Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Sex Radicalism and The Case of Robin Wood

Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer presented a milestone in feminist iconography, providing a convincing portrayal of the turbulence of adolescence through the perspective of an endearing and empowered female protagonist, Buffy Summers- the latest of a long line of chosen ones who are destined to stop the forces of darkness alongside her Scooby Gang pals. Whedon’s satire of the blond bimbo stereotype demonstrates a transition away from female objectification traditionally found in the film and television mediums. Audiences both identified and cheered for the blond girl whose matrilineal power source served as a metaphor for feminine empowerment to ‘take back the night.’

With her ‘I can kick ass and wear a mini skirt’ mentality, Buffy shines as a beacon of third-wave feminism. Yet, the complexity of the show’s narrative and characterization provides the realism which is often lacking in third-wave feminist texts and, ultimately, serves to reinforce the show’s feminist undertone by fueling audience engagement. Some scholars have heralded the unifying power of the slayer to emotionally grip a diverse audience with the show’s coming age theme. Others, such as Carol Siegel, have suggested that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not radical enough – citing examples of how Buffy’s desires, particularly sexual, express conformity to dominant norms about femininity.  

However, Siegel’s argument, though entertaining, is based upon a largely narrow view of the show; Siegel focuses only on the character of Buffy, herself, and not on other characters who present different perspectives on female identity in regards to sexual expressions, such as the character of Faith. A careful examination of two select episodes of the seventh, and final, season with a focus on the characters of Faith and Robin Wood, reveals not only the weaknesses in Siegel’s argument but also exposes a more legitimate criticism of the show- namely the show’s presentation of race.

Carol Siegel in her article “Female Heterosexual Sadism: The Final Feminist Taboo in Buffy The Vampire Slayer and the Anita Blake Vampire Hunter Series,” provides a critique of Whedon’s vampire slaying hero, suggesting that while Buffy was welcomed as an icon of female identification, the character ultimately places female sexual desire in a designated ‘do not disturb box’- believing that show forces viewers to uphold a conservative standard of female sexuality. According to Siegel, the show implicitly codes female sexual behavior as dangerous, inevitably leading to emotional and physical violence (Siegel 57-60). Siegel’s analysis centers upon the three episodes in season six whereby Buffy after being traumatized by her resurrection has engaged in a destructive, sexually explicit relationship with Spike.

Spike is a former nemesis who learned to fight alongside Buffy after a secret government organization implanted a behavior modification chip in his brain to prevent him from hurting humans (57-60). After experiencing the peace of death and then being suddenly thrust back into a world that is harsh and cruel, Buffy spirals into a deep-seated depression. She isolates herself and her bitterness toward her destiny, her friends, and her perceived inability to cope with life’s normal difficulties such as paying bills and raising her sister turns her hatred inward. She takes this hatred out on Spike, finding an outlet for her rage through her engagement in a sadomasochistic sexual relationship (60-62).

Buffy wants to punish herself for harboring resentment towards her friends and in turn allows Spike to dominate and punish her sexually; she becomes addicted to the pain of their sexual encounters as sleeping with him provides the only means by which she is able to break away from the numbness that being pulled out of heaven has created inside her. Her relationship with him serves to only reinforce her own negative self-image. However, according to Siegel, Buffy’s “disgust” (Seigel 75) at her own sexual indulgences with Spike signifies her innate goodness and reminds Buffy, and by extension the audience, that the affair is wrong and must be only temporary. Indeed, Buffy’s road to mental stability is marked by her refusal to continue her sexual liaisons with Spike (61). The narratives use of sadomasochism as a way of demonstrating Buffy’s harmful state of mind lies at the center of Siegel’s argument (61). Siegel claims: while presenting a protagonist who encourages female empowerment through a mastery of athleticism, Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer endorses the mainstream ideal of sexuality whereby unconventional sexual behavior, or any sexual behavior of women, is coded as “unnaturally grotesque and evil” (Siegel 66).

Because of the character’s refusal to freely engage in sadomasochism as a legitimate means of sexual expression, Siegel argues against the feminist interpretation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Siegel 60-62). Siegel’s premise is intriguing, but her emphasis on only the character of Buffy and the lack of analysis of the sexual behaviors of the narrative’s other characters adds less weight to Siegel’s argument, which seems to suggest that the only way to be a feminist is to engage in sadomasochism, not more. The author’s criticisms of Buffy regarding sexual expression, particularly in the context of the sixth season seem more or less accurate.

Yet, Siegel applies this criticism to the entire narrative of the show and not just to the characterizations of Buffy, herself.  Also, examples other than Buffy’s two vampire affairs would have provided more support for Siegel’s claims that “sex is always bad” (Siegel 82) in the Buffyverse. The lesbian relationship between Willow and Tara along with the demon-human relationship between Xander and Anya, both of which are prominent in the sixth season, are never addressed (57-86). The reader is forced to question as to whether all female characters engage in the same sexual patterns as Buffy. Furthermore, Siegel’s assertion that “masculinity signifies the power to victimize others” (82) is rooted only in the limited context of the character of Spike and the brief paragraph concerning Angel when he loses his soul (81); the statement application is never expanded to include major male characters such as Xander and Giles. Thus, Siegel’s argument and knowledge of the show, even, seems incomplete.

Even if Siegel’s premise of correlating feminism with the act of engaging in sadomasochism as a necessity is accepted, the character of Faith provides the evidence, according to Siegel’s rubric, that the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer is sexually radical. Originally depicted as the foil for Buffy and primary villain in season three, Faith is the polar opposite of her sister slayer – the brunette to her blonde.  In season seven, the episode titled ‘Dirty Girls’ features the dark slayer’s return to Sunnydale to aid Buffy against the battle with the First Evil. The majority of the episode charts the tension between the two slayers and Faith’s struggle to find redemption after being incarcerated for murder, to which she freely confessed as part of her atonement.

Faith’s initial fight with Spike, where she comes from off screen and punches him to the ground, provides a change in narrative’s power scale as her presence literally takes him by surprise and her domination changes the dynamics of the scene. Spike, who was attacking a female vampire, has had his power stolen by a woman and is turned into the submissive party. This alteration where men become victims of women continues throughout the entire episode and directly rebuts Siegel’s criticism. Siegel, however, in her brief mention of Faith’s character, asserts that Faith’s masculine presence and overt sexuality only serve as a means of othering, of demonstrating Buffy’s moral superiority as she is everything that Faith is no (Siegel 80). This criticism might hold more weight in the prior seasons, but it does not account for the progression of Faith’s character. Faith and Buffy are no longer enemies; indeed, they are presented as equals.

Another notable scene within the episode occurs when Faith seeks refuge from the other potential slayers and retreats to the basement to find Spike who is half naked, lying on a cot above two chains hang open.  A wicked smile crosses her lips before she lights a cigarette, revealing her delight at the sight of Spike’s exposed flesh. The camera gaze, as the scene unfolds, is removed from the traditional point of view of Buffy. The narrative, and by extension, the viewer adopt Faith’s perspective which allows the viewer to objectify Spike as an object of desire- breaking the show’s trend of objectifying the main heroine. However, the fact that Faith is a slayer whose power is linked to femininity proves that Faith’s gaze is not a masculine one.

Though Spike claims that ‘it’s not what it looks like.” Faith responds, shamelessly: “Hey, to each his own, man. This one guy I can with, he liked me to dress up as a schoolgirl and this freaking bullwhip… Spike cuts her off before she can finish the statement, yet for the viewer, this one line along with Faith’s enthusiastic gestures which at out the scene provides an apologetic representation of unconventional sexual behavior. Her later statement only further emphasizes her blatant sexuality as she sits in front of Spike, her legs hanging open, inviting Spike to come closer. “Hey if you can’t beat- em, join- em just don’t forget who’s on top.” The radical effect upon the viewer may be lessened by the fact the Faith is only seen stating these sexual interests rather than acting on them.

Still, Faith shatters Siegel’s assertion, “that masculine and feminine sexual needs are incompatible” (82) as they always lead to men dominating women. As demonstrated by the camera’s gaze, Faith represents the dominating presence and, because she is on the path of redemption, her sexual urges are no longer constructed as proof of her villainous character; she is not punished for her sexual appetite which now only serves to mark a point of difference between her and Buffy. Thus, the character of Faith invalidates Siegel’s premise and proves that sex within the Buffy-verse does not “always occur at the expense of women” (82).   

Thought the character of Faith provides a new means of examining sexuality as presented in the of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and demonstrates the show’s progressive representation of women, the character of Robin Wood as shown in the episode ‘Help’ of season seven demonstrates a significant weakness within the show’s narrative concerning the issue of race. Ultimately the show’s representation of race fails to deviate from the accepted practice of white dominance, utilizes stereotyping characteristic of the Reagan/Bush administration (Gray in its depiction of African Americans. White characters have dominated the screen throughout the history of television, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer is no exception to this standard, despite the show’s ensemble cast.

Like many television shows of the mid-1990s, Buffy the Vampire Slayer offers little visibility for African Americans or any racial minorities; most minorities are cast only in roles of a standard vampire whose has little to no dialogue and is usually killed off within the first act. In fact, most characters who are cast as a run of the mill vampires are racial minorities.  Thus, characters of color last long enough in the narrative for Buffy to plunge the stake… and move on. Indeed the show has only four characters, of minor significance, the most memorable character that of the Principle Robin Wood who runs the Sunnydale High once the school is rebuilt while freelancing as a vampire hunter.

The fourth episode of season seven provides the third appearance and longest appearance, of the two previous episodes, of Principal Robin Wood. On the surface the character of Robin wood seems to provide a progressive representation of an African American; he is an attractive, charismatic individual whose suits are always pressed to perfection. In dealing with the students at Sunnydale High, he is firm but also forgiving as demonstrated by the opening of the second act of the episode when he pulls two thug-like students in his office after having caught them vandalizing school property. He walks them through the process of writing them up, marking their permanent record, and the details of suspension.

His handling of the matter betrays a high degree of respect for the rules and for the system in and of itself. The series main protagonist, Buffy, interrupts with a question for him but reframes from asking when she discovers he is busy. Buffy, who was roped into becoming a guidance counselor at the school by Wood himself during her sister’s first day, listens on as he outlines the punishment for the students. Sensing Buffy’s sympathy for the boys, he looks up from his desk and meets her gaze. Wood’s eyes soften and he begins telling the boys about when he was a kid he did not have the opportunities that available to them and remarks it would be a shame to let their potential go to waste. He gives the boys the option of fixing the damage done to the school grounds without reporting them as Buffy looks on with an approving smile. She tells him he did the right thing; he nods and comments that two kids are lucky he was feeling generous since actions like vandalism were taken very seriously where he was from. “The hood Buffy asks with genuine curiosity. “Beverly Hills,” he corrects her with a smile, adding “which is a hood, I suppose.”

On the one hand, this scene outlines the very likable nature of Wood’s character such as his generosity and his seemingly easy going relationship with Buffy; on the other hand, it betrays the racist sentiments of right-wing conservatism as promulgated by the Regan/Bush administration (Gray 39). Wood’s stern lecture and respect of the rules in which he learned to operate within illustrates the importance of individual character characteristic of the Reagan administration which held middle-class blacks as exceptional individuals while those of the working class were labeled as being morally unfit and unmotivated (39- 42). Everything about Wood, from his respect for rules and institutions to his dress sense, screams that he is a self-made man.

He grew up an orphan and believes, as he told the students, that “nobody will hand you anything.” This distaste for hand me outs echoes the need the image of the exceptional black middle class (39- 42). He worked for what he has earned, and he did it without the aid of others. He is the Colin Powell of the Buffyverse, designed to ease the fear of whites about the black ‘other.’ The neat appearance of his clothes, the eloquent manner of his speech, and the very fact that he lives in Sunnydale, a town which must have a minority population of ten, demonstrates his need to separate himself from others of his race and his conformity to white norms (39); this is represented by his desire to win Buffy’s approval as it was only after she entered his office and looked him in the eye that he decided to change his method of handling the boys whom he referred to as thugs.

However, the most disturbing and poignant use of racial stereotyping is demonstrated not through the character of Wood but through Buffy herself as shown in her immediate assumption of Wood’s background being from the “hood.”  Buffy’s assumption stems from policies of the Reagan conservative propaganda which in the administration’s zeal to contain the epidemic of the black working class linked all African Americans to the ghetto, a place that middle-class white America should avoid. T

hough the dialogue between Buffy and Wood may have been a subversive attempt by the writers to point out the innate absurdity of linking all African Americans to the ‘hood,’ especially given Wood’s response, it sets a dangerous precedent. As the series’ main protagonist, Buffy serves as the vehicle which guides viewers’ expectations and fosters audience identification. Thus, it through Buffy that the audience learns to understand Wood and by extension all minorities presented within the Buffy-verse. Buffy’s curiosity about Wood, which the writers fuel by making the character purposely mysterious and shady, reflects white society’s curiosity about the African American other and promotes the view that people are, indeed, different based solely on skin color.

Works Cited

Gray, Herman. Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for Blackness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.
Siegel, Carol. “Female Heterosexual Sadism: The Final Feminist Taboo in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Anita Blake Vampire Hunter Series.” Third Wave Feminism and Television. Ed. Merrie Lisa Johnson. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2007.  
“Dirty Girls.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Teleplay by David Greenwalt. Story by Joss Whedon. Dir. David Solomon. Perf. Sarah Michelle Gellar, James Marsters, and Eliza Dushku. The WB. Los Angeles, 2003.
“Help.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Teleplay by David Greenwalt. Story by David Fury. Dir. David Solomon. Perf. Sarah Michelle Gellar and D.B Woodside. The WB. Los Angeles, 2003.

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