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Why I Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Body Better Than Jennifer's

Has a new horror film about a murderous cheerleader subverted the mythos of woman as the source of evil or just the opposite?

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In my work, I have explored the connection between misogyny, American religion and images of sexuality, horror and the devil that emerge again and again in our cultural history. A few highlights:

  • In Puritan New England, a woman accused of witchcraft appeared before her alleged victim in a red bodice, floating seductively above his bed.
  • During the Great Awakening, a Connecticut River Valley woman named Martha Roberson allegedly became possessed by the devil during Gilbert Tennant's revivals (ministers described her frenzy in sexual terms, including her efforts to tear off their clothing).
  • Late 19th-century discourses about contraception and abortion regularly made a connection between female sexuality and demonic influence (an image in a book from the National Police Gazette shows a young woman, a scaly demon emerging from her vagina with a caption that reads "The Female Abortionist").
  • In the early 20th century, silent film actress Theda Bara became the archetypal "vamp" who used sex to lure men to their deaths, while Adele Farrington, in a pre-Code romp called The Devil's Bondwoman (1916), portrayed a woman whose sexual appetites were so insatiable that she attracted Satan himself.

/images/managed/Story+Image_madamesatan.jpgBy the 1940s, a comic book, Madame Satan [see image left], told a similar story to adolescents of a seductive woman who, using Satan's supernatural power, attempted to lead men to destruction. Doesn't the story of a high school cheerleader who seduces and then devours men more or less replicate this tradition?

I prefer to see powerful religious and cultural paradigms more thoroughly subverted than this. Joss Whedon's [movie and TV series] Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- in which a high school cheerleader is revealed as "the Chosen One" who slays monsters rather than becoming one -- provides a good example.

Buffy's seven TV seasons did more than simply reverse the formula that makes women the predators rather than the prey. Whedon and his writers and directors created a truly nuanced and complex hero, an archetypal figure in the same sense that Beowulf and Achilles represents the heroic.

Rather than perform a parody of female identity (or simple revenge fantasy), Buffy instead embodied both the limitations of human ability and the struggles against darkness that are the price of transcendence.

Sexuality was part of the Buffy mythos as well; but not a sexuality that represented some murky feminine darkness into which men lose their souls (and their penises). Rather, Buffy had a number of sexual partners through the course of the series, relationships that began with bright promise and ended not because she was some insatiable vagina dentata, but for the same reason heroes often find themselves alone in their narratives: None of their prospective partners are really able live in their heroic shadow.

Jennifer's Body, I would argue, does more to evoke the demons of our cultural past than exorcise them. It's a fun ride, with great lines, but unfortunately it harbors unclean spirits from the misogynistic history of American religious life.

On the other hand, to borrow a line from Whedon's series, "Buffy saved the world -- a lot."

W. Scott Poole is associate professor in history at the College of Charleston. He is the author of five books dealing with American religion, race, and popular culture. His latest is Satan in America: The Devil We Know .