Saturday, April 19, 2014

The darker side of Buffy (a counterpoint to my original Buffy piece)

By Anči

Recently I published an enthusiastic post about my appreciation for Buffy-- and well, I certainly wasn't exaggerating my exaltation....which I wrote in the heady afterglow of a particularly charged viewing, with my S.O (who is currently getting to experience my favorite show for the very first time! Lucky him.)

So its fair to say Buffy pushes my buttons-- which is the mark of any good series (and no one could argue that these slayer chronicles are anything other than... all the synonyms for good!) But despite it's masterful storytelling, and snappy dialogue,  there are areas where this show might be found... erm, politically lacking. (she typed reluctantly.) And it's only fair I address the weaker aspects of this brilliant creation as well. (Because being a feminist means never getting to enjoy anything anymore... sigh.)

So I'll start with the show's especially glaring omission, as summed up by this meme I found:

Okay, valid point, internet. Buffy is essentially the story of white women-- which by itself isn't problematic, until it becomes exclusively about white women. So yes, as a Latina, I should have been more critical of this representational weakness... and that's an oversight I humbly own.
But looking back now,  I realize it never really escaped me that as far as the WOC go, the biggest players which include Kendra an African American slayer, and Jenny the Roma school teacher (referred to here, as a "gypsy" ) both succumb to the standard bitter fate, typically sustained by television sidekicks of color. (an untimely end most frequently felt by fictional black men, specifically.)
And yes I know that any program known for putting its characters in mortal danger week after week, is bound to result in some loss of life.... but it can't be a coincidence that of all the dramatically expired secondary-characters with significant story arcs, so many end up being women of color. I wouldn't even mind so much, if there were other WOC characters to speak of, but since there aren't, I can only draw my conclusions from this particular wading pool.. and franky,  I'm not liking how sluggishly these saltwaters are sprinkling. (That was a terrible metaphor. My bad.)

buffy and kendra

I also found it pretty interesting the way Kendra was positioned as the "other" to Buffy's conventional all American archetype. Remember both are slayers fighting for the same team...   but while Buffy is both blonde and American, Kendra is black and clearly foreign. (Buffy even mocks her counterpart's exaggerated Jamaican accent on one occasion, without any [well deserved] repercussions- such as a side eye, or a slap!) Then there's the fact that several of Buffy's friends go out of their way to reiterate that despite Kendra's presence, Buffy is the "real" slayer. And that this seems to be a position also shared by the actual show-- as evidenced by the way Buffy ends up being the one to give slaying pointers to Kendra-- even though our protagonist had only been a slayer for two years, while Kendra had been training since early childhood. (how does that make sense?)  In short, everything about the juxtaposition of this asskicking duo indicates that the audience is supposed to identify with Buffy, at the expense of her exotic co-slayer... and well, that might piss some viewers of color off.

The other issue I have (which actually comes entirely from me, and not an internet meme,) is the show's uneven treatment of sexual assault. It should go without saying that vampire attacks serve as a symbol for sex/sexual violence, and I probably don't need to explain how the program has expressly set this up. (as its pretty obviously reflected in every portrayal of a monstrous male terrorizing young women, with his pointy units...) But despite the fact that one of this show's foremost themes is the "slaying" of patriarchy/rape culture, there are still some problematic attitudes prevalent in its handling of those themes.
For one thing, we have the oft-cited rule that a vampire cannot enter a human's house until he gains the host's permission.... (so far, a good take on establishing consent.) But the kicker is that once a vampire has secured the aforementioned home owner's consent to step into their domestic sphere, he can subsequently re-enter at any time. And given the implicit connection between vampirism and sex, such a decree reads as a disturbing endorsement of the attitude that once a girl says yes, she's always fair game for action. I mean, even the vastly-inferior vampire show True Blood, grants its mortal residents the right to revoke admission to any undead visitors. Get it together, Buffyverse!

Another issue I have is with the show's attitude toward regular 'ole consensual sex. While there are some sex positive moments sprinkled into its seven year long run, the overarching theme seems to be that any female expression of sexuality must necessarily be accompanied by a devastating blow-back. The most obvious example I can think of, stems from the mid-season interlude wherein Buffy and Angel finally have sex... causing Angel to lose his soul, and revert back to his demonic self. (and I thought getting pregnant was a scary side effect!)

I did appreciate how the episode took pains to subvert that particular plot point, with the technical burden of purity falling squarely onto Angel -- after all, it was his curse that prevented him from basking in any true moment of happiness. (aka sex with Buffy) But its still naive to overlook the show's handling of the slayer's sexuality, as the springboard catapulting her towards doom.  And that even that humiliation didn't spare her from a subsequent serving of slut-shaming. (Hasn't Buffy been through enough?) Just remember the scene where her mother yells at her for being irresponsible, and starts demanding details like "was he your first?" until poor Buffy finally breaks down. Because of course its unthinkable for a seventeen year old girl to have sex with her boyfriend, and then not display proper remorse.)

You could say this dynamic was meant to function as commentary on society's skewed perception of women, but the way this sequence progresses into a moralist vehicle for abstinence only serves to iluminate its creators' underhanded seal of approval. (banishing all hope of "sexist critique" into the same under-realm that will eventually devour Angel.)

And honestly, I would probably feel better about that whole soul-crushing development if Buffy didn't keep beating herself up about it. She had nothing to apologize for, as she had zero indication of the malediction that her marathon of boinking would invoke!
Unfortunately the writers seemed to relish in the dramatic build up of Buffy's guilt; a burden they ceremoniously teased into gleeful admonishment... With their subliminal message that women should expect the worst from a sexual encounter, while men get a free pass at abuse.. cause boys will be boys, right? Um, nope.
If a dude can't do the dirty without turning into a sadistic asshole, (or a literal demon) then that says something about him, not the girl he was with.

Oh yeah, then there's that episode in season 4 (which we still haven't got to yet, so i'm sorry if my memory is shaky) where Buffy and her new boyfriend Riley finally have sex... which (of course) sets  off a bunch of angry violent ghosts, and nearly gets everyone killed.  (as tends to happen).. and I won't even get into the political mess made of Buffy's relationship with Spike... because that would spoil that series of revelations for my boyfriend... so i think i'll just mark that "to be continued..."

And finally,  i'm not saying horror/fantasy shows can't manipulate themes like sex, or growing up  into a compelling 45 minute shriek fest-- in fact, I love it when they do-- the bloodier the better!  but I am saying there seems to be an official position here, linking sexuality with destruction. And that's where I tend to get bloggy...

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