I have very mixed feelings about this largely excellent book about BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. The author, Lorna Jowett, is obviously an exceptionally well-informed student of BUFFY and knows the show backwards and forwards. The book bristles with insights about the show and about individual characters, as opposed to the narrative structure as a whole, on which I find the book much less helpful. In a way this is to be expected, since in focusing on gender issues, you focus on the individual characters that incarnate gender-related traits and characteristics. I have read pretty much every serious and all academic books that are currently in print on BUFFY and at this point to learn new things about the show is getting progressively more difficult; nonetheless, I learned a great deal from the book. I'm going to say a couple of critical things in a second, but before I do I want to emphasize that I definitely found reading this to be a rewarding experience and I think any fairly literate BUFFY fan who has some experience in reading academic books is going to both enjoy this and learn from it, regardless of whether they agree with the approach or not. So I want to be clear: despite a disagreement with the central approach of the book, I found this to be an exceptionally rewarding read. The book is also graced with a large bibliography that will aid serious readers in compiling BUFFY-related bibliographies.
Before proceeding, I need to say something about my own stance towards women's issues. Although I'm a guy, I'm a fairly serious student of the history of women's issues, to the point where I am currently engaged in a writing project about women's issues (specifically about the possibility of future empowerment of women through higher education-women are increasingly comprising the majority of both undergraduate and graduate students in America-and redefinition of women in popular culture). My own perspective, however, is very much from concepts drawn not from gender studies but from political and moral philosophy. I see the oppression of women by any means as primarily a justice issue and not a gender issue. One cannot ignore the history of the way male-dominated structures of power have repressed women, but my own belief is that this is most profitably done by analyzing it through questions of justice and fairness. For a variety of reasons, I feel that this is far more to the point. The reason I point this out is that the opposition to a gender studies approach that I'm about to articulate could easily be misrepresented as an anti-female approach, which simply is not the case. I take considerable pride in the fact that several highly educated feminists have told me that they wish all men viewed women's issues the way that I do. (And I hope that wasn't damning me with faint praise.)
I simply can't follow Jowett in any part of the book where she begins to dissect characters on gender-related distinctions. Since this is a considerable part of the book, I acknowledge that I have a problem with much of the book's content, though as I mentioned above I learned a great deal, simply because not everything she says is parasitic upon gender distinctions. I don't have room here to explain why I find gender distinctions in this kind of discussion unhelpful. I believe that the vast majority of individuals engaged in gender studies would acknowledge that the traits that they ascribe to femininity or masculinity are largely accidents of history, pertinent to a particular society or even most societies, but not universal. For almost every trait that a particular society attributes primarily to one gender, there are cultures or societies or tribes that completely subvert that. We know, for instance, of societies where men take primary care of the young and others where women are the leaders. Or we know of more complex arrangements, such as in some Native American tribes, where men were the leaders, but the leaders were chosen by women. In other words, there are no traits that are necessarily and permanently feminine or masculine. One has to tie such concepts to a particular society. Nonetheless, many who write in gender-specific terms frequently fall into a pattern whereby what they are writing about sounds more definite than this. Jowett is often guilty of this. She writes in a way whereby "feminine" and "masculine" qualities seem to be less marks of society than of men and women. In other words, they seem almost more like natural rather then acculturated qualities. I don't think she would defend that in the end, but nonetheless like most she can sound that way. For my part, I have never understood what is to be gained by coding any quality as female or male, feminine or masculine. For instance, the notion of "caring." Jowett writes of coding "caring" as feminine or aggression as "masculine." Even when one grants that in our particular society there may be a greater propensity for men to be aggressive and women to be caring, we can all also think (at least I can) of men who are far more caring than most women and many women who are more aggressive than most men. "Caring" may be more prevalent among women, but in the end it really emerges more as a human quality than a quality in any but a highly contingent way tied to a particular gender. And that is true for almost any quality that one tries to tie to any gender labeling.
Put the question another way: what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be feminine and not masculine? No matter what content you ascribe to this, you can easily end up with "masculine" women and "feminine" men. I'm simply not sure what is to be achieved by such "coding." I don't find it especially empowering in either political or moral analysis. I'm quite interested in models for normative behavior and I find moral discourse to be far more helpful in this regard. If I find someone's behavior rude and aggressive, I find it more to the point to talk about how this indicates a lack of respect and empathy, not whether it is feminine or masculine.
Likewise with BUFFY. One of the reasons I have been so impressive by BUFFY is that I think it may possibly have achieved one of Joss Whedon's stated goals in creating the show: to create a cultural icon. All finer distinctions aside, there is little doubt that Buffy is a power symbol of female empowerment in popular culture. Pre-BUFFY very, very few women got to be the heroes in their own stories on TV, and if they did, it was always in a domestic context. Once you get past Emma Peel and Wonder Woman, about the only strong women on TV were career women like Mary Tyler Moore. Post-BUFFY there has been an explosion of strong female characters, including Xena (pre-TV show BUFFY but post-film), Sydney Bristow of ALIAS, Max Guevara on DARK ANGEL, Aeryn Sun, Zhaan, Chianna, and others on FARSCAPE, and Veronica Mars. I find discussions of how this has or can affect the way that women are perceived to be endlessly fascinating. I fully believe that the effect of BUFFY on the actual possibilities for women in our society has not yet been appreciated. In raising my daughter as a single father I was acutely aware as she grew up how few strong female characters there were in movies and TV. It is beside the point to point out that normal women aren't super empowered like Buffy, technologically enhanced like Max, or warriors like Xena. Normal men aren't super empowered like Superman or Spiderman, or preternaturally gifted fighters like Bruce Lee, or super warriors like Rambo. The point, rather, is that whereas before BUFFY it was unheard of to have remarkable women on TV though it was possible to have remarkable men, now we think nothing of a new female hero. And the acceptance of these new women heroes is a small indication of the way that society is accepting an enlarged role for women. But one doesn't have to resort to gender distinctions to get at any of this.
My belief is that gender studies all too often is a rather abstract game that is played among other gender studies specialists. It is not nor is it ever likely to be a discipline that resonates with the broader public. The kinds of gender distinctions made here don't hit people where they live or even think. I think it is immensely important for scholars like Carolyn Merchant to talk about ways that specifically masculine modes of thinking have informed our thinking about nature, but I find her the exception rather than the rule in the field. My suspicion is that Jowett would code me as a heterosocial, heterosexual "New Man," but I'm left without a good sense of what that really means.
To accept all the premises of the book, one needs to be converted to gender studies first. And I'm afraid that the book in that regard fails. But as I said at the outside, on BUFFY-related matters the book is often a glittering success. It also is a wonderful testimony of how exceptionally rich and multi-faceted the show is. I've had some debates with some of my friends who know I love BUFFY but haven't watched the show themselves. They wonder why I love BUFFY more than shows they wrongly imagine more "intelligent" than it, like THE SOPRANOS or SIX FEET UNDER. Yet neither of these shows has generated anything even remotely like the sustained intellectual debates surrounding BUFFY. Lorna Jowett's book is a wonderful illustration of how good BUFFY really is, for how could a silly teen drama (which non-initiates often imagine the show to be) generate such a remarkably intelligent book?