The Woman in White: Heroinism, victimhood, and the paradox of Buffy

Today on the blog we have Sheffield Gothic alum Kathleen Hudson discussing Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Season One finale ‘Prophecy Girl’ in relation to heroinism, victimhood, and the paradox of Buffy. As always you can carry on the conversation using #BuffySlays20.

In “A Receipt for Novel Writing”, her 1799 parody of novel-writing and the Gothic romances which had flooded the literary landscape at that time, Mary Alcock describes the popular fiction author’s process of developing and torturing their work’s heroine: “Her fine blue eyes were made to weep, / Nor should she ever taste of sleep; / ply her with terrors day or night, / and keep her always in a fright […] (Alcock, “A Receipt for Novel Writing, 1799).”

Alcock’s ‘heroine’ could be any character from any number of early Gothic works, and she could very easily be Buffy Summers, the titular protagonist of Joss Whedon’s TV classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). A California native moving from high school to college to adulthood during the late ‘90s, Buffy speaks to a contemporary time and place. She is also a classic heroine, a beautiful (and notably conforming to a beauty standard of blonde hair and blue eyes) pseudo-orphan plagued supernatural “terrors” which define her daily life, forced to negotiate social and moral values as frequently as she is forced to battle actual monsters. Buffy is distinguished from her predecessors, however, by those physical superpowers which make her the Slayer.

(Buffy descends into the Master’s underground lair)

The tension between the ‘heroine-victim’ described in Alcock’s parody and Buffy’s ‘Slayer’ identity reaches an apex in the Season One finale, “Prophecy Girl” (aired June 2, 1997). In this episode Rupert Giles, Buffy’s Watcher and surrogate father figure, reads a prophecy that the season’s Big Bad, The Master, will rise and kill Buffy, and that it is only through this act that the conflict between them can be resolved. When informed of this Buffy attempts to adjure the identity which forces her participation, reaching for that ever elusive ‘normalcy’ which she desires even as her core being bespeaks abnormality. Her furious “I quit” in the Season One finale constitutes one of her most profound moments of rebellion in the series, and emphasizes the disconnect between the ‘Slayer’ and ‘Buffy’ – she openly admits that “I don’t care. Giles, I’m 16 years old. I don’t wanna die” (Whedon, 1997).

Because Buffy is by her dual nature both Slayer and classic ‘heroine’, her very existence suggests a violation of these identities and, by extension, the socio-literary influences which inform them. Whedon was initially criticized for naming his protagonist Buffy, though the jarring dissonance was actually the point – Buffy is a kickass warrior who drinks Frappuccinos, is a cheerleader, and has the kind of name one might reasonably give to a small, fluffy dog. On a superficial level, she is Alcock’s perfect ‘heroine-victim’, with all the inevitable ‘suffering’ that implies both within the boundaries of a fictional plot and within the reading/viewing audience’s perception of the heroine’s suffering as entertainment. As she points out, she is a teenager when the show begins, and her slight stature makes both her physical feats more impressive and the surrounding dangers more terrifying. Even Buffy’s strategy for escaping victimization, it seems, is by paradoxically acting like a victim – a normal teenager who, in the tradition of innumerable slasher films, just wants to go to the school dance. 

(Buffy trying on a (suitably heroine appropriate) white prom dress)

The perimeters Buffy’s ‘heroine-victim’ role is reinforced by her progress throughout “Prophecy Girl”. The written word determines identity – both within the plot and in larger negotiations of genre. As she prepares to either reject or accept her role she discusses the personal emotional loss that accompanies the death of several fellow students with her friend Willow, and is forced to finally commit to her decision to prevent Giles from sacrificing himself in her place, all moments which suggest a moral awakening and self-awareness. She attempts to get her mother, Joyce to leave town with her, while Joyce profoundly misreads the situation and ironically encourages her to be the ‘normal teenager’, idealistically citing the romantic possibilities that normalcy brings and giving Buffy a white prom dress straight out of a ‘Heroines-R-Us’ catalog.

Early Gothic heroine Emily St Aubert from Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho,E.J. Clery argues, survives the unstable Gothic space by “turning the tables and learning to treat herself as a commodity”, namely by exploiting her predilection for heroic virtue within, rather than in opposition to, a socially-constructed marketplace (Clery, The Rise of Supernatural Fiction, 1995). The villainous Montoni’s derisive quote that Emily speaks “like a heroine […] we shall see if you can suffer like one”, is a mocking attempt to undercut Emily’s identity (Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho,1794). However, as both Emily and Buffy come to realize, embracing the heroine identity is its own strength. The only way out is through and in this, as Angela Wright argues, “Heroinism thus becomes a process in self-awareness” (Wright, “Heroines in Flight”, 2016).

(Buffy and the Scoobies in the library, having defeated the Master)

Buffy, wearing her white prom dress, that ever-potent Gothic symbol, goes to The Master as a sacrificial victim. Like Radcliffe’s Montoni, The Master mocks her limitations, her lack of knowledge, her role within the larger narrative: “You tried. It was noble of you. […] But prophecies are tricky creatures. They don’t tell you everything. You’re the one that sets me free. If you hadn’t come, I couldn’t go” (Whedon, 1997). Having unwillingly unleashed The Master and kickstarted disaster, Buffy is killed, becoming, at least temporarily, a passive object within a larger horror plot.

However, once Buffy dies and her self-sacrificial vitim-role is arguably ‘completed’ the boundaries of the prophecy narrative and indeed the Gothic-horror world which the characters occupy begin to break down. Firstly, Buffy is drowned rather than drained, suggesting a sort of failure of ‘vampire-ness’. Her friend Xander revives her when her love interest Angel cannot (as a vampire Angel doesn’t breathe and thus cannot perform CPR), exposing the limitations caused by the fictional universe’s own ‘rules’ regarding the supernatural. Her later face-off against The Master further undercuts an already shaky reality through an affectation of the physically-coded bubble-headed ‘blonde-ness’ which Buffy both embodies and subverts:

The Master: (turns to face Buffy in disbelief) “You’re dead!”

Buffy: “I may be dead, but I’m still pretty – which is more than I can say for you.”

The Master: “You were destined to die! It was written.”

Buffy:” What can I say? I flunked the written.” (Whedon, 1997)

In this Whedon points to the limits of the “written” and of visual signifiers such as attractiveness, those elements which lock heroines into patterns victimhood, and extends the formula past the point when a story about heroine-sacrifice would typically end. Buffy, naturally, slays The Master and lives to fight another day, and Giles wryly admits that he should have known no such paltry limitations could stop her.  Throughout the tenure of the show and in “Prophecy Girl” especially, Buffy emphasizes her youth, femininity, and vulnerability. However, because Buffy is dually ‘victim’ and superhero, she is also an identity paradox, and one which enables a radical shift in the boundaries of Gothic storytelling and identity. Buffy is a sacrifice, but she survives, and in turn weaponizes the heroine’s traditional ‘weaknesses’, turning them into tools, providing an on-going alternative ending which incorporates and then reworks traditional understandings of horror, femininity, heroism, and identity.  She notes wryly at the end of the episode that the white dress is a “big hit with everyone,” from Buffy’s enemies to her love interest. The signifier of Buffy’s heroine status becomes a fetishized object, but one which emphasizes the lengths to which she has been consistently underestimated even as it reflects a long tradition of ‘heroine’ identity. Buffyas a series never escapes its roots, but rather articulates and embraces the anxieties and tensions which define female identity more broadly – the paradox of a character who both suffers and endures.In this Buffy echoes her later quip to Dracula – we’ve seen the movies, and we know that the heroine, like the vampire, “always comes back” (Whedon 2000).

Dr. Kathleen “Queen of the Goths” Hudson is an eternal member of Sheffield Gothic: while she lives the American Dream, Sheffield Gothic continues to worship her from across the pond. To the best of our knowledge, she does not live imprisoned in an underground church leading a cult of vampires, nor does she teach in a school situated above a Hellmouth.