Fictional Motherhood #7: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

First I will say how much I love Buffy, especially seasons 5-7 (6 is my favorite). I loved the episode “The Body” so, so much, though I admit that I can’t watch it all the way through again. I love Anya’s scene, her clear confusion about what it means to face death as a human. It really made sense to me, as someone who also feels a bit distanced from normal human interaction.

That said, there is a lot of traditional motherhooding going on in season 5 in particular (some in season 7, as well). In the early seasons, Joyce Summers is a warm, very traditional single mother. She is protective of Buffy, but she is also a bit dim. We laugh at her not understanding what is going on with Angel and Spike. We feel sorry for her when Buffy leaves after the ultimatum, and then Joyce spends months wondering if she will ever see Buffy again. One of my favorite episodes is the one with John Ritter as the wannabe robot-step-dad, and how Joyce likes him just fine for quite a while without there being any visible magic going on. She wants structure and order and someone dependable, someone who follows the rules, and Ritter’s character is all of those.

But does Joyce ever rise beyond being a traditional mother? She has a job that she appears to be sometimes good at. But she is also home a lot of the time when Buffy needs her. The failure of her marriage appears to be completely her husband’s fault (whom we see only a couple of times). In the episode where Buffy is in a mental institution, we get little more sense of Joyce as an individual with her own interests and desires. For instance, do we ever have any idea what her favorite color is? What her favorite food is? What she studied in college? What her hopes and dreams for herself are? I don’t think we do. Her identity is completely subsumed in being a mother to Buffy. Which makes sense since this is a TV show about a teenage girl and teenage girls very rarely are able to see their parents as anything other than fulfilling (or not fulfilling) the proper parent function.

When Buffy is no longer a high school student, everything changes. Season 4 is generally considered an awkward season as Buffy attends the local college and has a relationship with an “ordinary guy” Riley. Whether it is because there is no chemistry between the actors or because of the season arc focused on a teacher with a plan to improve humans through robotics, I am not sure. But when I started watching season 5 and suddenly there was a sister, I found myself nodding my head. It makes no sense in the first few episodes because there is no attempt to explain what has happened to make Buffy have a sister, but in terms of story, it made all the sense in the world. This was what Buffy needed. She needed to move from being a selfish, teenager child to being a more responsible adult, and having a younger sister to depend on her was a way to do it. All of season 5 ends up being about a magical reason that Buffy suddenly has a sister, but the real reason is simply that the story needs this to happen in order to mature into a different kind of telling.

The final episode of season 5, “The Gift,” was necessary in part because no one knew if there would be a season 6 or 7. The show was constantly in danger of being canceled, and so there were always attempts to have a great, finale in case it really was the final finale. Again, I am not saying there is anything wrong with Buffy or with this narrative choice. But I think it is useful to look at it carefully and examine it on all sides and see what it means that this choice was made and that it resonates so strongly, especially with the female viewership. “The Gift” is the culmination of season 5’s growing up of Buffy. She isn’t a teenager herself anymore. And what does that mean? Well, jt means that Buffy becomes the mother herself. The first thing that has to happen for Buffy to become the real mother of this show is for her own mother to die. Hence, the other reason for “The Body,” besides just that it is great storytelling.

And once Joyce is dead, then all the decisions rest with Buffy. She has to be the one to take care of Dawn because she’s the only one left. All that pressure is on her that was once on her mother. She doesn’t lose her individuality completely, but her choices certainly become more limited. Her whole purpose becomes the survival of Dawn, a sister she didn’t have until the beginning of this season. Part of the reason I think this makes so much sense is that growing up for a woman is synonymous with becoming a mother, and with sacrifice. I suppose you could argue about whether or not that is true for men. Becoming a father and sacrificing for children IS an important storyline in some movies and TV shows about men. But I’m not sure there is any other storyline for women who have grown up.

This is the dramatic moment when Buffy throws herself into the void to save Dawn. It is emotionally powerful and for me, as a mother, I had a strong sense of connection. You don’t know, when you have children, what those children are going to be like. You don’t know if they are going to be monsters or threats to the world. You don’t have any guarantee that you’ve done anything right in raising them. And yet, even so, you are expected to give your life for those children. That is what mothers do. They don’t think about if it makes sense. They don’t weigh the costs to the world of their own lives or deaths. They simply react in the way that motherhood demands. And motherhood demands giving up yourself completely. Dying is really just a metaphor for that self-sacrifice, a dramatic one, but very telling.

And in season 6, when Buffy is unwillingly brought back to life, she becomes the rather bad mother. She is selfish, sexual, and needy. She has wants, and she doesn’t pay attention to where Dawn is all the time or what she needs. She doesn’t realize Dawn has become a cleptomaniac. Season 6 is on some level all about Dawn and how Buffy’s bad mothering ruins her (perhaps to some extension, how her bad mothering also ruins Willow, Xander, and all the Scooby gang). But for the first time, in season 6, we are seen mothering from the point of view of the mother. We get to know that Buffy was at peace and was yanked back to this world because her friends “needed” her. They needed her to be alive again, to save the world for them again. They needed her to be their mother.

And Buffy doesn’t want to be their mother anymore. She wants to do what *she* wants to do. She wants to feel things. She doesn’t want to be a mere function of motherhood, which is what season 5 left her as. She wants to be alive. She wants to make wrong choices, because they are *her* wrong choices. She wants to have a life separate from her family. She wants secrets and she wants to do things that aren’t part of her mothering role. This is, I suspect, part of the reason why so many audience members reacted badly to Buffy season 6. It makes sense to me, as well, that it was Marti Noxon rathe rthan Joss Whedon who was at the helm of this season, because I wonder if only a woman can see how the fictional demands of perfect motherhood mess us up as women.

In season 7, we go back to Buffy as the good mother, with a new group of children to care for—the potential Slayers. Audiences seemed to like this tamer version of Buffy much better. She was “good” again because she was doing what women are supposed to do, which is willingly accept tha tthey have no more personality or agency once they have accepted the only adult role that exists for women, that of the self-sacrificing mother. Women who refuse to accept this role are eternal teenagers, and we don’t want that for Buffy, either. We tried that in season 5. It didn’t work. It didn’t make us like Buffy. It made us feel like she was never going to grow up and we were impatient with that.