The Male Gaze and Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Katie May Huxtable - Guest Writer - Deputy Editor Quench Magazine

In the academic essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey argues that the film and television industry suffers from a huge imbalance in terms of gender perspectives and hegemonic discourse. With screens full of straight, white, male protagonists, and a crowd of men working behind the camera, Mulvey argued that men and women became forced to view films and television from the perspective of a heterosexual male or, using a theory she coined, through a ‘male gaze’ (Mulvey, 1975). However, her suggestion that females can only view themselves through the gaze of a man, though a theory applicable to many forms of media, I feel cannot be used as a sweeping generalisation for all cinematic film or television. After reading the work of Williams (1996) I too struggled to escape limitations of Mulvey’s theory claiming that the pleasures in cinema were restricted to voyeurism and masculine fetishism. Television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) has been both analysed and praised for its compelling feminist approach and attempt to subvert the ‘male gaze’. It is acclaimed for its move away from the gender stereotype of men as heroes and women as their objects of attraction, which is often used overtly in film and television. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a television programme featuring a female heroine with the attributes of physical strength, a sense of leadership and a self-assured nature, helps to destabilize the traditional masculinist power that is associated with vampire characters in the horror genre (Owen, 1999).

Throughout this essay, I will give my reasons for disagreeing with Mulvey’s view that women are only given the role of an erotic object in Hollywood whose purpose is to be looked at, looking at director Joss Whedon’s approach to Buffy the Vampire Slayer in relation to Mulvey’s views on gender representation and the ‘male gaze’.

In a world where feminist movements are encompassed by contradictions, enmity and conflicting ideas, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a show that intertwines important characteristics of third-wave feminism into both its characters and the range of overarching themes running through it. The show depicts the life of high school teenager Buffy Summers, who finds herself doubling up as a student and “the Chosen One” – the most recent in a line of female vampire slayers. (Campbell, 2014). When creating the show, Whedon claimed that he wanted the series to focus on “a serious look at violence and women’s empowerment” and “the joy of female power: having it, using it [and], sharing it” (Jowett, 2005 cited in Campbell, 2014). More so, Whedon wanted to take the clichéd victim of the horror genre, who was so often killed in that dark alleyway, and perform a switch in which she became the hero – killing evil rather than being killed by evil. In doing this, he could have easily fallen into the trap of creating an overtly sexualised, Lara Croft style heroine that was so predominantly defined by her gender. Instead, he created what many call a feminist endeavour; a television show where six out of 12 main characters were female – a cast proportionate to population figures at the time where 51% of the US were women. In comparison to other television programmes, with casts averaging at 37% female (“Gender Representation in the Media, and Sexualisation.”, 2011), Whedon created a cast of strong women that young girls could look up to as role models through a perspective that wasn’t male-orientated. More importantly, these strong female characters were shown to be just as strong and capable as their male counterparts – if not more so. Furthermore, these men respected them for this. Whedon’s directorial stance takes on even more importance because he is a man, yet the programme is still not portrayed through the male gaze. A significant message found within Buffy the Vampire Slayer comes with the character of the Slayer. Whedon created the notion that Slayer would always be female – when one slayer dies the power is passed on to another woman – creating a role model that relies on female empowerment (Campbell, 2014).
When I begin to breakdown the character analysis of the female characters in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we find more evidence that Mulvey’s work is arguably not applicable to all forms of film and television. In Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Mulvey covered the concept of scopophilia – defining it as “the pleasure in looking” (Mulvey, 1975). She believed the cinema offered purely this voyeuristic pleasure, consistently presenting women as sexual spectacles to be viewed through the ‘male gaze’. Although the relevance of the ‘male gaze’ to feminist television criticism is pivotal, we can theorize that Buffy Summers is revolutionary as she represents a life force where “her strength is one that is more powerful than any gender, even the demonic” (Karras, 2002). It is a piece of television that focuses around inner strength in contrast to outer beauty. Camera angles and movements are used to emphasise fight scenes rather than aid the framing of Buffy actress Sarah-Michelle Gellar’s figure for male pleasure. When we breakdown the character of Buffy to find all these powerful attributes, it is these three-dimensional traits of strength and intelligence that defy Mulvey’s theory. This is because the complexity of the character goes against the concept of scopophilia, in that she isn’t portrayed as a one-dimensional spectacle through the gaze of a man but more as a three-dimensional woman made up of far more attributes than just physical attraction. Feminist television critic Suzanna Danuta Walters has challenged the “narrow view of the ‘male gaze’”, claiming that, despite preferred or dominant readings, many women are capable of looking “actively” at images of both men and women, “finding the contradictions and seeing the progressive potential…” (Walters, 1995). Whedon has created a world in Buffy the Vampire Slayer that sits in opposition to the Western societies patriarchal and anachronistic notions of gender – but also against the conservative takes on heroism, love, good and evil (Onciul-Omelus, 1999).

Following on from the importance of the character of Buffy, I will explore how the female ethos that Whedon creates in the show is not purely restricted to the sole role of the female vampire slayer. “The mythology of the show features the following: witches, lesbians, a female hell-god and a demon who avenges wronged women” (Mukherjea, 2007). Character Willow, one of Buffy’s closest friends, is also a strong example of how Whedon uses this piece of television to resist stereotypical gender roles found in Western society. Willow, in comparison to Buffy’s physical strength, is a character important in embodying the mental strength that women have. Towards the beginning of the series, she is presented as excessively knowledgeable in relation to science and is seen to be a talented computer hacker – these are traits that are typically awarded to masculine characters. This allowed viewers like myself to reassess notions of femininity and look at traits beyond female appearance that make up a women rather than objectifying women through the ‘male gaze’. In series 4, episode 4, titled ‘Fear, Itself’ (1999), Willow states “I’m not your sidekick” to Buffy, proving them both to be strong female heroines in their own right. (“Spectral Visions”, 2014). The character of Willow also carries another large item of significance as in later episodes she became involved in a relationship with another female character named Tara. This portrayal was among the first few times that a relationship between two women was featured in depth in television that wasn’t purely for “a growth in ratings or a punchline”, with Whedon promising that “unlike other shows of the time, [they] would not promote the hell out of a same-sex relationship for exploitation value” (Rylah, 2017). To me, the gay relationship depicted between Tara and Willow felt like a move of resistance from Whedon, disrupting a dominant presence of the ‘male gaze’ in film and television where females can only act as an erotic counterpart for a male (Mulvey, 1975). This gay relationship in Buffy helped progress forward from conventional ideas of heteronormativity in that their relationship wasn’t “sexually appropriated by masculinist heterosexuality”. (Scanlon and Lewis, 2016).

Another fact in favour of Buffy the Vampire Slayer acting as a movement away from the ‘male gaze’ is its success in passing the Bechdel Test. For a film or television programme to pass the Bechdel Test it must fit the criteria of having at least two named women in it, both of whom speak to each other about something that isn’t related to a man. Although the Bechdel Test can’t solely set the boundaries in what is forward-thinking cinema, and there are many shows with strong female characters existing before and after Buffy that don’t pass the test, it is an important step to take as the film and television industry is one that suffers from a great amount of imbalance in terms of gender perspectives. The fact that Buffy passes the test alludes to the fact that we are not always emerged in the perspective of a male protagonist and watching the show allows the viewers to explore themes of strength, friendship, empowerment and loss rather than purely love and eroticism in terms of its women.
As with numerous television shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is inevitably on the receiving end of numerous contradicting opinions. Despite all this research into the female empowerment and lack of a male perspective in the show, an aspect to the plot line that has received criticism is the concept of the ‘Watchers Council’. The Watchers Council is a male-centred society whose role is to assert power through their knowledge in order to command and have leadership over the line of Vampire Slayers. Researchers taking a critical view of the show claimed that, despite frontal appearances of Buffy being a female character asserting the most power, the Watcher’s Council enforce a form of patriarchal apparatus in that the female Slayers depend on (Farghaly, 2009). This was problematic in that the Watcher’s Council seemed to be the manifestation of the ‘male gaze’. Buffy has her own ‘Watcher’, a character called Giles who introduces her to her Slayer responsibilities at the start of the series. In contrast, however, as much as I feel these criticisms have a small level of weight to them I feel that this patriarchal assertion that researchers speak of is there as a tool to show the character of Buffy’s resistance of hierarchical control and male dominance. This is because, although the presence of the Watcher’s Council is dominant in original series’, Buffy eventually succeeds in rejecting the control of the Watcher’s Council by refusing to submit to their orders. The character of Giles acts more as a figure of emotional support for Buffy rather than asserting a form of control.  I see this as a move forward in rejection of the patriarchal hierarchy in the series, with Buffy demonstrating an even greater power in herself and her ability to act out her role without the influence of higher powers provided by men. Furthermore, in rejection to these criticisms, in the final series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy is approached by the creators of the first ever slayer – a tribe of African Shamans named ‘The Shadow Men’. They offered Buffy even more strength and power but, yet again, she rejected control offered to her by men in favour of taking control of her own power in search of strengthening her knowledge rather than furthering her physical strength. Working alongside Willow and her new-found witchcraft, they find the ability to transfer the power of the Slayer into the entire line of Slayer potentials, creating a community of powerful females to work alongside her rather than submitting to power offered to her by men. This is one of the most powerful messages in the entirety of the show, the power of females working alongside one another.

Overall, although I understand it is deemed impossible to find a piece of cinematic film or television that encompasses every type of feminism that isn’t faced with some level of critical viewing, Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a show that – for its time – provided viewers with a complex and detailed understanding of what it meant to be a strong and empowered women standing for more than predominantly your sex. The show was important in allowing us to ask different questions about feminism and conventional femininity in the film and television industry and is a show that I believe doesn’t enclose its viewers into viewing it through solely the perspective of a male’s gaze.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 1997. The WB, 10 March.
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Rylah, J.B. 2017. How Buffy the Vampire Slayer Depicted one of TV’s first Lesbian Relationships. Available at: (Accessed: 1 May 2018).
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“Spectral Visions”. 2014. Feminism and Gender Studies in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Available at: (Accessed: 1 May 2018).
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Walters, S.D. 1995. Material Girls: Making Sense of Feminist Cultural Theory. 1st edn. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Williams, L. 1996. When the Woman Looks. The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Ed. Grant, B.K. Austin: University of Texas Press, PP. 15- 34.
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