Rants & Ramblings

random commentary about culture, media, politics, technology and whatnot.


psychoanalyzing buffy, redux

This paper was written for my Critical Theory class at Georgetown University. Some portions of this paper were originally written for the midterm for that class, and have already been posted here. As this is a pretty long paper, I will be posting it in segments, over a few days.

In a typical horror film, one might see a young blonde woman, helpless and frightened, running from a monstrous attacker, only to be cornered by her pursuer and killed. In the television show Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, that “helpless” girl wouldn’t run away ? she’d turn around and kick evil butt.

The hero of BtVS, Buffy Summers is the Slayer, “chosen” to protect the world — especially her hometown of Sunnydale, Calif. — from vampires, demons and the occasional apocalypse. Armed with super-strength, agility, and a pointy wooden stake, Buffy is empowered to battle evil and save the world time and again, aided by her friends Xander and Willow, and her Watcher, Giles.

BtVS, now in its seventh season, is part horror, part comedy, part drama. The show often tries to subvert its “teen drama” trappings in pursuit of something more multi-layered, its monsters serving as metaphors for its characters’ more mundane personal demons and its narrative employing a range of tactics (both subtle and overt) to further the thematic elements of each episode. Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis can be applied liberally to the show’s myriad themes and metaphors, from the more obvious phallic symbolism of the stake and the show’s frequent use of dream sequences to the psychic traumas of Buffy’s recent suicide/self-sacrifice and subsequent resurrection.

The 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. (FOOTNOTE) 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. Probably the best 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. Buffy seems both aroused and frightened as Angel bites her neck and drinks. Ultimately, Buffy passes out as Angel takes too much blood, nearly killing her.

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. In a flashback to the Boxer Rebellion in China, 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.” (FOOTNOTE) Buffy, with her discomfort with sex, (FOOTNOTE) 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.(FOOTNOTE)

Buffy’s uncomfortable denial to her friends aside, the show has often shown her craving a post-slaying snack, especially after particularly difficult battles, such as at the end of “Faith, Hope, and Trick,” and the Season One finale “Prophecy Girl.” Two years later, we see that Buffy’s discomfort has evolved into disgust, evidenced by her strong 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? (FOOTNOTE)

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”:

SPIKE: Lesson the first: A Slayer must always reach for a weapon.

Reverse angle: Spike is in VAMPFACE. (FOOTNOTE)

SPIKE: I’ve already got mine.

He morphs back into his human face. Smiles. Gently takes Buffy’s pool cue from her and backs off. (FOOTNOTE)

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 temporarily 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, instead “poisoning” the water the vampire drinks.

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 that episode, 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 fears being abandoned by 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, then 18 years old, 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. (FOOTNOTE)

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 therapist’s suggestion, the stronger the denial. (FOOTNOTE)

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.

NEXT: Transference