Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Frustrating female feminism: missing the point

Before we can imagine a truly feminist hero on television, we must recognise
that she does not yet exist. Since the sexuality, makeup, and attire
of Xena, Nikita, and Buffy detract from their believability and highlight their
traditional femininity, should we not hope for heroic women for whom such
characteristics become incidental or celebratory rather than central
foci? Women who would fulfill more clearly feminist ideals of the
heroic would need not routinely bare their midriffs, would not be necessarily,
formatively, and violently linked to men, and would not suffer tormented lives
in a brutal world. A more laudable female hero, one whom feminist
viewers might celebrate without reservation, might build or affirm a world
without so much violence.
Magoulick, Mary, 'Frustrating female heroism: mixed messages in Xena, Nikita and Buffy', Journal of Popular Culture, 39:5 (2006), 729-755

The above quote comes from an article I read recently which seems to sum up the whole problem I have with feminist criticism of texts. Magoulick was arguing that three recent television shows, Xena: Warrior Princess, La Femme Nikita and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, all lauded by many feminists for having strong female heroes, were in fact not feminist at all because of the sexualised presentation of the main characters, designed to appeal to men with their image and acting submissively with regard to the male characters they interact with, and because of their continual resort to male-pattern violence as their means of solving the problems they encounter. I have never really watched either Xena or Nikita, but I did watch and love Buffy and feel strongly that Magoulick's article misses the point of the way Buffy works as a feminist text.

Many articles have been written about Buffy's feminism, all making solid points about strong female characters and the show's reinterpretation of the traditional 'pretty young blonde as helpless victim of monster' horror motif. The strength and importance of the female characters in the show is undeniable, but making a clear 'girls strong, guys weak' distinction is both difficult and unnecessary. Yes, there are many strong female characters, but strength and admirability is not the sole preserve of the female characters on the show. Giles represents wisdom and guidance, and is shown as having a hard streak which enables him to do what must be done even when Buffy herself relents (eg the killing of Ben at the end of season five). This is a character trait shared by the other main Watcher, Wesley, even in his early, buffoonish days, and developed strongly on the spin-off show Angel. Xander, despite his overt cowardice and constant desire to play the clown, is actually depicted time and time again as the heart of the operation, the one who sees, understands and is always there for his more obviously heroic friends (for which he is symbolically punished by losing an eye to Caleb in season seven). And Buffy's two vampire lovers, Angel and Spike, both undergo arduous journeys of redemption throughout the course of the show, so much so in Spike's case that his sacrificial death is the one thing which finally closes the Hellmouth in the show's cataclysmic finale. Put all this together with the weaknesses displayed by the overtly strong female characters (Buffy's struggle with herself in season six, Willow's addiction to magic and destructive revenge binge in the same season, Faith's own journey to the dark side and back again to redemption) and it is clear that this is not a show that worries about gender when developing character. Rather, each character is allowed to travel the journey that awaits them, with all consequences being fully explored. I agree with Magoulick, therefore, insofar as she argues that simply looking at the presentation of the characters is not is not enough to argue for Buffy's status as feminist or otherwise, and we must look more closely at the themes in order to come to some conclusion.

However, this is where Magoulick begins to miss the point of Buffy. As set out in the quote above, there are two main thrusts to her argument. The first is that the sexualised presentation of the main character undermines any feminist behaviour, and the second is that the choice of violence as the main weapon in the story's ongoing struggle is inherently masculine and therefore again undermines the idea that Buffy can be feminist. I will address each of these arguments in turn, and hope to show that Buffy is feminist in a very modern, inclusive sense, which I will go on to define.

The presentation of Buffy herself is important to the initial concept of the show. The creator, Joss Whedon, has stated time and time again that he came up with the idea "to invert the Hollywood formula of "the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie" (Wikipedia, Buffy the Vampire Slayer ). It is therefore necessary for this conceit that the hero should be portrayed in a conventionally attractive, relatively sexualised manner, otherwise there would be no expectations to subvert. To argue, as Magoulick does, that this very necessary image negates the intended feminist message, seems to me to be completely missing the point of the founding concept of the show.

Magoulick also has an issue with Buffy's relationships with men throughout the story. She argues that Buffy is always shown as submissive in her interactions with the main male characters and that she is shown to be formed by them, particularly Giles in his pseudo-father role and Angel as the (much) older first boyfriend. Again I feel her interpretation is simplistic. Buffy does relate to Giles for much of the story as a father figure. This relationship is even made explicit in Giles's dream sequence in the season four finale, Restless. But in season six his departure forces her to abandon this rather comforting role for herself, and in season seven she is shown as actively rejecting his advice when he allows himself to be drawn into Robin Wood's scheme to get rid of Spike, of whose importance to Buffy he is suspicious. (It is notable that Buffy is eventually proved right about Spike, not the previously all-knowing and wise Giles). If Buffy's relationship with Giles is anti-feminist, then surely this redresses the balance - she has grown to the point where she can assert herself even with the most formative of her male relationships. But I don't feel that there is an anti-feminist connotation to their relationship anyway. In what way is it anti-feminist for a young girl to have an older male figure (like a father) to look up to for advice and support? It is a healthy relationship to have, particularly for a teenage girl like Buffy whose own father is absent. It's not as if she doesn't have a good relationship with her mother, who, once she is enlightened as to her daughter's role and destiny, is every bit as supportive and loving to Buffy as Giles is.

Buffy's relationships with her lovers is more complex, but I would argue entirely realistic. Angel is her first love, and she is inevitably infatuated with him. But she still insists on being able to look after herself and hold her own in a fight, and is prepared to kill him when the loss of his soul and reversion to his cruel alter ego, Angelus, threatens those she loves and the world as a whole. Parker, her one-night stand when she starts at college, does use her in a manner unfortunately not unusual, and Buffy was naive in her trust of him. But the fact of her having been naive in this way does not mean she cannot be seen as a feminist role model. If anything, this (and the famous 'ultimate metaphor' of sleeping with a guy and having him turn into a monster) could be seen as warnings to young girls about the pitfalls of sexual relationships and trusting a man too much. Buffy's relationship with Riley, her serious (and only non-vampire) boyfriend in seasons four and five, falls apart because Riley can't handle Buffy's role as the Slayer (again, how is this anti-feminist?), and her final major relationship, with Spike, starts as Buffy using Spike (which she admitted when breaking it off) to 'make [her] feel' after her death and resurrection, and develops, during season seven, into a mutual respect and love where Spike remains Buffy's only true ally right to the end. Spike's attempted rape of Buffy has been much discussed, and used as an argument against Buffy's feminism, but in my view the rape is Spike's problem, not really caused by Buffy (except by her getting too close to what is still at that point essentially a soulless evil vampire, struggling with the changes his love of Buffy has wrought - this is the last point at which the evil side wins out before Spike goes in search of his soul), and thus also cannot really be construed as anti-feminist. If anything, it's anti-male, showing (again) the harm men can do to women.

A final point about Buffy's supposedly sexualised image. Why does femininity have to be seen as being in opposition to feminism? There is a certain extent to which women choose to and enjoy presenting themselves as attractive to men, just as men often choose to and enjoy presenting themselves as desirable to women. Such is the natural order of things, and evolutionarily this is not only natural but necessary. To berate female heroes (whether created by men or women - and these are all both because to create a character in a TV series requires a collaboration between the writer, director and actor) for wearing makeup or dressing in a sexually attractive manner is in fact to masculinise them - to say they can only be a hero if they do not present themselves as feminine. And again, male heroes (compare Hercules and Angel, as the direct counterparts of Xena and Buffy) are also presented in a conventionally attractive, sexualised manner in terms of their 'makeup' and attire, but they are not considered to be problematising their heroic nature in so doing. Incidentally, the sexuality, makeup and attire only ever seems to be considered the central focus by feminist critics who have a problem with it (and, interestingly, the only character within the show who has a problem with it is the misogynist acolyte of the First in season seven, Caleb). To the rest of us it is already incidental or celebratory, depending on context.

The question of plot and the necessity of violence is more complex. These are modern versions of traditional hero tales (as in Joseph Campbell), and such tales and heroes are traditionally male, as discussed by Ursula LeGuin in her essay 'Revisioning Earthsea'. There is therefore inevitably a certain extent to which these stories can be considered masculine and the portrayal of a lone warrior is necessarily masculine in origin and brings with it masculine assumptions and overtones. The second you tell a tale of this kind, you are in traditionally masculine territory. Hence the violence and inherited male power structure, and also perhaps the aggressive female sexuality as it tries to assert itself within the confines of a male defined world. The central character therefore cannot really eschew violence in order to build a better world in a more traditionally feminine way. Other characters however can and do - Willow, for example. If you want to have a story like that, you need to recreate the very structure of the hero myth. This is possible, as for example Diana Wynne Jones did in Fire and Hemlock, however if you choose to follow the conventional warrior for good versus the forces of evil power struggle structure you have to have the violence. So to be feminist with it, you have to do as Buffy does, and kick against the male power structure (rebelling against the Council, transforming her relationship with Giles into a father-daughter one rather than master-student, and ultimately rejecting his help and advice, refusing to accept the source of her power from its cruel male origins, and using her femle friend to share that power with other girls and women, thus throwing off the shackles imposed by the male creators). Buffy is therefore as feminist as she can be within her confines - she has to be pretty and sexualised to expose the cliche, she has to be violent because of the world and story she is a part of, but she subverts that all the time, even, it could be argued, feminising the men around her (Xander, who embodies a lot of things which could be considered the preserve of women, his wisdom and love, and Spike, whose love for Buffy enables him to redeem himself). Plus, it is significant that in the end, the only character who does not reject Buffy's leadership (masculine in style...) is the one she has 'feminised' through love - Spike. All the people she has 'masculinised', such as the potentials (teaching them how to fight and kill) reject her and her leadership of them. Spike's love and support show her how to win in a feminine way, by sharing the power, and his love is what actually succeeds in defeating the First, not the violence with which Buffy, the Scoobies and the Potentials use to fight the ubervamps - they would doubtless eventually have been overrun.

In conclusion, Magoulick's arguments about the failure of Buffy as a feminist text seem to have missed the point of what the writers and creators of the show were trying to do. Within the confines of their initial conceit (subverting a masculine horror cliche) and their inherited story structure (male hero myth), they have created a set of characters (because the show isn't just about Buffy) who assert the full potential of the feminine and use it to defeat the masculine world they have inherited. It is a perfect example of what Angel himself tries to do on his show, bring down the system from within. Buffy's feminism is, as I said above, modern and inclusive in that it understands the practicalities of gender relationships and manages to maintain and celebrate the differences (her relationships with men, her self-image) without being either inferior or (equally importantly) superior. Women and the feminine are shown as powerful for what they can achieve working with the masculine as well as against it, and this seems to me to be the true nature of feminism - not anti-male but pro-female. Buffy celebrates this and is justifiably seen as a feminist text - to argue against, like Magoulick, is to miss the point both of what the writers are doing and of what feminism is and should be.