Last year, many publications celebrated Joss Whedon’s television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of its finale. Entertainment Weekly ranked Buffy in its top ten TV shows of all time. And more recently, Buzzfeed, that cataloguer of millennial tastes and nostalgia, undertook the mammoth task of ranking every single episode of the show (there are 144 of them), worst to best.
Though Buffy, the titular character, cracked the top five she was not tops in the universe that bears her name because unlike Willow—Buffy’s best friend who began as a quirky nerd, transformed into a powerful witch by the end of the series, and occupied the top spot on Buzzfeed’s list—Buffy was not always easy to like. Though she spent most of the seven seasons on the right side of morality (unlike Willow, who took a notable foray on the dark side), she managed to come off as infuriating and self-absorbed and even bitchy at times. But she was also smart, funny, and sexy. And to a young girl growing up in the Orthodox Jewish provinces of Brooklyn who was presented with a very limited color palate when it came to feminine possibility, Buffy was the older sister I wish I had.
For the first season of the show, every episode began with the following voiceover: “In every generation there is a chosen one. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.” This succinct way of explaining the series’ basic premise was eventually discarded as the show’s mythology grew more complex and Buffy became more popular and no longer needed an introduction. Though it went unsaid for the ensuing seasons, the premise never really changed or shifted all that much.
That is until the final episode in the series, “Chosen,” which subverts the entire premise of the series. In the series finale, Buffy, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, thinks completely outside of the box. “Why?” she asks. “In every generation a slayer is born. Why? Because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule,” she says, addressing a bunch of young girls who are part of the Slayer line, waiting to take up Buffy’s powers, which will be passed on only when Buffy dies.
The idea of waiting to fill a role is a very femininized one. Women are often depicted as being in holding patterns, waiting for marriage or motherhood. Or in the case of the final season of Buffy, to see who will become the next slayer as they head toward battle and the inevitable.
“I say we change the rule,” Buffy tells the potential slayers in that final, rousing speech. “So I say we change the rule. I say my power should be our power.” In this scene, Buffy is suggesting some sort of feminist utopian ideal—of women sharing power in order to accomplish common goals (in this instance—the defeat of ubervamps and an incorporeal Big Bad).
But the important part in this episode isn’t the magic—the “how” of it—but the question. Why is there only one when there is the potential for so many more? Buffy, at that point, has spent the entirety of the series negotiating both others’ and her own relationship with her power, but in this episode she moves beyond this focus on herself to questioning more widely the source of her abilities and why they’re limited to just one woman.
Flash back to 1997. In character age, Buffy was just a year older and ahead of me in school.
It is hardly original for a writer of a certain age—especially on the older end of the millennial spectrum—to sing Buffy’s praises. But, truly, the show—and its smart, funny, sexy (and, let’s not forget, often infuriating and self-absorbed) main character—was a lifeline to a young girl growing up in the Orthodox Jewish provinces of Brooklyn. I was a freshman in high school when the show premiered and the main character was a sixteen-year-old sophomore. My own sister, who is nearly eight years my senior, was far too ahead of me in life to be useful as a guide. Besides, we are temperamentally very different, my sister and I—she was shy and bookish and I was outgoing and athletic. By the time I myself was a sophomore, my sister had married and moved out of the house. Buffy, unlike my sister, seemed to preview what was right around the corner for me, at least emotionally. She went to college the year before I made the leap from childhood bedroom to dorm. I borrowed “the evil bitch monster of death,” the nickname applied to Buffy’s tough-as-nails psychology professor (as well as mad scientist), to describe my awful freshman-year roommate. I frequently used phrasing from the show in casual conversations without proper attribution.
(Speaking of college—the essay I wrote for my common application spoke very admiringly of Buffy and her stylish wardrobe. I’m sure I used a tongue-in-cheek tone in order to prove my sanity bona fides, but I meant every word. )
Buffy’s idioms may have permeated my life, but nothing touched me so deeply as the ways in which the modern and the ancient were brought together in the show in the series, particularly through the character of Buffy, a way that resonated with my own experience. Buffy was a sixteen-year-old high school student, a teenager who tried out for the cheerleading squad and dated attractive boys. But she was also the descendant of a long line of mystical warriors. Though not possessed of any superpower (unless memorizing all of the Olympic gold medalists in gymnastics from 1948 onward somehow qualifies as a power), I also lived a life that in which the modern and ancient were wedded, sometimes inconveniently. I went to a school with a (quite) modest dress code, modeled on somewhat outmoded notions of feminine dress that demanded long skirts that covered my knees and blouses that hid my elbows and collarbones. My teachers counseled us to find careers yet wouldn’t teach us Talmud or other sectors of religious study that were traditionally the domain of men.
It was radical to encounter on Buffy ancient texts so interwoven with the lives of women. In the Buffyverse, the young girl is powerful. She is the subject of prophecies and the agent for thwarting or enacting them.
Not so in my life. The Talmud takes a dim view of female intelligence and potential. A famous verse from the Sages reads, “Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah it is as if he taught her licentiousness.” (Or nonsense, depending your translation and interpretation.) Not exactly a ringing endorsement for female capabilities outside of the domestic sphere.
Not that the Buffyverse is any sort of feminist paradise. The Slayer is still subject to male control in the form of the Watchers Council, a coalition built mostly of men from England who teach and guide her. For Buffy, this role was filled by the fatherly Watcher Giles. (Though in later seasons, we catch glimpses of female watchers—one apocalyptically evil and the other fangirlish in her admiration/fear of Spike, the show’s resident Sid Vicious vampire.) Giles’s authority is not derived from physical strength—no one bests Buffy in that area—but from scholarship. He knows his way around a card catalog and ancient tomes, and only grudgingly turns to the computer when nudged there by the forward march of technological progress. I often imagined that he’d be comfortable in a beit midrash, itself so dominated by men, surrounded by musty tractates of the Talmud.
At first, Buffy seems to accede to the authority of the Watchers Council. She is young and though she possesses the power of the Slayer, she doesn’t yet fully understand how to wield it. She doesn’t know much of demons or mythology. But by the end of the third season, as she graduates from high school, she fires the Council after they ignore her concerns.
And when she brings the Council back into the fold in Season Five, she makes it clear to the Watchers that they work for her—not the other way around. “Without a slayer, you’re pretty much watching Masterpiece Theater,” she tells the Brits.
Like Buffy, I accepted rabbinic control over my life and decisions because I knew no other way and had no reason to second-guess it. I followed the rules carefully, obsessively even. I believed what was said about women’s desires, potential, and inner lives—that we were intuitive, spiritual, and modest. But as I got older, I realized that what I was being taught about women didn’t seem to be true about me. I was smart, sometimes arrogant. I had been taught that “The glory of the daughter of the king is hidden.” It’s a verse that proscribes so much. Don’t wear bright colors. Don’t take careers that interfere with domestic duties. Don’t dance in front of men. Not just because we said so. But because this is your nature. The rabbis allegedly understood me better than I knew myself.
Either the rabbis were right about me or I was right about me. We both couldn’t be correct.
I started slowly, searching out texts and interpretations that were more supportive of my goals. I found rabbinic opinions that supported “laxer” approaches to female dress and participation in public ritual. As far as rebellions go, it was on the weak side. I didn’t lash out at my upbringing. Rather I backed away hesitantly, as though Orthodox Judaism was a bear with whom I didn’t want to make eye contact.
Every step out had to be carefully negotiated with the rules as I understood them. I was stuck in the same old paradigm.
To return to Buffy’s question: Why? Well, for the twin purposes of the superhero narrative and uncluttered storytelling, there can only be one. (Sometimes two, as fans—or haters—of Slayer Faith know, because season three needed a badass antagonist.) In the real world, we see this phenomenon all of the time—taking one or two members of marginalized groups, elevating them, and then wiping our hands and deciding, “Job done.”
Buffy, for so long, has been one such token. My own biblical namesake, Devorah, is another. In Judges, Devorah is a judge, a prophet, and military leader. This powerful woman seems plucked from thin air. She is apparently parentless, childless. It is highly debatable whether or not she is even married—she is called the “wife of lapidot,” which roughly translates to “torches.” Some posit that she was married to a man named “torches.” She is literally, some argue, a “fiery woman.” Since “lapidot” doesn’t appear as a name anywhere else in the Old Testament, unlike most other women found in the Bible, she isn’t defined by her relationship to anyone but herself and God.
It’s important that Devorah exists in Scripture, but it’s just as important that there are no others like her. She is an anomaly, a ghost, not a role model. The female biblical role models are the mothers. In traditional households, the father blesses the daughters to be like Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel—the four mothers of the Old Testament. No Orthodox father has ever blessed his daughter to be like Devorah—a leader, independent, possibly a spinster.
I wouldn’t say that I was inspired to bust up the paradigms I had been raised with just because of Buffy (perhaps because that’s too embarrassing too admit), but I eventually stopped trying to negotiate with texts that had made no room for women like me. I was tired of trying to fit a square peg into a circle. I just stopped—no arguments or rationalizations. In my high school yearbook I had selected a quote from John Paul Jones to accompany my photograph. It read, “I have not yet begun to fight.” I chose it mostly because I was a history nerd, but also because it sounded like me. I enjoyed debate (especially the winning part), and that’s still true. But the trick is to only fight the battles you have to fight. And there was an easy way out of my fight with Orthodox Judaism and its view of gender—I could just leave. I didn’t have to stay in the room and fight with old men about who I am or what my goals are. I could walk out and leave them alone there to talk to themselves, like Clint Eastwood yelling at the empty chair.
Of course, this was only possible when I realized that like the Watchers, the rabbis were wielding unearned, “because I said so” authority. And that if you asked “Why?” insistently like a toddler, their rationalizations would eventually fall apart.
I guess, in a way, Buffy not only helped me question and sidestep outdated paradigms and change the terms of the argument, but also to know when to fight. As it says in Ecclesiastes, “For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.” And the time for fighting the old fights was over for me.
Dvora Meyers is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She has written about religion, arts, and culture for the New York Times, Tablet, Salon, and several other publications. She is also the author of the gymnastics-themed essay collection, Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess.