The Uneven Exploration of Witchcraft, Gender Roles, and Toxic Masculinity in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s ‘Halloween’ and Supernatural’s ‘Shut Up, Dr. Phil’

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10 years ago, Supernatural aired “Shut Up, Dr. Phil,” which featured both Charisma Carpenter and James Marsters of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame. 24 years ago, Buffy aired one of its most popular episodes, “Halloween.” Almost exactly 14 years apart, these episodes cover similar ground: witchcraft, gender roles, jealousy, and toxic masculinity. However, while “Halloween” is about the insecurities that conventional gender roles place on teenagers growing up in a patriarchal society, “Shut Up, Dr. Phil” struggles with feminist viewpoints and offers misogynistic takes on witchcraft, making this 2011 Supernatural episode a shallow and reductive take on the same issues Buffy tackled in 1997. The difference in the way these episodes handle these thematic elements is evident in both of Carpenter’s characters: Maggie Stark in “Shut Up, Dr. Phil” and Cordelia Chase in “Halloween.”

In “Shut Up, Dr. Phil,” suburban residents are dying in freak accidents, their deaths all being linked to the same shopping center development project headed by Don Stark (James Marsters). When Dean and Sam realize Don has likely been cheating on his wife Maggie, they conclude that she is the witch killing the project members. Dean even says, “She’s literally killing off everything around her just by PMSing at it,” in reference to her anger at Don — because a woman being angry is synonymous with her period.

Almost all of the witches featured on Supernatural are female. Any time Dean (Jensen Ackles) and Sam (Jared Padalecki) encounter one, Dean is quick with some comment about how much he hates them, how “downright unsanitary” they are because their spells use ingredients like chicken feet, or entrails, or bone dust. Usually, their magic is spoken about in very gendered terms. Never once do Dean or Sam reflect on the fact that if a case calls for it, they too resort to spells in order to handle a problem.

In a lot of ways, Maggie is just another iteration of Cordelia Chase. In Buffy, Cordelia is the Queen Bitch of Sunnydale High School, quick with a severe takedown on the way other girls dress or act. She may know demons exist, but she won’t let them get in the way of her next pedicure. Maggie is an 800-year-old witch, caught in an ugly and deadly argument with her warlock husband. She may parade around the town as a seemingly charitable woman, but when her best friend is beheaded in front of her, she barely flinches.

Cordelia and Maggie are both mean and self-centered, but Maggie’s role in “Shut Up, Dr. Phil” is largely a passive one. Sure, she starts the string of murders that lead Sam and Dean to her doorstep, but after that, Sam, Dean, and Don are the heroes trying to placate an angry woman. In “Halloween”, however, Cordelia spends much of the episode using her general bitchy attitude to her advantage, which Buffy crucially sees as a strength.

In “Halloween”, Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) explains to Willow (Alyson Hannigan) that the titular celebration is “come as you aren’t” night, but each character’s insecurities come to light through their costume choices: Buffy worries she’s not “girly” enough for boyfriend Angel (David Boreanaz) — who grew up around the more conventional gender roles of the 18th century — so she dresses as an 18th -century noblewoman. Xander (Nicholas Brendon) hates that Buffy stood up to a bully for him, so he comes as an army man, while Willow, uncomfortable with expressing her sexuality, opts for a ghost costume. Although Cordelia’s role in this episode isn’t as apparent as the main Scooby Gang’s, her feline costume choice — including cat ears and a skin-tight, leopard-print leotard — is reflective of her status as Queen Bitch.

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When we first see Cordelia in this episode, she’s making a move on Angel while he patiently waits for Buffy to show up for their date. Cordelia eventually gets the brush off from him, but this doesn’t deter her: later, in the girls’ bathroom where Buffy and Willow are discussing what Angel’s type may be, Cordelia boasts that the dating world is her arena: “Look, Buffy, you might be hot stuff when it comes to demonology or whatever, but when it comes to dating, I’m the Slayer.”

However, we eventually learn that Cordelia’s older musician boyfriend is ghosting her. She says she doesn’t care, but she clearly does. However, her leopard-print attire is a way for her to step back into the fierce and independent person that she is. The importance of the cat costume as a reflection of Cordelia’s self-confidence is reinforced when a warlock’s spell turns everyone into real-life versions of their costumes. Buffy is now an out-of-time 18th-century noblewoman, Xander a hypermasculine soldier, and Willow a ghost who can walk through walls. When Buffy and Xander no longer remember who they are, the conventional gender roles they’ve chosen to dress as become a liability, while Willow’s ghost status renders her incapable of interacting properly with the real world. Cordelia acquired her costume at a different shop, and so she never turns into an actual cat. Though this detail is used as a plot device for the Scooby Gang to realize why only some people changed into their costumes, it also emphasizes how much Cordelia already understands herself — out of the core cast of characters, she’s the only one who doesn’t let her insecurities rule her choices.

While “Halloween” uses Halloween costumes as a way to further explore each character, Buffy’s 18th-century noblewoman is as surface-level as this episode gets. She’s very firm in her stance that she exists to lay around and do womanly things while men get the job done. This is clearly a deep departure from who we know Buffy to be, and by the time things are back to normal, Buffy’s arc comes across more as a standard “she’s not like other girls” trope, at least in the way Angel perceives it. Willow’s journey is a bit more interesting. After initially shunning her more revealing costume, Willow “dies” in order to become a literal ghost, leaving her to walk around in ghost form in her original costume. In this costume, she takes on more of a leadership role as she rallies the Scooby Gang to keep the kids-turned-monsters safe and figure out how to change everyone back.

This episode also furthers Willow and Oz’s (Seth Green) relationship: Oz really sees her for the first time as she confidently strides down the street, fully corporeal again. This is an important step for Willow in the larger plot of Season 2 and how it relates to witchcraft: Willow is the Scooby Gang’s resident witch, but she doesn’t do her first spell until the end of the second season. While not explicit, Willow’s embracing of her sexuality — by taking charge and ultimately deciding to wear the revealing outfit even after everything is over — puts her on course to becoming a fully-fledged witch. This move directly ties a woman’s innate sexual being to her status as a witch, but Buffy’s approach is more empowering than in “Shut Up, Dr. Phil” simply because it’s presented as a part of Willow’s journey.

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In this episode, we see Cordelia struggle to acknowledge that not everyone wants her, revealing a vulnerability we haven’t quite seen before. Buffy is jealous of Cordelia’s seemingly easy ability to get the attention of guys, but we see that this isn’t actually the case at all. Despite her rejection, though, she never once questions her self-worth — she’s still Cordelia, ripped cat costume and all.

Supernatural’s Maggie, on the other hand, doesn’t get the same treatment. It’s only when she starts attacking Sam and Dean for sympathizing with Don that the brothers start taking her side. Furthermore, Maggie and Don’s story in “Shut Up, Dr. Phil” ends when Don shows up to Dean and Sam’s motel room to remove hex bags placed there by Maggie, effectively taking away her way of expressing her anger. Considering Sam and Dean are supernatural hunters, removing the hex bags also stripped Maggie of a form of self-defense.

There’s an ugly “boys’ club” feeling to Sam, Dean, and Don’s interactions. Even though Sam and Dean clearly judge Don for his indiscretions, their mentality definitely comes across as a “hey, we get it, just try not to do it again” one. Sam and Dean both appear as very traditionally masculine guys, and their role as hunters casts them in a standard law enforcement archetype. They often identify themselves as FBI agents in the small towns they investigate in, and Dean’s “shoot first, ask questions later” stance is another trait of their masculinity that gets them into trouble more times than not. Furthermore, this episode also shows Dean struggling with the fact that he recently killed a friend of Sam’s, a supernatural creature who had been killing people as a form of survival for her and her daughter. Dean hastily wanting to kill Maggie for killing people around town is hypocritical to his own actions that resulted in murder. In addition to this, while Don and Maggie work out their issues through communicating with one another, Dean still refuses to open up about what he’s done when Sam makes the offer of conversation at the end of the episode.

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Because the brothers represent a standard of masculinity, they are easy foils to Xander and his army man costume in “Halloween”: embarrassed that he couldn’t handle a bully without Buffy’s help, Xander’s fixation on not being manly enough means he turns into the very toxic masculinity that he was afraid he wasn’t living up to in the first place. When he becomes his costume, he wants to shoot everything that moves, and he’s not compassionate toward Buffy’s oblivious noblewoman damsel either. “Halloween” does make a point of showing Xander beating up his bully when he is the soldier, but whatever reconciliation he needs is not actually earned through that act of violence. Instead, it occurs earlier in the episode when Buffy apologizes for breaking the “guy code,” after which Xander acknowledges that Buffy can and should keep taking care of bullies for people. That moment, in which Xander and Buffy reconcile in just a few bits of dialogue, contrasts nicely with the end of “Shut Up, Dr. Phil,” where Dean still refuses to open up.

In Supernatural’s later seasons, the brothers became caricatures of themselves, a larger-than-life embodiment of unhealthy coping mechanisms and co-dependence masquerading as heroism. Yet rarely does Supernatural present the Winchester brothers as the bad guys (unless one of them is literally possessed by Lucifer). Sam and Dean’s inability to contemplate another perspective is probably why the world is always on the verge of ending. And while Xander’s army persona is a hyper-realized version of Supernatural’s brothers, Buffy’s “Halloween” ultimately takes toxic masculinity to task with more nuance than “Shut Up, Dr. Phil” because Willow constantly tells him that there’s a way to handle things that doesn’t involve just shooting at it. In addition, while Dean had the perfect opportunity to come clean to Sam about killing his friend, the episode shies away from any growth for either of the brothers. That’s just the way it is, and because the brothers simply go on to the next hunt, this type of behavior is allowed to continue.

Whether big or small, the journeys Cordelia, Buffy, Willow, and Xander go on in “Halloween” count for something: they ultimately tell us more about their characters and come to have lasting consequences on the rest of the season. In “Shut Up, Dr. Phil”, however, Dean and Sam’s worldview never changes, and so Maggie is left with her placated anger despite her reconciliation with Don. There was no growth here; this episode of Supernatural is too concerned with things staying the same. “Halloween”, on the other hand, simultaneously celebrates who we are and who we may yet become, and the power that comes with the flexibility to explore every facet of ourselves.

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