The Stake Is Not The Power: Patriarchal Power Systems in Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Arkham City

Originally published on Big Tall Words, December 15, 2013

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is, by many accounts, a feminist text. But what does that mean? Many would argue it means that it features a “strong female character.” But what does that mean? Buffy is certainly strong physically: she kicks ass (everyone knows that). But the fact that its heroine kicks ass — is that what makes the show “feminist”? I’d argue not.

Just because a text features a woman who can beat the crap of anyone who says that she can’t does not mean that that text is inherently feminist. Furthermore, not all feminist texts feature a heroine who is physically strong or capable of beating up bad guys. (For instance, Orange is the New Black is a woman-centred drama that lacks an ass-kicking heroine; regardless, it examines and critiques the oppression and exploitation of female inmates in the American prison system.) On a related note, some texts that feature an ass-kicking heroine can still be labelled “sexist.”

A sexist text is one that is defined by, and supports, the attitude that one gender is inherently weaker or less valuable than another. Bob Chipman of The Escapist (a.k.a. “MovieBob”) tackles sexism in a recent “Big Picture” video, in which he addresses “The Pink Aisle” (“Pink is not the Problem.” The Escapist. Dec 3 2013.). He notes that The Hunger Games, while featuring a strong, ass-kicking female character, still supports the notion that women are inherently weak or evil. Therefore, Katniss is an anomaly; she is essentially a male hero who happens to be female, while the villains of the film are effeminate (and therefore weak) men. I think Chipman makes an excellent point: sexism is so insidious that it can creep into even woman-centred stories.

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A few years ago, Film Crit Hulk criticized Arkham City for being sexist (“GODDAMMIT VIDEO GAMES: THE FIRST FEW HOURS OF ARKHAM CITY IS LOTS OF FUN BUT SUPER-DUPER SEXIST.FILM CRIT HULK! HULK BLOG! Oct 19 2011.). The internet protested that the game simply could not be sexist! Yes, prisoners used the word “bitch” a lot and the Joker was unkind to Harley, but Catwoman kicked ass! She beat up all the men who cat-called her (pun absolutely intended). How could this game be sexist when it features such an ass-kicking woman? Isn’t she a “strong female character” that feminists wanted in the first place? Well, no. An ass-kicking heroine does not a feminist (or even non-sexist) text make. Film Crit Hulk is right: Arkham City is a sexist game, even if Catwoman kicks ass.

Like seemingly all media related to comic books or comic book lore, Arkham City seems to view women only as a supporting cast for the men, the “real heroes.” Notable women in the game, like Harley Quinn and Thalia al Ghul, have no role outside of the men in their lives, whether that man is a love interest (the Joker and Batman) or a father (Ra’s al Ghul). Even Catwoman, despite her ass-kickery, only appears in relation to men. The first time we see her is in relation to Two-Face; then, the Joker tries to kill her for the sole purpose of rattling Batman; and for the rest of the game, she appears only to further Batman’s quest. She saves Batman from the Joker (“See, she’s so strong!” cries the internet) but only because if she doesn’t, the game ends. In fact, should you, as Catwoman, choose not to save Batman, you will be treated to a brief credit roll that implies all is lost without Batman, and you are forced to go back in time to save him. In this way, Catwoman is literally a plot device: she is a means of advancing Batman’s story and nothing more.

At other points in Arkham City, women use their sexuality as a weapon, making them femmes fatales. Poison Ivy, Thalia Al’Ghul, and Catwoman herself are notorious for this, since they are Batman’s most prominent female foes. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with women who are sexually confident and comfortable in their own sexuality. Where there’s an issue is when being sexual is their only shtick. In one of her “Tropes vs. Women” videos, Anita Sarkeesian points out that the femme fatale trope is dangerous if overused, since it feeds into the sexist myth that women are deceivers who use their bodies to manipulate men (“Tropes vs. Women # 4: The Evil Demon Seductress.” Feminist Frequency. Mar 19 2011.). Therefore, Catwoman is not as “strong” as she may appear since she in fact embodies this damaging, sexist trope.

The only women, arguably, who do not fulfill the femme fatale trope in Arkham City are Harley Quinn and Oracle. But they offer, at best, problematic representations of women. Harley Quinn is highly infantilized. The game treats her as a spoiled brat who throws temper tantrums, thus justifying Joker’s abuse as “punishment.” Oracle, meanwhile, is only a ghost, a voice in Batman’s head. Her encouragement could even be perceived as justifying Batman’s quest, since he is going after the Joker, the man responsible for paralyzing her. If we think of her this way, she’s “in the refrigerator.” (“Tropes vs. Women #2: Women in Refrigerators.” Feminist Frequency. Apr 7 2011.). Thus, Oracle is merely a plot device as well: a means of keeping the story going.

The biggest strike against Arkham City, and the main reason Film Crit Hulk is correct in calling it sexist, is the way that it internalizes the sexism or patriarchy of our world and doesn’t seek to challenge or change it. In this world, Catwoman (like Katniss) is an anomaly. She is a “strong woman,” no doubt, but she doesn’t challenge the oppressive systems that hold her down; she manipulates them to her advantage. By featuring a “strong woman” who does this, Arkham City is implicitly stating that women cannot change the systems that oppress them. Instead, they must do as Catwoman does, and turn these systems to their advantage. Doing so means that resistance (symbolized in the game by Catwoman’s violence) is ultimately fruitless; for all the men that she beats up, there are a dozen more who shout derogatory names at her and attempt to attack her.

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It is important to note that Buffy is an anomaly in her world as well. Buffy, like Catwoman, proves everyone wrong when she kicks their asses — in fact, one of the reasons behind the series’ creation was the hilarity of the idea that a tiny blonde girl named Buffy can actually be powerful, again displaying the sexist notion of our culture that women are weak and/or stupider than men. (For a great example of the joke in action, check out the first few minutes of S1.12, “Prophecy Girl.” The look on that vampire’s face is priceless.)

The show often does not hesitate to show that the patriarchy is just as powerful in Buffy’s world as it is in our own by having characters that perceive femininity as weakness. The sixth season’s villain, Warren, is the most obvious examples, calling hot women “baby” and Buffy “bitch,” and telling Xander he hits “like a girl” (S6.19 “Seeing Red”). In the seventh season, when Amy’s curse turns Willow into Warren, she starts crying, then he says, “look at me, crying like a little girl” (S7.13 “The Killer in Me”). But we expect these phrases from him; he is a misogynist, and the show actually identifies him as such: “Warren was a cold-blooded killer of women,” Xander says in S6.21, “Two to Go,” and in “The Killer in Me,” Willow calls him a “murderous, misogynist man.”

The truly insidious nature of sexism becomes evident, however, when characters other than outwardly misogynist villains also identify femininity as a weakness and use “woman” or “girl” as an insult. Many beloved characters do this in the show’s earlier seasons. For example, Giles and Riley both use the expression “throw like a girl” (S3.12 “Helpless” and S5.1 “Buffy vs. Dracula” respectively). Xander warns Anya, “I’m actually turning into a woman as I say this,” before explaining that sex is supposed to be emotionally meaningful (S4.3 “The Harsh Light of Day”). Even Buffy insults Wesley by saying “If I need someone to scream like a woman, I’ll give you a call” (S3.21 “Graduation Day”). Some have criticized the show for portraying sexist ideology, and rightfully so, but when you examine the show as a whole, its trajectory is one of overcoming oppression. Thus, it needed to show us oppression before it could show us freedom from that oppression.

So, both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Arkham City prove they exist in our (flawed, patriarchal) world. Buffy and Catwoman aren’t expected to be strong because women are perceived as weak. But whereas Arkham City has strong women who manipulate the system to their advantage and thereby seems to implicitly to accept this flawed world as is, Buffy seeks to change it, arguing through its ultimate trajectory that oppression can be overcome by strong women.

Buffy isn’t content to just have her power, which was given to her by a group of powerful men. Buffy would rather share this power with women everywhere, radically altering the power imbalance between Watchers and Slayers (men and women). In S7.22, “Chosen,” the series finale, Buffy’s voiceover captures the freedom from oppression that her spell symbolizes:

In every generation, one Slayer is born because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. […] I say we change the rule. I say my power should be our power. […] From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer, will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power — can stand up, will stand up. Slayers. Every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?

The images used during this voiceover include two powerful shots: one of a woman on the floor, the other of a woman stopping a hand from slapping her face and standing tall to look her attacker in the eyes. These two shots, combined with Buffy’s words make it clear that her goal is to undo millennia of oppression. This goal — the ultimate trajectory of the series — is what makes Buffy feminist.

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To conclude, I leave you with this snippet of dialogue from S7.1, “Lessons”:

Buffy: It’s about power: who’s got it, who knows how to use it. So, who’s got the power, Dawn?

Dawn: Well, I’ve got the stake.

Buffy: The stake is not the power. […] Who’s got the power?

Dawn: …he does.

Buffy: Never forget it.

When looking critically at texts (be they movies, television shows, video games, or comic books), it’s important to remember that the stake is not the power. Female characters may be able to kick ass, but that doesn’t mean that a text is feminist. That text may even uphold sexist norms and values. Just because a woman holds the stake does not mean she holds the power.


NOTE: In a recent discussion on BBC Radio, Neil Gaiman noted that television missed the point of Buffy, stating that though she’s strong physically, that’s not why she’s a strong character. I think that’s pretty neat. (Alderman, Naomi. “Neil Gaiman and Joss Whedon on the legacy of Buffy.” BBC Radio. Dec 19 2013.)


“Be Not Afraid of Greatness”: An Analysis of the Third Season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

buffy 1Originally published on Big Tall Words, December 7, 2013

“Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.”

These lines are from Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare’s comedies, which features a subplot where a narcissistic Puritan servant is fooled by a fake letter from his mistress that confesses her deep love for him. Oddly, out of this silly and hilarious plotline come these infamous lines: “be not afraid of / greatness. Some are born great, some achieve / greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon / ’em” (2.5.131-3).

As many of us know, Joss Whedon knows comedy, and he’s a huge Shakespeare fan. We would know this even if he hadn’t filmed a fabulous adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing at his house last year; he and his ’verse used to gather for Shakespeare readings, after all. Thus, maybe it’s not a surprise to see some Shakespeare in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The third season of Buffy is really one of the best in terms of character development. We see a lot of foreshadowing in terms of who each character is going to become as they struggle with the prospect of leaving high school (and, you know, saving the world). The lines quoted above, however, serve as a particularly efficient analogy for Buffy, Willow, and Xander’s process of growing up throughout the season. Buffy proves she is born great; Willow chooses to become great; and Xander has greatness thrust upon him (and proves himself worthy of it, too).

Buffy, obviously, has greatness thrust upon her, given that she is the Chosen One. Nevertheless, the third season proves Buffy was born great in a many ways, not the least of which is the way that she continuously shoulders the burden of being chosen. Throughout the series, she chooses to sacrifice her freedom, happiness, and even her life, to save the world that she’s been chosen to protect. The first time we see her do so is in “Prophecy Girl” (S1E12), of course, and, the third season does see her sacrificing her own happiness for that of others, especially in “The Prom” (S3E20). In this episode, she becomes obsessed with the high school prom going off without a hitch. When her friends admit the possibility that they may not be able to go due to supernatural forces at work, Buffy lets them go in her stead, ordering them: “Have. A nice. Time.” Even though this sacrifice may be small, it marks the beginning of Buffy’s development into the self-sacrificing hero that we see in the rest of the series, most notably in “The Gift” (S5E22).

Another way that Buffy shows she is born great is through the emergence and development of her leadership abilities. In the fourth season episode, “A New Man” (S4E12), Riley tells her: “You’re in charge. You’re like, make the plan, execute the plan. No one’s giving you orders.” But Buffy-In-Charge couldn’t exist without her growth in the third season. Prior to this season, Buffy had been put in charge, and, while she may have protested, she eventually succeeded in that role. But in the third season, Buffy actively seeks out leadership positions and flourishes in them. For instance, in “Graduation Day” (S3E21), she devises a plan in which she detonates the library and turns the graduating class into an army to combat Mayor Wilkins. The third season, then, is the first time that we see Buffy the Strategist or Buffy the General in action. Here, Buffy begins to become the hero she is destined to be. The leadership that she develops throughout the third season ultimately leads her to become the key strategist in the fight against evil and break ties with the Council.

Though always a little defiant of Giles’s authority and reluctant to follow orders, Buffy, in the third season, begins to actively rebel against the Watchers’ Council. In “Helpless” (S3E12), Buffy protests the barbaric test the Watchers put her through with a simple but surprisingly effective “Bite me.” In “Graduation Day,” she stands up to the Watchers’ Council (in the first of their many showdowns). “Orders,” she says when Wesley tells her the Council’s wishes. “I don’t think I’m going to be taking any more orders. Not from you, not from them. […] Wesley, go back to your Council and tell them until the next Slayer comes along, they can close up shop. I’m not working for them anymore.” When Wesley protests, “This is mutiny,” Buffy pauses reflexively, and then replies: “I like to think of it as graduation.” This line summarizes the process of growing up that Buffy has undergone throughout the first three seasons, and also hints at the independence she has developed.

Buffy’s defiance of the Council in the third season also sets in motion another central motif of the series, and that is the defiance of patriarchal authority. The unjust divide between Watchers and Slayers (hinted at in “Prophecy Girl”) was developed in “Helpless” and “Graduation Day.” In the fifth season episode, “Checkpoint” (S5E12) Buffy again protests the injustice of a powerful woman (the Slayer) being made to submit to male authority (the Council). Ultimately, in the series finale, “Chosen” (S7E22), Buffy defies the entire patriarchal structure of the Slayer’s history when she gives her power to all the potential slayers across the world.

Thus, the third season shows that, while Buffy may have begun her career as a Slayer by having greatness thrust upon her, she was born great. She may have been Chosen to be a Slayer, but she was born to be a great hero.

While Buffy proves she was born great, Willow achieves greatness in the third season by choosing to pursue magic in a serious way. This choice leads her to become more powerful. At the end of the second season, she chooses to re-ensoul Angel despite the dangerous potential consequences and Giles’s accurate prediction that she will not be able to close the door that the spell has opened. Throughout the third season, we see her developing her magic more and more. Ultimately, Buffy is only able to grant her power to potential Slayers in the series finale because Willow and her magical prowess have grown over the course of the series. Willow achieves greatness through her magic, and this process begins in the third season when she chooses to study witchcraft in earnest.

More importantly, however, Willow achieves greatness in the third season by becoming more confident. She comes out of her shell more in this season. In “Gingerbread” (S3E11), we meet Willow’s mother, an over-bearing academic. When she claims to understand what Willow’s going through, Willow chooses to talk back, seemingly for the first time: “No, you don’t. Mom, how would you know what I can do? The last time we had a conversation over three minutes was about the patriarchal bias of the Mr. Rogers show.” When Willow takes this tone with her mother, it is one of the first times that we see the confident, self-aware woman that she will become. For Willow, the third season is about breaking out of the meek shell that she’d inhabited prior.

“Choices” is a major turning point for Willow.  In this episode, Buffy leads an infiltration to the mayor’s office, but her plan goes awry, and Willow is captured. After floating a pencil and using it to stake her vampire guard, Willow comes face-to-face with Faith, a rogue Slayer who has created rifts between Buffy and her friends, including Willow. Faith, a murderer, threatens Willow. Instead of backing down, as she normally would, Willow stands up to her: “You made your choice,” she tells her. “You had friends like Buffy. Now you have no one. You were a Slayer, and now you’re nothing. You’re just a big, worthless waste.” At this point in the conversation, Faith punches her, but Willow stands her ground: “I’m not afraid of you.” This episode is the first time we see Willow choosing to take a stand, and it’s one of the few times she gets to mouth off to someone.

“Choices” is not only about Willow choosing not to back down from Faith. At the beginning of the episode, she is wrestling with the decision of where to go to college, having been accepted to what seems like every major university across the US and in Europe. At the end of the episode, she makes her choice. She chooses to stay in Sunnydale and fight evil at Buffy’s side, despite having the option to go anywhere and do anything. She tells Buffy:

The other night, being captured and all, facing off with Faith, things just kinda got clear. I mean, you’ve been fighting evil here for three years and I’ve helped some. And now we’re supposed to decide what to do what to do with our lives. And I just realized — that’s what I want to do: fight evil. Help people. It’s a good fight, Buffy, and I want in.

Even without the development of her powers or confidence, Willow makes her choice pretty clear: by choosing to stay in the fight against evil, she is choosing to achieve greatness.

Arguably, Xander doesn’t have greatness thrust upon him so much as he blunders into it. While his two best friends are becoming more powerful, Xander is not. Regardless, he is no less heroic. In the third season, he finally finds his place as an integral part of the Slayer’s group. In this season, he accepts that he is “the one who isn’t chosen,” as he admits to Dawn in “Potential” (S7E12). And, though the process isn’t completed in the third season (in the fourth, Xander is still a bit adrift and out-of-sorts), it has begun. The turning point for Xander’s growth is found in the series’ only Xander-centred episode, “The Zeppo” (S3E13).

The teaser for “The Zeppo” is a fight scene, as in most episodes. Buffy and Faith, aided by Willow and Giles, defeat a couple of vicious demons, and almost two minutes pass before the viewer becomes aware of Xander’s presence, foreshadowing how easily the main characters of the show will overlook him throughout the episode. Once Xander emerges from where the demon presumably threw him, we learn that he had tried to be heroic by leaping into the fray. Buffy suggests, “Maybe you should be fray-adjacent,” despite Xander’s protests that that was where he belonged: “Excuse me? Who in a crucial moment distracted the lead demon by allowing her to pummel him about the head?” By the end of this episode, however, he has realized that it is not where he belongs, and he’s okay with that. He has greatness thrust upon him and lives up to it, though almost no one notices. Thus, he becomes the person, the hero, that he will be by the end of the series.

Throughout the rest of “The Zeppo,” Xander wrestles with his seeming uselessness, which leads him to have a few run-ins with a bully named Jack O’Toole. Since this is Sunnydale, Jack is not only a juvenile delinquent, but he also has access to magic, which he uses to raise some of his friends from the dead. They break into a hardware store, using Xander as their wheelman until he eventually runs away from them. At this point, he wanders into an unexpected sexual encounter with Faith. Afterwards, he realizes that the walking dead hoodlums had stolen supplies to build a bomb. He tries to get Buffy to help him, but she and the others are preoccupied with another apocalypse. Xander is thus saddled with the task of stopping the zombies from blowing up the school (and thereby killing all of his friends).

For the first half of the episode, Xander reacts to situations in a comically fearful way — trying to make jokes, running away, running to Giles and Buffy — but once he realizes he’s really on his own, he steps up to be the hero; however, he doesn’t really understand what it means to be heroic at first. Xander tries to be an action hero. When he finds Jack and his friends walking down the street, he grabs one of them from his car and accelerates. He proceeds to question him about the bomb’s whereabouts. He threatens the zombie: “All right, I’m only going to ask this once, and you better pray you get the answer right. How do I defuse —” but his line gets cut off when the zombie hits a mailbox, lopping off his head. Later, he tries being threatening again, adopting an action hero grumble: “You should have learned by now: if you’re going to play with fire, you gotta expect sooner or later —” but again, his self-aggrandizing is cut short as the zombie turns and flees. What he doesn’t seem to realize that these words, this macho posturing, is unnecessary. He has fought well against the zombies, proving himself to be clever and resourceful in battle. And when it really counts, in the final showdown with Jack as the clock ticks down towards the detonation, he’s calm and logical. He loses the Clint Eastwood growl, and speaks normally, logically: “I know what you’re thinking: can I get by him, get upstairs, out of the building, seconds ticking away… I don’t love your chances.” Jack replies, “Then you’ll die, too.” Xander answers: “Yeah, looks like.” By showing no fear, Xander persuades Jack to defuse the bomb. This courageous, calm, and resourceful Xander is the Xander that we come to know throughout the rest of the season.

The most significant part of “The Zeppo,” however, is the very end of the episode. Buffy, Willow, and Giles discuss the previous night’s adventures. When Giles notes that the world continues to turn, Willow replies, “No one will ever know how close it came to stopping. What we did.” At this moment, Xander enters, and Willow tells him, “You’re lucky you weren’t at school last night. It was crazed.” Without a moment’s hesitation, Xander says, “Well, give me the quiet life.” He doesn’t seek recognition for his part in saving the day. He hands the glory to the others. A few episodes later, in “The Prom,” he does something similar by paying for Cordelia’s dress without seeking thanks. He does the right thing because he knows it’s right, not because he wants glory. This attitude leads him to save the world through saving Willow in “Grave” (S6E22). It is what he praises Dawn for in the seventh season episode, “Potential,” and it is also the reason Caleb targets him as “the one who sees everything” in “Dirty Girls” (S7E18). Xander could not become the man he is at the end of the series without conquering his identity crisis in “The Zeppo.” Thus, by accepting that he will not be in the spotlight, that he will not be great, he has greatness thrust upon him, and he becomes great.

In actuality, we could probably say that every character on Buffy has greatness thrust upon them, even the more peripheral ones like Angel, Faith, Giles, Spike, Cordelia, and even Andrew (Tucker’s brother). However, in the third season, the central three characters of Buffy seem to embody this line more than others. Buffy is born great, Willow achieves greatness, and Xander has greatness thrust upon him. In the third season, they grow up; they grow into their greatness.