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The Feminist Filter: Halloween

Alright! Let's do Halloween! This one is particularly rich in the feminist text, so make yourself some tea. :)

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.

2.06 Halloween

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 6 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: Ethan Rayne creates some chaos by turning people into their Halloween costumes. Spike takes advantage of the situation to hunt down Buffy.

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? No.
If Cordelia 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's first major decision rests in picking out her costume for Halloween. This inadvertently renders her the damsel for the majority of the episode. This doesn't afford her much in the way of agency, however her return to herself at the end allows her to fight Spike.
  • Decisive Willow: By contrast, Willow ultimately doesn't choose her costume. The cover-all ghost outfit quickly gives way to the more revealing outfit beneath. This inadvertently renders her the most capable member of the gang. She quickly takes charge and makes the plans. She's the one who gathers everybody together and gives them the 411 on what's going down. Then she tells everybody what to do while she gets Giles.

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 the first act, Cordelia is relating to Angel a story about Devon. She says: "So I told Devon, 'You call that leather interior? My Barbie Dream Car had nicer seats!'"

    Barbie Dream Car being a reference to the girls' toy, which is highly feminized.

    2. After seeing Angel with Cordelia, Buffy gets insecure about her post-Slaying look. She says: "Dates are things normal girls have. Girls who have time to think about nail polish and facials. You know what I think about? Ambush tactics. Beheading. Not exactly the stuff dreams are made of. "

    We get another example of Buffy's liminal status between masculine and feminine. With this comment, she's lamenting her lack of femininity due to her involvement with Slaying, the masculine.

    3. In Act One, Larry asks Xander if he and Buffy are just friends. Xander responds: ""I like to think of it less as a friendship and more as a solid foundation for future bliss."

    He gives voice to some Nice Guy tendencies in sticking with a friendship with the unspoken hope of more happening later. This usually leads to entitlement issues and possessive jealousy towards any other guys that the friend may be interested in (as we see in Xander towards Angel).

    4. When Xander confronts Larry about his slut-shaming comments about Buffy, he says: "I'm gonna do what any man would do about it: somethin' damn manly."

    The emphasis on "manliness" is pretty explicit. Xander is attempting to live up to gendered expectations of masculinity. This involves defending the "honor" of Buffy, his friend (and a girl, not coincidentally). As he says this, he makes the motions of threatening physical violence. Much like we got with Buffy in #2, we have the association of masculinity with violence as well as with protectorship of women.

    5. After Buffy rescues Xander from Larry, Xander rails against it: "Oh, I'll forget about it. In maybe fifteen, twenty years when my rep for being a sissy man finally fades! [...] A black eye heals, Buffy, but cowardice has an unlimited shelf life."

    In this case, being rescued by a girl is equated to cowardice, which is declared decidedly unmasculine. This point is important in that Xander's not labeling getting beat up by Larry as cowardice. Xander was facing Larry down and knew he was about to get pummeled. He preferred that to being rescued by Buffy. The act of being rescued by a girl socially labels him as cowardly.

    6. After Xander walks away in a huff, Buffy and Willow commiserate:

    Buffy: I think I just violated the guy code big time.

    Willow: Poor Xander. Boys are so fragile.

    Buffy references the "guy code". References to "guy code" or "girl code" usually act to essentialize the genders and maintain the socially constructed gender binary.

    Willow chooses to subvert common traditional gender roles by noting that "boys are so fragile". Presumably, she means emotionally fragile, a stereotypically female trait.

    7. Buffy and Willow take a look at the Watcher's Journals and come across a picture of a woman from 1775. They provide some commentary:

    Buffy: So that's the kinda girl he hung around? She's pretty coiffed.

    Willow: She looks like a noble woman or something. Which means being beautiful is sort of her job.

    Buffy: And clearly this girl was a workaholic. I'll never be like this.

    Willow: C'mon! She's not that pretty. I mean, look at her. She's got a funny... uh, waist. Look how tiny that is.

    Earlier, we'd seen references to Buffy's "job" being Slaying. Here we get the opposite: being beautiful as a "job". This sets up the dichotomy for later in the episode.

    Interesting to note as the conversation continues:

    Buffy: (sarcastically) Thank you. Now I feel better.

    Willow: (exhales) No. She's like a freak. A circus freak. Yuk.

    Buffy: (exhales) Musta been wonderful. Put on some fantabulous gown and go to a ball like a princess, and have horses and servants, and yet more gowns.

    Willow: Yeah. Still, I think I prefer being able to vote. (Buffy raises her brows) (smiles) Or I will when I can.

    While Buffy gets misty-eyed about the princess fantasy, Willow remarks on the lack of rights women had at the time.

    8. When Willow and Buffy tell Cordelia that Angel is a vampire, she responds:

    Cordelia: (steps over to them) You know what I think? (crosses her arms) I just think you're trying to scare me off 'cause you're afraid of the competition. Look, Buffy, you may be hot stuff when it comes to demonology or whatever, but when it comes to dating, I'm the Slayer.

    Cordelia comments, essentially, on Buffy's failure to be feminine, positioning herself as particularly good at it.

    9. Later, Buffy and Willow are picking out costumes. Buffy is less than thrilled with Willow's choice of a ghost. She expounds on the point of Halloween. "It's come as you aren't night. The perfect chance for a girl to get sexy and wild with no repercussions."

    The no repercussions, of course, implies that being sexy and wild normally has repercussions in the form of slut-shaming.

    10. At the costume shop, Buffy becomes enamored at a dress. Xander comments: "Too bulky. I prefer my women in spandex."

    It's interesting to note that Xander's initial instinct is to comment on how the dress appeals to him, sexually. It's not about Buffy thinking the dress is pretty or whether the dress is well-made or whatnot, but about how it satisfies his desires.

    11. The beginning of Act Two contains a lot of evaluation of how the girls look in their costumes. The end goal is obvious: attractiveness.

    Buffy, referring to Angel: "I'll show him I can coif with the best of 'em."

    When Willow emerges in her costume, Buffy comments: "Wow! You're a dish!"

    Then when Xander arrives, we get a prolonged commentary on her looks: "Buffy! Lady of Buffdom, Duchess of Buffonia, I am in awe! I completely renounce spander!"

    Buffy responds: "Thank you, kind sir."

    It's notable that no comment is made on Xander's costume or his attractiveness. Women are subject to a near-constant scrutiny and appraisal of their looks.

    12. When she's turned into her costume, Buffy takes a look at a picture of herself. She says: "I don't understand any of this! This is some other girl! I would never wear this, that low apparel, and I don't like this place, and I don't like you, and I just wanna go home!"

    The comment that modern!Buffy's outfit qualifies as "low apparel" is, of course, speaking to the cultural differences between the two times. However, it also speaks to the history of women's place in society in terms of appropriate dress.

    13. When Willow goes to find Giles, she instructs everybody to fight off anything that tries to get in the house. Buffy responds: "Well, it's not our place to fight. Uh, surely some men will protect us."

    Cordelia provides an effectively sarcastic commentary on that: "What's that riff?"

    Buffy's fully in her role as the regressed and disempowered women. See the Points to Consider section for more on this point.

    14. As Xander is securing the house, he mentions that he's doing what Willow told him to. Buffy replies: "You would take orders from a woman? Are you feeble in some way?"

    15. Later, when Xander discovers a picture of himself, he gets on board with Willow's "amnesia" explanation. Buffy rails against it: "I was brought up a proper lady. I-I wasn't meant to understand things. I'm just meant to look pretty, and then someone nice will marry me. Possibly a Baron."

    While Buffy's comment highlights the hyperfemininity of her costumed character, Xander's response shows a disregard for the feminine, overall: "This ain't no tea party, princess."

    16. Giles questions Willow about the nature of her costume. In discomfort, Willow points the finger at Cordelia: "Well, this is nothing. You should see what Cordelia was wearing. A unitard with cat things, like ears and stuff."

    In pointing out that her costume is "nothing" compared to Cordelia's, Willow's effectively saying that Cordelia is dressed sluttier than she is. She's trying to bring herself up to an acceptable status in Giles' eyes by giving an example of a girl whose transgression is even worse.

    17. During the final act, Giles is explaining Janus to Willow:

    Giles: Primarily the division of self. Male and female, light and dark.

    It's traditional to separate male and female as opposites. Unfortunately, this practice leads to all sorts of problems. After all, if men are strong and women are opposite men, then women must be weak.

    18. After the spell is done, Buffy explains to Angel why she dressed up in that particular costume:

    Buffy: (sits next to him) I just wanted to be a real girl for once. The kind of fancy girl you liked when you were my age.

    Angel: (ironically) Oh, ho.

    Buffy: What?

    Angel: I hated the girls back then. Especially the noble women.

    Buffy: (nods) You did.

    Angel: They were just incredibly dull. Simpering morons, the lot of them. I always wished I could meet someone... exciting. (looks her in the eyes) Interesting.

    Note that Buffy positions being a "real girl" as being feminine. Doing Slayer stuff doesn't qualify as being a "real girl" for her at this point.

    See more about this discussion in the Points to Consider section.

  • Antagonists (Spike, Drusilla, Ethan)

    1. While watching video of Buffy fighting, Spike comments: "She's tricky. Baby likes to play."

    "Baby" is an infantilizing affectation with which to refer to Buffy.

  • The Rest (Oz, Devon, Larry)

    1. In his first confrontation with Xander, Larry comments on Buffy: "I heard some guys say she was fast."

    Obviously, there've been some slut rumors going around about Buffy that Larry's picked up on.

    2. Later, in Act Two, Larry teases Xander: "Where's your bodyguard, Harris? Curling her hair?"

    This is an insult to women as much as it is to Xander, as it's positioning women bodyguards as absurd and worthy of mockery.

    3. At the beginning of Act Four, pirate!Larry spots lady!Buffy and comments: "Pretty, pretty!"

    There is the unmistakable threat of sexual assault against Buffy in his attack on her as he tries to forcibly kiss her. She is rescued by Xander.

IV. Objectification Watch

  1. The episode opens with a very literal male-gaze on Buffy: that of the vampire camera man. We get several video camera shots of her as she fights a vampire. We later see Spike watching the footage of this, complete with rewind.
  2. Willow's costume is revealing, which is the point according to Buffy. Despite Willow's attempt to cover up, she spends most of the episode with her midriff showing. Cordelia's costume is less revealing, but more form-fitting and spandex-y.
  3. We get a shot of Willow from Oz's viewpoint at the end.

V. Points to Consider

  1. The costumes of the kids we see seem to fall along gender lines.

    Little boys: A devil, 2 generic demons, a vampire, a doctor, a pirate, a...potato?, 2 knights, a football player, a Dalmation
    Little girls: 3 witches, a princess, a belly dancer, 2 fairies, a ballerina, something with a red polka dot dress
    Can't call: A pink bunny thing, a yellow flower

  2. In having Buffy turn into a eighteenth century lady, this episode proceeds to play it for humor and then uses it to damselize Buffy. Within the larger metaphor of the episode, this is a commentary on femininity, which Buffy is shown to be concerned about at the beginning. Does this episode end up denigrating femininity? What about Willow's comment: "She couldn't've dressed up like Xena?" Xena being a more masculine character, of course. In an effort to show how Buffy enjoys and benefits from her masculine (Slayer) side, does this episode swing too far in its depiction of femininity as weak, irrational, and incompetent?

    Furthermore, several of the characters have insulting reactions to lady!Buffy. Cordelia snarks at her several times. At the end, Angel goes to great length to assure Buffy that he "hated the girls back then" because "they were just incredibly dull" and were "simpering morons". With these reactions, is the show condemning the feminine in lieu of placing more value on the masculine?

  3. What about the sexual assault of lady!Buffy by pirate!Larry in this framework, with her subsequent rescue by manly!Xander? We have a character who's hyper-femininized and then left vulnerable to an assault, only to be rescued by a character who's been hyper-masculinized. What are we to take from this?

  4. On that same line of thought, what do we make of the fact that soldier!Xander, in all his masculinity, is completely okay following Willow's orders?


Sep. 18th, 2011 04:17 pm (UTC)

The episode definitely falls short of adequately conveying whatever message it was trying to get across.


The One Who Isn't Chosen

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