Real Monsters: Reckoning with the Inherent Misogyny of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Updated: Mar 8, 2021
For years, Joss Whedon has been the patron saint of male feminists everywhere. His work, especially on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, set the standard for Strong Female Characters on TV, and he lauded himself as a champion of women’s empowerment. This was never exactly accurate. In a ruthless takedown published in 2017, his ex-wife Kai Cole claimed that Whedon was a “hypocrite” who used this persona as a shield so that no one “would question his relationships with other women or scrutinize his writing as anything other than feminist.” And then… nothing happened. Even as people continued to call out the blatant misogyny in his stories, he kept working and kept telling the same reductive stories repackaged as girl power narratives.
This past June, actor Ray Fisher accused Joss Whedon of creating a “gross, abusive, unprofessional, and completely unacceptable” environment on the set of Justice League. On February 10th, these claims were backed up by Charisma Carpenter, who starred on Buffy and its spin-off Angel, when she opened up about the abuse that she suffered working for Whedon. He spent years traumatizing her, causing anxiety, a “chronic physical condition,” and he eventually fired her over her decision to have a baby. After Carpenter’s statement, messages of support flooded in from people involved with Whedon’s work, confirming her and Fisher’s statements with their own accounts of Whedon’s abusive behavior. This left millions of fans wondering if their favorite shows were ruined now.
The answer is yes. And no. It’s complicated.
I was 12 years old when I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the first time. I had read my way through the first three Twilight books during a few very lonely months at summer camp and was on a bit of a vampire kick. Buffy seemed like the next logical step. So after begging my mom’s friend to let me borrow her DVD box set, I sat down with a bowl of popcorn and my official Alice Cullen replica necklace and started the show. I was instantly hooked. I may have come for the sexy vampire love triangles, but the characters were really what drew me in and kept me watching episode after episode.
I didn’t expect to relate to the show as much as I did. Buffy was always aspirational. She’s literally the “Chosen One,” on top of being a smart, funny, badass woman who looks like Sarah Michelle Gellar. None of that felt familiar to me. I was a painfully shy kid with perpetually stringy hair and a bad lisp. I had no idea how to even get a regular human boyfriend, let alone several hot vampire ones. In fact, I was so unpopular in middle school that bullies didn’t even bother targeting me - I was invisible. But I did see myself in parts of Buffy, especially her isolation and struggles with depression over the course of the show. I was still two years away from my first diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder, but so much of what Buffy felt resonated with me. She held on to so much loneliness, and anger, and fear because of the responsibilities that are forced onto her as the Slayer, and it was cathartic to watch her work through the same emotions that I was trying to figure out how to live with. If Buffy could navigate the worst parts of being a teenager and still bravely square off against vampires and ancient demons, I could at least give a book report in front of my class without having a panic attack. It worked, sometimes. I knew I’d never be a “Chosen One,” but maybe I could learn from Buffy’s bravery.
But as empowering as the show was, we can’t ignore the Joss Whedon of it all. Personally, I don’t subscribe to auteur theory - the idea that one person can be the sole creative force behind a piece of film or television - but Joss Whedon’s influence on the show is undeniable. As the creator and showrunner, he set the tone for Buffy. The quippy dialogue, the fun action scenes, and yes, the underlying cruelty and abuse that ran unmistakably through the show’s seven seasons.
The instances of violent misogyny in the Buffy-verse weren’t rare, but they always felt jarring, and so much more terrifying than any of the other monsters that the characters had to face. Even as a kid, I was familiar with the inherent danger of womanhood. I didn’t fully recognize it yet, but I knew the sick feeling I got after a strange man followed me and my friends around the mall for an hour. I knew the intense, tearful anger I felt after a boy in my kindergarten class asked me to be his girlfriend, and when I said no, smashed my hand with a building block so hard that I got to leave school early. I knew that they did these things simply because they believed that their own feelings were more significant than any fear or pain that they might incidentally put a woman through. This sense of entitlement is something that Buffy often gets close to but almost seems to take too much enjoyment in depicting.
I think it was necessary for Buffy, a show that was, at its core, about the pressure and fear of being a teenage girl, to address the violence that we face. It would have been weird to ignore it. But the way that it was addressed always felt off to me. There were throwaway lines from B-characters and obvious villains about how girls can’t fight, set-ups so that Buffy could have some cool girl power quip before kicking their asses, but the real insidious misogyny always came from more familiar characters.
In season 6, Buffy is raped by her on-again/off-again love interest, Spike. The scene is brutal, but the rape itself is depicted as the actions of a desperate man to win over the woman he loves. This “low point” inspires Spike to redeem himself, and Buffy eventually takes him back, because, in Whedon’s world, a woman should always forgive her rapist once he proves that he’s really sorry about it.
Then there’s Warren, a seemingly harmless geek who harnesses magic to literally control women’s bodies and ends up being the most terrifying villain in the show. What starts as a plan to turn his disinterested girlfriend into a sex robot (!!!) spirals into a season-long arc that results in several women’s deaths, not through magic, but by Warren’s own hand.
There’s also an episode of Angel where all of the male leads fall under a spell that makes them enact violence specifically against women. They spend the entire episode terrorizing and attacking the female characters. It’s all resolved by the end of the 40-minute runtime, and the women carry on into the next episode seemingly unphased that they were just brutalized by their close friends.
These choices all felt weird to me as a tween. The episodes left me feeling queasy and confused. Why was this such a common occurrence, and why didn’t the characters react to it with the same terror that I felt as a viewer? But looking back now, knowing that all of this was signed off on by a guy who weaponized his lead actress’s pregnancy against her, who enjoyed making female writers cry during notes sessions, and who, for whatever reason, wasn’t allowed to be alone in a room with then-15-year-old Michelle Trachtenberg? It makes perfect sense.
Which brings us to Xander. I know this is a bad take to have, but when I first watched Buffy, Xander was my favorite character. He was the comic relief and the only “normal” one on Buffy’s team. He didn’t have superpowers or access to arcane knowledge to help save the day. He was just a regular guy who cared about his friends. That made it easy for 12-year-old me to latch on to. At that age, I didn’t see anything impressive about myself. As I mentioned earlier, I was pretty unremarkable. My friends all had interesting hobbies - they were on the soccer team, or played guitar, or understood geometry (which at the time was basically the same thing as being a vampire slayer). Even on my best day, the most I could offer was moral support, and maybe a funny one-liner. So I labeled myself as a Xander.
Watching the show now, Xander fucking sucks, and I’m embarrassed that I ever liked him. He’s an obvious self-insert of Joss Whedon, a “nice guy” who clearly can’t be sexist because he surrounds himself with powerful women. Never mind Xander’s constant objectification of his friends, or his weird possessiveness towards Buffy whenever she gets a new love interest. I overlooked these blatant red flags as a kid because I thought that his “powerlessness” made him more relatable. He can’t be a bad guy, he’s funny and doesn’t know how to fight. Turns out, it was a shield that allowed his character to get away with displaying some really terrible behavior. Sound familiar?
It’s not that characters shouldn’t ever be allowed to show these toxic traits, or even that we shouldn’t be able to relate to them. I still see a lot of myself in Xander, as much as I hate to admit it. It only becomes an issue when the show chooses to depict the actions of Xander and other characters like him as normal and ultimately harmless. Looking back, I can’t even count the number of times I’ve brushed off a gross, objectifying comment from a male friend because “he was just being funny” and “I needed to lighten up.” If Buffy never got mad at Xander for it, I shouldn’t get upset either, right? I realize now that by letting those actions slide on TV, I was conditioning myself not to see them as a big deal when they happened in real life, despite what I actually felt in the moment. I let men get away with shitty behavior because I learned at a young age that it was normal, from a television show written by… another shitty man. Huh.
That’s the thing about trying to separate the art from the artist. You can do it up to a point, but most of the time whatever ugliness we’re trying to separate ourselves from is indelibly a part of the art. People write what they know, after all. It’s the reason why Woody Allen has so many movies about a suspiciously young woman falling for some neurotic old weirdo, and why Tina Fey refuses to stop making jokes about Asian people (Hint: It’s because she’s racist and he’s a pedophile). Like literally anything else in this world, media is mostly just used as a tool to uphold systems of oppression. By normalizing their own bad behavior, people in power are able to make their actions seem less insidious and paint anyone who speaks out against them as overdramatic and hysterical. Two birds with one very powerful stone.
So why did it take so long for us to start talking about it? Is it because Whedon’s work was just so good that no one cared what he was like behind the scenes? Did his outspoken feminist persona keep most people from looking into his history? Or is it just because we’re conditioned to ignore bad behavior, especially when it’s coming from a powerful white man and being directed mainly towards women and people of color? Yes. All of the above.
But Whedon’s actions don’t speak for Buffy as a whole, and it’s possible to still love and be affected by a piece of art even while acknowledging the harmful things about it. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a clever, empowering, fun show. It also has some deeply problematic tropes and was a traumatizing experience for many of the people involved with it. Neither of these things negates the other. Whedon’s actions cast a lot of the show’s moments in a new light and make it especially hard to watch, but ultimately, it doesn’t make Buffy any less iconic. The work that the cast and the other writers did in bringing this show to life shouldn’t be overlooked because of the actions of one man. For all the bad that Whedon did, Buffy still did a lot of good. At the very least, she taught us that we can all slay our demons eventually. And that it’s possible to do a backflip in a chunky sandal.