Buffy, bound to please

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BtVS or just Buffy) is, in more ways than one, television with a twist. For one, its popularity is curious given its starting‐point of a highly teenage fantasy world built around a collage of world mythology and the inherent excesses one would expect of a plot centered around slaying vampires. But given the series’ extremely high production quality and its pervasively classy treatment of such contentious issues as single mother parenthood, religious bigotry and estrangement, we must conceed that Buffy truly is Must See TV.

My essay deals with a further aspect of Buffy, one that seems to have largely gone unnoticed: the series possesses an unusually liberal view of gender and sexuality.

Sunnydale, BuffyVerse

Many critics have praised BtVS for its complex, human characters. Indeed one of its well known strong points is the recognition that a truly believable character is never on the end of any chosen spectrum; BtVS correctly avoids dealing with absolutes. At the same time, the series does not hesitate to turn conventional stereotypes on their head.

The way this affects the show’s portrayal of gender has earned Buffy herself the name and fame of feminist icon. As the series is borne of the idea of the archetypal B‐movie blonde standing up and beating the crap out of the attacker, this should not come as a big surprise. But Sunnydale is by no means a feminist utopia. Instead, here the two sexes attain strict equivalence, both in good and in bad. The gender roles mostly transcend the traditional ones: men can be sensitive and still remain masculine (Angel, Giles), while being proactive and street savvy does not stop women from being profoundly feminine (Buffy, Faith).

This equalized, analytic starting point has a lot to contribute to the series’ view of morality. In Sunnydale, there is no pure good or evil. It is even possible for the Good to be taught by the Bad: while Buffy is clearly one of the good guys, this does not prevent her patrols from mutating into hunts under Faith and Dracula’s guidance (changing her from a dutiful girl‐slayer to a predatory beast among Undead prey). Willow is sometimes callous and strange, carrying around marshmellows in the expectation that some demon body will be burnt.

Such a view of the human nature forces us to deal with our less delightful sides: Faith’s turning on the other Slayerettes, Buffy’s learning that slaying feels good, Willow and Xander’s cheating on Oz and Cordelia and Spike’s explaining to Buffy that slayers usually self‐destruct. BuffyVerse offers the writer a chance to vent some of our more primal instincts, and being able to do this on female characters highlights the issues unlike anything. I’d say this has a large part in the moral ambivalence people rarely fail to mention when talking about BtVS.

Sexuality is one of the things desperately in need of constructive treatment. Eventhough it isn’t the central theme in Buffy as such, it is recognized as an important part of the characters’ personalities and portrayed accordingly, with all the rough edges and delicate dynamics one would expect to encounter in real life. Consequently, romances in Buffy have little to do with the stereotyped, highly gender polarized highschool dramas we encounter such an excess of in nowaday’s teen oriented television.

The recognition that males and females are not so different after all, even in the area of sexuality, paves way for using sexuality and romance as artistic tools in addition to being things to be studied in themselves—when we cast aside most moral and gender based preconceptions about the existing forms of sexual expression, we are left with a heap of powerful connotations to be used at will to liven up the story. For instance, the line of thought leading from sexual through indulgent, carnal and sinful to evil can easily be substituted for explicit moral condemnation, an important ingredient in a series decidedly mute about religious values. Alternatively, a hot look can make the wearer seem empowered, successful and desirable.

Thus we see that any comprehensive view of morality and sexuality is bound to cause some ambiguity: the other narrative functions that sexual expression and role playing can have easily get entangled with the description of romance itself and any possible moral lesson therein. I feel this is one key to the fact that unlike many other series, this one can utilize some rather questionable influences without being seriously burnt: what might simply be seen as a cheap shock in some other show, could here well be serving a legitimate purpose.

VampWillow and friends

Eventhough few people ever bring the subject up, there’s no question that today’s popular culture is wide awake to the more popular of sexual deviances and utilizes, if not perversions proper, at least the manifest appearance of the related subculture. Leather, chains, whatnot, are everywhere to be seen.

One long‐standing, fairly plausible explanation to this perhaps slightly disconcerting observation is that other unusual sensuous tastes often go together with fetishes, and that the highly stylized, graphical nature of the latter holds a special appeal to those in the visual arts. We would expect that graphical artists, film directors and the like would both utilize fetish imagery for the looks alone, and could also be more inclined than the average person to actually take to the kink.

Once kinks permeate the public arena, television, as the epitome of Western popular culture, is among the first to react. We get what BtVS fans might term a VampWillow‐syndrome: the use of fetish imagery as a narrative tool. This is a trend that seems to have started already with daring symbols such as tattoos being linked to sensuality. The extension to the expression of such emotional qualities as eccentricity, individuality and creativeness is well underway.

Hence it is to be expected that the presence can be found in Buffy; if not otherwise, then as a simple matter of fashion. But I think that’s not the end of story.

First of all, Buffy, as part of a long lineage of vampire legend and as a series which mixes a whole range of other world mythology, is a bit special. Its general setting is such that stylized and even aggravated references to medieval and Goth horror themes, various differing conceptions of evil and morality, and a broad range of contemporary international culture are appropriate, as are ones to use of force in all its forms, deeply sexual motifs and some fairly big emotions. The series is, like most fantasy and SciFi, almost built as a testbed for cultural experimentation.

Second, BtVS has never pretended to be a feel‐good series—perhaps the ultimate hook in Buffy is the constant darkness, gloom and melancholy overshadowing everything in Sunnydale. Hence not everything that is shown needs to, or even can, be sweet or benign. We then witness Buffy’s inability to get out of Sunnydale, friends turning into vampires and physical violence of every imaginable kind, all set to a peculiarly haunting soundtrack. So while BuffyVerse mythology buys us the means, the mood is what gives us the motivation.

From this perspective, it is no wonder that the strong visual and emotional appeal of fetish fashion is utilized extensively—in BuffyVerse it seems everybody wears chains, leather, rubber, latex, killer shoes, piercings and tattoos, one time or another. Combined with careful staging and lighting, what in the wild might seem like a bad case of teenage rebellion becomes a startlingly effective visual tool which contributes a lot to the evocativeness of BtVS’s narrative.

While today’s visual entertainment is often extremely graphic, it is rare to see visual signals as strong as those of fetish fashion being treated with the cool they are in Buffy. Whereas traditional TV often uses sexual tension to signal upcoming judgement, in BuffyVerse it at most attracts undue, Undead attention. This laissez‐faire mentality separates Buffy’s treatment of kink from the rest of the crop.

But even if it is quite natural for a series built on such escapist ideas as BtVS to deal with deeply buried subcultural artifacts, it doesn’t follow that the treatment of such material should be consistent, or persistent. Many shows, such as the X‐files, go dark quite without elaborating upon any deviance of the characters.

In Buffy, however, we actually encounter kinks meticulously woven into the characters’ on‐screen personality. Angel with his bad ass tattoos, Jenny who…dangles her corkscrew who knows where and, a case in point, VampWillow, the vampire counterpart to Willow, the most naïve, innocent and harmless of the series regulars. Few other shows would go as far as to build a lesbian dominatrix figure out of a child‐like highschooler, let alone base entire episodes on the character. Except, of course, to lead up to some particularly gruesome punishment for the offender. But in BtVS we see nothing of the kind—the dom look simply serves the purpose of presenting us with a different Willow. Bad, perhaps, but not about to be hurt just to drive a lesson home.

The above applies to most of BtVS’s characters. Spike, Drusilla and indeed Buffy herself endure despite quirky personalities.

So it seems that the series’ many references to fetish culture are intentional. Strong, distinctive looks and particular kinks are, appropriately enough, used to demark the relative power relationships of the characters. For instance, the difference between Willow and VampWillow is not so much a moral one, but a one of emancipation. This is, together with the taste and humor put into the metaphor, perhaps the clearest sign of the difference between Buffy and shows which use similar displays purely to shock or as examples of some fundamental character flaw.

Apparently the Buffy crew has recognized that a highly charged outward appearance is no sure sign of depravity, and now utilizes it to give the characters part of their personality. Using the lavish connotations fetish signifiers invoke serves this end far better than, say, the droning self‐analysis of a bewildered Dawson. Plus, the look makes you return for more.

The modern, dynamic vamp

Fetish fashion aside, BtVS is connected to many other contemporary phenomena. Here of particular interest is the tradition of the modern, sexual vampire—in the context of the Undead, sexuality seems to assume some unexpected extra qualities.

That vampires and straight heterosexuality do not easily go together is no great surprise, considering that vamps are Evil and as such not really viable partners for respectable people. Plus, from the reproductive angle, becoming a vampire bears more resemblance to getting infected than to having intercourse. But there is some sexual element to vampires, isn’t there?

An interesting psychoanalytic take on this observation is the idea that vampires symbolize the fearsome aspects of mature, adult sexuality, as opposed to the innocence and naïveté of childhood we so seem to value. Becoming a vampire is explained as symbolizing growing up: one becomes subject to subconscious urges, beastly and frightening because they cannot be controlled, yet liberating when contrasted with the puritanistic moral ideals of the society. And above all, these desires are clearly quite enjoyable in all their immorality, giving us the tension between resisting the transformation and embracing it. Becoming a vampire is seen as a choice between that which is Good and that which is Fun, so to speak.

In this light it is no wonder that the age old Balkanese vampire myth has in the more recent times mutated to incorporate some explicit sexual content. More accurately, vamp legend has absorbed a view of sex drawn from the hard core of religious bigotry: sex as an urge as uncontrollable as hunger, an act of mere lust, a drive to take what one wants without regard for the well‐being of the other and a mortal sin guaranteed to cost one one’s immortal soul. This sexuality is embodied in the death kiss of a feeding vampire, devoid of the healthy pleasure and mutual consent usually associated with human sexuality and left with the biological inevitabilities of feeding/breeding. The kiss portrays a beast taking its toll on helpless prey, the flesh succumbing to the most ultimate of vices.

Granted, in its recent incarnations, like in the works of Anne Rice, the vampire has gained in humanity. But it has also become accountable for its actions: one cannot blaim an animal for seeking sustenance whereas what a gorgeous, desirable, seemingly human vampire does is most assuredly just plain bad.

This newest vampire engenders the fearsome idea of evil‐as‐seduction; the charm is there to tempt and to test. Sure the victim becomes correspondingly more powerful and at least in principle should be able to resist the temptation. But, humans remaining just that, this never happens—we once again get the spectacular, sensuous Bite, half orgastic pleasure, half recognition that the transgression will be dearly paid; a sort of ghastly reaffirmation that childhood innocence will eventually give way.

Now, when sex was still a taboo, the above metaphor worked very nicely. But in the secular, post‐70’s era it is difficult to portray sexual tension as ultimately sinful or irredeemably tainted—the carnal has long ago lost the stigma it once had. Except, of course, when we substitute deviant sexuality for the run‐of‐the‐mill kind. Whereas vanilla heterosexuality has had much of its negative image dispelled over the course of the sexual revolution, homosexuality, fetishes, sadism and masochism still hold all their potential to shock. We get gender ambivalent, gay or kinky vamps, the kind we’ve seen such a wealth of in recent pieces of vampire fiction. A sort of Marilyn Manson package deal, to wit.

Explaining sexual deviance in vampire stories simply as a signifier for evil stops somewhat short, though. While kinks are an efficient means to this end, it is another thing entirely why the idea blends so smoothly with our subject matter. While a leather harnessed dominatrix in Dawson’s Creek will just attract a pack of blood‐thirsty fundamentalists, somehow the same wrapping on sweet little Willow turns out a completely satisfactory (even Satisfactory, to some of us) character.

One reason for this could be that sadism is easily associated with vampires. After all, most people have great difficulty telling actual, sexual sadism from sheer brutality and unfounded aggression, both of which vampires by their nature stand for. But this sort of excercise in arm chair psychology really does not get one far—it does not really apply to ordinary action films, for instance. In most cinematic genres, marking evil by kinky behavior seems dumbed down and clumsy. Instead, I would tend to argue there is something funky going on with the myth of the sexual vampire itself.

It is interesting how, when they see the Bite, people usually agree that there is a certain sexual overtone to it. That is, by quick thinking nothing should be further from the truth: a vamp biting someone’s neck and draining away should by no accepted standard constitute anything but blood and gore. Yet a closer look reveals that the victim almost never resists her faith and that the pain and pleasure of the Bite blend almost seamlessly. Some vamp flicks even go as far as to let the lesser of deaths precede the greater…

So the way I see it, the Bite has to it the ring of sexual power transfer; the recognition of pleasure in being taken against one’s own conscious will and the one of being the taker. From this point of vantage the heat of the Bite becomes the singular instance of sadomasochistic tension which, while clearly separate from our everyday preconception of romantic endeavours, is commonly recognized to be sexual.

Getting it, hard

While we already saw that it is easy to rationalize vampires’ sadomasochistic traits, the tendencies seem to be a little more widely spread in Sunnydale. Here even normal people—witches and slayers, as it were—can radiate a BDSMish vibe.

One striking example is the way every now and then one of the characters ends up in serious distress. Were we talking about Dawson’s Creek, this would mean relationship trouble or deep secrets of some kind. In Buffy, the effect is more often than not mediated via a parade of chains and shackles. Now, in itself this mode of expression well suits BtVS’s tangible approach to story‐telling. But the way the camera often lingers over a scene of this kind communicates something extra. It tends to turn a scene into a Scene, so to speak. Far from being designed to instill empathy in the viewer, a display of this variety more likely piques interest and sometimes manages to lure even a naïve viewer into realizing its aesthetic appeal. The resulting mood approaches and perhaps even rivals the ambivalent mixture of anxiety and arousal so characteristic of unadulterated bondage fiction.

Considering that BtVS, as a very teen oriented series, should display some sensitivity, and that the same scenes could be realized with significantly less bravado, it must be that somebody in the Buffy crew appreciates the terrible beauty in carefully crafted bondage. The fact that there are ample explicit references to the theme (In all our time together, I can’t believe we never tried chains before.) reinforces the conclusion.

The same applies to the sadistic side too, to the character responsible for the captivity. Many of the series regulars occasionally engage in deep powertrips with sadistic overtones, all carefully integrated into the chic overall look of the series. In this case, the idea often extends beyond the plain look, though, and into BDSMish mannerisms and behaviors: VampWillow’s playing with a weakened Angel in one episode is a clear sadistic fantasy, as is what we know of Angelus’s treatment of pre‐vamp Drusilla. We see that most of the many powergames in the series have at least some use for the BDSM hook.

Meanwhile it will have to be pointed out that the difference between a description of legitimized violence and sadism is hair thin in today’s action oriented television/cinema. Even if someone takes an amount of pleasure in inflicting pain or wielding physical power, it does not automatically make a scene sadistic. And indeed, in BuffyVerse people do engage in violence as a matter of duty, all quite apart from any sexual motive. Similarly, it is quite difficult to tell a sympathetic description of a damsel in distress from the slightly more charged one of a masochist.

The tell‐tale sign in Buffy is that people and vampires can engage in violence for reasons far more personal than just doing what everybody expects of a hero, all without losing their charm in the process. A good example is how Faith links sexual arousal with the heat of combat, or occasionally even pain. (I’ve fought all night, and no kill. I’m all wound up.; If you don’t enjoy it [slaying], you’re doing something wrong.) Later some of these qualities are even projected on Buffy. Creating such a link between the role of the Slayer, the primary hero of the story, and sadistic tendencies, goes miles towards legitimizing sadism itself.

Examples of the contrary, the presence of masochism, are far more difficult to find. This may be because a masochistic character isn’t quite the kind of individualistic hero that American audiences so seem to crave for. However, three important exceptions come to mind.

The first, Drusilla, we will be returning to, shortly.

The second is Buffy herself, and her relationship with Angel: the romance is described as a painful one, but in one episode Faith still manages to strike a nerve with Buffy when she claims that her most trying experience with Angel, his loss of soul, actually pleased some part of her. The third season finale echoes similar feelings when Buffy offers herself to be fed on by Angel; one cannot help but notice the strong sexual overtones in the ensuing scene. Peculiarly enough Angel is now one of the good guys, which renders the Bite all but inexplicable in terms of our recent analysis of vampire sexual expression.

The third example comes from what happens when Xander tries to talk to Faith after she’s killed an innocent. Faith reacts with insult, practically raping Xander. But what catches the eye is that while Faith clearly dominates the scene, Xander really has very little against it. He seems to submit willingly, not something one would expect of a sympathetic male character.

As the above quirks still retain their forbidden status, they are perceived as being fresh and exciting, and as such fit Buffy’s atmosphere of teenage sensuality and self‐discovery. But at the same time, if portrayed just an ounce more intensely, the gestures still have all the potency of BDSM’s darker insight: the recognition of the pleasure in being topped and the contrary observation of a deep bond between (being in) power and sexuality.

That the current generation of young people, and not the earlier ones, seems to at least partially grasp this ultimate lesson of BDSM, reveals to us a sign of premeditation in Buffy: any liberal views over sexuality are almost without exception woven into storylines involving the younger characters. E.g. you do not catch Giles pinning a woman to the wall while kissing her, eventhough the younger characters could probably do this without being considered strange. We both see that the introduction of unconventional sexuality into the series is carefully calculated and that we really aren’t just seeing things. After all, there would be little need to build such a generation gap if the subject matter was neutral enough to be compatible with the more mature characters’ personalities.

S/M is something most people easily misunderstand. Sadism is often mistaken for the senseless aggression of sociopaths, aimless and immoral, while masochism is thought of as the domain of pathetic victim types with a difficult childhood. None of this is exactly true, but still the stereotypes are well established. In such a cultural atmosphere, even getting it right qualifies as kink awareness in a television series.

Buffy does get it. In BtVS, sadism is dissociated from hostility and given its proper role as a valid form of sexual expression, while masochism in and of itself does not make a character wimpy, abnormal or broken. Seeing Buffy writhe in the grasp of the Bite, and pass out only partly due to the severe blood loss, is at most disquieting, not uncool. And while sexual deviance does coexist with and parallel descriptions of evil, the sexual aspect in itself is never depicted as a turn‐off or as something that would downgrade a character. We see that BDSM is not used simply to signal moral decay.

Similarly the series seems to draw a clear line between consensual sadomasochism on one hand and brutality/neurosis on the other: lack of consent goes together with using the imagery as a moral lesson while consent usually paves way for metaphor. Willow’s reference to mistress‐of‐pain games just reveals an unexpected side of her personality, while uninvited infliction of pain, and particularly willful torture, is always used to mark moral rapture even if the character responsible could otherwise be classified as a sadist. Angelus’s treatment of people, or Faith’s willingness to torture Buffy alive make them the Bad Guys, no matter how much fun they may be having.

Beyond acknowledging these important differences, BtVS correctly associates BDSM with power, instead of just pain. For instance, Faith’s sadism mostly shows in the arousal brought on her by feelings of control. She clearly thrives for the terror she causes in others, and savours the moment when she’s slowly building up the tension around her. The same applies to VampWillow—both characters appear in more than one highly charged scene where the climax consists of total control‐by‐terror of others in attendance. This is domination at its purest.

In the light of the above discussion, it should not be entirely unexpected that the series actually includes a detailed description of BDSM as a workable basis for a long‐term relationship: Spike and Drusilla. Still the couple is not something one would expect of prime‐time television. While this unholy alliance is clearly one that is used to illustrate the different dimensions of evil, both characters are posed as humanly fragile and really quite charming, in their own peculiar way. In effect, most preconceptions regarding sexual deviance are disposed of in one fell swoop.

There is more than enough evidence that indeed sadomasochism is what keeps these two together. Lines such as Spike’s What am I thinking? I’ll just hurt her until she falls in love with me again. and Angel’s description of how his treatment of pre‐vamp Drusilla changed her speak their clear tongue. The same goes for Drusilla’s breaking up with Spike after Angelus proves a rougher lover. Spike and Drusilla truly are a different sort of couple, and the way the two first Buffy seasons elaborate on their relationship reminds us that their romance has taken a very conscious effort on behalf of the Buffy crew.

One final point worth mentioning about the realistic description of BDSM in the series is that the kink isn’t seen as something people are born with. We for instance know that Drusilla would not be masochistic, save Angelus’s master class. We also witness some signs of Faith teaching Buffy the basics of dominance. This is noteworthy in that most people see sexual deviance either as an illness (a view which we’ve already seen Buffy not to advocate) or as something people are born with. But once again BtVS puts it out as it ought to be—like most sadomasochists, those in the series aren’t lighters. This is a rare insight, even for documentaries dealing with BDSM culture.

We are forced to conclude that Buffy uses BDSM influences a bit too fluently for it to be just a coincidence. At times BDSM is even made into a theme, something most teen series would not dare to even try. Buffy on the other hand pulls the trick off expertly—so much so, in fact, that few people seem to have noticed at all.

In my mind, treating sexuality from a point of view broad enough to include BDSM as a valid part takes an exploratory spirit usually associated with serious literary work. I think it testifies to the fact that Buffy, unlike a number of other shows, really aspires to something greater than just simple entertainment.


When doing some Web research for previous articles in the above vein, I was surprised by the fact that few people seem to have noticed the radical aspects of the treatment of sexuality in Buffy. Mostly what I found was fundamentalist sites warning about the latest threat to the innocence of Christian youth.

I find this somehow frightening. While I regard Buffy’s treatment of sexuality as one of the most intelligent and comprehensive to appear on air to date, many of the others to have noticed put the result down as perverted and unsuitable for young eyes. Even if sex is an emotion laden issue, known to provoke a variety of knee‐jerk responses, this sort of neglect of BtVS’s unquestionable merits is a sure sign of the rise of puritanism, of something to be fought.

This is one of the reasons I truly hope that the Buffy crew keeps up its wonderfully eccentric line of story‐telling, be the tales sexually charged or not. It would be sadly disappointing if all the perspective Western youth culture has to offer on modern humanity were the bland, conservative stereotypes propagated by entertainment of e.g. the Roswell variety.


I just got an interesting mail from the maintainer of BadGirls, a collection of BtVS/BDSM fanfic. I truly didn’t know that sort of thing existed. It also seems this article has found a second home, so if the text rang a bell, by all means take a look. There’s some funky stuff online, there.