Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed: The Re-Feminization of Female “Superheroes”
The television shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed, are often touted as examples of “post-feminist” shows, which feature female leads that transcend the typical media boundaries of females. Buffy the Vampire Slayer centers around a teenage girl, Buffy, who discovers she is the “chosen one,” the one girl with the power to fight evil. Similarly, Charmed focuses on three sisters who discover that they are the most powerful witches in the world and who go on to fight evil. Indeed, both shows are ground-breaking, in that they demonstrate strong female characters in the role of a “superhero.” This role is normally portrayed by a male. The fact that these shows choose to have females fill this role is a great advancement in gender depictions on television. However, in order to make these gender bending choices of a female superhero less threatening to masculinity, the shows underwent a process that can be called “re-feminization.” The shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed, demonstrate this process through sexualizing the female leads, including a male guiding or authority figure, and the concept of “feminine vulnerability.”
1. The Eroticization of the Female Lead
While both, Buffy and Charmed, arguably feature independent and strong female leads that take on a traditionally male role of saving the world, the shows include blatant eroticization of their female leads. This is arguably done to make the shows more accessible and enjoyable for their male viewers. Predictably, this eroticization is done through the characters’ wardrobes.
In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the show is marked by not just by the super-human strength of its “chosen one” girl, but by the skimpy outfits in which she fights the forces of darkness. In particular, the first and second season, are marked by Buffy fighting vampires and demons in midriff baring, low-cut tops and tight mini-skirts. As the series progressed, Buffy continued to fight evil in high-heels and tight leather pants. These pants eventually became her trademark. Thus, Buffy became not only a strong fighter of evil, but a sexual object, eroticized for the benefit of the show’s male viewers.
Charmed also included the process of sexualizing its female leads. Each of its three female leads is often featured wearing tight, revealing clothing. In fact, the skimpy outfits became so much a part of the show that several episodes involved transformations that feature the witches in revealing costumes. One such episode is titled “Witches in Tights.” This episode ironically features the witches transforming into comic book superheroes. The three leads transform into stereotypical comic book female superheroes, skimpy leather outfits included. Another episode features Phoebe, one of the witches, changing into a mermaid. The outfit includes a shell bra and little else. Yet another episode has Phoebe transforming into Lady Godiva. She spends almost the entire episode naked, cloaked only by her suddenly long hair. Like, Buffy, the witches in Charmed, while still superheroes, have become incredibly eroticized sexual objects. The focus of these episodes becomes overshadowed by the extreme attention given to the revealing and sexualized wardrobe that the female characters wear.
2. The Male Guiding/Authority Figure
In addition to the eroticization of its female leads, the shows re-feminize their female “superheroes” by the inclusion of male guiding/authority figures. The implication of these characters is that the female “superheroes” cannot function, or at the very least, cannot function effectively without the presence and advice of a male guide.
The show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, features this character primarily in the form of Giles, Buffy’s British “Watcher,” and peripherally in the characters of the nearly all-male Watcher’s Council. Giles’ character acts as a pseudo-father figure towards Buffy, increasing his authority over the character. In addition, Giles is introduced to the show as the high school’s librarian. In this way, he is given the role of “teacher” and thus given even more authority over his young, female “superhero.” In his role as a “Watcher,” Giles is the ultimate authority and guide for the female “superhero” of Buffy. The female lead often goes to Giles for advice on how to face a particular threat or evil being. In addition, the show often features Giles bringing the evil creature of the week to the attention of the “slayer” and it is often he that decides the best possible fighting option. Buffy, in a sense, becomes little more than a tool that her male watcher uses to fight evil.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer takes the essential nature of the male guiding figure one step further. In a late season, the show features an episode where Giles leaves, returning to England and abandoning the “slayer.” Buffy pleads with and even begs her “Watcher” not to leave, revealing her character to be an emotional mess without her male guiding figure. The show also features an almost completely male “Watcher’s Council,” whose role was to preside over the slayers. In fact, the only female “watcher” featured on the show turns out to be evil and in need of “slaying.” Thus, a female character is seen as incapable of being in such an authority role without turning or succumbing to evil. In addition, a male guide is needed for the female “superhero,” in this case a “slayer,” to function effectively. This is evidenced by how Buffy falls into an emotional mess when her watcher leaves her, in a sense taking a strong, almost “masculine” character and turning her into a traditionally emotional, weak “feminine” character.
The show, Charmed, also includes in its characters a male guiding/authority figure. Charmed presents this type of character in the figure of Leo, the witches “Whitelighter” or guardian angel. In addition, much like Buffy’s Watcher’s Council, Charmed features a nearly all-male higher authority, known as the Elders. Much like the character of Giles, Leo acts as a decisive authority and guiding figure for the female “superheroes” of Charmed. He often acts as the witches’ encyclopedia, offering a never-ending supply of information and experience about various demons. He is also irreplaceable as the giver of advice and guidance. In the episode, “Oh My Goddess (Part Two),” the witches have to face the all powerful Titans. Leo has become an Elder, a promotion to a higher level of authority, and is thus temporarily unavailable to offer advice to the girls before the battle. As a result of Leo’s absence, the witches are plagued by doubt and fear. It is not until Leo comes down and offers his sage advice that the witches are able to fight competently against evil.
In Charmed, the Elders function in much the same way that the Watcher’s Council do in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. An almost entirely male force, they act as the ultimate authority in the magical world of the show. Leo often goes to the Elders to get information on an evil and to gain advice on the best way to proceed. In addition, the Elders often issue orders or warnings about a future evil and how to react. For most of the series, the Elders and whitelighters are almost exclusively male. For the most part, the only female whitelighters featured on the show are either immediately or eventually killed by some evil that the witches are facing. In fact, the only whitelighters killed on the show tend to be female, indicating the implied superiority of males in the role of guide or authority. The fact that only female whitelighters are killed or particularly vulnerable to attack is never mentioned by the female leads. It does not become an explicitly stated gender norm in the show, but rather only one that is visually demonstrated in the show’s plot. Thus, Charmed emphasizes the weakness inherent in the traditional thought of femininity by implying that a female cannot function without a male guide and that a female guide cannot escape the evil that the male guide’s help protect their witches from.
3. The Concept of “Feminine Vulnerability”
Both shows “re-feminize” their female leads by sexualizing them, including a male guide, and finally by the inclusion of an element that I will call “feminine vulnerability.” The element “feminine vulnerability” includes the emphasis and inclusion of stereotypes about female vulnerability in regards to evil, and the treatment of female sexuality in comparison to male sexuality. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed both include this aspect of “feminine vulnerability” by having their female “superheroes” be exceptionally susceptible to the temptation of evil, something that shows with male “superheroes” often have their lead characters be able to resist.
For example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer focuses on the aspects of “feminine vulnerability” that deals with feminine sexuality. The show positions female sexuality as dangerous. This is shown through the relationships that the show’s female “superhero,” Buffy, engages in. First, one can look at how the show handles the loss of female virginity in comparison to how it treats the loss of male virginity. When Buffy loses her virginity to Angel, her vampire-with-a-soul boyfriend, she triggers a loophole in his curse, causing him to lose his soul and revert back to his evil nature. The following season shows a Buffy weakened by the emotional blows a monstrous Angel causes by tormenting her and killing her friends. The show even goes on to have a now evil Angel nearly cause the end of the world. The implication is, of course, that female sexuality is extremely dangerous. In the case of Buffy, it is even world threatening. Buffy the Vampire Slayer also includes an episode that deals with male loss of virginity. When Buffy’s male sidekick, Xander, loses his virginity, he is empowered by it, feeling more manly and confident. He is even able to save the world from a zombie attack that included the zombies planting a bomb on top of a portal to Hell. The distinction is clear: female sexuality is dangerous, male sexuality is empowering.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer also demonstrates “feminine vulnerability” in the treatment of Buffy’s other relationships. The show further emphasizes the dangers of feminine sexuality in the episode in which Buffy and her boyfriend, Riley, engage in all-night sex at a fraternity party, unleashing a dangerous spirit and endangering the other party-goers. In fact, the episode states that the evil spirit feeds off of and gains strength from the pair’s sexual activity, indicating that the spirit never would have been a danger if not for Buffy having sex. This is much like how Angel never would have been a danger if Buffy had not slept with him. Buffy the Vampire Slayer also delves into an abusive relationship when it pairs Buffy with a still soulless vampire, Spike. The show features eroticized violence, often pairing the couple physically fighting with each other with them having sex. The relationship culminates in an attempted rape, in which the female “superhero,” Buffy, is “re-feminized” as a weak female, vulnerable to male attack. This is a clear departure from the normally “masculine” strong fighter that Buffy is. Once again, the show is demonstrating how female sexuality is dangerous and vulnerable.
Charmed treats the element of “feminine vulnerability” differently from Buffy in that it deals primarily with female susceptibility to evil. In many cases, this susceptibility coincides with a sexual relationship. For example, the show often has one of the female leads, Phoebe, give into evil temptation. Phoebe falls in love with a demon, Cole, who was sent to kill her and her powerful sisters. Even when she finds out about his agenda, Phoebe protects Cole and continues a relationship with him. Later, when she discovers that he has become the Source of All Evil, the ultimate evil on the show, she remains with him, turning evil herself for a brief period of time. It isn’t until the interference of her sisters and the male guiding figure of Leo, that she turns her back on her evil husband and returns to the side of good. Having Phoebe become susceptible to evil seduction is not unfamiliar for Charmed. The show features an episode that exhibits one of Phoebe’s past lives. In this past live, Phoebe succumbs to the seduction of an evil warlock, Anton, turns evil and attempts to kill her sister’s past selves. Thus, Charmed “re-feminizes” a strong female “superhero” by making her vulnerable to turning evil, often because of a romantic relationship.
Charmed also demonstrates “feminine vulnerability” to evil in cases that do not involve a romantic association. For example, the show features an episode in which one of the female leads, Piper, becomes seduced by the power of Excalibur (the sword) and in a sense turns evil with it. She becomes all consumed with power and neglects all of her traditionally feminine roles, including the all-important one of mother. After she returns to good, she is seen playing with her son and remarking that she has her priorities straight now. The implication is that despite the extreme power of the female Charmed Ones, a female is still susceptible to being turned evil by too much power and that she should not neglect the traditional female roles, such as that of mother. In the final season, a new female lead, Billie, gives into the temptation of trusting her long-lost sister, who has turned evil. Billie briefly goes “evil” as well and betrays the Charmed Ones, redeeming herself at the last minute. In this case, the implication is that females are vulnerable to the seduction of evil, where their male counterparts are seemingly not. This is seen most strongly in the case of Wyatt and Chris, one of the female lead’s, Piper’s, sons. Wyatt turns evil in the show, but his brother is able to resist and instead goes about trying to restore his brother to good or stop him. Billie gives into her sister and turns “evil” while Chris resists his brother and fights for good. It is clear that the implication is that females, despite their witchy power on the show are much more vulnerable to evil than their fellow male characters.
The television shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed, both feature strong, independent female “superhero” characters. However, both shows also include elements that “re-feminize” these female “superheroes.” By sexualizing their wardrobes, the shows lessen the threat that these characters, who take on the traditional male role of saving the world, are too masculine. The inclusion of male guiding/authority figures in the shows, reemphasize a traditional hierarchy with males on the top and females needing their guidance. Finally, the shows demonstrate “feminine vulnerability,” illustrating their strong female characters as weak and susceptible to evil. That is not to say that these shows were not groundbreaking in their treatment of strong female leads. Nor is it to limit the gender bending qualities of these shows. However, both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed do have elements that “re-feminize” their strong female leads in order to make them less threatening to masculinity.
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