a freudian take on 'buffy'
I’m taking a critical theory class this semester at Georgetown (CCTP-721, taught by the fantabulous Dr. Matthew Tinkcom). For the midterm, we were given a number of questions, from which we could pick two to answer. One of the questions I responded to:
Consider how the theory of psychoanalysis can be brought to bear upon a text of your choosing.
And so we have…
One of the conceits of the TV horror show Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, now in its seventh season, is that it takes the ostensibly ditzy blond who typically dies in horror movies and makes her the hero, fully empowered to fight back the baddie of the day. The show’s lore has California girl Buffy Summers chosen to be the Slayer, killing vampires with a pointy wooden stake.
Buffy’s stake is loaded with possible Freudian interpretations. Functionally, the stake is the tool of her slaying profession, and its use in close combat is fraught with sexual undertones.
The actual staking is usually preceded by a physical confrontation between Buffy and her foe, replete with kicks, punches, flips, witty rejoinders and the like. Underlying the foreplay of kung-fu action is a certain level of sexual tension between slayer and vampire. Buffy’s goal is to thrust her stake (conveniently phallically shaped) into the heart of her (often male) foe.1 Meanwhile, the vampire’s goal is to overcome Buffy’s physical defenses and suck her blood, an action both sensually erotic (a bite to the neck, considered an erogenous zone) and almost violently rape-like.2 The show takes this slay/bite connection with sex even further as the players seek to replicate their figurative intercourse (thrust of the stake, bite on the neck) with actual sexual intercourse. The vampire Spike, “intoxicated” by the blood of the Slayer he has just killed, beds his lover Drusilla near the Slayer’s body in the Season Five episode “Fool for Love.” Buffy, with her discomfort with sex,3 had, by the time of her meeting with fellow Slayer Faith in the Season Three episode “Faith, Hope, and Trick,” sublimated any sexual thrill she felt from the act of slaying into a craving for food ? upwardly displacing the organ being satisfied. Buffy demurs when Faith talks about her post-slaying sexual urges.
FAITH: God, I could eat a horse! Isn’t it crazy? Slayin’ always makes you just hungry and horny.
(The others look at Buffy, frankly curious.)
BUFFY: Well … sometimes I crave a non-fat yogurt afterwards.
Two years later, we see that Buffy’s discomfort has evolved into disgust, evidenced by her marked reaction to Spike’s story of killing the Chinese Slayer.
SPIKE: It was the best night of my life. And I’ve had some sweet ones. What are you looking at?
BUFFY: You got off on it.
SPIKE: Well, yeah. Suppose you’re telling me you don’t?
The physical object of Buffy’s stake also signifies the mixed bag of expectations, abilities, and responsibilities associated with her role as Slayer. The name “slayer” and the function of the stake both imply a profession involving killing. Meanwhile, the defined purpose of her role — killing vampires and other demons — sets her up as a heroic figure, as she destroys creatures that might interfere with the daily living of the people of Sunnydale. Added to that “heroic” nature are physical qualities often associated with comic book or other mythic creatures — super strength, speed, stamina, fast healing.
Ultimately, Buffy’s stake serves as her own phallus, reclaimed. She is empowered by her stake and Slayer abilities, and does not need anyone to provide for or protect her. Rather, Buffy is herself a protector for everyone else. (In the Season Three episode “The Prom,” Buffy is awarded a “Class Protector” award for her efforts to keep the class death rate the lowest it has been in years.) She can take care of herself as she works to keep everyone else safe.
However, the show reminds viewers that Buffy’s “phallus” is only a construct, not a real one. In battles with vampires, she must keep her stake (or a reasonable approximation thereof) on hand, and is often at risk of having it knocked out of her grasp. As Spike tells her in the Season Five episode “Fool for Love”:
Lesson the first: A Slayer must always reach for a weapon. (Morphs from human to vampire “game” face.) I’ve already got mine.
The same episode, by way of illustration, shows Spike knock the stake from the hand of a 1900-era Chinese Slayer, then suck blood from the Slayer’s neck. Buffy’s impetus for talking to Spike in that episode is an injury sustained in a recent fight with a vampire — said vampire deflects Buffy’s death blow, twisting her hand and stabbing her in the abdomen with her own stake. In the Season Three episode “Helpless,” Buffy is stripped of her powers, and is initially panicked — unable to fight back, she runs from the vampires who chase her, and she screams out for others to save and protect her. She also worries that she may never regain her Slayer powers: “What if my calling was just a wrong number?” Ultimately, Buffy defeats the vampire that is menacing her and her mother, as she adapts her battle tactics to be far more at-arm’s-length in their attacks. Buffy foregoes the stake for holy water in delivering the death-blow, this time “poisoning” the water the vampire uses to help him swallow his medication.
Buffy’s own personal history might provide clues about her drive to secure and strengthen her own phallus. Buffy and her mother moved to Sunnydale, and contact between Buffy and her father Hank had dwindled to almost nothing by the end of Season Three. With her Slayer powers and pointy stake, Buffy assumed the paternal role of protector, while Joyce, her mother, served as family breadwinner. Between the two of them, Buffy and Joyce eliminated the need for a Hank in the household. And despite their sometimes strained relationship, without the disruptive Oedipal intrusion of a father/husband, Buffy and Joyce grew closer (or Buffy grew more territorial about Joyce) — to the point where Buffy harbored a host of resentments when her mother began dating again (in Season Two’s “Ted”). (In “Ted,” Buffy kills her mother’s boyfriend after he tries to insert himself into her life as an overly-strict father-figure. It later turns out that Ted was a robot, and that Buffy hadn’t killed him. When Ted returns to claim Joyce as his bride, Buffy orders him out of “her” house, and beats the robot to “death” with a frying pan.)
Buffy also has abandonment issues with the male figures in her life. Her father, again, had virtually disappeared from her life by Season Three. Her first love, the vampire Angel, left her at the end of Season Three because he didn’t want Buffy, at the age of 18, to pin her future on being with him, an immortal vampire. In addition, because sex would lift the soul “curse” on Angel and therefore make him evil again (effectively killing the Angel that Buffy loved), sex was verboten in their relationship — and the unresolved sexual tension was killing them. Buffy’s first “love” in college, Parker, saw her as a one-night stand, but, in order to get her into bed, had manipulated her into thinking he wanted more than that. Her second major boyfriend, Riley, left her in part because he couldn’t figure out how to fit into Buffy’s life — Buffy didn’t need a protector (and, after he lost his government-sponsored super-soldier powers, he was no longer anywhere near a physical match for her), and she didn’t know how to let him in enough for him to support her emotionally. Her father-figure, Giles, left her to return to England just when she needed him most, as she struggled to re-integrate herself into the world after being resurrected. And her next major relationship, with Spike, was a tormented, twisted affair in which she let him in emotionally, but then shut him out when they began a physical sexual relationship (which was a continuation of the “dance” they’d done as Slayer and vampire). One of her many issues in that relationship was that she was worried that if Spike ever turned “evil” again, she would have to kill him (much like she had to “kill” Angel at the end of Season Two, stabbing him and sending him to a hell dimension). The psychiatrist-vampire Holden offers his own theory in the Season Seven episode “Conversations with Dead People”:
HOLDEN: So, of all these relationships of yours that you knew subconsciously were totally doomed, whose fault is that?
BUFFY: It’s incredibly different.
HOLDEN: I was just wondering. Is it possible, even a little bit, that the reason you have trouble connecting to guys is you think maybe they’re not worth it? Maybe you think you’re better than them.
BUFFY: Say, there’s that blood-lust I was looking for.
HOLDEN: Struck a nerve.4
Buffy has trouble keeping a handle on the men in her life, and is increasingly afraid to let anyone in because of her growing fear (and confidence) that they’ll eventually leave her. This has contributed to her emotionally walling herself off even more, and increasingly seeing herself as a lone agent, self-sufficient and able to take care of herself (all the while wrapping herself up further in her identity as the Slayer, symbolized by the stake). This in turn helps set up another doomed relationship.
1 The show made a joke of this in the Season Four silent episode “Hush,” when, during a Scooby meeting, Buffy makes a stabbing motion to suggest a means of killing their enemies, and her friends initially take her gesture to mean something more masturbatory. Back to top.
2 Probably the best simultaneous example the show has offered of the both erotic and violent nature of the vampire bite was in the Season Three episode “Graduation Day, Part II,” when Buffy offers herself to a poisoned and dying Angel, so that her slayer-powered blood could cure him. Angel takes too much blood, nearly killing her. Back to top.
3 Buffy’s feelings toward romantic relationships and sex have been largely shaped (or warped) by her first sexual experience with Angel in the Season Two episode “Surprise.” Angel was unique in the vampire population in that he had a soul, and, feeling guilty about taking human life, tended to avoid most vampiric violence and bloodsucking. Imposed on him by a gypsy curse, Angel’s soul would be lost again if Angel ever felt a “moment of perfect happiness.” When he and Buffy had sex for the first time, Angel lost his soul and reverted to the calculating killer Angelus he had been pre-soul. The later half of Season Two was largely about Buffy’s guilt at having “killed” Angel by sleeping with him (regardless of the fact that she didn’t know that would be the consequence), her guilt at being unable to kill Angelus (thereby putting more people in danger and leading to the death of her Watcher Giles’s girlfriend and of the Slayer Kendra), and her guilt at ultimately killing Angel (re-souled by her friends, but too-late) in order to save the world. Back to top.
4 During their conversation, Buffy responds to certain of Holden’s comments with very quick no’s or threats of violence. Freud comments on patients’ tendency to do this in Dora: “The ‘No’ uttered by a patient after a repressed thought has been presented to his conscious perception for the first time does no more than register the existence of a repression and its severity; it acts, as it were, as a gauge of the repression’s strength.” The more accurate the psychotherapist’s suggestion, the stronger the denial. Freud, Sigmund. Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963. pp. 51. Back to top.