Buffy The Vampire Slayer is one of pop feminism‘s favorite series, and not for nothing, endless branches of fan culture entwine around it. Pop feminism is definitely viewed critically today, because it stands for a feminism, that is often too restrained, when it comes to political demands and struggles, but it is still an important and wonderful entry point into the discussion. Particularly for teenagers, addressing problems through the friction of culture is natural: people philosophize, compare notes, argue about behavior and problems, develop values or try their hand at retelling. Learning to break with societal expectations of women, to find self-determined sexuality, to fight for self-confidence and equal rights - many learn the first baby steps towards these goals through their confrontation with fictional worlds. In Buffy, the countless intertextual references invited viewers to continue spinning their own stories. And Buffy offered plenty of material for that: She wasn‘t just the tough sexy teen-grrl, who is thrown into the job of protecting humans from gruesome demons and enters into problematic relationships with vampires, but she struggles just as much with problems of coming of age in an unjust world. In the beginning, mainly topics like tensions in friendships, bullying, rape culture, sexual assault, finding self-confidence and self-determined sexuality, taking responsibility or school performance problems discussed, which will be expanded later for topics just as money worries and shit jobs. A superheroine with whom it was possible to identify.
To spin the stories of a fictional world like the Buffyverse further for oneself, or to spin them differently, to inscribe oneself in this world, can be sexual fantasy, utopian practice or an examination of one‘s own history. Just because materials are fictional, doesn‘t mean, that they have nothing to do with real life. That‘s why stories have always been and still are hotly debated. Censored and reinterpreted, new variations of century-old stories are still being written today, whether it‘s the umpteenth adaptation of the Romeo and Juliet story or fan fiction about your favorite boy band. On the other hand, it is also debated whether and how material may be changed: Whether it‘s conservative old white men demanding their right to use racist terms in children‘s books that shaped their childhoods, or young Harry Potter fans on Twitter objecting to J.K. Rowling trying to impute more progressive traits to her characters. What they all have in common is, that the passionate nature of the debates repeatedly expresses how much the discussion of stories is also a discussion of one‘s own history and one‘s own values.
Buffy is a child of the 90s and therefore no longer meets today‘s expectations of a progressive teen series. It bears all the problems of the pop feminism of that era, for which it stands like no other of that time: it is a feminism of the strong white sexy woman. How such a variety of demons can be dreamed up, but it doesn‘t strike anyone, that the cast is pretty much entirely white, is thankfully becoming more and more incomprehensible to us today. In the concept of the Chosen, which fights all other races as a kind of citizens militia for the human race, fascist approaches can definitely be seen. Pop feminism is also reflected in the male gaze of the series: yes, it brought us strong women, but they also had to be sexy. And: Even if lesbian love is accepted in Buffy, anti-gay slogans and an old-fashioned idea of masculinity are countered very little in the series. The fact that Charisma Carpenter (the character Cordelia in the series) published a long statement at the beginning of 2021, in which she accused Joss Whedon of behavior on the set, that was characterized by abuse of power and bullying, led to having to deal with the series anew from the point of view of the three-way relationship between work, artist and viewer. I can‘t write about Buffy today, I can‘t swarm about Buffy without making such critical points. We don‘t have to break completely with problematic works, but we have to take the critical moments with us, and then decide for ourselve, whether or not we can still gain something from them.
It would be a shame to completely break with Buffy The Vampire Slayer, because it was already a bright spot in the series landscape back then and in many ways it is still refreshing and worth watching today. The anti-heroine nature of the characters, who triumph over all demons, but repeatedly fail because of themselves and everyday problems, and also because of rape culture, and have to pick themselves up again, is a template that still shapes the coming-of-age series world today.
Where the first season is still slow to find its footing, from the second onward it‘s a skillful blend of comic exaggeration and examination of problems. It‘s a wonderful back-and-forth wordplay, over-the-top characters, horror that satisfies anxiety cravings and lusty female sexuality on the one hand, and taking the problems of the characters struggling to find solidarity and consensus culture in this campy cosmos on the other seriously. This still strikes a nerve today. Just the exaggerated, trashy of the horror and the shrewd dialogues, manage to make the moments where problems are dealt with, seriously hit you unexpectedly and often sit painfully straight. The best example is the episode THE BODY which is about coming to terms with the death of Buffy‘s mother. There‘s no dying told, there‘s no goodbye, the young vampire slayer finds her mother dead one day, when she gets home. This episode completely breaks with the campy tone of the series and instead, uses stylistic devices like silence and hard cuts to brutally capture the bewilderment, pain and helplessness that the sudden death of a loved one can cause. In the context of the series, this episode about a natural death stands in harsh contrast to the dominant violent body count, which probably doesn‘t need to hide from Game of Thrones.
The pleasurable experience of one‘s own power and even of violence in the fight against misogyny, is also a theme, that is played out in several characters at once and can still be found unquenched and surrounded in feminist pop culture today: from a series like „Dietland“ to a novel like „The Power“ by Naomi Alderman or the office mug with the „Male Tears“ imprint.
The trio of misogynistic nerd geniuses, who play a central role in the final seasons, now appear ,as if they had already pop-culturally processed today‘s discussion of incel ideology twenty years ago. Just as the Incel‘s cult was long downplayed and only taken seriously after a few acts of terrorism, the trio in Buffy also first appear as a bunch of pitiful bad guys who are at best made fun of: They build lifelike female robot copies of real women or an invisibility cannon to sneak up on naked women, and initially, their absurd attempts to enforce their perceived right to sex with women with technology and mystical incantations, fail miserably. But they are then gradually built up as more menacing characters, and eventually end up committing murders and almost bringing about the apocalypse. And hey, with Willow and Tara, a lesbian relationship was in the spotlight in such a strong and positive way that was unthinkable in teen series until then and is still rare today.
Especially in times of climate catastrophe and pandemic, the Buffyverse seems strangely familiar: the characters are thrown into a chaotic, complicated, unfair world in which the apocalypse is always around the corner, and in which they have to learn to endure contradictions. While Buffy is built up at the beginning as a figure of the extraordinary, individualistic power woman of neoliberal pop feminism, she definitely goes through a development in the course of the series, in which she accepts, that she can only prevail against evil or even in everyday problems with the support of others, and in the final season even a whole group of young Slayers finally join the fight with her - smells like team spirit. Even before that, however, she is no Superman and no Jessica Jones. She is strongly defined by the social relationships in which she is embedded. There is no weakness or dependence here, in not being able to do something on your own. In this, even in Buffy‘s pop feminism, there is already a piece of the root of an encouraging call to solidarity as a way to break up the status quo of a world, that demands that you can, must, make it all on your own and even with your hard work on yourself.