, they work to support women so that they don’t have to choose abortion. Affordable contraception, robust social services, low-cost childcare and better (much better) maternal leave policies would all make it more possible for women to have their babies. Christians should (and do) also engage in this work, modeling an approach to this issue that cares deeply for both mother and child.

Feminism is a complex social movement, but at its core it attempts to reverse the patriarchal social structures that keep women from reaching their full potential. If we view patriarchy as one of the oldest sins, little prevents Christians from joining the work of feminism.

But even if they can embrace feminism, why should Christians do so? What does feminism offer that a mere rejection of the sin of patriarchy can’t? I will turn to that question in Thursday’s post.

  1. This argument is still incredibly problematic; while one may maintain a theoretical distinction between a person’s appropriate roles and a person’s value as a human being, in practicality these distinctions collapse. But it’s worth pointing out that the majority of Christians who affirm traditional gender roles do not affirm that women are inferior to men.

Christianity and Feminism, part 1: Feminism and the Word of God

Artemesia Gentileschi Judith Slaying Holofernes
Artemesia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1620-21 | via Wikimedia Commons | public domain

Part 1 of a series on feminism and Christianity.

Oil and water. Fire and ice. Feminism and Christianity.

One doesn’t have to search long to find people who think that feminism and Christianity are incompatible. In certain Christian circles, feminism ranks alongside humanism and communism as a force that undermines all that is good and holy in American culture. On the other side of the coin, some feminists can’t see how an often patriarchal and even misogynistic religion could ever mesh with their ideologies of equality and empowerment for women.

Those of us who are feminists and Christians can often feel caught in a double bind, having to justify both positions to those skeptical that they can, or should, ever combine.

Over the next two weeks, I will explore how Christians can learn and benefit from feminism. But before I can get to that, we have to begin with the question: can Christians be feminists?

My answer to that question is an unequivocal yes. I base that on two lines of reasoning: first, I believe that the word of God — embodied in both Jesus and scripture — supports the equality of women and men in worth and dignity. Second, although Christians can dismiss feminism as cultural or worldly, feminism is doing the kingdom work of bringing freedom to the oppressed. The church ignores this work at its own peril.1

Today, I’ll be looking at support for feminism in scripture and the actions of Jesus; on Thursday, I will look at feminism as a liberating movement that works to restore the freedom and dignity to women that is so often denied by the sin of patriarchy.

Starting with scripture, the first thing to be clear about is that Jesus was not a feminist, nor was Paul or any other figure in the Old or New Testament. Feminism is a relatively recent movement that began by arguing, against the received wisdom of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, that women are not inferior to men by nature and advocating for women’s education and, gradually, other rights. While various western thinkers and writers since the ancient world have viewed women in proto-feminist ways, feminism did not exist in the era of Jesus.

However — and this is a big however — throughout scripture women are treated with dignity and respect, often very counter-culturally. Think of Ruth, not only a woman but a foreigner, whose loyalty to her mother-in-law earns her a place in the genealogy of David and Jesus. Or Deborah, who served Israel as a judge; or Hannah, a barren second wife granted special favor by God; or Esther, who saves her people; or Rahab, or Abigail, or Hannah, or Miriam.

It can be easy to read the Old Testament as oppressive to women, and certainly very few in the ancient world actively challenged patriarchy. But the frequency with which women play key roles in the Old Testament, from the midwives in Egypt to the prophet Huldah, suggests that God values women and uses them to do God’s work. Additionally, we frequently see vulnerable women being given special protection: the five daughters of Zelophehad, who are allowed to inherit their father’s estate, or Hagar, miraculously protected by God after Abraham sends her away.

And when we move to the New Testament, we see Jesus including women, like Mary and Martha; treating women with dignity, like the Samaritan woman at the well or the woman who poured perfume on his feet; healing women on the margins of society, like the woman with the discharge of blood. Women were the last at the cross and the first at the empty tomb. Jesus sends Mary Magdalene to announce the resurrection as the apostle to the apostles — especially striking given that society saw women’s testimony as unreliable.

Even Paul writes that in Christ, the divisions between male and female collapse, just as the divisions between Jew and gentile, slave and free — Christ levels all social hierarchies.

So Jesus may not have been a feminist in the modern sense of the term. But if we read the bible with an eye to God’s heart for the socially marginalized and disenfranchised, we find that God values women and honors them, and does not see women as inferior to men. And when the curtain in the Temple rips from top to bottom at the crucifixion, Christ throws the temple open to all, with no more divisions of any kind between worshipers.

Neither scripture nor Jesus require us to be feminists. But we can see that God values women and undercuts the patriarchy that oppresses them, which means that when we work to liberate women we are engaged in the subversive work of God’s kingdom that overturns worldly hierarchies. On Thursday, we will turn to the question of whether, and how, modern-day feminism does this liberating work.

  1. I should note here that some Christians advocate passionately for the full inclusion of women in the church but choose not to identify as feminists. Feminism carries a lot of baggage, so I understand this decision. However, the work of these Christians on the behalf of women is inevitably connected to and shaped by modern feminism, so even those who refuse this label can benefit from understanding how the tools of feminist thought can support egalitarian theology.

Odds and Ends

Vanitas Still Life by Maria van Oosterwijck
Vanitas Still Life, Maria van Oosterwijck, 1668 | via Wikimedia Commons | public domain

Today, a series of odds and ends and miscellaneous thoughts not developed enough for a whole post.

  1. I saw Black Panther last week and I loved it. At this point, I might as well just give Marvel all my entertainment money; I can’t think of a Marvel film in the last several years that I haven’t enjoyed. (Except maybe Thor: The Dark World, but even that was saved by Tom Hiddleston’s Loki.) I especially appreciated (spoilers) that the villain, Killmonger, was not wrong about the need for Wakandans to be more active in the world and was also eminently justified in his resentment. He was a monster created in part by the failings of the dead king T'Chaka and of Wakandan society more broadly. But Killmonger was also shaped by a U.S. government that saw him as a weapon, not a person, and trained him accordingly.

  2. Thinking of Black Panther and the end of Black History Month, I’ve been working to diversify my reading list. I’m not looking for cookies; I definitely have a long way to go. But I’m learning a lot about racism in the church from Drew G.I. Hart’s Trouble I’ve Seen. I’m leading a book study for my church on Gracism by David Anderson, and while I have my critiques of the book (it was written pre-Obama, and feels far too optimistic for the current racial climate), it is generating good discussion. I read The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson, a sprawling novel about African women and their bodies, their loves, their gods, their suffering, and their joys. I’m too close to it to say much more, but it’s one of those novels that will stick with me for a while. I’ve just started Kwame Alexander’s Solo, and I’m delighted to read a novel in verse.

  3. Reading non-fiction: one of my New Year’s resolutions was to read more non-fiction, and I’ve been working on it. I haven’t actually finished any non-fiction, but I’m reading Trouble I’ve Seen, The History of White People (Nell Irvin Painter), Opting Out: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home, (Pamela Stone), and Jürgen Moltmann’s The Spirit of Life. (No, I don’t have a problem. Ignore the teetering pile of books by my bed. I can stop reading multiple books at a time whenever I want.) The Spirit of Life is rocking my world right now — I have never had a good understanding of the Holy Spirit, and this book is helping me to appreciate that mysterious third member of the Trinity. Expect more on this book, and probably Trouble I’ve Seen, in the future.

  4. I’m starting Whole30 today. I know, I know: it’s a fad diet; it’s probably not going to change my life. But I’ve fallen into some unhealthy eating habits and after too many years of calorie counting apps and Weight Watchers, I need a reset that doesn’t involve logging my food. It’s not going to be fun, but hey: if Mary of Egypt can survive on three loaves of bread for 47 years, I can make it through 30 days without carbs. Maybe.

  5. Coming up in March, I’m going to have a 3 (or maybe 4) part series on feminism and Christianity over the next two weeks. I will almost definitely write about A Wrinkle in Time, because all the love for Meg Murray. And I’m launching a new recurring series on the subversiveness of scripture. To keep up with this content, you can follow my author page on Facebook or get blog posts via Twitter @to_resurrection.

I’m going to enjoy March’s lamb-like entry this weekend and hope that old sayings won’t come true. But if March does go out like a lion, maybe I’ll curl up on the couch and actually finish one book before starting the next. One can, after all, dream.

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