Nov 19, 2012

Sex and the Slayer by Lorna Jowett

Sex and the Slayer by Lorna Jowett

Remember when I threatened to read ALL the Buffy studies books? Well, today I’m going to tell you about my favourite so far. Lorna Jowett’s Sex and the Slayer: A Gender Studies Primer for the Buffy Fan is, as the author puts it, “a feminist cultural studies reading of Buffy”. What this means is that the book aims to explore how “the show is always a product of and a response to its social context”. Jowett’s focus is of course on gender, and the chapters cover topics such as “Girl Power” (the show’s general feminist ethos), “Good Girls” and “Bad Girls” (how female heroines and villains are portrayed) “Tough Guys”, “New Men” and “Dead Boys” (how Buffy’s male characters negotiate different models of masculinity) and “Parental Issues” (on paternal and maternal figures).

I knew right from the introduction that I was going to love Sex and the Slayer, because Jowett approaches criticism in much the same way I do. There seems to be a certain level of misunderstanding about this, but I’ve always felt that the goal of good criticism is not to declare something either “progressive” and therefore safe for consumption, or “problematic” and thus to be avoided at all costs. It’s not about praise versus condemnation; it’s about asking interesting questions about a piece of media and how it’s in dialogue with the real world. It’s also about acknowledging ambivalence and contradiction and getting to the bottom of the mix of ideas a book or movie or TV series presents, because to do so often makes our experiences with it more interesting and rewarding. As Jowett puts it,
What I aim to demonstrate in this book is not how “feminist” or “progressive” the show is, but how it represents femininity, masculinity, and gendered relations, including sexuality, and how this relates to the context of genre.

I believe that Buffy presents neither a “subversive” nor a “conservative” view of gender but, rather, a contradictory mixture of both. The ambivalences that mark the show’s representation of gender are typical of contemporary television and especially of what’s called “quality” television. That Buffy is both subversive of and complicit in dominant culture and ideology mark it as a key example of such popular cultural products.
In sum, Sex and the Slayer is not in the business of shaming anyone for loving Buffy or for not sharing its author’s readings of certain characters or storylines. Sometimes my readings were aligned with Jowett’s and sometimes they weren’t, but her take never ceased to interest me. The book’s emphasis is on how Buffy is in dialogue with our perception of gender at a particular moment in history, and that focus was exactly what appealed to me the most.

One area where I disagree with Jowett, for example, is in her reading of Anya: she sees her as a character who never escapes male control and who the narrative consistently ridicules and undermines, whereas I thought that she was given more freedom than the other “good” female characters, particularly when it comes to acknowledging and expressing her desires. On the other hand, we’re in complete agreement when it comes to Buffy’s sexualisation of its female villains and morally ambiguous characters, a trend of which Faith is perhaps the best example:
Bad girls are often excessive, and their excess can reveal the ways in which femininity is constructed and policed. For example, bad girls are often sexualised. This makes them bad in the sense of “deviant” but also situates their power as sexual power, and therefore as operating within patriarchal structures. The show employs several strategies to contain the power and appeal of the bad girls so that they do not appear to be “better” than the good girls.
As I said back when I first posted about the series, both Buffy and Faith are conventionally attractive, but whereas Buffy’s sexual appeal is presented as demure, Faith’s is presented as excessive and as yet another sign of her “badness”. However, it would be unfair to say that Buffy consistently villanizes Faith in a simplistic way. As Jowett says, “That the bad girls are not always punished for their behaviour and that their stories often lack closure demonstrates how the show authorises viewers' pleasure in these characters.”

Another source of contradiction is Buffy’s portrayal of male and female vampires. There’s simply no female Spike or Angel, and while Darla makes some progress on Angel, it still doesn’t feel like enough. In the end, “male vampires are used to problematize the boundaries between human and monster, while female vampires, though retaining the attraction of the villainess, remain monsters, objects of fear.”

I was particularly interested in the chapters about the show’s representation of masculinity. Jowett suggests that Buffy’s villains are often an embodiment of traditional masculinity, whereas the heroes tend to be “new men”. And because there’s been a lot of confusion about this lately, I should clarify that when I say that the show problematizes traditional masculinity, I don’t mean that it portrayals being male or having traditional male interests as bad; I mean that it challenges an understanding of masculinity that is specifically based on holding power over others (and yes, the two things can and should be divorced). Take Warren, for example: his quest for control becomes creepier and creepier until it reaches tragic proportions at the end of season 6.

I thought this was a particularly interesting point:
The inability of tough guys to negotiate new gendered identities verges on essentialism (men are “naturally” aggressive) but also points to the strength of social conditioning in forming gendered identities, literalized in the tough guys of the Initiative. The lingering influence of more traditional ideas about gender is linked with the privilege and power of patriarchy, and in most of the tough guys this is reinforced by their identity as white, middle class, and heterosexual. Changing gender roles are a threat to this power.
Yet on the other hand,
Some representations of masculinity in Buffy seem able to transcend gender binaries, but on closer examination their masculinity retains traditional elements, and almost all of the new men display a split personality or tension that reinforces a binary structure.
This Jekyll and Hyde approach always bothered me: Angel, Oz, and even Giles all have to struggle with the “beast inside”, and this has troubling implications. The idea that the thin veneer of civilization is the only thing keeping men’s “natural” aggressive tendencies in check is what’s behind the “rape as a natural phenomenon” kind of rhetoric, for example. If men are seen as unable to control their inner monsters at all times, then the onus is entirely on women to get out of the way and keep themselves safe, much like they would if dealing with a tornado or a flood. It’s revealing that even a show as conscious of gender as Buffy replicates these ideas.

Sex and the Slayer is an excellent read: it enhanced my appreciation of Buffy, which I really didn’t think would be possible at this point, and it satisfied my need to return again and again to this story and to these characters. I also enjoyed it because this year I’ve been trying to teach myself to write about TV more insightfully, and reading this book was like taking a master class. Definitely recommended to Buffy fans.

A few more interesting bits:
The lauded ability of young women today to make individual choices is conflated with liberation and achieving equality becomes an individual struggle, backgrounding collective struggle or a wider social context (Woloch 2000: 573). Early seasons of Buffy emphasised collectivity as key to Buffy’s success, but during season 4 she takes on most of the action herself. One obvious reason for Buffy’s individualism here is to contrast the “bad” team of the Initiative. Having recently escaped the control of the Council, Buffy questions orders and decides to act alone (“The I in Team”) like the (usually male) maverick hero of action or cop films. The Initiative is clearly presented as a patriarchal institution, and this adds a gender spin to the individualist hero: rather than a male standing out against a threat to individualism, Buffy is a woman resisting patriarchy.

Whedon stated early on, “This story line [Tara and Willow’s] will not focus on sexuality as a theme but on the intense emotional bond between the characters” (“Buffy’s Willow” 2000: 24), and Buffy tends to displace Willow and Tara’s sexuality onto shared magic use. This allows the show to represent a lesbian relationship with some delicacy. It avoids titillation of the type Xander so often desires, but on the other hand, lack of sexual activity renders invisible a large part of lesbian identity.

The presentation of “uncharacteristic” traditional masculine behaviour in new men is often deflected by comedy. All of this may be a strategy to show that new men do not have to “lack” the attributes of real men, and therefore to make them more appealing to viewers, but it also closes down some of their potential for a revisioning of masculinity. The audience may laugh at Xander’s difficulties in trying to be a new man, but there is no real indication that he will ever become one; Wood retains this potential only through his limited development. The new men are valorised only through their contrast with “bad” tough guys, but they are clearly not a solution. They demonstrate again the difficulty in negotiating a new type of gender identity, in trying to construct a masculinity that fits the postfeminist age.1
(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)

1 A quick note on Jowett’s use of “postfeminist”, which is pretty frequent throughout the book: she uses it to mean “since the inception of feminism” rather than “now that feminism’s work is done and we can all go home”. I’ve come across the latter usage often enough to become very suspicious of the term, so I thought I’d explain in case you feel similarly wary.

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. Okay, so I almost didn't even read this post since I've never seen a single episode of Buffy...but once I started I just couldn't stop. :P This is the reason *you* should be writing essay collections and books of your own! And yes, you made me want to watch Buffy even more than you already had.

  2. *inserts vague comment of the "except I can't write to save my life" variety here* *gets smacked* :P

  3. To start, I had the exact same thought as Debi--you should be writing books. I will be waiting patiently for the day, because I know it will come, and I'll be reading your collected essays on something(s) fascinating.

    That said, I love Buffy, and this book sounds very interesting. I admit to watching it only for entertainment and its exceptionally smart humor, but this book sounds very intriguing.

  4. Yes I agree you should be writing books! :)

    This book sounds really good, I'm glad you found it! How many books on Buffy have you read?

  5. Wow. I really need to bump Buffy closer to the top of my Netflix queue!

    And for the record, if you publish a book, I will buy it. Isn't it funny how people who blog often have a knee jerk reaction of "but I don't write!" *LOL*

  6. Interesting! Especially the readings of sexuality and aggression -- I find very troubling the recurring theme in Whedon's shows that men are, basically, aggressive. There's this one episode of Angel that deals with this (I think it's called Billy) and, I don't know, it's so gender essentialist and ick, and it makes me uncomfortable.

  7. Priscilla: You are all too kind! And I love how Buffy can be enjoyed at several levels - surely the mark of a great series!

    Amy: I read Reading the Vampire Slayer and Five Seasons of Angel before this one. They were good too, but I enjoyed this so much more. The others were edited anthologies, so the contributions were a bit hit or miss.

    Stephanie: I definitely don't think that of bloggers in general, but I have this stupid mental block when it comes to my own words :P Anyway, yes, do watch Buffy!

    Jenny: I remember that - it was cringe-worthy indeed :\ Oh Angel. I loved you so much despite you constantly being faily.

  8. This is fascinating. I agree with your point about Ana. I never saw her as being held back by men. Yes, she was vulnerable on that front, but she was also the most honest about her feelings and sexual desires. She didn't have the social constraints that others do and so she said what she thought at any moment. That always made her one of my favorite characters. I may have to check this one out.

  9. Melissa, that's pretty much how I saw Anya too. It was interesting to read such a different perspective, though!

  10. I will be VERY unhappy if I don't get this as a present in December. :-)

    And this is so unfair - you posted about your Buffy love during the time when google reader kicked you out of my feed and I missed it!!! After all that recommending, I missed it. So glad you loved it as much as I did though, it's my favorite show in the world and I'm waiting for enough time to pass to watch it a third (or is it fourth?) time.

  11. Aw, I'm sorry you missed them! But yes, it's true: I'm a total Buffy convert :D


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