[IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Buffy Summers holding a stake in an indoor setting, unsmiling.]
Buffy Summers, a teenage girl who navigated school, an often-rocky relationship with her mother, and parental abandonment from her father—all while slaying demons in her non-existent spare time—earned the devotion of fans worldwide for her sass, wit, strength, and perseverance.
March 10th, 1997, twenty years ago now, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Buffy) premiered and gave feisty, thoughtful, go-getting girls a lead they could relate to. Buffy wasn’t always great at schoolwork or interpersonal relationships, but she was the hero. In a world that demonizes teenage girls and their interests as frivolous and unimportant, Buffy Summers showed the weight they carry. She was young, a smidge boy crazy, and ready to sacrifice herself to save humankind.
But for a series in which the titular character never receives compensation for the immense amount of highly-skilled labor she performs, labor that multiple times leads to her death, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an unusual show to dub as feminist. Perhaps the real gender commentary of the series is the fact that a girl can save the world multiple times over and still have to work full-time at a fast food chain called the Double Meat Palace to survive and support her family. Buffy, like many women who perform backbreaking work for no wages, was the heroine we all needed but that the establishment refused to compensate. In short, she was the Watcher Council’s unpaid intern.
Buffy’s various metaphors, whether it was enumerating on the hell that is high school or the isolating and lonely nature of being “chosen” (read: different, an outsider), are as relevant today two decades later as they were then. In an ironic twist, however, the feminist elements that have held up most consistently are the ones Joss Whedon, Buffy’s creator, probably didn’t realize were there. He painted an accurate picture of the invisible nature of women’s labor because that labor was invisible to him.
In Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s first episode, “Welcome to the Hell Mouth,” Buffy poses a question to her Watcher, Rupert Giles, the man meant to guide and train her on her journey as vampire slayer: “Why don’t you kill them?” she asks.
It’s a rhetorical question meant to call attention to the fact that doesn’t kill them because he can’t. An unlikely roll of the magical genetic die made Buffy this generation’s Slayer. “I'm a Watcher, I-I haven't the skill,” says Giles. “A-a Slayer slays, a Watcher…”
“Watches?” asks Buffy, pointing out the ludicrousness of his position in her life—telling her who and how to fight when ultimately, it’s her who must face the costs.
“He-he trains her, he-he-he prepares her,” says Giles, convincing the audience his job is much needed.
But Buffy knows better than him what’s at—pardon the pun—stake. “[He] prepares me for what? For getting kicked out of school? For losing all of my friends? For having to spend all of my time fighting for my life…Go ahead! Prepare me.”
Most episodes feature Buffy patrolling Sunnydale so she can fight and kill the various monsters that tend to roam a city when it’s been built on top one of the mouths of hell. The idea that this might be work that deserves to be compensated rarely comes up, and if it does, is handled dismissively.
In episode five of season one, “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date,” (good advice), Giles criticizes Buffy after she offers a few witticisms as she slays a vampire. “Poor technique. Prioritizing: subpar. Execution was adequate but a bit too bloody for my taste.”
To which Buffy replies, “Giles, don’t mention it. It was my pleasure to make the world safe for humanity again.” The exchange is tongue and cheek, but Buffy has a point. She carries out all this work thanklessly.
After she slays the next vamp, Giles picks up a ring that the vampire was wearing, and Buffy comments, “Oh that’s great, I’ll kill ‘em, you fence their stuff.”
There are multiple ways to interpret this, but two stick out. One, Buffy is half-jokingly proposing a business in which they sell mystical loot, which means money is at least a little on her mind. Alternately, by emphasizing the fact that she slays while Giles gathers the plunder, she’s showing a little bit of awareness that he, and the world in general, is profiting off what she does.
Perhaps none of this would matter on a different show. Saving the world is more important than money, after all, but so much of Buffy’s themes revolve around the tightrope Buffy must walk combining slaying life with normal life. The fact that wages never come up in a serious way suggests that the writers never thought of it. They recognize the enormous burden of being the Slayer, but the writers don’t respect her enough to consider paying her for it. In real life, women are de facto responsible for childcare, housework, supporting friends and families through life’s big and small crises, supporting men, plastering on a smile and pretending to love waiting tables lest they offend a patron at a restaurant, and this is just what women do. Woman’s work.
And Giles gets paid. The Watcher’s Council, who more or less employ Buffy (after all, they subject her to tests of fitness, determine how she must perform work, give or withhold support based on their arbitrary guidelines), clearly has an endowment. In season five of Buffy, episode twelve, “Checkpoint,” Buffy gives a speech to the Watchers there to assess whether she’s good enough to have the information she needs to destroy the season’s villain, Glory. She says:
I've had a lot of people talking at me the last few days. Everyone just lining up to tell me how unimportant I am. And I've finally figured out why. Power. I have it. They don't. This bothers them... You're Watchers. Without a Slayer, you're pretty much just watchin' Masterpiece Theater. You can't stop Glory. You can't do anything with the information you have except maybe publish it in the ‘Everyone Thinks We're Insane-O's Home Journal.’
Just as she did in the very first episode of the series, she’s recognizing her unique worth, but in that moment, it’s Giles she puts first. “The magic shop will remain open. Mr. Giles will stay here as my official Watcher, reinstated at full salary...to be paid retroactively from the month he was fired. I will continue my work with the help of my friends.” The only universe in which Giles deserves to be compensated with a full salary and Buffy doesn’t is—well, the universe we live in—the one in which women don’t get paid as much or at all for their work.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer most certainly broke ground. Though it had its fair share of problems, most notably it’s appalling treatment of women of color and its reliance on rape for plot development (specifically as a source for man-pain for the male character, Spike, involved), there is something to be said about a show that’s about a girl who saves the world over and over. In Willow and Tara, we saw two women get to love each other and be committed to each other on screen. Yet for a show about girl power, one side of the equation is missing, the side where that power is honored and respected in a material way. Twenty years later, may Buffy still be slaying, but now with a salary and full benefits.