July 23, 2015

Shadowcon Overviews- Buffy and the Strong Female Character, Part VIII

Buffy, Faith, and the Good Girl/Bad Girl Dichotomy


“Isn’t it crazy how slayin’ just makes you hungry and horny?”

-Faith in “Faith, Hope & Trick”

Faith Lehane, the second Slayer activated after Buffy (the first being Kendra), is a fairly complicated character amongst the cast of both Buffy and Angel, and it's easy to see why. She's haughty, rebellious, fierce, physically dominating, and rash. If the Slayer represents emotionlessness and physical empowerment for women at the behest of patriarchal rule, as I have argued, Faith represents the sexual dominance that the patriarchy might find appealing in women, and also serves to present Buffy with a darker version of her Slayer self. Jowett writes that Faith arguably “verbalizes the viewer’s enjoyment of both sex and violence in the show.” She notes that Buffy is a “Good Girl” while Faith is a “Bad Girl,” exhibiting qualities such as using her sexuality as a weapon, abusing her physical power for her own personal gain, and having an unsettling tendency to kill innocent people without a second thought. While Buffy exhibits Faith’s sexual desires and participates in using her body as a sexual weapon, she is exempted from falling into the same “Bad Girl” category as Faith because of the way this abrasive and assaulting behavior is presented to her character as a development of an already-established person, rather than as an introductory characteristic as seen with Faith.

I think nowhere is Faith’s conflict with Buffy and the former’s desire to be the superior to the latter more evident than in the Season Four episode “Who Are You”. In that episode, Faith and Buffy switch bodies, leading to Faith running rampant Buffy’s lifestyle. Faith’s experiences in Buffy’s body allow her to see the world in which Buffy lives, and also see that Buffy is more than what Faith thinks her to be. Faith sees Buffy as the girl who has it all, the spoiled rich kid with the latest in everything, with family and friends and a support structure that assists in her Slayer duties. Jowett notes that “[while] Buffy sees Slayer power as a responsibility, Faith sees it as evidence of superiority,” and Faith states that Buffy is not taking full advantage of her Slayer powers.

Interestingly, Buffy acknowledges this critique of her life, stating that under different circumstances, she might have turned out just as messed up as Faith has. This acknowledgement that her circumstances define a large part of her life is read by some, including Jowett, to mean that Buffy’s “privileged position enables her to make ‘choices’ for her post-feminist identity that are not available to all young women.” Faith has none of these things, save for the Mayor’s support in Season Three, so it is not surprising that Faith seizes the opportunity to have Buffy’s life, to experience her world even if it is only because Faith needs to satiate her own desire to belong and to prove to herself that she is worthy of the Slayer mantle.

Jowett comments about “Who Are You” that Faith in the end “desperately tries to destroy herself and retain the Buffy-body that represents approval and respect.” That Buffy is more than a Slayer is an appeal in and of itself, even to another, less fortunate and more typical Slayer like Faith. While Faith displays a masculine understanding of anger, that of anger driving her emotionally, Buffy channels her anger in different, perhaps more “feminine” ways. According to Helford:

“Many episodes begin with Buffy using humor to mask anger while she displays physical aggression that is rarely portrayed as problematic or out of control. Typical is the teaser… in which Buffy is patrolling in Sunnydale Cemetery and must kill a newly awakened vampire as it emerges from the grave. After a few well-placed kicks, Buffy reaches out to stake the vampire, quipping, 'We haven’t been properly introduced. I’m Buffy and you’re… history.' Humor lightens the violence of this and many other similar scenes in Buffy.”

While one may think that this is a detriment to the series given my position on how women are exempted from performing actions that would seem over-the-top or unrealistic were they performed by a man, Buffy manages to get around this critique by recognizing its own violent tendencies almost every episode. Buffy does not use guns (she uses rocket launchers instead, dammit); she does not kill humans, and there is a defined space and time for her to deploy her fighting abilities. Unlike Peggy Carter from Captain America: The First Avenger, who in the film beats up a man for simply questioning her sex (albeit rudely), Buffy is quick to deploy wit and sarcasm at those who might do the same to her at school and even, as the above quote showed, during combat (though Peggy Carter takes Buffy’s cue and displays wit and stinging words in her series Agent Carter.) And it is not as if Buffy’s wit is of the kind that hinges on insult and bigotry; she is sassy without being outright rude. While she does fail recognition as being in the wrong when abusing Spike, once again this is excused by the idea that this is not a natural part of Buffy’s character; in this instance, she was slipping emotionally, and so she slips physically as well. This could easily be read as behavior mirroring that of Faith, with her mantra of "want, take, have" being practiced by Buffy herself in Season Six, again illustrating how she has slipped up. This also illustrates the differences in their characters, with such a living being alien to Buffy's established character while such is exclusively what Faith lives by for the first half of her time in the series. Buffy is seen as being flawed in other ways besides being physically violent too. Jowett comments that “[in] later seasons Buffy still exhibits ‘bad’ behavior: she uses alcohol irresponsibly, drops out of college, cannot hold down a job, neglects her sister, and has a deadbeat boyfriend…. In narrative terms, Buffy is ‘excused’ by a series of personal crises (her mother’s death and her own death and resurrection)….” These excuses are absent for Faith to better represent her as a “bad girl.”

In contrast to Buffy’s abuse of Spike, Faith’s abuse of men and a desire to satiate her sexual drive is a key part of her character, and allows for commentary on anger and the show’s views on abusive relationships. “Schudt’s reading that to Faith a ‘man is not to be valued as a person in his own right… but simply as a means to satisfying a physical desire’... positions Buffy’s own search for a relationship based on equality as the ideal.” This is also why we note that Buffy’s relationship with Spike is wrong at first, because Buffy has been established as wanting more out of a relationship than just sex in the past. Buffy’s handling of her anger could be seen as being coded as feminine, but this does not make Buffy a stereotype of females, strong or otherwise. This is inherent to her character. She is more ladylike with her rage and anger because she is a smart and witty person, not just a brute.

Faith, meanwhile, presents herself as lustful, sexy, abrasive towards outside help, and overly aggressive in her fight against evil. According to Helford, if Buffy’s attitude towards anger is to control it, then Faith’s attitude is to relish it. The way Faith presents her version of Buffy while in Buffy’s body to Buffy’s friends I read as another sign of the show mocking the “strong female character” archetype. Faith mocks Buffy’s role as the Slayer, mocking what Buffy might normally say to the vampires she kills. “You can’t do that… because it’s wrong.” This mockery suggests again that Faith sees only the Slayer role of Buffy, and that she considers Buffy a mere “strong female character”, when in reality, Buffy is much more.

Faith as Buffy is obviously in the wrong because
of the unflattering way she decided to style her hair!
Realization does begin to dawn on Faith as the episode goes on. When Faith as Buffy saves a young girl from being killed by a vampire, the girl thanks her, and Faith is unsure of how to take this. She has not experienced such compassion before, and she begins to realize that Buffy may be more than what she suspects of her. Indeed, in the final act of the episode, Faith does take up the mantle of the Slayer as Buffy would, now saying in all seriousness and with earnest that the vampires cannot kill all the hostages in the church “because it’s wrong.” While this provides Faith with a respite from her rage, her anger does flare again as Buffy in Faith’s body enters the scene and the two fight, Faith fighting to retain her Buffy body, and Buffy fighting to get her body and life back.

Here, her anger is directed at herself. In contrast to Buffy’s re-channeling of her anger, Faith’s is focused inward, though displayed as anger towards Buffy. Being in Buffy’s body, Faith uses the excuse that she is fighting Buffy as a means to mutilate her own body, though in reality Faith is fighting herself. Disgusted with herself and eager to remain in the privileged world of Buffy, Faith’s understanding of Buffy has evolved from seeing her as a privileged girl to seeing her now as someone whose image does good, and this is what draws Faith to wanting to keep her Buffy body. Faith merely thinks that she is better suited to be the Slayer than Buffy, that she can be better than Buffy even from a moral standpoint.

Faith’s understanding of Buffy does evolve throughout her character arc, and both characters are made all the stronger for it. In Season Seven’s “Empty Places”, Faith returns and assumes temporary command of the Potential Slayer army after the gang mutinies against Buffy. While Season Three/Four Faith might have thrown this “victory” in Buffy’s face, the Faith of Season Seven is understanding of Buffy’s pains of feeling betrayed and mutinied against and it is Buffy who must demand of Faith the strength to deal with taking command: "Don't ... be afraid to lead them. Whether you wanted it or not, their lives are yours. It's only gonna get harder. Protect them, but lead them.” Making the Slayer who understood nothing but the superficial elements of Buffy’s character now understand Buffy as more of a person helps the audience to connect with Buffy on an emotional level because we see that even someone as “bad” as Faith can see the good that Buffy has in her.

The dichotomy between the anger Buffy attempts to reroute and the anger that Faith uses to fuel herself presents Buffy as once again going against the masculine stereotypes of womanhood. Instead, Faith fills out the masculine anger in women for Buffy. “Faith’s rejection of emotion for action is another ‘masculine’ trait…,” observes Jowett. “[She] denies emotion and lacks ‘natural’ female skills in dealing with it.” This leaves Buffy free to explore her character’s femininity without feeling that she is less than the masculine anger that she attempts to mask. Faith has further development on Buffy’s sister series Angel, in episodes “Sanctuary”, “Salvage”, and “Orpheus”. Regarding Faith’s redemption arc on Angel, Jowett says that, “Faith cannot accept her ‘bad’ nature. Instead she chooses to accept the law and take her place within ordered (patriarchal) society. Arguably Faith is allowed this chance at redemption because she proves she really wants to be a good girl, with all that implies for gendering as well as morality.” And we see Faith’s arc come to fruition in Buffy’s seventh season. Next week, I examine the flaws of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and how it has held up as the 21st century has progressed (and regressed) socially with its television programming.

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