The best rivalries between female characters are those that start with a spark of friendship and mutual recognition. As Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer marks its 20th anniversary today, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about how it approached the ways women wound each other. It may seem hard to choose the rivalry that is most definitive and engrossing — Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is a vampire slayer, after all, competition and bitter feuds come with the territory. So which one stands up as the greatest all these years later? Is it her bitchy dynamic with high-school “It” girl Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter)? No, that lacks depth and became increasingly one-sided as time went on. The annoying vampire Sunday who throws Buffy off her game at the beginning of season four? Too brief. Her mounting tension with Willow, which hit its darkest point in season six when the witch went full-on Big Bad? Not particularly well-executed. Undoubtedly, the rivalry that feels the most emotionally layered, intense, and heartbreaking is the one between Buffy and another Slayer, who on the surface seemed like her complete opposite: Faith (Eliza Dushku).
There have been a lot of entertaining, dynamic female rivalries before and after Buffy and Faith. Xena and Callisto on Xena: The Warrior Princess led to great fight sequences and an interesting exploration of female aggression. Sydney Bristow and Anna Espinosa on Alias led to several amazing surprises that I still rewatch for the sheer thrill and excellent craftsmanship. Annalise Keating and pretty much any woman she’s in a room with on How to Get Away with Murder. Jane and Petra’s dynamic on Jane the Virgin has led to some fascinating moments on a series that is all about the complex ways women relate to each other. But it took me watching Ryan Murphy’s new series, Feud, to understand what many takes on female rivalry are missing. Feud uses the competition between screen legends Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) on the set of the 1962 gothic-horror masterwork What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? to explore how women are manipulated by larger forces in Hollywood, and the sexism of more powerful men. This framing doesn’t allow it to look as deeply at how Davis and Crawford were inherently competitive with themselves and each other. It simplifies the ways women relate to each other, when in fact, women can be bitterly competitive without men being the reason for it.
Far too many female rivalries in television play out like this, using the characters as tools to make a larger point, forgetting that such relationships are complex in and of themselves. Animosity between women often falls into these few categories on television: rooted in a desire for a man (see: most love triangles on TV); turning the competition between women into a bitchy punch line (How to Get Away With Murder, Feud); or treating it as a smaller obstacle before the lead character deals with the true rival, who is typically a man (Orphan Black, The Good Wife). You could argue that in season three, Faith’s dynamic falls a bit into the latter category, considering she isn’t the main Big Bad. But what makes the enmity between Buffy and Faith so different is that it isn’t merely an obstacle obstructing the lead from reaching her ultimate goal — the love of a man, a professional accolade, success. Their competition is a cornerstone of Buffy’s characterization, and isn’t easily forgotten even when Faith isn’t on screen. It lingers, shaping each character for years to come.
When Faith sauntered into Sunnydale in season three, with her trademark combat boots and leather pants, she was a welcome addition to the show. She was witty, alluring, and had a devil-may-care attitude that set her apart from Buffy. If you told me her arrival was the gods playing a cruel joke on Buffy to remind the occasionally myopic, unsure young woman of everything she wasn’t, I’d believe you. The moment you see Buffy and Faith next to each other on screen, they’re a study in contrasts. Faith has a loose physicality that betrays her lustful nature and outward confidence. Buffy is far more rigid. Where Faith has a knack for dark lipstick and clothing, Buffy is the picture of girlish adolescence in her styling. These are simply visual shorthands for the most fundamental differences between them: their approaches to being a Slayer.
Faith finds bliss as a Slayer, whereas Buffy only deals with tragedy. For Faith, slaying is a calling like no other — she enjoys the adrenaline rush that comes with it. Like sex, violence is a way for her to blunt her own trauma. Faith makes an immediate impression on everyone who crosses her path, to the point where Buffy feels she’s being “single white–femaled,” as she puts it. Buffy’s closest friends, Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Xander (Nicholas Brendon), are quick to criticize her for not having the same attitude. “She seems to be wound a little tight, like she needs to find the fun a little,” Faith says. Soon, Buffy’s mother, her Watcher, and even potential love interests are drawn to Faith in a way that sparks Buffy’s jealously. Many of them chastise her for not having more fun, which completely disregards the fact that Buffy just killed the love of her life, Angel (David Boreanaz), in the season-two finale. She can’t afford to treat slaying as a recreational sport when the lives of so many people hang in the balance. In essence, Faith’s ability to have so much fun with slaying is rooted in a lack of immediate personal ties to the world — which is exactly where Buffy finds her strength. Buffy has to be strong for everyone else, which doesn’t allow her to make the same mistakes Faith, or even a normal teenager, is able to.
The differences between these characters — and the feud those differences fuel — are more than a simple dichotomy between a good Slayer and a bad one. Their dynamic is rooted in jealousy, longing, and how isolating life as a Slayer can be.
During season three, Faith and Buffy’s uneasy but intense connection deepens and grows into friendship. Just as they are becoming good friends, though, things begin to sour, with the episode “Bad Girls” becoming a crucial turning point. By then, Faith and Buffy were in sync. They fought together, laughed together, revealed things about themselves they never felt before. This finally gives Faith a real relationship to lean on, and Buffy the opportunity to experience a bit of happiness. “It was intense,” Buffy says to her friends. “Like I let go and just became this force.” It’s something her friends can’t understand, and it allows Buffy to find connection in ways she never expected. Here, the series mines what makes a female rivalry most memorable: when it is rooted in love rather than venom.
In “Bad Girls,” Buffy finds herself doing things she never expected, with Faith — acting as the devil on her shoulder — luring her away from giving a damn about responsibilities: They break into a store to steal weapons, bust out of a cop car, dance the night away at the Bronze. For the first time, Buffy experiences the rush that comes with slaying and having the world at her fingertips. As Faith says, “When are you going to get it, B? Life of a Slayer is very simple. Want. Take. Have.” But with every glorious high comes a nasty, painful crash. The episode takes a dark turn when Faith accidentally kills a human being, a lackey of the third season’s Big Bad, Mayor Wilkins.
The dark undercurrents of Faith’s philosophy toward slaying come to the surface after this. She doesn’t care that she killed a man, or about the havoc she’s caused: Her pleasure will always take precedence over someone else’s pain. Afterward, Faith becoming an enemy was only a matter of time. Initially, Buffy doesn’t want to give up on her, but Faith soon aligns herself with the Mayor. This wasn’t merely a bitter vendetta, but another acknowledgement of how desperately Faith wanted to belong to something, anything. Things only get worse from there, culminating in a brutal fight in which Buffy stabs her, putting Faith in a coma.
But Faith is not the kind of woman who would ever allow herself to be forgotten. Season four’s episodes “This Year’s Girl” and “Who Are You?” interrogate how intertwined their stories continue to be when Faith wakes from her coma. She finds the world changed in her absence. Buffy has moved on to college, picking up a new boyfriend along the way, Riley (Marc Blucas). The Mayor is dead, leaving her no one to turn to. He does, however, leave her a nifty gadget that lets her switch bodies with Buffy. This leads to two of the strongest episodes of the fourth season. These episodes, an evocative take on how female friendship and animosity can overlap, interrogate what makes the dynamic between these young women so cutting. Every insult Faith says in Buffy’s body about the pint-size Slayer is a woeful mix of longing and hurt. It’s clear that Faith doesn’t really hate Buffy so much as she hates herself, and her own inability to grow beyond her violent tendencies. This comes to the fore during the fight at the end, when Faith, still in Buffy’s body, yells, “You’re nothing! You’re a disgusting, murderous bitch!” Watching how Faith operates in Buffy’s body, it’s clear that she looks at her rival with a mix of wary admiration and fear that she’ll never measure up to her, making the line between love and hate difficult to chart. In the end, they come to understand the weight that rests on the other’s shoulders. Buffy realizes the self-loathing that powers Faith’s most reckless decisions, while Faith is thrown by the expectations friends and lovers place upon Buffy. The way this story line plays out has its problems: The thorny consent issues raised by Faith not only switching into Buffy’s body but also having sex while pretending to be her, can’t be ignored, and it tips the two-part episode from edge-of-your-seat fun to harrowing. Still, the episodes play a huge role in the growth of these two women. It was a blistering commentary on how important female friendship is to the lives of women, and how failures within those relationships haunt us as much as, if not more so than, anything romantic.
That said, part of the intensity of their rivalry are the surprising sapphic undertones, which led teenagers like me to write and read slash fiction of the characters. I’m not alone in reading a potential relationship between Faith and Buffy. When Faith sleeps with Riley while still in Buffy’s body, it reveals both her own struggle with true intimacy and why her issues with Buffy run so deep: She wants to best Buffy, but also be loved by her. It’s also refreshing to watch a competition between women in which men are an afterthought, or pawns in their feud. In season three’s “Enemies,” Faith tries to get Angel to lose his soul, and leads him to the dark side. But what matters, of course, is what happens between Buffy and Faith above all else. When Faith says, “What are you going to do, B? Kill me? You become me,” it’s an exhilarating acknowledgment of how deeply these two understand each other.
After those two episodes in season four, the Buffy and Faith dynamic was undercut by several odd choices from the writers. Instead of Faith finding her salvation by reconnecting with Buffy, her arc was transferred onto the spinoff, Angel. Angel helps guide Faith, teaching her to find better ways to handle the uglier aspects of her nature. This was framed as both of them having an inherent darkness and sense of violence that Angel was better equipped to deal with. But as later seasons of Buffy prove, its titular character also had her own deep-seated darkness that villains like Dracula and Spike were quick to acknowledge.
As Lindsay King-Miller wrote about the connection between the two Slayers for the Toast, “more than anything else, Faith was perfect for Buffy because she understood Buffy. Better than her true love Angel, better than her best friend Willow, better than her fake sister or her mother or the vampire shrink who psychoanalyzed her that one time right before she killed him. This isn’t just about the burden of having superpowers, either; Buffy and Faith’s bond went deeper than that.” It’s for these reasons I feel that Faith not finding her resilience by turning to Buffy was one of the biggest mistakes the show made.
The new and improved Faith makes her way back to Sunnydale in season seven, but the less that is said about that the better. At its best, their rivalry — rooted in the soured potential of friendship, longing, and misplaced anger — showed how female characters who stand against each other are a fascinating way to explore the darker sides of what it means to be a woman in the first place. Like the most entertaining and meaningful rivalries between women, Buffy and Faith’s was not built on hate, but something far harder to brush off: the intense desire to belong.