I’ve spent a lot of time exploring some of the problematic content on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as part of this ongoing series, but I haven’t had much of an opportunity to talk about the unproblematic and awesome content on the show. In part, it’s because Buffy is generally recognized as a feminist show, so I haven’t felt the need to muster examples to support the argument that it is a feminist show, because I’ve been focusing on the aspects of the show which are not feminist or are more ambiguous.
But, here’s the thing, Buffy is a feminist show, and I think it’s time to talk about some of the feminist moments/episodes which make the show so enjoyable for me. This is a show in which a woman saves the world, repeatedly, after all, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. I should note that the following is by no means an exhaustive list, and that examples are not listed in any particular order, so if I left something out, it wasn’t intentional. I would love readers to add their own examples as well.
“Halloween” (season two) has a totally excellent feminist moment. Buffy has costumed herself as an 18th century noblewoman for Halloween, because she thinks that this will appeal to Angel. Of course, this being Buffy, there’s a fluke, and her costume is actually enchanted, turning her into a caricature of an 18th century noblewoman. She spends the episode fainting, freaking out, and being generally useless, until the enchantment is finally lifted and she starts kicking ass and taking names (in full costume).
This moment is feminist on a number of levels: it shows a very classic thing, with a woman contorting herself into something she is not to please a man, but it twists it on its head. As it turns out, Angel wasn’t all that into 18th century noblewomen even when he was alive, and he prefers Buffy as herself, making the scene at the end with Buffy uncoiffed and in her PJs all the more charming. You don’t need to pretend to be something you’re not to keep a man, is what this episode says to me, contrary to what the ladymags might have you believe.
Season six brings us another Halloween episode, “All the Way,” in which Dawn is starting to explore her sexuality and she goes on a double date with a friend. Dawn’s date, of course, turns out to be a vampire. Classic punishment for sexuality, or inevitable Buffy twist? Buffy swoops in for the rescue, but it’s actually Dawn who saves herself by playing helpless so that she can get into a position to stake the vampire, and this totally redeems the moment for me.
“Primeval” (season four) has an excellent feminist moment when Buffy fuses with her friends to become extremely powerful so that she can defeat Adam. What makes this feminist? The fact that Buffy understands that she needs her friends, that her friends have skills she can obtain through cooperation, and the fact that it is only by working together that a goal can be achieved. The solitary lone wolf is sometimes mistaken as the only form of feminism which is acceptable, but my brand of feminist is heavily entangled with being unafraid to ask for help and support, as Buffy does here and elsewhere in the series.
“Get It Done” (season seven) shows viewers the origin of the First Slayer, and is also strongly feminist. The First Slayer, it turns out, was not “given” her powers, but had them forced upon her by a group of men in a scene which is very similar to rape. Realizing the origins of her power, Buffy is disgusted, and this information causes her to reevaluate the Slayer lineage and to question the wisdom that there can be only one. As viewers learn in subsequent episodes, men were actually intimidated by the power of the Slayer, and they attempted to control it by creating the idea that there could be only one and establishing Watchers to assist, but really control, the Slayers. How is this feminist? Uhm, a graphic depiction of the classic oppression of women by men, followed by resistance to that oppression. Hell yeah. I won’t even get into a comparison between the Watcher’s Council and the systematic control of female sexuality. Oops, I just did.
Although I may get a reputation as a man-hater for this one, the scene in which Buffy cuts Caleb in half from the ground up is tremendously empowering. Caleb is convinced of his superiority because he is male, and Buffy strikes at the height of that belief by emasculating him. Does this mean that all men should be emasculated? Of course not, but it does mean that misogynistic assholes should be cut in half with giant supernatural scythes. Oh, I kid!
“Ted” (season two) provides us with another great example of a parallel to a real world disempowering situation to illustrate the ways in which women and girls are routinely stripped of their agency. When Buffy attempts to report that her mother’s boyfriend is abusive, everyone else refuses to believe her, arguing that he’s so friendly and nice that Buffy is obviously making it up out of jealousy or fear of change. This dismissal of claims of abuse on the part of children being abused by biological and step parents alike is routine, especially when those children are female. Ted may be a robot, but the situation in the episode is very human.
Buffy’s independence and lack of fear when it comes to doing the right thing, even if it’s difficult, is also a recurring feminist theme in the show. When she finally breaks free of the Watcher’s Council and asserts her independence, she does so because she does not approve of their methods. She thinks her work is important enough to continue, but doesn’t feel the need to remain in a system which is inherently flawed. She’s also not afraid to renegotiate terms with them when they approach her looking for assistance. Pretty damn feminist, if you ask me.
The financial woes she experiences in season six are also great feminist moments, illustrating the very real financial problems faced by women in general. She has trouble finding work or financial assistance, is trying to care for a child, and is eventually forced to work in fast food to pay her way. I hate the episodes in which she’s working in the Doublemeat Palace because they are so grim and depressing, but that’s what makes them so feminist: a reminder that even superheroes need to pay the bills, and that paying the bills isn’t easy when you haven’t had the opportunity to acquire employable skills.