Tag Archives: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Proto-Feminists on Classic TV

Who were the feminists who were feminists before we knew much about feminists? Who were the role models for young women when role models for young women were thin on the ground? Lately, people have been looking to vintage TV for the answers to those questions.

The first woman that many people think of as a proto-feminist is Samantha Stevens of Bewitched. Samantha was powerful, rescued her bumbling husband from unpleasant situations, and generally made life better with her superpower. (Although occasionally it went wrong.)

Recently, though, I’ve heard the sitcom deconstructed from a feminist viewpoint, and I can’t argue with much of what they said. Samantha gave up her vocation for the man she loved and had to sneak behind his back to work magic. (At least it’s not like the film Bell, Book, and Candle where, when a witch falls in love, she loses her powers entirely. (Also, irrelevantly, I consider BBaC a Christmas movie in the same way that Die Hard is a Christmas movie.) But I digress (three times in one digression)).

Where was I? Oh, yes, Bewitched. When Samantha did use her magic to benefit Darrin, he berated her, yelled at her, and shamed her. Instead of ripping him a new one or even pointing out that he’s an asshole, she meekly acquiesced and promised to do better. And they call this feminism?

In the 1970s, we had the Mary Tyler Moore Show. This sitcom had more going for it, feminist-wise. Mary Richards was a single woman, living on her own, and working at a responsible, possibly high-pressure, job in a newsroom. Mary wasn’t what you’d call an outspoken campaigner for women’s rights – but that’s okay. She was an example and a role model just by the way she lived, without dependence on a man.

The show had some episodes with more overtly feminist themes. There was one in which Mary discovered that she was paid less than her predecessor in the same job. Her boss admitted it was because she was a woman and spouted the now-recognized-as-drivel drivel about a man needing more money to support a family. There was another where Mary championed hiring a woman as a sportscaster. Perhaps most revolutionary of all was when Mary tacitly admitted that, despite being single, she took birth control pills.

Bridging the time gap between Samantha and Mary was the late-60s-early-70s That Girl, featuring Marlo Thomas as Anne Marie, an aspiring actress living on her own in New York. Anne was presented as kind of ditzy, but Thomas found it significant that her character wasn’t married off to her boyfriend in the series’ final season, and she had wanted to name the show Miss Independence.

Later in life, Thomas became a staunch and visible feminist. She once said, memorably, that getting married was like putting a vacuum cleaner to your head and sucking out your brain. She later married talk-show host Phil Donahue, apparently with no vacuum cleaners present at the ceremony. Thomas was also responsible for the ground-breaking 1972 Free to Be…You and Me, an album, illustrated book, and TV special which contained empowering content for children, including feminist themes and stories.

My personal favorite feminist icon in popular culture is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Back in the ’90s, she was the kick-ass embodiment of girl power. Almost 25 years ago (so I guess it was classic TV, though not a sitcom but an action show with comic elements), the teenage Buffy was the “Chosen One” who could, well, slay vampires. The new slayer, who was called when the previous one died, was always a young woman. Series creator Joss Whedon specifically said that his purpose in creating Buffy was to upend the dominant paradigm that the cute young girl was always the victim in need of rescue. Buffy rescued herself and others in every episode. True, she had an unfortunate love life, but many feminists do.

(By the way, I was hooked on Buffy because my husband introduced me to it. The TV series. The movie of the same name was much less good, except for Paul Rubens’s death scene, which was worth the price of admission. But I digress again.)

Now feminist characters are everywhere in TV and movies. We’ve had TV dramas with women as US presidents, women as superheroes, women as crime solvers, women as hospital administrators, and more. It’s good that the industry has finally caught up with the way feminism has changed our culture and contributed to it. I don’t watch sitcoms anymore, so I don’t know if there are strong women in them, but I bet there are. Female heroes and feminist characters have gotten a lot of pushback from the bro brigade, but I think they’re here to stay. Personally, I think we need all the feminist role models we can get. And if my husband likes them too, so much the better.

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How My Husband Got Me Hooked on Buffy

Twenty years ago, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a TV show with a target audience of teen girls. My husband, despite not being a teen girl,  turned me (also not a teen girl) on to the show and got me hooked.

I had seen the movie and wasn’t that impressed. It was silly fun, with a classic over-the-top death scene acted by Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman). There was also an appearance by a very young Hilary Swank, and Donald Sutherland played the Slayer’s mentor. But not anything I’d ever want to see again.

So when a television series appeared, I ignored it.

But my husband didn’t. He became a fan.

He wasn’t one of those fans who sits people down in front of a TV and says, “Here! You have to watch 15 episodes of this amazing show!” (This would be appropriate for Firefly, another show that, like Buffy, was the brainchild of Joss Whedon, except that it never made it to 15 episodes.)

No, he was more subtle than that. He’d be watching the show and invite me to join him. “I don’t think so,” I would reply. Still, I would see a few minutes of the show as I passed through the living room.

And then one day I caught a scene from an episode in which Buffy was working at a fast-food establishment where employees had been disappearing and the food had a “secret ingredient.”

“Hah!” I thought. “This is so predictable!”

Then the top of a little old lady’s head came off, a monster emerged, and tried to eat Buffy. The secret ingredient in the meat turned out to be meat flavoring, which was being added to non-meat patties.

That sharp left turn caught me. Maybe this show did have some wit and style.

I still didn’t pay a lot of attention until the show went off the air. When it went into reruns, I could watch one episode a day and follow the story arcs (yes, it had them) and found out that Buffy was more than just teen-girl-kills-monster-of-the-week pop fluff.

It had bite. (Sorry.)

Joss Whedon has said that the show was about female empowerment. Instead of being a stereotypical victim-of-a-vampire, Buffy is the strong, capable hero who defeats evil, aided by her “Scooby Gang” of mostly female sidekicks.

Except those sidekicks have story arcs of their own. For example, Willow is a witch who dabbles in black magic in addition to the good kind. But magic, it seems, can become an addiction. Multiple episodes follow Willow as she goes from magic tweaking, to heavy involvement, to jonesing, to a destructive habit that wrecks her relationships with those around her (and almost destroys the earth).

Buffy used the basic vampire/monster plot to comment on common events in a young person’s life – high school, dating, freshman roommates, binge drinking (which turned students into cave people) – as well as topics like the aforementioned addiction, teen suicide, performance-enhancing drugs, and various shades of morality.

And the dialogue! I’m a language junkie. I don’t deny it. And in addition to the then-current teen slang, the show had its own idiom, known as “Buffy Speak.”

TV Tropes describes it thus:

[It] can give the sense of a teenaged group’s special jargon or argot without necessarily imitating anything actually found in the real world. Slang language, especially for the younger set, tends to change at warp speed. Buffy Speak allows a level of timelessness…. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BuffySpeak

And here’s a scholarly article about it: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2012/08/buffy-the-vampire-slayer/

(Speaking of dialogue, Buffy also featured some break-the-mold episodes, including one in which no one can speak and one in which everyone sings their lines, musical-style, with dancing.)

Was it the feminist subtext? The busting of stereotypes and tired plots? The playful language? The hunky vampires? Perhaps the secret to my eventually becoming a fan of Buffy is the fact that, despite my chronological age, I’ve got a 14-year-old living inside my head (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-g1). And maybe my husband knew that.

Although I don’t want to speculate who’s living inside his head.