Sep 11 2012 12:00pm

Billy the Vampire Slayer: Slaying’s Not Just For Girls Anymore

Slaying’s not just for girls anymore. Dark Horse introduces Billy the Vampire SlayerWhen I first heard the announcement that Dark Horse Comics’ Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 9 was introducing a gay male slayer in October in a story arc called “Billy the Vampire Slayer,” my gut reaction was skepticism. I was miffed, even. Kind of the way I felt when I first heard of male roller derby teams. Like, you have every other corner of the world, do you have to invade the female spaces, too? There are so few stories that focus on a well-crafted female protagonists, do we need to add a guy doing the same job? But the more I thought about it, the more I realized...

…I was being a horse’s ass.

“Billy the Vampire Slayer” will be written by Jane Espenson and Drew Greenberg, who worked together on Seasons 6 and 7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so already you know that the story will be in great hands. According to the anouncement in Out, Jane Espenson explains how a line from her web series, Husbands (which is also getting a comic from Dark Horse, incidentally), got her thinking about the possibilities in the Buffyverse.

[Cheeks] has a line in Season 1 of Husbands, that Brad [Bell] wrote, that really struck me about how Cheeks has an “exotic femininity” that’s equated with weakness. I thought, gee, all the work we’ve done with Buffy is about being female, and how that doesn’t mean that you are lesser. It suddenly struck me: If being feminine doesn’t mean that you’re lesser, then liking guys also doesn’t mean you’re lesser. For very good reason, we’ve focused on the female empowerment part of Buffy, but I wondered, did we leave something out? What if someone in high school is looking up to Buffy as a role model, and we’re saying: You can’t be a Slayer.

Therefore, Billy will be a teenager who looks up to the Slayers and tries to become a vampire-slaying hero in his own way. Don’t worry—he doesn’t get “called,” nor does he become a fully-powered Slayer. This is important for two reasons:

First, it allows that there is still something special about the women in that world. The power that comes with being a Slayer is still intrinsically female, so the female slayers still possess something that allows them to be strong in a way men can’t be.

But second, and more importantly, it allows a young, male character to have a female role model in a stereotypically male pursuit (ie: being a hero by fighting and killing things). It’s rare that you hear men and boys cite female heroes, and if you do, it sounds a bit odd. Think about it right now. What if your soccer-playing nephew/son/little brother ran up to you and said “I wanna be like Hope Solo!” Sure, the evolved, progressive part of your brain might say “There’s nothing wrong with that! She’s a great goalie,” but maybe, just maybe, there’s an initial gut reaction that asks “why does my nephew/son/little brother want to be like a woman?” Because even though our brains tell us that men and women are equal, our emotions (not to mention our societal programming) tell us that women are just a little bit less good than men at certain things. Especially physical things. So, while you’d love it if your little niece idolized Hope Solo, because playing “like a woman” is in her sphere, for your nephew to do it means he’s settling for less, because women are less good, and you couldn’t have that, could you?

However, while “Billy the Vampire Slayer” has the potential to be a powerful story arc, I’m almost sorry that they’ve made him a gay, male vampire slayer. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the parallels. Gay Male Slayers : Vampires :: The “It Gets Better” Movement : Bullies. Also, women and gay men are similarly oppressed. I get it. Though it might be a bit on-the-nose, that can still be a moving, important story, and I’m all for more gay characters in comics in general.

But if the big point of this story arc is, as Greenberg says in the Out piece, to tell “a story about a boy who’s always felt more comfortable identifying with what society tells him is more of a feminine role,” then it might have been a more powerful choice to have a straight teenage boy have female heroes and want to be like them. My concern is that also making the character gay is one layer too many, because it makes the fact that he looks up to women palatable, and therefore, easily dismissible.

Gay men having female best friends and heroes isn’t shocking or poignant. What would have been shocking and poignant is a straight teenage boy who looks up to the Slayers without sexualizing them; without having a crush on them. A straight teenage boy who sees the Slayers as shining examples of what he wants to be, but perhaps feels like he can’t admit it, because his friends might think he’s gay *gasp* and what does that mean? With a straight male character, the idea of female heroes would’ve been something to be wrestled with in a way that isn’t often done, forcing the character not only to stand up to vampires, but to his own male privilege. Or, they could’ve really gone crazy with an examination of gender roles by making Billy a transgender character, shock of shocks. Now, I fear that this story will be like every other anti-bullying story and that that will be the focus, rather than the story being the examination of the strengths of femininity that Espenson wants it to be.

Still, I’m looking forward to this story arc when it debuts in October, and I’m grateful that the Buffyverse continues to push the envelope in ways that mainstream culture is too afraid to.

“Billy the Vampire Slayer” begins October 10th with issue #14 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 9 from Dark Horse Comics.

Teresa Jusino wants to be a little boy’s hero one day. Her Feminist Brown Person take on pop culture has been featured on websites like ChinaShopMag.com, PinkRaygun.com, Newsarama, PopMatters.com, and she’s recently joined Al Día, the #1 Spanish-language newspaper in Philadelphia, as a pop culture columnist. 2012 will see Teresa’s work in two upcoming non-fiction anthologies, and she is also a writer/producer on Miley Yamamoto’s upcoming sci-fi web series, RETCON, which is set to debut in 2013. For more on her writing, get Twitterpated with Teresa, “like” her on Facebook, or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.

1. Tenko
The straight guy who wants to be a slayer when he grows up has sort of been done already.

It would be Principle Wood, though there's maybe mummy issues and revenge thrown in as well there :)
Teresa Jusino
2. TeresaJusino
Tenko @1 - Yeah, that's why I didn't really count him. :) He's not just "looking up to Slayers" because it's awesome. The circumstances w/him were very different and very specific.

Then again, I don't know what will prompt Billy yet, so we'll see!
Douglas Freer
3. Futurewriter1120
even though I didn't watch the show until I got the whole series on DVD last Christmas, I can say that I look to Buffy as a role model as a straight guy.
I don't even mind that Billy is gay since i like diversity in stuff I read. Heck I even like the whole gender bender stuff since it takes you out of the 'norm'.
As for the comic itself, I have a theory on how messed up things will get without magic. I think there was an ancient evil/monster/god-like being that was sealed thanks to magic, but the lack of magic causes it to be unleashed and will bring the apocalypse (what else in BuffyLand?) and it could be a great setup for Season 10.

@2 maybe his friend in the preview will be turned into a zompire?
Joseph Kingsmill
4. JFKingsmill16
5. John R. Ellis
"What would have been shocking and poignant is a straight teenage boy who looks up to the Slayers without sexualizing them"

Define "shocking".

I had no problem looking up to the many, many wonderful girls around me growing up without automatically making them objects I lusted after when I was a teen.

It's not really all that amazing or unbelievable an achievement.

I'm actually a bit depressed now, knowing the standards have dropped that low.
6. Veejay J
This is really kinda gimmicky. I would have been more interested in this storyline if he ACTUALLY BECAME A SLAYER - POWERS AND ALL. As others have commented given Espensen's new criteria, Xander is a Slayer, Dawn is a Slayer, Giles is a Slayer, Wesley is a Slayer etc.
Teresa Jusino
7. TeresaJusino
John R. Ellis @5 - There are certainly plenty of men I know who look up to women as role models, but on the whole, for men and women both (at least in my experience), it's a more difficult thing to accept without reservation than it is for a woman to look up to a man. When you get away from real life and into pop culture, it's even more "shocking," because while there are young woman/older male mentors all over the place, it's rarer that you see a young man being mentored by an older woman. It's one of the reasons I love Grimm - having Nick being mentored first by Aunt Marie and then by his mother is a nice change from the usual. But I don't think the standards have "dropped" from when you were a teen. I would say that these have always been the standards, and you were just very lucky not to have seen otherwise while growing up.

Veejay J @6 - I feel like the title, "Billy the Vampire Slayer" is less about actual, techincally correct terminology and more a reference to the character's wishes and goals. Like, he sees himself as a Slayer, but isn't actually a slayer, you know? And the difference between the other characters you mention and Billy, is that all those other characters do things to HELP the Slayer in her fight. They are not trying to be Slayers themselves. They are there to facilitate the Slayer. Billy seems to be trying to fill a void where he lives. There is no Slayer there, so he'll be taking up the mantle. That's a very different thing.

Something just occurred to me that didn't when I was writing my original post. It's intersting that a male character gets to CHOOSE to be a Slayer, whereas women have it foisted upon them. Even as an oppressed minority (being a gay boy interested in following in the footsteps of women), he still has the luxury of choosing to do it or not. Buffy didn't get to choose. She was given the powers, told to do it, and if she didn't, she'd have to live with the guilt of having these powers and not using them to help people, much like women are guilted into putting other people ahead of their own needs and desires generally, because we're expected to be nurturing and kind in a way men aren't.

Hmm... that's a whole other essay. :) Because suddenly Buffy as Slayer seems to be less powerful....
8. Danika Zoe
Or, they could’ve really gone crazy with an examination of gender roles by making Billy a transgender character, shock of shocks.

Oh man, now I'd love to see a trans gent being called as a Slayer. (What does that mean when you're a gent who's been called to do a girl's job due to an accident of biology?) Or an trans lady! (What does it mean when you're a trans lady doing a girl's job that cis folks say you shouldn't be eligible for?) I'm not picky. I'd love to see both of these. They'd both say very different things about the mechanism of becoming a Slayer. And you're right, Teresa: a straight male wannabe-Slayer would also have been fantastic. (I got secretly annoyed in high school when I worked out I was gay, because it meant that all of the blurring of gender bounds I'd done would get written off as my queerness, as opposed to my feminism.)
Teresa Jusino
9. TeresaJusino
Danika Zoe @8 -
"(I got secretly annoyed in high school when I worked out I was gay, because it meant that all of the blurring of gender bounds I'd done would get written off as my queerness, as opposed to my feminism.)"
That must have been so frustrating! And yeah, that's what I mean - and it isn't right, but it's what people do. It's difficult for people who are already marginalized to be taken seriously when they stand up for other marginalized people, because it can all be written off as an "agenda." For example, it's has a very different effect when I, as a Puerto Rican woman, stand up for LGBT rights than when a straight white male does the same. This is why it's so important for people of privlege to follow their consciences and not be afraid to stand up as allies (and why it's important for the marginalized not to be so quick to scoff at a sincere effort to do so). Equality has to be everyone's fight, and I think that pop culture has a role to play in encouraging that in people.
Douglas Freer
10. Futurewriter1120
TeresaJusino @9:
I wholeheartily agree. I remember all the shows from the 90's about how it doesn't matter who you are, that we are all equal and then I look at what's on today it's like, 'It's okay to be yourself, unless you're gay, black, latino, jew, etc...' What kind of message is that sending to all the kids today?
I think that mentality needs to go away and I try to show it in my own books that I'm writing. I even have a character that's gay but I don't outright say it in the story just like how in that preview picture they don't outright say, "I'm Billy and I'm gay."
11. John R. Ellis
"I would say that these have always been the standards, and you were just very lucky not to have seen otherwise while growing up."

Always been the standards for who?

Not for the culture I was raised in.

American culture (assuming you are American) isn't exactly a homogenous whole on this count, much as pop culture likes to pretend otherwise.

Then again, pop culture also likes to pretend teens are totally secure and confident in sharing and talking about all sorts of things my RL teen experience never bore out.

It also likes to pretend boys and girls had an easily discerned list of likes and desires, once you found the right label for them. Something the Buffy franchise, I'm afraid, also hasn't proved immune to.
12. DuaneVZ
nor has it been since Xander, Riley, Wood etc have been doing it going by their definition. If you don't have the powers/weren't activated by Willow's spell in Chosen, you're not a slayer, you're just someone who kills vampires, demons, etc. If Dawn decided she wanted to be more active killing vampires, demons etc, would she therefore be called a slayer? She is a girl after all.
14. blue jay
1. I don't think the goal of Buffy writers is to go purely for "shock" or the "unusual" just for the sake of being surprising. That to me is "gimmicky."

2. So many interesting points from you all. I wish they laid off the "It Gets Better"/bullies paradigm and the beat "suffering gay man" archetype. At the same time, while a straight man slayer would be fine, a lot of us outcasts already see straight men as "empowered." Thus, seeing some random straight dude teenager kick-ass might not be that powerful. To me, what BtVS did with Xander, a straight male, being the least empowered character on the show is hella poingnant.
I also think it's interesting that gay men do tend to look up to strong women, or their perception of a strong woman. Buffy was for me, that strong woman and it's so cool to see that as part of the story now.

3. I do wish he was given full powers through some biological anamoly or deux machina or something but, I can deal with this. It's really how the story is told that it comes down to. Men filling women's roles is great. The intrinsic irony in this stated above in the blogpost is even greater. It flips the whole original mission statement on it's head and has the opportunity to rejuvenate the Buffyverse. Billy embracing his feminine side rather than repressing it could be a great metaphor, as well as him really understanding that his own masculinity doesn't have to be bound up in gender role expectations. And what does it mean that he is choosing to be a Slayer rather than being chosen. I always envisioned the boy slayer (whenever/however he appeared) would really go against the Slayer grain because he naturally would be a misfit, even in the Slayer "Girls only" fold, and would eventually "choose" to do things his own way apart from Buffy who is still caught up in "destiny" and all that. I also hope we can explore why some do look up to womanhood, what is it about womanhood that some of us idolize? Or manhood?

I'm excited.
15. blue jay
Oh, it's so meaty & deep, I love it:

To be chosen=surrender. Buffy had to surrender to her fate in order to become a woman. This reflects womanhood in basic sex/biology...during birth women have to surrender in a way, to nature. Social ideas aside, a big part of womanhood is about surrender, about "leaving it up to the Gods." whereas....

To choose=actively pursue, which is what a man does as he "drives" his member into a woman in order to make a baby. Men's sex organs are "out" (active) whereas women's sex organs are "in." (passive). Sperm shoots out actively pursuing, whereas the eggs stay in waiting to be fertilized (chosen)
Yin/Yang stuff right there, it's juicy.
16. Ian Grey
I think that Ms Espensen (of course) meant well but as you pointed out with such clarity, issues of assumed power, place and other throny gender poltics get in the way and can't be pushed aside in a few thought bubbles (mind, I've not yet read the comic so I'm running on what this author has presented.)

Still, my own first discomfort was with the idea--or rather the fear-- that there would be something intrinsically 'less-than' or peculiar about a gay boy (imagine if James Marsters as a teen played Billy! That would take care of that!)

I think perhaps the word you want isn't 'shock' but 'get the reader's attention' or something less clumsy. What's downright perverse in pop culture is this entire business of people even being ID'ed one way or another, of them all wanting to screw one or another or now.

Maybe it's because I grew up in difficult circumstance where it was *always* a matter of who had your back and not who you might sleep with but honestly? NOBODY CARED who was straight or gay or trans. Yeah, we were in the arts or whatever but honestly, I didn't even think once about my friend Elix's gender deal until I graduated, saw her with a girl and was like, Oh. She's queer. Outstanding.

Because Elix being queer didn't have anything to do with her stopping big guys from kicking my skinny (straight) ass. Giving off a Latina deathstar vibe did.

Point is, with the It-Gets-Better idea in mind, I'd love more Lady Gaga stregnth tales. I'd like Billy to be just past his low--and at a point to say Whoah, that *really* sucked, but I made it. Now excuse me, but I have a few vamps to stake.

But speaking of shock: what would be awesome would be if we didn't know *what* the deal was with him, whether he was straigh or gay until the last page of his story.

When we see him walking off with a total babe and we somehow find out that 'Billy' is, as you suggested, trans, and perhaps actually 'Billy Jean'.

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