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The Feminist Filter: School Hard

Whoa. The LJ post entry thing looks different. Weird.

Anyhow, I'm planning to be doing birthday stuff this weekend and so won't have a chance to do The Feminist Filter. I'm eager to do School Hard though, so let's do it now! *bounces*

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.

2.03 School Hard

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 12 counts

  2. Deaths:
    Dead boys: 5
    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 new vampire, Spike, comes to town and offers to kill the Slayer for the Anointed One.

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? Yes.
If Jenny were taken out of this episode, would events occur in much the same fashion? Yes.
If Joyce were taken out of this episode, would events occur in much the same fashion? No.
If Sheila were taken out of this episode, would events occur in much the same fashion? Yes.
If Drusilla were taken out of this episode, would events occur in much the same fashion? Yes.

  • Decisive Buffy: Buffy is in fine form this episode. Though she starts out largely reacting to that which is going on around her, as soon as Spike breaks up the Parent-Teacher night, Buffy is making the plans and giving orders, even to the adults.
  • Decisive Joyce: Joyce actually shows some agency in this episode when she forgoes escaping with the rest of the adults in order to check on Buffy. This leads to her saving Buffy by clocking Spike over the head with an ax.

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, Angel, Jenny, and Joyce)

    1. In Act Two, Buffy chides Angel for not meeting her at the Bronze. He says she had said she wasn't sure if she was going. Buffy's reply: "I was being cool. C'mon, you've been dating for, what, like, two hundred years? You don't know what a girl means when she says maybe she'll show?"

    I find it interesting when we get lines that play along the cultural beliefs of "men are from mars; women are from venus". Differing communication styles are a common point of contention between the genders, especially within a dating context. Men not being able to understand women, women who just won't say what they mean, on and on and on.

    From the research I've seen, there do seem to be some differences in how the genders communicate, though it's likely those differences are the result of different socialization.

    2. During the Parent-Teacher Night, Cordelia critiques Buffy's skincare routine.

    Buffy: What?

    Cordelia: You're starting to look a little slagged. What, are you just skipping foundation entirely now?

    Buffy: Cordelia, I have at least three lives to contend with, none of which really mesh. It's kind of like oil and water and a... third unmeshable thing.

    Cordelia: Yeah, and I can see the oil. (sees Joyce talking to Willow) Is that your mom? (Buffy looks) Now that is a woman that knows how to moisturize. Did it, like, skip a generation?

    Cordelia, as is typical, acts to enforce gender roles, reminding Buffy of the value of her appearance even whilst Buffy is worried about more substantial issues.

    3. When Angel is putting on an act in an attempt to fool Spike, he comments on Buffy as the Slayer: "She's cute. Not too bright, though. Gave the puppy dog 'I'm all tortured' act. Keeps her off my back when I feed!"

    It's interesting that the first thing he comments on is, of course, her attractiveness. Then he segues into a slam on her intelligence before continuing to paint a rather stereotypical picture of a hapless, silly teenage girl. He draws on a lot of stereotypes in his attempt to misdirect Spike.

    4. While in the closet with Willow, Cordelia prays: "And if you get me out of this, I swear I'll never be mean to anyone ever again. Unless they *really* deserve it. Or if it's that time of the month, in which case I don't think you or anyone else can hold me responsible..."

    The myth that women become uncontrollable during their period has been used to justify all sorts of oppression against women. Yet it's something that's still commonly referenced, often for humorous reasons.

  • Antagonists (Spike, Drusilla, the Anointed One)

    1. In Act One, Collin asks if Spike can kill the Slayer. Spike responds: "A lot faster than Nancy-boy there."

    'Nancy-boy' being a derogatory term wherein a man is insulted by, essentially, calling him female.

    2. In the same scene, Spike issues a challenge to the other vampies: "Any of you want to test who's got the biggest wrinklies 'round here...step on up."

    "Biggest wrinklies" seems to be a creative double entendre referring to both the vamp wrinkles and a man's balls, which are often alluded to as a source of strength. This implicitly links masculinity with strength.

    3. During the final act, Buffy and Spike face off for the first time. Buffy asks if they need weapons. Spike replies: "I just like them. They make me feel all manly."

    It's an interesting reference to masculinity being constructed through tools, suggesting the artificiality and performance of gender. It's also notable that Spike throws down his weapon after saying this, giving up that "manly feeling" he alluded to.

    4. Later in the fight, Spike almost wins against Buffy but is stopped by Joyce hitting him over the head with an ax. Spike exclaims, "Women!" before leaving.

    A strangely gendered exclamation, as if knocking people about with axes is a particularly female activity.

IV. Objectification Watch

  1. We're shown Buffy dancing from Spike's viewpoint early in the episode.

V. Points to Consider

  1. The top two troublemakers at Sunnydale High School are apparently girls. This defies common cultural stereotypes that boys are more likely to act up. What do we make of Buffy and Sheila as the "worst" students in the school?

  2. Drusilla announces to Spike that she's "a princess" during their scene with the Anointed One. Princesses, of course, being gendered and often coded as damsels in distress. How does the Drusilla/Spike relationship fall into gender lines? Does it subvert common gender ideology? We get interesting scenes such as this:

    Drusilla: I can't see her. The Slayer. I can't see. (looks back up) It's dark where she is. Kill her. Kill her, Spike. Kill her for me?

    Spike: It's done, baby.

    Drusilla: Kill her for princess?

    Spike: I'll chop her into messes.

    Drusilla: You are my sweet... my little Spike.

    What's to be made, especially, of Drusilla's referring to him as "little Spike", Spike being an obviously phallic, masculine name? Couple this with Spike's tendency to refer to Drusilla as "baby".

  3. What do we make of Spike's seduction of Sheila? He leads her to him with a few open-ended questions, capturing her interest. What gender processes - if any - are at work here?

  4. In an episode that stresses the many jobs of Buffy, we see her fail at one particular feminine-coded job: her lemonade is horrible. This is juxtaposed with her resounding success at her more masculine-coded job (Slaying). Is it necessary for this to be a zero-sum game for Buffy? Does the series depict these two aspects as being mutually exclusive or is Buffy able to embrace both the feminine and the masculine?

  5. Furthermore, could Buffy's juggling of various jobs be a commentary on the expanded burden women tend to face today?

    Buffy: We're going to the Bronze. I can study and party and do Parent-Teacher night and make my mother proud as long as I don't have to...

    Giles and Jenny come walking in.

    Giles: Buffy!

    Buffy: ...fight vampires.

    Since the women's movement has granted women more freedoms and opportunities, it's also piled on more responsibilities. Women still do the majority of the housework despite working full-time jobs in greater numbers. They're still primarily responsible for childcare. Much has been made of the expectations that women excel in a variety of tasks.

  6. Spike presents an interesting character from a feminist perspective. As a reputed Slayer-killer, he is essentially a killer of women, bringing to mind allusions to serial killers. An argument could be made for his raison d'être being steeped in misogynistic undertones. However, a counter-interpretation is one where Spike specifically seeks out the strongest fighter, who he recognizes to be a girl - the Slayer. This positions Spike in a more enlightened role wherein he acknowledges a Slayer's strength and warrior status and views her as an equal to prove himself.


Sep. 25th, 2011 10:50 am (UTC)
I wonder if we can interpret Spike mentioning "smelling the blood of a nice, ripe girl" as a comment related to menstruation, since the sentence is a paraphrase of a King Lear quote ("I smell the blood of an Englishman" as far as I recall). So I'd say that primary context for this sentence is both murder and a cultural reference.
Sep. 25th, 2011 11:17 am (UTC)
Of course it is a paraphrase (originally from a nursery rhyme, I believe), but Buffy is menstruating in School Hard - we know it because in the earlier scene at the Bronze Xander finds tampons in her purse while he's looking for stakes. And vampires really do have a heightened sense of smell, so I don't think we're meant to see it as just something he says randomly. But even they couldn't smell the blood if someone isn't bleeding. And "ripe girl" has a connotation of sexual maturity.


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