The main purpose of this essay is to discuss the omnipresent issue of women’s portrayal in the media by studying the effect of the television series Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Buffy The Vampire Slayer is an American television series which aired from 1997 to 2003 following a young girl (Buffy Summers) who is chosen to be a vampire slayer and confront the dark forces in her fictional world. However, what made this particular series interesting was the fact it was augmented with an astute example of counter-hegemony due to the prevalent theme of feminism.
The protagonist plays an independent, male-like role whom seemingly promotes feminist behaviour. Firstly, it is important to define the key components of the question, which in this case are the concepts of hegemony and counter-hegemony. Secondly, one must identify the issues of ideology and hegemony, before finally explaining how Buffy The Vampire Slayer has addressed these particular concerns.
The series challenges orthodox anti-feminist ideologies, such as the media presenting women as sex icons and dependent damsels and men as chivalrous, independent heroes, by altering the way in which the audience not only perceive women, but men likewise. The term hegemony originated from the writings of Karl Marx, but was conceptualised by the Communist intellectual Antonio Gramsci. Hegemony describes the “socialisation process by which the dominant class persistently projects its ideologies, while subordinate classes see these ideological practices and expectations as ‘common sense’ and consent to them” (Lealand and Martin, Pg 52, 2001).
Lealand and Martin (2001) argue hegemony is primarily a Marxist ideology in the sense that social class is a key factor in determining the ownership of the media and how audiences fathom media text. The general Marxist belief in view of a capitalist society is that the media are part of a powerful, unelected elite who use their influence to reinforce the status quo and neglect contrasting views. Television ‘normalises’ dominant ideologies as common sense, providing capitalist media elites with a efficacious assertion (Lealand and Martin, 2001).
Thus, the values of the society one inhabits are perceived as natural, and not learned. Hegemony can be used to explain society’s patriarchal structure in regard to what is considered conventional female roles. Young women mature in a society surrounded with female directed ideologies, such as romance, monogamy, motherhood and dependence, which, when they reach adulthood, causes these stereotypical roles to appear as the norm (Lealand and Martin, 2001). One of the principal techniques the ruling elite use to enforce these so called norms is the utilisation of the media in its portrayal of women.
For example, gender stereotypical commercials aimed at young girls that present toy kitchens or dolls cleaning the house. Counter-hegemony on the other hand, is opposition to the status quo. For example, the suffragettes movement in the United Kingdom and United States during the early 1900’s is a form of oppositional force. From a media specific perspective, the aim of achieving the political objective of gender equality is advocated through attempts to establish alternative media forms which provide more progressive and positive representations of women and girls (Carter and Steiner, 2004).
Buffy The Vampire Slayer falls under the counter-hegemonic umbrella because of the feminist themes that engulf the series. Author Zoe-Jane Playden argues that the creation of the protagonist Buffy is an attempt to break away from the traditional male superhero image that had dominated television and comics, such as Batman and Superman (Playden, cited in Kaveney, 2001). Feminist themes also involve the rest of the characters in such a way that the roles of men and women are almost reversed.
Buffy is seen to be independent and physically strong, whereas the male characters are often depicted as being dependent on Buffy for their safety due to their incapability to protect themselves. Perhaps the unconventional nature of the series and its challenging feminist themes is why Buffy The Vampire Slayer became such an integral part of television popular culture. Many issues of ideology and hegemony in the media relate to Feminism due to the patriarchal nature of society.
For example, one of Joss Whedon’s, director of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, main inspirations for writing the series came from the frustration of watching countless horror films in which a stereotypical blonde girl wanders into an alley and is killed by a creature. His aim was to completely reverse this image and have the small young blonde walk into an alley and deal with the monster waiting for her. Furthermore, Whedon attempts to pull his character away from the sex symbol image which had become an issue at the time in the media with the likes of Madonna and Sharon Stone (Playden, cited in Kaveney, 2001).
He wanted to create a character that was not overtly feminist, but at the same time, strong and independent enough to cause the male characters to show her respect. Joss Whedon did not candidly address issues of ideology and hegemony surrounding Feminism just with the depiction of women, but also with the illustration of male characters and the challenges he poses to the Christian faith. The image of women in the media will naturally be more susceptible to the portrayal of women in the programme, although the portrayal of men can also have an effect (Macdonald, 1995).
For instance, men are represented as weak in comparison to Buffy and, in several situations, often dependent on her ability to protect them. Additionally, Whedon challenges what he believes is the overly patriarchal structure of the Christian church (Daugherty, cited in Kaveney, 2001). Although this may not be one of the central issues with ideology and hegemony in the media, women are still seen as fairly weak in regard to their position in Christianity, thus creating an issue of inferiority.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer attempts to deal with these issues, and ultimately help to change the face of women in the media. There are some theorists and authors that would argue Buffy The Vampire Slayer is still a traditional horror come superhero series in terms of the presentation of characters. For example, if one is to judge the series in the same light that Janice Raymond and Germaine Greer wrote their books, The Transsexual Empire and The Whole woman respectively, an anti rather than pro-feminist view is created (Daugherty, cited in Kaveney, 2001).
Author Anne Millard Daugherty (cited in Kaveney, 2001) argues that Buffy is merely another exploited sexual role model, who was objectified as a function (The Slayer), to carry out a job that she did not choose to take. Furthermore, she is under the guidance of a group of white male elites, known as ‘The Council’, who abuse her gift to take care of their dangerous work. Therefore, a reasonable argument suggesting Buffy is a typical sex object, controlled by capitalist white males for their economic and heterosexual needs can be appreciated.
However, it would be naïve to construct an argument on simply the basic foundations of the series. One has to delve into and study the metaphoric nature of director Joss Whedon’s writing to fully acknowledge what themes and ideologies he is attempting to translate through the programme. Firstly, the issue with Buffy’s inferiority to the white male is questionable. Her personal watcher (Giles), who is an agent of ‘The Council’, is undermined immediately creating a role reversal that he was not expecting.
Instead of the watcher claiming superiority over the slayer, Whedon transforms the situation to the extent that Giles has to appeal to his knowledge in an attempt to convince Buffy that he is good enough for her. Buffy has another encounter with a male character (Xander) which again establishes that she is in control and the male is not (Daugherty, cited in Kaveney, 2001). A traditional media image of this situation would portray a chivalrous man confidently approaching a woman, who is naturally presented as pretty, but weak and dependent, longing to take advantage of her sexually.
By contrast, Whedon flips the roles around and Buffy walks away with Xander left bemoaning his poor language skills. Ironically, Xander picks up a stake, a traditional symbol of a phallus and therefore power, knowing that it is Buffy’s and not his, again taking power away from the man and giving it to the woman (Daugherty, cited in Kaveney, 2001). Unlike other orthodox super-heroes, Buffy clearly does not take orders from authoritative men.
For example, Superman is often found talking to the President and Batman conversing with Commissioner Gordon, both of whom are male and hold powerful positions within society (Daugherty, cited in Kaveney, 2001). Whedon has undoubtedly conveyed these themes using metaphorical images and language, but the key point he tries to illustrate is that women do not have to take orders or act subservient to men. This challenges the age-old beliefs that women should be submissive toward men because they are dependent on them for money and, to take a primitive view, protection (Smith, cited in Creedon, 1993).
Secondly, although it would be unfair to overlook Buffy as a sexual symbol, the irony of her looks and mannerisms create an even stronger feminist icon (Daugherty, cited in Kaveney, 2001). The fact that she is petite and blonde, yet still stands up to men makes her character even more impressive. For instance, author Anne Millard Daugherty describes Buffy as a ‘post-feminine heroine’ and a ‘cultural feminist’ (Daugherty, cited in Kaveney, 2001). She describes her as a ‘post-feminine heroine’ because she is neither veraciously feminist, nor is she self-indulged in her own looks.
Daugherty (cited in Kaveney, 2001) argues that Buffy represents a young girl at an impressionable age and the enemies she faces as metaphors for everyday challenges a young woman has to overcome. She also describes Buffy as a ‘cultural feminist’ which is a branch of feminism that believes women are above men. However, feminist theorist Jane Addams would argue that she does not fall into the cultural feminist category because cultural feminism focuses on the abilities of an average woman such as providing food, housing and clothing for the household (Mason, cited in Deegan, 1894).
Buffy by contrast is simply more physical than men in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Although, Addam’s readings derive mainly from women in early society (Mason, cited in Deegan, 1894) meaning it is difficult to make a comparison, especially taking into consideration that Buffy The Vampire Slayer is a supernatural programme. Thus, it would be improper to specify Buffy as a ‘cultural feminist’, but it is clear that she does promote feminism in regard to her general demeanour.
During a time when most women in the media were portrayed as sex symbols, such as Madonna and Sharon Stone, Joss Whedon has created a character that, in the words of Anne Daugherty, ‘is indicative of the changing face of women on television’ (Daugherty, cited in Kaveney, Pg 148, 2001). Buffy The Vampire Slayer naturally has several religion based references and themes throughout, due to the show residing in the supernatural genre, providing Whedon with a chance to confront more ideologies. The structure of the Christian church is very much patriarchal with the majority of authoritative positions occupied by men.
Author Zoe-Jane Playden argues that Whedon challenges this patriarchal structure when Buffy dies and is resurrected, resulting in her acquiring ‘woman-Christ’ status (Playden, cited in Kaveney, 2001). This would cause uproar in Christian society as it would put the protagonist on the same level as Jesus, implying that she has God like quality. Furthermore, Playden claims Buffy experiences a redemptive journey when she dies (Playden, cited in Kaveney, 2001). Redemption is an element of salvation which generally means the deliverance of sins and is a highly respected trait of Christianity as Jesus is the only person to have achieved redemption.
Once again, this could be viewed as establishing Buffy on the same level as Jesus which, for a Christian woman, is very unlikely. Through his attempts to challenge the hierarchy of the Christian church, Whedon is reducing the gap in terms of power and authority, thus progressing the image of women in the media. In conclusion, Buffy The Vampire Slayer is a television series with the firm intent of changing the way in which horror and superhero programmes are viewed, but more importantly, the image of women in the media.
Whedon challenged several ideologies that have developed over time, mainly in regard to Feminism, such as women being portrayed as sex icons and fully dependent on men, but also ideologies that are less at the forefront of debate, for example the patriarchal structure of the Christian church. As a result of Whedon’s opposition to traditional media stereotypes, Buffy The Vampire Slayer can be seen as a catalyst for the gradual transformation of women’s image in the media.