July 2, 2015

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

The Slayer Role and How Buffy Defies It

“Buffy, when I said you could slay vampires and have a social life, I didn't mean at the same time.”

-Giles to Buffy in “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date”

One of the pieces that make up Buffy’s character is the Slayer role with which she is most associated, though most often she is reluctant to be so. Throughout the show’s first three seasons, she is constantly shown as wanting to be a normal girl despite her title as Slayer preventing her from being so. The Slayer as a role in the show is described as “a woman fighting for more than life. She fights like fighting is her life. It’s like the air she breathes,” one girl in the world chosen by destiny to fight the forces of darkness. When the current Slayer dies, the next is called. As such, being the Slayer and juggling a normal life (and also remaining inherently feminine in the way she is written) is not easy for Buffy. She is told repeatedly throughout the series by those older or better trained than her that she is a fighter and must be nothing more in order to fulfill her destiny, and that she must be alone in order to do so.

This is said over the course of the first season by Giles in various speeches, and in the season finale “Prophecy Girl”, Buffy is terrified that she will die because of a prophecy involving the Slayer and the rise of a very powerful and ancient vampire, The Master. Gellar plays this reaction in a very real way, at first laughing in disbelief only to turn to anger and then obvious fear, tears filling her eyes. Her plea to Giles, “I’m sixteen, I don’t want to die!” is said through tears and panic as she looks up at her teacher in despair. After this, she actively tries to run from her fate, and this highlights one of the loose themes of the first season, that the Slayer is a distraction for her. Season One Buffy is very much focused on the more normal aspects of her life than she is the Slayer ones, and this helps establish her journey throughout the rest of the series. Where other shows might develop their protagonists in such a way that has them abandon their humanity in favor of accepting and mastering this supernatural power, Buffy manages to never lose sight of her humanity, and so balances out her Slayer duties with her humanity. Season One establishes Buffy as someone who might be selfish and whinny at times, but this is in keeping with her character because she is, first and foremost this season, a kid. Being a relatively well-intentioned individual, she is also learning this season about right and wrong. Thus, her taking up the duties of the Slayer in the last act of “Prophecy Girl” is based on what she sees as the right thing to do, not based around any selfish desire to be the hero or any wish to master a physical power.

The mindset that Buffy displays throughout most of Season Two, in contrast, is one of believing that the Slayer role and a personal life cannot be intermixed, that her life as a teenage girl is separate from her Slayer duties. In contrast to Season One, Buffy is now more accepting of her duties, but unlike other Slayers, this mindset does not rob her of emotion. When her mom, Joyce, is told that Buffy is the Slayer, Buffy is all too accepting that she can only be the Slayer and nothing more, yet conveys this to her mom in tears of pain and anguish: “It never stops. Do you think I chose to be like this? Do you have any idea how lonely it is? How dangerous? I would love to be upstairs watching TV or gossiping about boys or, god, even studying! But I have to save the world. Again.” She gets a harsh lesson of what being a Slayer means when she is forced to kill Angel, her vampiric lover, to save the world in "Becoming, Part 2". Here, she fulfills her role as Slayer to the letter, being emotionless when set on killing Angel, and determined to save the world. However, the show balances this emotionlessness out by making Buffy having to make the decision to kill Angel be rooted in emotion rather than as a sign that she is above it. We see that the guilt weighs heavily on her mind in later episodes.

With this in mind, I would suggest that the Slayer role in and of itself could be seen as an example of an aspect of the “strong female character” stereotype, of having no emotion and relying solely on physical strength. Indeed, Kendra, the second Slayer called when Buffy briefly dies, is essentially the embodiment of the Slayer role and a representation of the “strong female character”. Kendra displays the same traits as Black Widow and Seven of Nine from above. She is physically empowering, attractive, emotionless, and tuned explicitly for battle. Jowett comments that Kendra “[as] the Slayer… functions mainly in the public (‘masculine’) sphere, and her unfamiliarity with emotions and relationships can be read as an absence of ‘natural’ female skills.” Kendra eschews emotion, and even tells Buffy in"What's My Line, Part 2" that “emotions are weakness… You shouldn’t entertain them.” However, the show recognizes the flaws in Kendra’s character, or more broadly in the “strong female character” model, and unlike Seven of Nine and Black Widow who had none of their masculine characteristics or their stereotypical “strong female” characteristics challenged by other characters, Kendra is called out as being a flat character. Buffy says that “... my emotions give me power. They’re total assets!” Kendra and the “strong female character” model are both challenged by the show, and having Buffy challenge Kendra’s methods and call out her emotionlessness as weakness strengthens Buffy’s character and tells the viewer that the show recognizes the failure of the “strong female character” model and is seeking to challenge it.

While the Slayer role is important to Buffy, she does still want to live as normal a life as possible, and while Kendra’s solution may make her the more proficient in battle (she admits in the same episode that Kendra’s fighting style is better than hers), Kendra lacks imagination, companionship, friends, and the lack of these things leaves her at a disadvantage, because without these things, she has very little to fight for. Buffy makes the point that “the anger gives you fire [...] A Slayer needs that.” And yet her understanding of the Slayer is not naive or stupid; she understands that being the Slayer, being the “strong female character” is not enough to make up a character’s humanity. In-universe, this is represented by having Buffy constantly say no to being just the Slayer; she is rebelling against the “strong female character” archetype in order to be fully human. In fact, in Season Five, she becomes quite frightened about what the Slayer role is doing to her. Observe this conversation between she and Giles from Season Five’s “Intervention”:

Buffy: “I can beat up the demons until the cows come home, and then I can beat up the cows. But I’m not sure I like what it’s doing to me.”

Giles: “But you’ve mastered so much. Strength and resilience alone-”

Buffy: “Yes. Strength, resilience. Those are all words for hardness. I’m starting to feel like being the Slayer is turning me into stone.”

If Kendra embraces the Slayer role, Buffy is wary of its effect on her. To be the Slayer is to be bereft of emotion, and to show that this is now having a profound effect on her was very smart because neither the show nor the character is focussed just about the physical power within. Buffy is emotional, and she is in conflict with the Slayer power that seeks to bury that emotion. “To slay, to kill. It means being hard on the inside. Maybe being the perfect Slayer means being too hard to love at all.” But this is part of Buffy’s charm. She is not the perfect Slayer; she seeks balance between her emotions and her Slayer duties precisely so that living without emotions does not happen, so that she does not become Kendra, so that she does not become the “strong female character.” In this scene alone, even when she can feel the Slayer taking over, Buffy is still able to display emotions ranging from humor to guilt to sadness to being scared.

In the premiere of Season Three, Buffy has outright left her duties as the Slayer behind, preferring to be “left alone.” The role of the Slayer is meant to be one of distancing oneself from people, yet, as we see in “Anne”, Buffy is miserable when alone, weak, and this reinforces and reintroduces the idea that her strength does not just come from being the Slayer, but from the people around her. The mantra that the citizens of the town who have been worked to the extreme by the demons underground in “Anne”, “I’m no one,” is an echo of how Buffy is feeling in this episode herself, that she is feeling this way because she is without friends; she wants to be normal, but in order to do so, she has to exile herself from her hometown and from her social life.

She becomes less than what she is due to her exile, in spite of and not because of her rejecting her Slayer role. It does not mean that she becomes a character without substance; indeed, her mental and emotional states are weakened in-universe, but this allows the writers to explore Buffy as a person instead of a Slayer, allowing the character to grow instead of implying that she is nothing without her Slayer strength. In the end, Buffy is able to overcome her loneliness in favor of saving the people down in the horrid working conditions that the villains of the episode have laid out. Buffy regains her confidence and determination as the Slayer not through physical strength, but through her love of people and desire to save people and rejoin her friends, going against what the Slayer normally fights for.

The combined minds of Buffy's friends result in the unlocking of
some very okay vfx Buffy's full slayer power.
Friends are her power source. As Spike notes to Buffy in “Fool For Love”, “[your] Mum, brat kid sister, Scoobies. They all tie you here….” This is the reason she has lasted as long as she has; not because of her Slayer power within her, but because she is able to draw on others’ strengths to fuel her own. When she, Giles, Willow, and Xander merged their consciousnesses to defeat Adam in the penultimate episode of Season Four, "Primeval", Buffy’s power multiplied a hundredfold, giving her the strength necessary to defeat Adam. With this, she quite literally gained power through others. Besides this instance, though, Buffy is primarily aided emotionally and mentally by her friends and family. Spike points to her connection to the world and her ties with friends and family as only being temporary, saying that being a Slayer is primarily about death, that she is only “delaying the inevitable.” Spike gnaws on her role as Slayer further: “Death is your art. You make it with your hands, day after day. That final gasp. That look of peace. Part of you is desperate to know, what's it like? Where does it lead you? And now you see, that's the secret… Every Slayer has a death wish. Even you.” However, Buffy denies this, saying that she is stronger than what the Slayer role is. When Angel comes back to life in Season Three, he and Buffy have an interesting exchange of dialogue in “Amends” that turns the “strong female character” trope around and applies it to men while at the same time rooting it once again in emotions:

Angel: “Am I a thing worth saving, huh? Am I a righteous man? The world wants me gone!”

Buffy: “What about me? I love you so much... And I tried to make you go away... I killed you and it didn't help And I hate it! I hate that it's so hard, and that you can hurt me so much. I know everything that you did, because you did it to me. Oh, God! I wish that I wished you dead. I don't. I can't.”

Angel: “Buffy, please. Just this once... let me be strong.”

Buffy: “Strong is fighting! It's hard, and it's painful, and it's every day. It's what we have to do. And we can do it together. But if you're too much of a coward for that, then burn. If I can't convince you that you belong in this world, then I don't know what can. But do not expect me to watch.”

As we see, while Buffy does tell Angel to be strong, she roots this in how it will affect both characters’ humanity. She also hinges her plea on them being able to be strong together, drawing on her own sense of friendships and family as another source of strength. This conversation also serves as a transitioning point on how Buffy views the Slayer. In Season Two, she told her mom that being the Slayer meant not being a normal woman; here, she tells Angel that being strong means accepting pain, and not just physical pain, but also emotional pain, and more broadly insists on letting your feelings and emotions and your friends in rather than push them out. Buffy knowingly and quite rightly embraces her humanity here through her talking to Angel, and this ties into how she will see the Slayer here seen as the idea of strength, not as all-consuming instead as something that works in tandem with her humanity, and not against it.

When Buffy goes on a quest and encounters the First Slayer in a vision, the First Slayer repeats what Spike told her above, that “death is [her] gift,” and Buffy yet again denies what the First Slayer is telling her. The Slayer role is not Buffy’s end point; it is a beginning to a much more rich and human character, something the show realizes and plays with. Obviously, this claim can be broadened to include the “strong female character” model, that it should be treated as the beginning of a character’s evolution and not the end. Like Kendra, the First Slayer could be seen as an example of a strong female character taken to her extreme, of relying solely on her physical strength and nothing else to keep her alive in-universe. As J.P. Williams points out in Fighting the Forces: What's at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “[the] First Slayer is Buffy’s power uncontrolled….” She is primal, a creature based on physical strength alone.

Buffy is empowered by physical strength certainly, but also by emotion, and this makes her more than what the Slayer role intends her to be. Buffy’s emotions of anger and frustration are, according to Elyce Rae Helford, “often directed at the ways in which being a Slayer impacts her personal life,” rooted in her love of her family and friends. The show wisely acknowledges this twist in Buffy’s character in comparison to other Slayers with Spike’s line that she is “delaying the inevitable,” that she walks that line between being a person and being a caricature all the time in the show, but not in a bad way. Also, the fact that according to Spike, “every Slayer has a death wish” might be the show mocking the idea that every girl in fiction wants to be the ideal “strong female character” by having Buffy say no to that archetype almost all the time. Her death in "The Gift" is made poignant by having her sacrifice herself in the name of saving not just the world, but the people in the world, her sister, and her friends. We'll see what happens when she decides to not say no in the next section wherein I examine how Buffy could possibly become the "strong female character".

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