Buffy the Vampire Slayer was undeniably an important landmark in the representation of girls and women on television. But it, along with spinoff Angel, spent a surprising amount of time on men’s insecurities and traumas in relation to the women in their lives. There are an awful lot of terrible things that women did to men, and instances of terrible pain that men suffered because of women dying. Terrible things that Cordelia did to Xander, that Buffy did to Angel and Spike, that Darla did to Angel, and Drusilla to Spike. So much pain endured by Giles after Jenny Calendar’s death, so much hurt that Spike suffered when Buffy died, and Angel, well, women just keep dying on him, don’t they? The women of Buffy have complicated, interesting story arcs, but their luck in the romantic department is more than bad, it’s passing strange. It bothers me. No slight to men, but shouldn’t women come first, in this show of all shows?
It’s not a problem that men get a lot of attention in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It is a problem that female characters are so often hinges for male characters’ development. It is a problem that masculinity, though depicted variously, remains essentially unchallenged; and it is a problem that women are so often put on pedestals by men in Buffy, and that this behaviour is frequently validated by the narrative. Bad things happen to both men and women in this show, but there are too many women in refrigerators and women made untouchable, for my peace of mind. For all that Buffy broke ground in giving teen girls and women rich, complicated stories of their own, it also undermined much of this progress when it came to romance.
Let’s start with the obvious: Xander and Spike’s romantic relationships are blunt instruments of character development. For Xander, it’s learning to treat women right and to be with women who treat him right. After finally attaining a relationship with partner in flirtatious snark, rich girl Cordelia, he kisses Willow, whose crush on him he’s ignored for years. Cordelia, who’d been reluctant to enter a relationship with him, and Willow, who’d been pining over him, are both done wrong, but Xander learns a valuable lesson. His romantic waffling leaves them both stripped raw: Cordelia is newly vulnerable, having put down her armor only to be hurt; Willow needs to repair her relationship with boyfriend Oz and finally move past the childhood crush that Xander exploited in his rush to uncommit from Cordelia. It’s Xander’s story that gets star treatment, while Cordelia and Willow are both forced, narratively, to move on quickly. Cordelia gets one episode to expel her frustrations with Buffy, Xander and company, “The Wish,” which teaches her a valuable lesson about pettiness and introduces Xander’s love interest in waiting, Anyanka the chaos demon. Willow gets to angst a bit but there are other story roles to fulfill — romantic screwup is not her purpose in Buffy.
Xander’s later relationship with human-turned-demon-turned-human Anya (nee Anyanka) is repetition with variation. He slowly wears her down into a serious grown up relationship — like Cordelia, she at first was only down for something less serious — he lets her down, dramatically leaving her at the altar because he’s “not ready,” and she’s left confused. After spending a thousand odd years as a revenge demon, Anya has a hard time fitting into the daily life of suburban California, and little true interest in doing so. It’s only Xander’s charmed annoyance with her quirks that motivates her to try. He wants a normal relationship with her — a middle class, heteronormative romance — though his initial attraction to her is based on how poorly she fulfills the role of a good girlfriend. This bears so much resemblance to his arc with Cordelia: he is attracted to her meanness and disdain but having hooked up with her, he tries to wear down her edges to respectability, and having finally succeeded in building the relationship he wants, he rejects it and her. Once Cordelia’s usefulness as romantic interest is up, she dramatically exits the show for Angel. (And it begins again!) Similarly, Anya is dispatched heroically in the final episode of Buffy, while the rest of the cast literally walks into the sunset largely untouched. This hurts Xander deeply.
The growing pains never stop.
For Spike it’s torture, endurance and self-revelation — Xander to the extremes. Where Xander holds his own with Cordelia and Anya — relationships heavily infused with the patter of black and white American romantic comedies — Spike is a wet blanket, ill-used by Cecily, Drusilla, Buffy and his mother, until he learns to “man up,” and “man up” some more. Spike, nee William, we learn, has always been a pushover who acts out violent masculinity in an attempt to conceal his vulnerability. Under all the bluster and blood, he’s a sad, sorry little boy. He’s the one you can change; the one you can save. Spike is a kind of tired Heathcliff-ish romantic ideal, whereas Xander is an everyman, but their romantic histories have such similar arcs: do not want above your station, at least not until you’ve become a man worthy of strong women; do not let lesser women walk all over you, and likewise, do not do injury to strong women who belong on pedestals. Spike and Xander are forever chasing women who are smarter than them, independent of them, and often disdainful of them; women who are “too good” for them. But where everyman Xander gets to have everyday sitcom love stories, bright women dulled into domesticity with a commitphobic manchild, Spike gets romantic tragedies in extremis. The arc though, is similar: he seeks, he attains, he realizes his unworthiness, and she leaves, often through death.
The women in their lives are engines of transformation and growth — not so much equal partners, but episodes in their romantic adventures. The most stomach-churning of which for Spike is his relationship with Buffy. Although Spike tried to rape Buffy, their later sexual relationship contains the suggestion that it’s Buffy exploiting Spike — she doesn’t care about his feelings, only what he can do for her. And later still, once he’s been re-souled, she rebuffs his romantic advances in favour of friendship and service — it’s just not the time. Poor Spike. She will never return his feelings in the way he wants. This is not to suggest that Spike’s suffering isn’t a fact, or that there aren’t moments where Buffy does him wrong, but consider: this transition, from would-be rapist, to exploited partner, to friendzoned lover in arms is what drives Spike’s transformation from villain to hero. Buffy is why and how he grows. This mirrors his early vampire life, when Drusilla ruled his heart. Sadsack poet William is transformed into bratty, rebel vampire Spike. Beautiful, talented and troubled seer Drusilla is his motivation. She is both his purpose — she sometimes needs his caregiving — and the standard by which he measures his masculinity. Is Drusilla safe? Is she impressed by this act of violence? He changes for her, becoming both meaner and more responsible, just as for Buffy, he becomes kinder and less wild. His love for them will always be tied to his admiration for them. In attaining them he is disappointed — like Xander, he knows that he doesn’t quite measure up.
Giles and Angel are somewhat different cases. Unlike Xander and Spike, their masculinity is never really in question. Instead of learning to be men through women, they are motivated by the death and abuse of women. As Buffy’s watcher, Giles is her mentor, only male authority figure, and a kind of substitute father figure. Buffy’s parents divorce before the action of the show, and her father is largely absent, mentioned fewer than five times over the course of the series. It’s Giles who fills this role for Buffy, and later Dawn. He sets the boundaries and is rebelled against. He is the rock that Buffy can both rely on, and test herself against. Their relationship is one of my favourite parts of the show, but it also accounts for a tremendous amount of Giles’ personal motivation. Violence against Buffy drives him to violence. Her bad choices lead to his making even more dubious choices, cast sympathetically because so often, he’s only trying to protect her. (As series lead, Buffy retains her agency, but in subtle ways she also operates as a thing-that-happens to everyone else.)
Giles also suffers through the loss of Jenny Calendar. Jenny was a teacher at Sunnydale High, and a secret witch. Well, she’s a techno-pagan/Gypsy, which is left at a series of unexplored racial stereotypes, and never quite explored. After some initial tension she becomes a key ally of Buffy’s group, and begins a romantic relationship with Giles. Having broken with her family in favour of Buffy and Giles, Jenny becomes an adjunct character, a reason-for-Giles, and then she dies. Her death marked a turning point in Giles’s character. Where before he was more well-meaning, a bumbling professor, he now had a mean streak and a dark side. (Importantly, while he was prone to stuttering and the various tics of a stereotypical academic, Giles wasn’t portrayed as weak, but rather powerful intellectually.) Giles was capable of terrible violence, even torture, when motivated by revenge, or the need to protect Buffy. Giles acquired new depth; Jenny died.
Interestingly, this pattern is repeated with Willow and Tara, with Tara taking the place of Jenny Calendar. Tara is the fulcrum upon which Willow discovers her dark side, she is vaguely culturally witchy, has only the slimmest of character biographies and shallow relationships with much of the rest of the cast. And then she dies. Jenny and Tara both live on in the memories of their lovers — as motivation. Willow is of course Giles’ protégée, the student who exceeds the master in mystical knowledge and magical practice. She is also, a heck of a lot like Giles, in using quirkiness as a shield, in using personal pain as an excuse for dark deeds. Giles and Willow are both the smart, awkward nerds who are secretly powerful and capable of great and terrible things. But Giles is a boy and Willow is a girl and this makes a difference in the very binary world of Buffy — Willow is the more powerful, obviously, but consider how masculinity and femininity play out here too. If Giles is willing to torture and kill for Buffy and Jenny, Willow is willing to torture and kill and raise the dead and destroy the world for Buffy and Tara. The difference, I suppose, is that Giles gets to keep his dignity, while Willow gets shipped off to magical rehab and is tortured by a monster — symbolic penance — before she can rejoin the group. Unlike Giles, Willow has no internal breaks. She gets to touch the numinous, to “meet the goddess,” to go beyond what Giles can do, but she also needs external restraints. While Giles ultimately epitomizes a kind of reliable masculinity, Willow’s “feminine instincts” are wild and she does terrible harm to the women in her life as she learns from them.
Angel too has done great harm to the people in his life, and from time to time, has to endure suffering before the narrative allows him to move on. As with Willow, the stakes are the highest of high, but unlike Willow, Angel more often course corrects without outside intervention. He’s more “sensible” than Willow, less terrifying a protector. There is something of a known quantity to Angel, even through his wild swings from souled to unsouled. Like Giles, Angel’s masculinity doesn’t need defending — it’s an obvious, rock-solid type. Although Angel endures periods of extreme trauma and resulting PTSD, he retains a core masculine power. Giles said no thanks to macho physicality, and from time to time, Angel says no thanks to active heroism. But whether he’s been traumatized by a trip to a hell dimension, the horrors of his own worst side, or another trip to a hell dimension, Angel retains his agency–ultimately he decides when he will retreat to heal, and when he will go back out to fight the good fight again. Angel, like Wolverine, is a study in traumatized masculinity, one that inevitably rebounds from violence and loss.
While Buffy is Angel’s inspiration (her arrival as the new slayer is the reason he decides to stop living in sewers, and step back into the world), their relationship isn’t a stepping stone to greater character development per se. Their relationship serves to move him from mysterious bad boy, to boyfriend, to star-crossed lover via the action of the plot, not through its effect on him — Angel’s character is increasingly revealed by his time with Buffy, but not transformed through it. Angel is Angel is Angel — even unsoulled Angelus is Angel-like; largely unmoored from human society, utterly uninterested in most people’s opinion of him, possessed of a core of self-confidence and action-oriented, prone to grand ideas and self-involvement. His later relationship with Cordelia has a somewhat more transformative effect on him — she helps him to loosen up a bit. But her victimization, her shift from friend to lover to demon to dead doesn’t serve to change Angel, so much as it does motivate him. It drives his interactions with Wolfram & Hart, his new model of resistance. So while Cordelia breaks free of being Xander’s teachable moment, she is reinstalled in a secondary, use value position, as Angel’s motivation.
Check out this speech.
Note that Whedon says it was important to him that he surround Buffy with male characters who admired her for being a strong female character, and were even sexually attracted to her. This is a constant thread in his work: strong women must be honoured, must be admired, and by the way, they’re hot. From Willow to Cordelia, to Anya, to Buffy, the women of Buffy the Vampire Slayer are beautiful and badass and always a little too good for the men. Strong partnerships are formed from time to time, but the rising action is always a progression towards escape or death: one partner is always leaving or surpassing the other, and very often men are proved unworthy of the relationship they would prefer. They don’t get the girl, because the girl doesn’t want them, doesn’t need them, or the girl died for them or to motivate them, but they can be redeemed through worship; they can be redeemed by knowing the girl is too good for them, and loving her for it.
On the one hand, Buffy is a world in which women are valuable and wonderful and something more than men, and this is tremendously empowering for young viewers. On the other hand, this special status makes victims of them, in myriad ways: they are too good for their partners, essentially and ultimately untouchable; they are more beautiful badass than complex human being; they don’t have the clay feet that almost every male character does, and this keeps them from being quite grounded; and sometimes they are more character-type than character. Woman-as-treasured memory isn’t alive. Woman-on-pedestal can’t quite be touched. Why can’t the women of Buffy just have a good relationship with someone who’s comfortable and confident in that bond?
When the long high-school-is-hell arc of Buffy wrapped up and the characters moved on to college and grown up jobs, it seemed like a natural time for Buffy to have an adult relationship with a nice guy: Riley. Angel was her first love — and Buffy was Angel’s icon, the flag he followed — and that relationship came with all the trappings of first and of young love. They were star-crossed but passionate; heroic but tempted; always in love but never together. Riley was something different. He was the normal guy with a secret. The good guy with just enough edge. Older and more experienced than Buffy, but not creepily so. Strong and capable but not so strong as to overshadow Buffy. This season and their relationship is widely derided by fans for how it awkwardly tried to redirect the focus of the show, and how poorly Buffy-and-Riley were integrated into the network of existing character relationships. Buffy-and-Riley took up too much time. Riley was boring and the storyline he came attached to was a stinker. And while Buffy was, according to the story, enjoying her time with Riley, he seemed to have little impact on her or on the rest of the cast. He had to go. Riley is summarily excused from the show at the end of the season, justified by a strange plot twist: while offscreen he has become addicted to vampire bites and vampire sex and is a messy embarrassment; Buffy is better off without him. This is good because it allows her to move on from him. It’s bad because it humiliates and demoralizes her, and is so strange that the writers felt the need to rehabilitate the until-then-inoffensive character. To twist the knife, Riley reappears several seasons later, at a time when Buffy is once again at a romantic impasse, now in a stable, married relationship with an adventurous woman of action. Could Buffy have had that? Or something like that? Only in her dreams, but never in Buffy.
Remember when Buffy had a graveyard therapy session with a vampire and she admitted to having an inferiority complex about her superiority complex? This is the sum of it: Buffy is superior, insofar as narrative importance, mystical significance, and personal power go, and she will always be made to feel bad about it. Xander, Spike, Angel, and Giles look up at her, touch parts of her, but never her whole. Xander and Spike gain character development from their relationships and Giles and Angel are motivated by them. They orbit Buffy, a constellation of friends, followers, and sometime lovers; Buffy is burdened with being their centre. So Buffy doesn’t get true love. So what? She’s fine without it. But wouldn’t it be nice, I keep thinking, for Buffy to have a romance that ends sweetly, or continues respectfully, without her being denied or being given the short end of the stick?