Feminism and Joss Whedon: Great Feminist Moments in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

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.

5 Replies to “Feminism and Joss Whedon: Great Feminist Moments in Buffy the Vampire Slayer”

  1. “Selfless” the seventh season episode about Anya’s back story always strikes me as very feminist. Anya has spent something like 2000 years always defining herself by her job (vengeance demon/shopkeeper) or by her relationships with men (Xander/Olaf and to some degree D’Hoffryn). At the end of the episode she walks away from Xander because she’s come to realize that “My whole life, I’ve just clung to whatever came along.” I love that she walks away to figure out who she is on her own.

  2. (I think this is my first comment, but I’ve been reading for a while; hi there!)

    s it turns out, Angel wasn’t all that into 18th century noblewomen even when he was alive,

    That gets so interesting to me! I mean, we hear him use some really snotty language and misogynist tropes to put down the 18th century noblewomen – they’re airheads, they’re obsessed with their appearances, they do exactly what they were taught to do and pretty much had to do to survive – rather than the correct answer which is BUT I LOVE YOU. And as we learn later, there was probably a lot of race/class resentment behind that, since of course a middle-class Irish Catholic man would never have been considered good enough for a noble woman, who would’ve been Anglo Protestant. It doesn’t change the empowerment of Buffy, who gets to hear that she’s perfect just as she is, but it comes as a vicious comparison to other women (booo) and shows us that no amount of ensouling changes the fact that Angel is kind of a sexist creep.

    I’ve always found the Season 6 storyline really interesting from a feminist POV (not so much empowering as heartbreaking, but fascinating) because of the Trio. What happens when you give a misogynist sociopath magical powers? He acts like a misogynist sociopath, he just gets homicidal a little faster than you’d expect. And his need for control, his loathing of women who are powerful, his horror of emasculation, are exactly what you’d expect IRL.

    I also remember from my first watch being almost in tears at the first Faith episode. Faith’s trauma at witnessing her Watcher’s death, her reaction to the vampire in question, and the eventual facing of her fears with Buffy’s help read so strongly to me as “women supporting each other through sexual trauma.” It’s less empowering on rewatch because Faith is evil by the end of the season, but that first episode with her is so powerful.

    This must have been a tough post to write, it’s so hard to pick favorites! Thanks!

  3. I’ve loved all of your posts in this series, but I must quibble with the idea that “Get It Done,” or any of Season 7, actually, is feminist. Buffy spends most of the the season putting down her friends and basically behaving like a cross between Principle Snyder and Quentin Travers. That she turns down the power at the end can be read as feminist, as can the subjugation of the Slayers at the hands of the original and subsequent Watchers, but it’s all undermined at the end of the season when Buffy “empowers” all the Potentials without their consent. If this was a rape metaphor before, how can it be an empowerment metaphor in “Chosen?” Not to mention the elitism inherent in the whole concept of the Potentials. Why can’t *every* girl be a Slayer?

    And don’t even get me started on how unrealistically and stupidly the whole “Buffy has money troubles, but only for this season” thing in S6 was.

    Seasons 1-5 have plenty of feminist moments, which is part of what makes it my favorite ever show. But S6-7 are utter failures in this regard.

  4. Well, Buffy’s friends also turn on her in the final season, which for me is one of the saddest parts of the show. This is not to say that her behaviour in this season is perfect, but I think it’s a reaction to intense stress, and to the terrible burden which is placed on her shoulders. The moment when she is voted out of the house and wanders Sunnydale just trying to find a place to sleep is very powerful.

    In re:”Get It Done,” I am not arguing that the scene with the First Slayer is not a rape. I mention it here and I’ve discussed it in other critiques of the show. I am arguing that the origin story itself is feminist, in a way, because Buffy learns about her roots, and learns that they are horrific. Sort of like how understanding our own past (for example, people my colour used to own people of colour) empowers us and provides us with sobering lessons. Fiction can depict something terrible and violating to women and still be feminist in nature because it serves a purpose.

    I also don’t argue that what happens in “Chosen” is feminist or that Buffy’s choice to force “empowerment” on women is a feminist act. You will note that it is not singled out here as a great feminist moment. It’s actually one of the most problematic parts of the show (and something I have also addressed in other posts). It’s also a tragic example of how women continue to oppress each other, and continue to repeat the violations of the past. So, while I don’t find that scene empowering from a feminist perspective, I actually think it has some feminist sensibilities, although I do not think they were intended.

    Season six was a mess, and I’m not a huge fan of season seven, but I think it has some redeeming moments.

  5. “Well, Buffy’s friends also turn on her in the final season, which for me is one of the saddest parts of the show.”

    Frankly, I think they had every reason to turn on her, but I don’t want to get too into that.

    “This is not to say that her behaviour in this season is perfect, but I think it’s a reaction to intense stress, and to the terrible burden which is placed on her shoulders. The moment when she is voted out of the house and wanders Sunnydale just trying to find a place to sleep is very powerful.”

    I don’t know, it doesn’t work for me at all. She didn’t have to go, she volunteered to leave the house. And the season simply does not do a very good job of making the threat of the First Evil seem big enough to make Buffy as stressed as she is. The thing could have killed them all instantly, but it doesn’t, for reasons that were never explained. Plus, it seems to me that by this point in the show, Buffy should have already learned that she needs help from her friends to get through the toughest and most stressful situations, and “Get it Done” is a particularly egregious example of her forgetting that completely.

    “In re:”Get It Done,” I am not arguing that the scene with the First Slayer is not a rape.”

    Oh, I didn’t mean to imply that you said that. And I agree that the origin story can actually be read as feminist. My problem is that it’s undermined later in the season, but clearly you understand this and see it as problematic, you’re just not letting it get in the way of that particular moment, which by itself is feminist. I see your point better now.

Comments are closed.