I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I spend an exorbitant amount of my time watching, thinking about and analyzing the show despite the fact that it’s been off the air for a kajillion years (Netflix is my hero). I have Buffy comic books and three – count ‘em, three – analytical books about the show. It’s one of the most commonly written about pieces of pop culture: a study done to compare writing on pop culture compared Buffy to a few other shows. Some of them had upwards of 50 or 60 academic articles written about them. With Buffy, they gave up counting at 200.
The debate about whether or not Buffy is a feminist show is probably not one that will be solved anytime soon. There are convincing arguments to be made for and against that premise, both of which I’ve made and will make again, I have no doubt. It seems like every time I come up with an argument, something sparks and I go, “Ah, but what about that time when x, y or z?” because it totally contradicts whatever it was I’d just come up with.
Frankly, I love that. There aren’t a whole lot of shows that give me that much fodder to play around with from a feminist perspective (but if anybody has recommendations, please let me know!).
However, there was an argument that I stumbled across a few months ago that really irked me. It was a paragraph in a longer list of women sci-fi writers discussing their favorite feminist heroes from novels, movies and pop culture. Instead of discussing something she enjoyed, one woman decided to go on an anti-Buffy rant – aside from drastically missing the point of the list and coming across as a party pooper, this woman also managed to hit on a genuinely terrible argument as to why Buffy is not a feminist show.
Her main argument: Buffy is too physically strong, therefore the show can’t be feminist.
She says, “…the notion came that if women attained the same physical and sexual prowess as men, that would translate into equality” and goes on to say that a lot of young women didn’t get the “joke” that she says Buffy is: “They saw themselves kicking ass and taking names, and it was cool, finally cool, that it was a woman doing it instead of a boy or man” but “ass-kicking … certainly [doesn't] make women strong.” It’s “emotional strength” that matters, apparently solely for women characters (although the author does acknowledge that ass-kicking doesn’t necessarily make men strong, she also fails to condemn it as gender-inappropriate behavior).
She also goes on to mock Buffy because she’s small and can handle herself in a fight.
Let’s unpack this a little bit, because there are some good points in there mixed up with a whole lot of gender-essentialist bullshit. I’ll go right for getting the good points out of the way.
I agree that “ass-kicking and screwing around” do not necessarily make for a strong character. If that’s the only thing your character is good for, you don’t have a character, you have a Brute Squad. Regardless of gender, one-dimensional characterizations are dull. I don’t think anyone is going to disagree with that.
That’s where her argument starts to fall apart, though. For it to be true that Buffy is a caricature and a joke, she would have to be solely a witty action hero with no emotional range who never does anything apart from fight and fuck. Anyone who’s watched the show knows that’s not even remotely how it all shakes out. There’s plenty to criticize about the show’s presentation of familial, romantic and friendly relationships, but nobody can deny that they’re there, they’re deep and they’re hugely important to plot and character development.
Also, I take a great deal of umbrage at the idea that a small woman is inherently incapable of physical strength – that it’s a joke for a slender blonde girl with a name that has the capacity to call to mind both strength and, to the author of the argument at least, Valley Girl morons. Explain to me how denigrating someone for her body size and name is a feminist argument? How is it a feminist argument to say that because you look a certain way, you must therefore be a certain way, and if you violate that expectation (e.g. by being physically strong), you’re a “joke”? That’s not feminist. That’s mean-spirited and frankly factually wrong. There are plenty of strong women who also happen to be slender and small. There are plenty of strong women who are tall and thickly muscled as well, and strong women who have barrel-shaped bodies and women who are body-builders. None of them are a joke. They’re women who are strong.
The argument that you can’t be strong if you’re small and a woman flies in the face of logic. It also reveals that the author has misunderstood or not bothered to grapple with one of the central tensions of Buffy, which is that you have an outwardly stereotypical young woman who is nonetheless in possession of great strength. This is the core of many arguments I have about Buffy, but from a different angle: Buffy is given the power to be a physical and emotional dynamo in a patriarchal society that attempts to hem her in with expectations based on her body and her gender. A huge part of her personal struggle is trying to balance her desire to still be a young woman in a society with those expectations while at the same time breaking all expectations of what she can and should be.
That’s the quintessential individual fight for a lot of individuals. That’s a feminist conundrum. How can I be myself in a society that wants to squash the individuality out of me? How do I balance my desires to blend with a patriarchal society and my desire to dismantle it? If we want to take it to the most simplistic level, how do fashion and fighting co-exist?
And I want to touch on the idea that women having physical strength necessarily divorces them of the capability for emotional strength (and my assumption that, for this author, this goes along with some pretty conventional notions of femininity as well. I could be off the mark, but if you’re going to say that a little blonde woman is a “joke” for being strong, I’m going to assume you think that little blonde women need to be demure angels of the home).
Physical and emotional strength are not dependent on gender. To suggest that emotional strength is the domain of women, and that physical strength is the domain of men (which the author doesn’t explicitly do, but which is strongly implied by the core of the argument), and never the twain shall meet, is an anti-feminist argument. Part of what makes Buffy so compelling is that these conventional notions of gender are turned on their ears – they’re not totally discarded, and they make up a huge part of the show’s conflicts, but they’re challenged.
I would argue, for example, that Xander is the emotional center of the Buffy-Willow-Xander trio. Just look at the end of S6, when he pulls Willow back from destroying the world with the power of his love for her – and it’s not even romantic love, it’s love between friends. For a man to express that kind of emotional strength (and in the face of a woman who is physically much stronger than him in that moment) would be totally verboten if we want to insist that emotions are for women and physical strength is for men. Buffy and Willow also grapple with different forms of physical and emotional strength throughout the show. Their challenges are what make Buffy interesting.
Like I said earlier, there are dozens of reasons to argue for and against Buffy being or not being a feminist show. The fact that Buffy can handle herself in a fight just isn’t one of them.