Buffy the Vampire Slayer Week: Are You Ready to Be Strong? Power and Sisterhood in ‘Buffy’

Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) in Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Guest post written by Amanda Rodriguez.

No one will argue that the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn’t populated with strong female characters. Buffy’s best friend, Willow, is a computer-hacking lesbian witch with the magical prowess to end the world. Her sister, Dawn, is a mythic Key who can open gateways between dimensions. Faith, Buffy’s sometime friend and ally, is a sexually and physically empowered slayer who revels in her body’s physical gifts. The female villains are also intensely powerful and iconic, ranging from ancient vampires, werewolves, and vengeance demons to genius scientists and even the ultimate foe, The First (though technically genderless, this force often takes the form of Buffy herself). Season 5’s villainess, Glory, is even a goddess whose power is only diminished when she is forced to inhabit the body of a human male, and if that ain’t feminist commentary, I don’t know what is.
Though the show suffers from no shortage of powerful women, the ways in which they relate to one another throughout the series is a constant struggle. This is because the dominant patriarchal paradigm within which the show is operating insists that one powerful woman is a delightful anomaly, but multiple powerful women are a threat to hegemony. By these standards, Buffy, by herself, is set up as a superior paragon of womanhood: strong, independent, sassy, beautiful, smart,courageous, and compassionate. If all women, however, were empowered like Buffy, or even a small group, it would be a subversive threat to male dominance,which is why Buffy and her power are exceptional and solitary. This, in effect,handicaps her, limiting her power.
“Into every generation, a slayer is born. One girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness.” | Image of Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar)
Within this context, each woman’s power in the Buffyverse sets her apart from others and often puts her at odds with other powerful women. Buffy laments the isolation that her power causes, feeling as if no one can relate to the magnitude of the unending burden that she must bear alone. On multiple occasions, her power also puts her into a position where she feels she must destroy other women who are abusing their power.
Though Buffy has no qualms destroying evildoing villainesses, her decision-making becomes more complicated when it is a female friend/loved one/ally using her power in ways that go against Buffy’s code. Inevitably in these instances, Buffy struggles with her duties as a slayer but always comes back around to what the dominant patriarchal paradigm expects of her. Buffy begrudgingly conforms to patriarchy’s prescribed dichotomy that polarizes powerful women, steeling herself to kill the love of Xander’s life, her sister-slayer, and even her own blood sister.
Anya, Xander’s ex-fiancee and Buffy’s friend, returns to her vengeance demon ways in Season 6 after Xander jilts her at the altar. In the Season 7 episode Selfless, Anya kills an entire fraternity as part of her vengeance demon work, punishing men who wrong women. Buffy says of her responsibility to kill the rampaging Anya, “It’s always complicated. And at some point, someone has to draw a line in the sand, and that is always going to be me…I am the law.” Here again the series insists that two mighty female forces cannot coexist. Their power will be constantly at odds, and a balance must be struck by either the neutralization or the destruction of one of the women’s powers. Though Buffy stabs Anya in the chest, Anya lives and chooses to “take back” her murder of the fraternity and relinquish her vengeance demon powers, becoming human again. There is a price, though, for this transformation, and another powerful woman pays it. In a cruel twist, Anya’s friend and fellow vengeance demon, Halfrek, is obliterated in order to restore balance. This implies that women are to be punished for their powers and nonconformist desires and, most importantly, that all powerful women are interchangeable.
“The proverbial scales must balance. In order to restore the lives of the victims, the fates require a sacrifice: the life and soul of a vengeance demon.” – D’Hoffryn | Image of Anya
The polarization of powerful women in the series is most exemplified by the relationship between Buffy and Faith. The nature of slayer power allows only one slayer at a time. She possesses all the power until death. Buffy is drowned and dies briefly in Season 1, disrupting the slayer line, causing another slayer to be “called.” The relationship between Buffy and Faith (commonly known as “the dark slayer”) is contentious from the beginning. There is resentment and jealousy between them. Faith is set up as the outsider little sister who has no friends, no home, no family, causing a deep resentment toward the stability of Buffy’s life. This reveals the unspoken power of Buffy’s privilege, calling attention to the economic and educational disparities between the two slayers. On the other hand, Buffy is simultaneously judgmental toward (in a classic big sister way) and intoxicated by Faith’s free sexuality and her love of slaying (fans and academics alike have cited the two as metaphors for each other).
In Season 3, Faith betrays her sacred duty as a slayer, killing humans and aligning herself with the evil Mayor. Buffy decides to kill Faith, but because the two women share the same abilities, this task is easier said than done. The two go round and round before Buffy finally stabs Faith in the stomach with her own knife, putting her in a coma. In Season 4, Faith wakes up, and after more discord, Faith leaves town and turns herself in, choosing prison as a method of atonement. Faith’s threatening power is effectively neutralized behind bars.
 “There’s only supposed to be one. Maybe that’s why you and I can never get along. We’re not supposed to exist together.”- Faith | Image of Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Faith (Eliza Dushku)
The only time Buffy refuses to do her duty and kill someone she loves is in Season 5 when her sister, Dawn (the mystical Key), must be killed to stop her from unwillingly opening a gateway to a demon dimension that will send the world into chaos. Throughout the season, the sisters often have an uneasy relationship due to typical sibling rivalry and the fact that Dawn isn’t truly Buffy’s sister. Monks harness the awesome power of the Key and shape it into human form, using Buffy’s blood and altering her memories so that she will be compelled to protect it. In spite of all this, when Dawn must die to save the world, Buffy chooses to sacrifice herself and dies instead. This is meant to be a beautiful,selfless act of love, and, though it is, Buffy’s death simply reinforces the idea that only so much female power can safely exist in the world.
“This is the work that I have to do.” – Buffy | Illustration by boo21190 via deviantart.com
All these “sister” relationships are deeply dysfunctional and problematic from a feminist perspective. The show itself sits uneasily within the patriarchal paradigm that it is constantly reinforcing. Though the series complies in a circuitous way by systematically disempowering powerful women by divesting them of their abilities (in the case of Anya) or forcing them to reign in their strengths (in the case of Willow), the show refuses throughout to actually kill these women(permanently anyway). To stop another apocalyptic menace in the final season, Buffy,Anya, Faith, and Dawn all work together alongside a host of “potential slayers.”The “potentials” are women who are not actually powerful but could become powerful should a slayer die, further underscoring the notion that female power must be balanced and finite.
This is when it gets really good. The ending of this series gives me goosebumps every time I watch it. It’s a feminist dream come true. They are facing The First, a truly invincible foe who is only able to rear its ugly head when the cosmic balance is upset because of Buffy’s mystical resurrection, allowing two slayers to exist in the worlds simultaneously. One could even posit that The First is symbolic of patriarchal and misogynistic oppression of women, especially since Its right-hand man is a woman-hating religious fanatic. Not only that, but The First appears often as Buffy, herself, implying, perhaps, that female complicity or conformity to an oppressive standard is a major obstacle to equality. That’s a whole other paper, though.
To muster enough force to beat back The First, Buffy creates a new paradigm. She enlists the help of another powerful woman (Willow) to subvert the paradigm that requires only one woman/one slayer to exist at any given time. In a speech that moves me almost to tears every time I watch it, Buffy explains that Willow will use an ancient slayer artifact to release its power to all potential slayers around the world.
“So here’s the part where you make a choice. What if you could have that power, now? In every generation, one slayer is born, because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. They were powerful men. This woman is more powerful than all of them combined. So I say we change the rule. I say my power, should be our power. Tomorrow, Willow will use the essence of this scythe to change our destiny. From now on, every girl in the world who might be a slayer, will be a slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up. Slayers, every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?” Buffy

The series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer tells us that women must band together to defeat patriarchal oppression. Here Buffy chooses to share her power with other women,creating a community of slayers. Buffy has evolved into a powerful woman who refuses to see other women as a threat. She is now a strong woman embracing and empowering other strong women. Together they create a unified force that changes the world forever.

Amanda Rodriguez is an environmental activist living in Asheville, North Carolina. She holds a BA from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio and an MFA in fiction writing from Queens University in Charlotte, NC. She writes about food and drinking games on her blog Booze and Baking. Fun fact: while living in Kyoto, Japan, her house was attacked by monkeys.