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: ...like that!
He pulls Cordelia away from Buffy.
Cordelia: (incensed) What did you call me?!
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 http://www.buffy-vs-angel.com/guide.shtml. 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.