For anyone who has seen an episode of the epic Buffy the Vampire Slayer, they’ll know that Buffy is a strong feminist figure. She is a girl chosen to fight against “the vampires, demons and the forces of darkness”; a heroine working on the side of good, a role model for young girls. So what’s wrong with this image? Essentially, nothing. But the more we see of Buffy as the show progresses, the more it comes to light that she has become somewhat conceited, taking her power to mean she is better than her peers, begging the question: does a physical advantage equate to being “better” than another person? This attitude of Buffy’s finally comes to a head in season 7’s ‘Empty Places’ where her friends confront her on her mind-set and Buffy finally faces one of her biggest demons yet: herself.
This piece will examine Buffy’s role in the series and her character’s attitude towards her abilities as a slayer and how that impacts other people. I will assess whether Buffy is indeed a good role model or whether in fact her conceitedness is too much to bare, and is a bad example to viewers.
Why Buffy shouldn’t be counting her chickens
Buffy’s ability is, as Anya puts it, “handed” to her. She didn’t earn it. She should feel lucky, be humbled by her position as a slayer – she was chosen as a slayer, but as season 7’s revelation of potential slayers demonstrates, any of these potential slayers could have been chosen too. And this is highlighted even in season 2 when Kendra is called as a slayer – there are plenty of girls all ready to take the slayer position, they just need to be called. So Buffy isn’t quite so special after all; she’s one of many girls who have been chosen as potentials. The way her power is thrust upon her rather than being something she has achieved is even highlighted in the early seasons, where in season 1’s ‘Prophecy Girl’ she exclaims “I quit” in her reluctance to accept her duty, something which she didn’t ask for or desire.
Yet despite this reluctance in the early seasons, Buffy also maintains a level of drama around her position as slayer at pretty much all crucial times. She consistently makes a fuss of attempting to keep others safe, how every fight is “her” fight, and refusing to accept help. She yells at her friends for trying to help her, at one stage even exclaiming how they “get in the way” and she can’t spend all her time trying to protect them. Her brash treatment of the ‘Scooby Gang’ in this respect depicts a conceitedness of character from even seasons 1 and 2.
We see further such behaviour in season 3 with the arrival of Faith, who brings out this conceited attitude in Buffy. Of the two of them, Buffy is definitely the “good slayer”. Yet she still errs from the “right” course at first, going along with Faith in ‘Bad Girls’, where we see Buffy led into crime and carelessness as she uptakes an attitude of “want, take, have” – something which is later echoed in season 7’s ‘Touched’ where she walks into a man’s house and demands him to leave – “it’s what all the cool kids are doing”. She does what she likes with little regard for the people it affects, believing that she is better than them so is entitled to do as she pleases.
By season 5 this conceitedness manifests in a general ‘I’m better than everyone [because of her power] therefore I can beat anything’ attitude, and we see Buffy at perhaps her most frustrated when she is taken down a peg or two by Glory, a hell god. Later in the season, Buffy is required to undertake tests by the Watchers Council, where after briefly submitting to them, she rebels back, arguing that she quits the council – she no longer needs their help, they need her. Which was probably true, but this experience seems to fuel her conceited attitude. Later, in season 6, she goes through a tough time – what with being resurrected and so on. Yet with a younger sister of 16 – the age Buffy was when she first hit our screens – you would think she would allow said sister to help her on patrols, or at least with research. But no, it’s always “too dangerous”. Which we could accept as a valid excuse, except that Willow and Xander at 16 (essentially helpless teens back then) were allowed to tag along (at least with research) without much persistence of Buffy (except patrols and physical battles – she didn’t like them joining in on those). So, um, why is slaying (or rather, research) only “your” thing Buffy? Because only she has the ability, the special slayer powers to do it. It’s her exclusive thing that makes her better than others. Yet this contrasts everything we’ve seen of the rest of the Scoobies, who quite frankly didn’t seem to be doing too badly protecting Sunnydale from the vampires (including going out on patrols) at the beginning of season 3 whilst Buffy had ran away from her responsibilities. So clearly being a slayer doesn’t mean only you exclusively can slay vampires. Season 7’s normal human and vampire hunter Robin Wood is also an example of this.
“Luckier than us”
By season 7 Buffy’s attitude gets the better of her. She treats the potential slayers like children and even looks down on her ability-equal Faith, being outraged during the ‘Empty Places’ intervention-type discussion with her friends when they make the suggestion that Faith becomes leader for a while. Buffy fails to see how anyone could surpass her abilities and skills, even though Faith has a similar level of experience and has the same biological slayer abilities as Buffy. Really, there isn’t actually much of a reason why she shouldn’t have a go at leading.
What I find the most frustrating about Buffy’s conceited attitude, though, is that despite frequent underlying suspicions throughout the show, she finally actually admits it to Spike in ‘Touched’, where she talks about how she has “always cut herself off” from others as she feels she is in a different league to them because of her slayer skills – “being the slayer made me different”. The issue that needs to be addressed is whether or Buffy is actually “better” than normal people because of her skills. Well, Buffy herself has not been awarded her slayer skills; they just happen to have been assigned to her. There’s no denying she’s done a good job as the slayer; she is, after all, the longest living one. However, her abilities do not make her better than her peers for the very reason that she did not earn them. As Anya quite nicely puts it, “that doesn’t make you better than us; that makes you luckier than us”. Buffy has been blessed with these abilities and should act accordingly with them; this includes not becoming conceited and working on behalf of, and with, others – including a reformed Faith, who having overcome her own conceitedness, is able to work alongside others to do good with her abilities. What’s ironic about this, of course, is that in season 3 we were all begging Faith to be like Buffy; but by season 7 in some respects we’re kind of hoping for it to be the other way around.
Is Buffy a good role model?
On paper, Buffy is a good role model – she’s a hero, she always saves the day and tries to do what’s right. As a slayer, she is a good role model – she succeeds in her trials, she fights well and she is a fierce leader. She gets the job done, and she’s not overcome by evil in the way Faith was in earlier seasons. Buffy’s a safe bet. But her character also possesses an underlying conceitedness which means she is a bad role model. Her subtle haughtiness throughout the show does not induce feelings of sharing and equality to viewers, and this is potentially quite dangerous. In particular, in season 7 when her behaviour eventually manifests in a smash of opinions as her friends confront her on her behaviour. Given that it was something that needed to come to a head in the final few episodes of the show, clearly even writers could see that this character had some serious arrogance issues which needed addressing. Buffy’s power got out of hand, and her attitude with it. Her behaviour, particularly towards the end of season 7, demonstrates how power can corrupt a person, giving them a feeling that they can do anything and treat others how they like, and for this reason Buffy is not a good role model. In her case, her friends had enough and this is what led to what viewers see as an epiphany-type discussion with Spike.
Following this, Buffy began to accept that others might be as strong and important, or even more so, than herself. For example, when she refers to Willow as her “big gun”, where Willow’s spell was the most crucial part of her plan – not her own performance. Finally, it’s not just Buffy fighting by herself: it’s everyone. And so by the end of the final episode, she finally achieves a good role model status, a leader who sees her “army” as equals; they could have continued fighting without her. For a character who has been a conceited, bad role model for the rest of the show’s 142 episodes up until the last two, though; well, it’s just too little too late.
TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer created by Joss Whedon is available now on DVD from amazon.co.uk.
Nietzsche. He’s very much the marmite of philosophy, dividing his readers down the middle in a barrage of differing opinions that equate, well, to marmite.
Whilst studying Nietzsche’s middle period, a concept which particularly interested me was ‘Eternal Recurrence’. If taken as a guide for how to live, I believe this would provide a directive for the actions of renowned Buffy the Vampire Slayer character Faith. I’m going to take a look at this, and consider whether Eternal Recurrence is successful as a guide for living life – firstly in regard to Buffy character Faith, and secondly in respect to humanity in general.
Faith is essentially a slayer gone wrong; the “bad” slayer, the slayer without friends and family – Buffy’s total opposite.
After Buffy drowns and is resuscitated in Season 1, another slayer, Kendra, is called, and later killed by Drusilla. In turn, Faith is called, turning up in Sunnydale in Season 3 to wreak havoc amongst our Scooby gang – and she plans to stick around, too.
Initially working for the side of good (or so we believe at this point), Faith joins Buffy on patrol, their “synchronised slaying” being very much enjoyed by passionate Faith. This develops into a show of power in ‘Bad Girls’, where Faith tempts Buffy on wild wander into the realms of teen naughtiness by stealing, skipping classes and the ultimate bad: murder.
“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’” (The Gay Science S341)
Nietzsche’s thought experiment above is asking us to consider how we live our lives. Are we in the loneliest loneliness, living miserably and not making the most of what we have? If so, we’d be horrified at the prospect of re-living our lives. Or are we living happily, as we want to, elated at the idea of being able to experience all these fantastical things we have done all over again?
Nietzsche wants us to be the latter, living life to the fullest, so that re-living it would be gratifying.
Nietzsche wants us to live life as we’d like, in a way that we would enjoy it the most. Faith is the personification of this idea. From the moment we first see her, she’s oozing with a sexual confidence which leads her to, as she puts it, “want, take, have” whatever she feels she needs, including people. She believes she is “better” than others because of her slayer power, giving her the right to do as she likes.
And she enjoys it, revelling in her ability to abuse her power in any way possible, whether that’s seducing Angel, trying to kill Xander, or even murdering a human being. She’s having fun and she’d be happy to, when confronted with Nietzsche’s demon, re-live it all again and again for eternity. After all, she doesn’t feel guilt:
Buffy: “Faith, you killed a man.”
Faith: “No Buffy, you don’t get it. I don’t care.”
So Faith is a happy, evil bunny, adhering to Nietzsche’s suggestion. But does Nietzsche really mean that we can live however we want to, even if it’s at the expense of other people? There’s not much that suggests otherwise, although I won’t rule out contrasting evidence – I’m not a Nietzsche scholar, after all.
Does Eternal Recurrence work as a guide for Faith?
Well, anyone who has seen either Buffy or Angel, or both, will know that it doesn’t. After her evil alliance with The Mayor at the end of Buffy’s Season 3 episode ‘Consequences’, her definite cross over to the path of evil was confirmed. She later falls into a coma, and once awoken in Season 4, goes after Buffy and co. Upon wreaking havoc yet again in the good slayer’s life, Faith escapes to LA where she finally breaks down to Angel and admits experiencing guilt for her actions: she’s a mess. After Buffy shows up and more drama ensues, Faith finally turns herself in to the police and serves time for her actions.
So although she was “five by five” after committing murders, enjoying being evil, her conscience caught up with her and she began to atone for her behaviour, undergoing significant emotional suffering to do so. Now surely that isn’t something she’d want to re-live in Eternal Recurrence?
For this reason, Eternal Recurrence fails as a guide to life for Faith. She does, however, come out better on the other side, joining Angel in Season 4 to help restore his soul and arriving fully prepared to sacrifice her life for him in ‘Orpheus’. She then joins Buffy and co in the fight against The First, again, putting her head on the chopping block if it means helping to save the world.
Despite a supposed sacrificial nature, we still glimpse Faith’s dark side in Buffy’s Season 7 when she takes the potentials out partying, enraging Buffy (what’s new?) as well as getting flirty with Spike (upsetting Buffy again) and getting kinky with Robin Wood – that one didn’t upset anybody, though. Anyway, despite being “good”, Faith still manages to act in a “want, take, have”, Nietzschean way… to an extent. It appears she has more of an awareness of her actions at this point, being able to exert control and immediately backing down at any point of confrontation. In ‘Empty Places’, she doesn’t argue for her role as leader, it is simply handed to her, whereas Season 3 Faith would have got a power kick from it. Is this a more considered Nietzschean Eternal Recurrence attitude? Perhaps. Or it could just be maturity.
So, does Eternal Recurrence work as a guide for life?
Using Faith as an example, Neitzsche’s idea definitely shows promise. I think to use it as a guide to life would have to be vague; we don’t have much specificity in the concept, which may be why Faith is such a car crash character.
Having said that, the principle does hold down a generally desirable idea – I’m sure most of us would want to feel, at the end of our lives, that we could happily re-live it without a huge amount of regret or negative feeling. Hence if we were to accept Eternal Recurrence as a guide to life, we would need to do so loosely; using common sense and our conscience to ensure we do not undertake actions which may later come back and, well, bite us in the butt (or neck, if we’re dealing with vampires). Exerting superpowers was all very well for Faith, until she remembered she had a soul (and therefore a conscience), and so began an influx of immense guilt. Probably best to avoid that if you’re going to have a life of Eternal Recurrence! Therefore, I conclude that Eternal Recurrence does indeed work as a guide for life, if combined with common sense and a conscience, though not very well for Faith.
Souls. What are they? What do they represent? What is the purpose of a soul?
These ideas are explored at length in the Buffyverse and I’ve noticed a contrast between early/later Buffy and Angel in the way that they approach the concept of a soul. To illustrate these differences, I will draw on some philosophy from John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. I will also briefly draw on certain characters to exemplify the role of souls within the Buffyverse – there’s so many I could bring in, and in such detail, but I’ll just give a brief overview here.
Let’s start at the beginning. In Buffy the idea of a soul is introduced as a condition for good-ness. For example, in Season 1 we discover that Angel is a vampire. Initial response: omg horror, Buffy has kissed an evil thing! Then we find out he has a soul. Ok, this must mean he is “good” then. Generally he is accepted as part of the Scoobies and Buffy’s life goes on.
After he sleeps with Buffy in Season 2, Angel loses his soul and is described as being “evil” again. Again, we generally accept this and Buffy knows she must kill him. Angel is a clear example: having a soul = good, not having a soul = bad.
John Locke’s Souls
John Locke had a similar idea in the concept of a soul. He discussed the differences between a “man” and a “person”. A man, he argued, was simply a living being of a particular shape; i.e. what sets us apart from other species of living thing. What makes us a person, however, is the possession of a soul. This soul possession explains how we recognise a person to be the same person over time – their identity. So for Locke, a soul is the criterion of personal identity – but that’s a kettle of fish for another post! The crux is, a soul is what makes us more than an animal – it’s what makes us human. An animal might behave irrationally, for example killing other animals recklessly, whereas a person has the capacity to think, deliberate and take responsibility for their actions.
Locke & Early BtVS
Locke’s concept of a soul, then, seems to align with the early BtVS idea of a soul. Locke’s distinction between a man and a person is dependent on a soul; Buffy’s distinction between good and evil is dependent on a soul. A person, with a soul, is capable of good, moral actions. A man (i.e. human animal) is not capable of this. This is reflected in Angel’s behaviour. When he has a soul he performs “good” actions: he saves Buffy’s life, he helps the Scoobies beat the bad guys and stakes vampires. When he lacks a soul he acts immorally: he kills people for his own pleasure, plots to destroy the world and follows his instincts to feel satisfied.
However there are limitations to this similarity between the soul ideas of Locke and BtVS. If we are to follow Locke’s concept of a soul being the distinction between a person and a man, then all beings without a soul should be animals, basic creatures without the capacity for complex thought. Evil, soulless beings in Buffy certainly aren’t like this. In fact, most of them have given the Scoobies a definite run for their money in terms of intelligence and mental abilities. I mean, it is for precisely this reason why Angelus is so dangerous – he knows his victims and how to inflict the most pain on them, and uses this knowledge to implement his evil plans. The fact that he has plans alone should be a huge indication that he is far more than just a base being!
So, if we start with Locke, the concept of a soul appears straightforward; however BtVS begins to blur the lines of what its purpose is. Locke would have its purpose as what sets us apart from animals; it gives us a capacity for guilt, responsibility, and humanity. Buffy would have it as the criterion for a good person – potentially. But the concept of a soul gets more complicated as the series develops and spin-off Angel is established. Let’s consider some later Buffy now for even more blurry-lined fun.
Our favourite rouge slayer is the prime counterexample to the soul = good, soulless = evil theory. In fact, we don’t really think about the fact that Faith has a soul until Angel mentions it in “Enemies”, but even then it’s not really addressed. No, Faith is considered in BtVS as evil, the bad slayer. But wait! She has a soul! This should mean she’ll feel remorse, but as she admits herself in “Bad Girls” after she murders an innocent man, ‘I don’t care’. This contradicts everything we had established in the first two series of Buffy – having a soul doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on the good side.
And being soulless doesn’t also necessarily mean you’re on the bad side, either. Spike is the perfect example of this. His obsession with Buffy and the Initiative chip in his head lead him to help the Scoobies in fighting evil in Season 4, and in Season 5 he submits himself to horrific torture to protect an innocent Dawn. So a soul’s purpose isn’t always to be “good”, then. We don’t need a soul to act morally.
But then we see Spike’s darker, evil side in “Seeing Red” when he tries to rape Buffy. This behaviour, from a soulless being, should be unsurprising; however it is his feelings of guilt which propel him to seek out his soul so he can be worthy of her. Yet surely if he was evil (being soulless) he wouldn’t feel this guilt in the first place? Something doesn’t add up here in the soul = good concept.
This is addressed further in Season 4 where we see characters face increasingly more real-life situations of other human beings (with souls) committing immoral actions, for example Parker who uses Buffy for sex, Oz cheating on Willow and even Buffy herself with her treatment of Riley in Season 5. But most crucially, the issue of souls and their real purpose is addressed in Buffy’s spin-off Angel, where we examine the concept of Angel as a vampire with a soul in further detail, and the real role of a soul in the Buffyverse mythology.
Souls in Angel are like a huge murky puddle in comparison to Buffy’s early days of a clear freshwater pool where we knew it was clear-cut that a soul = good. In Angel, Wolfram & Hart are an evil law firm, of whom many employees are human. So they have souls. And sure, they might occasionally feel guilt – Lindsay does in “Blind Date”, but quickly goes back to the dark side, persuaded by the promise of a bigger office. A soul’s purpose in Angel then, is definitely not for someone to be “good” – many (if not most) of the lawyers at W&H are human, with souls, and they’re evil.
Darla’s a funny example because she’s gone through so many changes since we first saw her on Buffy. In Angel Season 2 she’s human, but acting evil. Then she admits she feels guilty. Then she becomes a vampire and is evil (again). Then in Season 3 she gets pregnant with a human baby and the baby’s soul affects her, allowing her to feel soul-like emotions like love, which lead her to stake herself for the baby to be born. The prime example of a murky puddle, Darla straddles good and evil as long as we see her, and we’re endeared to her by the time she dusts. And we didn’t really like her when she had a soul!
So how are we to interpret this? Spike and Darla together illustrate that soulless beings might, actually, be capable of good actions. And Faith and Wolfram & Hart illustrate that having a soul doesn’t necessarily mean you’re good (although Faith does repent so she’s another blurry one).
There isn’t an easy way to reconcile these difficulties. After giving it a lot of thought, I think that in the Buffyverse the presence of a soul simply makes it easier to be good, makes it more likely that you’ll feel guilty for acting immorally, more likely that you’ll act morally, and generally want to work alongside other beings with souls to live in harmony.
I also think that certain characters are more affected by the presence of a soul than others, dependent on their core personality traits. Spike, before he was sired, was an extremely sensitive and loving man. This is reflected once he loses his soul through his affection for Drusilla, and we later see this kind of devotion in his feelings towards Buffy, which would explain his selfless actions in protecting her and Dawn in Season 5. Likewise, a resurrected Darla in Season 2 wants to stick to what she knows – evil – which leads to her confused immoral behaviour. Her sudden change in being capable of love in Season 3 she attributes to her child, however I feel that there must be some part of her capable of feeling this way in the same way that Spike feels about Buffy as an evil vampire. Interesting that both soulless vampires Spike and Darla are capable of love around the same time in Buffy and Angel timelines, too.
So what is a soul’s purpose?
Probably to push its owner in the right direction. The soul is, as Locke suggested, what enables them to become a better man, a person (although to a different extent than he suggested – Angelus wasn’t a base demon). Whether one’s soul direction is towards evil and back towards good (Faith), to finally affirm feelings (Spike), to enable love (Darla) or to facilitate a journey of redemption (Angel), the possession of a soul has been a guiding presence in many of our characters’ journeys. And that, I feel, is the Buffyverse’s soul purpose.
For soul-related Buffyverse fun, have a look at Buffy Season 2 for Angel, Buffy Seasons 3 and 7 for Faith, Buffy Seasons 5-7 for Spike and Angel Seasons 2 and 3 for Darla.
Check out Stanford for more information on John Locke and his idea of the soul.