I’m Buffy and You’re History
Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Contemporary Feminism
Investigating Cult TV Series
London & New York: I.B. Tauris, 2016
Paperback. 244 p. ISBN 978-1780767468. £16.99 / $28.00
Reviewed by Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université François Rabelais (Tours)
In her Introduction, Patricia Pender, who teaches at Newcastle University in Australia, tells the reader that she has been researching the Buffyverse for two decades. The (tedious) movie, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Fran Rubel Kuzui) was released in 1992, and the eponymous cult series premiered in March 1997 and ended in May 2003, with Season 7, breaking millions of fans’ hearts. I chose not to take into account for this book review Seasons 8 to 11, however canonical, published in comic book form between 2007 and 2016. Pender has made “sporadic attempts to leave Buffy behind,” she tells us, but has always returned to it . I for one fully understand her, inasmuch as the seven seasons of the series compose one of the most fascinating popular culture texts ever to reach the mainstream.
I have read several Buffy Studies books, and this one will count among the best. One of its most appealing features is that it constitutes a general reappraisal of the series as well as a hefty appraisal of just about everything that has been published on the subject before—in English at any rate. Pender quotes or alludes to a tremendous amount of scholars, always picking the perfect dozen words to drive her point across, agreeing or disagreeing with (or simply elaborating on) well-chosen Buffy criticism statements. She knows exactly where feminist television studies are at this point in history, but she is equally au fait of fan studies. One of the questions she does not shy from is the pleasure of the text. How can female viewers, from questioning teenagers to third-wave “fan-scholars,” be reconciled with the apparent contradictions of the Buffyverse? Gayle Wald as well as other academics have warned, Pender reminds us, that “feminist scholarship must be wary of uncritically reproducing simplistically celebratory readings of popular culture that focus on gender performance ‘as a privileged site and source of political oppositionality’” .
A contemporary preoccupation of feminist television studies is feminist versus feminine pleasure. Examples of this include text-based genre studies, such as Sujata Moorti and Karen Ross’s discussion of the cultural meaning of reality television, its themes and subjects. Analysis of television viewing pleasure also encompasses audience studies and the analysis of often problematic and post-feminist ‘approved cultural scripts’ found in popular television. Jennifer Maher argues strongly that the apolitical, uncritical stance of post-feminism has had a detrimental effect on feminist media studies, stating: ‘I am most disturbed by essays that, by embracing a “postmodern version of feminism,” unduly praise every example of a hot girl who knows how to fight or can pay her own bills’ [31-32].
The question was asked early in the day: can one do feminist things with Buffy? I myself have always been convinced, and have applied myself to it in class. As it happens, this book can be summed up with the phrase “how to do (feminist) things with Buffy.” Throughout her eight chapters, Pender examines second-wave feminist concerns in and around Buffy, as well as (much more interestingly) third-wave feminist notions with and through Buffy. Her goal is to “produce a more sustained, nuanced and critical gender analysis of the series than is yet available” , and on the whole she reaches it. She deems that her chapters could be excerpted for use in television studies or gender studies courses and I concur. She wonders if and how Buffy is postmodern, muses about post-feminism (a term I recommend we ban forever), ponders the queer(ing) of the show or its characters, and aptly asks in her seventh chapter: “’Why can’t you just masturbate like the rest of us?’, to discuss the “erotics and politics of Buffy fandom.” These are words originally uttered by Anya, speaking to Andrew, words that set up “a parallel between fannish adoration and auto-erotic activity that is impossible to ignore” . When it comes to queer positioning, Pender uses Alexander M. Doty and other indispensable references .
My only minor qualm with the book is perhaps that its passages on race are brief and not entirely convincing. But this might be due to the fact that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is brief and not entirely convincing when it comes to race. Pender does not remind us enough of the old cliché that in any work of fiction dealing with aliens or monsters, there is a strong chance that the said aliens or monsters may stand for the non-white (cf. the planet Mongo and its inhabitants in Flash Gordon stories). But even if we leave that aside, one can easily understand why many cultural critics over the years have reproached Buffy characters for being altogether too white. Pender is right to mention Vivian Chin, though, who “discusses the intersection of race and the series’ feminist model; Buffy, as the antidote to the ‘helpless blonde’ horror genre trope, must be blonde and therefore white for the subversion of gender stereotypes to be successful” [66-67]. Pender seems to think that those overenthusiastic critics (such as myself) who consider Buffy creator Joss Whedon a genius exaggerate. Maybe he is a genius scriptwriter and a genius showrunner and a genius director (although admittedly that is not visible in every single one of his superhero movies), but not a genius when it comes to the handling of the problematics of whiteness, even though in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (as well as in its spinoff Angel) he delights in fake simplicity and real (racial) complication, never forgetting, for his part, that “vampires are primarily figures of racial otherness” . Or maybe he does not care and merely laughs all the way to the bank, but somehow Pender and I do not think this likely. After all, he has often discussed the gender politics of the show in the media, as Pender remembers, often engagingly, I found.
In difficult situations, ask yourself: “WWBD?” (“What Would Buffy Do?”). “Is Buffy the Vampire Slayer a groundbreaking, empowering and transgressive text or is its political potential compromised, commodity-driven and contained? Put simply, is Buffy good or bad?” . Any reader interested in finding out the answers to this should acquire I’m Buffy and You’re History. Would Buffy buy this book? Maybe not, considering her general relationship to books. But she would no doubt approve of the black and red cover, as well as the general slayer feminism to be found between the covers.
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