July 30, 2015

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

Is the Buffy Solution Absolute?

“From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer, will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power, can stand up, will stand up. Slayers, every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?”

-Buffy to the Potential Slayers in “Chosen”

Your move, Hollywood!
The ambiguous question posed to Buffy by her sister Dawn at the end of the series, “what are you going to do now” could be seen as a sly question posed not only to Buffy, but to the corporations of film and television in general. Now that this progressive, thoughtful, in-depth, character-and thematically-driven show has run its course, what is Hollywood to do with this new set of standards, or rather, the breaking of those standards set by Hollywood? If the last ten years are any indication, I argue that we still have a lot to learn from Buffy (though obvious strides forward are evident). “Faith asks Buffy how it will feel to live ‘like a person.’ One possible reading of this” notes Jowett, “is that as women who have experienced agency and power… [they] will never have a ‘normal’ life in the patriarchal world of the contemporary United States,” because in the contemporary United States, or at least Hollywood and the big corporations that surround it, people do not seem to realize that audiences love seeing well-written, humanized women characters in film. There is a reason Buffy is studied academically: it breeds inspiration on an intellectual and philosophical level (I'll get back to this point in the final part), and it carries with it an important message not only of female physical empowerment, but also of female agency and personhood. That said, the show is not without its flaws, and, just as I examined the potential strengths of the “strong female character”, so too will I discuss the flaws that one could point out in Buffy.

First, I feel that a quick opinionated discussion regarding the quoted material above is required. While this speech, and the quoted line, has been praised for its writing and for how it presents an admittedly sound and suitably epic plan to take down the First Evil, to me this fails to ring true to Buffy’s own conception of the Slayer in relation to herself. The show is replete with Buffy uttering some variation of the line “it’s about power,” yet it is her strength of character, of personhood, and of having friends that make her into a great Slayer. But what this line implies is that all she recognizes now as that which could give her group the edge to win is the Slayer power itself, bereft of the personhood that she herself imbues; granted, the Potentials aren’t exactly person-less, but they are far from being as complicated as Buffy (due to their sheer numbers and to them being guest-stars).

The show may give Buffy dialogue that outlines her final battle plan as a choice for all Potential Slayers, but the actions of the plan carried out later in the episode show that Buffy makes the choice for every Potential Slayer around the world, whether they were part of Buffy's army or not, to become a Slayer proper. This is a real problem because as previous seasons have established, Buffy herself has had to struggle between being the Slayer and being a normal person, and this action in the finale of the show has her thrusting that burden on many young girls who neither asked for it nor deserved this crushing responsibility in the first place. Part of what gives Buffy her charm and what makes her into such a great character is how she is able to live and thrive in a world where she knows all the time that she's going to die sooner rather than later. And that's what makes her so courageous and likable in the first place, that she perseveres through that damning prophetic and inevitable end despite all odds. But that whole struggle feels lost on this speech that she gives, and it's a big problem because it negates so much of her development. The only character trait that this holds to firmly is that Buffy is bending the Slayer lore, now taking it to such extremes that she's outright breaking it. But no one really considers what this means for the message of the show itself.

Conceptually, the finale is an excellent symbol for woman empowerment, but as presented it glosses over many of the ethical and moral ramifications of how that symbolism is being displayed in-universe. The quoted line at the least contradicts and at most betrays much of the development Buffy has endured as a person over the series’ run, and the idea that Buffy’s victories are in spite of her Slayer power and not because of them is lost on this line and on the broader speech. For an alternative view on the speech and its implications, look at this post.

Jowett too admits that in some cases, Buffy is "often contradictory, and at times the strategies taken to try and negotiate problems of gender representation are problematic in themselves.” The show’s portrayal of women as (mostly) all white, middle class beautiful people is a sacrifice it had to make to be presented on network television at the time. The show’s negligence in portraying Kendra, the only non-white Slayer, as a developed person to the degree of the other characters, especially to the other two Slayers, is an unfortunate side effect of the show’s roots in biased and racist Hollywood. However, Buffy handles this aspect of society’s prejudices and expectations respectfully to the degree that what the show is saying otherwise overshadows this fault. It plays down these aspects instead of endorsing them, almost as if the show is grudgingly going along with the racist/classist point if only because the writers know that they can’t win every battle. (If one were to attack Buffy for being classist or for being an example of white feminism, such an attack would not necessarily be unjust; the comments I am bringing up here are merely attempting to address as many arguments as possible). Buffy’s use of violence could be seen as falling back on catering to men more so than women, but again, even in the first episode of the show, the violence is kept to a minimum, only really seen at the end fight. We have an established character before we even get to the action. The action element of Buffy is not the show’s modus operandi. It does not cram action into every episode for action’s sake; it focuses on character with action coming as a nifty bonus.

The camp title of Buffy and its protagonist’s bimbo-head name seek to show that even physically attractive blondes can be fighters: “[from] the outset of the show’s title, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, suggests an unsettling of generic conventions and unexpected juxtapositions.” While this may be something that Brown from Dangerous Curves argues is a detriment for other shows, Buffy does not stop with just “unsettling… generic conventions.” Instead, it follows through with its unsettling, making it more realistic and thus humanizing the characters. While it turns the gender role tables around for the majority of its run, Buffy is not afraid to swivel them back into their original positions should the situation demand it, and all the while not doing so in a tongue-in-cheek manner; it rarely winks at the camera while displaying its men and women in conventional gender roles, and it certainly never does so in poor taste.

Xander saves the day not through violence
but through his words.
While Giles, Xander, and Oz (in human form) are frequently shown as physically unimposing, they are also emotionally fraught and empowering. They are nevertheless also willing to engage in violent acts. (For an excellent extended analysis, see chapters 4, 5, and 6 in Jowett’s Sex and the Slayer.) Buffy, Willow, and Anya, and even Tara on occasion, are all physically superior to the men of the show, but also almost never stray from their emotional tethers. Tara in particular is barely seen in combat on her time on the show, and yet is still as engaging and human as any of the other characters. And Cordelia is presented in the early seasons as being a staple of the stereotypical high school popular girl, though she too settles into her own type of outspoken behavior, plus, she has further character development on the sister series, Angel. So we see that Buffy seeks to bend the societal roles of gender without losing its characters’ humanity, or indeed even the very roots of those social roles, and it does so very well. Those who find the “strong female character” model to work could take issue with Buffy being very open with her emotions, but I think this is a strength of the show as it makes its characters more human. As Early points out, “[the] woman warrior leitmotif has served the aims of the program well. This recognizable symbol of female agency in the world has permitted Joss Whedon to explore in innovative ways how gender identities are imposed and resisted in contemporary culture, for boys and men as well as girls and women.”

Buffy’s conformity to expected social and media norms may be less than other shows of its kind, but it is still there. “[One]… message of Buffy,” notes Jowett in her conclusion, “is that women can be and do anything only if they are young, white, middle class, and conventionally attractive [people].” She points out that, “the ‘choices’ of postfeminist society really only apply to members of the professional middle class, who begin from a position of privilege.” Brown in Dangerous Curves backs this up too, noting that in today’s third-wave feminist movement, there exists a clear dichotomy between the “girl power” and “woman power” ideologies. Between the two, it seems that “woman power” focuses more on “analytical abilities (many… are forensic doctors or expert criminal profilers…)” while “girl power” is focused more on action and physical empowerment, as it targets a younger generation.

But what does that say about either generation? This implies that older women cannot be physically able to take care of themselves, in contrast to older men’s image, who are seen as what boys want to be when they grow up, and also implies that the younger generation of women is only capable of doing things physically, not mentally. It could be argued then, that Black Widow, Peggy Carter, and Seven of Nine, older women who engage in physically taxing activity, are a boon to this “woman power” concept. Jowett mentions that “Buffy may be ‘Barbie with a kung-fu grip,’ but she is still Barbie: on American network television, what else could she be”. With Buffy already doing so much to further the women’s movement and represent equality through the medium of television, it is hard to see how the network would not have pulled Buffy had the show been chipping away more overtly at a baseline of Hollywood standards. For what it did do, it succeeded and it went far. The show might not have been perfect, and there are plenty of arguments to laud against it as I hope I have made clear, but I firmly believe that the positive aspects of the piece outweigh the negatives. Next week, I wrap up this project with my final thoughts on Buffy and its meaning and influence on television.

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