When I was growing up, my mom had a rule that I couldn’t watch cartoons or Disney in the morning before school. She didn’t want me to get sucked into whatever I was watching and be late for the bus. Her compromise was that I could choose to watch the news, old MTV music videos, or I could watch reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My mom told me it was one of her favorite shows growing up and it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with the vampire lore (this was when Twilight was in its prime as well) or, of course, with Buffy herself.
For generations now, Buffy Summers had stood as a feminist icon: she who laughs in the face of danger and fights bad guys in high heels and mini skirts. Buffy has inspired women everywhere to stand up during times of adversity and break gender norms, while still being soft, vulnerable, and feminine. Upon my first year in college, I decided to watch the show again in full and couldn’t stop myself from seeing the very apparent themes of feminism, but I also couldn’t stop myself from seeing the holes in its foundation.
Buffy’s creator and writer, Joss Whedon, has heralded himself since the show’s conception as some kind of feminist icon. Simply because he had the idea to flip the horror story stereotype of: hot girl enters a darkened alleyway alone, she gets attacked by a monster, thus some equally hot guy saves her life. While this is undeniably a shift in what television and movies were producing during the early 90’s, it definitely doesn’t warrant any gold stars for Whedon. The cast is also incredibly white washed, with no BIPOC in sight; there is an ancient curse based completely around a Romanian slur and the only people of color on the show are never fleshed out as characters and killed off quickly. Yes, Buffy is portrayed as a quick-witted and general badass protagonist yet she, and nearly all of the other female characters, are faced with incredibly traumatic and sexist situations.
Without giving spoilers, let’s chat about how the male characters — Angel, Xander, and Spike — all commit heinous acts against the women they care about, and how the writers convince the audience to forgive them. Whedon confessed that he wrote Xander as an extension of himself, but Xander is a misogynistic bully throughout the whole show. Xander acts as the comic relief, the boy next door, and sidekick to Buffy. However, he constantly slut shames Buffy and verbally antagonizes her for falling in love with someone other than him. Xander directly manipulates Buffy and Angel’s (problematic but we’ll get to that) relationship on several occasions, highlighting his brute hypermasculinity and romanticizing toxic friendships. He even belittles his own partners in his relationship, writing them off as manic and image-obsessed. The writers give Xander the redemption arc of being the only character in the show who can truly see things as how they are, thus trying to excuse his aggression and insecurity as the hard-to-swallow truth. In a show centered on Buffy’s incredible instincts and quick thinking, it feels like the writers are trying to cheat the audience by giving Xander a backbone when his past actions prove otherwise.
Now for the case of Angel and Spike, let’s start with the obvious pedophiliaic nature of both their relationships with Buffy. There’s controversy in the vampire genre — and this problem is also discussed heavily in critiques of Twilight — that relationships between a teenage girl and a vampire are abusive. I agree with this critique and believe it is romanticized heavily in both Buffy and Twilight. In both cases, the female lead is young, bright eyed, and ready to lose themselves in love and the male lead pursues the relationship, despite knowing they literally could kill their lover. Fans of Buffy will argue that it’s fine that Angel and Spike fall in love with a teenager because she’s “special” and she can “handle herself”, but on many occasions in the show, Buffy will panic and cry out that she’s, “just a girl.” Buffy is a teenager in a vulnerable situation despite being gifted with slayer skills, and the men around her abuse the situation. The writers always left Buffy and the other women of the show broken, while giving the men redemption story-arcs to keep the audience in their favor. Angel has a soul, he feels guilt for the people he has harmed in the past, so his actions are supposed to be forgivable. This is the same reason as to why Spike seeks out to regain his soul in the final season, to prove himself as a good man to Buffy after hurting her in one of the worst ways possible. The writers expect the audience to swoon over the male leads because they shed a couple tears and move on like their vile actions don’t carry consequences.
So that leaves us with the question; should we still being hyping up Buffy the Vampire Slayer as an iconic piece of feminist media? Is it a product of its time with endearing, if not misguided, agendas? I think it’s fine for people to still feel warm inside while watching the show, as it is still very relatable for teenagers today. It will still continue to be one of my favorite shows for many reasons. However, we all need to acknowledge the show and the creator Joss Whedon’s many flaws when it comes to race and misogyny.