#SeniorSeminar: Gabrielle & “The Constraints of Identity in ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’”

Thu, 03/09/23
Gabrielle Camp

My name is Gabrielle, and I am a senior hoping to graduate this spring semester. I transferred to Florida State University in 2020 specifically for its Classics department. But when I got to Tallahassee, I saw all the History classes that were offered and heard a lot of good things about the professors. So, after a semester, I added History as a second major. I like Classics but I am really passionate about History.

For me, History is a way of telling stories and looking at how other people have told stories. I enjoy reading about these different ways of interpreting the past: the history of History.

I like American post-World War II history. I am interested in the social changes that followed the war, especially to do with sexuality and gender. In the senior seminar with Dr. Mooney, I began to work on 1990s feminism. I realized that I like the whole stretch of history from just after WW II to the turn of the millennium. What intrigues me is how different gender and sexuality movements have evolved during this period.

For the senior seminar, I decided to look at “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the TV series. I focused specifically on the third season that ran from September 1998 to September 1999. I loved watching Buffy as a child, and it was wonderful being able to use my passion for my senior thesis.

In “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Buffy has no one who understands her precarious attempts at balancing her schoolwork, social life, and vampire slaying. She is Othered from her friends and family because of her supernatural strength and responsibilities of being the Vampire Slayer. In season three, we are introduced to Faith, who is another Slayer. Faith is everything Buffy is not; she is confident in her sexuality, she breaks rules, and she even joins forces with the Big Bad Guy of season three.

While I was rewatching the show at home, we were discussing in class the changing expectations of women in the 1990s and early 2000s. The big idea in feminism at the time was that of choices. The idea was that women had choices about who they want to be, and as long as they were doing the choosing, all the choices were acceptable. In practice, however, a lot of women were shamed for the choices they made. Not only that, but because of their social background, class, or race might not have had the opportunity to make choices at all.

In the show, the characters of Faith and Buffy are set up as opposites because Faith made bad choices, and Buffy made good ones. Faith is made out to be sexually promiscuous, and while she is never explicitly said to be gay, she is queer-coded through her actions with Buffy. Buffy, however, is more restrained. This framework ignores that Buffy had a whole support network of friends helping her, while Faith was isolated and abandoned. Even at the time, some fans picked up on the fact that the two girls did not have the same advantages. Others did not, and kept advancing the ‘you have choices’ narrative, both in response to the show and in real life.

On the surface, season three of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was just the period when Buffy had competition from Faith, her evil and sexually empowered counterpart. The whole show is marketed to be a super empowering feminist piece – but it is created by a man, and a lot of the audience is male. Many of its storylines are about Buffy following certain roles and not going outside of the norms in sexuality and gender. But you also see how Faith tests and goes beyond the acceptable social and sexual boundaries, and what the consequences for doing that are.

What we see in the show is a reflection of real life. At the time, in addition to the false idea of choices for women, there was the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ rule for service personnel in the military. You could only be gay and in the military if you did not tell anyone that you were gay. There were very specific rules for how people outside of normative society can exist, and that is mirrored in the show.

Initially, I had wondered if I should work on a project that was more closely connected to my Honors in the Major topic, which is about the development of lesbian communities through the Women’s Army Corps during WWII. Ultimately, I decided that I wanted a different topic to focus on. What helped me decide to work on Buffy was that we were reading an article in class on her, and I kept thinking: “No, that’s not right. That’s not right either.” The author of the piece was mixing things up in the context of the show but also in the broader historical context. I got so frustrated reading it, that I said: “I can do better.”

I had just finished watching the third season, when I started my senior seminar work. The episodes were fresh in my mind, and I knew which ones I needed for my project.  Then I combed the internet for other sources. I found old internet forms and chatrooms, and past interviews with the cast, and blogs run by fans. Some of the blogs, from 1999 and the early 2000s, were very detailed and opinionated, and that allowed me to see what people were thinking at the time.

There is a lot of scholarship on Buffy. A lot of it is from the time when the TV show aired, so it was interesting to see what people were writing about Buffy right after it had come out. I did not necessarily agree with many of the conclusions that people were drawing in these secondary works. Partly, that is because a lot of academic books on Buffy were written immediately after the show was aired, partly because a lot of people were fans and loved the show. But they credited Buffy with being this impactful TV series that helped girls stand up and be empowered. Buffy is a blonde, conventionally attractive, upper-middle class girl, while Faith has darker hair and makeup and is coded as lower class. Faith is also put in a coma at the end of the third season, which conveys the message: “Girls, you can do what you want, as long as you don’t behave like that.”

I looked at feminist history texts and queer theory as well. I drew a lot from Riot grrl as a brand of feminism. Riot grrl was a punk subculture of feminism that was all about making your own music and making your own clothes with an emphasis on empowering women. The perspective I gained from Riot grrl led me to focus more on Faith because I felt that the show was trying to make fun of this kind of feminism. The media turned the Riot grrl movement into quippy phrases like ‘girl power.’ That’s good as a t-shirt slogan but it does not do much in real life. 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was riding that wave. Faith kept telling Buffy to loosen up, but whenever Faith loosened up, she got into trouble. Initially, I had thought I would focus on how Buffy’s identity is policed in the show, but when I saw the connection between Faith and the Riot grrl movement, that was eye-opening for me. I realized how impactful comparing Buffy and Faith as “good” versus “bad” girls was. When I re-watched the TV show, it was amazing what that subtext allowed me to see.

What really surprised me was that at the time there were actually people who were on Faith’s side. The show writers portrayed Faith very negatively, so it was interesting to see people adamantly defend Faith and insult Buffy.

The biggest challenge for me was that I could not access a lot of material I knew was out there. Sites that had contained articles on Buffy had been taken down. A chat room run by the network that had aired Buffy was no longer accessible. I found a PhD dissertation written solely on Buffy chat rooms, and I went through all the links cited to see which ones were still active. I used the Wayback machine and found sites and their content, but the links to individual pieces had not been preserved. I could see the site but could not get at its content – that was really frustrating.

I like writing but I was used to small pieces of about 3,000 to 4,000 words maximum. So, when Dr. Mooney assigned a 20-page paper, I was terrified. I found that very scary. But Dr. Mooney had broken the assignment into manageable chunks, which helped me stay on track. I had problems with accessing my sources, and so it took me a while to get started, but then when I did, I wrote the whole paper in a week.

The hardest part in writing was to get started. It felt that this was a super scary paper, and I did not know where to start and how to begin. Dr. Mooney had set up a series of small assignments for us to complete: turn in some annotated sources, then turn in an outline, then turn in five pages which can be from anywhere in the paper. Writing the five pages before the first draft was really helpful because it made me realize that I could not address everything from my original outline in twenty pages. I was grateful to have realized this early in the writing process and not while trying to cram all twenty pages into one night.

Based on the feedback I received on my draft, I realized that I would have to reorganize the paper. I used a bunch of sticky notes for that. I put the main idea of each paragraph on a separate sticky note, then I went to my bedroom and stuck all the notes on the wall in the order in which they appeared in my paper. Then I looked just at the notes on my wall to see which paragraphs should be grouped together. I am a visual learner, so seeing all the notes on the wall was super helpful in reorganizing my paper. I used my wall to story board my paper, which was something I could not do on my laptop.

I liked doing the presentation, I like talking about my work to people. It was good to talk to my class about what I had been doing, and making my presentation helped me strengthen my essay. I realized that it would be helpful to move certain explanations around and add more information at other points. Thinking about presenting made me evaluate the structure of my paper too. Putting together the graphics was another fun aspect. So many of the blogs I had worked with were so colorful, that I wanted my classmates to see what I had been looking at so that they could get a taste of the time period too.

I did the presentation before I did my last reorganization of the paper. Being able to try out the new structure was good. I had 10 minutes for my presentation and that meant condensing the information and sifting out the most important points.

My advice to other History majors is to select a senior seminar that you are interested in. I was super excited about the pop culture senior seminar. But if you have to take a seminar because that is the only one that fits into your schedule, then make sure you choose a topic that you are passionate about. Because it is a long paper and if you don’t care about your topic, it is going to be hard going. Find something that you want to talk about. Even in these very specific seminars, there is always a niche that will work for you.

If I could go back in time, I would make myself start writing sooner. With all the seminar assignments, I tended to wait until just before the deadline before I started. If I could, I would give myself at least one if not two weekends to think through and work on the assignment that was due. Giving myself more time to think about the paper, and the particular part that was due, especially the outline, would have helped me submit a more finished section.

I am graduating this spring semester. I would like to come back to FSU and get an MA in History. I like the idea of working in archives or teaching, but I am still undecided. I hope that, wherever I end up, I can continue sharing and telling stories.