It's About Power
Gender Dynamics in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"
This essay was written after season six and has been on this website for about four months (as of February 2003). During that time I've received vast amounts of feedback, so I've decided to revise the essay with many of those comments in mind.
One consistent criticism of this essay has been that "It's just a TV show." I object to this complaint on a number of levels. Many of us watch several hours of television every day; it is one of the most influential aspects of modern life. Television has created huge cultural community; it shapes and reflects our perceptions, desires, and beliefs. To say "It's just a TV show" is terribly disengenuous; yes, it is a TV show, and as such its influence and its reflection of our cultural values are often immensely significant.
I am a Spike fan. I am neither driven by my hormones nor blinded by James Marsters's abs. If you can't deal with that, please go away.
Finally, I should add that while this essay takes one point of view and runs with it, that point of view is certainly not the only lense through which I view the show. (Also, I tend to use lots of definitive statements, because that the way I was taught to write essays. I'm trying to get avoid this since it usually sounds more extreme that I mean, but if you notice anything that sounds over-the-top, feedback me).
As always, I greatly appreciate feedback.
This essay contains spoilers for season 7.
This essay is a work in progress. I can't even put into words how unfinished it is. Please keep that in mind while you read it. I'm only leaving it here because people have sent me such interesting, thoughtful responses.
For a much clearer, much better written run down of these issues, read Kristen Smirnov's essay.
Buffy the Vampire
Slayer has been widely acclaimed as a feminist television series. The show was
included in the National Organization for Women’s “Feminist Primetime Report”
(1), and its writers have proclaimed that they intend to tell the coming-of-age
story of a young woman from a feminist perspective. According to creator Joss Whedon,
“the very first mission statement of the show … was the joy of female power:
having it, using it, sharing it” (2). In many ways, Buffy has succeeded in its portrayal of a strong, multi-dimensional female character. Yet upon closer examination, the series' portrayal of gender roles becomes problematic. An underlying paradigm of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not that men are women are equal, but that women are superior to men. Buffy often reverses traditional gender roles and places women in positions of power previously held by men. But where men would be criticized for abusing their power, the women get excused and forgiven (often because they are portrayed as "victims" of men). We see this in the show's portrayal of most men who attempt to assume active roles as dangerous and destructive, while men who remain in passive positions are accepted. Meanwhile, women are celebrated for escaping the position of oppressed and becoming the oppressors.
The men on the series all have an underlying darkness, a danger, that not all the women share. Giles' "Ripper" dark side, Angel and Spike's soulless states, Principal Wood's secret desire for vengeance, and Xander's interfering, judgemental tendencies all threaten or harm the women at some point. (Women such as Dawn and Tara are not perfect, but their negative tendencies don't compare to the dark sides harbored by almost every male). Each of these men must give up his power in order to become
acceptable--Giles and Xander must not interfere in Buffy's life or override her decisions; Spike and Angel must obtain souls. Powerful men are almost always portrayed negatively (the Watchers' council, every character's father), while women are encouraged to be powerful (as Buffy teaches Dawn in "Lessons"). And when women misuse their power, their mistakes are usually blamed on men. If a woman does something
bad, it is because a man victimized her, causing her to become mentally unstable.
Her errors are not actually the woman’s fault, and once she regains her sanity
all is forgiven. Meanwhile, if a man makes a similar mistake, he must take
responsibility and suffer for his actions. As co-executive producer Marti Noxon
explains, “I think that when the paradigm is flipped, and the women take the
strong center roles, in any good drama you kind of need your fall guys. And in
our show, they become literally fall guys” (2).
The question then
arises as to whether Buffy is feminist at all. If a women abuses her power, shouldn't she be held to the same standard as a man? How can a woman truly be
empowered if she is not held responsible for her own behavior? If women are
just weak victims of men who aren't responsible for their own actions, how can
they ever be expected to assume roles of power and responsibility in society?
The assumption that men are bad underlies the very foundation and structure of the Buffyverse. In her nightly patrols, the monsters Buffy destroys are almost always male, with exaggerated masculine qualities: they are physically large and muscular, and their behavior is violent and aggressive. Their victims are almost always females (yet these male vampires are mostly inclined to attack women; wouldn't they be likely to turn more women in into vampires as well?).
A pivotal moment in the series occurs when Buffy loses her virginity to Angel, a "good" vampire who has been cursed with a soul ("Surprise"). After having sex with Buffy, Angel loses his soul (due to a clause in the curse which states that he will lose his soul if he ever experiences a moment of "perfect happiness"). Angel then becomes a vicious monster who sets out to destroy Buffy emotionally by killing her friends, and who eventually attempts to destroy the world. Angel's evil behavior is marked by an increase in his masculine qualities. His personality transforms from soft-spoken to loud and brash, and he announces that he simply used Buffy for casual sex, then mocks her sexual performance ("Innocence"). Buffy finally battles Angel, stabbing him in the chest with a phallic sword; this act of penetration sends Angel to hell and frees Buffy from the role of victim that she had fallen into when Angel took her virginity. Underlying these events is the theme that all men, even those who seem trustworthy, are inherently dangerous and destructive.
This theme recurs during Buffy's subsequent sexual relationships. She attempts to move on after her relationship with Angel by having sex with a college student named Parker ("The Harsh Light of Day"). Buffy believes that she and Parker made an emotional connection, but soon discovers that he simply used her for sex. "It was fun," he explains, then mocks her by asking if she wanted "some kind of commitment."
Buffy then dates another college student, Riley Finn. Finn is uncomfortable with Buffy's supernatural strength, and frequently seeks to overpower her ("A New Man"). When Buffy is unable to open up to him emotionally, he cheats on her with "vampire whores" who he pays to suck his blood ("Into the Woods"). Finally he leaves her, after blaming her inability to confide in him for his destructive behavior.
During a period of depression, Buffy becomes involved with her former enemy, the vampire Spike. Spike loves Buffy dearly, and despite his supposedly evil nature, he tries to better himself for her ("Intervention," "The Gift," "Afterlife"). But despite his love, and his promise to "never hurt" Buffy ("Entropy"), even Spike eventually disappoints. After Buffy breaks up with him, Spike tries to force her to love him by holding her down and almost raping her ("Seeing Red").
Buffy's father is also portrayed negatively (in contrast, her mother is often portrayed as loving and nurturing, in episodes such as "I Was Made to Love You" and "The Body"). In "Conversations with Dead People," Buffy explains that she blames her father for her parents' divorce because "he cheated." Her father is notable for his absence: in "Helpless," he cancels plans to meet Buffy for her birthday because he has to work, and he does not show up at Buffy's mother's funeral ("The Body").
Buffy's friends' fathers are also portrayed poorly. Willow's father is only mentioned in a negative context (in "Passion," when Willow fears that her father will disapprove of the crosses in her room), while her mother is well-meaning but clueless ("Gingerbread," "The Killer in Me"). Xander's father is an abusive alcoholic, while his mother is simply pathetic ("Restless," "Hell's Bells"). Other men who occupy positions of power are also portrayed negatively, such as the vicious high school principal, Principal Snyder. Snyder's hatred of Buffy is a result of his anger towards women; Buffy sums it up in "Becoming" when she says to him, "You never had a single date in high school, did you?" The Watcher's Council, composed almost entirely of men, is a frequent thorn in Buffy's side because it abuses its power over her.
Each season of Buffy features a multi-episode villain who Buffy must defeat by the end of the season. Of the six complete seasons, five of the villains have been male. These villains can be seen as representations of the power that men hold over women. Season one featured the Master, an ancient, powerful male vampire with a tendency to recite long, fanciful prophecies. His goal was to rise from the Hellmouth, where he was trapped, and to take over the town. Season two's villain was Buffy's beau-gone-bad, Angel. Season three's villain, the Mayor, was a representation of patriarchal bureaucracy. The Mayor had all the qualities of conservative politician, obsessed with "family values," except that his ultimate goal was to transform into a giant snake demon and take over the town. Season four's villain, Adam, was a Frankenstein-type monster created by a secret military organization. Adam's goal was to start a war between humans and demons; he largely represented the destructive power of the military.
Season six featured three male "nerds," Warren, Andrew, and Jonathan, who call themselves the Trio, as its villains. These characters (particularly the leader, Warren) are characterized as misogynists for virtually every moment that they appear onscreen.
Warren first appears in "I Was Made to Love You," where he builds a robot girlfriend that he uses for sex. In "Dead Things," the Trio creates a machine that hypnotizes women and turns them into sex slaves. They treat women as objects, referring to them as "chicks" and making crude comments about their anatomy. Warren eventually uses the machine on his ex-girlfriend, Katrina, then dresses her up in a French maid's costume. Katrina is forced to serve drinks to the Trio and to call them "master," which emphasizes their perception of her as object. When Katrina wakes up in the middle of the hypnosis, as Warren is initiating sex with her, she accuses the Trio of rape; Warren responds by hitting her over the head with a bottle, inadvertently killing her.
"Seeing Red" also deals with the Trio and focuses on their attitudes toward women. Early in the episode, we see Buffy venturing into the Trio's lair. She examines a scantily clad female action figure and makes a face of disgust. The fact that the Trio has this action figure, a highly sexualized female object, symbolizes the way that they objectify women.
When we first meet the Trio in "Seeing Red," we see the terrified Andrew helpless against a demon who is about to attack him. Jonathan watches, unable to assist. Both men are portrayed as weak and powerless. Then Warren appears, carrying an electric prod, which he uses to attack the demon and save Andrew. Warren uses the phallic-shaped cattle prod to empower himself; without this power these men are weak and unable to defend themselves.
When the Trio obtain
the power object they seek, we get another clear metaphor for the fact that the
power they obtain symbolizes male sexuality. Warren’s power comes from the “Orbs
of Nezzla'khan,” two blatant phallic symbols that give him “strength” and
“invulnerability.” Andrew’s comment drives home the metaphor: “I thought they
were supposed to make us all huge and veiny.”
Later the Trio visits a
bar, where Warren tests out his new power by engaging in exaggerated, hyper-masculine
behavior. He picks fights with the men and flirts with the women. His
objectification of women is made very clear by his comments; he refers to them
as “babies” and “girls.” He also insults Xander with the phrase, “You hit like
Later, Warren confronts
Buffy, who comments, “You’ve really got a problem with strong women, don’t
you?” Warren clearly does; he demonstrates his misogyny yet again by calling
Buffy “kitten,” “baby,” and “bitch,” and refers to himself as a “real man.”
Buffy defeats him by smashing his “orbs,” symbolically destroying his sexual
power and reducing him to a “sad little boy.” Although Warren escapes, without
their phallic power Jonathan and Andrew are once again reduced to weak and
pathetic figures. They are arrested and sit in jail, bemoaning their fate and
wondering if Warren will save them.
Warren, his power also
reduced, attempts to regain it again with yet another phallic symbol. This
time he appears at the end of the episode brandishing a gun, which he uses to
shoot Buffy and Tara. From the portrayal of the Trio, we clearly see the theme
that male power is destructive and must be eliminated or controlled.
Despite these exceptionally negative portrayals of masculinity, there are a few men who are portrayed positively on the series. Without exception, these men are portrayed positively because they assume passive roles; they become dangerous when they attempt to become active.
Buffy's "watcher," Giles, is one such positive male figure. Giles exists is a passive position, supporting Buffy by training her and researching demons for her. He offers advice, but rarely interferes in her life. Yet even Giles has a dark side (apparent from his youthful "Ripper" persona, during which time he experimented with dark magic and that later endangers everyone in "The Dark Age"). Most notably, Giles betrays Buffy in "Helpless" by poisoning her so that she loses her Slayer abilities. He also abandons her during her depression in season six, which only exacerbates her problems.
Buffy's close friend, Xander, is also portrayed positively. Xander is the only main character with no special skills or supernatural powers. He is accepted because he is powerless and passive-he follows Buffy almost unconditionally. Xander's masculinity is frequently undermined: he is a figure of comic relief and the butt of many jokes. He is less intelligent than the women, and he is the only main character who never attends college. Although he engages in heterosexual relationships, there are often hints that Xander is homosexual. In "Phases" and "Earshot," the character Larry assumes that Xander is gay and encourages him to come out; in "Intervention" and "Beneath You" Xander makes comments that imply that he is attracted to Spike. In "Buffy vs. Dracula," Xander is easily hypnotized into becoming Dracula's "spider-eating man bitch," and later (fairly accurately) describes his role in the group as "everybody's butt monkey." Xander is acceptable because he is passive; he has no power of his own, but simply acquiesces to the female characters.
On the rare occasions when Buffy and Xander argue, it is because he attempts to assume a more active role. In "Becoming," Xander and Buffy argue when Xander insists that Buffy should kill Angel; in "Seeing Red" Xander and Buffy argue when Xander chastises Buffy for having sex with Spike. In both cases, the argument is resolved when Xander backs down and agrees to stay out of Buffy's life.
Spike enters the series as a villain, with the same hypermasculine behavior as most villains: he is violent and aggressive, uses his sexuality to attract victims, and speaks to Buffy with sexual double entendres ("School Hard", "The Harsh Light of Day"). Spike becomes a regular cast member-and Buffy finally stops trying to kill him-only when his power is largely curtailed. This occurs in "The Initiative," when Spike is captured by a secret military organization and implanted with a computer chip that prevents him from harming humans. Spike discovers the chip when he tries to bite Willow. The scene is played as a comedy, in which Spike's inability to bite Willow is compared to sexual impotence. "He had trouble performing," explains Willow to her friends. In "Pangs," Spike describes his situation by stating, "Spike had a little trip to the vet and now he doesn't chase the other puppies anymore." In "Something Blue," Buffy mocks Spike by calling him "flaccid," and Giles explains that they will let Spike go when they're sure that he is "impotent."
During his period of "impotence," Spike transforms from a dangerous villain to a figure of comic relief. He only becomes a threat again in "Smashed," when he discovers that the chip no longer works on Buffy. Not coincidentally, this is also the episode in which Spike and Buffy begin their sexual relationship.
In "The Second Sex," (4) Simone de Beauvoir describes the traditional paradigm in which man is both the positive and neutral, the Absolute, while woman is the negative, the Other (xxii). Buffy the Vampire Slayer inverts this paradigm, so that woman becomes the One and man becomes the Other. We can see this in the way that the series is staged and filmed. Unlike the traditional "male gaze," in which women are portrayed as objects, Buffy the Vampire Slayer assumes a "female gaze" in which men become the objects. Although the women dress fashionably, they are never scantily clad, and are always filmed chastely during sex scenes. However, the series takes almost any excuse to show the men virtually naked. During his tenure on the show, Angel appears repeatedly without a shirt, often with little justification (Buffy usually shows up at his apartment and he just happens to be half-dressed, as in "Surprise" and "Innocence"). During his sexual relationship with Buffy, Spike appears completely nude in "Wrecked," "Gone," and "As You Were," with only a small bit of scenery blocking his privates. Buffy, meanwhile, appears fully dressed during these scenes. Like Angel, Spike also appears shirtless at every opportunity (gratuitous Spike nudity is visible in "Dead Things," "Sleeper," "Never Leave Me," "Bring on the Night," and "Showtime").
This is particularly apparent during Buffy's relationship with Spike. During this nine-episode sexual relationship, Buffy assumes the traditionally masculine role of abuser, while Spike assumes a passive role as victim. Buffy holds the power in the relationship. Yet Buffy is not held responsible for her abusive behavior, while Spike is endlessly punished for finally almost raping Buffy. In episodes such as "Entropy," "Seeing Red," and "Beneath You," Buffy is characterized as the victim of the relationship, despite the fact that she spent months abusing Spike.
Although Spike was in love with Buffy for over a season, the sexual relationship was, in fact, initiated entirely by Buffy. Buffy begins the relationship by seeking Spike out and kissing him in "Once More, with Feeling" and "Tabula Rasa." Eventually Buffy throws him against a wall, unzips his pants, and initiates sex with him in "Smashed."
During the course of
their relationship, we see Buffy successfully initiate sexual activity seven
times, while Spike only successfully initiates sexual activity two times. Until
“Seeing Red,” Buffy has all the power in the relationship. If she wants to
have sex, they have it, even if Spike says no (as in “Gone”). However, when
Buffy says no, they do not have sex (as in “Older and Far Away). Furthermore,
Buffy has been portrayed as physically stronger than Spike (for example, in
“The Gift” she was able to easily carry a troll hammer that Spike could not
even lift in “Blood Ties”).
Although Spike is loving
and understanding to Buffy from mid-season five until mid-season six, Buffy
treats Spike with disdain and contempt. She uses him for sex while insulting
him and telling him that he is “an evil, disgusting thing,” incapable of
changing his nature despite his efforts to do good. She also physically abuses
him by hitting him without provocation in “Smashed,” “Dead Things,” and
“As You Were” (not to mention the numerous times she hit him without provocation before they became sexually involved). Most notably in “Dead Things,” Buffy beats Spike to a bloody
pulp and leaves him lying in an alley, unable to stand, because he tries to
stop her from turning herself into the police for a crime that she did not
commit. Additionally, in the episode “Gone,” Buffy, under an invisibility
spell, barges into Spike’s home, throws him against a wall, and initiates
sexual activity before he knows who she is. When he later tells her to leave,
Buffy ignores him and continues the sexual activity; this scene is played as
Finally, Buffy breaks
up with Spike when she becomes disgusted with herself for “lowering herself” to
be with a creature such as Spike. As Kristen Smirnov points out in “Domestic
Abuse and Gender Role Reversal in Season Six,” if their genders had been
reversed Buffy would clearly appear as an abuser (3).
Yet Buffy’s sins are
instantly washed away. Earlier in the season, she was
resurrected from the dead against her will. As she explains to Xander, once
again positioning herself as a victim, “You don’t know hard it’s been … You
have no idea how hard it is just being here.” Because she has suffered, she is
not responsible for her own behavior. Her abuse of Spike is not acknowleged until season sevens's Conversations with Dead People, in which her admission that she treated Spike horribly is tempered by her claim that Spike's love for her is "sick." Her abuse is later mentioned in Never Leave Me when Spike points out that Buffy took her self-hatred out on him. Yet these two mentions do not compare to the "weekly attempted rape reminders" that we get in almost every episode in the first half of season seven. Buffy's abuse of Spike is never treated as severely as Spike's almost-rape of Buffy, despite the fact that her abuse was conscious and went on for months, whereas the almost rape was a 45-second breakdown. Buffy's vicious beating of Spike in Dead Things has not been mentioned once since it happened, and Buffy never took any actions to deal with her abusive tendencies (she never apologized to Spike, she never discussed her behavior with anyone else, she never even acknowledged that she had done something wrong). Meanwhile, Spike's almost rape of Buffy has been mentioned repeatedly, has resulted in the loss of the only human friend he had (Dawn), and continues to hover over the entire Buffy/Spike relationship. Unlike Buffy, who never showed any sign of caring about her abuse, Spike was so horrified by the almost rape that he travelled to Africa, endured difficult trials, and won a soul which causes him enormous torment--all so he could never hurt Buffy again.
Although the audience
has been treated to months of Buffy abusing a powerless Spike, we are suddenly
expected to believe that she has been his victim all along. This idea is
introduced by the almost rape scene. Suddenly, Buffy
is placed in the role of victim by a blatant plot device: she is injured while
patrolling (fighting a vampire who is, of course, male).
The almost rape
scene actually echoes the scene in which Buffy forces herself on Spike in
“Gone.” In both cases, the aggressor enters the victim’s home without
permission, holds the victim down and attempts to initiate sex against the
victim’s will. Yet while Buffy’s violation of Spike in “Gone” was played for
comedy, the attempted rape scene in “Seeing Red” is portrayed with all the
signifiers of an Important Event. As Kristen Smirnov points out, “The drama of
the moment is emphasized by a complete lack of background music, yet Buffy
ignoring [Spike’s] "no" was accompanied by a wacky score” (3). The
“Seeing Red” scene is also filmed in a stark white room with
"realistic" camera angles, is a major plot point, and is mentioned
repeatedly in later episodes. In comparing the scenes factually, the events
are almost identical, except that Buffy never regrets violating Spike in “Gone”
and the scene is never mentioned again, whereas the almost rape in “Seeing
Red” becomes a defining point of their relationship and inspires Spike to
change his entire nature so that he can never hurt Buffy again.
The almost rape
scene serves as an excuse for Buffy to deny responsibility for her own
behavior. She tells Spike that she “should have stopped [him] a long time
ago.” Stopped him from what, precisely? It was Buffy who initiated sexual
activity the vast majority of times; there was nothing for her to stop him from
except her own behavior. Yet because of the attempted rape scene, Buffy
never has to take any responsibility for her own violent behavior. Instead,
she assumes the role of victim and blames the violence of their relationship on
Spike, despite her own part in it.
In contrast to Willow,
who is instantly forgiven for her crimes, Spike must change his entire nature
and undergo vast amounts of suffering in order to ever be considered acceptable
again. Because of the attempted rape, he goes on a quest and endures dangerous
trials in order to win back his soul. In “Beneath You,” a tearful and broken Spike
explains that he sought a soul in order to become “the kind of man who would never
…” (presumably, the kind of man who would never attempt to rape Buffy). Spike must suffer for his crimes; he spends the first half of season seven being tortured. He is driven insane by the soul, tormented by the First Evil in the school basement, kidnapped and tortured by the First Evil's minions for two episodes ("Never Leave Me," "Bring On the Night"), and his malfunctioning chip causes him to spend the entirety of "The Killer in Me" in agony. In comparison to Spike's half-season of torment, Willow suffers for two episodes (she is tortured in "Same Time, Same Place," and she turns into Warren in "The Killer in Me"). Buffy never suffers directly as a result of her torture of Spike. Anya suffers for her thousands of years of murder in only one episode ("Selfless"). While Anya, Willow, and Buffy are unquestionably accepted into the Scooby Gang, Spike remains the eternal outsider (some argue that this is because they first encountered Spike as a killer, but they first encountered Anya the same way; she tried to kill Willow in "Dopplegangland"). Why must Spike suffer so much more for his crimes?
Like Spike, Angel must suffer severely for the crimes he commits against Buffy. After his soul is restored, he spends hundreds of years being tortured in a hell dimension ("Beauty and the Beasts") before returning to Buffy's dimension. Even after that, he is never fully accepted by Buffy's friends or family.
In previous seasons,
Xander has always assumed a passive role in Buffy’s life. In “Seeing Red,” he
becomes a threat when he attempts to assume a more active role. Xander
complains disgustedly about Buffy’s relationship with Spike. Although Buffy
concedes to Xander’s assessment, she also reminds him that “What I do with my
private life is none of your business.” Later, Xander barges into Buffy’s
bathroom without permission and without knocking, expecting to catch her with
While Warren is eventually
destroyed, and Spike must suffer the torment and emasculation caused by the return
of his soul, Xander’s rehabilitation is much easier. He simply needs to get in
touch with his feminine side and resume his friendship with Buffy. He becomes
acceptable once he voluntarily reassumes his passive, powerless role.
While men are portrayed as inherently bad, women are portrayed as inherently good. An active male is dangerous and threatening; an active female, such as Buffy, is usually heroic.
The idea that female life is inherently more valuable than male life is also emphasized in the episodes "Sleeper" and "Never Leave Me," when Buffy discovers that Spike has been brainwashed into killing women without his knowledge. Throughout the episode, much is made of the fact that Spike killed "girls," as if a crime against a women is worse than a crime against a man. (Why not just say "Spike killed people"?) When Spike realizes what he's done, he begs Buffy to kill him, encouraging her by telling her stories of girls he's murdered ("Never Leave Me").
From the portrayal of the show's lesbian relationship between Willow and Tara, we see the theme that women are pure and only become corrupted when they are touched by the evil that comes from men. Willow and Tara are always gentle and supportive with each other. Their relationship is characterized by frequent hugging and cuddling ("Real Me," "Tough Love," "The Gift"). They only argue twice in their two year relationship. In fact, they fit perfectly with Simone de Beauvoir's claim that lesbians are "marked by especial sincerity" and that their similarity "engenders complete intimacy" (420). Compared to the heterosexual couples, Willow and Tara are almost certainly the most peaceful, most calm, and most loving couple on the series.
It is Warren's intervention that shatters this feminine ideal. When Tara is shot, Willow is driven insane. In subsequent episodes, she murders Warren and attempts to kill the other members of the Trio. She also attacks Buffy, nearly kills Giles, Dawn, and Xander, and destroys Anya's store, the Magic Box. Eventually, she tries to destroy the entire world. Yet Willow is never really held responsible for this horrific behavior. Her friends excuse her by claiming that she was driven insane by grief ("Two to Go"). She was a victim of Warren, and there is never any question that her friends will forgive her. Indeed, in "Same Time, Same Place," they welcome her home cautiously, but with open arms. She doesn't pay Anya and Giles for the damages to their store, and never suffers real punishment for her crimes; compare this to Spike, who spends the first six episodes of season seven driven insane by grief and remorse. Spike is ostracized from the group, who use him for muscle but mock and ridicule him ("Same Time, Same Place," "Selfless," "Sleeper"). Spike's crime, attempting to rape Buffy, is portrayed as much worse than Willow's crime of trying to murder every human being on the planet.
Willow's descent into evil initially appeared to be a result of her own character flaws. Since season four's Something Blue, Willow has exhibited an arrogant tendency to attempt to control the world around her whenever things don't go her way. This tendency began to spiral out of control in season six, when Willow raised Buffy from the dead, then erased Tara's memory after a fight. But in "Wrecked," Willow's obsession with power suddenly vanishes, replaced by an "addiction" to magic. Willow visits Rack, a magic "dealer" who helps her get "high" on magic in return for what appear to be sexual favors. After her visit to Rack, we see a horrified Willow crying in the shower, a cliché often used to show that a woman has been sexually violated. In "Wrecked," Willow changes from aggressor, attempting to change the world to suit herself, to victim of an addiction (caused largely by the man, Rack, who victimized her). Willow is never punished for her need to control others; in fact, this issue is altogether dropped. Instead, her friends heap "support" and "rehabilitation" on her. She's not responsible for her behavior anymore; "the magic made her do it." In seasons four and five, magic had a positive and feminine connotation. It was most often used as a metaphor for Willow and Tara's sexual relationship, and was portrayed as a thing of reverence and beauty. In season six, magic suddenly has a masculine connotation: it it associated with Rack, the sleazy magic dealer. Magic is bad and Willow must avoid it at all costs. Again, we see the theme of feminine as good and masculine as bad.
Anya, a vengeance demon
who tortures and mutilates men who have hurt or betrayed women, became a demon the
first time because she was a victim of a man: her husband cheated on her.
After becoming human, Anya becomes a demon a second time when Xander leaves her
at the altar. In both cases, Anya’s evil can be conveniently blamed on the
fact that she was the victim of a man. Additionally, both times Anya's choice to become a demon is aided by the encouragement of D'Hoffryn, the male leader of the (from what we've seen) mostly female vengeance demons. D'Hoffryn is similar to a pimp, particularly in the way he refers to the vengeance demons as "his girls." It is only because of D'Hoffryn's encouragement that Anya becomes a vengeance demon.
Additionally, the fact
that Anya spent over 1,000 years murdering men is quickly forgiven by the other
characters, implying that Anya’s torture and murder of men was somehow
acceptable. (Spike, on the other hand, is always ostracized and frequently
derided for having spent 100 years as a vampire; his victims presumably were often
female). No explanation is ever given for why Anya is accepted and Spike
isn’t, except the implication that Anya’s murders were okay because the men
“deserved it,” or that Anya cannot be held responsible for her behavior because
she is female.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer inverts the traditional paradigm that Simone de Beauvoir describes in The Second Sex. On Buffy, women assume positions of power previously held by men, while men are forced into positions of passivity. Male power is associated with evil and destruction, while women associated with purity and goodness. Yet in this new paradigm women often become as corrupt as the men who previously held the positions of power. Women become destructive and abusive, but their behavior is always excused, and they are never held responsible for their own actions. The result of this
gender stereotyping is that, while men are always portrayed as dangerous and
destructive, women are forced into the stereotype of victims. They are pure,
and only become dangerous when they are corrupted by men. The
"feminist" aspect of Buffy is that these are women who fight back;
but they are still stuck in the role of victim. The fact that their mistakes
are instantly excused because they are women takes away their responsibility
for their own actions and leaves them in an unequal position. Buffy the
Vampire Slayer presents a skewed worldview in which women can use and abuse
men with impunity, then classify themselves as victims and never be held
responsible for their own behavior.