Who are your favourite feminist fictional femmes? Mine are (in no particular order)
1 – Buffy (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
2 – Willow (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
3 – Michel Barnam (Star Trek Discovery)
4 – Captain Janeway (Star Trek Voyager)
5 – Zoe (Firefly)
Other honourable mentions would have to go to Alana from Saga, Harley Quinn from the DC comics (not the yucky film version) and, perhaps surprisingly, Wendy from Peter Pan.
The thing about my top 5 is, there’s a theme. 3 of the 5 are creations of Joss Whedon, the man who was once considered the deity of writing female characters and is now…problematic. Stories of his constant cheating on his wife, using his position to seduce young female interns and his reluctance to acknowledge his troubling behaviour have marred his reputation of late, but my traitorous heart can’t stay mad at him. Because he gave me Buffy, Willow, and Zoe. These 3 characters formed vital parts of the formation of my own character, they form the starting point I use for nearly all the female characters I write and they have become a standard I try to measure up against. All 3 are a mix of toughness and tenderness, they feel deeply but get the job done no matter what, they mess up and make mistakes, but they keep going. And they’re all pretty funny. You may think given my utter adoration of Buffy – I calculated recently that I must have watched the series upwards of 20 times, more for the earlier seasons – that I would be blind to its faults. Sadly, I am not.
Buffy was created to turn the stereotypes of horror movies on their heads. From the very first scene, the iconic moment Darla turns from scared schoolgirl to terrifying vamp, the audience knew this was going to be a very different ride than they usually got. It set out to tackle the issues faced by most young people – and specifically young women – through the lens of demon fighting. There is a wonderful moment in the first episode of season 2 when Cordelia asks Buffy if she fought any demons over the summer and Xander jumps in to protect her cover by saying they fought personal demons like ‘lust and thrift’. I mean, if that isn’t a summary of the show, what is? Buffy is the ultimate outsider battling demons only she can understand in a world full of people who don’t really see what she is. So basically, she’s a teenager. The strength of Buffy for me was that each season very much reflected the age she was at; season 1, she was 16 and trying to navigate making new friends and finding her place, she battled the Master, who had a following and was secure in his place and she fell in love with the ultimate bad boy. Season 2, she’s in love for the first time and it goes horribly wrong, what could be more accurate for 17-year olds? Season 3, she’s on that line between childhood and adulthood and the baddies are bigger, more powerful and represent the control she doesn’t yet have. Season 4, she’s just starting college, she’s lost and unsure of who she is and a government agency come in to do her job for her. Of course. Season 5, she’s an adult, alone, independent, and the biggest bad she’s ever had to face comes to kick her arse. Adulting is hard, guys. Season 6, often hated, is a perfect representation of the disappointment of growing up. You go through all that work to find yourself being undermined by men. And season 7? Hello, motherhood. In a way that, for me, no other show has done, the storyline grew around the core character, rather than the other way around. It is a masterclass of metaphors.
And through all of this is appears to stick to its core values. It delivers (some) well rounded female characters, with complicated lives and emotions. It features a series of ass-kicking women who are allowed to be tough and vulnerable all at the same time. And the only time a man sweeps in to save the day he does so by bucking stereotypes and using love, not violence, to save the world.
But…there’s always a but. There are some glaring issues with Buffy that predate our current knowledge that Whedon is a manipulative slimeball. Let’s have a look at a few.
Where do we start? I wrote recently that Ross Gellar was possibly the worst character ever, but if that’s true then Xander runs a close second. It’s painful how long it took me to recognise Xander’s harmful behaviour. Let’s start from the beginning. Xander fancies Buffy. Sure, fine, it happens. Who hasn’t had a crush on a friend? He continues to obsess about her for most the first season in every way except for, you know, talking to her about his feelings. Think about The Pack. Hyena-Xander attempts to sexually assault Buffy, so she hits him with a table. Good on Buffy. When he is back to regular Xander, he claims to have forgotten this rather than discussing the event and checking in with Buffy to make sure he was OK. I mean, I won’t hold his behaviour against him, he was literally possessed, but not acknowledging it afterward is problematic. What’s that? He’s a teenage boy, he can’t be perfect? Here’s the thing; the writers aren’t teenage boys. They are grown ass adults writing a show that is deliberately feminist, they can do better. They can teach teenage boys how to handle things while still being engaging and entertaining.
The obsession continues until he asks her to the dance and she says no. She is kind but clear in her no, leaving him in no doubt that he is a friend but no more. He sulks. Yeah, OK, he would, but he doesn’t just sulk in private, his reaction is to be mean to her. What’s wrong with acknowledging her feelings and being nice and then throwing a hissy fit when you’re alone? Why ate his feelings about her given more precedent than her feelings about him? This is the embodiment of male entitlement. Again, the writers could have handled this so much better. Write the world the way you want to see it.
Does Xander get over his sulking and become friends with Buffy again? Yes. Does that mean he lets go of his feelings and lets her move on with his life? No. He continues to be low key passive aggressive and stalkerish for several seasons, if not all of them. He only seems to let this go during the time he is in a relationship with Anya (to whom he was regularly dismissive, mocking and distant), but when that ends he feels entitled to be angry at Buffy for sleeping with Spike. If my friend slept with someone like Spike I’d be worried, confused, grossed out maybe, but angry? No. That’s entitlement.
You know one of the things I loved about Zoe in Firefly? She’s a strong, powerful, in charge woman in a happy marriage. Strong women are usually shown as being alone. They’re often shown as gaining strength from their independence or being unable to stay in a relationship due to their weird lives. Buffy wasn’t alone all the time. Even if we only look at the time she was “in a relationship” (what does that even mean? When does it start? How is it defined? That may be a whole different article) this still covers at least half the episodes seasons 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. That’s about half the shows run. And that’s not including episodes of flirting, one-night stands and that weird romantic-but-not-quite-sexual-but-definitely-not-sexless vibe with Buffy and Spike at the end of season 7. Being alone wasn’t really a problem for Buffy.
And yet she was. Buffy’s partners were basically all terrible. Let’s start with the biggie…
Buffy and Angel
Where do we start with Angel? I am willing to overlook the age difference (although given Whedon’s apparent like of younger women that now seems much creepier) because I get it was literally impossible to tell the story without it. I am not going to mention the woe is me brooding, puppy-eyed face that is basically manipulation made sexy because that was big in the 90s. But let’s deal with the sexy elephant in the room here. Buffy loses her virginity to him and he turns evil.
Let’s look at the message this sends to the young girls watching. It says sex is bad. Sex brings the pain. It says that if you have sex with him he will leave you. The sex that both Buffy and Angel choose to have is cast on the light of a bad thing Buffy did that she must now deal with. At no point in her guilt about her actions – that are referenced as her choice alone – does anyone sit her down and tell her that it is not her fault. Not only is she left to deal with the consequences herself but she is low key shamed for it. Not cool Whedon. Not cool.
There is an argument to be made for the fact that Buffy is supposed to reflect the real fears of teenagers, and that generally speaking if a teenage girl has sex and gets pregnant she will often end up dealing with it alone and being shamed for it. But Buffy isn’t real life. The fact that sex is so demonised in the media prevents young people asking questions they need to be able to have to safely. Many states in America still teach abstinence-only sex-ed so media is teenagers’ main source of information about sex. Telling young girls that having sex will ruin their life is hardly constructive. This is compounded by the one and only one-night stand Buffy has with the enigmatic but cruelly shallow Parker also results in him turning out to be a dick (although who doesn’t LIVE for the moment cave-woman Buffy clonks him on the head?).
Here’s the other thing about Angel. He makes decisions for Buffy without ever asking her. Before their relationship really starts he is the one who says it can’t happen (yet he doesn’t leave her alone does he?) because it wouldn’t be good for her. Then, two years later after they’ve dated, shagged, he’s died and come back and she’s pulled him out of his suicidal mood and they get back together he’s like…wait, I said this wasn’t a good idea. We should split up. Where’s the episode in which they sit down and talk about what she wants from her future? As Willow says, he’s going to live forever, he doesn’t have time for a cup of coffee to discuss this with the woman he loves? Angel does this under the guise of prioritising her future but he never gives her the chance to decide what those priorities are. You know who else did that?
Buffy and Riley
Riley was a tool. We all know this. I mean, nobody likes Riley. And that’s for good reason. He is the archetypal victim of toxic masculinity, falling for the societal idea that he should be stronger than his girlfriend, that she should look to him as a protector and let her life revolve around him. But Buffy doesn’t need protecting. By the time they meet she is a young adult, surviving longer than many slayers because she is strong physically and emotionally and because she has friends and family around her. A partner should be a bonus to this, someone to share this with and to encourage you and support you. Riley wants to be Buffy’s life. He wants to be her friend (yet doesn’t seem to make much effort to spend time with her friends) and her bodyguard when what he should want to be is her love. He actively resented her dealing with her mothers’ cancer so well. You might have thought this storyline was leading up to a big moment where Buffy realises she deserves better and sends him packing, but no. He seeks solace in vampire prostitutes, blames her for his behaviour and issues him an ultimatum. Let him be her entire life or he’s leaving. And to add insult to injury? Xander stands up for him and tells Buffy off for being independent. Wow. Again, had Buffy said fine and let him leave this would have been a great feminist moment, but instead, she goes on an epic slow-mo run to try and stop him leaving (incidentally, the first episode of Buffy I ever properly watched). Buffy seems to accept this as her fault once again, an assumption that isn’t even challenged when she realises that ‘love is her gift’ and she is, in fact, full of it and can give it away freely enough to even die for it.
Buffy and Spike
After the whole dying debacle was over with Buffy was left traumatised and, as many of us do, sought solace in someone she knew wanted, maybe even loved her. I know I have clung to relationships before solely on the basis that this person wants me and even if they’re all wrong for me that makes me feel good. Of course, I was clinging to a sexy mathematician, Buffy clung to yet another sexy dead person. Call me dead-ist but girl, that is not a healthy fetish. In some ways, though, this was the healthiest relationship Buffy had. They were both clear about what they wanted, they had fun, they didn’t try to run each other’s lives and for once Buffy broke it off. That was until the writers decided it would be a great idea to throw in an attempted rape. Now, rape happens in real life and therefore storylines around it have a place in our media and I myself have written about it in the context of stories, it is not that they decided to show it that makes it unfeminist per se. The way it is dealt with though is…bad. Spike attacks Buffy and, overcome with guilt (and once again a desire to be the man Buffy ‘deserves’ even though she never asked him to change) he leaves and comes back literally soulful. And except for one momentary flashback it isn’t dealt with. We don’t see Buffy processing the trauma, we don’t see a lengthy process of trying to accept Spike into her life (or an acknowledgment of the fact she shouldn’t have to) and we don’t see any real consequences for Spike. He has a soul and all is forgiven, even though we know that the behaviour of a vampire is linked to the person they were before they were turned (Angel confirmed this in season 3). In the current climate, when men (especially white men) are getting away with light prisons sentences, if any prison at all, on the defence that he committed a sexual assault when they were drunk and therefore not fully responsible, this storyline is particularly harrowing. I was sexually assaulted the same year this season aired. I don’t know how much this influenced my perceptions of my own assault. Like many women, I spent a long time blaming my 13-year-old self for not seeing it coming, for how I dressed and how I reacted. I do know that watching this season when it came out on video, and the season after, I wasn’t disturbed by the way the storyline played out. Looking back, that is very, very sad.
The overriding message here, to Buffy as a character and to fans of the show, is that you’re not worthy of love is your life is difficult. This is damaging. I know it damaged me. Often when people ask why I’m single I quip that nobody loves a fat, grumpy, disabled bitch. But, I’m not really joking. part of me thinks that. Part of me assimilated the understanding that because I am unusual, because my life is hard and because I’ve had to spend a lot of my time fighting for/against things that I don’t deserve love. Buffy is part of the reason I learned that. I’m still trying to unlearn it.
The Other Slayers
Before the season 7 twist when potentials came from far and wide to help with the fight against The One, Buffy was the only slayer. There was supposed to be one at a time according to some ancient laws and potential slayers just sat around waiting for the current one to die, basically. Many slayers, like Buffy, didn’t know what they were before they became a slayer, but some, like Kendra, were identified as children and trained their whole lives (because who doesn’t want to force young girls to face mortality, lose their childhood to violence and be taken away from their families), but either way its still fucked up. What’s just as fucked up though is that when there is a blip in the slayer continuum, because Buffy dies and then comes back to life, the writers treated the other slayers very poorly.
If I were the only person in the world chosen to fight demons and suddenly someone else cropped up who could help me I would be thrilled. Does anyone really want to be alone? I don’t think so. But when Kendra shows up, unaware that Buffy is still alive, they spar. First literally, due to a misunderstanding involving Angel kissing Buffy while in vamp face, and then passive-aggressively even when its proven that they are both on the same side. When Faith shows up they end up stuck in an age-old opposition; good versus evil. In this case, though it is good women vs evil women. Look at the paralanguage in this season. Buffy (with the exception of the episode Bad Girls and the season finale) wears a lot of pink, purple, pale colors. She wears skirts and dresses and florals. Faith wears red and black. She wears trousers, tight clothes, leather. This visual representation forces on the viewer the Madonna/whore dichotomy that the writers cast the characters in all through season 3. This visual and character split is maintained right until the finale when Buffy throws on a pair of leather pants and stabs Faith. Now, I see what the point was here. Faith wasn’t all evil. Buffy wasn’t all good. They were both creations of their past, of their families and support networks and could easily have been the same, I do get the nuance they decided to reveal in the end. But a whole season of pitting women against each other and reinforcing stereotypes about what makes a good woman and a bad woman? No thanks. Not very feminist.
As an aside here, let’s have a look at the whole Slayer creation lore. Buffy takes a magic trip to see how the slayer was made in season 7 and what does she find? A woman was chosen by men, chained to the ground and force-fed demon spirits to make her strong enough to protect the men from real demons. I mean, do I even have to explain why that’s hella unfeminist?
I’ve covered a lot here and you would be forgiven for thinking it sounds like I hate the show. But I don’t, I love it. Misogynist warts and all. It is possible to love something and acknowledge its flaws, despite what angry Harry Potter fans on twitter might think. And it got a lot right. I think its only fair we have a look at a few of them.
Many fans hated that the season 6 big bad was, until the very last few episodes, a few nerdy guys who lived in a basement. Many hated it because after the season 5 big bad being a literal God it was a bit of a letdown and some hated it because it perpetuated stereotypes about nerdy men. I actually like this. As a woman who is all sorts of nerdy – I have Star Trek, Doctor Who and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy tattoos – I have encountered many Nerd Bros in my time. I use Nerd Bros to refer to the type of comic book/gaming/sci-fi loving man who thinks that women can’t really like that stuff and usually has some kind of obsession with proving they’re the biggest nerd of all by spouting in-depth trivia and dismissing anyone who didn’t know it already. The Trio was the perfect example of this. They believed they were entitled to things because they were smart. They wanted money, power and, above all else, women. They made a device that hypnotised women and made them sex slaves for fuck’s sake. And they got their comeuppance. For once their misogynistic behaviour was punished. At the end of the season, they were either dead or forced out of town (and in the long run another died and the other was routinely ostracised by the main group rather than getting to share a bed with the main character like some vampires we won’t mention…again). The Trio were the type of men who were they being written in 2018, would be power players in the Comicsgate movement – a movement that says its about fighting an influx of ‘social justice warriors’ but is really just pissed that comics are no longer a sanctuary for sexist depictions of women and refusals to include LGBT and POC in the narrative. They believe that because they are smart they deserve more and that because they were bullied in school they deserve better lives as adults. Watching them get knocked back still makes me happy.
Buffy is a warrior. She trains and fights and kills. She saves the world. She battles demons personal and real. She is the slayer through and through. But she is also a femme. She loves fashion, hair, beauty, nails. She cares about her looks. The mix of femininity and power has been used elsewhere but what I think is unique about Buffy is that the femininity doesn’t translate as sexual. Don’t get me wrong, Buffy is a beautiful and sexual woman, but her femininity is very much her own. Her personal style changes with her life but it is always personal and isn’t presented as being purely for the male gaze. As a feminist who also blogs about fashion and owns about 30 lipsticks, I appreciate the fact Buffy was neither defined by nor denied her femininity.
Contrary to my concerns about Xander, my favourite thing about Buffy is the ease of many of the platonic relationships. Buffy, Willow, and Giles manage to go 7 whole years with no sexual tension. When you look at some of its contemporaries, such as Friends, they are full of on and off relationships between main characters, occasional hook-ups and unrequited crushes. Once the Willow and Xander issue is resolved by Willow realising she’s a raging homo the group becomes a platonic friendship utopia. I love this because positive representations of platonic relationships are so important, particularly to young people, and especially ones between people of different genders and sexualities. Not to mention, they are generally good to each other. They have moments, sure, but they are fleeting and apologies and amends are made, even by Xander. The representation of positive, healthy, realistic friendships is one of the reasons I believe Buffy is still a well-loved show.
So, here’s the thing. Buffy had issues. Some may have seemed acceptable at the time but through the lens of a post #MeToo 2018 are definitely worrying. Some were worrying even in the 90s. But it also has enduring goodness that still singles it out as a positive feminist text. The powerful but feminine main character, subverting of stereotypes and positive friendships are still things we can learn from. While it is important to remember that these texts aren’t perfect and to actively sift out the ideas we know are less than helpful, there is still a place in our viewing for the problematic feminism of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.