In honor of the 20th anniversary of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Bitch is featuring three writers offering their perspective on how Buffy impacted their feminism and perspectives. It’s our tribute to the show that taught a generation to slay the monsters, embrace their dark complexities, and find their superhero strength.
I was late to the series. But watching the musical episode, “Once More With Feeling,” in the sixth season was akin to being seduced by Dracula’s thrall. In that one episode, I realized what I’d been missing—a smart, joyous, resonant, deeply funny exploration of what it means to be a hero from a female perspective. The angst and solitude of Spider-Man and his lone wolf ilk were present in Buffy Summers, but the series’s intentional subversion of the male-centric quest for identity allowed for a progressive representation denied to most of the Slayer’s spiritually matriarchal predecessors.
Much has been said about Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s feminist mission and especially of Buffy as the proverbial “girl in the dark alley” of traditional horror genre peril. But the visual signifiers of her femininity belie super-strength; despite her petite frame, Buffy can turn around and kick the bad guy’s ass. Her diminutive size is a fake-out. Such assumptions about girls and girl power work as sneak-attack feminism throughout the series, teaching politics about bodily autonomy through superheroism. But even as Buffy and company set a visual tone for the “strong female character” of the 1990s and aughts, subverting outdated tropes about gender went well beyond flipping the script on the damsel in distress.
When she dies (the first time) in the season one finale, “Prophecy Girl,” she does so in a sacrificial white dress. But she is also resurrected, and in her rebirth, she defies the written rules—rules that had been written for her and without her consent. Buffy advocates for personal agency before systemic change, but with her death began the process of changing patriarchal forces that sought to predetermine the fates of girls around the world. Her death leads to the activation of a second Slayer, challenging the idea that only one girl can be empowered at any given time. Later, at the end of season three, she graduates literally (from high school) and metaphorically (from girl to woman) when she rejects the manipulative Watchers Council. She instead privileges the counsel of the uniquely skilled outcasts who have become her chosen family and are heroes in their own right.
In 1999, Rachel Fudge wrote in Bitch that “Slaying could well become a grassroots movement.” And indeed it has. The final season of BtVS sees an influx of young women to the Summers’ household. (And serves as a quasi-corrective to the lack of intersectional representation on the show.) These girls, who have come to Sunnydale, California from all over the globe, each have the potential to be called as the next in the Slayer line—the one girl in all the world who has the power to fight the forces of darkness. As such, they must be protected, and Buffy’s living room becomes a literal shelter for refugees. But they also must learn to protect themselves, and to do so, they must embrace collective action. To prepare this army for battle, they must share knowledge and skill sets. Rooms are littered with training equipment while whiteboards are filled with Slayer history and strategy. There is baking; board games are played to destress. Like any grassroots collective, infighting leads to debates about leadership, and, ultimately, compromise.
They may as well be writing postcards to Congress. The series’s primary mission, as Joss Whedon has said, was about “the joy of female power. Having it, using it, sharing it.” Buffy had power. She used it. But it’s only in facing the most apocalyptic of apocalypses that she initiates the ultimate act of self-care and sisterhood. When she literally shares the Slayer power, she steps away from the “one girl” pain and glory to lift up those around her. The only way to defeat uber-monsters, she says, is to rewrite the rules: “My power should be our power.” The solution is to change the game—and to do so in collaboration with other women. The institutional Slayer rules were broken and dangerous, born of powerful, but unimaginative, men. Women, in community, changed them to save the world. “There’s only one thing on this earth more powerful than evil. And that’s us,” Buffy says earlier in the seventh season. But empowerment can only defeat evil when some power is given up so that it can be wielded by all.
Today, 20 years on, the feminist messages of Buffy the Vampire Slayer remain relevant. In order to defeat evil in a time of Trump, feminist activists will need to share the power. So it’s no surprise that Buffy Summers is a member of the pantheon of iconic pop culture women serving as symbolic leaders in the IRL resistance.