Rants & Ramblings

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


psychoanalyzing buffy: transference

This is an excerpt from a paper I wrote for my Critical Theory class at Georgetown University. As this is a pretty long paper, I have been posting it in segments. Part One of this paper can be found here.

In Dora, Freud writes that his patient, near the end of her therapy, came to develop an emotional attachment toward him, transferring what he saw as her love for Herr K. onto himself, her psychiatrist.

What are transferences? They are new editions or facsimiles of the tendencies and phantasies which are aroused and made conscious during the progress of the analysis; but they have this peculiarity, which is characteristic for their species, that they replace some earlier person by the person of the physician. To put it another way: a whole series of psychological experiences are revived, not as belonging to the past, but as applying to the person of the physician at the present moment. (FOOTNOTE)

According to Freud, transferences are to be expected over the course of psychoanalytic therapy, and, indeed, may even be necessary, as they allow for a stronger bond between psychiatrist and patient and open the way for further breakthroughs in therapy. Freud cautions other psychoanalysts to be vigilant in looking for signs of transference, and to incorporate resolution of that phenomenon into the patient’s treatment. “It is only after the transference has been resolved that a patient arrives at a sense of conviction of the validity of the connections which have been constructed during the analysis.” (FOOTNOTE)

A recurring theme in the early seasons of BtVS is the bad or missing father, and the search for suitable replacement father-figures. Buffy’s divorced father lives in Los Angeles and comes to ignore Buffy altogether. Xander’s father is an abusive alcoholic. Willow’s father has never been seen onscreen. For each of them, Giles becomes a substitute father-figure.

Buffy begins to fully transfer her need for a father-figure onto Giles after her own father rejects her. In the Season Three episode “Helpless,” Buffy’s father stands her up for a birthday trip to the Ice Capades, a longstanding father-daughter tradition for them. Buffy’s mother Joyce offers to take her to the event, but Buffy refuses, and tries to convince Giles to take her father’s place.

BUFFY: … it’s the kind of thing fathers do with their daughters ? I mean if someone were free they’d take their daughter or their … student … (still nothing from Giles; sotto) … or their Slayer… (FOOTNOTE)

A father/daughter-like relationship had already been developing between Buffy and Giles up to this point. The Council of Watchers likely encourages a Watcher to develop a strong, paternal bond with his Slayer (paralleling Freud’s therapist/patient relationship), as such bonds make it easier to command his Slayer’s respect and obedience. However, the Council discourages a Watcher from developing too personal an involvement with his Slayers, as excess affection might cloud his judgment in sending his Slayer out on deadly missions. In “Helpless,” Giles is fired as Buffy’s Watcher for this reason.

TRAVERS: I have recommended to the council, and they have agreed, that you be relieved of your duties as watcher effective immediately. You’re fired.

GILES: On what grounds?

TRAVERS: Your affection for your charge has rendered you incapable of clear and impartial judgment. You have a father’s love for the child and that is useless to the cause.

A moment, as Buffy registers the truth in this. Giles does not even look at her.

TRAVERS: It would be best for you not to have further contact with the Slayer-

GILES: I’m not going anywhere.

TRAVERS: No, well, I didn’t expect you to adhere to that. However, if you interfere with the new watcher or try to countermand his authority in any way you will be dealt with. Are we clear?


He throws a look at Giles and walks out. Neither Giles nor Buffy says anything for a while. She puts the rag to her head and winces [?] with pain. Giles moves to her, instinctively.

GILES: Let me see…

She looks up at him. A moment of silence, and she slowly hands him the rag. He dips it in water and squats down, inspecting the wound, dabbing it with the rag.

She says nothing. Lets him tend to her. (FOOTNOTE)

No longer serving in a formal, professional capacity as Watcher, Giles is now permitted to be more open with his own paternal feelings, and he reaches out to take care of Buffy. Over the course of future seasons, Giles recognizes Buffy’s ability to stand on her own, and he gradually steps aside to pursue his own interests, first singing in local coffee shops (unbeknownst to Buffy and her friends), then opening a magic shop, and ultimately returning to England.

After her resurrection in Season Six, Buffy makes a number of failed attempts (in the episode “Life Serial”) to re-insert herself into the social world, each time relying on friends’ assurances that this particular route ? be it returning to college, working construction or retail, or immersing herself in Slayer-related work ? is the proper one to pursue and hoping that her friends’ advice and help will “fix” her and her problems. When one plan fails, she transfers her hopes to the next friend/idea. Finally, she angrily airs her frustrations to Spike, who has taken her along on an evening of Kitten Poker with local demons.

BUFFY: (pretty darn drunk) What?s wrong? You were gonna help me! You were gonna beat heads and fix my life! But you?re c?mpletely lame! Tonight sucks! And look at me! Look at Stupid Buffy! Too dumb for college! And, and, and Freak Buffy! Too strong for construction work! Then there was the store. I was bored to tears even before the hour that wouldn?t die! And the only person I can even stand to be with anymore is a neutered vampire who cheats at Kitten-Poker! (FOOTNOTE)

In the end, it is Giles who serves as Buffy’s savior, offering her a substantial monetary gift to help resolve her financial crisis.

BUFFY: I?m taking the money. This is great. More than great. Like, I don?t really know how to say this… I guess, it?s a little like having Mom back.

GILES: This is a scenario in which I am your mother?

BUFFY: Wanna be my shiftless absentee father?


BUFFY: This … it really makes me feel ? safe. Knowing you?re always gonna be there.

Buffy runs out. Giles stares after her. His smile fades. (FOOTNOTE)

Buffy begins to rely on Giles to deal with problems she doesn’t want to handle, most notably with disciplining her sister Dawn (who, feeling neglected by Buffy, has begun to act out and get into trouble, stealing and sneaking out at night). With her mother dead and herself unmotivated to handle anything difficult or unpleasant, Buffy sees Giles as her parent / caretaker, pushing parts of the role of “Mom” onto Giles. For his part, Giles is aware of the transference, and uncomfortable with it. Worried that Buffy will use him as a crutch, rather than be the more capable and self-sufficient woman she was before her death, Giles decides soon after the events of “Life Serial” to return to England. However, Buffy sees Giles’s departure as an abandonment, which contributes to her continued emotional tailspin over the course of Season Six.

Ultimately, it takes a major crisis and an epiphany of sorts regarding her sister to pull Buffy out of her funk. Relegated to the sidelines as Willow, driven murderously mad after her girlfriend is slain, tries to destroy the world (in the Season Six finale “Grave”), Buffy and Dawn are trapped together, amid stacks of coffins, in a trench beneath a graveyard. When the latest apocalypse is averted, Buffy gets teary-eyed with relief ? both that the world did not end and that she herself did not want to die.

BUFFY: Things have sucked lately, but it’s all gonna change - and I want to be there when it does. I want to see my friends happy again. (more emotional) And I want to see you grow up. The woman you’re going to become… Because she’s going to be beautiful.

Dawn takes this in. Moved.

BUFFY: (cont’d) And she’s going to be powerful.

Buffy moves close to Dawn again.

BUFFY: (cont’d) I got it so wrong. I don’t want to protect you from the world - I want to show it to you. (FOOTNOTE)

Buffy’s “epiphany” is couched in what she wants to do and see for others, especially for her sister. In a continuation of her final words to her sister when she jumped to her death a year earlier (“Live. For me.”), Buffy seems to be setting herself up with a more passive relationship with the world, living through and for her sister.

Dawn is more Buffy’s daughter than sister. In a legal sense, Buffy became Dawn’s legal guardian after the death of their mother. Biologically, Dawn herself was not Joyce Summers’s child. Rather (in a somewhat convoluted tale), Dawn is an ancient ball of energy made human and sent to Buffy in the form of a sister so that Buffy would protect Dawn from Glory, an exiled hell-goddess bent on using Dawn to re-open a portal to her own world. Meanwhile, the personal memories of Buffy, her mother, and other Sunnydale residents have been altered so as to keep up the illusion that Dawn has been around all along. When Buffy learns the truth, she is angry and suspicious, both of Dawn and of the conspiracy that put her in Buffy?s life.

MONK: You cannot … abandon …

BUFFY: I didn’t ask for this. I don’t even know what … what is she?

MONK: Human. Human, now, and helpless. Please, she is … an innocent in this, and she needs you.

Buffy looks at him and for a moment he is totally clear, focused on her.

BUFFY: She’s not my sister.

MONK: She doesn’t know that. (FOOTNOTE)

Buffy?s attitude toward Dawn softens after learning about her origins. Dawn ceases to be Buffy?s bratty little sister, and instead is someone that Buffy must care for and protect. At the same time, her mother becomes ill, and Buffy must play ?Mom? to both of them. At one point, Buffy complains to Willow:

BUFFY: Yeah but she’s [Dawn] so annoying, especially now Mom’s sick and Dawn’s all over her, while I have to be the grown-up, and they’re like the giggle twins[?] (FOOTNOTE)

Just before she goes into surgery for cancer, Joyce, now dimly aware of the truth about Dawn, officially passes the motherhood torch over to Buffy.

JOYCE: Promise me, Buffy - if anything happens to me, if I don’t come through this-

BUFFY: (cutting her off) Mom-

JOYCE: No. Let me finish. No matter what she is, she still feels like my daughter, and I have to know you’ll keep her safe. You’ll love her like I love you.

Buffy fights tears.

BUFFY: I promise. (FOOTNOTE)

A couple episodes later, in ?The Body,? Joyce dies from an aneurism (something natural, not something Buffy could have fought back or prevented). The following episode, Buffy claims the ?Mom? role as her own.

DAWN: Nobody’s asking you to be Mom.

BUFFY: Well, who’s going to be if I’m not? Huh, Dawn? Have you thought about that? Who’s going to make things better? Who’s going to take care of us? (FOOTNOTE)

In taking on the new role, Buffy imposes on herself the same expectations she had of her mother ? to be able to figure everything out, make everything better, get everything right ? and sets herself up for certain disappointment when she cannot live up to those expectations.

By the end of the season, Dawn has truly become, in Buffy?s mind, her daughter. Buffy is fiercely protective of Dawn, and feels a physical and emotional connection to her. In the season finale, Glory has kidnapped Dawn for use in a ritual to open a portal to a hell dimension. Giles warns her that if Glory is able to start the ritual, they may have to kill Dawn in order to save the world. Buffy?s reply is that she?d rather save Dawn ? even if it means death for everyone else ? rather than have to kill her.

GILES: (quietly) She’s not your sister.

BUFFY: No. She’s not. She’s more than that. (trying to articulate it?) She’s me. The monks made her out of me. I hold her … and I feel closer to her than … It’s not just the memories they built. It’s physical. Dawn … is a part of me. The only part that I-


GILES: Buffy, if the ritual starts, then every living creature in this and every other dimension imaginable will suffer unbearable torment and Death. Including Dawn.

BUFFY: Then the last thing she’ll see is me protecting her.

GILES: You’ll fail. You’ll die. We all will.

BUFFY: I’m sorry. I love you all, but I’m sorry. (FOOTNOTE)

Next: Suicide and Sacrifice