Buffy the Vampire Slayer (television)
First, let me put my history and allegiances on the table: I didn't watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer when it was first aired (1997-2003). I watched the entire series on DVD over the space of the last few weeks. I've been through every episode at least once and many twice (so far). I do not believe the show deteriorated when it moved to the UPN (season six); I unmitigatedly loved it from start to finish, but thought it was actually better in the later seasons.
All that being said, I've never seen anything on television so in need of feminist and anti-racist analysis as Buffy. The show gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, "so close but so far away."
There is a LOT of analysis on Buffy floating around out there. Multiple books, endless websites, some lay, some scholarly, some quite good, some less so. I can't claim to have read all of it, though I've read a fair bit. If I miss major points that other people have addressed (and I am sure I will) please attribute it to ignorance and not intent. There is a lot of there there in Buffy, and I am by necessity only scratching the surface.
First, then, race. All of the major characters in the Buffyverse, up until the season seven addition of Robin Wood (D.B. Woodside), are white. The line of slayers and potential slayers is shown to be diverse, starting the Aboriginal first slayer, moving through the Chinese and African-American slayers shown in Spike's memories, and culminating in Islander slayer Kendra in season two and the mixed group of potential slayers in season seven. However, none of these non-white slayers are real characters--the only one besides Buffy who gets any real screen time is Faith, and she's an American white girl. The other supporting roles filled by people of color are few and far between (Giles' friend Olivia, Riley's friend Forrest) and have little impact on the story.
Jackie Esmonde wrote: "Whether people of colour appear as charity cases, entertainment, plot devices, or foes, they are portrayed as expendable once they outgrow their utility to white folks." This is, unfortunately, true. There is a sense of non-white/Christian othering in some episodes of Buffy that makes me distinctly uncomfortable. It comes up first in the second season, when we meet the vengeful Angelus-cursing Gypsies, moves into the third season's Mr. Trick, and continues with the clear Jewishness of season six villain Warren, the demon Sweet in the musical episode, and the not-quite-likable nature of season seven's two Black characters, Robin and Rona (Indigo, who is quite possibly the most annoying Buffy character ever). While I would not go so far as to call any of these things out and out racist in and of themselves, the existence of all of them, in conjunction with the overwhelming whiteness of the show's major players, leaves quite a bit to be desired when it comes to racial equity. (For a more metaphorical perspective on race in Buffy, check out this article by Naomi Alderman and Annette Seidel-Arpaci.)
Buffy's complex relationship to feminism and (ug) "girl power" is probably the most widely written-about subtopic in all of Buffy-studies. It has been hotly debated for years. I think there are very legitimate points on both sides of this argument. It is easy, for those of us who are or have been immersed in Buffy, to forget how very radical the basic premise of the show actually is--in a world of supernatural bad assness, the biggest baddest bad ass is a little blonde woman. She doesn't get saved, she saves. Over and over again. That may be basic, but it's also big, and has to be kept in mind when leveling feminist critique at the show.
The super strength of Buffy herself is really just the base of the feminist iceberg on Buffy, though. The show consistently presents women in positions of great strength and power, both for the good and the bad (think not just of Buffy and Willow, but also of season two Drusilla, season four Maggie, and season five Glory). These women are not only strong; they are markedly stronger than the men around them (not just Xander, but also Giles, Riley, and even Angel and Spike). This, to my mind, is where Buffy creator Joss Whedon gets really brave. It's one thing to show women who are strong, but quite another to show women who are strongest. In particular, the interaction between Buffy and Riley calls attention to male intolerance of self-sufficient and even heroic women, which is really notable.
Feminism in Buffy goes beyond strong female characters, though, pervading many of the plots of individual episodes and the narrative arc of the entire show. In episodes like "Ted" and "Reptile Boy," Buffy takes on specific threats to women (a misogynist father-figure and a frat house, respectively) and crushes them. Later, misogyny is presented as a season-long villain in the forms of season six's Warren and season seven's Caleb. Buffy's adversarial relationship with the patriarchal Watcher's Council, and the history and tradition of slayerhood itself, and her ultimate triumph over both institutions, is a series-long theme that speaks feminist volumes.
But even though Buffy is arguably the most feminist thing I've ever seen on TV, it's far from perfect. There are countless legitimate arguments for Buffy's anti-feminism, more than I could ever address here, so I'll just talk about two of the major ones. The first, and the one I find the most powerful, is more about the world behind Buffy than about Buffy itself. The show is populated with thin, traditionally pretty white women, and as it got more acclaimed, the women got thinner, particularly Buffy herself (Sarah Michelle Gellar). This is hardly Hollywood news--we've watched it happen in show after show--but that doesn't make it any less infuriating, or any more feminist. It gets hard to believe we've gotten anywhere when we're forced to watch our heroines physically disappear before our eyes.
Another common critique of the show's feminism has to do with Buffy's relationships with men, and in particular her sexual relationship with Spike (James Marsters) in season six and the aftermath in season seven. The relationship is violent, even brutal, and their season six interactions culminate in Spike attempting to rape Buffy in "Seeing Red." Many feminists object to Buffy ever having had a relationship with Spike, a soulless vampire who spent the previous season stalking her, as well as to the violent nature of the relationship and especially to the attempted rape. Even those who object to none of the above often object to Buffy's embrace of the newly-souled Spike in season seven, after he tried to rape her.
This feminist doesn't object to any of these things.
The show's writers make it clear that Buffy's relationship with Spike in season six isn't healthy. It's not presented as a romantic ideal (though the sexiness of it isn't denied, either). The fact that many of the shows viewers saw it in a romantic light has much more to do with James Marsters' chiseled beauty (and acting chops) and with our cultural predisposition towards connecting sex and violence than with the storyline itself. Season six Buffy is depressed to the point of near collapse, completely disconnected from herself and her friends, numb. Her choice to enter into an unhealthy, violent, sadistic relationship makes sense in the context of the rest of her life, and it doesn't go unexamined by the show, even if it does go unexamined by some of the viewers.
We are past the point of needing perfect heroines who don't make mistakes. We deserve more. Buffy is not only a supernaturally strong evil-slaying superhero, she's also a woman moving through her late teens and early twenties--the most traumatic period I've lived through lately. It would be a disservice to her story and to the viewers of the show if she didn't make mistakes, some of them colossal. It doesn't, to my mind, make her anything less of a feminist icon; it just makes her a more relatable one.
There are moments of truly terrifying misogyny in Buffy. The sickening creation of the Franken-girlfriend in "Some Assembly Required," Warren's first appearance as a sexbot mastermind in "I Was Made to Love You" and the subsequent creation of the Buffybot, and (particularly) the Trio's brainwashing, attempted rape, and murder of Katrina in "Dead Things." However, I find the inclusion of these real-life monsters not anti-feminist, but illustrative of how committed to feminism the show really is. Misogo-geek fantasies of robotic girlfriends and hot chicks made compliant through mind control are not allowed to reign, but are instead called out as what they are--dangerous and disgusting objectification of women. Given the multitude of similar violence against women that passes through prime time unnoticed and uncommented on, I credit Buffy's creator and writers for bringing these things up and treating them like the demons they are.
Buffy is not a perfectly feminist show, and it is certainly not a perfectly anti-racist show. There are big problems with it, especially in regards to race, and those are worth acknowledging. At the same time, though, I think it's absolutely essential that we give Buffy her due respect for being the most feminist thing on contemporary network television. I'm giving the show three stars--I'd have given four for gender issues alone, but I am taking one off for the poor job it does with race.