I have, thanks to my friend C., recently rediscovered the joy that is Buffy the Vampire Slayer thanks to TV on DVD, and come to the conclusion that Buffy may be one of the most successful examples of third-wave feminism.
There's plenty of "Buffy as Feminist Icon" scholarship out there. Check this out, or this. Of course, there are those who disagree.
Ultimately, though, it comes down to what Buffy means to you . . . or more specifically, in this post, to me. The wit and genius of the writing on this show cannot and has not been ignored by critics and fans alike who hailed it as one of the most successful television series of all time during its seven season run from 1997 to 2003. Buffy takes a universal experience (high school) and blows it up dramatically to really nail down those typical teenage years. For Buffy, high school literally is hell. Sunnydale High sits right on top of the Hellmouth, the opening to hell, and therefore her town is filled with vampires, demons, and other sundry ghouls.
Buffy is a warrior, make no bones about it, but she is also a girl who cares about her clothes, her friends and family, and her boyfriend. In no way does Buffy compromise (what she considers) the essential traits of her femininity (i.e. her high heels, her emotions) to slay vampires. Instead, the incorporation of these elements are exactly what make her the ultimate fighter. As she says to Kendra, another slayer, the emotions are what give her the fire and strength to kill.
What I find most incredible about Buffy is Angel's side-story, and especially the curse which results in his demise. Angel is a notorious vampire, who, because of the intensity of his killing-sprees, is cursed by one of his victim's families to regain his soul and live forever with the knowledge of all the lives he has destroyed. In the early 90s, Angel learns that Buffy is the slayer and decides that he will aid her in ridding the world of all evil. In the process, of course, they fall in love. But here's the catch (and here be spoilers): If Angel, for one moment, experiences pure happiness, he will return to his demon form, utterly evil.
Let's just say when Angel and Buffy end up seeking shelter at Angel's place after barely escaping from a demon called The Judge (and a very convenient rainstorm), they finally have sex. Yeah, that thing about pure happiness? Oops. So just like many a gal's experience, when they finally sleep with their beau, they wake up to find that maybe he's not exactly the guy they thought he was . . . in fact, he's kind of a jerk. In Buffy's case, Angel is a homicidal maniac who quickly focuses his bloodlust on her and her friends.
Writer and creator Joss Whedon's genius here makes me just about speechless. How many of us crushed on someone all throughout high school, only to have them change overnight into some stranger, who slighted us, or insulted us, or, in perhaps the worst case possible, broke our hearts and left us for dead? We've all been there. (I have, once on the street in Bloomington, Indiana, and again on the street in Park Slope, Brooklyn). Buffy's struggle to destroy Angel is almost purely analogous to the intense inner struggle to "get over" a bad relationship and move on. Buffy must force all the happy memories of what she and Angel had together to the back of her mind, and recognize him now as a demon she can no longer trust. Sound familiar?
No matter what, Buffy is always a working girl. Her destiny as the slayer keeps her emotions in check. And while she waffles occasionally, complaining to Giles about wanting to have a normal life, or hesitating in particularly gruesome slayer tasks, in the end, she enjoys what she does, punning and sarcastically quipping the whole way home. Buffy seems to be an argument for living a purposeful life, outside oneself: i.e. having a CAREER. For this, Joss Whedon, I raise my glass to you.
Of course, battling evil and being sixteen is dangerous, both to one's health and sense of self, and Buffy doesn't always escape unscathed. Her unnatural attachment to Spike (another vampire) and rather violent sex (later in the series, with Spike) seems to be a way she can work through some of her frustration and feeling of isolation. In other words, Buffy isn't perfect. She's still human.
But those vamps have another thing coming when they go after the pretty blond girl walking home from school. They have a slayer on their hands. And while Buffy is a superhero (and therefore has superhuman strength, so she really is stronger than the boys), the fantasy-fulfillment for the ladies watching at home is a positive thing, I think, whether it's completely plausible or not. What I mean here is that Buffy attempts to have it all: friends, a demanding job, a relationship, and most importantly, she's a girl who knows how to take care of herself.
And that's a really wonderful thing. No exceptions.