Editor’s note: The following is an unpublished piece I wrote a few years ago. I recently found it on one of my old flash drives and thought it finally deserved a home somewhere. I did not go through and edit it, aside from small grammatical changes, because this was a piece written for love and fandom, not academic or popular consumption.
On Wednesday, January 8th, the 2014 People’s Choice Awards convened to honor some of the most popular stars offered in today’s pop culture world. The categories of the awards varied, as did the wide assortment of talents that won them. What was the same, however, was the focus on the present, the here and now. While many award-winners thanked their current cast members and team, Sarah Michelle Gellar took her acceptance speech in a different direction—the past to be specific.
After beating out competitors like comedy queens Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect, Bridesmaids), and Anna Faris (Scary Movie series, House Bunny), Gellar took to the stage to accept the award for Favorite Actress In A New TV Series. Despite winning the award for her role as Sydney Roberts in the new CBS sitcom The Crazy Ones, Gellar took only a short moment to thank her current co-stars (Robin Williams in particular), and spent the majority of her time thanking her team, the fans, and the viewers from a previous project of hers—Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
“For seven years, I had the privilege to be a part of one of the most amazing television shows and I’ve never gotten the chance to publicly thank them, the cast, the crew, and all of the fans of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” so thank you!”
Airing its finale in 2003, Buffy has lived on, even eleven years later. Fans of the cult classic have always been fiercely loyal to the series, keeping the undying love alive. However, it was not until recently that Gellar was able to fully experience this love firsthand. Having finally joined Twitter last October, Gellar quickly used her second post to address her Buffy fans.
Gellar’s acceptance speech and tweets bring a question to the forefront. What has kept Buffy alive all of these years? It’s beyond impressive that Buffy remains a consistently relevant topic of discussion because we live in a society where celebrities, TV shows, movies, songs, and the like, are quickly shuffled out and replaced with the next big thing after 15-minutes of fame.
Anyone arguing against the legacy of Buffy would be fighting a losing battle. Back in 2012, Slate conducted research, looking for the answer to the question “Which Pop Culture Property Do Academics Study the Most”. The answer? “Buffy the Vampire Slayer by a mile.” It reportedly had twice as many papers, essays, and books written. For any remaining naysayers or non-believers, the truth behind Buffy’s maintained fandom is due to more than just its academic work. It’s because it is one of the greatest, most impactful pieces of pop culture ever to grace television, and remains a purely unique compilation of representation, themes, and messages.
One of the major reasons that Buffy lives on today is that it did not treat women as the “other,” and provided an outlet for fans to express themselves. Bonnie Kreps, in her essay entitled “Radical Feminism” elaborates on the traditional view of women. “The female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities; we should regard the female natures as afflicted with a natural defectiveness.” Kreps continues in this assertion, “She is not regarded as an autonomous being; rather he is the Subject, he is Absolute—she is the Other”.The idea is that females are always viewed as the lesser and/or the “other.” They are never the lenses through which we examine others, the world, or even said female herself. Kreps explains the consequence of this functioning of society, “In accepting the traditional view of herself as secondary and inferior,
The idea is that females are always viewed as the lesser and/or the “other.” They are never the lenses through which we examine others, the world, or even said female herself. Kreps explains the consequence of this functioning of society, “In accepting the traditional view of herself as secondary and inferior, woman has provided justification for the charge of inferiority.” With this vicious cycle of same problem same reaction, female audiences are trapped.
While media can trap female audiences, it can also be a means for them to distinguish and free themselves from personal and societal limitations. This, and for messages throughout the series’ storyline, is a major reason why Buffy garnered such a powerful, dedicated, and widespread feminist audience. As fans of a cultural product, a feminist audience could do a few different things. Lawrence Grossberg in his essay entitled, “Is There A Fan In The House?” explains the different uses of cultural works by fans. A group can, “take them to be the expression of their own lived experience.” Grossberg goes on further, “…still others may use them [the cultural products] to resist the pressures of their social position and to construct new identities for themselves.” These are the two main types of reception of Buffy by a feminist audience. It is important to note what distinguishes the feminist audience, who generally as a group has become “fans” of the show. Grossberg defines a fan as, “…an elite fraction of the larger audience of passive consumers. Within this model, the fan is able to discriminate between those forms of popular culture with are ‘authentic’ (that is, which really are art, which really do represent their experience, etc.) and those which are the result of the efforts of the commercial mainstream….” What differentiates a feminist fan of Buffy from a general audience is that they are appropriating the show to represent their experiences and/or deal with their position in life. They are fans of the show because it is not viewed primarily as a commercial endeavor; rather it is viewed as chronicling of one’s experiences through a fictional platform.
Not only do the feminist fans of Buffy view and appropriate the show to their experiences, they have turned to using it as a prime example of a positive feminist representation to oppose anti-feminist works. The most prime example of this type of usage by the audience is represented by the 2009 YouTube hit “Buffy vs. Edward”. A piece was posted by Bitch Magazine on this powerful video back when it was first released. It goes in depth on the impacts of a juxtaposition of Buffy and Twilight.
Buffy’s power to counteract anti-feminist (or male dominated) pieces of pop culture lies primarily in its 3-dimensional characterization of females. The show crafts female characters that reach depths that were unprecedented. It shows the struggles and hardships that they suffer—both not dominantly in relation to a man. Sure, the series portrays its female characters suffering heartbreak and abandonment, but each has to fight primarily with issues such as self-identity, the pressure to be perfect, fear of failure, death, family, and more. Buffy showed the darkest places and moments in human life and placed females (and males) in these roles, showing viewers that all people have the capacity to be equally strong. Sometimes it just takes a fictional character to show that.
Research will back-up the idea that fiction does more than entertain and teach us; in fact, it shows that it can affect the beliefs and attitudes of viewers. In 2012 the results of a study by Dr. Christopher Ferguson of Texas A&M University were released, and publications across the world presented them. The study examined male and female anxiety levels, as well as attitudes towards women, after watching television programs that featured sexual and/or violent content against women. The results suggested that programs featuring strong, non-submissive women (Buffy being included in this list) led to feelings of less anxiety in women and less negative attitudes from men. The opposite occurred in programs featuring submissive women in violent/sexual scenarios—women were more anxious, and men had more negative attitudes towards women.Malcolm Parks, the editor of the Journal of Communication, in which the study was published, stated: “Positive depictions of women challenge negative stereotypes even when the content includes sexuality and violence.” He goes on to add, “While it is commonly assumed that viewing sexually violent TV involving women causes men to think negatively of women, the results of this carefully designed study demonstrate that they do so only when women are portrayed as weak or submissive.”
Malcolm Parks, the editor of the Journal of Communication, in which the study was published, stated: “Positive depictions of women challenge negative stereotypes even when the content includes sexuality and violence.” He goes on to add, “While it is commonly assumed that viewing sexually violent TV involving women causes men to think negatively of women, the results of this carefully designed study demonstrate that they do so only when women are portrayed as weak or submissive.”What this all means is that it can be empowering to show female characters in bad situations. The presentation of these situations has the power display women as more than a victim of injustice and evil. They are not defined by their hardships, and instead overcome them and grow. Buffy dug deep into the world of pain and misery for its characters, putting each of them through their own seven-season hell.
What this all means is that it can be empowering to show female characters in bad situations. The presentation of these situations has the power display women as more than a victim of injustice and evil. They are not defined by their hardships, and instead, overcome them and grow. Buffy dug deep into the world of pain and misery for its characters, putting each of them through their own seven-season hell.
Buffy did not begin as dark, and full of terrible situations, as it became—but as the series progressed Buffy became a changed woman. Through killing the love of her life to save the world, the loss of her mother, the overwhelming responsibility of taking care of her sister and her friends, and the constant fighting, Buffy loses her desire to live in the world. Her speech in the season five finale, “The Gift”, sums up this pain and suffering.
“I sacrificed Angel to save the world. I loved him so much. But I knew I was right. I don’t have that anymore. I don’t understand. I don’t know how to live in this world if these are the choices. If everything just gets stripped away. I don’t see the point. I just wish… I just wish my Mom was here.”
YouTube user Tanya Brown’s video covers this progression of Buffy in a powerful video. What Buffy did with character progression was magical. It created a female hero and allowed her to be imperfect and flawed—not a manufactured superhero. It made her human—as complex as anyone else. Other extraordinary examples of the strength and development through pain in Buffy include:
- Buffy Summers “Who’s going to take care of us?”
- Tell Me That I’m Wrong, Please…
- Buffy Summers – I’m only Human
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer Tribute Trailer
This imperfection extended to not just the female characters, but male characters as well. The show did not empower one by taking the power away from the other. In the Buffyverse, everyone has their own strengths and conflicts alike. Giles, the put-together, book wormy mentor appears to be the most flawless character in the series. But he acts out in revenge and does the things that others cannot, namely killing a human. Angel, the leading male for a few seasons—and Buffy’s true love—struggles with his sexual desire for Buffy and with the burdens of his vampiric history. Principal Wood, of season seven, fights side-by-side with Buffy while consumed by a need for revenge against Spike, who killed his mother. The point of all of this is that Buffy doesn’t empower and display 3-dimensional women at the cost of the men’s depth.
Beyond the complete and equal representation of women, Buffy represents women as physically strong—and not in the sexualized sense. The fights in Buffy are not shot from low angles or angles that show female chest and butt because neither of these is the intended focus of any legitimate action scene. In addition to the non-sexualized action of the series, Buffy as a character, very importantly, remains at the center of the action. She is never shielded from the danger, and in fact, delivers countless brutal killings to the various monsters and demons that she faced. This is not violence for violence’s sake. It was purposely used to show female power in a regularly male dominated world, as there are only a handful of television shows that feature a physically strong woman (ex. Xena: Warrior Princess, Nikita, Charmed). Better yet, Buffy portrayed female characters that were physically, mentally, AND emotionally strong—which is frequently only seen in male characters across the media map.
Sadly, when women are portrayed as strong it is often through only their beauty and ability to manipulate. It’s important to emphasize that this is not necessarily a negative representation on its own. However, it can be harmful when it perpetuates the idea that women are only strong in the ways of mental and emotional manipulation. Male characters are portrayed as strong physically, mentally, and emotionally across media—and their female counterparts deserve the same and equal representation.
HBO’s hit Games of Thrones is an example of this uneven portrayal of women. While the women of the show are certainly strong in their own ways, as they carefully navigate a male-dominated world, they are strong only in the same traditional way that is represented by the media. Daenerys Targaryen, arguably the most prominent woman in the series, is powerful only through her utilization of the men (and dragons) around her. She only manages to work her way up to power by sexually satisfying her brutal warlord husband. It is ultimately her beauty and her body that set her up as the powerful force that she is in the series.
Characters that, like Daenerys, are only strong through their beauty and manipulation include Cersei Lannister, Sansa Stark, and Margaery Tyrell, to name only a few. Loyal viewers might argue that Game of Thrones presents physically strong female characters as well, and they’d be right, but it comes with a fatal flaw. Characters like Arya Stark, Ygritte, and Brienne of Tarth all present themselves as capable warriors. The flaw, however, lies in the masculinization of these women. Each of them is stripped of their femininity in order to carry this strength. This presents a damaging statement that women can only be strong if they take on the characteristics of men and sacrifice their femininity. This is clear when the physically strong characters of the show are placed side-by-side with the more intelligent, attractive, and crafty characters. Game of Thrones has every opportunity to connect with a feminist audience but misses it through its usage of familiar character tropes.
Game of Thrones is not nearly the only offender. Rather it is one of many. Buffy avoided tropes and stereotypes, which is just another of the many factors in its continual reign in the pop culture world. It’s evident to anyone who takes the time to watch Buffy’s seven seasons of glory (not to be confused with Buffy’s season five badass villain Glory). The female empowerment is clear through many of the show’s storylines and plot devices. Buffy’s independence is one of them. She never once reaches out to her deadbeat father, even when her mother passes away. Instead, she works her butt off to support herself and her sister, alone. In season seven when she fights her first Turok-Han vampire (otherwise known as the Uber-Vamp) it beats her bloody. It’d be easy for her to ask for help. All it would take is one call to LA and Angel would’ve been down in an instant to help her. But she works hard and in the end turns that vamp to dust, just like the rest of them. Finally, among a long list, is the ending of the series, where Buffy empowers all of the potential slayers around the world to be strong like her. A bunch of men created the Slayer and said that only one could exist in the world. Buffy defies these men and gives every girl in her army the power to be a Slayer. This is an incredible symbol for a unifying feminist movement in which everyone can fight.
It is through its plot, its representations, and its uniqueness that explains why Sarah Michelle Gellar gave her Buffy shout out, and why it remains a highly relevant and powerful show. There has yet to be a piece of pop culture that knocks Buffy off of its throne. There’s no doubt that there have been strong female characters throughout the years, but none have taken center stage and changed the media scene like Buffy did. Hollywood needs to take note because Buffy is the epitome of female empowerment and equality. Until we have more shows like Buffy it will remain at the very top, the cult classic that it has always been… well, even if shows like Buffy are made it’s doubtful that anything will ever take its place.