“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was my childhood obsession. In middle school, my sister and I owned all the box sets and memorized episodes word for word.
“Buffy” has long been touted as a feminist cult classic. Joss Whedon, the show’s creator, explained, “The very first mission statement of the show was the joy of female power: having it, using it, sharing it.” Enter Buffy — a petite blonde girl with a destiny: to fight vampires with supernatural strength and save the world from annihilation.
It is easy to forget how radical “Buffy” actually is: In a world of supernatural evil, the biggest baddest-ass of all is a tiny blonde girl. She saves the world. Repeatedly. That’s pretty awesome.
But there are some major drawbacks to the show’s feminist message. It plugs a late ’90s, Spice Girls-esque brand of girl power, a cutesy but fundamentally weak showing of female strength in a patriarchal world. All of the women are traditionally thin and beautiful. Many of Buffy’s relationships with men are violent and brutal. And Buffy is emotionally uncomplex.
As a result, social commentary on sexism is there, but fleeting. The show chooses to depict a single feminist protagonist rather than a real-life society that distinctly limits the agency of women. While there is a place for female role models like Buffy and Rory Gilmore, she can’t tell the whole story.
Two current television shows have more interesting feminist messages than “Buffy” or “Gilmore Girls.” “Mad Men” and “The Tudors” depict the nuanced give-and-take of power between the genders that has existed throughout history.
At first, these shows seem undeserving of the appellation feminist. They both depict decidedly male worlds, and there are more naked women on the “The Tudors” than in the Moulin Rouge. But these shows express feminist ideals by depicting how sexism actually manifests itself: as inconsistent and subtle discrimination that pervades most aspects of life.
“Mad Men” centers on Don Draper, an extremely talented ad man in the 1960s with complex relationships to his past, work and family. He works for Sterling Cooper, a New York ad agency; he smokes; he cheats; he is hardly an exemplary husband. While Don gets drunk in the city, his suffering wife Betty stays at their home in Ossining, raising the children and preparing meals. She is miserable, and we know it. We see her, however, as a full character struggling, as her husband is, with the social forces of the 1960s.
The women of Sterling Cooper, with one exception, are sexually objectified typists and secretaries. But they have stories too. Joan, the voluptuous and authoritative head secretary micromanages the lives of her bosses. Years before date rape is legally defined, we see her raped by her fiancée on Don’s office floor. We are forced to understand the realities of that time period: Fighting back wasn’t an option like it would be for Buffy.
Though set many centuries before in the court of Henry VIII, “The Tudors” uses the same power of representation.
The female characters are, for the most part, sex objects flinging their beautiful, toned, un-poxed bodies at King Henry. But their place in the show is not only to draw adult viewers, but also to depict the difficulty of negotiating agency as a woman in Tudor England. Catherine of Aragon is cast aside when Henry tires of her. Anne Boleyn manipulates Henry but is just a pawn in her father’s game to gain power and is beheaded when she is unable to produce a male heir. Henry sells his young sister into marriage with the aged Portuguese king.
These shows don’t sugarcoat or try to justify the chauvinism of the 1500s or 1960s. They show it as a part of the struggle of daily life. Almost no women on “The Tudors” have a truly free and triumphant moment. This consistent showing of female “defeat,” however, just illustrates how hard it was to be a woman in the court of Henry VIII. By 1960, some things have changed. The female characters, sometimes subtly, rise beyond their prescribed gendered roles: Behind the chain-smoking ad men on “Mad Men” is a group of women writers, a rarity in Hollywood television even nowadays. However, we’re still reminded regularly enough that life for a woman in the 1960s is far from perfect.
This feels appropriate in a historical setting. We find it easier to sympathize with women who tried to carve out a place from themselves in historical periods we can easily classify as sexist. It allows us to forget about the way sexism shapes the world we live in today. We can just cringe when Anne is executed or Joan is raped and be glad we don’t live then.
Similarly, shows like “Friday Night Lights” and “The Sopranos” that depict woman negotiating the subtleties of the present day, set themselves in culturally distinct spheres: the world of Texas high school football and that of the New Jersey mob.
There isn’t a television show about the plight of a female associate professor struggling to make tenure in a male-dominated academic world. Or a woman working for J.P Morgan in 2010 who gets pregnant and struggles to regain her status. Or the woman working in a factory for unequal pay and unable to sue because the statute of limitations has run out.
Maybe that’s the next step we are just too scared to take.
Kathryn Olivarius is a junior in Branford College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.