Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of those decidedly rare television series where not only is the ratio of male to female characters almost equal but women are portrayed as being able to have meaningful and significant relationships with other women. Furthermore, such relationships and interactions often take center stage on the show, serving to advance plots, develop characterization, and anchor the series in reality, while appreciably contributing towards its emotional heart. As such, it is no surprise that Buffy consistently passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors; nor is it remarkable that Buffy is widely lauded as a landmark feminist show given its reliance on interesting, multi-dimensional female characters who are in constant communication with one another, and whose female-female relationships are integral to the series’ narrative.
Buffy is often acclaimed as a feminist TV series on another count too: the frequency with which the show subverts and reverses traditional gender roles. Such reversals are commonplace on Buffy with women possessing an equal – and sometimes greater – degree of both mental and physical strength than men, and inhabiting positions of power traditionally held by men in society. Creator Joss Whedon explicitly explains this gender role reversal in Buffy:
“The first thing I ever thought of when I thought of Buffy: The Movie was the little…blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed, in every horror movie. The idea of Buffy was to subvert that idea, that image, and create someone who was a hero where she had always been a victim. That element of surprise…[and] genre-busting is very much at the heart of both the movie and the series.”
The shift in the male-female power dynamic on the show is also reflected by the male characters who tend to assume conventionally feminine traits such as physical weakness, irrationality, tenderness, and passivity.
However, perhaps regarding Buffy as presenting us with such a straightforward feminist paradigm is too simplistic an interpretation of what the female-female relationships on the show actually promote, especially when on closer inspection it becomes apparent that there is a notable lack of enduring female friendships on the show. Rather, relationships between women on the show are repeatedly characterized by rivalry and competition, even when both parties work together to defeat common enemies. These relationships generally possess a “bitchy” undertone, with barbs about clothing, appearance, and physical attractiveness being commonplace. A similar pattern can be seen in the relationships between the female protagonists on the show, and their female antagonists, whether these are “monster of the week” villains such as Sunday in “The Freshman” or recurring characters such as Glory.
This essay will dissect and analyse the different types of female-female relationships presented on the show – with a focus on female competition through a discussion of the female characters’ sexuality and their relationships with men – in order to come to a conclusion about whether the portrayal of female relationships complicates the idea of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a feminist work, or whether it can be considered one aspect of Whedon’s attempting to subvert traditional gender roles.
Enduring Female Relationships/Friendships on Buffy
The best example of an enduring female friendship on Buffy is the relationship between Buffy and Willow, which is set up in the first episode of the series (“Welcome to the Hellmouth”). Although their friendship is certainly stronger in the earlier seasons, it still functions as one of the fundamental and enduring stable relationships of the show. Moreover, Willow best exemplifies the role of “sidekick” in relation to the “hero”, Buffy, even when Xander and Giles (the two other core members of the Scooby Gang) are taken into account. It is Willow who provides Buffy with support, not only through her witchcraft and ever-growing knowledge of the supernatural but also emotionally, often acting as a soundboard for Buffy’s emotions and inner turmoil.
As Sharon Ross points out in her essay “Female Friendship and Heroism in Xena and Buffy, Buffy and Willow rely on each other in order to navigate through life’s challenges and make difficult decisions; they do this through discussion, through the “expression of their emotional knowledge”, and through the validation of the other’s feelings and thoughts (248). In this way they are better able to deal with the adversity and suffering they encounter during the progression of the series: their emotional openness and ability to communicate makes them, as women, better equipped to confront the problems women face in our patriarchal society…