A Postscript to Educating Buffy

story © Michael Betancourt, August 6, 2012 all rights reserved.


One of my older articles periodically receives attention, and since it has recently gotten quite a bit more than usual, and I have now been asked this question several times in recent months: would I change my analysis given the later development of the program? Here is a postscript to that article, written in 1998:

In the fourteen years since writing Educating Buffy: The Role of Education in Buffy the Vampire-Slayer the show and its creator Joss Whedon have moved into positions of significance for critical and theoretical analysis. The show itself has moved from a program whose survival season-to-season was at times possibly open to question, into a show whose seven year run (and spin-off show Angel) were both successful enough to ensure a longer presence on TV thanks to syndication. Their commercial success and sharply drawn scenarios provide ample justifications for the analysis as they have received.

Some of these analytics have proceeded based on presuppositions about the nature of the program (i.e. the unphilosophical, and unepistemological claim of “Feminist Epistemology”) which then guide and justify an analytic claim that the program was Feminist, rather than looking at the actual structure of the program itself, and assessing it from the internal structures and their elaboration: in this regard, the conclusion to that first paper on the program must remain unchanged. Buffy the Vampire-Slayer (TV), however strong and capable its female protagonist might be, is not a Feminist or feminist program.

Even a cursory review of later events in the series simply reiterates this conclusion, both in small details within individual episodes and across the large narrative organization of the seasons themselves: during the five seasons leading up to the show’s ending, what it demonstrated was that a second Slayer (Faith) actually within the narrative space of the program as an ongoing, long-term character required she become the anti-Buffy, allied with the forces of evil (The Mayor); the danger posed by male sexuality remained problematic: the only coming-of-age male protagonist (Xander) discovering sex literally was the “end of the world,” unlike Oz (the Wolfman, hence as with all wolfmen, already compromised, and whose wolf nature ultimately removed his character from the show).

Buffy’s time in college is cut short after only one season there. Riley, her boyfriend during this time, is both a highly sexualized character (they have so much sex it puts the world at risk) and a member of a military unit that performs the same role of “Slayer” that Buffy does, but with Patriarchal overtones (Riley’s fraternity is cover for their real activity). The potential complications posed by the more complex world of college, and the adult world beyond are truncated because of Dawn (her “little sister”), allowing Buffy, in another literalization of her initial authority source, to become “Mom,” replacing her real mother. This fifth season ends with Dawn being cut so her blood can open the “portal,” which Buffy closes at the cost of her own life: a reiteration of the classic position that female power must result in the elimination of the powerful (a death that also closes season one).

In season six, Buffy becomes the “mother” character providing both housing, food and safety not only for Dawn but also for Willow and her girlfriend. The transition from fighting external threats to fighting internal threats to the home becomes the main focus of this season’s narrative where Buffy must ultimately confront and end her lesbian friend’s murderous rampage against the men who shot Amber Benson, her girlfriend. Season seven sees her return to High School, and the repeat (this time as farce) of plots from the first three seasons. The final season revealed the inability of the show’s logic to accommodate the potential for more than a single (potentially) powerful, female protagonist (the Slayer). While the climactic finale for the show revolved around the creation of just such an outcome, its actual ramifications literally fall fully beyond the framework established: the show ends, rather than developing just what a sisterhood? confederation? alliance? of Slayers might mean. That Buffy’s primary ally in this fight is the principal of the high school further demonstrates the close linkages between her actions, the central metaphor of education-as-sexually corrupting influence, and the role she plays within the narrative structure as the arbitrator of patriarchal authority. Throughout these transformations, the high school library remained the entrance to Hell, reiterating the triad operative from the beginning of the series.

Precisely because Buffy is, remained, and ultimately concluded the series as an actor for patriarchal authority—without any alternatives or other potentials being developed—means that not only is Buffy the Vampire-Slayer not a Feminist text, it is quite the opposite, masquerading as one (aided and abetted by critics who should know better).

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  August 6, 2012  all rights reserved.

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