Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the Rise and Fall of Female Empowerment

ANGELUS: Now that's everything. No weapons, no friends, no hope. Take all that away, and what's left?
(Becoming, Part 2)

When the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered in March of 1997, it helped to usher in a new wave of feminism that was soon christened 'Girl Power' by the mass media. Although Xena and Wonder Woman had come before her, Buffy represented a new type of female heroine; someone more human than the goddesses of past and much younger than either of her predecessors. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer series did many things for feminism and television. It secured a position of status for the fledgling WB network, and it inspired more television shows featuring female heroines, such as Dark Angel and Charmed. As the teenage Buffy Summers, Sarah Michelle Gellar helped to turn a cliché on its head. Its creator, Joss Whedon, explained his conceptualization of the series in the following manner:

The first thing I ever thought of when I thought of Buffy… was the little blonde girl who goes into the dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie. The idea of Buffy was to subvert that idea… and create someone who was a hero where she had always been a victim. That element of surprise… of genre busting, is very much the heart of … the series. (Andrews)
Unfortunately, as the years passed, through various storylines and relationships, both Buffy the show and Buffy the character became less of a beacon of female empowerment and more of just another victim. In examining the portrayals of both the homo- and hetero-sexual relationships in the sixth season, as well as the revising of the Slayer mythology and the show's feminist stance in the seventh, this paper will demonstrate how the series that once so proudly depicted the rise of female empowerment, came to so carelessly play out its fall.

"Things fall apart, they fall so hard... You can't ever put them back the way they were." (Entropy)

The portrayals of lesbian relationships in film and television have historically followed a certain pattern. Because of the Hollywood Production Code in the first half of the twentieth century, which stated that "no picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it [since] the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin" (The Motion Picture Production Code), lesbian couples were often met with disaster and death - with the possibility of being rescued by the love of a man in the end.

Examples of this phenomenon include the 1968 film, The Fox, in which the fate of the lesbian couple plays out in the following manner: "At the end of the movie ... a tree falls between Jill's legs, killing her, and Ellen goes off into the sunset with Paul" (Russo 164). Additionally, in the nearly infamous 1961 film, The Children's Hour, two schoolteachers are accused of being lesbians and one of the women commits suicide after realizing - and confessing to the other - that for her, it was true.

In fact, at the time of its release, Film in Review wrote (of The Children's Hour): "There is an explicit scene which asserts that those who choose to practice lesbianism are not destroyed by it - a claim disproven by the number of lesbians who become insane or commit suicide" (Russo 140-141). This quotation is very interesting in that it demonstrates how film and television portrayals can often influence beliefs, because it quite accurately refers to an extreme, yet common version of this ignorant storyline, known as the Dead/Evil Lesbian Cliché (Streitmatter).

As the title alludes, this cliché describes a plotline involving a lesbian couple, where one woman is killed (or somehow dies) and the other, consumed by her 'twisted' love - and now 'twisted' grief - goes mad. In recent years, this cliché has been acknowledged to a certain degree by the industry, and with the Production Code having long been abolished, lesbian couples in film and television are no longer on borrowed time.

This makes it all the more difficult to explain why a show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which prides itself on breaking down barriers and subverting clichés, would have featured this one so prominently at the end of its sixth season. It started in the nineteenth episode of the sixth season entitled Seeing Red. Willow and Tara, the lesbian couple, having just gotten back together after a short breakup, spend most of the episode in bed together. These obviously post-coital scenes are depicted literally for the first time, rather than just being communicated through metaphor, as they had been before this episode.

In the final scenes of the episode, Willow and Tara have just finished getting dressed (upon Willow remarking that they're now wearing clothes, Tara informs her teasingly that she shouldn't get used to it), when Warren, thus far the villain of the season, bursts into the backyard to confront Buffy and Xander. He manages to shoot Buffy, though it is not immediately fatal, and as he is escaping - still shooting - a stray bullet makes it through the upstairs bedroom window, where Willow and Tara are talking. It strikes Tara directly in her heart, killing her instantly.

Willow, covered in Tara's blood, and overcome by what she has just witnessed, immediately flies into a desperate rage. She calls upon Osiris, the entity that assisted her in resurrecting Buffy at the beginning of that season, but as Tara's death is deemed natural by human standards, he cannot or will not help her. Unable to accept that, Willow takes off as if in a trance, determined to gather her power and get her revenge by any means necessary. In the closing episodes of the season, once she has killed Warren, Willow turns on her friends and then the world, becoming the true villain of the season as she tries to bring about the Apocalypse. She is stopped by her childhood friend, Xander, who - perhaps symbolically - goes out of his way to proclaim himself a carpenter, and it is his love for her (platonic though it might be) that returns her humanity.

Clearly, this plotline followed the Dead/Evil Lesbian Cliché with a dedication reminiscent of paint-by-numbers drawings or fill-in-the-blanks word games. And yet not as clear was the motivation behind it. After all, as is noted in The Death of Tara, the Fall of Willow, and The Dead/Evil Lesbian Cliché FAQ, a resource compiled by fans of the couple in the wake of Seeing Red, "[Those behind the scenes], on their own without prodding, publicly claimed knowledge of the 'Dead/Evil Lesbian Cliché' and repeatedly made statements indicating that they would never do it." The resource goes on to cite some examples of these statements:

Doug Petrie (Sci-Fi Universe 2/21/00): "Willow and Tara are going to have a good, happy, satisfying relationship. That's something that we're more acutely aware of and we definitely don't want to touch on 'being a lesbian is bad.' We've all seen shows where if you have any kind of gay tendencies, you must be killed or made to suffer for no other reason than you're gay. We're hyper aware of that, so we're more predisposed to have things work out for Willow and Tara. ... The fact that Tara is not a guy may make things work out better, because we can avoid what we feel is this old cliché."
        Drew Greenberg (Bronze Beta, 4/01/02): "Amber (Benson) [Tara] and Emma (Caulfield) [Anya] are both sticking around, neither one is going anywhere, so don't worry." (The Death of Tara)
That second statement, by writer Drew Greenberg, is notable in that it was only made approximately a month before the episode in which Tara is killed aired on television - this means that it had already been filmed, ending and all, when he made that statement. The first statement, on the other hand, clearly demonstrates the producers' longtime awareness of the cliché, refuting some statements made after the episode aired, to the affect that only "in retrospect" were they able to see it (The Death of Tara).

An article in The Advocate during the summer after the sixth season noted that Joss Whedon "grew up with a gay godfather", while "Marti Noxon, Buffy's [co-]executive producer, was raised by two mothers" (Mangels). As Robert Black wrote in his essay (appropriately entitled It's Not Homophobia, But That Doesn't Make It Right):

A common perception ... is that fans are accusing Joss Whedon and his writers at Mutant Enemy [his production company] of being homophobic because they killed a lesbian character. ... Mutant Enemy seems to be encouraging this perception by repeatedly insisting that Tara's death wasn't motivated by homophobia. (Black)
Black goes on to specifically cite a post that Joss Whedon made on the official Buffy online posting board, the Bronze, after the season finale; "I knew some people would be angry at me for destroying the only gay couple on the show, but the idea that I COULDN'T kill Tara because she was gay was as offensive to me as the idea that I DID kill her because she was gay" (Black).

Jane Espenson, another writer for the show, commented in the same vein during an internet radio interview shortly after the episode aired:

Jane Espenson: Willow and Tara are both lesbians, Willow didn't die. Willow was our main character, if you ... wanted to make some horrible message about killing the lesbians, you'd kill her.
        Co-Host: No, but she went evil.
        Jane Espenson: She did go evil, but she went evil out of deep loving grief. (Jane Espenson Interview)
Aside from the fact that this quotation only serves to reinforce the Dead/Evil Lesbian Cliché, it - along with the Joss Whedon quote before it - ignore one of the main points in this argument. As Black and others have noted, it is not the fact that Tara dies that is the problem, but instead, it is the way her death plays out:
Tara could have been shot ... in the garden (like Buffy), but she was killed in the bedroom after partaking in the cardinal sin of lesbian sex. ... Compare this to the deaths of straight [main] characters in BtVS ... Not a single one occurs after a real or implied sexual act. (The Death of Tara)
It is not homophobia that Joss Whedon and the others at Mutant Enemy have been accused of, but careless disregard for the appearance of the images they presented; not what might've been implied in a scene, but instead, what could unmistakably be inferred from it. For a show that has taken such care in the appearance of other images, and that has regularly equated sex with bad things happening in the past, the defensiveness and seeming naïveté from those behind the scenes is disappointing. But more disappointing, however, is that a show built on the premise of subverting clichés, has instead resorted to carrying them out - in both their homo- and hetero-sexual couples.

BUFFY: Don't you think it's a little old-fashioned?
GILES: This is the way women and men have behaved since the beginning...

One of the more common clichés in film and television is that of the bad boy who is saved by the love of a good woman. It occurs in varying degrees, the most extreme cases being where the bad boy victimizes the good woman, and in doing so realizes that he must change - and with the help of his victim is able to, creating an even stronger bond between them. One of the more infamous examples of this cliché is the story of Luke and Laura from the daytime soap opera, General Hospital. In a series of episodes starting in 1979, Luke raped Laura, realized what he had done, and after she'd saved his life by going on the run with him from mobsters, they got married in what became the highest rated and most famous wedding of the time period.

They remain a pinnacle couple on the soap, although after the characters had gotten married, the show tried to downplay how their relationship had started. Only in 1998, almost twenty years after it had happened, did they openly acknowledge and confront how their relationship truly began. This was instigated on screen by the characters' son, who upon learning of it, and perhaps representing current attitudes, couldn't understand how someone could actually fall in love with their rapist. It is not, and perhaps cannot be satisfactorily explained, but in defending themselves to their disgusted son, both Luke and Laura repeatedly referred to the fact that it had happened almost twenty years earlier, and that things had been different then. Whether or not that is true is debatable, but contemporary shows don't have that excuse.

There is an ongoing joke on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and its spin-off series Angel, that sex is bad, or more specifically, that where sex goes, badness follows; most notably in the case of Buffy herself, where her first sexual experience resulted in her boyfriend losing his soul (Innocence). However, the badness equated with sex had never been involved in the actual act, but had always followed in the aftermath. This changed in season six.

As in the previous argument, the major event for this argument occurred in the nineteenth episode of the sixth season, Seeing Red. Buffy, having injured her back in a fight, goes into the bathroom to draw herself a bath. She appears to only be wearing a bathrobe and her injuries cause her to have trouble moving. It is at that point that Spike, the character whom she has been having romantic relations with (without the romance) all season, appears in the doorway.

He demands that she admit that she loves him, but she says she does not. In a rage, he decides that he will be able to make her feel her love for him if they have sex again. He then tries to rape her, and though it takes a while, she is able in the end to fight him off. Once she does, he realizes what he has done and leaves town on a quest to get his soul back so that he will be worthy of her.

Despite this horrific and violent encounter, Buffy is shown in the very next episode to be willing to trust Spike to take care of her younger sister - and seems to be disappointed to learn that he'd left town. The description from the shooting script reads "Buffy takes this in, pained despite herself" (Noxon), and while it may be possible to interpret that direction in a different way, the one that follows it is even less ambiguous:

        Buffy heads for the door. Pauses briefly - feeling Spike's absence...

                                               BUFFY (cont'd)
                                    Did he say when he was coming back? (Noxon)
In order to discuss this topic in a clear and concise manner, the arguments must be divided into two sections; the attempted rape, and its aftermath. First, the attempted rape scene.

The first and most obvious issue that must be acknowledged by this scene is Buffy's victimization. As one viewer notes; "The girl Joss once said was the antidote to all those little blonde girl victims in the alleys of horror movies is now... a victim" (Bollocks!). While it could be said that Buffy has been victimized emotionally in the past, she has never truly been the victim of a physical assault - one in which she found herself unable to effectively fight back. The super-strength, speed and agility that come with the mantle of the Slayer make her someone who never really had to worry about something like that, as has been evidenced in previous seasons:

        As she reaches for the door handle, the electronic lock is tripped with a sharp "CLUNK."

           INSERT: Cameron's hand on the door lock controls.

                                    Relax. I'm not going to hurt you.

                                    Oh, I'm not worried about me. (Fury and Hampton)
Indeed, as Gwyn Symonds, a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Sydney writes, "since we have never seen Spike even come close to physically overwhelming her she seems to take a long time to kick him off ... particularly as all it takes is one kick" (Solving Problems with Sharp Objects).

That the entire situation reeks of manipulation is indisputable. That those at Mutant Enemy had to - and did - go to such lengths to get Buffy injured enough that her inability to fight back right away would be somewhat believable is undeniable. That readying her to be victimized was the sole purpose of her injury is irrefutable, as she is quickly back on her feet for a fight sequence only a few scenes later. But perhaps the most egregious example of Mutant Enemy's audience manipulation lies in six words from the shooting script that appear right in the middle of the attempted rape scene: "BLACK OUT. END OF ACT TWO" (DeKnight).

Or, as the recap of the episode from TelevisionWithoutPity.com, a website devoted to examining television with a critical eye, states:

And then there's a commercial break. In the middle of an attempted rape. Featuring our heroine and her paramour of most of the season. A COMMERCIAL BREAK. Possibly the cheapest, most exploitative thing I have ever seen Mutant Enemy do ... "We leave Buffy getting raped to bring you this important message from our sponsor, Subway! Subway has a new bread, honey and oats. Honey and oats, enjoyed by victims of sexual assault everywhere!" (Sep)
However, in spite of everything mentioned thus far, the most dangerous aspect of this scene is one that is almost unnoticeable upon first viewing.

Symonds writes that the difficulties in placing the emotional impact of this scene "stems primarily from the use of it to tell a story about a character other than the woman facing the attempted rape, and that, from a feminist point of view, is disconcerting", further noting that the event is constructed so that audience empathy, "albeit discontinuously in the scene, [is] with the perpetrator" (Solving Problems with Sharp Objects).

The attempted rape is a part of Spike's journey, and almost not even a part of Buffy's at all. It is Spike's thoughts and reactions to what has happened that the audience is a party to, not Buffy's, and it is his pain in regards to what he's done that is seen, not hers for what has been done to her. It is clear, Symonds asserts, that "fan felt empathy for the character [of Spike] in the scene is encouraged within the narrative itself" (Solving Problems with Sharp Objects), though that seems to be at odds with Mutant Enemy's stated position, acknowledging that Spike was in the wrong:

I love Spike. I was very worried about the attempted rape... because that's not something you play around with. ... It's very hard to come back from. And you know, you can say Luke and Laura came back from it, but that was a different time. I think we have to be very careful that we are not saying anything about humans. (Jane Espenson Interview)
But what else could they have been saying anything about? After all, Spike attempts to rape Buffy wearing his human face, a decision that it is reasonable to assume was purposeful, as decisions like it have been made in the past. For example, in an interview during the second season, in regards to the episode where Angelus kills Ms. Calendar, Joss Whedon said:
There was a lot of discussion about whether he should kill her with his human face on or with his vampire face on, and we ended up using the vampire face because we thought it would just be too disturbing if he had his human face on, and that nobody would ever want to see that face kissing Buffy again. (Interview with Joss Whedon)
Though this interview was done before season six was filmed, the implication that it wouldn't be too disturbing for the audience to see Buffy kissing the same face that had tried to rape her, is interesting to note. It also leads into the discussion of the aftermath of the attempted rape.

Most of the direct aftermath has already been mentioned; that being Buffy's apparent yearning for Spike upon finding out that he's left town in the very next episode, Villains. However, it is worth mentioning the decision made that lead to that discovery - Buffy's decision to allow her younger sister, Dawn, to stay with Spike while the others go searching for the now-crazy-Willow, because Dawn (who has not yet learned of the attempted rape) feels safe with him. In TelevisionWithoutPity.com's recap of the episode, the writer noted that they had read that the scene in which the decision was made was "supposed to be about Buffy's putting aside her personal feelings to do what's best for Dawn. [However,] I'd just like to say that if that's the case, [Mutant Enemy] might want to have the heroine look like she's even slightly put off by the idea" (Ace).

It is not only the direct aftermath of the attempted rape that is relevant, but everything that happened afterwards, up until the end of the series. Even after he returns in the seventh season with the soul he set out to attain (thereby making him "good" in the eyes of those at Mutant Enemy), he continues to berate and belittle Buffy - even going so far as to taunt her about what he tried to do: "Hey, I guess this would be first contact since, uh, you know when. Ooh, up for another round up on the balcony, then?" (Beneath You). As the season progresses, Buffy becomes his champion, defending his continuing presence to the rest of her friends, until, in the twentieth episode of the seventh season, Touched - almost exactly one year after Seeing Red, she spends the night in his arms.

This trend continues into the season (and series) finale, Chosen, though in one scene featuring them in bed together the shooting script is careful to note that "they both wear enough to indicate they did not get sweaty" (Whedon Shooting Scripts). In the DVD commentary for this episode, Joss Whedon (who wrote and directed it), explained the reason behind what he felt was a necessary clarification:

The idea behind their sleeping together is very important - it was that their relationship had enough trust in it that it was physical and romantic but not sexual. That was of course in response to the rape issue of last year when he had attempted to rape her because he didn't understand the boundaries of their relationship. ... We wanted to say this man can be redeemed from that. ... Not in an "all is forgiven" way, just in the way of he's still a human being who did a wrong thing and we still count him as a human being. I think that's a very important message; that their relationship should ... come to a place of trust without saying alright they're going to become lovers again because I think that would be wrong - I think that would be the wrong message, I think that it's a very fine line. (Whedon commentary)
However, later on in that very same episode (and very same commentary), the night before the final battle, the camera follows Buffy as she enters Spike's bedroom, where he has been waiting. He rises to meet her and they stand on opposite sides of the room, watching each other for a moment, before the next scene - taking place the following morning - starts. At that moment in his commentary, Joss Whedon directly contradicts his earlier words, saying of that brief scene:
To me it's almost the most important shot in the show because it shows the mystery of their relationship, and that's one where I wanted the audience to fill in the blank - I wanted whatever you want to have happened, to have happened. If people believe that on their last night together they made love, great. (Whedon commentary)
While Joss Whedon technically does not cross the "fine line" he spoke of in that earlier scene, because he does not actually show Buffy and Spike having sex, he readily admits to inviting the viewer to cross it for him, even though he has already stated that he thinks it the wrong message to convey.

Unfortunately, this kind of contradictory, illogical thinking could only come to be expected from the show that sought sympathy for the perpetrator and made their superhero a victim.

"You think you know ... what's to come ... what you are. You haven't even begun." (Restless)

From the very beginning of the series, Buffy has been meant to represent female empowerment, and the role of the slayer has been seen as heroic. In discussing the "little blonde girl" from the horror films that had given him the idea for the series, Joss Whedon said:

I felt bad for her, but she was always much more interesting to me than the other women. She was fun, she had sex, she was vivacious. But then she would get punished for it. Literally, I just had that image, that scene, in my mind ... What if the girl goes into that dark alley. And the monster follows her. And she destroys him. (Bodger)
Episodes from the first two seasons started off with a prologue: "Into every generation, there is a chosen one; she alone will stand against the vampires, demons, and forces of darkness. She is The Slayer." This mythic role has often been depicted as a challenge for Buffy, not because she cannot handle it, but because it is seen as a lot to live up to: the mythic hero role, larger than life.

One of the most common criticisms throughout the run of the show has been in the character of Rupert Giles, Buffy's Watcher. In the first episode of the series, it is established that the Watcher "trains [the Slayer], he prepares her" (Welcome To The Hellmouth 31), and though there have been a handful of female Watchers seen or mentioned through the show's seven seasons, the majority of them have been male. Therefore, the show has often been criticized because while Buffy may be a new brand of action hero, she is still watched over by a man. As Gwyneth Bodger writes in her essay, Buffy the Feminist Slayer? Constructions of Femininity in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Buffy has no choice in what she does; she is coerced into her job by a standing patriarchal dictate" (Bodger).

This issue has been indirectly addressed on and off during the course of the show. Buffy has often refused the help of the Watcher's Council, which has garnered a reputation on the show as being patriarchal and out of date; however Giles is not included in this negative characterization, as any accusations of old-fashioned behaviour on his part are mentioned only through gentle mockery.

These in-show occurrences note the acknowledgement by the writers of the common complaint, but they do not truly resolve it. This may be why an attempt was made towards the end of the show's run (the second last episode, in fact) to retroactively tweak their continuity. Buffy takes the weapon she has found to a crypt where she encounters an ancient woman claiming to be the last of the Guardians. She says, "We forged [the weapon] in secrecy and kept it hidden from the Shadow Men ... and they became the Watchers. And the Watchers watched the Slayers. But we were watching them. ... [We are the] Guardians: Women who want to help and protect you" (End Of Days). Buffy, in the writers' attempt to acknowledge and therefore pacify the response to this last minute addition to the show's central mythology, asks, "How is it possible that we didn't know any of this?" (End Of Days) The answer: "We hid, too. We had to, until now" (End Of Days), is, of course, unsatisfactory because it cannot be the real answer (the real answer being; we just made it up).

Even allowing for the suspension of disbelief, this last ditch effort does not answer the aforementioned complaint because the presence of the Guardians does - and has done - nothing. While the Watchers watched, but also guided, trained, and assisted the Slayers, the Guardians apparently guarded, but otherwise did nothing; or if they tried, were ineffectual, and reduced to hiding for fear of being discovered. And once the last one is found? She contributes nothing of consequence (Buffy, after all, has already found the weapon), and is quickly and easily murdered by a recurring villain who succeeds merely by walking up behind her and snapping her ancient neck. And nothing more about her, her role, or the others who once shared it with her is said. This is not empowering. It is also, unfortunately, not the only part of the Slayer mythology to get a rewrite in the show's seventh season.

The Slayer and those who claim the role, as mentioned earlier, have been seen as heroes of mythic proportions. Though Buffy often complains and thinks she would prefer life as a "normal girl", when it comes down to it, time and time again she proudly acknowledges her heritage; "I'm Buffy. The Vampire Slayer. And you are...?" (Anne), and admits that she wouldn't want to be without it: "I can't be just a person. I can't be helpless like that" (Helpless). Characters that she encounters, both good and bad, greatly revere her or completely despise her (depending on if they are good or bad). Either way, she is seen as someone set apart from the rest of humanity, as a worthy adversary or respected champion. Above all, the Slayer is strong; someone seen as possessing both inner and physical strength; in other words, someone who would not ever be a victim. Even when a Slayer dies in the line of duty, she is not a victim, she has merely met her match, and the line continues: "One Slayer dies, next one's called!" (Prophecy Girl).

At least that was how the story went until the fifteenth episode of the seventh season, Get It Done, which revisited and revised the origins of the Slayer. Through the opening of a portal, Buffy is able to go back to the time of the First Slayer, where she meets the Shadow Men (the precursors to the Watchers). While she is there, the Shadow Men reenact the creation of the First Slayer, placing Buffy in her predecessor's place. "First there was the earth, then came the demons," the Shadow Men start (Get It Done), echoing the exposition recited by Giles at the start of the series: "This world is older than any of you know. Contrary to popular mythology, it did not begin as a paradise. For untold eons demons walked the Earth. They made it their home, their... their Hell" (The Harvest).

However, it is there that the story changes. Where Giles once followed up with "but in time they lost their purchase on this reality, the way was made for mortal animals, for man" (The Harvest), the Shadow Men continue, "After demons came men, they found a girl to slay demons, they chained her to the earth, filled her with dark" (Get It Done).

The images accompanying these words show Buffy chained to the ground as a dark mist approaches her, swirls around her, and then tries to enter her, first through her mouth, and then under her skirt. The connection to rape is unmistakable - and not at all inadvertent, as Buffy's protest to the Shadow Men; "You think I came all this way to get knocked up by some demon dust?" (Get It Done) clearly attests. This connection is further compounded by Buffy's subsequent accusation that the Shadow Men "violated that girl" (Get It Done), in reference to the First Slayer.

That the origins of the Slayer have been revised so late in the series' run is unfortunate. That Buffy, who once descended from a long line of warriors is reinterpreted as descending from a long line of victims is inexplicable and certainly incompatible with the show's supposed central thesis of female empowerment.

It is possible that those behind the scenes realized this inherent incompatibility and decided to address it in the series finale. It is equally possible that those behind the scenes created this incompatibility in order to resolve it in the series finale. It is unfortunate that no matter which option is true, that the attempt to resolve this revision failed - or at the very least, did not succeed. The last episode of the series, Chosen, culminates in a fierce battle in which Buffy, her friends, and numerous potential slayers that they have been collecting all season, face an enormous army of Übervamps (an ancient breed of super-powerful vampires). Buffy's plan to defeat this enemy relies on Willow's ability to use the magic within the weapon Buffy found to turn every potential slayer into an actual one: to literally empower them; "I say my power should be our power. Tomorrow, Willow will use the essence of the [weapon] to change our destiny" (Chosen).

The goal of this is obvious. Buffy is interrupting the traditional slayer progression, taking the power forced by the Shadow Men, and using it the way she wants; a clear attempt to fix the problems presented in Get It Done. And while in one view this could be seen as empowering, and certainly those behind the scenes and those on screen meant it to be seen that way, it fails to acknowledge what one would think would be an unavoidable truth: that the power given was the result of a violation. What Buffy has given to those girls with her, and in fact, forced on numerous others, is a tainted power, and while the visuals and dialogue that accompany this pronouncement would have the viewers see these girls ascending to hero status, the fact that they are also descending into victimization cannot be ignored. It is because of this inescapable fact that this eleventh hour attempt to resolve the problem in the show's feminist stance does not succeed.

In fact, whether or not the origin of the Slayer controversy is resolved is practically inconsequential because of one simple fact. In the last episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it is Spike the Vampire who saves the world. Because of the Deus Ex Amulet given to them by Angel (another male character, who makes a brief appearance), which is then worn by Spike during the final battle (even though none of the characters know exactly what it does), it is he who ends up saving the day. Even with all of their newly awakened powers, the Slayers are not seen to be conclusively winning the fight, despite Spike's claim to the contrary: "You've beat them back. It's for me to do the cleanup" (Chosen). At best, they are an even match, or, as Joss Whedon wrote in the shooting script for this episode; "[The Slayers] are taking out a bunch (Spike keeping his end up just fine, thank you), holding off other -- but the vamps keep coming, endlessly. It's brutal and dark and sweaty and bloody and I love it, I love it" (Whedon Shooting Scripts).

Though the shooting script goes on to note that "the girls turn the tide" (Whedon Shooting Scripts), this sentiment is not clearly depicted onscreen. There is a moment where the Slayers all seem reinvigorated, but Spike steps in before a conclusive resulting outcome becomes clear. It remains anyone's guess as to which group would have emerged victorious - although it is not unreasonable to suggest that the few dozen Slayers facing the hundreds of Übervamps would have been the ones to meet a bloody end. No, when it comes down to it, the power of the Slayer - or even Slayers, doesn't actually matter. It is Spike, the one male character fighting in the same area as the Slayers, and his aforementioned amulet, which create their immediate triumph - and need for retreat. It is through him that the town (and therefore the Hellmouth that it sits on) is destroyed, and even Buffy herself acknowledges as much:


           Giles looks out at the crater.

                            I don't understand. What did this?

                            Spike. (Whedon Shooting Scripts)
That word - his name - is, in fact, the last word Buffy speaks in the entire series.

"Men are evil. Will you go [to the Prom] with me?" (The Prom)

The series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired at the end of May, 2003. That summer, Joss Whedon wrote; "I hope the legacy of Buffy will be that people are not surprised at the idea of a woman kicking out in a situation and taking control. And that's really the thing I'm proud about most" (Foreword). Earlier that same year, he was quoted as saying; "I'm proud of what this show means (except for that whole weird 'Feminist' thing people attached to it. What was that all about? Girls are stupid.) I truly believe that in years to come, people will look back and say 'That was a show that was on TV.' Yessir. I truly do" (Porter).

Although the second quotation was admittedly made in jest, the contrast between the two is a perfect example of the show's ever increasing dichotomy between its proposed ideals and its onscreen portrayals. Joss Whedon once claimed that genre busting was "very much at the heart" of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Genre busting, reminiscent of 'culture jamming' or 'ad-busting', is the process of doing something to something else (in this case, a genre), that will disrupt its message; such as the oft-quoted example of the horror film featuring the blonde-girl-in-the-alley taking down her attacker. However, the decision to play out the Dead/Evil Lesbian Cliché, turn his heroine into a victim of attempted rape, and make the root of her power stem from supernatural sexual violation, demonstrate that the clever subversions that had once been employed have now been subverted themselves. Genre busting gone too far fails to bust anything at all.

But why? Why did this happen? Was it necessarily consciously decided? Does that even matter, considering the results? The audience may never know the true reasons behind the women from Buffy's unmistakable fall. However, this quotation, discussing the fallout from the sixth season episode Seeing Red, draws some unfortunate conclusions on its own:

Co-Host: A lot of people are going to be tuning out from here on out. Because of what happened.
        Jane Espenson: People always say they are not going to watch anymore and our numbers stay exactly the same.
        Co-Host: But, but they've gone down this year.
        Jane Espenson: Um... yeah... but, our boy numbers went up. (Jane Espenson Interview)
And so is revealed what truly matters, and the show once built on genre busting, is busted.

© 2006 Robyn Joffe

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