Knowledge – Potentially Dangerous: An Essay on Buffy and Foucault (Part 1 of 2)

“In every generation a slayer is born. One girl in all the world, the Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer” (Buffy).  For more than seven seasons, fans of the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer tuned in weekly and heard this prophecy of the Slayer. The knowledge of being the Slayer and the power that comes with that title changed the entire course of Buffy’s life, shaping her and those around her, including her younger sister, Dawn.

Buffy (top right) and Dawn (bottom left)
Buffy (top right) and Dawn (bottom left)

In the final season of the show, the audience learns that there are hundreds of girls, scattered across the globe that are all potential slayers. Anyone of these girls could be the next Slayer, not yet imbued with the same level of power as Buffy, but still possessing instincts that set them apart. In an episode titled “Potential”, Dawn is suddenly thrust into the spotlight as a potential slayer. This proves to be a prime example of Michel Foucault’stheory of power/knowledge and Foucault’s “gaze” theory. “Potential” goes beyond the relationship between everyday knowledge and everyday power, arguing that with ultimate knowledge, the ultimate power can be obtained – the power of choice.

The philosopher Michel Foucault
The philosopher Michel Foucault

In Season Seven, where “Potential” takes place, an evil force, known as ‘The First’ has been hunting down all the potential slayers in the world. Consequently, Buffy has gathered all the “Potentials” she can find, letting them live in her house, and is training them for the fight ahead. In “Potential”, the girls begin to falter, claiming that their training is useless because they do not have the same power as Buffy. Buffy concedes this, explaining, You don’t have slayer strength. But that doesn’t mean that you’re not strong. You have inherent abilities that others do not have…You have the potential” (“Potential”).

It is this potential that Buffy tries to tap into to get the potential slayers in touch with their power. She does this by revealing to them that the knowledge of their possibilities gives them greater power that is theirs alone. Most people in this world have no idea why they’re here or what they want to do. You do. You have a mission, a reason for being here. You’re not here by chance. You’re here because you are the chosen ones” (“Potential”). Buffy implies that this knowledge of a purpose gives them a power exclusive to potential slayers, a power that will enable them (and no one else) to save the world from evil.

The potentials during training
The potentials during training

Foucault would agree with Buffy’s analysis of the situation, lauding her for attempts to teach that power and knowledge serve each other simultaneously. Foucault believed that, “at least for the study of human beings, the goals of power and the goals of knowledge cannot be separated: [by] knowing we control and [by] controlling we know” (Gutting). Foucault stridently believed that you could not have one without the other – that they create, sustain, and depend upon each other. Buffy uses this principle in “Potential”: to have the power, is to possess the knowledge; and to have the knowledge is to create the power.

For Foucault there was more to the power/knowledge system than its mere existence. When holding knowledge, power comes and, according to Foucault, that power exerts itself through a “gaze”. Referred to as “a ‘clinical gaze’ [or] ‘observing gaze’ the [gaze] could penetrate illusion and see through to the underlying reality… [to] see the hidden truth (Shawver)”. This “gaze” was not only exerted by others onto a self, but also by the self onto itself. “Under [the] weight [of the gaze, each person] will end by interiorisation to the point that he is his own overseer, each individual thus exercising this surveillance over, and against, himself” (Curran). It is these “gazes” that affect the way each person acts and the way each person is perceived by others. Therefore it is logical to infer that the acquirement of knowledge (and the power that knowledge couples with) will affect the gaze of others upon us and of our gaze upon ourselves.

This Hieronymus Bosh painting is an example of Foucault's 'gaze' theory. While the audience is looking at the painting, the woman in green is looking at teh audience, making them aware of their status of being 'on display' as much as the painting is
This Hieronymus Bosh painting is an example of Foucault’s ‘gaze’ theory. While the audience is looking at the painting, the woman in green is looking at the audience, making them aware of being ‘on display’ as much as the painting.

“Potential” provides the audience with a working model of this “gaze” theory. As the show progresses, a rumor surfaces that another potential slayer might live right in Buffy’s hometown, Sunnydale. In an attempt to locate her before ‘The First’ can have her killed, Buffy’s friend Willow casts a spell that should lead them to the Potential. The spell singles out Dawn as the Potential, a character that has been fairly normal throughout previous episodes. For Dawn the application of this newfound knowledge drastically shifts her views and the views of those around her. Previously, the other members of Buffy’s family and friends mostly ignored her. However, all that changes with the revelation of her being a potential slayer. As seen through the words of a longtime friend of Buffy, Xander, after her Potential status is revealed, he tells Dawn that “You are important now” (“Potential”).

This revealed knowledge has simultaneously given her a power, a power that alters how even those closest to her view her. To others, she becomes an object of awe. Andrew, another member of the team, looks at Dawn with wonder, exclaiming, “Holy crap! Plucked from an ordinary life, handed a destiny…” (“Potential”). Foucault himself noted this alteration with the acquisition of knowledge, saying that “[The] form of power [this brings]…categorizes the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attached him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognize and which others have to recognize in him” (Foucault). In the eyes of others, the power of the Slayer has marked Dawn and cannot be ignored.

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Works Cited

Curran, Jeanne, and Susan R. Takata. “Foucault and the Institutional Gaze.” A Justice Site: Michel Foucualt. 1 Apr. 2003. California State University, Dominguez Hills. 19 May 2009 .

Foucault, Michel. “The Subject and Power.” Critical Inquiry 8 (1982): 777-95. Jstor. Suzzallo Library, Seattle. 19 May 2009 .

Gutting, Gary. “Michel Foucault.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 17 Sept. 2008. Stanford University. 19 Mar. 2009 <;.

Kirshner, Rebecca R. “Potential.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer. FOX. New York, NY. 21 Jan. 2003.

Shawver, Lois. “Notes on Reading Foucault’s “The Birth of the Clinic “” Dictionary for the Study of the Works of Michel Foucault. 16 May 1998. 19 May 2009 .

Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

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