There is an entire field of study known as 'Buffy studies' which is at many major universities. It may seem silly but there is a lot of social commentary in BtVS, some of it more obvious than others. While the show has been over since 2003, it has left an incredible and undeniable social impact. I discovered Buffy at the beginning of this year through none other than feminist blogger/author and my personal hero Jessica Valenti. In her book Full Frontal Feminism (a personal favorite of mine and a definite must read for anyone interested in feminism), she mentions Buffy quite a bit, through references and through just declaring her love for it, both as a TV show and a great piece of feminist media. Obviously, I had to look into it. I had just finished my other favorite show, The X Files, and I felt a great void in my life. Little did I know how Buffy would fill that void and then some! Buffy didn't reel me in immediately, it wasn't until the middle of the second season when I really felt an attachment to the show. However, from then on my love for the show just grew and now I am a full blown Buffy fanatic. Here's my dissection of BtVS, from a feminist perspective.
For those of you who aren't familiar with the show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a spinoff of a shiteous (in my opinion...and most other people's) 1992 movie that really isn't worth being associated with the television show at all. The show follows Buffy Summers. She is the 'slayer', aka a chosen one who slays vampires, demons, and various hellbeasts. The slayer is a human female infused with a demon, so she has super-strength. Buffy is assisted by her two best friends: comedic relief giver Xander and witch Willow. Also she has a 'watcher', Giles, who is the shows father figure. Throughout the course of the show we also see Willow's girlfriend and fellow witch Tara, brooding vampire-with-a-soul Angel, naughty vampire Spike, former vengeance demon Anya, and many other...eccentric characters. Basically, Buffy saves the world...a lot.
The central feminist idea with Buffy is rather obvious. Buffy is a reversal of traditional gender roles. She's a FEMALE badass, she's a rejection of the usual passive female model. She is the one fighting evil and saving others, as opposed to being the damsel in distress. However, you might think, what's so special about that? There are plenty of female superheroes, that mold has been broken into many a time. The thing that separates Buffy from the usual female badass is that she's not hypersexualized. That's the most common theme with female superheroes, blatant hpersexualization for no reason. We have the comic book female superhero, like Wonder Woman or Catwoman.
Obviously sexualized. But this isn't just the comic book female badass, it crosses over into female badasses portrayed in television and movies. Women are shown fighting for themselves, being strong, and generally breaking physical gender barriers. However, they are often doing this in latex or other incredibly tight fitting fabrics. Their gender markers are definitely prominently displayed and they often use their sexuality to get what they want from the bad guy or whoever else stands in their way. Buffy broke that mold (not to say she never wore leather pants or miniskirts, she did, but that wasn't hypersexualization, that was the 90's). Buffy Summers fights evil, and she has super-strength, so you would expect her to be put into the same mold as the usual female superhero, but while Sarah Michelle Gellar is indeed very attractive, this was never a focus of her character. She dressed and presented herself like a normal young woman (a normal young woman who slays vampires, but I digress!) and the focus was put on her attempts to fight evil, not her sexuality.
Another awesome part of BtVS that adds about a million feminist points is the way that the show dealt with and represented sex. Currently society is clashing between the two most popular sexual norms: hook-up culture and the abstinence craze. Buffy did not fall prey to this. Joss Whedon is clearly a very brave man for being willing to show sex on his show in an honest manner, as opposed to turning it into a farce out of fear like so many shows end up doing. Long story short, characters on Buffy have sex, as people do in real life, and the show does nothing to hide this. When I was first watching the series, I was definitely afraid after the whole Buffy/Angel sex disaster. If you aren't familiar with the show, I can't completely explain the situation because it's kind of complicated, but in the second season, 17-year-old Buffy and her vampire-with-a-soul boyfriend Angel have sex for the first time, and doing so makes him lose his soul and he becomes really really evil. Like, reeeeaaaallly evil. This was the first time the show dealt with sex and I was afraid that was a foreshadowing of how the rest of series would deal with sex. It sent out an obvious message to teenage girls that if you have sex, it will change everything and your boyfriend won't love you anymore, blah blah abstinence blah. To this day I'm not sure if that was Joss Whedon's intent, if he wanted to send that message or if it was just a plot element. Like I said, I was worried. However, as the progressed and the characters aged it began dealing with sex more and more, and I like the direction it went in. BtVS represented sex in and out of relationships. Through relationships like that of Buffy/Riley and Xander/Anya, the show, well, showed that people in relationships DO have sex, and that it's healthy, and normal, and that there is nothing wrong with that. It also represented purely sexual relationships. Casual sex is something that TV shows directed towards young people will almost NEVER touch, mostly because of the popular message currently being sent out to young people through the media/schools/churches/you name it that all sex it bad, especially casual sex. BtVS does not portray that message. Buffy and Spike have lots and lots of casual sex. And for them especially, it's not implied. BtVS isn't shy about it's sex scenes. It's about as graphic as you could get on WB in the 90's. They even make allusions to bondage and anal sex, which on television is absolutely unheard of. The point I'm trying to make is that Buffy represented a core feminist belief, that you can have a sex life. And that was very brave.
The last point I'll make for Buffy, though there are many more, is that it's representation of homosexuality and gay relationships was superb.
Tara and Willow's relationship from the very start broke barriers and stereotypes. Society's current go-to model for lesbian relationships is the college experimentation, hot, girl on girl fantasy model. Now this is a post worthy issue on its own so I won't get too into it, but the Tara/Willow relationship certainly did not follow this model. What I loved about how they were represented was that there wasn't a huge spectacle made over it. There was no "OMYGOSH LESBIANS?!" reaction. They were treated like any other couple and they had the same problems in their relationship as any other couple would (minus the whole addiction to magic thing...). Their relationship was on the same level as all of the heterosexual relationships shown on BtVS. Also, the show was not shy about portraying their sex life. And once again, in true Whedon style, it was not just implied sex, it was obvious SEX. There was no hesitation is showing that yes, lesbians have sex. Also, after Tara's untimely death, Willow was still a lesbian. It wasn't just a ratings stunt, she was gay. And while I feel like they could have explored her realization of her sexuality a little more, every other aspect was done wonderfully.
So there's my *limited* dissection of Buffy. If you're ever down for some serious Buffy talk, I am too, because it really is one of my favorite things. Keep in mind that not only is it totally feminist friendly and socially aware, but it's just a really awesome show.
I'll leave you with a favorite Spike quote of mine.