Olivarius: Showing a world of kings

“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 kathryn.olivarius@yale.edu.


  • chill

    Ok YDN…can we have a break from the feminist force feeding for at least a week?

  • y09

    You can get a break from the feminist force-feeding when you put some equality meat and feminist muscle on those moral bones of yours. Judging from the comments I’ve read of late, people are looking a little skinny in that regard.

  • Y11

    Yeah, I’m sorry, Olivarius clan, good as some of your points may be, do you think about ANYTHING else? Must get tedious, being angry and outraged all the time.

  • Chase Olivarius-McAllister

    The author of this glorious column must be commended. The issue she addresses looms over our national debate like a Leviathan. The research she has done, into the history of Normandy, Buffy, and national state parks throughout the country is staggering.

    I fear for her safety, yearn for her wisdom, and insist that she continue to write these tracts, without which our lives would be uninspired despair.

    Really, it is imperative that the author of this column be commended.

  • Yale 08


    Kathryn and Chase are really just bad caricatures now.

  • Egalitarian

    The author of this column makes reference to the issue of the statute of limitations for pay discrimination cases. While this was an issue for a short time following the Supreme Court’s decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear, I would hope she is aware that Obama signed legislation to rectify the issue on his first day in office. (Meanwhile people dying from diseases that could potentially be cured by embryonic stem cell research had to wait a number of weeks for a resolution to their far more serious plight.) It was a problem; now it has been solved and won’t happen again. Let’s move on.

    Let’s say that the other two examples are in fact accurate, although I’m not sure that the situation in academia is necessarily as severe as the author makes it out to be. These issues are receiving a lot of attention from people in power. But what of the male college student whose only way to obtain funding to pay Yale’s tuition is from his abusive parents, while his much less qualified female colleague receives a five-figure affirmative action scholarship, in the absence of any financial need, that he can’t even apply for? What of the young male driver who drives carefully and follows the rules of the road but gets hit with sky-high insurance rates because he is, through no fault of his own, in the same demographic as a large number of aggressive drivers? If he gets into an accident because of someone else’s bad driving and the circumstances are such that it’s impossible to prove who caused it, his rates can go so high that he won’t be able to afford to drive at all. Don’t they deserve some attention as well? Gender inequality in modern times is a two-sided problem and warrants a two-sided solution.

  • indiginant

    Buffy is emotionally complex.

  • asale


    apparently buffy isn’t feminist enough because she’s hot.

    what the hell, author? Do writers and directors have to compromise their artistic license and go out of their way just to fit your own political agenda?

  • shocked

    wait, what? Chase and Kathryn are sisters? I had no idea. the ydn should explain that. that’s probably the only reason that their both feminists.

  • funny

    i have to say, every week, i look forward to kathryn’s column. they are fun and interesting and never pretentious. after i read it, i refresh the page all day long, for the comments, because i know “chase o.”‘s is coming. your family seems awesome. i don’t know about feminism, but it has produced two of the funniest people at yale. also, @shocked: everyone everywhere, including in other countries, knows that they are siblings. take a smart pill.

  • Heya

    I’m going to agree with #7 here. Buffy is emotionally complex.

    Also, the show *does* demonstrate how women are hurt or limited by patriarchal power structures. The Watcher’s Council (patriarchy!) limits the information she has and sometimes endangers her in order to keep control over the always-female slayer (see the lie Giles tells in ep. 1.07 “Angel” that vampires have no relationship to the people they were, or the Cruciamentum in season 3 ep. “Helpless”).

    Heck, the whole Angel/Angelus arc in Season 2 showed girls’ sexual vulnerability to older men due to sexist cultural narratives about romance. Just because Buffy has violent relationships with men doesn’t mean they’re portrayed in a positive light (aren’t you saying that gritty portrayals of such relationships make the Tudors and Mad Men awesome?).

    The feminist narratives in Buffy are embedded in a universe of fantasy and metaphor. That doesn’t make them shallow.

    Not that I own all seven seasons on DVD or anything . . .


    It seems that the reason Kathryn doesn’t actually like Buffy is because Buffy makes women look *too* good. She much prefers Mad Men, which paints a portrait of a misogynist bygone era, at which she and fellow YWC acolytes can sternly wag their fingers.