BY LAURA GOETZ
OCTOBER 1, 2013
It’s time to embark upon another season of searching for feminist TV shows. They’re few and far between, so in case this season strikes out, I’d like to take a moment to remind everyone of my favorite (although, sadly, concluded) series: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Whenever I mention my great fondness for Buffy, I encounter some skepticism – almost always from people who have never seen it. Why haven’t they? Why haven’t you? Buffy’s brilliance is one of the best-kept secrets of the TV world. So, if you haven’t, take a look. It could change your life. Or at least restore a little bit of your faith in humanity.
So, what makes a somewhat-campy late 90’s TV show about a teenager who inherits the mantle of “Slayer”—and with it the duty of battling vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness a must-see for feminists? Well, for starters, said teenager is a girl! (Shocker, I know) She is physically powerful and not afraid to show it. Buffy easily outmuscles characters of both genders (whether human or not), and her strength is key to her ability to save the world. But her monster-butt-kicking prowess isn’t the only part of her identity that the show explores. Buffy also broadly defines her own feminity, freely combining her killer instincts and killer fashion sense. She’s also capable of defeating gods, although unable to hold a job in the fast-food industry. Buffy is a badass, but she also comes across as a real person who makes mistakes and fixes them.
One fabulous female dynamo in a show is unusual, and more than one is almost unheard of. Once again, Buffy goes above and beyond. Perhaps you’ve heard of the “Bechdel Test,” named for its creator, the cartoonist Alison Bechdel. To pass the test, a show or movie has to satisfy the following three requirements: 1) There are at least two women, 2) Who talk to each other about 3) Something besides a man. Depressingly few movies and TV shows accomplish this, but Buffy does.
In the very first episode, Buffy makes friends with Willow – a sweet, nerdy, computer-hacking ginger – and from that point on, the two team up to crack cases and stake vampires, to plan for the future and navigate emotional turmoil. The show’s gender ratio is also a definite improvement over most shows. The “Scooby Gang,” as Buffy’s band of lovable demon-fighters dubs itself, starts out half female, and then over the course of the seven seasons shifts to include more women than men. This trend of equal gender-representation is prevalent throughout the show’s cast. Seven of the 12 characters that appear in at least 40 episodes are female, and 14 of the 29 characters that appear in at least 10 episodes are female. This may not seem revolutionary, but compared to most shows, it is. A 2007 study (yes, that’s a whole decade after Buffy premiered) found that 19% of prime time television characters are non-human while only 17% are women. (In that comparison, though, Buffy contributes to both categories.)
Buffy also aces the Russo Test, a lesser-known LGBTQ version of the Bechdel Test. It asks that a movie or TV show 1) contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender, 2) that that character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity, and 3) the LGBT character must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect.
Again, Buffy easily meets the criteria. Buffy became one of the first prime-time American TV shows to depict a lesbian relationship when Buffy’s friend Willow got involved with her friend Tara in the fourth season. Willow and Tara’s relationship is remarkable for many reasons. First and foremost: it isn’t about the fact that they’re gay! In the words of David Fury, a Buffy screen-writer, “Willow didn’t TURN GAY. She fell in love with someone who happened to be the same sex.” They have by far the healthiest relationship in the show, and they are simply portrayed as two people who love and support each other. Their “gayness” isn’t even presented as a real factor of character or personality. Both characters are Wiccan, and their witchcraft plays a much larger part in the plot than their sexual orientation.
Even more impressively, the series executed those dynamics while fighting the station each step of the way. Willow and Tara weren’t allowed a single onscreen until they’d been involved for a full season, and even then Joss Whedon, the director, had to put up a big stink. Whedon elaborated on that tension in an NPR interview in 2000. “The network obviously has issues. They don’t want any kissing — that’s one thing that they’ve stipulated — and they’re a little nervous about it. They haven’t interfered at all with what we’ve tried to do and yet they’ve raised a caution about it.” Through Willow and Tara’s relationship, Buffy gave the queer community characters to adore and admire for far more than their sexual orientation. And by doing so it made history. At the time, GLAAD estimated that less than 2% of television characters were queer. Even now, the LGBTQ community only represents 4.4% of characters. Progress is coming slowly, but Buffy was well ahead of its time.
Buffy isn’t just progressive in its heroes – the villains also bring joy to my feminist heart. Of all of the various vampires, humans, demons, gods, monsters, and generic forces of darkness that the Slayer faces during the course of the series, the most powerful foes are female. Buffy spends a lot of time fighting various villains of both genders, but it’s the female ones who give her by far the most trouble. When another Slayer, Faith, goes rogue, Buffy is mistakenly abducted and almost permanently imprisoned. When Glory, a goddess who wants to collapse the walls between dimensions, comes to Sunnydale, Buffy has to die to save the world – Glory’s too powerful to stop her any other way. Similarly, when Willow is thrown into a state of desperate grief and rage by a personal tragedy, and tries to use her witchcraft to set things right, she’s nearly unstoppable. Women are also shown repeatedly in positions of power, even in fields that we think of as traditionally male-dominated, like “The Initiative” – a demon-fighting version of the military.
Buffy’s women are depicted as capable of being kind or crazy, loyal or lethal, sweet or scary-strong, and most often some combination of all. The fact that women are portrayed as capable of being a serious threat supports the idea that we can and should be taken seriously.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a brilliant and ridiculously underrated show that makes my feminist heart sing. I concede its campiness and bad visual effects, but those are part of its charm. The silliness in superficial details allows the show to delve deeper into real issues while maintaining a light and fun tone. I’ve yet to find another show that does it as well, but who knows – this might be the year.
Laura Goetz is a first-year in Yale College. She is a contributing writer for Broad Recognition.