Why the quietly radical feminism of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was so revolutionary.
The cult show still feels relevant, 25 years later.
Today, Buffy the Vampire Slayer turns 25. This means two things. One, I am officially old, and two, this is a ripe time to look back at the legacy of this cult show. Twenty-five years on, Buffy is much more than disgraced show-runners (more on which later) or even the resurgence of its distinctive nineties fashion. This is a show which utterly redefined the way we view female-led drama and foregrounded a feminism which was remarkably nuanced and subtly game-changing.
It seems strange to think it now, in our comic book-drenched universe of female superheroes, but Buffy’s nascent episodes were pioneering. The original conceit of the show – which feels almost gimmicky now but was radical then – was the inversion of the classic horror trope. The young blonde female is chased down an alleyway by a big mean nasty but, this time, she is not the victim, but the heroine. She is the thing that scares the things that go bump in the night.
To a nine-year-old me, watching a year after its US debut, on BBC2 in 1998, this was mind-blowing. Her witty comebacks, her high-kicks, her strength. Everything about her was mesmerising. I had seen female warriors before – in superhero cartoons or even Star Wars – but something about the way the show was otherwise grounded in a rather mundane high-school reality, made this startlingly effective. This was a high-school student with superpowers, a destiny and a pile of maths homework. She was slaying vampires and trying to date, dodging curfews and trying to save up for a pair of shoes. To say that was relatable would be a stretch, but it felt more accessible to me than spandex and capes. One reason for this was what the show allowed her to be – girly.
‘Girly’ as a power play is perhaps one of the show’s most quietly radical moves. Buffy arrived on our screens in the middle of the ‘ladette’ days of the 1990s in which feminism had become a forgotten, dirty word. Female empowerment, as it had been in the 1980s, was still pretty much tied to the idea of slotting into a male template. Aggression and strength- in business (or demon fighting) meant adopting a male pattern of behaviour. The idea of a female-rooted power, as vampire slayers are, was therefore immensely refreshing and appealing, and the shows initial stunt – that its heroine should look as much like the ‘hot victim’ of a horror movie as possible – actually became a fundamental building block of its feminist credentials. For seven years, it allowed for its heroine to be a girl and a young woman, and for all the messiness and contradictions of that to to be as central to the plot as her ability to save the world from unspeakable evil. She had nuance and, by extension, so did the show’s feminism.
For this heroine who decapitated demons and sacrificed her boyfriend to save the world, but who also doodled love hearts on her high school notebook, with Buffy & Angel 4Ever scrawling inside. She ran for homecoming queen, wanted to be a cheerleader, had her heart broken by a one-night stand in college, spoke often and openly about fashion and haircare. She was a ‘girly-girl’ with the grit and stamina of a hardened war veteran. She was an Avenger with a predilection for candy coloured ninties mini-skirts. This may seem trivial, but that’s because we have been socially conditioned to dismiss the traditional facets of femininity as thus. Instead, the space the show gave for character traits which are often dismissed as silly and weak – precisely because they are deemed ‘feminine’ – to sit alongside world-saving superpower, was a brilliant and radical move.
The inversion of the ‘hot victim’ from a horror movie trope was actually a building block of its feminism
What also made this show refreshing, was that Buffy’s ‘hotness’ was never exploited. There were precious few (if any) lingering shots on her body, rarely any moments in which she was trading in her sex appeal in a way that was not mined for laughs. In fact, the one time the way she dressed, or how ‘easy’ she was (very nineties terminology right there) was ever commented on, Buffy broke the guy’s nose on a steering wheel. Her femininity and sex appeal were never posited as for the male gaze and whenever they were, the men voicing these thoughts typically paid some sort of consequence; sexist jocks punched, demon-worshiping fraternity boys arrested – you know, the usual.
The show not only showed precious little regard for male titillation or perspective (see how sensitively and authentically it handled one of primetime TV’s first lesbian relationships), it also foregrounded female characters who wouldn’t typically get a look in, or reversed our perceptions of those who would. In Willow, they took the geeky sidekick and made her a force to be reckoned with. She never underwent a ‘sexy’ makeover or really changed her personality in any way. Having started as a shy nerd who is “good at computer stuff”, she ends season seven as one of the most powerful members of the cast, and even had a brief stab as a villain, while still being, fundamentally, “that shy nerd who is good at computer stuff’. In Cordelia, they took the Queen B archetype – the Regina George of Sunnyudale High – and made her a sympathetic character. They made her lonely, caring and brave. Once again, the show took what you think about a ‘type’ of woman and subverted it.
For a show so fundamentally about women, it can be hard to wrestle with the reality that this was all created by a man: Joss Whedon. Not only a man, but a man who has become a persona non grata in recently years after allegations of on-set affairs, bullying and imnappropriate behaviour. It’s disappointing for so many fans and yet to ignore the magic of the this show – and whatit did for women – because of one man;’s poor character, is to do a great disservice to the work itself; a product of so many women, both in front of, and behind, the camera. In separating the magic from the man, you can still see why Buffy – even with all the flaws of a show made so long ago, from poor CGI alack of diversity – feels as fresh and relevant as ever, 25 years later.
Because, let’s not forget, this was a show that never felt as though it was made for men, or even by a man. That’s crtainly what I felt, aged nine, when I first clapped eyes on it. The way it celebrated and centred women was genuinely a formative experience for me – as I loyally watched it right until the bitter end in my own late teens. So, happy birthday Buffy; your unique, quietly daring brand of feminism is still blowing my mind, all these years later.
Original article at Harper’s Bazaar.
This article has been published for archive purposes. All rights remain with the originating website.