What Buffy The Vampire Slayer Taught A Generation Of Feminists

Just like dusting vampires one at a time will never rid the world of evil, we’re not going to take down rape culture by throwing individual rapists through plate glass windows.

 Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered twenty years ago last Friday. If that makes you feel old, you’re not alone.

I’m approaching 30, and that means I’ve been a Buffy fan for nearly two-thirds of my life. Like many people my age, especially women, I don’t know who I would be today if it weren’t for Buffy. The show helped crystallize my understanding of my own queerness, my feminism, my fashion sense, and even the way I talk. While all those things have evolved since the Hellmouth was closed for good in 2003, Buffy is still a crucial historical document, both personally and culturally.

The show appeared in the late ‘90s, that halcyon era of “girl power” and chunky heels, when the word “feminist” still had a slight frisson of radicalism attached. It hadn’t yet been watered down to mean “literally anything any woman does that benefits her, personally, in any way, even if it comes at the expense of the rights and dignity of millions of other women, Kellyanne Conway.”

And in that generation, there was a Chosen One, a television show that would stand alone against the mansplainers, the harassers, and the forces of patriarchy.

Buffy has been widely hailed as a feminist masterpiece, and its creator Joss Whedon as the emissary of feminism to the mainstream. While the show falls far short of the real, holistic feminist representation we need and deserve, it was still ahead of its time.

Buffy Summers never identified herself as a feminist, but her quipping and ass-kicking were a refreshing glimpse of female strength in a genre that had always preferred its female protagonists passive and terrified. Buffy returned again and again to an image that strikes primal terror in the heart of many contemporary women: a lone female figure in an alley with a man. But in Whedon’s Sunnydale, the threat dynamic is upended. Throughout the series, we see predators, usually male, caught off guard by the realization that Buffy is by no means easy prey.

It’s this role reversal — the stylish blond girl who’s more dangerous to the man in the shadows than he is to her — that is both the heart of Buffy’s claim to feminist cred and why it ultimately falls short. Buffy’s version of feminism is an individual woman’s ability to evade patriarchal violence, not the dismantling of the structures that allow and perpetuate that violence to begin with.

Sure, Buffy can punch a dude out for trying to sexually assault her — she does so plenty of times. But it never stops the next attack from coming. Bizarrely, it’s Joyce’s comment when she’s under the influence of the demon from “Gingerbread” that best sums up the problem with the show’s feminism: “Evil pops up and you undo it. But is Sunnydale getting any better? Are they running out of vampires?”

Just like dusting vampires one at a time will never rid the world of evil, we’re not going to take down rape culture by throwing individual rapists through plate glass windows.

But Buffy offers a place to start. It allowed me, as an adolescent in the late ‘90s, to conceive of a world where I could fight back against the sexism I was already beginning to experience with a wicked right hook or a devastating one-liner. It also helped me come to terms with my sexuality. Eliza Dushku’s Faith inspired feelings I didn’t have words for. And when Alyson Hannigan’s Willow fell in love with Tara and came out as a lesbian, the show introduced me to the basic queer vocabulary.

Again, Buffy’s depiction of queerness is at best a jumping-off point. Willow and Tara’s relationship was tender and important, and their breakup and attempted resolution as Willow struggled with her addiction to magic was one of the show’s better-crafted occult metaphors for a real-life problem.

But Willow and Tara still served as token queers who operated entirely in the straight world, with no LGBTQ community, and they still fell victim to the classic lesbian tragedy trope, with Tara ending up dead and Willow driven to evil by her loss. Like many queer women, I can’t quite let go of either my gratitude to Buffy for showing me my first on-screen lesbians or my resentment that they were so mishandled.

Watching Buffy in 2017 is both a joyful, nostalgic journey and a disappointing look at squandered potential. The show ends on a high note: Buffy and Willow use magic to share the Slayer’s power with a whole generation of girls. The montage of potential Slayers suddenly imbued with superhuman strength never fails to make me tear up with its promise of collective liberation.

Unfortunately, that promise was not fulfilled by Joss Whedon’s post-Buffy career. Indeed, Whedon’s biggest success, Marvel’s The Avengers, is so far from being rooted in feminist praxis that it doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test. So if we can’t look to Buffy’s creator to pick up where the Scooby Gang left off, we’re going to have to take that ball and run with it ourselves.

I’d still be a feminist without Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I might still be hopelessly devoted to chunky platform boots. I would definitely still be gay. But I wouldn’t be quite the same queer feminist retro-fashionista I am today. No matter how much I can find to criticize about Buffy, it’s fundamentally a part of who I am. She’s like an older sister I pretend to be embarrassed by — but I’m still rocking her hand-me-downs and hoping I’ll find a way to make her proud.

Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme who does not have an indoor voice. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, a really cute baby, and two very spoiled cats. She is the author of Ask A Queer Chick (Plume, 2016).

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