I recently read an article called “20 Years Later, and the Women of Angel Still Deserve More” by Lindsay King-Miller. She describes the deaths of three beloved characters on Angel - Darla, Fred, and Cordelia - and how their deaths were linked to pregnancy. Linsday expresses particular upset over the death of Cordelia, which was caused by the gestation and birth of the demonic entity named Jasmine. This story arc seemed to erase all the character development and emotional depth that Cordy (nickname for Cordelia) had produced over the course of six seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel combined. This article was an emotionally moving piece and one that got me thinking about how women are treated in the Whedonverse, particularly in Buffy and Angel.
Buffy and Angel show numerous examples of what Barbara Creed (1993) calls the monstrous feminine. Whether it is portrayed through being a vampire (Darla, Druscilla), a witch (Willow, Amy), or an evil pregnancy (Cordelia, Fred), women can be shown as more than victims, but also as monsters. This can be empowering or degrading. In Buffy and Angel we can see both sides of the monstrous feminine, but oftentimes it only focuses on the negative side. The Buffy and Angel universe expands the concept of the monstrous feminine to depict women as werewolves, rogue slayers, and gods. Through these representations, the shows can explore how the patriarchy has influenced the way that we communicate and interact with other women.
With so many examples of the monstrous feminine in these two shows, I thought it would be worth it to do a series of articles based on the various examples of the female monsters portrayed and how each represent aspects of our womanhood that can be seen as threatening. That, as women with power, they need to be controlled so that they don’t upset the status quo or make others uncomfortable, sometimes even being punished for behaving “abnormally”. I will also highlight the examples of the positive representation of women whenever there are some. To start off this series, I want to discuss Veruca and Nina, the female werewolves from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.
Veruca, the lead singer of the band Shy and UC Sunnydale student, is sometimes remembered as that “She-Bitch’ that destroyed Willow and Oz’s relationship in season four of Buffy. Although her part was minor - she only appeared in three episodes, “Living Conditions”, “Beer Bad”, and “Wild at Heart” - her depiction of femininity and monstrousness is strong. Veruca is a confident, sexy, intelligent woman and she is immediately seen as a threat to the women of the Scoobies, but mainly to Willow; Veruca is the opposite of her, with Willow being timid, nerdy, and not at all overtly sexual. She even says to Buffy “He thinks she’s sexy,'' referring to Oz’s thoughts about Veruca. Buffy tries to reassure her that he won’t “stray” because he loves her. Willow isn’t a musician, which makes her feel insecure during a conversation between Veruca, Oz and herself. Willow can’t contribute to the discussion besides being a fan of her talented partner and she sees this as a weakness within herself.
Up until now, the only werewolf we’ve seen in the show is Oz, which makes sense since werewolves are generally coded as masculine creatures. In "Hairy Thuggish Women” Female Werewolves, Gender, and the Hoped-for Monster” by Elizabeth M. Clark, she states the reason is that the public doesn’t want to see hairy, hugely muscular, aggressive women - it’s just too horrifying. Clark also states that:
Female werewolves offer a potential site of one kind of visual representation of the ‘unruly woman,’ the woman who flouts gender expectations by being loud, aggressive, angry, and powerful. (pg 6)
Veruca is an extreme example of an “unruly” woman. She thinks that killing humans, Willow to be exact, is okay based upon their primal urges as animals and that sometimes you need to kill for what you desire. Veruca lacks empathy, compassion, and respect for the relationship that Willow and Oz have. She believes that she is the wolf all the time, whereas Oz believes he is a wolf just three days out of the month. Their conflicts in ideology create tension, but their attraction to one another is undeniably animalistic. Veruca exudes femininity through her confidence and music but then is also a complete/literal monster.
Veruca has to be seen as a dangerous woman and subdued because she is powerful, has agency, and has control over her monstrousness; thus she is a threat that needs to be taken out by Oz, her male counterpart. Unfortunately, Oz is seen as the tragic male werewolf who considers his “condition” a curse and so his bouts of aggression are tolerated and acceptable; whereas Veruca, who truly embodies her power, is seen as lacking humanity so she needs to be destroyed/put down. Instead of showing her as another example of the tragic werewolf figure, she is just another female monster requiring elimination.
Clark also discusses how TV and movies will juxtapose the fully transformed werewolf with the non-transformed woman being naked in order to show how beautiful and hairless they are. This helps the viewers accept their furry forms since, when it comes to social norms, women are meant to be without hair. Women with hair on their legs, armpits or even genitals are seen as asexual and unfeminine. When we see Veruca and Nina in wolf form, they are unsexualized but once they are back to their pristine human self, they are leered at by the male gaze.
In Buffy, we regularly see Veruca, in her non-wolf form, writhing about on stage and then nude in the cage with Oz. In Angel, we see Nina naked through even more lingering shots along her body while caged at the law firm of Wolfram & Hart. Since Angel is the more adult show, we see more of Nina’s breasts and she is fully naked, whereas Veruca is in her underwear. This is the main similarity between the show’s depictions of these female werewolves; both show unnecessarily sexualized images of them post-wolfing out and how attractive they are to make up for the fact that they are beasts.
With regards to these types of images, Clark says:
It is worth noting that all of these images reinforce dominant feminine beauty ideals (slender, nonmuscular bodies), as well as the idea that the "natural" human female body is smooth and hairless. Not only do these images of "acceptable" naked women work to regulate audience beauty standards and distance the "true" female body from the monstrous body, they also serve to further delineate the false binary of "masculine" and "feminine" by shoring up ideas of the naturally hairless female body. (pg 71)
We never see Willow in this way as she is a woman of virtue and control; she is under sexualized and underwhelming. Women in the Whedonverse who portray many traits that Veruca does are shamed, ridiculed, and seen as the “bad girls” (eg: Faith). Like Faith, who relishes in being a Slayer, if a woman doesn’t fit into the exact box of femininity and womanhood that is required, they are deemed undesirable and shunned from the Scoobies, never able to fully integrate into the group. Veruca could easily have become their ally, someone to help them understand werewolf behavior, thoughts, and needs, but she was denied this inclusion. Whether she would have accepted them back is in question, but considering the Scoobies' behavior, she wouldn’t have been welcomed.
Clark also talks about how the male werewolf’s “bad” traits result in violence and the female’s result in lust. Lustful women historically need to be governed and silenced, which we see with Veruca. Oz, for three days of the month, is kept in a cage so that his wolf form can be “maintained”, whereas Veruca, both as a woman and a wolf, is uncontrollable.
Oz is drawn immediately to Veruca not only due to their shared werewolf status but also from a deeper attractiveness to a woman who is “different”. There is an aura of mystery emanating from her, a feminine mystique, which seduces the men around her. Veruca symbolizes what psychoanalysts Lyn Davis Genelli and Tom Genelli describe as “the erotic, the animal, the feminine”, and the aspects of men that they have to repress in order to fit into regular society. She represents strong sexual desire, a feral nature, rough sex, and rebellion. Again, all opposites to how Willow views herself, Oz, and their relationship. Veruca’s open sexuality marks her as an outsider to the Scoobies like others who have come before her (Faith).
Nina Ash’s story and werewolf characterization is different and is represented in a much more positive way overall. While we don’t know Veruca’s origin story, with Nina we learn that she was bitten by a werewolf while jogging and was saved by Angel. She has a loving family that she desperately wants to be a part of, despite what has happened to her. Each month she comes to Wolfram & Hart to be caged during the full moon and then resumes her regular life. She has a romantic interest in Angel and they eventually start dating. Nina becomes a welcome addition to his life and is not seen as a threat to the women of the group, which now only consists of Fred. She is seen as a “good girl” and therefore acceptable.
Nina is another example of the sympathetic werewolf figure, tormented by the monster she has become. She isn’t a dark and dangerous creature, but more similar to Oz. Nina doesn’t “give in” to the aggressive nature of being a werewolf, but remains moral and honest. She believes that she needs to be kept locked away to avoid harming others. Nina is deemed as an appropriate partner for Angel because she retains her humanity and her monstrousness mirrors his. She also bears no threat to the female member of his group. Clark states:
Nina experiences lycanthropy solely as a curse, with nothing positive to offer her. For all of these characters, their “beast within” is disconnected to their “true” selves: they rarely, if ever, express anger or rage, aggression, or a desire to be powerful, and they take no pleasure in any of the enhanced traits that being a werewolf brings. (pg 69)
Even though both shows have troublesome aspects when we look to the portrayal and treatment of women, the depiction of the female werewolf or “monstrous-feminine” in Angel is the less problematic of the two. The foundation of the monstrous feminine is to take the idea of womanhood to the extreme and to display male fears of powerful women. Though Nina was overly sexualized, she was still able to maintain a sense of personhood, whereas Veruca was refused this. Veruca, though she embodied full agency, was shown to be too monstrous to live. Because Nina does fall into the mold of being a “proper” woman instead of an “unruly woman”, she is benevolent and still seen as a human being.
All in all, the women in Angel are treated more as independent and complex characters instead of being seen as constant threats to the clique, which will be the subject of my next series of essays. The difference in how women are treated could be in part due to how the majority of Buffy happens during high school and early college years, which are seen as formative years in emotional development, whereas Angel is set in the “real world” after school, which is a time for maturity. Angel deals more with the challenges of adulthood: career, motherhood, unplanned pregnancies, relationships, and more.
Buffy and Angel were formative TV series for me growing up in the 1990s/2000s and although I believe that they had incredible, compelling, and complicated women characters, they sometimes didn’t treat those women very well. It can be hard to imagine the shows of our past being unpleasant as our nostalgia is so strongly attached to them, but I think as we develop into adults it’s important to critically evaluate them. This critical thinking doesn't remove our love and adoration for the shows or movies of our youth but shows maturity. I personally think it’s okay to love something despite its complex imperfections.