Kiss of the Vampire
“When you kiss me, I want to die.”
This is not the typical breathless sentence you’d expect a well-groomed, fashionable teenager on a prime-time drama to be whispering to her boyfriend, even in the land of exacerbated caricatures that network television gives us (especially when it comes to crushes, first kisses and that ever messy and heartbreaking first love). Such utterances are rarely heard on prime-time dramas, especially those aimed at teenagers. Odd and even a bit creepy, this phrase would elicit a big “huh?” from most TV viewers. Unless, of course, the boyfriend is a vampire, the setting is a cemetery and your heroine – a teenage vampire slayer. Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a showcase for many brave, progressive characters that changed and challenged television and its audience.
Many TV aficionados remember the first lesbian kiss on Law & Order in 1991. Many viewers remember watching Ellen DeGeneres’s character Ellen come out on national television in 1995. These moments are branded in our collective consciousnesses as important cultural events that changed the ways queerness has been seen and portrayed on television and in our culture. But no one seems to remember the first lesbian sex scene on network television, let alone the series from which it came — Buffy.
Most Buffy scholarship has focused on the character of Buffy as a feminist icon, rather than on the multiplicity of queer presences on the show. Lesbian, human and demon, as well as human and vampire relationships have been marginally, if at all, discussed. When queerness has been discussed, it has been strictly circumscribed to the realm of lesbian sexuality. The queerness of the main character, Buffy, has missed the attention of queer activists and television consumers alike.
Why should we care about the presence of progressive queer representations on television? Television is a critical venue that has the potential to perform important cultural work by showcasing queer identities and lifestyles typically branded as unimportant, dangerous, and “other” by dominant society and popular culture.
In Media Matrix: Sexing the New Reality, Barbara Creed identifies television as an active agent in social and cultural change. Certainly, if one takes the popularity of such programs as Queer as Folk and The L Word as examples, television has been a crucial space of the portrayal and subsequent popularity of queer characters in the public realm, perhaps pushing to the forefront awareness of gay rights issues such as equal marriage and anti-discrimination. While I am not asserting that television directly parallels or mirrors our social reality, I do believe that it is meant to identify a challenge and transgression to dominant culture. The identification of queer bodies and relationships that follows is not indicative perhaps of social reality but of a symbolic restructuring of a society wherein these relationships are both possible and accepted, something that we as viewers and creators would do well to strive for.
What makes Buffy the perfect metaphor and vehicle for queerness is its ability to show the queer body — whether it is the female, male, demon, lesbian, or vampire — as the ordinary, commonplace, and socially complex yet acceptable body. In a literal sense, vampires as they are portrayed on the show are the perfect examples of queer bodies. They are both dead yet very much alive; neither completely human nor demon, they are hybrids of emotions, sexes, sexualities, identities, and preferences. Their potential to inhabit so many beings and be almost anything, blending into whatever society and time they are inhabiting at the moment allows them to forever call into question the notion of a static identity.
The queerness of the vampire, especially as seen on Buffy, rests upon the expression and portrayal of its sexuality. Vampire sexuality is raw and multiplicitous. They desire many different objects, which depend both on their need to feed and their sexual predilections, creating a space that includes almost everyone as potential victim and/or partner. They resist the frame of strict heteronormativity by never quite subscribing to or proclaiming one desire over another. Even when co-mingling with the opposite sex seems to mirror the heteronormative relationship, it is apparent that this is an opposition, a mocking representation that is less about the gender of the victim and more about the fulfillment of the vampire’s own desires, which hinge on the personal, the sexual, and the deadly.
The realms of sexuality and death on Buffy are often related to the fulfillment of queer desires, especially when it comes to the main character of the series. More than any one other character, Buffy struggles with her queerness, the indeterminate and multiple nature of her self as a slayer, a human female, and a sexual being. Buffy occupies the same strong connections and close spaces with vampires, such as cemeteries, hell dimensions, schools, clubs, and libraries. The vampire is fighting for the space to engage in and with his or her deadly and ambiguous sexuality, personifying the malleability of life as well as death. Similarly, Buffy represents queerness through her interactions and relationships with vampires showing the inherent fluidity and ambiguity of her calling (as a vampire slayer) and her sexual yearnings (for a vampire).
Besides being destined to save the world “a lot,” Buffy’s sexuality makes her an apt model of non-heteronormativity. Her erotic identity is marked by an attraction to vampires, reflecting the ways that Buffy engages with sexuality (her own and others) in ways rarely portrayed on television. This sort of rare non-heteronormativity can be seen in an episode of The Simpsons entitled “There’s Something About Marrying,” when the town of Springfield co-opted the gay dollar by promoting and performing gay marriages in order to stir up tourism along with the “long-awaited” coming-out of one of its characters, Patty, who, contrary to the ethos of sweeps, ends up not kissing her bride-to-be.
The February 2005 program mocked both the co-option of the gay dollar (heteronormalizing gay style and desire) and the overt shock ethos of sweeps (where programs try to out shock the other in an attempt to gain viewers) while, of course, at the same time taking part in it, turning both sweeps and our subsequent expectations of it on its head and challenging the savvy viewer to identify both the absurdity and dangerous tokenism embodied in sweeps. Like Buffy, The Simpsons refuses to show a lesbian kiss just to show a lesbian kiss, instead queering (or making ambiguous) what our expectations and desires are, creating a space where alternatives are present, encouraged, and entertaining.
While Buffy’s love life is not the poster-child of typical relationships, her trials, pain, and elation that go along with it are not that different from our own. Buffy is introduced to Angel, the love of her life, in the first season. Following Buffy on one of her nightly patrols, Angel comes into the scene from the shadows. In a velvet jacket and crisp white dress shirt, he is a handsome and mysterious character that has been following Buffy for longer than she knows (as the audience finds out much later in the series, before she even came to Sunnydale). Though their interactions are tenuous at first, the two become allies and extremely attracted to one another.
Yet, just as the audience comes to see Buffy and Angel as the perfect couple, we learn of Angel’s vampire identity. Xander, one of her closest friends, exclaims, “You’re in love with a vampire, what are you, out of your mind?” when learning the truth about Buffy’s suitor. However, Buffy is unable to deny her feelings for him. Their love elicits sighs from other characters and the audience watching at home. Indeed, Giles (Buffy’s watcher, her guardian and educator) muses, “A slayer in love with a vampire; that’s rather poetic.”
Angel and Buffy personify true love. And the audience, following the characters’ lead, forgets that Angel is a 240-year-old vampire and that Buffy is a 16-year-old vampire slayer.
The lack of ado regarding Buffy’s choice of attraction as problematic is underscored by the fact that “the closet” figures heavily in Buffy’s life, particularly in regards to her destiny as a vampire slayer. Indeed, a big part of her self definition as the slayer is the way in which her profession is cloaked or closeted, obscured from view. No one other than her friends and the hounds of hell know that she is the destined killer of evil. Already embodying difference, her choice of love interest complicates the secrets that she must keep from the outside world; however, it is extremely important to recognize that Buffy’s destiny as the slayer is what is truly problematized on the show, not her sexuality. While Buffy is queerly identified in her sexual relationships, as a non-reproductive, non-heteronormative being, Buffy’s queer identity as the slayer is what is and remains closeted throughout the series. The way in which the closet functions in Buffy’s life to keep the safety of others in check is markedly different, for example, from the closet in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet, in that it is not Buffy’s sexuality that is closeted here but her destiny as the slayer. Her queer sexuality (her love of vampires and s/m) is known and accepted. Her closeted profession is secret not because of fear of dismissal or danger of her own body but instead to protect the bodies of those around her from danger and the forces of evil.
In Buffy’s world, coming out as the slayer is more of an event than the coming out queer, a vampire, a lover of vampires, or a lesbian, which are all treated as standard fare in Sunnydale. In “Mom, I’ve Got Something to Tell You: The Coming-out Story in the Age of Visibility” in All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America, Suzanna Walters discusses coming out in the age of gay visibility in America as an ionic event in the life of gay youth. Walters asserts that “most of our current media reckonings of ‘coming out’ are familial ones, marked by trauma and melodrama, often devoid of that exhilaration derived from entrance into that small band of lovers.” While her friend Willow’s coming out as a lesbian is a sort of non-event, Buffy’s coming out to her mother as the slayer is an iconic event, one that mirrors the media reckonings that Walters discusses and that witnessed on television, in the movies, in books, and in our own lives.
In a state of confusion, shock, and disbelief at learning her daughter’s true identity, Buffy’s mother demands an explanation. Her reactions range from interrogatives like, “Honey, are you sure you’re a vampire slayer?” to excuse making, “It’s because you didn’t have a strong father figure, isn’t it?” and angry exclamations, “Well, I just don’t accept that!...It stops now!” That Buffy defends with:
No, it doesn't stop! It *never* stops! Do — do you think I chose to be like this? Do you have any idea how lonely it is, how dangerous? I would *love* to be upstairs watching TV or gossiping about boys or... God, even studying! But I have to save the world... again.
The language in this scene marks a space of contention, a bringing out of issues that mark the identities of the characters and their relationships with one another. Buffy’s mom isn’t contesting her choice to sleep with vampires but her destiny to fight evil. Throughout the show, Buffy continually comes out as the slayer and remains closeted at the same time, causing the focus to continually be on her destiny as the slayer, who knows and who doesn’t, how it affects her life and how it affects others, showing her body as continually contested and queered through the lens of those who know and don’t know who she is.
It is important to note that Angel, Buffy’s vampire beau, is both a fundamental aspect of and, in a way, a catalyst for Buffy’s queerness, reinforcing the importance of the vampire body as a space upon, through, and from which queerness occurs. Buffy and Angel’s relationship is the vehicle for many of Buffy’s experiences as a queer body, both as a sexual being and as a slayer. When Buffy and Angel first discuss the prospect of dating, it becomes clear that their attraction is about much more than sex — it is also about death. When Angel warns Buffy that she may not wake up from his “kisses,” Buffy answers, “When you kiss me, I want to die.” Evident throughout the series, Buffy’s desires flow in a space of deadly and fluid sexual yearnings.
Angel assists Buffy’s exploration of her erotic self, an identity that floats fluidly in between the sexual, the life-giving, and the deadly. In the third season, one particularly compelling episode has Angel shot by a poisoned arrow during a fight and becoming mortally ill. The only thing that will save him is to drain the blood of a slayer. In this most erotic and sexual scene entitled “Drinks on me,” Buffy tells Angel that he must drain her blood in order to live. As Angel stumbles away from her, refusing to suck her blood, Buffy commands him to do so, striking Angel until he “vamps out.” Ripping her shirt off her shoulder, Buffy forces his mouth to her neck. As Angel bites her, the camera pans in for a close-up of blood spilling over her shoulder. They gasp and groan, tightening their erotic embrace and falling to the floor in slow motion. Violins and cymbals pulse slowly, matching the moaning and kicking of the couple’s orgasmic shuddering and gasping. As Buffy reaches the breaking point between life and death, Angel withdraws from her. While Buffy decides to let Angel drink her blood in order to save him, the scene is obviously much more than a display of heroism. The sexuality in this scene swims ambiguously within the realms of life, death, sex, pain, and elation. Buffy enjoys her erotic and deadly sexuality, which she chooses autonomously. The intensity of Buffy’s intimate experiences with vampires continues to challenge her conception, understanding, and experience of her erotic body as both of her lovers are vampires who facilitate and inform her experiences of her queer body. Buffy realizes that she is more than a slayer, woman, lover, or friend; she embodies the movement within and between all of these identities. The complexity of her human nature is presented through loving and fighting vampires. In the series, Buffy is able to reflect upon the multiplicity of herself and ultimately embrace her queer body.
Buffy highlights the personal struggles of coming to terms with queer identities in positive and progressive ways. This suggests two very important things: that Buffy is a space where queer identity is common, complex, important, and accepted, and it creates a space of potential viewer identification that, in turn, creates positive and complex spaces where the possibility for broader recognition and acceptance of queer bodies and a disruption of sexual and social norms occurs. Such positive representation is vital because its very existence on prime-time television indicates that all sexualities are acceptable and enjoyable, while potentially asserting that queer presences themselves expand the meanings and understandings that viewers derive from their televisual engagements.
KL Pereira, a writer who lives and works in Jamaica Plain, MA, adapted this piece from a Master’s thesis entitled, “Gee, Can You Queer That Up For Me? Progressive Queer Representation in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer”
www.whedonesque.com -- (for all things Joss Whedon)
www.slayage.tv -- academic essays on BtVS
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Series
Angel: The Series
Firefly: The Series
Serenity -- Josh Whedon’s recently released film
Queer Media Related:
Media Matrix: Sexing the New Reality by Barbara Creed
All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America by Suzanna Walters
Making Things Perfectly Queer by Alexander Doty
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu
The Hunger, 1983 film by Tony Scott
Our Vampires, Ourselves by Nina Auerbach