Thursday, September 20, 2012

The 5 Most Feminist Things About Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I have finally finished Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, as promised, having taken in the whole series I can now write about it. I mentioned in a previous post that I had some misgivings about some of the things in the series (most notably the absence of characters of color). Those misgivings still exist, and I'll probably write about them soon, but I have to say that on the whole I absolutely loved the show. I thought that it was intelligent, entertaining, and attention-grabbing. Unlike most shows where drama is the key driving force, I actually cared what happened to the characters. Sure, sometimes the action and drama were unbelievably over-the-top, but it was balanced with very realistic portrayals of emotion and human weakness. I was also surprisingly satisfied by the conclusion, which I had begun to doubt would be able to live up to the mounting pressure and tension the show was centered around in its final season.

Perhaps it's just because feminism is a lens I use to look at the world these days, but the most striking thing about the show was the feminist themes woven throughout it, in ways obvious and subtle. So here, without further ado, are the five things that I found the most feminist about Buffy. (Spoilers: I'm talking about the show in its entirety from this point forward.)

1- Romantic Relationships, Even Slightly Dysfunctional Ones, are Partnerships

No drama, especially a drama revolving around the lives of teens and young adults, would survive seven seasons without sexual tension and romantic plot lines. Buffy certainly has its fair share of love triangles and broken hearts. And while the show was certainly capable of layering on both passion and cheesiness, it always balanced out the partnerships in love.

Angel and Buffy are perhaps the most dramatic coupling throughout the series (an orgasm that ends with the loss of your soul is a little hard to beat, drama-wise), and Angel does have a tendency to swoop down at the optimum moment and rescue Buffy.

But Buffy is equally capable of swooping in and rescuing him. They both make tremendous sacrifices for the other. They demonstrate that while one individual in a couple may have more power than the other momentarily, that power shifts back and forth over time. At the end of the day, their relationship is balanced. They are both capable people, and needing the other's help from time to time never turns into a dependency. 

Spike and Buffy's relationship even operates to teach the same lesson. Spike feeds off of Buffy in a way that Angel never did (even though Angel did, literally, feed off of her). Spike turns Buffy into a representative of something beyond herself. When he promises to murder Drusilla if Buffy will just promise to try to love him, he demonstrates that Buffy has all of the power. Even though he is there to save her life and even though he tries to wield immense power over her when he attempts to rape her, she will always have the ultimate power in their relationship. And that's why she walks away. Even her very last "I love you" as Spike saves the world from destruction is insincere because their relationship could never be balanced. Spike finally realized that when he felt his soul within him. His ultimate recognition of that coincided with his recognition that he could have power of his own, a power he wielded by sacrificing himself to save the world. 

Almost all of the relationships in the show operate this way. Willow and Tara balance each other out. Even though Willow is much more powerful than Tara as a witch, Tara is a necessary part of keeping Willow grounded (and, later, Kennedy recognizes her role in the same way, telling Willow that she'll be her kite string). Xander and Anya's chemistry starts out of their dismissal of each other, not their dependency. Buffy teaches Finn to stop seeing women as things that need to be saved and to start seeing them as people who can provide a partnership, a lesson he learns so well that he marries a woman who is his professional equal, slopping through the sewers to kill demons by his side. 

While not all of these relationships have the happiest of endings, the relationships as a whole represent that love is best founded on respect and that a healthy partnership requires cooperation, not codependence. 

2- Seeing Strong Women in Violent Situations Makes Us More Confident

Jezebel recently reported on a study that showed strong female characters are good for us. Basically, even shows that depicted women in violent (and sexist) situations didn't reinforce sexist ideas as long as the female characters were portrayed as powerful and active. When women are portrayed as helpless, however, as they are in The Tudors, men who viewed the show answer questions with more sexism against women and women display higher levels of anxiety.

In other words, simply showing women in a negative situation does not reinforce a negative stereotype; it's the female character's reaction to that situation that makes a difference. Though most of the feminist analyses of Buffy I've looked at are very complex and nuanced, Buffy's relationship with Spike (which includes violent sex and an attempted rape) has been cited as an aspect that complicates the show's feminist message.

But the study suggests that it's not seeing Buffy attacked that reinforces sexist ideas like a rape culture and women who are ultimately punished for enjoying sex. Rather, it is her reaction that we should pay attention to, and her reaction is one of power and agency even when she's vulnerable.

And Buffy is not the only powerful woman in the show. Willow, Anya, Faith, and many of the villains in the show are women who are immensely capable and powerful. Even when they're constantly in violent situations, seeing their ability to handle themselves is good for the overall cultural milieu. 

3- The Women in the Show are Unbelievably Strong, but Not Perfect

In addition to giving us completely capable women who display agency and power even in the face of violence, Buffy balances this out by showing that none of these women is perfect. This is important because a perfect role model isn't very useful and can actually reinforce stereotypes. When the only female role models we see with power are women who are perfect in every way--from the cookies she bakes to the lingerie she buys to the kids she raises--then we might as well not see any role model at all. We can't live up these perfect expectations, and it's basically like saying that women can only be powerful agents of their own lives if they lose their humanity. (Which, come to think of it, Buffy also tackled by presenting a "perfect" woman in the form of a robot, and that didn't end so well.)

But the Buffy women are not perfect. Every single one of them is presented with flaws. Some of the flaws are small (Tara has to deal with a sometimes crippling timidness, exemplified when she can't stand up to her family) and some of them are quite large (Anya slaughters a frat house full of college guys; Willow tries to end the world). Then there's Buffy. Buffy is continuously fighting her internal demons along with the external ones. She has to deal with alienating her friends. She's frequently portrayed as struggling to overcome her emotions and handle all of her responsibilities. Sure, she saves the world no less than a dozen times, but she's not perfect while she does it.

4- Female-Fronted Bands Demonstrate Power in Non-Violent Ways

So we have all of these powerful but flawed women who spend their days demonstrating their strength through killing things: demons, vampires, giant worms, humans who shot their girlfriends. Violence is an excellent way to demonstrate strength clearly and directly, but it doesn't leave a lot of room for those of us who prefer to rock our girl power with a little more pacifism.

That's why I was really impressed to see so many powerful female-fronted bands playing at The Bronze. I didn't start paying attention to it early enough to guarantee that there are no other male-centered bands, but once I did start noting it, there were only a few times that male-fronted bands appeared, and even then most of those times had meaning of their own. Oz's band sometimes plays at The Bronze, but when they do it's usually part of the main plot points.

When the band's are demonstrated as part of the background of Buffy, they are almost always female. There are two notable exceptions.

One occurs in Season 6 when Willow is exploring the dangerous side of magic. She and Amy go to The Bronze for a night of fun and get a little carried away with changing their world through magical manipulation. At the beginning of that episode, the band playing at The Bronze is all-male.

But Willow works her magic and changes them into an all-female band instead. 

The only other time I noticed a male-fronted band in The Bronze was in one of the very final episodes. In this episode, Sunnydale has mostly emptied out as the town has become overrun by the evil that's "eating it from below." As the site of Hell's opening, it's not the most popular place to be. Houses have emptied out. In fact, this episode is called "Empty Places." And what band is playing at The Bronze?

Kennedy, one of the potential slayers, even comments, "What kind of band plays during an Apocalypse?" 

I don't think it's any accident that male-fronted bands only take the stage in the moments when everyone else has left. 

And I think it's really important to the overall feminist message of the show. See, the show is very consistent to point out that, even though the rest of the world has to live in this demon-filled existence, they tend to ignore it. Everyone is happy to let Buffy and her friends save the day again and again without thinking too hard about what she's saving the day from. In other words, the primary plot of Buffy operates parallel to the "real world." While Buffy is killing and defending the world, there are plenty of people in the background who are just living everyday lives--granted in extra-violent atmospheres. 

But that background is also where the bands exist. That means that powerful women are not solely relegated to the parallel reality that Buffy inhabits; they're present in the real-life interactions that everyone sees. 

The female-fronted bands give a subtle message of female empowerment that broadens and complements the overall message of the powerful women who take up the primary plot. 

5-  The Conclusion Provides a Metaphor for Women's Rights Progress
A commenter on that earlier post said that she thought the conclusion of the show was "maybe one of the best feminist finales in the history of all time,"so my hopes were high.

And I was not disappointed.

While Buffy's plan to have Willow grant the power of the Slayer to all potential slayers, thus immediately granting super-human power to hundreds or even thousands of young women and girls and the generations to come is perhaps a bit heavy-handed as a feminist message, it's also a powerful metaphor for the women's rights movement.

And it all depends on looking at Buffy and Faith.

There's a strong running theme that these two just cannot get along, and it's centered on the fact that each one of them has been called to be the Slayer, a role that's supposed to be flown solo. Buffy constantly feels like Faith is trying to steal her life (which she literally does when she switches bodies with Buffy), and Faith constantly feels like she was cheated out of her destiny by being called to be the Slayer when she had to share the title. It's a tension that's never fully resolved. Even in the face of the apocalypse, these two women are battling their pride and each other to keep it together when it comes to sharing their responsibility. 

And isn't that a great metaphor for women's rights? Don't we so often feel like we're the only ones doing it right and all those other women are wasting their and our time? It's at the center of the breastfeeding v. bottle-feeding debate, or the stay-at-home vs. working mom debate, or the second-wave vs. third-wave feminist debate, or a myriad of other ways that women drag each other down at the very moments when we would be strongest by coming together. 

And Buffy offers a solution. When Willow casts a spell that extends the power of the Slayer to all women who are potential Slayers, she relieves the pressure of any one single Slayer to save the world. By doing that, she puts the safety of the world into the hands of many, many women. And that means that each individual Slayer can also live her life. 

Sure, we all have the responsibility to do our part to save the world, but when we can share that responsibility without micro-managing the way that everyone else does it, it doesn't have to consume us until we have nothing left. We can be more than the causes we champion and we can stop feeling like we're constantly holding the gates of Hell closed. 

If we can manage to share the burden, we can save ourselves as well. 


  1. Well concluded. I am so glad that you enjoyed a series that has brought me a lot of pleasure!

  2. Great post. I have a strong urge to rewatch all of Buffy...

  3. The friendships among the Scoobies should be added to #1, I think. Rather than the simplificaton of friendship depicted by Friends, they go through ups and downs, periods of disconnect and reconnect, and sometimes grow apart. The season 4 finale demonstrates that interdependence is a form of power, as the four of them combined into one to help Buffy defeat Adam. That it's OK to ask for help, not a sign of weakness, and that you don't have to face everything alone, you can join together, and be more powerful than any one individually. I think that is a powerful feminist message, a powerful any "ist" message, that by combining our strengths we can create power and make change.

    1. Great points! I do really love the way that the show portrays these friendships as evolving and often strained but still important. I think this is even more important because of the age of the characters. The transition from high school to adulthood often drives people apart (and often because they get caught up in the identity politics that make those -ist messages necessary). To show these people overcoming that is an incredibly powerful message of the strength in unity.

  4. Eloquent post with some really insightful points. We really need to see more shows with well-rounded female roles. I've only just started watching it but Political Animals seems terrific. Keep up the great writing.