All posts by smartwomenweb

Not the Prudes We Think They Were: The Decameron

By Mara Revitsky ’20

decameronAbove is John William’s 1916 rendition of people telling the stories of The Decameron.

I am an insufferable dork when it comes to history.

In taking just two European History classes, I realized just how many familiar problems people of the past have to modern society. Humans are still struggling with the same issues of greed, envy, heartbreak, social image, and so many others. Humans also haven’t evolved much when it comes to humor.

In the second of the two European classes, I read stories from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, and I was shocked by the similarities to our modern concerns. Boccaccio wrote three types of stories: satires, tragedies, and jokes.

His satires discussed concepts like church versus religion, punishment as a result of being different, and cleverness. The tragedies were primarily concerned with virtue and merit. The most interesting type, jokes, illustrated how people are human.

Before reading Boccaccio, I—like many others—believed the misconception that the people of the 14th century were prudish, uptight, and only associated sex with reproduction. However, one can clearly see how this is very false in the stories “Putting the Devil into Hell” and “The Dumb Gardner.”

“Putting the Devil into Hell” follows a fourteen-year-old girl, Alibech, and her journey to serve God. She goes in search of a tutor to enlighten her in the practices and teachings of the Lord. Because she is so young and so beautiful, all of these holy men turn her down. She is too much of a temptation to go against their vows. However, a younger monk who lives in an isolated cave takes her in to teach her. The monk is also tempted by her and seeks to have his way with her.

To accomplish this task, he tells her that the best way she can serve God is to put the Devil in Hell. In this euphemism, his genitals are the Devil and her genitals Hell. You see the humor here when Alibech begins to like serving God this way, pleading with him to “aid me with thy Devil in abating my raging Hell.” The monk gets worn out by all of this sex, so he wants to find a way to get rid of Alibech.

A young nobleman discovers Alibech has a great family fortune and takes her away to marry her, greatly upsetting Alibech. When she is asked by her fellow noblewomen after the wedding how to put the Devil back in Hell, she informs them with “gestures,” and the women burst out laughing. They tell her that she shouldn’t be upset because her husband “will want to serve the Lord as well.”

A similar sexual and religious theme is present in “The Dumb Gardner.” A young, capable man named Masetto pretends to be dumb in order to live, work in the garden, and sleep with all of the nuns at a convent. He says to himself, when he sees all of the young nuns, “Once you put me inside that garden of yours, I’ll tend to it better than it’s ever been tended before.”

He plays dumb so that the nuns have to make the first move, and two do so out of curiosity. Within a short time, all of the nuns and the Abbess find out and join in on the fun.

Masetto is in such high demand all day every day that he stops playing dumb and wants the Abbess and nuns to make an arrangement to share him equally. The Abbess thinks that it would be better to compromise than “tarnish the reputation of the convent.”

Therefore, Masetto continues to live, work, and sleep with all of the convent; he fathers many “nunlets and monklets” without ever having to provide for them and care for a family. When the Abbess dies, Masetto retires at an older age with a “fat pension” and no worries.

In both stories, an audience can see a criticism of the church, but more importantly, the idea that sexual situations are a prime source of comedy. This still carries over into modern literature and entertainment. Sex jokes will always be funny; explicit content is nothing new to today’s audiences.

The Decameron is a perfect example and truly showcases how humans haven’t changed in 800 years. It is realizations like this that make me love history for the pure aspect of understanding human nature to its fullest potential. The people of the 14th century really weren’t the prudes everyone assumes they were.

To read the full stories, you can access PDFs online from the following links:

“Putting the Devil into Hell:”

“The Dumb Gardner:”

Summer Reflections: Social Media and Exposure to Violent Death

By Dr. Tina Thomas

Dr. Thomas is Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology. Featured Image courtesy of the Independent:

This summer, I am taking time to reflect on the past year and what I want to do in the near and distant future. I am also reflecting on my relationships with others. When I think about personal relationships, I automatically think about social media. Before I begin this blog post, I want to preface this writing by stating that this is not a judgment to those who are on social media. I find it to be a wonderful vehicle for staying connected to family and friends, both near and far.

With that said, I have been told that social media is a necessary evil—especially as an academic. It helps you gain a following if individuals are interested in your scholarly work, and it gives individuals easier access to you and all the wisdom you can impart through your research. I have seen professors extremely successful in this venture and I have great respect for how some academics use social media to impart messages related specifically to social justice issues in which I am interested.

Despite this respect, I have to be honest. I dislike social media. A lot. I recently signed into my Facebook account after a few months off. As these things usually go, I got bored, and wanted to see how everyone was doing, who recently graduated, and how teaching was going for other colleagues. In other words, I was using social media as an avenue to stay tuned to all of the changes and experiences that people I knew were currently undergoing.

The first day back on social media, it is fine. It is nice to see people have gotten married, someone’s child has celebrated another birthday, or a well-liked professor from graduate school receives a prestigious award. These are all beautiful markers of life. After day two and three, I start to think back on how people formed relationships prior to social media. Friends were lost along the way just to be found at a later date, or never to be spoken to again. It makes me wonder, is social connectedness a phenomenon that is essentially finite? Is it healthy to be so connected–particularly about bad news?

These thoughts related to mental health rose most recently as I saw many posts regarding the failure of the legal system to see the personhood of Mr. Philando Castile. For those unaware, Mr. Castile, a dedicated public-school cafeteria supervisor, was shot and killed by Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez during a traffic stop. He was murdered in front of his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter. As the officer approached, Mr. Castile shared with the officer that he was carrying a legally licensed gun and that he was not reaching for the weapon. Shortly after, Officer Yanez shot into the vehicle seven times. Ms. Reynolds, Mr. Castile’s girlfriend, documented the entire deadly exchange on Facebook Live. Despite the video evidence, the officer was acquitted of the charge of second-degree manslaughter.

I have not posted anything on social media concerning this current event, and I genuinely wonder why. I wonder why I cannot muster up a single word on social media that encapsulates my anger, my fear, my sadness, my disgust, my horror, and my exhaustion at the devaluation of black and brown bodies on a consistent basis. There are several dimensions that come into play as I reflect on this, including among others, Latinx anti-Blackness and mental health concerns associated with the consumption of such violent acts.

I will focus on the latter for now, as it is fresh on my mind with a friend posting a commentary on why people should not view the Philando Castile Facebook Live video. In all honesty, I cannot view any more of these videos. In the past, I viewed these videos to honor the death of those who were murdered. However, after the initial pain, they became desensitizing. It is almost as though I kept seeing these events happen over and over again, and I started to feel numb to the pain of it. Not only did I feel numb, but there was an expectation that the most recent video being posted would not be the last. In short, I felt myself losing hope. That was not a positive place for someone who tries to develop ways to address social justice issues.

So, I haven’t watched the video, although I have inadvertently viewed the photos as I scroll past my Facebook newsfeed and that is heartbreaking enough. Despite these difficult feelings, I am glad to feel heartbroken and upset. I am glad to feel both the pain and the anger at thinking of the tragic loss that Mr. Castile’s girlfriend and her small child had to witness.

In short, everyone has their psychological limits as to what they can process and consume without damage. I have discovered that my social media limit abruptly halts when hope for change is no longer a possibility. As an anthropologist, I constantly ponder on the complexity of humans–namely their ability to be both cruel and kind. Despite our particular propensity for cruelty, I also understand that acts of kindness and altruism override the need for violence in all forms. My hope leans into those who see the humanity in all and in the change that we can create beyond social media and can apply to the collaboration of bettering the lived experience of others.

Hillary Clinton and Her Controversially Priced Clothing: Who Gives a Damn?

By Yasmine Naama ‘17

Since her days as first lady of the United States, Hillary Clinton has been a target for Image result for hillary clintonfashion police everywhere. Even after an investment in style experts for her long journey down the campaign trail, the public still feels the need to share its two cents about the classily dressed pant-suited lady every time she makes a public appearance. But why is it that no one feels the need to comment on Donald Trump’s overabundance of $7,000 Brioni suits, while Hillary’s $12,495 Giorgio Armani tweed jacket is all the buzz? The importance society has put on woman’s fashion is to blame, and we can turn to French philosopher and theorist Michel Foucault and similar researchers for the answer.

Foucault references Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the Panopticon in relation to his studies around self-discipline and punishment. According to Lydia Alix Fillingham (1993), The idea of a Panopticon is “that every person is isolated in a small room, where they all may be observed at all times by a single person in the center tower” (p. 126). The backlash against Hillary Clinton’s choice of designer jacket shows that she is being surveyed under the male panoptic gaze. Every move that she makes under the public eye; as psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan writes, she is being looked at “steadily, intently, and with fixed attention.” Because she is a victim of the gaze, conscious decisions are made regarding her outfit choices whether she knows that someone is watching or not.

Furthermore, Hillary Clinton’s attention to her wardrobe is an example of an internal struggle between her real self versus her fake self. Sarah J. Tracy and Angela Trethewey (2005) write that, “Truth effects created by the real-self fake-self dichotomy are important not because there are necessarily true differences between real and fake selves, but because people talk and act as if there are” (p. 170). This is important because it shows that Hillary’s choice to wear a designer jacket while giving a speech to the public highlights her “fake self.” Because she is being watched, she feels the need to display her identity in order to please the male panoptic gaze. Wearing a designer jacket demonstrates that she has the money to dress in a flattering manner, and money communicates that she has power as well.

From a woman’s perspective, the struggle for power over the male gaze is increasingly strong because of the technologically saturated world we live in. Furthermore, Tracy and Trethewey (2005) explain that, “Specifically, we argue that the dichotomy encourages (a) strategized self-subordination; (b) perpetually deferred identities; (c) auto-dressage; and (d) the production of organizationally preferred ‘good little copers’” (p. 170). Perfectly posh pant-suited Hillary Clinton’s choice in dress code exemplifies her actively deferring her identity, or real self. The structures of society and the idea that we are unconsciously being viewed under a microscopic lens encourage the real-self versus fake-self dichotomy that Hillary displays in her public appearance.

On another note, we can also use identity theory when surveying the media’s fixation on Hillary’s clothes. Donal Carbaugh’s idea that identity is a product of communication can also be used to explain why attention is paid to not only what Hillary Clinton wears on a day to day basis, but other women in the workplace as well. According to Carbaugh (1996), “From this vantage point, the question Who am I? depends partly on ‘where’ I am, with whom I am, and what I can ably do there, in that scene, with those people, given the (material and symbolic) resources that are available to the people there” (p. 24). This relates to Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis where he explains that we are all actors on a stage and different scenes (situations) call upon different behaviors depending on whom we are interacting with. The podium that Hillary Clinton stands behind while giving a speech to a specific audience is an example of the many different “stages” that she portrays herself differently for. Additionally, Carbaugh promotes his idea of the Cultural Pragmatic Idiom to communicate that we do not have identity but that identity is something that we show depending on whom we are engaging in conversation with. He writes that, “One’s sense of who one is derives from the particular arrangement of social scenes in which one participates” (Carbaugh, 2005, p. 25). This exemplifies why Hillary Clinton’s decision to wear a Giorgio Armani jacket to a particular speech has been under public scrutiny. Society is questioning her sincerity because of her wardrobe choices.

So why do we give a damn about Hillary Clinton’s jacket? The public cares because much more so than men, society has deemed that a woman’s fashion style communicates how she want to be seen and heard by her subordinates. Her designer jacket exemplifies the respect that she is gauging for from the public. Hillary, like most women, is a victim of the male panoptic gaze, and in response to that struggles with her identity in portraying a real versus fake self while in front of an audience.


How much is enough? Truth about accomplishment

By Nikea Ulrich ’17

“Overachiever” is a label I get constantly. The connotation of the term in high school was one of mild disdain, but it has since then, in some respects, morphed into astonishment and appreciation. Truth be told, I don’t know which response I favor. No matter what way you look at it, “overachiever” sets an intrinsic expectation: an expectation for continued success and accomplishment.

This expectation is something I have struggled with for as long as I can remember. Of course, there are different types of expectations: those I place on myself and those that come from others within academia and society as a whole.  I am fortunate that others see high potential in me and have so much faith in me; my gratitude goes beyond words. But that is just it: I am uncomfortable shedding light on my inner struggles because I feel like I should always be grateful for the experiences and recognition I have gotten. No one seems to mention the added stress and expectation that comes with notable accolades. Granted, a lot of it comes from my own personal issue of comparing myself to others, of fearing disappointment and failure. I have worried in the past that I wanted to achieve because I felt like I had to achieve. So, how do you get out of the cycle of comparing your success to others when you are one such person to whom others seem to compare themselves?

Take high school, for example. The teacher is handing out the graded tests, the classroom atmosphere is filled equally with relief and dismay, and the first question most students ask their neighbor is: “What did you get?” It’s a simple question, but in my own experience, it’s a loaded one. It didn’t matter how vaguely I answered the question. If someone found out they scored higher than I did, they had somehow “truly succeeded.” Conversely, if I had scored higher, I heard “of course you did” as a retort. Maybe this is commonplace for every valedictorian in high school, but the expectation for always being exceptional has affected and continues to affect me.

Fast forward to college. The resume says Goldwater Scholar, DAAD Undergraduate Scholar and Young Ambassador, Fulbright Fellow, and first author on a research publication, among other things. I have worked my butt off, and I have been fortunate to have the amazing opportunities I have had.

However, it doesn’t mean that they came easy for me. The label “overachiever” makes me cringe inside because in my view, such perception diminishes the work involved during the process. It is as if those accomplishments were going to happen anyway, regardless of what I did, or that they were somehow effortless. This is not true.

Image result for trophyI think that sometimes the inherent struggles associated with accomplishment are overlooked and those that have found what people may deem as “great success” don’t share them for fear of showing weakness. Another possibility is that I represent a minority of those who feel this way. But, that doesn’t mean I am weak! In fact, I have started to view things a little differently: is something a true accomplishment if there is no struggle involved? Challenge is an integral part of success! For example, during my study abroad experience in Germany spring of 2016, I took a master’s course through the Max Planck Institute of Terrestrial Microbiology in Marburg. It was a completely new level of academic rigor for me, and I struggled so much that I honestly didn’t think I would make it through the course. But I did, and wow did I learn a lot! I felt so accomplished upon the course’s completion and so proud. In retrospect, the struggle was definitely worth it.

Personally, I love challenges. I love being academically pushed and tested. I seem to thrive off busy schedules and coffee-filled mornings, afternoons, and evenings. Of course, a daily dose of chocolate and a nice run outside are also needed.  Work doesn’t always come easy to me, and I don’t always accomplish what I set out to do. I struggle too, and thank goodness for that!

So when does the bar stop rising, when do the expectations plateau? I hope never, so long as the expectations are from within myself and not dictated by others. How much is enough? Well, for me, I know that I will always feel the need to do more and to be more. Imposter syndrome is a common companion, but if anything, I am starting to feel pride in my accomplishments. It comes down to feeling pride in my work rather than in my reputation. Lastly, I have begun to appreciate and understand the advice from Daniell Koepke: “Let go of the judgement you have about what you should be or could be doing, and today, allow yourself to simply be…Quiet the voice telling you to do more and be more, and trust that in this moment, who you are, where you are at, and what you are doing is enough.”1

1Koepke, Daniell. Internal Acceptance Movement. Tumblr, 23 June 2013. Web. 12 Apr. 2017.



Face Work: Addressing Racism and Exclusion in Pittsburgh’s Movement Families

By Maeve Gannon ’17

Let’s talk about activist communities and face work. You can consider yourself part of an activist community when you have a network of movers and shakers that you run into at every single protest you attend. This is my definition.  Face work, on the other hand, is Erving Goffman’s scholarly framework for understanding social interaction. The face is defined by Goffman as, “the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact.”[i]  He considers a line to be a pattern of verbal and nonverbal acts by which someone expresses their view of a situation or of another person.

Activist communities, anti-racism work and developing one’s own understanding of “allyship” are better understood in the context of face work.  In everyday life as well as in activist communities, we rely heavily on the dance of risk and reward as people strive to maintain face, mend faux pas and navigate the missteps of themselves and others.[ii]   And there will always be plenty of faux pas and missteps in the pursuit of anti-racism and “allyship.”[iii]

Activist communities are messy. There is just as much division among like-minded people working towards a common goal as there is between people who consider themselves to be enemies. This internal division—call it family feuding if you will—has been strikingly played out in current activist communities in Pittsburgh. Mainstream white liberal feminists and radical black feminists, who are working in similar spheres, are also at each other’s throats.  This intense dialogue surrounding inclusion and white feminism is making national news.

But let’s back up for a second because context is key…

Pittsburgh, my city of origin, has been going through a series of shifts.  To this day, family and friends who recall the days of steel mills and smog are surprised to see clear blue skies, a crisp skyline, bright bridges and a relatively healthy trio of rivers.  In recent years it has made it onto lists like, “Most Livable City,” “Next Portland,” or “Hottest Cities of the Future.”  It is true that art in all its various forms is blossoming in Pittsburgh. Additionally, breweries, bookstores and bike lanes are popping up all over the place. It has attracted a lot of attention. However, along with its influx of quaint coffee shops, hole-in-the-wall art galleries, boutiques, yoga studios, and health food stores come the hipsters. Yes, a particular breed of quirky, unique, white “gentrifiers.” Construction has turned previously rundown neighborhoods into places non-natives now describe as “charming.” Poor Pittsburghers are being displaced as hipsters swarm these neighborhoods. More specifically, poor, black Pittsburghers are being displaced under the guise of progress and citywide improvement.

Now, if there is a store that embodies wealthy, white liberals, it is Whole Foods.  Black communities in Pittsburgh have been fighting the construction of a second Whole Foods in their neighborhood that would destroy the homes of countless community members. Even more insulting is the fact that a second, mega Whole Foods is only a number of blocks away from this new construction site.  The gentrification debate, sparked by the removal of a beloved community mural, has brought a new level of consciousness and involvement of people in the city. As a city, we have had to confront issues surrounding racism, gentrification and the need for intersectionality in our activism.mural-pittsburgh-east-liberty-lend-me-your-ears-monahan-sprout-fund-1

On January 21st, the day of the National Women’s March on Washington, Pittsburgh hosted two marches.  One considered itself to be a “sister-march,” offshoot or derivative of the National Women’s March.  It had permits and was organized by predominantly white women. The second march had a Facebook page entitled, “Our Feminism Must Be Intersectional.” and was organized by black women who highlighted inclusion and accessibility in their efforts.  This march was clear in stating that it was, “a hollaback march to the one in D.C.” and not the gendered “sister march.”  It began in East Liberty, the site of the new Whole Foods and recent hipster havoc.

This “hollaback march” was born out of deep historical problems within feminism that we see even to this day.  It came initially from a lack of accountability, lack of inclusion and lack of diversity among the organizer of the “sister march.”  According to black leadership, when they pointed out flaws in the “sister march,” they were snubbed and pushed aside by white leadership.  This lit an angry and impassioned fire among the group of black women.  White women organizers who tried to approach them or mend the relationship were met with outrage and insults.  There was no longer any way for white women to pretend that they hadn’t screwed up. I was able to witnessed the event page of the “hollaback march” go from exclusively a celebration of the black women and femmes who had been snubbed, to something that was meant for every person who believes in intersectionality.  It took some time for the page to evolve into something that could counteract and point out the deficiencies of the “sister march.” They were able to do it, but first they had to re-construct their face.  By softening their message and re-establishing a line with the greater activist community, they were able to communicate in a way that people related to. Their language had previously excluded, constrained and pigeonholed people. They had to revise their page multiple times in order to be inclusive and approachable.  As soon as they pulled back, reassessed and rewrote their mission statement they had regained the trust and respect of black allies and white allies alike, while still being able to center and celebrate black womanhood.  In a matter of days their march grew to be a force to be reckoned with.

What we are seeing currently, following this march, is the fallout and hurt from white women invested in mainstream avenues of resistance.  Black women in Pittsburgh do not trust in the law or the police or even politicians to save them. White women in Pittsburgh are very invested in challenging, but also in depending on, their politicians and police officers to protect marches.  Many white women have approached black women in an attempt to save face, begging to know what was wrong with the “sister march.”  They have attempted time and time again to reconstruct their face or re-establish a line of communication, but they continue to mess up, even in their attempts to re-establish themselves as “good white people.”  Because the concept of self is embedded in community and our relation to others, it is impossible to heal one’s image or concept of self without working through our role or place within our communities or cities.  Until white women understand the intersections and connections that construct identity, they will continue to ignore, be overwhelmed by and not learn from the judgment and social pressure from black leadership.[iv]

We have seen blunders on both sides as Pittsburgh tries to reconcile or heal before it is ready.  As humans, we are in a constant struggle to understand the lines that connect and divide us and understand how we see one another, how we operate in certain contexts and within certain discourses.  Until we start to see our own transgressions we will have to struggle with the idea of having lost face. White women need to be humble and listen. Instead of scrambling to reconstruct themselves or convince people that they aren’t ignorant or aren’t privileged, perhaps white women would do better to fess up.  A simple and genuine apology could go a long way and is a good place to start.

[i] Tiryakian, Edward A., and Erving Goffman. “Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior.” American Sociological Review 33, no. 3 (1968): 462. doi:10.2307/2091926.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Gergen, Kenneth J. “61. The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life.” Essays and Reviews, 2016. doi:10.1515/9781400848393-062.

Confessions of a Book Hoarder

By Maddie Caso ’17

Reblogged from

My name is Maddie, and I am a book addict. I have about 300 babies. They are all meticulously organized on my bookshelf and around my room. On the shelf, they’re alphabetically by author’s last name. To the left of my bed, there’s the VIP section, consisting of my beloved Harry Potter collection and Game of Thrones books and a vinyl Drogon, still in the box. To the left of the VIP is my historical fiction section, in chronological order, starting with Eleanor of Aquitaine and ending with Elizabeth I. Finally, we move into the classics section, once again arranged alphabetically by author’s last name. And we’ve come full circle.

Image result for book hoarderExcept, I forgot to mention there’s a stack of books right next to my bookshelf, waiting patiently to be read. I can’t help but feel bad at how long they sit there. Every time I make my way to my To Be Read pile, I imagine that they sit there and silently scream, “Pick me, please! I’ve been sitting here unread for 6 months! When will it be my turn?”

Alright, I have a bit of a problem. I love to read, and I always have, but over time, I’ve started to buy books just to have them in my collection. Yes, I will get around to reading them…eventually, but my budget does not agree with my addiction. And neither does my mom.

It’s gotten so bad that I’ve had to hide all of my Barnes & Noble giftcards so that I don’t buy more books. I manage, for the most part, during the school year, but when I come home, it becomes harder and harder to resist the lure that bookstores have over me. Don’t tell my mom, but I’ve been in San Diego for three weeks and have already bought 5 books, and read 3 of them.

So what do you do when you hoard your books? Set yourself a goal. Read X number of books from the TBR pile, then buy ONE book. Repeat until your TBR pile is manageable. Read books from your local library. You don’t have to buy them, but you still get the immense satisfaction of reading a book.

If you are a book addict, fear not. There are ways you can curb your addiction, and the first step is admitting that you have a problem.

See Maddie’s other advice in her post “How to Read the Books You’ve Already Bought.”

Slaying the patriarchy: Everything I need to know I learned 20 years ago from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”

By Stacia M. Fleegal

Stacia M. Fleegal is the author of two full-length and three chapbooks of poetry, as well as many essays. She teaches at the Elizabeth Ayres Center for Creative Writing, works for the Baker Institute for Peace & Conflict Studies at Juniata College, blogs erratically, does nonprofit domestic violence victim advocacy work, and resists. She tweets as @shapeshifter43. Her favorite season of “Buffy” is 6.  Reblogged from Image result for buffy vampire slayer

On March 10, the most feminist show in the history of television celebrates its 20th anniversary. Today, the many lessons of Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” become even more necessary, because women aren’t any safer or more valued than they were two decades ago.

My love of this show — a campy, brilliant feminist relic of the 1990s that still boasts legions of fans just like me — runs deeper than the love stories, the witty verbosity, the gutsy fashion of Lucite rings and platform combat boots, or even the woman-centered witchiness I adore so much. Those are the reasons I continued watching the first time through; now, I come back to Buffy because I need a hero. Here’s what Buffy taught me:

Women get it done

You’d think this would be duh, right? Remember that Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced by men on the Congressional floor only a few weeks ago. To say nothing of what happened when Hillary Clinton tried to claim power. The colossal efforts of organization and activism by women of color are routinely ignored. Clearly we need the reminder.

Buffy is a hero because she kicks all of the ass, up and down the Big Bad streets of Sunnydale. “The thing about the Slayer is … she is a whiny little thing, but when it comes to the fighting, she does have a slight tendency to win,” Spike, the vampire who was at turns her nemesis and lover, once said. She does not lose, ever.

Buffy was a fierce warrior, but reluctant. Further, she is a hero with both flaws and a strong moral compass. Often, her faith in humanity facilitates the redemption and perseverance of supposedly evil characters; think season 5’s half-dead Spike chained to a wall in Glory’s mansion, or tortured and enslaved by The First in season 7. Often, he copes by muttering over and over, “She believes in me, she believes in me.” To maintain that kind of faith in the face of incomprehensible evil requires work, especially when it’s constantly tested.

Buffy starts out as The Chosen One, but by the TV series’ end, she and her best friend Willow have activated thousands of potential Slayers, called them into a realization of their own power, so that there isn’t a One anymore, but many. She doesn’t just get the job done, she lifts other women up, too.

The adolescent female voice has value

In an article in The Atlantic celebrating the 18th anniversary of the show, Sophie Gilbert asserted that, “in transmogrifying common teenage issues into actual, tangible villains, Buffy makes them seem important, and worth agonizing over. It also makes them seem conquerable.”

As an adolescent girl, I was angry all the time. There are a hundred reasons, maybe more. Joss Whedon created symbols of teenage angst in the form of villains; those villains include, according to Gilbert, “a controlling mother who’s so intent on living through her daughter that she switches bodies with her, a pack of teenage boys who become uncontrollably feral, an Internet boyfriend who pretends to be a normal kid but whose real identity is much more complex (in this case, he’s a demon called Moloch who got accidentally uploaded onto the Internet”). Whedon’s not-your-typical-blonde protagonist fights demons made literal and given greater weight and meaning.

Giles, her Watcher and librarian mentor, routinely questioned Buffy’s interest in school events, dating, shopping — all the “normal teenager” things she wanted to do. She did them anyway and still managed to “save the world a lot” from a rotating cast of Big Bads. Was Buffy distracted for long after Angel, her vampire boyfriend, dumped her? Nope. She missed prom to stomp some hellhounds. Was she swayed when Angel’s soul was restored despite the portal to hell opening anyway at the end of season 2? Her boyfriend, cured of his evil ways, was back! Nope. She stabbed him in the heart and sent him to hell, because it was either him or the rest of the planet.

Instead of cringing when Buffy cries over Angel or wants to go shopping instead of patrolling for monsters, we root for her to have that normalcy. Whedon turns inside-out the idea “that being young and frivolous and having profound influence are mutually exclusive,” which subverts both the sexism and ageism that prevent young women from being taken seriously. And then lets Buffy kick its ass.

Emotions and friends are total assets

Time and again, Buffy is told she should fight alone. The show’s opening dialogue features Giles’ voice reminding us, “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.” Though Buffy’s Watcher eventually gave up admonishing his Slayer for resisting solitude and an unwavering focus on slaying, Giles initially opposed her friendships.

Kendra is the Slayer who is activated to replace Buffy when Buffy drowns at the end of season 1, and the two meet in season 2. Kendra is appalled that Willow and Xander know Buffy is the Slayer. Giles tries to explain what a “friend” is to Kendra, who doesn’t understand. “You allow this?” Kendra asks Giles. Ha. Later, Buffy assures Kendra, “My emotions give me power. They’re total assets.”

Buffy comes to realize very early on that she could be even more powerful with a little help from her friends. She asks for help when she needs it. She includes her friends in her battles, though she expresses frequent misgivings about the danger they will encounter. She accepts their aid and support because it makes her feel more human and because she knows that they know what’s at stake and what’s worth fighting for, and believes they deserve to have a choice to take on that fight as their own.

Throughout the show, Buffy relies heavily on the Scooby Gang — always Willow and Xander, usually Giles, often Cordelia, Oz, Tara, Anya, Riley and Robin Wood — for help fighting demons. When Kendra dies early in the series, Faith is activated as the other second Slayer, and arrives in Sunnydale looking for a good time. But Faith, like Kendra, has no friends. No matter how devil-may-care she acts, Faith is not the contented loner she wants to be. Her loneliness is her very downfall, as she overzealously kills a human, pretends it doesn’t bother her, and is ostracized by the Scoobies. She takes solace with the up-and-coming Big Bad of season 3, the mayor, who exploits Faith’s barely concealed emotional neediness by treating her as his daughter so she will do his evil bidding. Faith has Buffy’s superhuman Chosen One strength. What she doesn’t have is Buffy’s support system.

Take no prisoners, but remember: redemption is possible

The truly evil are never spared on “Buffy,” but the sort-of baddies are never abandoned, never deemed lost causes. Spike, a notoriously savage vampire, was never a typical savage vampire. He loved. Spike loved his companion Drusilla. It wasn’t a convenient relationship; he was generally nuts for the nutso Dru and was devastated when she left him — so devastated that he kidnapped budding witch Willow to make her perform a love spell that would bring Dru back to him. When the Initiative kidnaps Spike in season 5, they implant a chip in his brain, making him incapable of killing or harming a human without suffering agony. Buffy refers to him later as a “neutered vampire”; I would argue that that the chip is only a literal manifestation of the emotions Spike already possessed. Love made Spike soft long before Buffy was the object of his affection; once he realizes he loves Buffy, he doesn’t kill anymore.

At the end of season 6, in the most notorious scene among Spike haters, Spike’s true evil resurfaces and he tries to rape Buffy. He becomes any abuser, any rapist, any misogynist in the world — both the imagined world of “Buffy” and the real world where I’m writing. And Buffy, of course, kicks his ass. I love Spike’s character, and I loved the arc of his feelings for Buffy and how it plays out, but this scene sickened me. Still, it is necessary that we are reminded of Spike’s true evil, to make the restoration of his soul carry more weight, to make his redemption that much more remarkable. “How can men not rape?” the show asks. The answer: By getting a soul.

Redemption is a major theme in “Buffy,” and one that allows her heroic qualities to transcend ass-kicking. Buffy makes both Angel and Spike, two ex-demons, want to be better men — to protect women, but also to stand back as women protect themselves. (“God, I miss watching this,” Angel says as he moves aside so Buffy can pummel Caleb in season 7.) In their feral, delirious, post-soul-restoration states, Buffy is the only one who can get through to both Angel and Spike. Buffy nurses them back to health (yeah yeah, tired female caretaker trope, I know), convinced they can be allies for good.

But men aren’t the only villains she helps. Buffy believes a grief-stricken, magic-drunk Willow can be rehabilitated after flaying Warren for shooting the woman she loves. She begs Faith to show remorse for accidentally killing a human because she doesn’t want to take her out, but knows she must.

And then there’s Anya. When the former vengeance demon is making Xander happy and not killing people, Buffy tolerates Anya’s quirks. When Xander breaks Anya’s heart and she takes up vengeance again, Buffy has no problem setting out to kill her after Anya’s massacre at a nearby college frat house. If you murder humans on “Buffy,” the heroine is coming for you. Except Anya wants to take back what she’s done and live as a moral human again. Conundrum! Can it be done? Can murder be undone? Buffy, twice dead and twice revived, lets Anya live when the boss vengeance demon “undoes” Anya’s bloodbath.

Anya is no stranger to apocalypse. She fled one in season 3, when the aforementioned mayor was fixing to unleash hell on Sunnydale High’s graduation day and she thinks Xander is crazy to stay and fight. At the end of season 7, though, Anya has different thoughts about humans: “And they have no purpose that unites them, so they just drift around, blundering through life until they die. Which they — they know is coming, yet every single one of them is surprised when it happens to them. They’re incapable of thinking about what they want beyond the moment. They kill each other, which is clearly insane, and yet, here’s the thing. When it’s something that really matters, they fight. I mean, they’re lame morons for fighting. But they do. They never… They never quit. And so I guess I will keep fighting, too.” By aligning herself with Buffy and the Scoobies, Anya redeems herself not just as a former demon, but as an apathetic “new” human, too.

What would Buffy do? Slay the patriarchy

It’s obvious to me now that “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is an allegory for patriarchal society, for all the misogyny and trauma and struggles women have to endure. I mean, Buffy kills Caleb, uber-misogynist and vehicle for The First Evil, with a girl-power scythe to the cock; and she smashes Warren’s Orbs of Nezzla’Khan, the barely concealed metaphor for testicles. It would be disheartening if, at the heart of that allegory, the conclusion is that only one superhuman woman can defeat the patriarchy. Whedon knew better. Further, he knew better two decades ago, and few stories bearing that knowledge have been written for the mainstream since.

What if we think of all the Potential Slayers in “Buffy” as survivors of rape and domestic violence? What do they have that we don’t have? Superhuman strength, and each other. Without each other, though, the superhuman strength couldn’t have saved the world, and the show would’ve had a very different ending. Collective power and consciousness are necessary for the survival of women. The show couldn’t have been more clear about that fact.

Many of the Potentials take a lot of coaching from Buffy before believing in and channeling their own prophesied power. Listen to Buffy, I say to today’s young women. Girl knows what she’s talking about, though she doesn’t look like an authority on more than leather jackets and lip gloss. Believe in your own power to save yourself and make the world better for everyone.

What would Buffy do about gendered violence? Empower women to fight back in large numbers, on a large scale. Urge them to take on the fight, not wait for it to come to them. I think Buffy would be a huge fan of self-defense classes, and I think she’d always believe someone who says they have been victimized.

What would Buffy do about misogyny? Surround herself with a support system of friends and allies. It’s OK if they’re mostly women, or female-identified, or witches, or lesbians, or formerly vengeance demon bad girls. It’s OK if they don’t look like you. Try to understand all of their unique, intersecting struggles.

What would Buffy do about consuming anger and fatigue in the face of persistent gendered violence and misogyny? Continue to believe in the good of humanity, even when it’s constantly tested. And never stop fighting back.


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