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Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Male Defeat

It is on our television screens where radical reinterpretations of gendered identity are finding their most current manifestation.
Leanne McRae

Issue #61, September 2002

"I come to you in friendship...well alright, seething hatred"
— Spike, in "Pangs" episode

I have recently begun to think about men. I had heard they are in trouble. I began this thought process while watching an overtly feminist text, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.

Buffy's awesome arse-kicking ability sits comfortably with my aggressive feminist tendencies. However, I always liked the playful personality of Spike, the resident evil vampire played by American actor James Marsters. Spike delivers the best lines. Indeed, Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, has distinguished the show through sharp dialogue peppered with self-reflexive wit and intertextual humor. The razor-like insights of Spike's dialogue shape him as a worthy foil and folly to Buffy's physical prowess. As a result, he embodies a contradictory masculinity that embraces a series of complicated issues encircling the current 'crisis in masculinity.' He is a conundrum. Simultaneously empowered and disempowered, Spike is forced to redefine his identity outside traditional masculine power. With Buffy colonizing the space of male legitimacy, Spike is persistently problematized within the Buffy universe.

Spike articulates the contradictory and problematic masculine identity that is embodied by many men within our culture. In doing so Spike's character traces the manner in which television is a site where hegemony can be unmasked and struggle visualized, lending legitimation to subordinated identities.

Televisual Truths

Buffy: "Do we really need weapons for this?"
Spike: "I just like them, they make me feel all manly."
— from "School Hard" episode

Television is predominantly framed by discourses that function to define meanings in support of dominant structures and the empowered groups that benefit from them. The medium is embedded within the processes of social sense-making and therefore resonates powerfully within our culture. Television rarely confines itself to the box. It spills beyond its electronic boundaries in ways that often do not follow distinct patterns or rules.

Some television programs enter into serious and vibrant debate among audiences, before, during and after their consumption. These engagements extend the life of television programs and inject vitality into cultural products. Henry Jenkins has used Star Trek to demonstrate the ways in which television fans appropriate and re-inscribe the meanings within televisual texts in vibrant and resistive ways through textual poaching. Viewers frequently do not conform to mainstream reading expectations mapped out by market projections. They will mobilize a plethora of reading strategies that will embrace, reject and negotiate dominant social frameworks.

Both producers and viewers relish the polysemic potential of television. For industry executives this means a wide scope for interpretation and therefore larger demographics. This quality enables television to act as a social litmus paper — gauging, measuring, and informing social movement and meanings. John Hartley calls it "the bardic function," the ability of television texts to articulate and comment on concerns and issues within a culture. Television is a crucible — a bubbling cauldron of conflicting ideas that mobilize a series of struggles over meaning. In this way, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer is most obviously a product of its time.

The problem with writing for television is that it goes out of date very quickly. Market forces change with social attitudes, and on the cutting edge of these changes are television executives hoping to catch the next social tide. The increasing visibility of competent women within the media has begun to coincide with 'real' changes in women's lives. There is a clear trajectory from Wonder Woman and Emma Peel through Clarice Starling, Sarah Connor and Agent Scully, and onto Xena, Captain Kathryn Janeway, Buffy and now Max from Dark Angel. These women are products of three broad feminist movements that have spanned over a century.

The changing representations of men within the medium have a shorter time-line. Most obviously, when the concerns of a dominant group in a society need to be articulated it takes less time for these to gain space and legitimacy within a culture. The visualization of a contradictory masculine identity has had vague origins in Special Agent Dale Cooper, Captain Benjamin Sisko, and Fox Mulder. Buffy: The Vampire Slayer is, however, perhaps the first popular text to engage in a persistent questioning and deconstruction of male power within our society. This is no doubt a part of its narrative structure. For Buffy to be the hero, the men around her must be largely incompetent. It is Spike who embodies this conundrum most powerfully within the diegesis.

Embodying Power

"We like to talk big, vampires do. 'I'm going to take over the world'. That's just tough-guy talk. Strut around with your friends over a pint of blood. The truth is — I like this world. You've got dog racing, Manchester United . . . and you've got people. Billions of people walking around like Happy Meals with legs. It's alright here."
— Spike, in "Becoming" episode

Men consistently and visibly occupy the public sphere, where the currency of male power is articulated and traded. This is a realm in which things of value are created, built and exchanged. It is here that men are able to demonstrate a mastery of control. However, their capacity to embody power effectively is tethered to a series of difficult and contradictory roles. Men must be strong, intelligent, brave, resilient and powerful. They are finding it increasingly hard to fit this straightjacket of legitimate masculine identity. Specifically, they find it difficult to be empowered within a hierarchy of masculinity in which different versions of manhood are afforded divergent currencies of power. Masculine empowerment is being questioned within our culture now that those at the apex of this hierarchy find their roles under threat. White, middle class, heterosexual men are struggling to maintain their legitimacy in light of serious challenges to it not only from women, but also from other men. Within Buffy: The Vampire Slayer the relationship between Buffy and Spike articulates this process.

Spike arrives in Sunnydale in the "School Hard" episode, screened at the beginning of the second season. In this episode, he drives his car over the 'Welcome to Sunnydale' sign and emerges accompanied by a suitable Metallica-like soundtrack trailing after his big-booted, leather-jacketed, blonde-haired frame. With his reputation for having killed two Slayers in the past, he approaches the local leader of the Sunnydale vampires — "the anointed one" — and proposes to eliminate Buffy. When he attacks during the school PTA meeting, Buffy's mother Joyce foils his attack by hitting him with an axe. This is Spike's first moment of disempowerment; however, he quickly and effectively compensates by citing the difficulties of annihilating a "slayer with friends and family" and then killing "the anointed one" to claim his position at the head of the vampire community.

Aesthetics of Violence Picture! Later in the season, at the conclusion of the "What's My Line" episode, Buffy gravely wounds Spike. He becomes confined to a wheelchair and forced to negotiate a disempowered subjectivity, further complicated by the reanimation of his girlfriend Druscilla's power and the return of his 'sire' or father-figure, Angelus. Spike slips down within the masculine hierarchy to occupy a significantly marginalized position. He can only reclaim that power when he gains control over his body and is able to reoccupy the public sphere with legitimate mastery and control.

Men's bodies are at the center of their capacity to mobilize power within our culture. On embodied surfaces men demonstrate their competence over themselves and the social sphere. The phallus locates the capacity to carry this power. It is a symbol not closely related to the mere possession of a penis, but rather to the magical power that comes from and extends to an ability to occupy space with legitimacy. Embodied competence functions to signify wider social power. In this way the capacity to exert control over one's own body, as well as other bodies, signifies the epitome of masculine authority. This hegemonic authority can be exerted by subtle means within the workplace, enabling middle-class managers and supervisors to gain authority, or it can function more overtly in the form of physical violence.

For men, physical violence activates a fragile line between restraint and rage. It is the medium through which they may simultaneously gain and lose control. By acting violently on other bodies they discover and reaffirm the limits of their own. Through violence men are able to maintain control. Control can be used as a focus for the frustration of 'crisis' in masculine identity. A man who is able to mobilize a violently controlled consciousness demonstrates a competence over his self that possesses cultural value.

The fact that Buffy defeats Spike — thus demonstrating superior control over her body — makes it difficult for Spike to occupy public space in a legitimate manner. Being confined to a wheelchair limits the demonstration of embodied competence. He is only able to reclaim that empowerment when the "Becoming" episode reveals that he can indeed walk and was simply biding his time to eliminate Angelus. Spike does so by bludgeoning him with a pipe; in that moment, he is able to rearticulate his embodied control, and consequently, his phallic power.

This power is mobilized more potently in the "Lover's Walk" episode when Spike returns to Sunnydale, having broken up with Druscilla. Once again he drives over the 'Welcome to Sunnydale' sign, although this time he tumbles out of his car in a drunken stupor. He is out of control. Devastated by Druscilla's rejection, complaining that "she didn't even have the decency to cut my head off," the lovelorn, melancholic Spike returns to his pathological self through his fists. A street fight involving Buffy, a restored Angel, and former members of Spike's vampire gang renews his sense of hope.

Now that was fun. Oh don't tell me that wasn't fun? God it's been so long since I had a decent spot of violence It really puts things into perspective . . . I've been all wrong-headed about this. Weepin', crawlin', blaming everybody else. I want Dru back I just gotta be the man I was — the man she loved. I'm gonna do what I should've done in the first place. I'll find her, wherever she is, tie her up, torture her, until she likes me again."
— Spike, in "Lover's Walk" episode

Spike gains restoration of his empowerment only after this violent interlude. However, despite reaffirming dominant masculine power structures, Buffy's presence within the space he should normally occupy means that this process of negotiation is constant. Spike must be remarkably self-reflexive in order to rearticulate his competence while it is simultaneously challenged. In "Lover's Walk" Spike embraces a difficult subjectivity that moves beyond conventional masculine ideologies. While he mobilizes violence in very predictable ways to reclaim his sense of self, he also acknowledges his vulnerability by confronting Buffy and Angel, claiming, "I may be love's Bitch, but at least I'm man enough to admit it." Spike is a moving metonym for the masculine hierarchy and its 'othered' masculine identities. This process reaches its climax in the fourth season when his corporeality is significantly and permanently altered by a brain implant that restricts his ability to feed on or harm human beings.

Ruptured Manhood

Spike embodies and challenges the current 'crisis in masculinity'. Unable to effectively embrace the social ideals of manhood, he finds himself having to renegotiate what it means to be a man. A diversity of masculine subjectivities is mobilized around and through Spike as he comes to terms with challenges to his power.

These alternatives must be available for men to embrace more flexible identities that can move beyond conventional meaning systems. Through this movement, deeper and significant social changes can be affected whereby a diversity of identities can occupy positions of power within a society. For Spike the ultimate challenge to his authority comes with the implant. Being unable to bite literally and metaphorically castrates him. He is no longer a threat to Buffy; nor does he possess power over her gang. This manifests in a depression in which he attempts to stake himself. Within this personal narrative, Spike role-plays some of the very real concerns that affect men in the world today.

Given the significant restructuring of the workforce in the post-war period, an entire generation of men has been forced to negotiate their identities in new ways using less accessible skills. Their idealized identity relies inherently on a capacity to provide for the family unit through demonstration of embodied competence in the workplace, which now has been narrowed via corporate downsizing and increased part-time and contract labor. These concerns are at the core of the current crisis in masculinity. Spike is providing a popular culture site where this re-negotiation is being played out. He is positioning a revolutionary masculinity that is contradictory and hybrid in its mobilization of diverse identity politics.

In the fifth season of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Spike has continued to occupy a chimeric position within the diegesis. Constantly moving within different meaning systems, this season has seen Spike reluctantly fall in love with Buffy. He is able to embody a range of subjectivities that serve to redefine his power and position an innovative identity that is not concerned with reclaiming a mythological existence based on idealized versions of masculinity, but is able to exist alongside conflicting identities around him.

In the final episode of this season Spike reconciles his crisis in a scene with Buffy where he tells her, "I know you never loved me, I know I'm a monster. But you treated me like a man. . ." The re-negotiation of his power serves to create a matrix of discursive practice where his identity can exist coherently regardless of whether it fits dominant meaning systems. He is able to move beyond conventional masculine structures to create a dynamic identity that can negotiate social changes without shifting into crisis mode. Spike is a productive character who works through the difficulties of masculinity and reconciles them within larger social formations.

Through television, contemporary masculine ideologies and male identities are being visualized. The benefit of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer is that it provides a site through which a variety of groups can negotiate a whole series of social changes. Not only is Spike redefining male power, but this process is creating space for reinterpretations of women's power as well as alternative sexual identities. Spike is opening a terrain within the polysemy of television texts, one that enables men within our culture to embrace alternative subjectivities without the associated crisis. In this way the social commentary found within this text frames wider social actions.

It is on our television screens where radical reinterpretations of gendered identity are finding their most current manifestation. Television's bardic function provides space for the articulation of contemporary concerns on issues that affect a variety of empowered and disempowered groups.

Leanne MacRae is at the School of Media, Communication and Culture, Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia

Copyright © 2002 by Leanne McRae. All rights reserved.