Slaying the patriarchy: Everything I need to know I learned 20 years ago from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”

Buffy saves the world over and over, while maintaining her faith in humanity. Here are the lessons she can teach us

Published March 11, 2017 12:00AM (EST)

 (The WB)
(The WB)

On March 10, the most feminist show in the history of television celebrates its 20th anniversary. Today, the many lessons of Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” become even more necessary, because women aren’t any safer or more valued than they were two decades ago.

My love of this show — a campy, brilliant feminist relic of the 1990s that still boasts legions of fans just like me — runs deeper than the love stories, the witty verbosity, the gutsy fashion of Lucite rings and platform combat boots, or even the woman-centered witchiness I adore so much. Those are the reasons I continued watching the first time through; now, I come back to Buffy because I need a hero. Here’s what Buffy taught me:

Women get it done

You’d think this would be duh, right? Remember that Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced by men on the Congressional floor only a few weeks ago. To say nothing of what happened when Hillary Clinton tried to claim power. The colossal efforts of organization and activism by women of color are routinely ignored. Clearly we need the reminder.

Buffy is a hero because she kicks all of the ass, up and down the Big Bad streets of Sunnydale. “The thing about the Slayer is ... she is a whiny little thing, but when it comes to the fighting, she does have a slight tendency to win,” Spike, the vampire who was at turns her nemesis and lover, once said. She does not lose, ever.

Buffy was a fierce warrior, but reluctant. Further, she is a hero with both flaws and a strong moral compass. Often, her faith in humanity facilitates the redemption and perseverance of supposedly evil characters; think season 5’s half-dead Spike chained to a wall in Glory’s mansion, or tortured and enslaved by The First in season 7. Often, he copes by muttering over and over, “She believes in me, she believes in me.” To maintain that kind of faith in the face of incomprehensible evil requires work, especially when it’s constantly tested.

Buffy starts out as The Chosen One, but by the TV series’ end, she and her best friend Willow have activated thousands of potential Slayers, called them into a realization of their own power, so that there isn’t a One anymore, but many. She doesn’t just get the job done, she lifts other women up, too.

The adolescent female voice has value

In an article in The Atlantic celebrating the 18th anniversary of the show, Sophie Gilbert asserted that, “in transmogrifying common teenage issues into actual, tangible villains, Buffy makes them seem important, and worth agonizing over. It also makes them seem conquerable.”

As an adolescent girl, I was angry all the time. There are a hundred reasons, maybe more. Joss Whedon created symbols of teenage angst in the form of villains; those villains include, according to Gilbert, “a controlling mother who's so intent on living through her daughter that she switches bodies with her, a pack of teenage boys who become uncontrollably feral, an Internet boyfriend who pretends to be a normal kid but whose real identity is much more complex (in this case, he's a demon called Moloch who got accidentally uploaded onto the Internet”). Whedon’s not-your-typical-blonde protagonist fights demons made literal and given greater weight and meaning.

Giles, her Watcher and librarian mentor, routinely questioned Buffy’s interest in school events, dating, shopping — all the “normal teenager” things she wanted to do. She did them anyway and still managed to "save the world a lot" from a rotating cast of Big Bads. Was Buffy distracted for long after Angel, her vampire boyfriend, dumped her? Nope. She missed prom to stomp some hellhounds. Was she swayed when Angel’s soul was restored despite the portal to hell opening anyway at the end of season 2? Her boyfriend, cured of his evil ways, was back! Nope. She stabbed him in the heart and sent him to hell, because it was either him or the rest of the planet.

Instead of cringing when Buffy cries over Angel or wants to go shopping instead of patrolling for monsters, we root for her to have that normalcy. Whedon turns inside-out the idea “that being young and frivolous and having profound influence are mutually exclusive,” which subverts both the sexism and ageism that prevent young women from being taken seriously. And then lets Buffy kick its ass.

Emotions and friends are total assets

Time and again, Buffy is told she should fight alone. The show’s opening dialogue features Giles’ voice reminding us, “In every generation, there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.” Though Buffy’s Watcher eventually gave up admonishing his Slayer for resisting solitude and an unwavering focus on slaying, Giles initially opposed her friendships.

Kendra is the Slayer who is activated to replace Buffy when Buffy drowns at the end of season 1, and the two meet in season 2. Kendra is appalled that Willow and Xander know Buffy is the Slayer. Giles tries to explain what a “friend” is to Kendra, who doesn’t understand. “You allow this?” Kendra asks Giles. Ha. Later, Buffy assures Kendra, “My emotions give me power. They’re total assets.”

Buffy comes to realize very early on that she could be even more powerful with a little help from her friends. She asks for help when she needs it. She includes her friends in her battles, though she expresses frequent misgivings about the danger they will encounter. She accepts their aid and support because it makes her feel more human and because she knows that they know what’s at stake and what’s worth fighting for, and believes they deserve to have a choice to take on that fight as their own.

Throughout the show, Buffy relies heavily on the Scooby Gang — always Willow and Xander, usually Giles, often Cordelia, Oz, Tara, Anya, Riley and Robin Wood — for help fighting demons. When Kendra dies early in the series, Faith is activated as the other second Slayer, and arrives in Sunnydale looking for a good time. But Faith, like Kendra, has no friends. No matter how devil-may-care she acts, Faith is not the contented loner she wants to be. Her loneliness is her very downfall, as she overzealously kills a human, pretends it doesn’t bother her, and is ostracized by the Scoobies. She takes solace with the up-and-coming Big Bad of season 3, the mayor, who exploits Faith’s barely concealed emotional neediness by treating her as his daughter so she will do his evil bidding. Faith has Buffy’s superhuman Chosen One strength. What she doesn’t have is Buffy’s support system.

Take no prisoners, but remember: redemption is possible

The truly evil are never spared on “Buffy,” but the sort-of baddies are never abandoned, never deemed lost causes. Spike, a notoriously savage vampire, was never a typical savage vampire. He loved. Spike loved his companion Drusilla. It wasn’t a convenient relationship; he was generally nuts for the nutso Dru and was devastated when she left him — so devastated that he kidnapped budding witch Willow to make her perform a love spell that would bring Dru back to him. When the Initiative kidnaps Spike in season 5, they implant a chip in his brain, making him incapable of killing or harming a human without suffering agony. Buffy refers to him later as a “neutered vampire”; I would argue that that the chip is only a literal manifestation of the emotions Spike already possessed. Love made Spike soft long before Buffy was the object of his affection; once he realizes he loves Buffy, he doesn’t kill anymore.

At the end of season 6, in the most notorious scene among Spike haters, Spike’s true evil resurfaces and he tries to rape Buffy. He becomes any abuser, any rapist, any misogynist in the world — both the imagined world of “Buffy” and the real world where I’m writing. And Buffy, of course, kicks his ass. I love Spike’s character, and I loved the arc of his feelings for Buffy and how it plays out, but this scene sickened me. Still, it is necessary that we are reminded of Spike’s true evil, to make the restoration of his soul carry more weight, to make his redemption that much more remarkable. “How can men not rape?” the show asks. The answer: By getting a soul.

Redemption is a major theme in “Buffy,” and one that allows her heroic qualities to transcend ass-kicking. Buffy makes both Angel and Spike, two ex-demons, want to be better men — to protect women, but also to stand back as women protect themselves. (“God, I miss watching this,” Angel says as he moves aside so Buffy can pummel Caleb in season 7.) In their feral, delirious, post-soul-restoration states, Buffy is the only one who can get through to both Angel and Spike. Buffy nurses them back to health (yeah yeah, tired female caretaker trope, I know), convinced they can be allies for good.

But men aren’t the only villains she helps. Buffy believes a grief-stricken, magic-drunk Willow can be rehabilitated after flaying Warren for shooting the woman she loves. She begs Faith to show remorse for accidentally killing a human because she doesn’t want to take her out, but knows she must.

And then there’s Anya. When the former vengeance demon is making Xander happy and not killing people, Buffy tolerates Anya’s quirks. When Xander breaks Anya’s heart and she takes up vengeance again, Buffy has no problem setting out to kill her after Anya’s massacre at a nearby college frat house. If you murder humans on “Buffy,” the heroine is coming for you. Except Anya wants to take back what she’s done and live as a moral human again. Conundrum! Can it be done? Can murder be undone? Buffy, twice dead and twice revived, lets Anya live when the boss vengeance demon “undoes” Anya’s bloodbath.

Anya is no stranger to apocalypse. She fled one in season 3, when the aforementioned mayor was fixing to unleash hell on Sunnydale High’s graduation day and she thinks Xander is crazy to stay and fight. At the end of season 7, though, Anya has different thoughts about humans: “And they have no purpose that unites them, so they just drift around, blundering through life until they die. Which they — they know is coming, yet every single one of them is surprised when it happens to them. They're incapable of thinking about what they want beyond the moment. They kill each other, which is clearly insane, and yet, here's the thing. When it's something that really matters, they fight. I mean, they're lame morons for fighting. But they do. They never... They never quit. And so I guess I will keep fighting, too.” By aligning herself with Buffy and the Scoobies, Anya redeems herself not just as a former demon, but as an apathetic “new” human, too.

What would Buffy do? Slay the patriarchy

It’s obvious to me now that “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is an allegory for patriarchal society, for all the misogyny and trauma and struggles women have to endure. I mean, Buffy kills Caleb, uber-misogynist and vehicle for The First Evil, with a girl-power scythe to the cock; and she smashes Warren’s Orbs of Nezzla’Khan, the barely concealed metaphor for testicles. It would be disheartening if, at the heart of that allegory, the conclusion is that only one superhuman woman can defeat the patriarchy. Whedon knew better. Further, he knew better two decades ago, and few stories bearing that knowledge have been written for the mainstream since.

What if we think of all the Potential Slayers in “Buffy” as survivors of rape and domestic violence? What do they have that we don’t have? Superhuman strength, and each other. Without each other, though, the superhuman strength couldn’t have saved the world, and the show would’ve had a very different ending. Collective power and consciousness are necessary for the survival of women. The show couldn’t have been more clear about that fact.

Many of the Potentials take a lot of coaching from Buffy before believing in and channeling their own prophesied power. Listen to Buffy, I say to today’s young women. Girl knows what she’s talking about, though she doesn’t look like an authority on more than leather jackets and lip gloss. Believe in your own power to save yourself and make the world better for everyone.

What would Buffy do about gendered violence? Empower women to fight back in large numbers, on a large scale. Urge them to take on the fight, not wait for it to come to them. I think Buffy would be a huge fan of self-defense classes, and I think she’d always believe someone who says they have been victimized.

What would Buffy do about misogyny? Surround herself with a support system of friends and allies. It’s OK if they’re mostly women, or female-identified, or witches, or lesbians, or formerly vengeance demon bad girls. It’s OK if they don’t look like you. Try to understand all of their unique, intersecting struggles.

What would Buffy do about consuming anger and fatigue in the face of persistent gendered violence and misogyny? Continue to believe in the good of humanity, even when it’s constantly tested. And never stop fighting back.

By Stacia M. Fleegal

Bio: Stacia M. Fleegal is the author of two full-length and three chapbooks of poetry, as well as many essays. She teaches at the Elizabeth Ayres Center for Creative Writing, works for the Baker Institute for Peace & Conflict Studies at Juniata College, blogs erratically, does nonprofit domestic violence victim advocacy work, and resists. She tweets as @shapeshifter43. Her favorite season of "Buffy" is 6.

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Buffy The Vampire Slayer Domestic Violence Feminism Joss Whedon Patriarchy Sexual Assault Tv