Buffy and Public Discourse on Women’s Health

After Buffy the Vampire Slayer ended it’s television run, Joss Whedon inked a deal with Dark Horse Comics to continue the storyline in comic form.  What started with “Season 8” in 2007 has since become “Season 9”.  The current season finds Buffy in a world without magic, balancing living as a young, working gal in San Francisco with being a slayer of the vampyres.

This balancing act, emblematic of the series and character as a whole, climaxed in a controversial event in the February issue.  Making Whedon seem clairvoyant, it even refers to, and thereby is involved in, the current political and public discourse in the United States surrounding women’s health issues.

In my latest column as Dr. Geek for Clearance Bin Review, I review this controversial event.  Warning: it is a spoiler if you have not been keeping up with the trades for the comic series.  And, also warning, it is very disappointing what they did after all of this talk.

I’ll admit it.  I liked Joss Whedon’s 1992 Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie.  I did not see the movie when it first premiered: I saw it a couple years later.  When, I do not recall completely.  What I do recall is that I had already been watching The X-Files and had fallen completely in love with the series.  For me, what these two very different genre pieces shared was their portrayal of a strong woman in a man’s world.  A man’s world in terms of their respective universes: the G-men and the Helsings.  And a man’s world in terms that they were strong female leads that were not scantily clad eye candy for teenage boys or boy-men in genre pieces that have seen this hypersexualization be the norm for far too long.  Being a teenage girl who loved the scifi and fantasy genres, but did not want to be that kinda gal, I was immensely drawn to these women.

When Buffy reemerged in the far superior television series bearing the same name, with a much more fleshed out conceptualization of a female Slayer, and a much better actress playing her, I was in college, but still I was drawn to her.  I have been a loyal Buffy fan, and Whedonite, since.  Meeting him and making him laugh is one of the highlights of my time in Los Angeles.

Now, this is not a piece to extol the many reasons why Buffy is a feminist icon: an entire subset of academic studies focuses on the topic.  What I want to discuss in this piece is what happened in this month’s issue of the comic book series that took up Buffy’s story after the television series concluded.  Thus, what I want to discuss is a spoiler for anyone who has not been keeping up with the monthly issues – or has not heard the controversy about this most recent issue.  The reason I want to tread into such spoiler country in this column is because of how eerily prescient the issue is for the current political discourse of the United States.  And what hot button social-cultural-political topic is this issue a part of?

SPOILER ALERT

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Abortion.  Women’s health.  Contraceptives.  The right to choose.  You know, just this little topic we’ve seen exploding all over the campaign trail and the news for all of February.

In the February 8th issue of the comic series deemed the 9th season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy deals with the truth that came to light at the end of the previous issue.  It would seem that after a heavy night of partying in issue #1 of this 9th season, Buffy became immensely drunk – as can happen to a woman who is, after all, still in her mid-20s – and apparently slept with someone of the opposite sex, a man she cannot recall.  At the end of the January issue, after having to deal with a new threat to herself and vampires alike, she learns that this one-night stand has left her pregnant.

The February issue is then a journey for Buffy to discuss this matter with her nearest and dearest, to gather their opinions on what she should do.  Concurrently, the issue also tells us more about the only known Slayer to have actually been pregnant and decided to keep the child: Nikki, the Slayer of the 1970s, the last Spike killed, and the mother of Robin, with whom Buffy has a lengthy conversation in the issue.

Buffy seeking advice from Nikki the Vampire Slayer’s son, Robin.

Through these two parallel storylines, the reader is presented with multiple arguments for and against a Slayer – not just a woman, but a woman with such a great responsibility and threat on her life – having a child.  This story-arc is yet the latest in the ongoing tension the Buffy series has explored that has questioned whether or not the Slayer can have a “normal” life.

The question over the “normal” life, quite common in other genre pieces (think any superhero story, or even the struggles of Scully and Mulder), reflects a tension in our society and culture.  A tension that is largely one only women have to deal with: the choice between having a family and having a career.  While there are undoubtedly men in our country who wrestle with this problem, their struggle is seen more as individual issues.  For the women of our country, after the feminist movement, this individual issue became heightened into a social, cultural and political one.  It is the question of how does the woman, still seen as the primary caregiver in a family, balance the needs and demands of her family with the needs and demands of a career that is more than just a job?

Many other issues are related to this question.  Chief among them has been the issue of contraceptives and abortions: the ability for women to have more control over just when they become that caregiver and have to balance those opposed roles of mother and career.  Thus, when Buffy finds herself pregnant, and questioning whether she is ready – or even capable, given her particular “vocation” – to have a child, after already failing on the use of contraceptives, she is left with only one other option to consider: whether or not to get an abortion.

This consideration is what leads her, at the end of this issue, to seek out Spike, who may or may not be the father, and ask for his help in obtaining an abortion.

Buffy seeking help from Spike, her one time (and future?) lover.

Both Whedon and series writer Andrew Chambliss have discussed their decision to have this storyline.  For Chambliss, the decision was rooted in Buffy’s emotional journey as a young woman and a Slayer.  For Whedon, speaking to Entertainment Weekly, the decision was also rooted in a desire to provide an approach to abortion that is not commonly seen in pop culture.

As would be expected, the issue lit up fan discussion boards, blogs, and comments sections across cyberspace.  Even mainstream media sources, such as USA Today in the US and The Guardian and The Daily Mail in the UK, have covered the issue.  Progressive commenters have commended Whedon for taking the stance and endorsing this storyline.  Conservative commenters have questioned Whedon’s storytelling and handling of the topic.

Among the fans, their reactions run the gamut of opinions seen whenever a news item about abortion is posted.   There are those who support the portrayal of Buffy deciding to have an abortion and laud Whedon for his choice as a storyteller.

Reactions from overseas via The Guardian.

Then there are those who do not support abortion and decry the decision Buffy is making in the issue.

Reactions from the blog The Mary Sue.

Finally, there are those who do not necessarily come out for or against abortion, but question the decision as it relates to their understanding of the canon the decision comes out of.

Reactions from mainstream press USA Today.

All this being said, and still being said across cyberspace, having Buffy decide to get an abortion is most likely not going to sway pro-life supporters to suddenly start accepting abortion as an acceptable course of action.  Nor will it do much to create dialogue between the extreme sides in this debate.

However, Whedon was not attempting to solve the debate by having Buffy make this decision.  He said the storyline is a response to representations of young women in pop culture accidentally getting pregnant and then not seriously wrestling with the question of whether or not to get an abortion.  In this issue, the word “abortion” was not even mentioned until the end.  Instead of being a very covert “after-school special”, the issue was a long exploration of Buffy’s options, of her search to determine what is the best course of action for her, as juxtaposed with the same soul-searching Nikki undertook some four decades earlier.  Nikki ultimately choose to have her child, had even vowed to give up her destiny, but in the end her “career”, for lack of a better term, was her calling, and she died because of it.  Her death left Robin emotionally scarred, but, yes, he was alive because of her choice.  The issue is a reflection of what Buffy has always been, as a character and as a television series: a focus on what it means to be a woman in modern times, balancing the demands placed on her with what she wants to do and what she feels capable of doing.

Whedon is right (imagine, me, a Whedonite, saying that!): we do not talk much about abortion in our pop culture.  While there are instances of portrayals that are frank, reasoned, and well thought out, they are few and far between.  Maude in 1972 had a more realistic appraisal of abortion as a woman’s choice, and that was before Roe vs. Wade made abortions legal in the United States.   Since it has been made legal, the issue has become too political, and too personal, for too many people for the pop culture machine of Hollywood to want to touch it.

And that is unfortunate.  We cannot have a modern society if we do not have a modern, mature conversation about the issues we face, including the ones we disagree most on.  And for many people who have not experienced abortion first- or even second-hand, they learn about this issue through the ways it is represented in the media.  Pop culture is a part of the public discourse: Whedon, through Buffy, is participating in this social and cultural discourse by creating discussion through this storyline.

Yes, he has a particular point-of-view that aligns with liberal sentiment on the issue.  But there are just as many, if not more, media personalities who espouse the opposite sentiment openly in their media products.  They have just as much right to be a part of this discussion as do the fans blogging and commenting on the media they create.  What they also have is an obligation to help shape this discussion through fair, truthful, and just representations.  What we have is an obligation to do the same in our conversations with one another.

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