June 4, 2015

Shadowcon Overviews- Buffy and the Strong Female Character, Part I


The first time I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I did not love it. I liked it a lot, but compared to shows I had seen before it, I was admittedly underwhelmed. I was introduced to the Whedonverse- the catchall term for the various Joss Whedon-created television and film projects- in 2009 when I sat down with my mom and watched Firefly. I was a teenager then, and that show made such an impact on me that for a long time I did in fact consider it to be my favorite television show I had ever seen, even after having watched Buffy. Firefly had a consistently tight focus, smart and witty writing, intriguing mysteries and hints of darker times to come, bolstered by an ever-present undercurrent of philosophical and religious subtext that made the show full to bursting with theme and motifs- the tight focus of all of this helped, ironically, by the fact that the show was cancelled after only thirteen episodes, with an impromptu film being drawn up after Fox decided to rein in their vendetta to seek out good television everywhere and grind it beneath their heal, providing Joss Whedon the chance to give some closure to his masterpiece. After watching Firefly, I think I was expecting something equally special with Buffy, not just in terms of good writing, but in terms of feeling: atmosphere, tension, camaraderie amongst the crew, a sense of on-the-fringes adventure.

I failed to get that with Buffy the first time I watched it. That is not to say that the show was bereft of thematic material or subtext, but it never grabbed me the way Firefly had. Firefly was, for all intents and purposes, a sci-fi western, and a mildly hard-science type too, so that struck a particular chord with me, as science fiction is something that is of deep interest to me, and at the time far more so than fantasy was. So I fully admit going into this other Whedon show, this vampire/demon-focused outing, with a bit of prejudice. “Where is my crazy spaceship and giant over-designed custom rifle?” I cried, as I watched “Welcome to the Hellmouth”, the Buffy pilot, in all its mid-‘90s-distinctly-Earth-based-and-obviously-not-space-western glory.

Watching the show all the way through, I could tell that it was very smart, but I did not fully understand its level of smartness upon this initial viewing. The effects felt camp, the silliness of the world that Buffy lived in enough to bring me out of the experience, and some of the overall themes seemed to come and go out of nowhere. The later seasons especially then felt disjointed, unbalanced from the rest of the show as they eschewed much of the fun that the early seasons tried to inject. This drained me of my energy and interest as Seasons Six and Seven were so riddled with plot holes and character inconsistencies that some fans choose to actively ignore them, preferring instead to believe that the show ended with Season Five. This was something older, feeling less polished and slick, and being a series that was not limited to thirteen episodes and a two-hour film meant that there were visible chinks in its armor.

The characters’ decisions too felt as though they were lacking in logic and basic common sense much of the time- Xander leaving Anya at the alter, for example, felt very out of character and done for the sake of drama. The gang’s early attempts to aid Buffy in her fights against evil felt forced and contrived- Willow’s hacking abilities feel extremely dated now, and not just because technology has evolved so much since 1997. The action, a key element in this particular genre, felt bland to me- Buffy’s fighting style lacked anything unique about it beyond the novelty of a sixteen year old girl beating the crap out of vampires. Unlike with River from Firefly, I felt like Buffy was trading in grace and stealth for brute force this time around, and using clunky combat tactics at best, which made her a much less engaging demon fighter for me.

Those were my first impressions after watching the show for the first time, my brain having not processed anything beyond the literal. And hey, that’s fine. This is Buffy, after all, a show that, while rooted in fantasy and horror with deep subtext, metaphor, and character building, can just give its mystically-empowered, demon-hunting protagonist a rocket launcher and wink at the audience as she fires it at a supposedly impervious enemy. But after watching the series over again, and then remembering episodes that I enjoyed and re-watching those, I started to pay more attention to all of the story and character elements that the writers packed into each and every season of the show, how themes and foreshadowing of plot were weaved into early seasons. It is a great feeling when one is able to watch a show or film multiple times and continually gain new insights upon each viewing, and this is exactly what happened to me with my multiple viewings of Buffy. The sheer number of themes and character arcs and developments are striking and masterful: the idea of male and female agency; of power dynamics within class, gender, and age; the concepts of sin, optimism, pessimism, corruption, dominion and domination, life and death, love; the use of color, camera movement, music, lighting, to illustrate a point or convey a message far more effectively than words ever could.

And then something hit me: all of these great themes and topics explored and expanded upon in this great show, and I was complaining about the way Buffy beat up the demons.

I came to realize that while previous shows that I had seen such as Star Trek, Firefly, and Lost had their themes and characters and messages delivered in very obvious (but by no means poor) ways, and their entertainment value ratcheted up to eleven, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was playing a much more subtle game. These other shows were all engaging because they had messages and morals and themes in them that were constantly there and that made me invested in them, engaging scripts with thought-provoking issues and entertainment being at the fore. But while there was certainly fun to be had when watching Picard trying to maneuver his way out of a life-or-death confrontation with the Borg, with the looming moral or ethical questions that made this a Star Trek experience being in the back of my mind all the time; or when watching Mal and the crew of the Serenity risk life and limb to save one of their own from the dangerous Alliance, with all the characterization seen throughout that episode coming together in a subconscious way to mean something; or when watching the tension unfold as Locke and Jack debated the dangers and consequences of blowing up the Hatch and what that might mean for the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815, Buffy’s charm lay not only in what it was discussing- for it is true that it and those other shows covered similar thematic ground- but also in how it went about discussing the various moral, ethical, and human choices and themes that it did. Joss Whedon was trying to write something deeper than just another action show with a message tacked on to the coattails, as Star Trek can often come across, particularly in its later installments. Whedon was telling something important, something noteworthy, and in the end, Buffy the Vampire Slayer became a masterful, transformative, insightful, and above all, character-driven piece of television for me.

In order to understand Buffy and its characters, we must first look at how it differs from other shows and films that attempt to include many of the same character archetypes as it does. The idea of the action heroine did not originate with Joss Whedon’s creation of Buffy Summers, but in my view, Buffy makes the best use out of that label. She surpasses that marker of the kick-ass blonde and instead soars all the way to the finish, developing and becoming her own person over the course of the show’s seven-year run instead of a mere checklist of character traits in which people are invested. To clump her into the often-used “strong female character” box with the rest of her ilk would actually do Buffy a disservice, because she is not a “strong female character”. Buffy is a person. A woman. And because of this, we can classify her as human, and while we love to label all types of people, rarely does an actual person get labeled strong without other traits being listed alongside that oh-so-overused descriptive. And so we do the same with Buffy: she is strong, yes, but there is so much more to her than that. This victory is not confined to Buffy’s character either; the main cast fulfills perfectly their duel roles as symbols for growing up and being real people through and through. There are hard choices to be made within this show, and none of the players involved make the right choices every time. Buffy representing woman empowerment, Willow the gay and nerdy communities, and Xander offsetting much of the stereotypes surrounding male bravado, are all tamed and balanced out by the fact that each of these characters are flawed and are not defined by these labels. Willow, for example, is not “the lesbian character”- at least that aspect of her character never felt forced in such a way that made me label her as such; she is a woman who grows in her confidence and maturity throughout the show, with her relationship with Tara being a step in her journey of growing up, not as a box to be checked off.

No, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not the only example of how to write characters well, but so often there remains a key ingredient that movies and shows that attempt to emulate Buffy lack. While films and shows like Aliens and Star Trek and The Avengers may have characters that are fun and engaging, Buffy does not lump its characters into boxes that attempt to masquerade as progressive labels- something that mainstream feminism itself now seems to be struggling with thanks to online media- nor does it set its characters up to break out of those boxes in contrived ways. As much as the characters start out as archetypes, their roles as labels for specific progressive topics quickly become a shared objective with that of developing their humanity- and indeed perhaps a lesser one in the face of whom these characters turn out to be- as their personalities and flaws and traits shine through. The show handles its characters, both good and bad, with such care and finesse that by the time the show is over, one cannot put labels on the people in Buffy because they have so transcended their original templates and have developed so much that to put them into these restraining boxes would mean only capturing their traits, not the people themselves. The characters on Buffy evolve naturally, and none do this better than Buffy herself. A character such as this cannot fit into the “strong female character” model, and the shows that attempt to create Buffy-inspired characters make the first mistake of assuming that she can and does do so.

With this project, split into ten parts dispersed weekly, I will be exploring first how the “strong female character” has become less of a progressive label and more of a stereotype of its own objectives. I will also be addressing both potential strengths of the “strong female character” model, as well as two main counterarguments that come down against my reading of this first topic. Second, I will look at how Buffy transcends that label with three main points: first, how the show actively sets up and then works against the “strong female character” label, illustrated in Buffy’s relationship to the Slayer role- I will also discuss the final two seasons of the show and how they work for and against that reading; second, how Buffy’s femininity remains steady but nevertheless changes with her character in an examination of her affair with Spike; and third how Buffy subverts anger and masculinity through an examination of her relationship with Faith. Finally, I will discuss the various flaws that many have lauded against the show itself, examining how these arguments might impact one’s reading of it. A brief epilogue will then close this out.

I should mention at this point the disclaimer that I am in no way a Buffy studies major or expert; this paper is mainly analyzing Buffy through a media studies, and a women’s and gender studies lens, and, tangentially, through an English literature one as well. While I am a fan of the show, certainly- I do in fact consider it to be my favorite show to date- I have found in my research that I could spend a year reading all there is to read about this subject and still have my knowledge of it dwarfed by my ignorance. Part of that is due to the show’s versatility, its genre-crossing writing and plot, and how many themes and character arcs it has flowing through it. Even regarding the three lenses under which I am viewing this show, I am still very much outclassed- one need only read the introductions to any of my sources to see the proof of that (and sorry, but if your book wasn't in the library, then I likely didn't read it; I'm not dropping twenty bucks to read your dissertation on dork studies through an examination of Buffy's hair). So I am putting the disclaimer out there that this is mainly my own reading of the work, backed by a modest amount of research, and a general understanding that Joss Whedon is awesome.

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