Has the Era of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Arrived in Politics?
The stakes are high.
In a recent LA Times op ed column, writer Meghan Daum called on the iconic TV character, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, to make a point about politics, feminism and the expectations of the women who grew up watching The Slayer save the world.
Daum focused on the possibility that Hillary Clinton, the first viable woman presidential candidate, might choose Elizabeth Warren as her vice-presidential running mate, proposing that a two-woman ticket could cost Clinton the election—something she might not want to risk. Most interestingly, however, Daum used the phrase in the “era of Buffy The Vampire Slayer” to suggest that women who grew up watching Buffy might expect more gender equity when it came to leadership roles:
You may have grown up in the era of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, well, Hillary Clinton, but there are still a lot of Neanderthals out there who think a woman can’t be trusted with the security of the free world because she’s too hormonal (regardless of her age) and erratic. Put two women in that position and the resulting misogyny would be so inflamed that it could impede the important work of government.
Daum’s piece pondered why some Americans are not yet convinced of the viability of a two-woman candidacy. But the blog also raised a culturally relevant question: Are women who came of age during “the era of Buffy The Vampire Slayer” satisfied with the strides women have made since the program aired?
An Era of Greater Equality, Maybe
Buffy served as a strong role model for young viewers, raising high expectations of future equality in the workplace and politics by her example. A generation of young women attended middle school and high school during the seven years that Buffy aired and staked her way to a safer world. More than a few credit Buffy with the person they aspired to be.
“I always loved that she was strong and female, even as a kid,” says musician and writer Lisa Espinosa. “Now that I look back on it, the fact that I noticed she was strong AND female is a telltale sign that the combination of the two was not normal. She definitely was a positive influence on me in my ‘era of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.'”
Actress Zoe Sloane began watching Buffy when she was nine, watched until she was 16, then marathoned the series when she was 18. Currently playing a “badass” female outlaw in an indie western film, Sloane says she hopes to one day to work with Buffy’s creator, Joss Whedon.
“Watching Buffy probably shaped my ideas of what women could do subconsciously,” says Sloane. “I never was told I couldn’t do something by my parents [just] because I was female while growing up, but I could see how Buffy could shatter the mold put forth by parents for some girls. She was absolutely a role model.”
For those who haven’t seen the award-winning supernatural high school saga or read the comic, Buffy is a popular young woman who believes her life is ruined when she is chosen to fight the evil that most people only see in their nightmares. Her lack of respect for authority causes her trouble in her “real” life as an American teenager, but that rebellious spirit helps her defeat both worldly and otherworldly monsters. She saves the world—over and over again—with the help of a team whose members (human and supernatural, male and female, gay and straight, dangerous and vulnerable, appealing and annoying) collaborate effectively under her leadership. Not once do any of her male compatriots question that she is the one chosen to lead the struggle. Several other female characters—Willow, Anya, Tara, and even Dawn—were powerful; some of the villains were strong women too, but none of the characters provided as powerful a role model as Buffy. The character was not always a perfect leader, but she became a confident one.
“Buffy did encourage me to be more confident in my leadership,” says Ashley Charlton Griffin, writer, blogger and vlogger for the YouTube channel Multifacetedacg. “Watching it from a young age, I saw my confidence increase as hers did. She dealt with issues I was dealing with, concerning friendships and dating, so I found similarities there.”
The Buffyverse Vs The Real World
For some Buffy fans it was disappointing to discover that life in the real world did not welcome powerful women or women in leadership roles, as was commonplace in the Buffyverse. It was a struggle to be deemed competent and judged for your own worth as a woman.
“I had several friends who were sexually harassed by their bosses, and now as we are get[ting] older it’s more about the wage gap for my girlfriends that work on corporate America,” says Sloane, although she is pleased to discover that there are more roles and more varied acting roles for women in the last few years.
Pop culture expert Tamar Herman also encountered a less equal workforce than expected. “I’m relatively new to the workforce and I thought, graduating in 2014, that I wouldn’t have to feel worth any less. But just recently I encountered a situation where a boss hired only young women in their 20s and fired one person for not being as typically beautiful as others. She was a hard worker and then he fired her to hire someone else who left the company shortly after.”
Improvement proceeds in increments. Blaise Barrientos-Knapp worked for several years before deciding to stay at home caring for her two daughters. When she was in the workforce, she always expected that she would have to work harder to compete. “I don’t feel things have improved much since Buffy aired,” she says. “I feel that society as a whole is more aware of the challenges women face everyday. But, I do feel that change is in the air.”
Women In Power
Will that change be the election of the first female president of the United States? The U.S. has been slow to elect women to positions of power, with Clinton being the first viable female candidate. As of the beginning of July 2016, at least 22 nations had female leaders, including Germany, Argentina, Brazil, Denmark and South Korea. On July 13, Theresa May became Britain’s prime minister, adding to the count.
The last few decades have seen some progress. There are three women on the Supreme Court, seven in federal executive positions, and 104 women serving in the U.S. Congress, which breaks down to 20 in the Senate and 84 in the House.
According to a CNN poll, taken in March 2016, 80 percent of both men and women said the country was ready to elect a female president, although only 31 percent felt it was important to do so during their lifetime.
In contrast, a study by the Pew Research Center noted that in 1969, the year Hillary Clinton graduated from Wellesley College, only 53 percent were ready to support a qualified female presidential candidate. The possibility of a two-woman ticket was not floated in either poll.
While women are 50.8 percent of the U.S. population and hold almost 52 percent of all professional-level jobs, but they do still lag behind when it comes to leadership positions.
“The nation is changing and a woman is a viable option for the leader of the country,” says Griffin. “It cannot simply rest on the shoulders of an older white male. Our nation won’t reflect their perspective.”
Anyone having experienced the 60s firsthand might see considerable progress in terms of women being represented in the workforce and leadership positions, but those who grew up in the era of Buffy The Vampire Slayer might see such progress as moving at a snail’s pace. The stakes are high, but realistically, it might be hard to live up to a supernatural role model.
“Buffy is, time and time again, upheld as exactly who young women should be: beautiful but strong, sassy but sweet, able to protect herself but still sensitive,” says Herman.
Gender In Politics
Hillary Clinton did not grow up watching Buffy, although she might have seen some of it with her daughter Chelsea, who is now 36. As the first female presidential candidate to have made it this far, she is in some ways an embodiment of girl power. [Editor’s note: This is not to suggest that women of color and trans women have an obligation to feel represented or empowered by an upper-class, cisgender white woman.] But Daum’s article was right: Gender does play a role in the way she is perceived, in the kind of questions she’s asked. As much as public opinion about women leaders has changed in general, a percentage of Americans are still not ready for a woman in power. Recent reader comments on Robert Reich commentary about Clinton were peppered with misogyny, calling the candidate “the devil in a pantsuit” and a “witch.”
Is it only older voters that have a problem with a woman in power?
“I think a lot of younger people don’t really have a problem with Hillary’s gender as much as her actions, but there’s definitely a lot of questions being asked (by the media and my peers) that I don’t think would be asked by a woman,” says Herman.
The problem becomes more complicated when Clinton considers a female candidate as a running mate. Opinions were divided.
“I don’t think her chances will be hurt if she picks a woman VP, as long as she picks a competent, experienced, and well-liked running mate,” says Barrientos-Knapp.
Espinosa, however, thought a two-woman ticket might hurt Clinton’s chances. “I do think it will hurt even though I wish it wouldn’t,” she says. “And just because it will hurt doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a goal. That is why we’re having this conversation. Fear isn’t a game changer. It can be an inherent block of action or an impetus for change.”
At the end of Buffy‘s seventh and final season, Buffy dispersed her power to young women from all over the world. It was a fitting way to end the series as she also empowered her viewers to feel confident in taking on life’s challenges.
What Would Buffy Do?
Remembering what your personal heroes would do when faced with a challenge can help you make a decision. What would Buffy do in Hillary’s position? Despite the difficulties the character might achieve in this struggle for an equitable world, Buffy would not give up. She would keep trying to save the world. And then she would save the world again. Stare into the Hellmouth and jump right in if it meant saving the world. She would fight the monsters.
Clinton is running against Donald Trump, of whom it’s tempting to think as a cartoonish villain akin to the evil Mayor that Buffy defeated. The monstrous Buffy character pretended to espouse family values to cover up his evil creation-destroying connections. He aspired to become a demon and rule over Armaggedon. But Buffy lures him into a room rigged with explosives, bringing both his human and demon days come to an end. In real life, of course, the candidate most resembling the Mayor won’t easily be defeated with a spell or a stake to the heart or a dramatic cinematic finish. It will require a well-run campaign and turning out the vote.
Hopefully the day will come when gender ceases to be an an issue in presidential campaigns or factor in a candidate’s ability to lead, much the way no one ever commented on Buffy’s leadership abilities.
“Buffy was great because she was all woman but very few of the decisions she made were because she was a woman: it was because she was right and good,” says Herman.
For Sloane, Buffy was role-model worthy at the time, but she thinks that things have indeed changed so much that the series might not measure up by today’s standards.
“I think many things have improved for women since ’97 but many other things have come to light,” says Sloane. “More like oh-giant-shining-light. If I were to watch Buffy today for the first time I know I would still love it but I’m so much more critical now. I’d probably want to know why her ‘watcher’ had to be a man and I would be checking each episode as I do with everything I watch now to see if it passed the Bechdel test.”
Buffy would approve.
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Joan Vos MacDonald is a journalist and an author. She has written for magazines, a daily newspaper and websites. She’s also the author of five young adult books and “High Fit Home,” a book about architecture that facilitates fitness. She currently writes about Korean pop culture for Kultscene. For more information, contact her via LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter.
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