I’ve made some big mistakes in my life. Calculating how many hours I spent binge-watching every episode of “Degrassi” in 10th grade was one of them. Spending the first two months of this summer binge-watching all of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” for the first time was not. (But I still refuse to do that math.)
I’d heard references to “Buffy” before, but I’d never seen an episode until the cool girl who lived in the dorm room across from me last year physically dragged me from my room into hers and made me watch the pilot. (She is now my roommate. Coincidence? I think not.)
I was hooked after just a half hour. And after watching the first season, I could understand why Buffy has the cult following she does. The show is funny and well-written, and being from the ’90s, just campy enough to be endearing. Seeing faces I had always associated with other movies or shows — Sarah Michelle Gellar from “Cruel Intentions” and David Boreanaz from “Bones” — was strange at first, but now it’s impossible to think of them as anything other than part of Buffy’s posse.
But one thing especially stood out while watching this show: In terms of feminist writing on TV, “Buffy” was ahead of its time. Series creator Joss Whedon said that he wanted to reverse the blonde-girl-always-getting-eaten-by-monsters trope and write a blonde girl who was able to kill the monsters herself. At first, I was skeptical. In trying too hard to reverse a trope, it’s easy to fall victim to other kinds of stereotypes. That’s how the Manic Pixie Dream Girl waltzed onto our doorsteps — people started writing women characters who were “different” or “not like other girls,” and we ended up with disasters like Natalie Portman in “Garden State.”
But over and over, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” proved to be an answer to my feminist prayers. Whedon got a lot of things right, not the least being how to write a real love story between a human and a vampire — not one that portrays a controlling relationship and a stupid heroine. Certain Young Adult novelists should have watched “Buffy” more carefully.
One of the main things that I love — other than the fact that Buffy is the most powerful in her town as the one Slayer of vampires — is how the men, particularly Giles and Xander, are portrayed on the show. Giles may be the adult, but he never questions the fact that at the end of the day, it’s Buffy calling the shots. He never patronizes her because she’s a teenage girl. And while there are some side jokes here and there about how Xander needs to maintain his “manliness” because he’s always in a girl-dominated environment, his character never falls prey to the idea that men can’t be emotional.
“Buffy” also captures elements of teenage sexuality with well-written scenes and nuanced performances. For example, Willow and Tara’s relationship is organically introduced and maintained. The best thing about this relationship is how no one makes a huge deal out of it involving two women. It doesn’t feel like the writers are saying, “How progressive are we? Lesbians! Look! There are two of them!” They don’t oversexualize Willow and Tara, nor do they remove their sexuality.
On a more humorous note, there are two other characters who love sex and aren’t ashamed to show it: Anya and Faith. No one shames them for loving sex and initiating it frequently. Of course, Buffy’s relationships are always given the most screentime, but some of the most honest depictions of relationships belong to these other characters.
In addition to giving all of the women a large measure of sexual autonomy, “Buffy” splinters a concept that is so often disguised as female empowerment, that sometimes we don’t recognize it as problematic at its core — the idea of the Alpha Female and her bitches. Even though Buffy is “the Slayer,” Faith is “the Slayer,” too. They don’t always get along in the beginning, but it’s never the case that there is a finite amount of power that must be split between them — there’s only double the power. It’s nice to finally see two totally badass, funny, attractive, intelligent women go head to head — but without needing to have one finally come out on top. By the end of the series, there is plenty of room for both of them.
Lastly — and I know some people disagree — I think the finale holds one of the keys to “Buffy” ’s feminism. Though I think the finale had its problems, I'll always love it for its final message about empowering women. Buffy and Willow work some magic so that every girl out there who has the potential to be a Slayer becomes one. There’s a beautiful montage of girls all over the world suddenly finding themselves with super-strength and a new confidence in their eyes; one girl hits a home run out of the park, while another one catches the man’s fist that was about to hit her and throws it aside, slowly standing up.
I know “Buffy” isn’t perfect, even when looked at within the context of the decade it was made. There is a noticeable lack of people of color in the show, and most seem to be from an ambiguous middle class. But it is one of the most overtly feminist shows I’ve ever seen — especially for shows directed at teens, which is important. And in a world where people are still questioning whether the masses will still be interested in something if it unapologetically features strong women, “Buffy” ’s popularity and importance can’t be overlooked. If you haven’t watched it yet, you should. It’s on Netflix. You have no excuse.