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Of Girls and Their Vampires, part I

Of Girls and Their Vampires

Gender and relationship portrayals in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twilight

                                                                                                                By Vadim Baranovsky.

In this paper I will attempt a comparative message system analysis of two similar texts: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV show) and Twilight (book and movie). Message system analysis, as described in an article by George Gebner, is the study of content of television programs that allows the analyst to see what behavioral patterns are encouraged and what view of reality is enhanced by the content of a given movie or show. 

One of the most popular TV shows featuring vampires was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, created by Joss Whedon in the late 1990’s. In the concept of the show Whedon wanted to overthrow the old “slasher movie” stereotype of a cute blond girl wandering off and being brutally killed in a dark alley somewhere. This stereotype, present in many movies and books, is in itself a very patriarchic, hegemonic message that states that women are not safe alone anywhere and need a strong male guardian to make sure they are not murdered or raped.

  Indeed, the first scene of the first episode of Buffy is that of a young couple sneaking into a school building at night, the girl timid and anxious, the guy swaggering with a smugness of a Don Juan on a verge of a sexual conquest. However, in a split second the situation reverses itself and the frightened young girl (who turns out to be a four hundred years old vampire, Darla) assumes a horrifying visage of a monster and bites the unsuspecting young man on the neck.

Buffy Summers is a typical South Californian teenager: blond, slight, pretty, not a little vain about her looks and not very wild about her studies – in other words, perfect monster fodder for a regular slasher/monster/vampire movie. But there is a twist: Buffy is a Vampire Slayer, a woman born with special powers. She alone can stand against vampires, demons and monsters who abound in the peaceful-looking little town of Sunnydale, CA, that stands on the very mouth of Hell.

  While definitely possessing the quality of to-be-looked-at-ness (Mulvey, 837), from the point of view of the audience – Buffy is pretty, slim, has perfect hair, wears flirty outfits and leather pants alike – she definitely does not exist as an object for a man’s gaze within the show’s narrative. It is rather herself who is the bearer of the gaze. She is the one who has the power.

  A Slayer is officially subordinated to a Watchers’ Council – a group of stodgy, officious bureaucrats consisting mostly of middle-aged white males, but every time they try to use their position to influence Buffy, she thwarts them. In the end, when the Council sends a committee to investigate the Slayer, Buffy reverses the power structure, realizing the power she holds and making sure the Council recognizes this fact.

  Buffy is demonstrably a feminist character, breaking stereotypes and challenging the established authorities. In the last episode of the show she releases her power and shares it with other young women who have the potential to become Slayers, empowering her sisters to fight the forces of evil in a very literal way. In the words of Anne Millard Daugherty, “Buffy remains, as she began, an icon for female representation. Buffy Summers is not a prissy heroine. She is neither a stereotypical ‘good' girl, nor a ‘bad' girl. She is human. She punches and she rolls with the punches. Not the object of the traditional male gaze, Buffy is a popular icon and represents female empowerment. She kicks butt and so can we all." (Daugherty, 164)

  Buffy is not the only female role model in the show: it teems with strong women, both as heroines and villainesses, including Buffy’s best friend Willow, a powerful witch and a computer geek. The men in Team Buffy are very pointedly non-violent: her mentor, a mild-mannered British librarian Ruperrt Giles is an incompetent fighter, and her friend Xander Harris is also not particularly strong or fierce. Willow’s boyfriend Oz, the werewolf, gets dangerous and violent every full moon, but he is very conscientious and careful about it, and volunteers to be locked in a cage for three nights per month.

The real embodiments of male physical power and masculine violence in the show are vampires. Ever since John Polidori’s The Vampyre and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the figure of a blood-drinking creature of the night has figured prominently in Western literature and ever since Nosferatu and Dracula – in Western cinema.

One of the more obvious symbolic forms that the figure of the vampire has been used as an allegory for is sexuality, especially forbidden and violent sexuality. The iconic ritual of a vampire biting its victim’s neck and the victim submitting to the bite is doubtlessly intrinsically erotic, neck being an important erogenous zone for both sexes. Both the original vampires, the Count Dracula and Lord Ruthven, are mysterious, dark and sexy characters, so are Dracula’s three vampire brides. If a female vampire has more in common with a succubus, a temptress and a seductress, sort of a literal femme fatale, the male vampire is connected not only with the sensual and seductive incubus, but is also an allegory of violent side of masculinity and violent male sexuality in particular. Evil vampires in Twilight and most vampires in Buffy are the ultimate bullies, who delight in their “ability to control and scare other people, to intimidate and especially not back down from a confrontation” (Jhally)

There are two vampires that Buffy has a sexual relationship with during the course of the show. One is Angel, a vampire with a soul – the soul provides him with human conscience and an ability to control his inner demon, - and another is Spike. Spike, a villain in the second season, returns to Sunnydale in the fourth, only to have a chip implanted in his brain by government operatives. The chip prevents Spike from doing violence to any human being: he cannot even point a toy gun at a person without feeling intense pain. In the finale of the sixth season Spike, in love with Buffy, goes to an African sorcerer and gets his soul back. Then in the seventh season his chip is removed.

  The message is very clear: only those men who control their urges, who are abstaining from wanton violence, deserve respect.

Buffy’s relationship with Angel is the deeper of the two. First, Angel appears as Buffy’s mysterious protector and ally: he follows her in the darkness so he can help her out in case she gets attacked, and Buffy promptly drops him on his butt, demanding an answer to why he is following her. Only after Angel proves to be a real friend and ally, sharing Buffy’s goals and ideals, Buffy starts developing feelings for him. Their relationship progresses until it is consummated, and Angel loses his soul in a moment of perfect happiness, as per terms of a Gypsy curse he was under. He becomes the evil vampire Angelus, and his relationship with Buffy becomes abusive – he stalks her, intimidates her, plays cruel tricks on her, until in the end of the season 2 Buffy is forced to kill him.

About ten years after Buffy started on television, another movie featuring a vampire who does not drink human blood and a girl who falls in love with him came out. It was called Twilight, based on the book by Stephenie Meyer. Edward Cullen, the vampire hero of Twilight, does not kill humans because this is how things are done in his vampire family. He falls in love with a human girl (without Slayer powers) by the name of Bella Swan, and their relationship is the main focus of the book and the film.

  The narrative of Twilight develops according to the formula of the romance novel – a young girl comes to a new town, and immediately meets a handsome stranger who seems to dislike her on sight. He behaves strangely and rudely towards her, upsetting her emotional balance and leaving her in the dark about his feelings towards her. Then he saves Bella’s life by stopping a crashing van with his bare hands, and then secretly follows  her to a nearby town where he rescues her from a dangerous situation with four would-be rapists. Bella is intrigued and fascinated by Edward. Some local legends lead her to believe that Edward might be a vampire. She confronts him, and he finally admits it. It turns out that all his unusual behavior was due to the fact that Bella’s smell is so powerfully attractive to him that he can hardly restrain himself from biting her and drinking her blood. He goes at length about having killed people before, and warns Bella that he is very dangerous to be around, but Bella becomes even more infatuated with him. After some time they fall in love with each other. All seems well until another vampire, not so scrupulous about killing humans as Edward and his family are, comes along and fancies Bella for a snack. Then Edward and his family invent an elaborate scheme to hide Bella, but the vampire tracks her down and almost kills her, and is himself killed by Edward’s foster brothers.

On the surface, the two relationships – Buffy plus Angel and Bella plus Edward – seem very similar. Both include a mortal girl and an “abstinent”/”vegetarian” vampire, both are dramatic and romantic. But there are fundamental differences in the ways in which Stephenie Myers and Joss Whedon portray the balances of power in these relationships.

The relationship between Buffy and Angel is that between equals. Yes, he is over 200 years old, and she is 16, but, as was mentioned earlier, she is a smart, strong-willed and self-asserting young woman, who is at least Angel’s equal in physical strength and fighting skills, and doubtlessly his superior in decisiveness and determination. Buffy and Angel fight side by side to achieve their common goals and save each other’s lives on several occasions.

The message that Buffy sends to the female viewers is to be strong and assertive, and do not let a man threaten or abuse you – ever. The message to the male audience is to be non-violent and respectful to women. And the message concerning relationships is that they need to be based on shared goals and mutual respect as well as mutual love.

The relationship between Edward Cullen and Bella Swan is nothing like that. While Edward is a 108 years old vampire with superhuman strength, speed and senses of smell and hearing, plus he can read minds (but not Bella’s: that is a major part of why he finds Bella is so attractive), Bella is pretty much a blank slate. Even though she is the narrator of Twilight, we are not aware of any strong opinions that she might hold, or any cultural affiliations that she might have. We know that she never dated, likes classical music, is a good student and dislikes hippy subculture, and this is all we know about her personality. Neither character has any defined goals or desires; there is no sign of respect from either party: Edward is condescending and patronizing towards Bella, while Bella is completely overawed by her vampire boyfriend. Their relationship appears to be built on mutual fascination and purely chemical attraction on a very base level, as in being intoxicated by each others’ smell.

There is little wonder that a relationship between non-equals that is devoid of mutual respect will prove to be an abusive one. National Domestic Violence Board’s website lists several signs that the relationship you are in might be abusive. 

Let's examine that.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 12th, 2012 05:11 am (UTC)
In the seventh season Spike, in love with Buffy, goes to an African sorcerer and gets his soul back.

В финале 6-го сезона.
А так эссе замечательное, читаю с огромным интересом.
Jul. 12th, 2012 12:24 pm (UTC)
Да, точно. Сейчас поправлю.

Рад, что тебе нравится. :)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )