A Feminist Reading of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
In numerous interviews, creator Joss Whedon has explained that the inspiration for Buffy the Vampire Slayer struck while he was watching horror films and TV shows in which pretty women run away from or get killed by monsters in alleyways. Whedon claims he wanted to give this paradigmatic girl-victim a new role: that of the monster-killing hero. Whedon's explanation of his own artistic inspiration reveals at least two things about him as a film-viewer and maker: first, his description suggests his awareness of the pervasive, archetypal quality of the traditional, mainstream horror film. Second, his description rather coyly fails to account for the more marginal genre of the "slasher film," in which the pretty girl often does kill the monster in the alleyway.
Slasher films have attracted feminist academic attention in recent years, most notably from theorist Carol J. Clover. Clover's groundbreaking article, "Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film," was first published in 1987 and continues to influence feminist film critics today. With some success, these critical inquiries have recuperated the genre as one that might actually indicate shifting ideas about gender roles and female agency. Whedon nods both to the "slasher" as a subgenre and to feminist film theory in the Season 3 episode, "Helpless." In "Helpless," Whedon grafts the slasher scenario onto the Buffyverse but makes significant changes, based, I think, both on feminist responses to the genre and also on his own understanding of the show's audience demographics. Though Whedon puts his title character on a continuum with the slasher's female but "boyish" victim-heroes, Buffy becomes a hero with whom her predominately female audience can identify in a way not accounted for by most feminist criticism about horror.
In the introduction to her book, Men, Women, and Chain Saws (1993), Clover delimits her inquiry to "[those subgenres] of [1970's and 80's] American cinematic horror . . . in which female figures and/or gender issues loom especially large: slasher films, occult or possession films, and rape-revenge films" (5). More specifically, Clover argues convincingly that these subgenres (especially the slasher film) make possible certain quasi-transgressive viewer identifications: she proves that the mostly male audience of the slasher film identifies less with the sadistic monster than with the monster's female victim-heroes. Clover ends her book by imagining a different kind of audience, this one for her own work: "at least some horror filmmakers read Freud . . . and film criticism" (232), she notes. Ultimately, she challenges these hypothetical, literate filmmakers: though the "slasher film proper has died down. . . . There may . . . be life in the amazingly durable and adaptable vampire movie" she claims. And, she adds, contemporary horror films do not "take the kind...