It’s well known that Buffy the Vampire Slayer has explored a range of topics, from high school cliques and adolescent anxieties to gender roles and class dynamics. But the series has done other cultural work as well. Combining the family conflicts characteristic of the horror genre with those typical of melodrama, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has consistently challenged popular notions of feminism and monstrosity.
Like most superheroes, Buffy has not grown up in a stable nuclear family. The usual origin story involves dead parents, lost homelands (or planets), and a consequent sense of mission. Thus, comic book superheroes like Batman, Superman, or Spider-Man were able to fight crime from outside the restrictions imposed by social law. Several were presented as exacting righteous revenge against criminals who were somehow responsible for their broken homes.
More recent superheroes have slightly different beginnings. Buffy, Dark Angel‘s Max (Jessica Alba), and Alias‘s Sidney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) have been raised by a single mother, military laboratory technicians, and a workaholic father, respectively. Yet, their alienation is similar to that of previous heroes.
Buffy is the latest in a line of Slayers, imbued with supernatural powers to fight evil. Her “difference” from her Sunnydale has caused Buffy much agonizing over the years, not least because she had to hide her calling from her mother during most of the first three seasons of the show. But as she was keeping secrets from Joyce (Kristine Sutherland), Buffy matured under the influence of a strong paternal figure, her Watcher, Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head).
The daughter of divorced parents, Buffy embodies the fragility of the family institution, as well as typical adolescent separation anxieties. Indeed, the mere existence of the Slayer implies family breakdown. In the episode “Normal Again” (6-17), a demon’s poison makes Buffy believe her parents are still together. Under these “normal” circumstances, she is no longer a vampire slayer, suggesting that the Slayer can’t have an intact family. But if Buffy embodies the family’s fragility, she also stands for the survival of the children.
The portrayal of Buffy’s troubled relations with her family, and with the Scoobie Gang, is one good reason this show is so popular. Buffy spends as much time fighting vampires and ghouls as worrying about classes, her friends, and her family. When, in “Dead Man’s Party” (3-2), Buffy returns home, she’s concerned about her mother’s distrust and her friends’ resentment at her dedication to her work. Here, the combination of traditionally feminine melodrama and a customarily masculine sphere (horror and action) makes Buffy’s negotiations of adolescence especially difficult.
Still, this particular combination presents a conflicted patriarchal structure, which owes equally to both lineages. Like many slasher films, Buffy features patriarchal institutions that punish defiant children. In “Helpless” (3-12), the Watchers Council drugs Buffy without her consent to see how well she can perform against a demon without her unnatural abilities. And in the season four story arc involving young commando Riley (Marc Blucas), the military and scientific establishments—represented by “The Initiative” - are deceitful and oppressive. The Initiative, under the supervision of Professor Walsh (Lindsay Crouse), performs a variety of horrible experiments on captured vampires, leaving the viewer to wonder if it is morally correct to perform a vivisection to an undead creature.
Even more dramatic, in “The ‘I’ in Team” (4-13), Professor Walsh becomes the embodiment of George Orwell’s Big Brother. Disturbingly, she observes Riley and Buffy’s consummation of their relationship through a video camera, and later on, she lies to Riley, telling him that Buffy is dead. Finally, in “Primeval” (4-21), it is revealed by a government committee that the Initiative was, after all, a top-secret project aimed to create the perfect super-soldier.
Such betrayals make Buffy’s challenges to authority all the more motivated. The most dramatic example takes place during the second season episode entitled “Ted” (2-11), where Buffy fights and kills Ted (John Ritter), her mother’s boyfriend. The politics of Buffy’s actions are clear: she kills the person who threatens to become the patriarch of her family, even if her actions are justified when it is revealed that Ted was a cybernetic organism. Ironically, in a nod to the cult favorite The Stepford Wives, Ted is supposed to be a “perfect” husband.
However, Buffy’s hostilities towards patriarchal authority have some consequences. In fact, much like Blade (Wesley Snipes in the movies), the vampire who is also a vampire killer, Buffy is a monster slayer and generally threatening, that is, “monstrous.” According to Noel Carroll, in his book The Philosophy of Horror, a monster is distinguished by its “impurity and dangerousness.” Buffy enacts such a challenge by virtue of both, her superhuman powers, as these set her apart, and her threatening attitude towards the established patriarchal order. As well, Buffy has had intense affairs with two vampires, Angel (David Boreanaz) and Spike (James Marsters), which contravene social taboos over cultural and racial mixing.
While Buffy clearly resists some patriarchal institutions, its melodramatic roots paradoxically pay homage to patriarchal—or at least paternal—strengths. Giles may be effeminate at times, but he guides, inspires, and helps Buffy in her quest to find her identity as the Slayer as well as a student, and more recently, as a leader of the Potentials and a mother figure for her sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg). Then, Buffy is a strong, brave and intelligent heroine, but only at the expense of a dominant patriarch and a nearly inconsequential matriarch.
Buffy‘s narration of the troubled family proposes complex and apparently contradictory views on gender and monstrosity. While the future of the family as social institution remains uncertain at this point, one can expect that its struggles and conflicts will continue to permeate cultural products. Buffy may be able to save the world and destroy the Hellmouth, but she is unable, or unwilling, to save the family from its apparently inevitable collapse.