I’m almost out of South America – I leave in two days – and throughout much of my trip I’ve been meditating on some of the issues I raised in my last post about ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, which you can find here. Part of it is that the last episode I watched before my computer was stolen was season 7’s “Helpless,” which revolves around Anya – who came into the show’s universe as a vengeance demon, was made into a human, fell in love and got engaged to Xander, got dumped by Xander at the altar, and then became a vengeance demon once again. Anya’s particular brand of vengeance is wreaked on behalf of wronged women, and the plot of ‘Helpless’ is kicked off by a student at UC-Sunnydale whose boyfriend dumps her in front of his frat brothers, an act for which Anya brutally slaughters all the men.
I saw this episode in real time during the show’s run, and as it played I tried to recall the storyline. When Willow discovers the frat house where the carnage has been wrought, when she finds the dumped girl sobbing in a closet, my memory was way off: for a few moments I thought that the act perpetrated against this girl was not just a cruel prank, but a gang-rape.
Now, such a plotline would not unfold on network television, not eight years ago and not now. But it brings up an interesting issue. Over the rest of the episode, Buffy determines that she must kill Anya, that her return to the vengeance fold cannot be tolerated; that the moral calculus of vengeance demons must be put out. And the narrative of the show, by presenting such an extreme case of revenge – killing a dozen guys over a breakup – supports Buffy’s logic. It’s an easy way out – as a vengeance demon working on behalf of women around the world Anya could just as easily be responding not to pranks and petty cruelty but to rapes, to domestic abuse and genital mutilation, to gendered violence to which judicial systems around the world rarely pay adequate attention. In short, Anya’s power on behalf of women could be made into a positive force for justice without much tweaking; but rather than take the more complicated route of establishing an inclusive, participatory morality, the show and our hero opt to maintain the status quo of Buffy’s authority.
What’s particularly troubling about Buffy asserting such absolute authority – especially coming on the heels of the Willow storyline in Season Six, and Buffy’s entire relationship with Faith – is that, ultimately, Buffy’s authority comes from a patrilineal inheritance. However much she might be upheld as a feminist hero, she has been granted exceptionalism by a group of old straight white men (the Watchers’ Council) who have cultivated her ethical sensibility. Although Buffy gives the Council the heave-ho in Season Three she nevertheless upholds their basic tenets throughout the series: Slayer strength is authority, vampires and demons are unequivocally bad, and other sources of power (like Willow or Anya) that might compromise the centrality of Slayer strength must be marginalized.
That Buffy is, fundamentally, non-transgressive is evident in her relationship to the creatures she is charged with slaying. Although she and the Council come to blows over her relationship with Angel, the obvious truth is that her relationship with Angel does nothing to impede her ability to kill all other vampires: the same thing is later true of Spike. Angel and Spike are exceptional vampires, mystical reasoning offered to justify why they should not be dusted alongside the rest – and, conversely, why the rest of the demonic world is undeserving of the kind of consideration they’ve been shown. Exceptionalism is a common strategy amongst heroes who come from an oppressor class, so that they might seem magnanimous without ever having to confront the structural realities of their own oppression. (Another example of this can be found in ‘Harry Potter’, where the house-elf Dobby represents just about everything in an oppressor-class heroic myth: Dobby is entirely dependent upon Harry for his salvation, and when it is granted he gives his own life in gratitude for Harry’s heroic act of freeing a single house-elf, even as legions more labor in slavery and misery.) The fact that Buffy can grant exceptions for Angel and Spike, but not for Willow or Anya, shows how narrowly she understands her own authority; they are vampires and she could kill them at any time, so they are no threat. Meanwhile, Willow raised Buffy from the motherfucking dead, a power that Buffy will never, ever, ever even approach – Willow’s strength has the potential to unseat the entire Slayer enterprise, so it’s no surprise that it must be presented in negative terms (as an addiction) and stamped out. That it happens again only a few episodes later with Anya, whose teleportation and demon-summoning skills are also beyond Buffy’s ken, demonstrates how committed the show is to maintaining Buffy as the sole locus of power. She has co-opted that power from a group of straight white men but she can barely broaden it beyond what they have defined for her.
I look forward to finishing season seven, which makes efforts to broaden that authority (although again, exclusively through the lens of Slayer strength, rather than alternatives which might call any part of that strength into serious question). ‘Buffy’ is still a great show on many levels – it’s well-plotted, has sharp dialogue and strong characters, and even though merely shifting the locus of power from white men to a white girl is not exactly equality, it is at least a step beyond the traditional boundaries of hegemony.