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The Feminist Filter: Reptile Boy

So, I'd hoped to have my Riley meta ready today, but it's gonna take me some more time to get that finished and presentable (Riley, why so difficult?). So instead, let's do up some feminist discussion on Reptile Boy. :)

Mission Statement:

This series is intended to outline the feminist text of each episode so as to provoke and encourage open discussion. It's not so much about making value judgments about events and/or characters but about analyzing the series from a feminist framework so as to see what patterns and themes emerge.


1. If you do not consider yourself a feminist or do not see the point of dissecting a TV show from a feminist perspective, this is not the meta series for you. I don't mean this in a hostile way, however the intended audience of this series is feminists who want to turn a critical eye to the show.

2. This meta series is written well beyond a 101 level of feminism. If you are new to feminism, I ask that you please take a look at this blog for an introduction to concepts that will be discussed heavily here.

3. If you begin to feel yourself getting defensive on behalf of a character (or the show), take a break from commenting. The outlines as posted are not meant to condemn either the characters or the show, but to contextualize the dialogue and events within the patriarchal cultural in which they reside.

4. BtVS is a constructed media. The characters are not actual people but are written, dressed, and directed by a team of outsiders. Criticizing a character for, say, having sex could be a sexist insult or it could be a legitimate criticism of the writers who chose to go that route with the storyline. There are nuances here when discussing a television show, and I ask that everybody be careful about exactly what's being discussed. A couple helpful terms are Watsonian and Doylist. "Watsonian" indicates that the discussion is taking place within the Buffy universe as if the characters are real people. "Doylist" indicates that the discussion is focused on the construction of the narrative and, as such, deals with the decisions of the writers and/or producers.

5. The key goal here is open discussion. I'm not presenting you guys with any brilliant insights; I'm just laying out what's in the episode. Feel free to discuss or disagree with me and others. Also feel free to answer other commenter's questions. The comment section is an open floor.

2.05 Reptile Boy

I. The Tallies

Criteria for Bechdel Check: The episode must have a) two women in it b) who talk to each other c) about something besides a man.

  1. Bechdel Check: PASS on 7 counts

  2. Deaths:
    Dead boys: 0
    Dead girls: 0

II. Agency

Criteria for Agency: Do the female characters a) exert power or influence over the plot b) through decisions based on their own characterization? Agency means more than providing information or support that helps the (usually male) characters resolve the conflict.

The Plot: A local fraternity readies their sacrifice to a demon to ensure their financial success. The sacrifice being, of course, three high school girls.

The Big Question:
If Buffy were taken out of this episode, would events occur in much the same fashion? No.
If Willow were taken out of this episode, would events occur in much the same fashion? Yes.
If Cordelia were taken out of this episode, would events occur in much the same fashion? No.
If Callie were taken out of this episode, would events occur in much the same fashion? Yes.

  • Decisive Buffy: Buffy's key decision is to go to the frat party. Unfortunately, this effectively puts her in the "damsel" role, which isn't saying much for her agency. Her real agency is best shown when she fights back in the basement and ends up defeating the frat boys and Machida.
  • Decisive Cordelia: Like Buffy, she makes the decision to go to the party, which places her in the damsel role. Unlike Buffy, Cordelia doesn't do anything to break out of this role.

III. The Feminist Fine-Toothed Comb

Criteria: Do any of the characters engage in sexist dialogue or action, whether overt or subtle? Does it receive an explicit rebuke or does it pass uncommented on? Further, what can be deduced from the various gendered comments that are made by the characters?

  • Protagonists (Buffy, Xander, Willow, Giles, Cordelia, and Angel)

    1. In Act One, Cordelia is passing along what she's learned from "Dr. Debi": "See? Dr. Debi says when a man is speaking you make serious eye contact, and you really, really listen, and you laugh at everything he says."

    The laughing imperative reminds me of a study I saw wherein it was shown that both men and women value a "sense of humor" in their partners. For women, this meant they valued a person who was funny. For guys, though, they meant that they valued someone who would laugh at their jokes. This is reflected in Cordelia's comment where men are positioned as the active partner: telling the jokes, having interesting things to say, etc. By contrast, women are the passive partner: they listen, they react appropriately.

    2. I like this exchange between Buffy and Giles.

    Giles: Buffy, you think I don't know what it's like to be sixteen?

    Buffy: No. I think you *don't* know what it's like to be sixteen. And a girl. And the Slayer.

    Buffy specifies that Giles doesn't only know what it's like to be sixteen and the Slayer, but he doesn't know what it's like to be a girl.

    3. While watching Tom and Buffy talking to each other, Xander says: "Huh-huh-huh, right. Like she's gonna fall for that."

    It was discussed in the outline for Inca Mummy Girl how this type of comment is a subtle form of slut-shaming in that it preemptively admonishes Buffy for "falling for" some supposed seduction technique. This takes away Buffy's own agency and unilaterally labels Buffy's own desire as negative.

    4. Near the end of Act One, Cordelia approaches Buffy to ask her to go along to the frat party. She opens with: "Buffy! Did you lose weight? And your hair..."

    She's trying to ingratiate herself to Buffy by complimenting her on the highly valued aspects of being a girl: weight and hair. Later in her plea for Buffy to accompany her, Cordelia highlights the importance of a man being rich: "Well, you see why I have to go. Buffy, these men are rich."

    5. The excuse Buffy uses to get out of Slaying is interesting. She says: "I've got a mountain of homework to do, and, um...my mom's not really feeling well, and she could probably use my help, and, um, to be truthful I'm not really feeling all that well myself."

    Her lie of having to stay home to take care of her sick mother is substituting an appropriate feminine activity (nurturing and caretaking) in place of an inappropriate feminine activity (partying).

    6. In chastising Buffy for going to the party, Willow brings up the evils of sex to warn her away: "...you'd rather go to a frat party where there's gonna be drinking and older guys and probably an orgy."

    Sex, of course, being something undesirable for the female gender as opposed to the male gender. This is highlighted by Xander's next line: "Since when do they have orgies and why aren't I on the mailing list?"

    7. As Cordelia gives Buffy the run-down in what to do at the party, Xander engages in some slut-shaming: "So, Cor, you printing up business cards with your pager number and hours of operation or just going with a halter top tonight?"

    8. We get a quick run-down of the societal expectations for men when Xander tells Willow that he's going to the party to keep an eye on Buffy.

    Willow: You wanna protect her?

    Xander: Mm-hm.

    Willow: And prove that you're just as good as those rich, snotty guys?

    Xander: Mm-hm.

    Willow: Maybe catch an orgy?

    Xander: If it's on early.

    Protecting women/girls, being rich (or as good as), and sex.

    9. After the fight is over, Cordelia turns to Angel: "You did it! You saved us!"

    This ignoring the fact that Buffy did the rescuing as Angel had just arrived.

    The tendency for society to give males credit for women's achievements is usually more subtle. People tend to have a perceptual bias that favors men: men take up more of the conversation (and are perceived to be taking up less), they're given more attention when they do speak, they're credited more with success in retrospect. Part of the reason for the latter is because competency is coded masculine.

    10. Also after the fight, Buffy and Giles have this exchange:

    Buffy: I told one lie, I had one drink.

    Giles: Yes, and you were very nearly devoured by a giant demon snake. The words 'let that be a lesson' are a tad redundant at this juncture.

    Buffy receives punishment for inappropriately feminine behavior (drinking). Given the fact that she'd almost been sexually assaulted, the "lesson" part of Giles' statement is somewhat disturbing. More on this in the Points to Consider section.

    11. In the final scene, Willow relays to Buffy the story of Angel's protectiveness of her: "When he got so mad about you being in danger, and changed into a grr, it was the most amazing thing I ever saw."

    Despite the fact that Angel didn't actually do much to rescue her, Willow is caught up in the traditional gender ideology of a man as the romantic protector.

  • Antagonists (Richard, Tom, and the other frat guys)

    1. Upon meeting Buffy, Richard immediately brings on the patronizing nicknames: "Hi, sweetheart. I'm Richard. And you are?"

    When Buffy responds with: "So not interested" and tries to walk away, Richard asks Cordelia: "What, she likes to play hard to get?"

    "Playing hard to get", of course, being a stereotypical head game that women are supposedly prone to. In reality, it often serves as an excuse for guys to harass and assault women.

    Tom provides a rebuke: "No, Richard. I think you're playing easy to resist."

    Putting aside Tom's own antagonist status, his response centers the problem on Richard's behavior rather than on Buffy.

    2. At the end of Act One, Richard teases Callie, who's chained up in the frat basement. As he's leaving her, he comments: "God, I love high school girls. Mm!"

    Condescending and objectifying.

    3. At the party, we see two girls being catcalled by two fraternity brothers.

    Two girls come in through the door and walk through the room. A couple of fraternity brothers watch them walk by.

    Tackle: Beaucoup babes!

    Linebacker: Ooo, yeah!

    4. At the party, Buffy is targeted by a drunken football player who commands that she dance.

    Tackle: New girl!

    He grabs the Young Man for balance and pulls him away before he even gets his drink to his lips.

    Young Man: Easy, man!

    Tackle: Dance!

    Buffy looks up from putting her drink back down and stares at him in wide-eyed surprise when she sees him coming for her.

    Tackle: (laughs and staggers over to her) C'mon, sweetheart, ha, ha, yeah!

    Lot of things to take away, here. For one, the idea of women as public property who are amenable to submitting to the command of men at any time. For another, the fact that no one does anything. Young Man protests when Tackle grabs him for balance, but he doesn't say anything about Tackle's overt harassment of Buffy. Finally, his command that Buffy "dance" alludes to the women as entertainment stereotype wherein women are objectified for the benefit of men.

    In a twist, Tom rescues her, but he does so by also asking her to dance, albeit more politely: "Can I have this dance?"

    5. Upon discovering Xander as a crasher, the frat boys haze him as a pledge. We'd seen a pledge earlier at the party dressed in a woman's corset. Xander is given make-up along with a skirt, a bra, and a wig. He's then commanded to dance. This is symbolic femininity as punishment. Xander is then subjected to degrading remarks often handed out to women:

    Tackle: Keep it movin'! (laughs) C'mon! Shake it, don't break it! Wrap it up and I'll take it!

    Xander: (nervous) Okay, big fun guys. Uhhh, who's next?

    Tackle puts a blonde wig on his head.

    Tackle: You are, doll face! Keep on dancin'! Ah, alright!


    Tackle: Oh! Keep it up! Yes! C'mon! Keep it goin'! Ah, ha!

    It's telling that the most humiliating thing the frat can do to their pledges is to treat them like they treat women.

    6. When Buffy is drugged and passes out on the bed, Richard begins to sexually assault her. Tom stops him.

    Tom: Get away from her!

    Richard: I wasn't doing anything!

    Tom: I saw what you were doing.

    Richard: I was just having a little fun.

    "Just having a little fun" seems like a good parallel to "boys will be boys". Sexual assault dressed up as "a little fun" isn't uncommon in rape culture.

    7. During the ritual sacrifice to Machida, Buffy calls out to get Machida's attention. Tom reprimands her: "No woman speaks to him!"

    Yay! Explicit misogyny!

    Later in the act, as the fight progresses, Tom pulls out the slurs against Buffy: "You bitch! I'll serve you to him in pieces!"

IV. Objectification Watch

  1. We are presented a male-gazey shot of Buffy talking to Xander and Willow as the frat boys watch.

  2. We're given another view of Xander in his underwear after he strips off the costume the frat boys had forced him into. The scene is short, though, and fairly modestly shot. It is notable, though, in that it's the second instance of a character in their undies in the show...and it's, again, Xander.

V. Points to Consider

  1. The themes in this episode are quite explicit: rich and powerful men attaining power due to the exploitation of women. How effective is the show in depicting this metaphor?

  2. The "punishment" aspect of Buffy almost being sacrificed is uncomfortable given the rape culture context. How are we to separate the different threads of Buffy being underaged and lying to authority figures from her being a girl? Does the fact that this falls along traditional gender ideology in punishing women for getting out of line (by partying and drinking) obscure the other narrative reasons for the punishment? Are these reasons legitimate?

  3. Relationships between older men and young girls are depicted in this episode in a predatory light. Do we take away Buffy's agency by censuring such relationships? Is it paternalistic to criticize older men for "taking advantage of" young girls? At what point is highlighting predatory behavior on the part of older men legitimate and when does it tip over to the point of infantilizing women? How do we apply this to the Buffy/Angel relationship as it continues through the season?

  4. We get another instance of attempted sexual assault against Buffy in this episode, this time after she is roofied. Given the later "punishment" aspect of what happens, what can we take away from this assault? How is it portrayed? What about the fact that Tom, who is later revealed to be the true evil, is the one who rescues her?


Sep. 4th, 2011 11:02 am (UTC)
But it's disheartening that super-powers are necessary to escape from groups of powerful entitled men who view women's bodies as a means to an end.

But isn't that the truth?

You and me - without superpowers - against the system: We'll get devoured.
Sep. 4th, 2011 03:58 pm (UTC)
You and me - without superpowers - against the system: We'll get devoured.

*nods* That makes me cry a little.

Sep. 4th, 2011 06:22 pm (UTC)
Little fatalistic for my tastes.
Sep. 4th, 2011 06:39 pm (UTC)
Unity, solidarity - and guns can rectify any situation.

I was just speaking of the individual which cannot really change society all by herself. (But you and me and some several millions more? Hell yes! We can reach the stars!)


The One Who Isn't Chosen

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