Kicking Ass is Comfort Food:
Triple-layered Cookie Dough on the Hellmouth
by Lauren Eggert-Crowe
WARNING: THIS ESSAY CONTAINS SIGNIFICANT BUFFY SPOILERS
“These are the things we want. Simple things. Comfort. Sex. Shelter. Food. We always want them, and we want them all the time. The id doesn’t learn. It doesn’t grow up. It has the ego telling it what it can’t have – and it has the superego telling what it shouldn’t want. But the id works solely by the pleasure principle. It wants. Whatever social skills we learn, however much we have evolved, the pleasure principle is at work in all of us. So how does this conflict with the ego manifest itself in the psyche? What do we do when we can’t have what we want?”
-Professor Maggie Walsh, “Beer Bad”
“I'm cookie dough. I'm not done baking. I'm not finished becoming whoever the hell it is I'm gonna turn out to be. I make it through this, and the next thing, and the next thing, and maybe one day, I turn around and realize I'm ready. I'm cookies."
-Buffy Summers, “Chosen”
How can a feminist superhero live in the world? After twenty years of massive cultural shifts, many of us return to Buffy The Vampire Slayer with this question, a theme the show addressed from multiple angles over seven years. The central conflict within Buffy’s character arc was always the pull between isolation and community. The “one girl in all the world” felt both superior and lonely; It was only the support of her beloved Scoobies that alleviated this crushing alienation. She had to relearn each season that her power increased when shared.
Much has been written already about the way the series richly problematized the human/monster dichotomy, turning misogynist horrors into slayable demons. But my own grand unified theory of Buffy begins in a throwaway Season 4 episode: “Beer Bad,” in which Professor Maggie Walsh, not yet revealed to be an evil military scientist, explains Freud’s theory of the id, ego, and superego. It’s supposed to be the setup for a zany monster-of-the-week episode, but it can also be read as a treatise on how Buffy’s romantic history dictates her path as a Slayer. This psychological trio is represented beautifully over seven seasons by Buffy’s three significant lovers: Spike, Riley, and Angel.
The id is our inner toddler on full display when we want food, comfort, touch or validation. Prone to passionate outbursts, it rages when not satisfied immediately. Holding the reins on this little monster is our ego, which develops our concept of self by reminding the id that most of our desires are unrealistic and unattainable if we want to exist as a person in the world. The ego feels all the same desires as the id, but has learned how to control them in service of our identity. Overseeing this operation is the superego, which imposes a learned moral structure onto the chaos of our wants and compels us to remember the ethical implications of our actions.
As Rhonda Wilcox establishes, Spike is the id: an unadulterated knot of wailing hungers, killing, raging, fucking. He devours hot wings and unlucky prey alike with the same disgusting voracity, hot cravings coursing through his vamp veins at 200 proof. His character illustrates not only the id’s yearning for comfort and love, but also its unchecked progression into violent eruptions. He’s the kind of guy who kidnaps women and chains them in a cave to win their love, the kind of lover who catapults between seduction and jealous rage. Monstrous as he is, and despite his egregious sexual violence towards Buffy, significant blocs of Buffy viewers can’t help but adore his salty humor and punk-rock rollicks in the borderlands between aggression and tenderness.
Riley is Spike’s foil. A scholar and a gentleman, a folksy Midwestern soldier, Riley pledges his allegiance to the superego; there is right, there is wrong, and there is little to be explored in between. This is not to say that his adherence to a traditional moral code never corrodes in the reality of the Hellmouth. In fact, his insecurity about Buffy’s closeness to the demonic side (read: the id) is so destabilizing that it pushes him across ethical lines he never would have considered crossing before meeting The Chosen One. But until his final dramatic exit via heartbreak helicopter, Riley wears the the role of superego like a pair of fatigues, navigating the clean grid of ethics that The Initiative has laid out for him.
If the superego tells us what is right and the id screams at us for what it wants, the ego continuously runs interference between the two, denying desires to formulate a sense of self. Enter everyone’s favorite brooding ensouled vampire, Angel, who wrestles with the conflict between his desires and his need to be a meaningful actor in the fight against evil. Was there ever a Whedonverse character more obsessed with his purpose in life? The centrifugal force of his existential crisis was so powerful it required its own spinoff to sustain it. Afraid of losing mastery over his id, he resists Buffy’s early attempts to get their flirtation off the ground, warning her that things will get “out of control.” Even after he loses his soul, his strategy for breaking Buffy rests on his ability to control his desire to kill her immediately. But soulless or ensouled, he is driven by a ponderous obsession with his destiny in the grand scheme of history.
This would be an interesting corollary on its own, but what really makes it work is the fact that Buffy’s id, ego, and superego interchange prominence in her personality depending on whom she’s dating, mirroring the typical order in which these aspects appear in human development.
Our youthful Slayer is less developed as a person when she falls for Angel with a teenage intensity heightened by the omnipresent threat of annihilation on the Hellmouth. It becomes readily apparent to her friends that, when Angel’s involved, Buffy will act on her impulses with little thought to possible ramifications. Though her desire is coded as sweet and almost childlike, it betrays an undertow of wild slayer strength yet to be harnessed. This is Buffy at her most id-like, all gangly roundhouse kicks, cemetery makeouts, and cathartic vampire-pummeling sessions; “kicking ass is comfort food” indeed.
A few years and dozens of deaths later, Buffy’s military man’s rigid traditionalism summons a strong ego response in her, as she plaintively advocates for a more nuanced approach to demon fighting, one that neither cedes agency to an arbitrary rulebook nor strikes wildly at every target for the thrill of it. Her imperative to make her own decisions as an expert in her field frequently chafes against Riley’s dopey obeisance to the chain of command. She asserts her independence in opposition to both The Watchers’ Council (in “Checkpoint”) and The Initiative (in “The I in Team”), establishing her righteous identity as a heroine. She also asks Giles to become her Watcher once more so she can understand and control the source of her power, and seeks out a Spirit Guide to ask how she can continue acting as the Slayer without losing her humanity.
It would seem that Buffy has become fully actualized by the end of Season 5, having learned to balance the disparate demands placed on her life and blissfully sacrificing herself to save Dawn. But she still has miles to go on her hero’s journey. After her resurrection, Buffy clinches it with Spike at rock bottom. He provides the juiciest addiction for a vaguely suicidal girl, and their sexual relationship takes the form of mutual punishment in a torrid game of manipulation and despair. Even as she rushes to him in dark alley quickies, she flagellates herself for falling in with an irredeemable monster, thus rendering herself irredeemable too. Her depression locks into Spike’s recklessness like the corner joist of a crumbling building.
But when she confesses the affair to Tara, the revulsion she’s expecting doesn’t come. Instead, Tara, the moral compass of the ensemble, offers only compassion. Buffy, however, can’t compute, because the superego governing her behavior is too strong to halt the shame party. She begs Tara not to forgive her, to assure her that something is fundamentally wrong with her. The prospect that she rose from the grave less than human is more palatable than facing her complicated emotions towards one of hell’s most remorseless villains. In her logic, if she’s fucking The Big Bad, then she is The Big Bad. End of story. Perhaps this is why it takes a visit from her former superego boyfriend, Riley, to give her the confidence to end the relationship with Spike.
This theory provides a lens through which to view the differing levels of chemistry in each of Buffy’s romances. The id in conflict with the superego (Spike + Buffy) displays a sexy tug-of-war between the ethical and the enticing; it’s what all the sultriest affairs are made of, but it’s unsustainable in the long run, and ends in possessive violence. The ego and the id (Angel + Buffy) can work harmoniously for a time, balancing cravings with compromises, but they end up devoting too much energy to lamenting the torturous sting of reality; they can never have what they truly desire. Put the ego and the superego together (Riley + Buffy), and you’ve got yourself a mature, level-headed partnership, but there’s no heat, no hunger. The moment any full-throated, dark urges of the subconscious are introduced, the relationship implodes.
Buffy’s power may have expanded when shared, but the turbulence of her psychological state in opposition to her lovers shows us that her weaknesses were alchemized when shared as well. I would posit that the central theme of the show, beneath the monster-as-metaphor, beneath the complicated feminism, even beneath the patriarchy manifest as demon lizards, relates back to Maggie Walsh’s line: “What do we do when we can’t have what we want?” The answers vary beautifully and terrifyingly for each character, in a series created by showrunners known for sadistically yanking away the romantic fulfillment of every protagonist.
As the show’s mythology blossoms, we can see that the monstrous is understood to be metaphor for the id, and Buffy must contend with its power in order to survive. Periodically during her post as The Chosen One, she must negotiate with various figures who traffic in the dark, gooey, sexually intoxicating and ultimately isolating pleasure of violence: Faith, Spike, Dracula, The First Slayer. Buffy, whose power is organically sourced from that essence, being the metaphysical descendant of a woman-demon hybrid, alternates between fascination with and hypervigilance over the same urges within herself. Where these players tempt her to release control and conscience, Buffy responds with self-assured authority, determined to navigate the shadow-world without succumbing to it. To truly live in your power, the show appears to say, you have to work with the id, ego, and superego.
What about the moments with no men in the picture, when Buffy is just a heartbroken girl with an imperative to keep fighting? These moments lead to some of the Slayer’s most powerful scenes, where she’s able to synthesize all the humming voices of her psyche. Free for a time from the exhausting bullshit of her suitors, she gathers her resolve and turns her focus outward to the world that needs her. The most satisfying season finales, where the Slayer shares her burdens and rallies a spirited band of comrades, occur in her loverless days: “Graduation Day,” “The Gift,” “Chosen.” It might be hyperbole, but she’s at her best, her most mature, when she’s unattached.
Does this not bode well for future heroines? If Buffy is feminist allegory, are we to conclude that our only hope for becoming fully realized women is to forego romantic relationships and the Freudian oscillations they’ll cost us? I don’t think so. Granted, the series’ messaging around gender roles gets muddled, and there are plenty of inconsistencies in Buffy’s character to critique as she relates to male partners. But if Buffy taught us anything, it’s that the best superheroes commit to humanity’s messiness, not transcend it. The Slayer’s forays in sexual love provide her with an understanding evident in her courageous decisions as a seasoned veteran of supernatural battles. She plunges into the dark waters of human emotion and emerges, glistening with power and the kind of knowledge that only comes from immersion: in pleasure, in love, in hell.