The cult television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer is now indisputably one of the most widely analyzed texts in contemporary popular culture. The end of the series in 2003 didn’t herald the passing of a fleeting academic fancy, as many must have expected, but instead ushered in an unprecedented number of monographs, edited collections, book chapters, journal articles, and even university courses that grapple with the Buffy phenomenon one way or another.
Gender analysis has been central to popular and academic critiques of Buffy from the series’ inception, and debates about its feminist rhetoric, politics, and potential continue to engage readers and viewers, scholars and fans. But what accounts for the extraordinary and enduring feminist appeal of Buffy, more than a decade after it went off the air? And how did its ex-cheerleading, demon-hunting heroine become the poster girl for third-wave feminist popular culture?
Simply put, Buffy, the story of a popular high-school student chosen by fate to fight vampires, offers a vision of collective feminist activism that’s unparalleled in mainstream television. At the same time, the series’ emphasis on individual empowerment, its celebration of the exceptional woman, and its problematic politics of racial representation remain important concerns. But in its final season, which ran from September 2002 to May 2003, Buffy offered a more straightforward and decisive feminist message than the show had attempted before. And in doing so it painted a compelling picture of the promises and predicaments that attend third-wave feminism as it negotiates both its second-wave predecessors and its traditional patriarchal nemeses.
Over its seven-year cycle the series addressed a staggering range of contemporary concerns, from the perils of low-paid, part-time employment to the erotic dynamics of addiction and recovery. But it’s significant that the final season of Buffy makes a decisive shift back to feminist basics. Season seven eschews the metaphorical slipperiness and pop-cultural play that’s typical of its evocation of post-modern demons and instead presents a monster who is, quite literally, an enemy of women.
The principal story arc pits an amorphous antagonist, The First Evil, against the Slayer and her “army,” a group that’s swelled to include in its ranks “Potential” Slayers from around the world. In introducing a previously unknown matriarchal legacy (and weapon) for the Slayer, staging the series’ final showdown with a demon who’s overtly misogynist, and creating an original evil with a clearly patriarchal platform, Buffy’s final season raises the explicit feminist stakes of the series considerably.
Unable to take material form, The First Evil employs a former preacher turned agent-of-evil called Caleb as its vessel and deputy. Spouting hellfire and damnation with fundamentalist zeal, Caleb is, of all of the show’s myriad manifestations of evil, the most recognizably misogynist. Dubbed “the Reverend-I-Hate-Women” by Xander, Caleb is a monstrous but familiar representative of patriarchal oppression, propounding a dangerous form of sexism under the cover of pastoral care. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you, sweetpea,” Caleb at one point warns Buffy. At other times he calls her “girly girl,” “little lady,” and once (but only once), “whore.” Buffy’s response (after kicking him across the room) is to redirect the condescension and hypocrisy couched in his paternal concern: “You know, you really should watch your language. Someone didn’t know you, they might take you for a woman-hating jerk.”
In comparison with the supernatural demons of previous episodes, Caleb’s evil might seem unusually old-fashioned or even ridiculous, but his successive encounters with the Slayer underscore the fact that his power is all the more insidious and virulent for that. Mobilizing outmoded archetypes of women’s weakness and susceptibility, Caleb effectively sets a trap that threatens to wipe out the Slayer line. Within the context of the narrative, his sexist convictions, and, more importantly, their unconscious internalization by the Slayer and her circle, pose the principal threat to their sustained, organized, and collective resistance.
In its exploration of the dynamics of collective activism, Buffy’s final season examines the charges of individualism that have frequently been directed at contemporary popular feminism. “Want to know what today’s chic young feminist thinkers care about?” wrote Ginia Bellafante in a notorious 1998 article for Time magazine. “Their bodies! Themselves!”
One of the greatest challenges Buffy faces in season seven is negotiating conflicting demands of individual and collective empowerment. Trapped by the mythology propounded by the Watchers’ Council that bestows the powers of the Slayer on just “one girl in all the world,” Buffy is faced with the formidable task of training Potential Slayers-in-waiting who will only be called into their own power in the event of her death. In the episode “Potential,” Buffy attempts to rally her troops for the battle ahead:
The odds are against us. Time is against us. And some of us will die in this battle. Decide now that it’s not going to be you … Most people in this world have no idea why they’re here or what they want to do. But you do. You have a mission. A reason for being here. You’re not here by chance. You’re here because you are the Chosen Ones.
This sense of vocation resonates strongly with feminist viewers who feel bound to the struggle for social justice. However, such heroism can still be a solitary rather than collective battle. On the eve of their final fight, after decimating her advance attack, The First-as-Caleb makes fun of what he calls Buffy’s “One-Slayer-Brigade” and taunts her with the prospect of what we might think of as wasted Potential:
None of those girlies will ever know real power unless you’re dead. Now, you know the drill … “Into every generation a Slayer is born. One girl in all the world. She alone has the strength and skill …” There’s that word again. What you are, how you’ll die: alone.
Such references make it clear that loneliness and isolation are part of the Slayer’s legacy. Balancing the pleasures and price of her singular status, Buffy bears the burden of the exceptional woman. But the exceptional woman, as many leaders including Margaret Thatcher have amply demonstrated, is not necessarily a sister to the cause—a certain style of ambitious woman fashions herself precisely as the exception that proves the rule of women’s general incompetence.
In one of the more dramatic and disturbing character developments in the series as a whole, season seven presents Buffy’s leadership as becoming arrogant and autocratic, her attitude isolationist and increasingly alienated. Following in the individualist footsteps of prominent “power feminists,” Buffy forgoes her collaborative community and instead adopts what fans in the United States and elsewhere perceived as a sort of “you’re-either-with-me-or-against-me” moral absolutism—an incipient despotism exemplified by what Anya calls Buffy’s “everyone-sucks-but-me” speech. The trial of Buffy’s leadership is sustained up to the last possible moment.
Drawing attention to the Slayer’s increasing isolation, The First highlights the political crisis afflicting her community, but in doing so he inadvertently alerts Buffy to the latent source of its strength, forcing her to claim a connection she admits “never really occurred to me before.” In a tactical reversal that Giles claims “flies in the face of everything … that every generation has ever done in the fight against evil,” Buffy plans to transfer the power of the Chosen One, the singular, exceptional woman, to the hands of the Potentials—to empower the collective not at the expense of, but by force of, the exception. In the series finale, Buffy addresses her assembled army in the following terms:
Here’s the part where you make a choice. What if you could have that power now? In every generation one Slayer is born, because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. They were powerful men. This woman [pointing to Willow] is more powerful than all of them combined. So I say we change the rules. I say my power should be our power. Tomorrow, Willow will use the essence of the scythe to change our destiny. From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power will have the power. Can stand up? Will stand up. Slayers—every one of us. Make your choice: are you ready to be strong?
At that moment—as the archaic power of a recently recovered matriarchal scythe is wrested from the patriarchal dictates of the Watchers’ Council—the show offers a series of vignettes from around the world, as young women of different ages, races, cultures and backgrounds sense their strength, take charge and rise up against their oppressors. This is a ‘feel the force, Luke’ moment for girls on a global scale.
In transferring power from a privileged, white Californian teenager to a group of women from different national, racial and socio-economic backgrounds, Buffy’s final season addresses—almost as an afterthought—the issue of cultural diversity that’s been at the forefront of third-wave feminist theorizing.
From some of its earliest incarnations, academic third-wave feminism has presented itself as a movement that places questions of diversity and difference at the center of its agenda. In its less careful incarnations, as Buffy demonstrates admirably, third-wave feminism can perform the very strategies of occlusion and erasure that it’s aiming to redress. Buffy’s racial politics are more conservative than the show’s gender or sexual politics, a situation summarized by one of the few black characters to recur in the show’s first three seasons, Mr Trick, who says, “Sunnydale […] admittedly not a haven for the brothers – strictly the Caucasian persuasion in the Dale.”
But the contradictions embedded in Buffy’s cultural politics are indicative of the crosscurrents that distinguish the third wave of feminism. The refusal of misogynist violence, the battle against institutionalized patriarchy, and the potential of feminist activism are issues that remain at the forefront of the third-wave agenda, and are themes that Buffy’s final season explores with characteristically challenging and satisfying complexity. The fact that its success in critiquing its own cultural privilege is equivocal should be read less as a straightforward sign of failure than a reflection of the contradictions that characterize third-wave feminism itself.
In its examination of individual and collective empowerment, its ambiguous politics of racial representation and its willing embrace of contradiction, Buffy is a quintessentially third-wave cultural production. Providing a fantastic resolution—in both senses of the word—to some of the many dilemmas confronting third-wave feminists today, Buffy is comfort food for girls who like to have their cake and eat it too.
This article has been adapted from Patricia Pender’s book, I’m Buffy and You’re History: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Contemporary Feminism.