- Sex and the Slayer: A Gender Studies Primer for the Buffy Fan
The television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer occupies a distinctive position as both mainstream popular culture and site of serious academic inquiry. Since its inception in 1997, the show has spawned dozens of academic essays and books; dedicated conferences in the United States and Europe; and even has its own journal. Buffy scholarship has been and continues to be interdisciplinary, including work from scholars in cultural studies, theology, philosophy, ecology, law, education, linguistics, and anthropology. Given Buffy's premise—a high school girl is given the power to fight (primarily adult male) monsters through her mystical connection to a line of women heroes—gender and feminist analyses constitute an important part of this scholarship.
In Sex and the Slayer: A Gender Studies Primer for the Buffy Fan, Lorna Jowett delivers the most extensive examination of femininity, masculinity, and gendered relations on Buffy to-date. She analyzes Buffy as a "site of struggle" for gender negotiation—both how women's gender identities are influenced by external factors as well as how constructions of masculinity are limited in what Jowett calls a post-feminist society. The book's title aptly describes the intended audience for this analysis—fans of the show who may need an introduction to the academic field of gender studies. A reader unfamiliar with the language of women's/gender studies will find definitions of terms such as "hegemony," "patriarchy," and "the Other" in the introduction, but it would be difficult for readers with little or no knowledge of the show to appreciate the full weight of Jowett's argument.
Jowett argues that Buffy is characteristic of the ways in which postmodern popular culture simultaneously subverts and reifies binary constructions of gender. She claims that "Buffy treats identify as inherently unstable" by challenging traditional dichotomies such as feminine/masculine, good/bad, and human/monster (4). Through close analysis of the show's major characters as well as those who appear in only one or two episodes, Jowett demonstrates how characters on Buffy must continuously (re)negotiate their own gendered identities. The teen girls, for example, struggle to be both feminist and feminine while juggling societal perceptions of what makes a girl "good" or "bad." As part of the analysis, Jowett considers how characters' sexuality, class, race, and ethnicity influence their gendered identity, while pointing out that the show itself often fails to question binary constructions of class, race, and ethnicity. [End Page 239]
One of Jowett's contributions to academic work in gender studies is her extended analysis of the men and masculinities in Buffy. In three chapters, she explores the possibilities and limitations of constructions of masculinity in a society that is simultaneously (post)feminist (the supernatural world of slayers and monsters) and patriarchal (the "real" world): "the new men are valorized through their contrast with 'bad' tough guys, but they are clearly not a solution. They demonstrate again the difficulty in negotiating a new type of gender identity, in trying to construct a masculinity that fits the post-feminist age" (143).
Jowett makes a compelling argument that Buffy's ability to present femininity and masculinity as unstable is tied to blending, and sometimes subverting, the genres of the soap opera (traditionally viewed as feminine) and horror/action (traditionally viewed as masculine). As a soap opera, Buffy privileges emotion and employs a serial narrative, which resists closure and the solidification of gendered relationships. Horror and action, however, are based on linear narratives in which traditional moral order is ultimately reestablished (good defeats evil). Generic expectations of horror and action are subverted through the use of gendered role reversal, but by placing the supernatural world within the "real-world," characters must visibly struggle to negotiate their gendered identities.
Ultimately, Jowett's analysis of the genres and gendered negotiations of Buffy provide both a useful introduction to gender analysis of popular culture artifacts and a commentary on femininities and masculinities in...