Buffy Season Four: A Feminist Perspective

Today, after a bit of hiatus, we'll be looking at two seasons back to back. First we start off with a transitional year for Buffy and the Scooby Gang as some of them start UC Sunnydale, Giles becomes a "man of leisure," new love interests come in, and, of course, a new Big Bad in The Initiative.

Buffy Season Four Feminist Perspective

This is a season that finds the series floundering and in search of its footing. It’s very much a transitional year and I don’t think many Buffy fans would disagree with that. If you break the series into parts, there’s seasons one through three of the “classic” high school years and drama. Then there are also seasons five through seven with the Scooby Gang dealing with and struggling through the trials of adulthood and, in Buffy’s case, motherhood with Dawn. Season four is road marker, the last year where one can see they were trying to stick to having school (in this case college) as an environment and source of plot points for the show.

Personally, I will admit that while this is probably one of the seasons I hated, and by far the most uneven in tone, it has some of the best episodes of the entire series and some of my personal favorites. It’s such a muddle and a mix, an interesting study in how a show evolves when it was originally conceived as something so very high school (or as Whedon calls it “horror in high school”) based.

So what does this all say about Buffy as a character and feminism as an arc here?

There is a great deal that occurs this year---Buffy learning to be a more independent adult and a small fish in a large pond, Willow discovering her sexuality and becoming intimate with Tara, and even Faith returned, and came to her own realizations about who she wants to be, and which side she wants to serve on, good or evil. On another level, if one believes in coding rational, militaristic science as masculine and magic, as well as the Slayer’s power, as feminine-based, then the Initiative versus Buffy and her gang has an even bigger impact on the season’s overall themes.

First, I will say that I think this season works hard, but ultimately fails to set up Buffy completely as an independent adult and a fully empowered woman. She starts UC Sunnydale confused, not doing as well in classes as Willow, feeling like vamps like Sunday (at least for a time) are getting the drop on her. Hell, even the class protector umbrella from prom is destroyed by the end of the season premiere! Yet, Buffy does manage to get equilibrium. She finds that, yes; she does have talent for academia and excels in Professor Walsh’s class eventually.

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In an infamous episode, Beer Bad, an enchanted brew turns Buffy into a cave girl. Interestingly, this coincides with her having been misled by Parker into thinking a consensual one night stand was going to be a permanent relationship. Through the course of the episode, even if it takes getting back to primal instincts and Neanderthal roots, Buffy finds a way to move past being essentially used. In all seven seasons, I confess, I’ve rarely cheered harder than when Cave Buffy bashed Parker over the head with a branch after saving him from a burning building. Still, while she begins to gain footing in academia, in a world post-Angel and in the quagmire that is dating in college, she doesn’t succeed completely. I’m not anti-relationships for the Slayer at all. However, I feel that Buffy rushed too fast into something with Riley, perhaps as a reaction to everything both Angel and Joyce wanted for her, that “try it with a normal man” mentality. Also, I must confess that the former graduate student in me is appalled by the poor example it sets for Buffy to actively date a teaching assistant while being a student in his class. Somehow, I think her getting past Angel as the primary influence in her dating life and adapting more in college would have worked better with casual dating and not a rush into a relationship, let alone one with somebody who, technically, has power over her as someone who can influence her grades.

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Both Willow and Faith also go through transitions this year

Faith’s occurs in the two-parter This Year’s Girl/Who Are You? and it then follows her into Angel the Series. Post-coma, she wants to steal Buffy’s life and to wreak havoc in it. For a time she succeeds until she sleeps with Riley. His simple declaration of love (believing she’s Buffy) drives Faith to a crisis of conscience as, although she’s not the intended recipient of the kindness, one can also assume from what she’s said about herself and her past that this is the closest thing to true intimacy she’s ever felt. In the second episode of this arc, we see her volunteer to save a congregation taken hostage even though it gives Buffy the perfect opportunity to stop her and reclaim her body. For the first time since we’ve met Faith we see her act as a Slayer, not for the animal gratification or the thrill of the fight, but because she wants to save people; because “it’s wrong” not to.

 So much has been written about Willow’s arc and I recommend some essays on her evolution below. However, while much has always been made about her expanding into bisexuality from Oz (and after watching Dopplegangland this should not have been a shocking revelation), what one sees with Willow as a character runs deeper than her romantic preferences. Something Blue foreshadows the Willow we’ll see by the end of season five and into season six heavily: Dark Willow, who uses magic not really as a drug but moreso as a way to exert her “will” and desire on others. D’Hoffryn’s not wrong to offer her a vengeance demon position. Willow has previously been one to use her power, to choose to use her power for the greater good, and now, almost in a counterbalance to Faith’s own realizations in season four, the witch is starting to slide into using magic for her own gains, something that will start having disastrous results in season five.

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Finally, I’d be remiss not to speak about Maggie Walsh. I’ve written before in other work about how I don’t like the dichotomy set up about what’s feminine and what’s masculine. Being nurturing, caring, people-focused and, yes, often surrounded by nature are all seen as very much “female” traits, whereas violent action, cold logic, rationalism and science are seen as “male” traits. I think that’s bunk, but I can see where you can argue along that dichotomy that Buffy and Maggie Walsh illustrate how the “feminine” (magic, nurturing, ancient ways) will supplant and best the “masculine” (science, destruction, so-called progress). Buffy is given a choice and for one episode follows with the Initiative, taken a bit with their weaponry as well as Dr. Walsh’s commanding persona. Of course, she’s betrayed by Walsh and led to a trap but, still, Buffy had the chance to go that way for a split second, to be in a more militaristic frame. She rejects it, and stops the Initiative at the end. Walsh, on the other hand, persists with her Frankenstein-like experiments (the metaphor there with Adam is paper-thin), which eventually lead to her untimely death at her “son’s” hands. Similarly, the Initiative was easily played by Adam’s machinations and would have been overrun and destroyed without Buffy saving the day. She does it with the old ways, allied with a group of friends she cares about, as one super-unit or, in other words, in a very “feminine” style.

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Again, this is reductionist but I can see what I believe Whedon was going for.

This all said, much like Buffy character arc this season, Buffy’s fourth season arc falls flat even if it has its highlights. Ultimately, just as Buffy moving on with Riley as a band-aid for Angel and not making a complete break from the need for a significant other sells her short as a feminist character, the oversimplified reduction of “Manly Science Bad” and “Womanly Nature and Community Good” is too basic and patronizing to be either an effective or satisfying arc.

Luckily, ladies and gents, we move on from there to season five…