The Third Wave's Final Girl: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Irene Karras

Buffy the Vampire Slayer belongs simultaneously to the action-adventure, science fiction, and horror genres. The program's mythology is based on the premise that every generation has a chosen one, a slayer: a young woman designated by the powers that be whose job is to protect humanity from the demonic forces continually attempting to take over. Since 1995, Buffy has become increasingly popular among teens and a cult hit with older viewers - the median viewer's age is 29 (Rogers 60). Buffy started out as a 16 year-old high school junior balancing school, family, friends, and love with a very demanding job. Since then, we have watched her negotiate each of these terrains, along with the transition to college, with wit, strength and support from her beloved friends. As with any multi-dimensional character, she has sometimes ended up hurt and betrayed. It is this combination of "girl power" and human weakness that has initiated the dialogue, both in print and on the Internet, about Buffy's role in the third wave, in feminist television criticism, and as a role model for young women. Buffy's impulse to fulfill her mission in ridding the world of evil has been compared to the impulse driving third wave feminists to pop-culture critique (Fudge,, para.1). The images presented in the show - from the main character to her mother, the patriarchal Watcher's Council and the secondary characters - are indicative of third wave feminist philosophy and activism, and act as metaphors for the tensions between second and third wave feminists. The program also exemplifies the third wave's commitment to girl power by turning the victim role typical of the action and horror genres on its head with the character of Buffy herself.

This Revolution Will Be Televised

In their book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards define the third wave as "the women who were reared in the wake of the women's liberation movement of the 1970s" (15). These women were born after 1960 and came of age in the eighties and nineties; their experiences were formed by similar social conditions at approximately the same point in their lives and they hold a common interpretive framework shaped by their historical circumstances (Alfonso & Trigilio, para.7). Like the second wave before them, third wave feminists are a political generation defined by common exposure to the pressure of some of the same problems (Siegel, 54). As Barbara Findlen, who was among the first to explore the third wave, states in the introduction to her anthology Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation:

We have been shaped by the events and circumstances of our times: AIDS, the erosion of reproductive rights ... the backlash against women, the skyrocketing divorce rate, the movement towards multiculturalism and greater global awareness, the emergence of the lesbian and gay rights movement, a greater overall awareness of sexuality, and the feminist movement itself. (xiii)

A 1993 article for U.S. News and World Report reiterates Findlen's sentiment: "They learned they were inheriting a ravaged environment and a ruined economy; during their lifetimes, the AIDS epidemic has exploded, reports of violence against young women have risen nearly 50 percent and college tuition has skyrocketed" (Schrof 69). Baumgardner & Richards contend that the third wave's goals derive from analyzing how these issues affect their personal lives, and that these issues are taken on by the third wave in addition to continuing work on the issues identified by the second wave, such as domestic abuse or economic equality (21). Although third wave feminists are often seen as apolitical by their mothers' generation, the authors argue that women of the third wave are in fact leading very feminist lives, but their definition of what it means to be a feminist has changed.

The third wave is often thought to have been initiated by the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991 when, as Naomi Wolf, the third wave's version of Gloria Steinem in terms of her looks and mass media appeal, explains, the "genderquake" began, referring to the

abrupt shift in the balance of power between US women and men initiated by the Supreme Court confirmation hearings and the unprecedented feminist political action they brought about ... something critical to the sustenance of patriarchy died in the confrontation and something new was born. (xxv; 5)

Wolf argues that the two years following the court hearings were rocked by unprecedented struggles over gender issues, including the William Kennedy Smith and Mike Tyson rape trials. In 1992, more women ran for office and came forward with sexual harassment charges against men running for office, Bill Clinton was elected, and the cult of Hillary began. Deborah Siegel, a feminist who has written extensively about the third wave, also sees this time as fundamental to the development of the third wave, noting that the Clarence Thomas hearings, the Rodney King beating, and the passage of anti-abortion legislation in some states resulted in a political coming of age and a "remarkable resurgence of grassroots student activism, young feminist conferences, and a host of new or newly revitalized social action organizations and networks led largely by young women" (Siegel, 47). I would argue that within the Canadian context, the Montreal Massacre of 1989 was one of such impetuses for Canadian third wave feminists, rallying high school and university students to speak out against violence and gather en masse for memorials, as well as inspiring for many women the first sparks of feminist consciousness.

The chief criticism of third wave feminism and feminists comes from members of the second wave, the women who initiated many of the gains enjoyed by today's generation of women and men. People in their teens and twenties, the daughters and sons of the second wave, have grown up taking equality for granted (Schrof 70; Baumgardner & Richards 77). "The legacy of feminism for me," says Findlen (xii), "was a sense of entitlement ... we are the first generation for whom feminism has been entwined in the fabric of our lives." Findlen and Baumgardner & Richards argue that many young women have integrated the values of feminism into their lives, even if they do not choose to call themselves feminists, and that this is in effect a sign that feminism has succeeded in permeating the social discourse: "This [the integration of feminism into young women's every day lives] is an important barometer of the impact of feminism since feminism is a movement for social change, not an organization doing a membership drive" (Findlen xiv).

The criticism that second wave feminists often reserve for third wave feminists is that the third wave is too ambitious, too unfocused, not appreciative enough of the small changes that take years to effect, and not a united movement for change (Schrof 69). Findlen challenges this judgment, saying that the second wave's unity is more mythical than real since every woman's experience is different. What may appear to be division within the third wave is actually an honest appreciation and admission of the each woman's different experiences, and how these affect her role in feminism (Findlen, xiii). Schrof supports this idea when she writes, "Where their mothers were sometimes accused of being separatists, third wavers are avowed integrationists. Rather than carving out a limited agenda, third wavers want feminism to be an all-encompassing way of life" (70). And in so doing, third wavers are including men in the movement: "Second wave feminism focused rather exclusively on the needs of women ... it's time to acknowledge our connection to men - we are more similar than we are different" (The 3rd WWWave, "Women, Men and Feminism," para. 1-2). Baumgarder & Richards claim that second wave tactics do not speak to the "media-savvy, culturally driven generation" of the third wave (77).

Alfonso & Trigilio (, two feminist philosophers, also challenge second wave criticism of young women, saying that as a consequence of changed political conditions, the goals and strategies that some third wave feminists select do not always coincide with the goals and strategies of the second wave, and that sometimes they even oppose them. The homepage for The 3rd WWWave echoes this sentiment: "This is not the second wave warmed over. We are building on what they have accomplished and taking it in new directions appropriate for the 21st century. We've had enough - and we're doing something about it!" (The 3rd WWWave, "Welcome to the 3rd WWWave!" para.8). The 3rd WWWave describes these positions for the three waves of feminism: the first wave struggled to change women's legal role though suffrage; the second wave focused on changing women's social role; and the third wave's challenge is to ensure the rest of the world changes to keep up with women's changed roles. This organization maintains that the second wave was a theoretical movement, while the third wave is about applying feminism to women and men's everyday lives. And since third wavers have had different political experiences, it only follows that their feminist consciousness would differ as well. Findlen reiterates this point: "My feminism wasn't shaped by anti-war or civil rights activism; I was not the victim of the problem that had no name. Indeed, by the time I was discovering feminism, naming had become a principal occupation of feminists"(xi).

Third wave feminists may not be emphasizing the naming of experiences, but they are struggling to define their femaleness in a world where the naming is often done by the media and pop culture, where the choice for young women is to be either a babe or a bitch (Brown 14), and third wave activism builds on the second wave by focusing on the relationship of texts to one another and to the world. The third wave is returning to pop culture, "the medium through which feminism captured the popular imagination - and thus political clout - in the late 1960s and early 1970s" (Orr 38). Although the third wave often assumes exclusivity on cultural politics, one cannot forget that television characters such as Mary Tyler Moore, for example, were reactions to, and fictionalized representations of, second wave feminism. Thus, critiques of popular culture are not new to feminism, having been addressed by the second wave when women were convinced that their oppression was "very much related to mass media representation" (Bailec, para.2). The difference may lie in the fact that third wave feminists are now more directly influential in cultural reproduction as writers, producers and directors than second wave feminists were during their youth. As well, the third wave does not distinguish between the political and cultural in their analyses and creations in the way that the second wave sometimes did (Bailec, para.4; Heywood & Drake 15).

The use of the term "wave" in describing the distinct periods of feminist consciousness and revolution connotes a belief that each phase is building on the previous one, just as actual waves do. However, the use of the term "third" is problematic for some second wave feminists who may not consider their contribution to the movement to be history. The very identification of a third wave implies that the second wave is over, and as many members of the second wave are still very active in feminist work and politics, they may be resistant to the idea that there could be a new feminism waiting to replace - or at least alter - theirs. Baumgardner & Richards argue that the main source of tension between the two movements has been the third wave's embracement of what they call "Girlie" feminism and what the second wave perceives as falling into the trappings of femininity that they worked so hard to escape (134). In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy's relationship with her mother can be understood as a metaphor for the tenuous relationship between second and third wave feminists. Joyce was the quintessential second wave feminist - she came of age in the 1960s, participated in the civil and women's rights movements, worked fulltime and divorced Buffy's father. She knew nothing of Buffy's powers as a slayer until well into the third season, misreading her difficulties with school as laziness or a lack of focus rather than as a result of unconventional work. Just as second wave feminists accuse the third wave of perceived apathy for not embracing their politics, Joyce was often exasperated by what she perceived to be Buffy's lack of motivation in the areas she considered to be the most important.

The mother-daughter battle can provide a complex understanding of third wave perspectives: "This familial framing on the part of third wave feminists constructs feminism as a coming-of-age issue. In other words, figuring out her own feminism may become more and more a girl's right of passage" (Orr 39). Baumgardner & Richards say that in creating a feminism of their own, this generation of feminists is "repeating a pattern as old as the patriarchy: rebelling against their mothers" (137). More than just representing a teen's typical view that her mother is clueless about her life, Joyce can be said to have represented all the tenets of second wave feminism against which Buffy is defining herself. Joyce had issues with Buffy's independence, as any mother might, but also as a second-wave feminist might have with what she perceives to be the ingratitude and haughtiness of a third waver who believes this time, she'll do feminism right. In season five, Joyce died of a brain aneurysm, setting the stage for Buffy to finally become a woman in her own right. In the rest of that season and in most of the current one, the theme has been growing up, becoming an adult. Joyce's death could be perceived as the metaphorical death of the second wave's agenda, and Buffy's struggles are now the expression of a new way of doing things. But it's important to note that for all their differences, Buffy loved her mother, and it was her mother's lessons that gave her the foundation upon which she could discover her own values. Thus, although a passing of the torch is inevitable between generations, acknowledgement must also be given where it's due.

Buffy the Patriarchy Slayer? - The Third Wave's Final Girl

Meehan, whose 1983 book Ladies of the Evening: Women Characters of Primetime Television provided a content analysis of the ten most popular female representations on primetime television, says that the most passive female character of all - and a staple of the action-adventure genre - was the victim: "By definition the part of the victim was passive since it required no initiative or industry; it simply happened to the character" (64). Often, she argues, there weren't even any other female characters in the movie or show, and although the victim was part of the story, the story was never about her but about the hero. The situation was similar for female characters within the horror genre who fail to "look" back at the men who desire her: "The woman's gaze is punished by narrative processes that transform curiosity and desire into masochistic fantasy" (Williams 15; 17).

The relevance of the female and male gazes to feminist television criticism is pivotal. The person who looks has the power. Taking the above examples, one can theorize that Buffy is indeed a revolutionary female character. She is not the victim of her series, but the hero. Her strength exceeds that of any gender, including the demonic. She has saved male and female victims equally. Buffy is not afraid to look. Williams says that the female gaze in horror films represents the threat of castration to men. What could be more castrating to the predominantly male vampires than Buffy's steady gaze? Their insatiable need for blood could be representative of a man's "insatiable sexual appetite - yet another threat to his potency" (Williams 22). Buffy represents both life force - ample blood for a vampire to sustain himself - and a potential sexual conquest. Except that, "... she [Buffy] talks back, she looks back and she can take a blow as well as she can land one" (Owen, para.2).

For Barry Grant, professor of film studies at Brock University, monsters in the horror genre address issues of sexual identity that are prevalent in the minds of teenagers, "particularly in their coded concerns with the rites of initiation involving puberty - masturbation and menstruation" (5). This is significant in reading Buffy. The slayer is called to duty upon menarche. This presents us with two potential metaphors: are the vampires examples of the evil predators awaiting sexual females? And what is the implication of having a woman become most powerful when many sociologists and psychologists have said real girls lose their power, becoming more concerned with other (especially male) opinions (Heywood & Drake 10)? Focusing on this metaphor can also lead to questions around the inclusion of old sexist beliefs in the "otherness" of the female body and its mystery for men. The vampire's desire for blood can be said to have menstrual connotations, but a more likely metaphor may be that it signifies the threat of AIDS and other venereal diseases to the sexually active. With vampires, sex is equated with death. This idea was made even clearer in the second season episode "Innocence." Buffy, on her seventeenth birthday, finally slept with her boyfriend, Angel, the vampire-with-a-soul. In so doing, a 150 year-old curse was lifted and Angel lost his soul, becoming evil again. Sex led to the death of the good Angel, to the death of a secondary character whom Angel tortures and kills, and to the death of Buffy's innocent belief that love can conquer all. This episode can also be read as a metaphor for the young girl who sleeps with a boy and wakes to find him cold and cruel. Her current trysts with Spike, a vampire who has killed two slayers, is also fraught with danger. Although Spike no longer kills humans due to a chip planted in his brain by The Initiative, he has been capable of hurting Buffy since she was resurrected from the dead in season six's premiere "Bargaining." It has not yet been revealed why Buffy does not register as human on Spike's chip, but it appears evident that this relationship - based, it seems, primarily on sex for Buffy, though Spike claims he is in love with her - cannot end well. Sex is perilous territory for young women today, and the vampire-as-sexual-predator metaphor resonates.

In the horror genre, the killer often uses phallic-shaped instruments to torture and kill his victims (Clover 92). Rarely are the women in these movies actually raped, but there are long scenes of knives being thrust into their bodies. Buffy's stake, which is plunged into a vampire's heart to kill him, can also be considered a phallic symbol. It is Buffy who carries the powerful tool in this show. Carol Clover, professor of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, also makes note of the "final" girl in the horror genre - the lone woman who stands at the end of the movie, having seen her friends and family killed:

She often shows more courage and level-headedness than her crying male counterpart ... (her gender) is compromised by her masculine interests, her inevitable sexual reluctance, her apartness from other girls, sometimes her name ... her unfemininity is signaled clearly by her exercise of the 'active, investigating gaze' normally reserved for males and hideously punished in females. (83)

Buffy fits this portrait, having begun the series as a loner, "she is marked as both familiar and different; her name emphasizes the ambivalence of the character ... she generally experiences pleasure in physically challenging encounters with various monsters" (Owen, para.2). For Buffy, it truly is more important that she kill the monsters than get a boyfriend (Rogers 60). Buffy would be the stereotypical last girl except that her friends are always left standing as well, and she saves not only herself at the end of each show, but all of humanity. Indeed, in season five's finale, "The Gift," Buffy sacrificed herself to save the world, while her friends helped her fight and were ultimately left to bury - and, in season six, resurrect - her. It was a conscious choice she made out of strength and courage, and not an inevitable result of being female. This marks a real shift in the genre that is distinctly third wave in its expression of the struggle against an inherited world of evil and the cooperation of women with men in addressing it.

Also in the tradition of the female victim, Buffy is beautiful. With long blonde hair, a thin, petite frame and blemish-free complexion, she is not challenging traditional definitions of feminine beauty. Sarah Curtis-Fawley, a student activist at the University of Virginia, says that girls struggling to embody these types of definitions are ruining their self-esteem and health: "Replacing Barbie with Buffy is clearly not the victory that feminism hoped for" (Curtis-Fawley, para.3). However, Buffy does not simply stand around looking pretty in her stylish clothes. She is physically and mentally active in saving the world, her body symbolizing a kind of resilience, strength and confidence recent to television's representation of the female body. She also takes pleasure in being a "supremely confident kicker of evil butt" (Owen, para.2). In her article in Bitch Magazine Fudge writes, "As cute and perky and scantily clad as she is, she's not overtly sexualized within the show, which is a pretty dramatic shift from the jiggle-core of most other kung-fu fighting women on TV" (Fudge,, para.5). Her ability to be both beautiful and strong, a perfectly accessorized and feminine killing machine, makes Buffy the embodiment of what Baumgardner & Richards call "girlie" feminism, the intersection of culture and feminism that they argue is unique to the third wave, at least as a feminist ideology.

Girlie feminists claim their femininity as a source of power, rather than trying to make it masculine, arguing that by doing the latter, women are in fact giving the masculine preferred status while devaluing the feminine (135). By embracing the feminine - make-up, clothing, and even Barbies - third wave feminists are sending the message to society that women are powerful on their own terms. The main criticism the authors - both third wave feminists - levy against girlie feminism is that it often comes without a political agenda. But Buffy has an agenda: she is the prototypical girly feminist activist, intentionally slaying stereotypes about what women can and cannot do, combining sexuality with real efforts to make the world a better and safer place for both men and women. Her foible in season five was a powerful goddess named Glory - another strong, intensely feminine woman who was just as angry when she broke a heel as when her minions failed her. The fact that in Buffy's world, men and women are equally capable of intense evil and goodness without sacrificing their sexuality reflects the third wave's internalization of the second wave's feminist goals.

Every week, Buffy deals with issues common to members of the third wave. "We would not have female action adventure heroes without a feminist consciousness," says Elyce Helford, Director of Women's studies at Middle Tennessee State University (293). These female heroes are equal parts "herstory, affirmative action, equal opportunity and repudiation of gender essentialism and traditional female roles" (293). This perspective aligns itself perfectly with the view of third wave feminists as women who are fighting against the real and imagined boundaries of past and present patriarchies and feminisms in articulating their identities, choices, and successes in the home and workplace:

For a true 1990s TV heroine, you have to look to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show about a young woman really struggling with the limits of love and death, will and destiny ... we have, with Buffy, one tough, strong-willed, culturally savvy young woman ... who knows the world is full of monsters and, by god, she is going to kill as many of them as she can (Kingwell, para. 4,9).

Buffy did not choose her fate, and does not always enjoy defending humanity, but her reluctance never keeps her from doing her job as well as she can, even when it requires huge sacrifices (Isaacs 133). The monsters she fights never question her strength simply because she is female. Rather they accept and respect her position. They could be read as the fruit of feminism's labours - enlightened males who accept a strong woman based on her individual characteristics, and not gendered stereotypes.

Creator Joss Whedon, who could also be classified as a third wave feminist, has said that his inspiration for Buffy came from years of watching movies where the blonde wanders into a dark alley and is killed by a monster. His heroine "wanders into a dark alley, takes care of herself, and deploys her power to kill the monster" (Fudge,, para.2). She never claims to be "just a girl" and in fact, her femininity is the very source of her strength. She is proficient at martial arts, paying homage to women's self-defense collectives of the 70s and date rape awareness training of the 90s, fulfilling the female dream of walking anywhere at any time, knowing you can take care of yourself against the monsters (Fudge,, para.5). In "The Gift," before her showdown with Glory, Buffy stakes a vampire who is about to bite a young man. The bewildered boy says, "But you're just a girl." Buffy responds, "That's what I keep saying." But she has in fact never meant it in the way that the young man implies; she has bemoaned the responsibility of having the world on her shoulders at such a young age, of not having a normal social life or boyfriend, but has never assumed that she should not have the responsibility because she is female.

Second-wave feminist Phyllis Chesler has said that a modern day example of positive feminism is "every woman who leaves a dead marriage or violent boyfriend ... every battered woman who fights back ... every man and woman who dares to be kind to a woman in crisis, despite the bad names they may be called for caring about others" (Bellafante and Chesler, para.31). Buffy not only left Angel when he became evil, but in the second season finale, "Becoming," actually sent him to hell - though by force of a spell he had regained his soul - in order to protect humanity from an especially dark force he unleashed before becoming good again. She certainly does not let the guy - not even her one true love - get in the way of her work and self-fulfillment. Her relationship with Riley, the only "normal" man she has had a relationship with, ended because she could not play into the needy female role and allow him to be her caretaker or protector. Instead, Buffy is humanity's protector, saving many girls and boys through the years from all sorts of evil - some supernatural, some inflicted by humans. Her tomb in "The Gift" read, "She saved the world. A lot."

One aspect of second wave feminism that Buffy does not necessarily update to the satisfaction of the third wave is in the economic and race structures apparent - or not - in the show. Buffy's status is privileged: she is white, suburban and middle-class. Joyce, again, represented the stereotypical second wave feminist with her lifestyle - there are no black or working class women in her workplace, social life or women's groups (Walker ix). No students of colour attended Sunnydale High in the three seasons when the program was set there. Only recently were there any people of colour featured. Grant, one of the members of season five's The Initiative, was the only recurring black character on the show, although his character was peripheral at best and was ultimately eliminated with Riley's departure. Three of the four previous slayers acknowledged in the show have been of colour - Kendra, the girl who is called when it is believed that Buffy has drowned, was of African descent, as was the slayer in 1977 whom Spike killed. The slayer during the 1880s, also killed by Spike, was Asian. But these characters would be viewed as token at best, and do not reflect the third wave's sensitivity to inclusion and acceptance of women from differing cultural and economic backgrounds (Walker x; Findlen xii). However, another reading of this lack of racial and class representation could come once again from the horror genre where the female victims and heroines were predominantly white, middle class, privileged young women (Williams 17).


The critical feminist cultural perspective on television and film, specifically on the genres of action-adventure and horror, provide a dynamic framework for analyzing some of the symbols and metaphors within Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This paper is not exhaustive in its evaluation. Further analysis could be applied to any number of the characters within the show: Willow, the cyber-geek turned magic-junkie who began a lesbian relationship with a fellow Wiccan, Tara, last year; Xander the feminized product of feminism who represents the changing male role; Angel, the eroticized vampire with a soul - the castrated male, castrated because sex means he will become evil again; Spike, the eroticized vampire with a chip which has castrated him in vampire terms, but who seems to be finding redemption through love for the slayer; Riley, Buffy's old boyfriend, who embodies the most traditional view of male reluctance to accept a female who is physically stronger than him; Faith, the other slayer, whose self-destruction and much more exploitative use of her sexual power led to the death of a human; the patriarchal Watcher's council which controls and imposes rules upon the slayer (and which Buffy rebelled against in the third season); Anya, the vengeance demon who became stuck in the mortal realm and now finds herself subject to the very pressures of femininity she used to avenge for other women; Giles, Buffy's Watcher, the enlightened father figure who dances between being the protector and the protected; and the countless sexual and other metaphors represented by the vampires and demons who populate Buffy's world, only a few of which I have touched upon here.

Third wave feminists have tried to balance their desire to be feminine and nurturing - something they do find among the second wave feminists whose politics they often find anti-family and anti-sexual - with their expectations of a rewarding career and respect for their place in the world. The third wave, in my view, is not a rejection of second wave accomplishments. Rather it is the next step, the attempt to make good on the promises and rewards the second-wave aimed for. Where they began the struggle, it is up to the third wave to continue it. That does not, however, mean it will be on the same turf. Third wave feminists have claimed pop culture as both their terrain and weapon of choice, believing that by participating to a greater degree in creating and supporting positive images for themselves, they will finally infiltrate the last vestiges of patriarchy. Buffy is one example of this ideology manifested in cultural reproduction. True, such images alone won't necessarily change societal structures, as Baumgarden & Richards have argued. But the right words and pictures can at the very least help to shape a revolution's canons.


Works Cited

Note: Although there is some discussion in academia about the authority of online sources used in the same weight as academic ones in research, it is my belief that when discussing pop culture or issues pertaining to Generation X or Y, the internet provides a vast amount of information, as well as access to this generation's cultural productions in the form of online magazines and discussion groups. Having said that, the Internet is not a permanent space and links become outdated. Wherever possible, I have attempted to provide information on the print copies of online information I have used.

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