June 25, 2015

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

The Buffy Solution

"I walk. I talk. I shop. I sneeze. I'm gonna be a fireman when the floods roll back. There's trees in the desert since you moved out, and I don't sleep on a bed of bones.”

-Buffy to the First Slayer in “Restless”

So, where does that leave me in addressing the problem that I have recognized, that of the only criteria one need fulfill to be a “strong female character” are not be a “traditional” female character and also have one’s only trait be that they are good at beating people up? Thus far, I have examined how the “strong female character” is weak, but also how this model might very well be able to work in the right circumstances. The latter treatment of the model is certainly an improvement, do not misunderstand, but I would much prefer a complete reexamining of what the focus and goals of these characters are. McDougall states that she’s heard a number of propositions that intend to help the majority of women characters be recognized as more than “strong”. “What about ‘effective female characters’, for instance? But it is not enough to redefine the term. It won’t do to add maybe a touch more nuance but otherwise carry on more or less as normal.” To do this would be to neglect that spark of humanity that I think every writer wants to put into their character, be they male or female. With our current treatment of female characters and their roles in stories, I think we run the risk of losing the humanity that was attempting to be represented through them.

Goldenberg suggests an actual dualistic approach when looking at gender, pointing out that there is the A category, but that there is also the B category: “we need two subjectives, A and B, instead of only one and its negation, as it is the B category, existing in an A:B gender relationship, that adequately captures the type of category of ‘woman’ that feminists should be working toward constructing.” This solution seems obvious when put in those terms, and indeed it is. Having women have as much agency and character as men, and have them be their own person, is an obvious solution that I believe the “strong female character” in the beginning was trying to strive for. As previously stated, I think that it got lost along the path to this goal, but the goal itself is a worthy one. In succinct answer to the question of how to write a female character right, the answer lies with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the titular character with all her foibles and flaws and ups and downs, Buffy Anne Summers.

Buffy is a show about a young girl named Buffy who is gifted with superhuman strength and healing, and destined to kill vampires. She is surrounded by friends, most of whom have their own special powers, her Slayer Watcher and parental role-model Giles, and the occasional vampire with a soul. On the surface, Buffy is nothing more than your average urban fantasy romantic comedy action flick, though with label like that, one can already see how widespread the show's audience and appeal are. What makes this better than average is that the characters are developed in such a way to where they are not only going against the normality of their gender and stereotypes, but using that motivation of getting away from stereotype as a launching point and not as an end goal, thus turning them into real people. Buffy is also not about a girl fighting monsters and the novelty of that. That is the premise of the show, certainly, but one of the primary themes and the main draw of the show is seeing these characters grow up and examining how life becomes increasingly more complicated and painful the older you get. Buffy seeks to utilize the supernatural as a means to demonstrate the natural, that growing up can be a living hell, that you will have to face demons here and there, but in the end, you persist and prevail, because there is so much to live for. For all its dark themes, this program is extremely optimistic, and it manages to be so without coming off as naive. As Buffy says to her sister Dawn, “I don’t want to protect you from the world. I want to show it to you.”

Buffy refuses to go out in combat gear in
"The I in Team", preferring to retain her feminine
attire, indicative of how the Slayer operates.
Jowett states that “Buffy’s ‘femininity’ makes her acceptable on network television and offers a kind of recognition to viewers she is not ‘Buffy the Lesbian Separatist’... she is a ‘girlie-girl’ because she looks like one, even if her actions are viewed as ‘feminist’.” Stereotypical women love to shop, are obsessed with hunky boys, and have to look their best all the time. Note that this stereotype is built upon the male gaze, Any one of these stereotypes can be found in Buffy’s character, and she is still a fully developed person because she is neither defined by these stereotypes, nor by the gender roles that she does or does not exhibit, and not by stereotypes promoting those gender roles onto either gender. And her character is not promoting patriarchal beliefs by dressing a certain way or wearing high heels either despite how those actions may be seen as institutional in the patriarchy. “[Buffy] attempts to destabilize binaries through ambivalence and ambiguity and through the multiple intersections of the generic hybridity.”

Instead of avoiding woman stereotypes, Buffy is acutely aware of how its characters’ stereotypical traits are being displayed, and the show is very careful to display those traits in context next to the characters’ other traits not seen as stereotypical. It also makes an effort to always place its characters in situations that reflect them as people regardless of whether or not they are being stereotypical. In the third issue of the Journal of Popular Culture for 2003, feminist and historian Frances Early gives his take on Buffy:

"I would like to suggest that the woman warrior theme in Buffy–as presented through the mixed genre of fantasy/horror/adventure–represents an attempt to demystify the closed image of the male warrior-hero not merely by parodying through comedic means this powerful stereotype but also by offering a subversive open image of a just warrior. As well, although Buffy is male-identified [that of being the action hero and engaging in male-dominating activities like fighting], she and her friends also partake of traditionally perceived female-gendered ways of thinking and behaving."[viii]

This is what Buffy does so well, and as Early points out, this is made possible by presenting Buffy the character as not only a sexy kung-fu fighting blonde, but also as someone who is still a woman with complex emotions, conflicts within herself about responsibility and adulthood, and an overall sense that she is more than her composite parts. In Joss Whedon’s Equality Now speech, he says, “I believe that what I’m doing should not be remarked upon, let alone honored”. Applied more broadly, this statement encapsulates a large portion of my argument, driving home the point from above. (Although, yes, ironically the majority of his speech discusses the question “why do you write these strong female characters?” His response is telling: “Because you’re still asking me that question.”)

In the first episode alone, “Welcome to the Hellmouth”, we are shown Buffy as a normal teenager first, with only hints of her Slayer powers sprinkled throughout the first half of the episode. Many scholars have addressed the first scene of the series with Buffy in it, where she is first shown waking up in her bed under white sheets, suggesting innocence, virginity, or normalcy. When she does break out and display her Slayer powers, it is a good half way through the episode, and even then it is a mere kick to the back of a supposed enemy before engaging in conversation with that would-be enemy. Buffy is shown to be witty, abrasive, decisive, commanding, aloof, charismatic, worrying, blunt, sarcastic, frustrated, perky, upbeat… and this is all just in the pilot!

The language that Buffy displays in its scripts was deliberately slang and teenager-oriented too, so much so that it would sometimes throw off the actors as to what they were supposed to be saying. In an interview, Sarah Michelle Gellar recounted her audition for the role of Buffy: “[The] first line [in the script] is ‘what’s the sitch?’ and there I go, walking in saying, ‘what does this mean?’ I had no idea it meant ‘situation.’ Talk about blowing a job instantly!” Look at all of Buffy’s emotions displayed just in the first episode and compare that to the comparatively little Seven has in her introductory episode or her episodes directly after that, or to the non existent emotions complimenting Widow both in Iron Man 2 and in The Avengers. When the final action sequence happens in “Welcome to the Hellmouth”, we have already established a character for Buffy instead of merely relying on action to show how brazen she is. Moreover, the character that we do establish is not one who abandons womanhood, but instead one who embraces femininity and humanity wholeheartedly. We'll see a more specific example of that in the next part, wherein I examine the Slayer role, and how Buffy defies the show's own in-universe conventions.

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