Modern and mythical sexuality in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"

Here's the full text of the paper I presented at the academic conference Blood, Text and Fears: Reading Around "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

By Stephanie Zacharek

Published November 9, 2002 6:00PM (EST)

It may be the greatest postcoital line ever: "When did the building fall down?"

That's what Buffy says to Spike on the morning after their most spontaneous and passionate assignation, as they lie entwined in each other's arms, at the center of a building that has quite literally fallen down around them. There's broken plaster everywhere and a hole in the ceiling above: At some point in the previous night's festivities, they'd actually fallen through it.

You can almost see Buffy piecing together, like a co-ed after a bender, how it all came about: The previous night, during a particularly violent tussle, Spike -- a vampire who's gone good against his will, thanks to a chip implanted in his head that keeps him from harming humans -- quite literally swept her off her feet and slammed her against a far wall. Buffy -- a vampire slayer who used to be Spike's mortal enemy, who is just recently returned from the dead and somehow not quite as human as she used to be -- volleyed by delivering a high kick to the poor guy's chin.

You say tomayto, and I say tomahto: Let's call the whole thing off.

Maybe that's what should have happened. Instead, Buffy and Spike beat the dickens out of each other -- and then made it up in bed.

No television show has ever been as forthright in addressing the subtleties of sexual desire, including some of the darkest, most deeply recessed fears and longings of the soul, as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" has been. The show isn't particularly explicit about sex; what's remarkable about it is that it deals with issues of erotic intimacy in such an unvarnished and deeply emotional way. If you believe what the media tell you, which is always a bad idea, contemporary movies, television shows and advertising are loaded with sex. But the reality is, although there's a certain amount of coy semi-nudity in many mainstream movies and TV shows, when it comes to sex, there's very little adventurousness, originality or truth in the way it's shown to us.

But with "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," Joss Whedon, the show's creator, producer and one of its chief writers, has probed some of the most unnerving, as well the most deeply erotic, corners of sexual desire. In "Sexual Personae," Camille Paglia wrote that with "The Faerie Queene," Edmund Spenser was the first to "sense the identity of sex and power, the permeation of eroticism by aggression." She also wrote a line that, unwittingly and perfectly, decribed the tête-à-tête between Buffy and Spike: "The masculine hurls itself at the feminine in an eternal circle of pursuit and flight."

When Paglia calls that cycle "eternal," she's not exaggerating. We've seen it time and again: In Greek mythology, Zeus fell deeply in love with Europa and disguised himself as a bull so he could carry her off and mate with her. The motif recurs in painting and music and poetry: Even the types of seduction that we like to think of as blushingly romantic often have at least vaguely aggressive underpinnings. Take the famous line from Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," for example: "The grave's a fine and private place/ But none, I think, do there embrace." The barest interpretation of that line represents the same logic that's been used by teenage boys throughout history: Eventually, you're going to die whether you sleep with me or not, so why not just go ahead and do it?

But those examples suggest that only men are sexually aggressive, when of course we know that's far from true. The point is that Joss Whedon has no qualms about exploring the shadowy connections between aggression and sex. The sight of Buffy and Spike roughing each other up is partly metaphorical -- think of it as a deeply physical, if brutal, version of the verbal banter between Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in "Bringing Up Baby," or Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in "The Lady Eve."

And yet it's too untamed, too raw, to be considered solely and safely metaphorical. Paglia made plenty of people angry when, in "Sexual Personae," she wrote of sexual intercourse as an expression of the will-to-power, a representation (at least sometimes) of the "surges of aggression in nature." Many, if not most, people feel more comfortable with sex when all the potentially scary stuff has been tamed out of it.

But with Buffy and Spike, Whedon is working with characters who are on equal footing in terms of physical strength. Spike, sick with love for Buffy, hurls himself at her; she literally throws him off, only to go after him, ravenously and amorously, a few moments later. Buffy gives as good as she gets. No, better -- between her and Spike, I'd put my money on her in the ring any day. In this dynamic, there's no such thing as the weaker sex. They're both prey to their own desires.

It's shocking but somehow not surprising when, after clocking Spike, Buffy suddenly lunges at him for a kiss. (Note that she's the one to make the first move.) And it's bone-thumpingly sensual the way she slams him against a wall and hikes herself up on him, not bothering to waste a minute with anything so dithery as foreplay. To paraphrase Paglia, now the feminine hurls itself at the masculine in an eternal circle of pursuit and flight.

That's just the sort of twist that Whedon delights in. He's not interested in reinforcing the roles that men and women are expected to play; he's interested in scrambling up the rules. For instance, instead of stressing the differences between humans and vampires, more often than not the show seeks out the spot where the animal desires of humans and vampires intersect. For example, skip back a few seasons and consider the younger, teenage Buffy, at the point when she was contemplating the right time to sleep with her vampire-with-a-soul boyfriend, Angel. Like most girls her age -- she was 16 at the time -- she wanted nothing more than to have a safe, warm, blissfully cocooned romantic relationship with him. And Angel, an unusual cross between a traditionally masculine brooding hero and an enlightened contemporary male, wanted exactly the same thing. The tragic obstacle to his happiness was an old Gypsy curse that turned him into a monster at precisely the moment Buffy has given him the greatest pleasure of his life (and crossed over into womanhood herself).

Whedon very baldly addressed what every teenage girl fears will happen if she sleeps with her boyfriend -- the same anguished fear that the Shirelles sang about in "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" That once she sleeps with her boyfriend, he won't want her anymore -- he will wake up another person. And that's exactly what happened with Buffy and Angel.

And through it all, it's clear that Whedon's sympathies are almost completely with Buffy. In fact, he's always most attuned to the thoughts and feelings of his women characters. At the end of last season, Whedon and his writers drew some fire from certain members of the gay and lesbian community, who felt betrayed that he had killed off Tara, Willow's lover.

But I think what that really tells us is that Whedon has an ear for tragedy that draws from some of the most classic examples, from ancient Greece through Shakespeare and beyond. The characters that he loves (and we love) the most are also the ones who suffer the most. I don't think it's a coincidence that most of those characters are women. Since the beginning of the show, Whedon has reserved the richest and most troubling complexities for his women characters. No one escapes suffering in Whedon's universe, but we're made to identify most with the women: both with minor characters like Joyce Summers, Buffy's mother (who was almost always an annoyance and yet whose death left an unimaginable void), as well as, of course, the two women who pump more blood into the show than anyone else -- Buffy and her best friend, Willow.

Whedon showed boundless compassion for Buffy when she lost Angel. He shows just as much compassion for Willow, but he's keenly aware that Willow is very different from Buffy, and that she's been harboring more rage and frustration than she'd ever admit to. Willow watched as Tara, the person she loved best in the world, was struck by a bullet fired by the nerdy but unconscionably evil Warren. The bullet had been intended for Buffy. Buffy lived, but Tara died in Willow's arms, inciting a propulsive grief in her that couldn't be contained even by obsession: It couldn't flower into anything less tropically blood-red than rage. Over the years Willow had become a powerful practitioner of magic, but she gave up magic after realizing she had been seduced into a dangerous dependency on it. With Tara's death, it became her only ally -- her grief was so great that she couldn't bear the company of humans.

Willow's tirade begins with a plea to the great god Osiris to restore Tara to life (a plea that's refused) and ends with nothing less than the orchestration of the end of the world (which is aborted, but just barely). In between, she avenges Tara's death by torturing and flaying her killer but not before summoning, to taunt him, the woman he'd earlier nearly raped and then murdered. And, in her ever mounting wrath, she practically destroys every one of her remaining friends.

What's wrenching about Willow's behavior -- and Whedon knows it as well as anybody else -- is that it cuts against everything Tara ever stood for. She was one of the show's gentlest and most sensible characters; when Buffy confided to Tara, in shame, that she was involved in an obsessive sexual relationship with Spike, Tara's response was bracingly sympathetic. You could argue that of all the characters on "Buffy," Tara was the one who stood most clearly for the right of human beings to live and love as they choose without having to explain themselves, and to make their own mistakes if need be.

As viewers, we couldn't not love Tara, which is why it hurt so much to lose her. But obviously, that was Whedon's point: The greatest kinds of love always entail the biggest risks. Whedon isn't afraid to deal with sorrow or disappointment in love. The best episodes of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" have always been the ones brushed with melancholy -- of the four humors, that's the one Whedon finds the most interesting and worthy, and it's the thing that's given the series so much juice and depth over the years.

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" has always been steeped in a lush, overtly sexual romanticism that isn't always pretty; Whedon and his team of writers have never been afraid to confront the messiness, and sometimes the danger, of sex. Even so, the show also revels in a deep appreciation of sensual beauty that's unabashedly pagan. (Think of the scene in the musical episode of "Buffy," "Once More, With Feeling," in which Willow and Tara turn levitation into a metaphor for the bliss of oral sex.) We may think we live in a modern, enlightened age when it comes to sexuality. But by exploring sexual issues that are as old as humankind itself, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" reminds us that we can't tame or corral sexual desire as easily as we might think. Each human heart (and libido) has to find its own direction, and that goes for vampires, too.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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