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Sometimes, the Girl Gets to be the Hero (Buffy as a Feminist Hero by Molly Wetta)

I watched my first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer my freshman year of college. I went home for a weekend because I was distraught after breaking up with my high school boyfriend. My younger sister, in an attempt to cheer me up, said, “at least your ex-boyfriend isn’t going around killing your friends,” and then forced me to watch “Passions” with her.
 
 

This was also just about the time I started to identify as a feminist. I was aware of feminism as a high schooler, but I never proclaimed myself a feminist until I took Social and Political Philosophy with the director of the Women’s Studies program my first year in college. The confluence of my own feminist awakenings and my discovery of BtVS has inextricably woven the two together in my mind. I have always viewed Buffy through a feminist lens.



But even if one is not predisposed to associate Buffy with feminism, the show still provides a framework for exploring various feminist issues. The show’s concept deliberately subverts a common teenage female stereotype of the ditzy blonde cheerleader by imbuing her with supernatural powers that give her not only the strength but the obligation to save the world. There is an entire subfield of cultural studiesdedicated to exploring the myriad of questions that Buffy prompts, and I’m not attempting to cover the ground of an academic discipline in a blog post. Whether or not you think Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a feminist show, there’s no doubt that it invites discussion of feminism, which is an important reason it’s still relevant ten years after going off the air and why the comics, graphic novels, and related publications are read by fans both old and new.

 
“This is why Joss Whedon is my Hero”
Image from Shawnee Small blog
Arguments can be made both in favor and against BtVS as feminist. Though the show’s creator, Joss Whedon, is a self-identified feminist who explicitly states that Buffy is intended as a feminist work, Sarah Michelle Gellar, the actress who portrays Buffy, has claimed in interviews that she doesnt label herself as a feminist. This tension is at the heart of what makes BtVS great. There aren’t easy answers, but complicated contradictions that allow viewers to explore issues from gender to sexuality, ethics to metaphysics.  

Buffy is a girly-girl. She may be able to kick some demon butt, but the first thing she wants to do after destroying the Hellmouth is go to the mall. In part, due to the proliferation of kick-butt girls in YA fiction that reject femininity, there is a common misconception among some teens that for a girl to be “strong” she can’t embrace her girliness at the same time. Buffy offers another way of being a strong young woman. She hunts vampires in stylish leather boots and halter tops, staking them just after delivering a snappy pun.  

Being a vampire slayer results in several complications in Buffy’s life—many of them romantic. From having your boyfriend turn evil after you sleep with him (Angel), to having your boyfriend resent you for being stronger (Riley), to engaging in a self-destructive relationship fraught with violence (Spike), Buffy experiences a wide spectrum of heartache. Buffy’s romantic entanglements are more than just good drama, however—they can prompt reflection by those navigating real-life relationships. Buffy makes mistakes, and learns from the consequences. Buffy writers did not shy away from controversial topics like teen sex, dating violence, and attempted rape. During the series finale, Buffy explains to Angel that she is “cookie dough” that’s “not done baking yet.” Her primary interest is in finding out who she is, rather than allowing a romantic relationship to define her.  

BtVS was a groundbreaking show. Whether it was the critically acclaimed silent episode “Hush” or the musical episode “Once More with Feeling” before Glee was a hit, Joss Whedon was a pioneer pushing the limits of the pop culture frontier. Perhaps the most important achievement of BtVS was exploring the first lesbian romance on television. Willow and Tara had a complex relationship that wasn’t free of conflict and helped create a generation more accepting of the LGBTQ community. 

It isn’t just the ladies of the Buffyverse that challenge gender stereotypes. When, following Tara’s accidental and very unsupernatural death, Willow’s grief plunges her deep into dark magic, it is her childhood best friend Xander—not Buffy, with her strength—that stops Willow from destroying the world in “Grave.” His appeal is an emotional one rather than a logical argument or an exercise in physical strength. Rather than the knight-in-shining-armour swooping in to save the day, Xander uses his relationship with Willow and their history to pull her back from the edge, a tactic that might be considered stereotypically feminine.  

Popular culture doesn’t offer nearly enough feminist role models. Buffy may not be the ideal, but the storylines and characters of Buffy the Vampire Slayer provide a framework for feminist discussions. It’s my belief that public and school libraries—as community centers and sites for education —have the ability to serve as places of consciousness raising about sexism and oppression. Including Buffy-related items in collections and promoting them is a way to contribute to feminist consciousness raising. 

In the final episode of the television series, Buffy poses the question: “Are you ready to be strong?” After seven seasons on television, Buffy the Vampire Slayer the characters represented many different ways to be strong woman or man, regardless of gender.
 
Editor’s note: In a time where we have just had the discussion about ya literature and body image, it is nice to have strong, empowered female characters that remind teens that girls they can be the hero.
 
 
Slayer Scavenger Hunt
 

Did you notice some words written in red in this post? If not, go back and take a look. You’ll want to, I can reassure you. Why? Because we are having a Buffy themed scavenger hunt! How fun is that? To find out how to participate, read the details below. And I know you’ll want to participate because we are working on getting some GREAT prizes lined up for the winners!
  • Write down the words each week (Sept. 8 – Oct. 20), putting them in an order that makes sense. All together these words create a quote from Buffy.
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  • During the last week a form will be made available on all three blogs where you can turn in the quote that you have pieced together.
  • On the last weekend of The Sunnydale Project, Oct. 27, the quote will be revealed! We will then draw a winner from those who have correctly completed the quote.
We really hope you have fun with this! We’re still finalizing the prize, but it’ll be worth participating for! An announcement will be made when all details have been finalized!

Comments

  1. I think it's a shame that feminism as a term has such negative, sometimes political, connotations. I love the Joss Whedon quote highlighted above. Why do we still talk about feminism or who's a feminist? SMG may not want the label–and I don't blame her–but she's a strong, self-supporting, confident woman. That's a feminist, right? I tend to think of people who are not feminists as folks who think women shouldn't be paid equally or treated equally or allowed to make their own lives, whether that's being a homemaker or a CEO.

    Great posts, by the way–I love the Sunnydale Project!

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