July 9, 2015

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

Death, Life, and Buffy as the Strong Female Character

“Give me something to sing about / Please, give me something!”

-Buffy in “Once More, with Feeling”

The time that Buffy does not say no to death is after she has already died. Season Six picks up a few months after the Season Five finale, “The Gift”, in which Buffy sacrifices herself to save the world (thus fulfilling the message that “death is [her] gift,” Her friends, her power source, resurrect her using dark magic in “Bargaining, Part 1”, believing that they are saving her from whatever hell dimension she was in. Unlike other shows that might have run with the idea that the resurrected protagonist was in hell and is now thankful for having a new leash on life, Buffy again turns the tables on the viewer and instead presents Buffy as this broken character, a woman who did not want to be ripped from death.

“I was happy… Wherever I was I was happy. At peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. I knew it. Time didn't mean anything. Nothing had form, but I was still me, you know? And I was warm and I was loved and I was finished. Complete. I don't understand about theology or dimensions, any of it, really. But I think I was in heaven. And now I'm not. I was torn out of there. Pulled out. By my friends. Everything here is hard, and bright, and violent. Everything I feel, everything I touch. This is hell.”

Buffy confesses to Spike where she really was when she was
dead, in one of the best scenes out of the entire show.
I am hard-pressed to find a scene in Star Trek Voyager having to do with Seven of Nine or a scene in The Avengers having to do with Black Widow that is comparable to the above. This is my favorite episode of Buffy, actually, and the primary reason for that is because of this scene right here. The whole episode is quite beautiful and heartbreaking to watch, but seeing Buffy being visibly alienated by her friends while in shock, paralyzed with fear and sadness truly brings the human elements of the show to the fore and illustrates how far Buffy has developed as a person and as the Slayer over the course of the show. The revelation that Buffy was in hell sets the tone of the sixth season perfectly. Dealing with life, responsibility, love, and doing so as an adult is the draw of Season Six. Once again, the show attempts to handle its characters as people first and as archetypes second. Buffy’s death and resurrection is not glorified here. In fact, the look on her face when she rises from the grave in “Bargaining, Part 1” is one of horror and confusion instead of one of triumph and freedom. Buffy has returned to a world full of violence and people needing to be saved; her role as the Slayer, while treated as a job that she balanced with emotion or as a significant part of her in previous seasons, is now seen as more of a devil that taunts her attempts to feel free or alive.

Buffy’s emotions are shown in full this scene and in this season as well. Dying is a tough thing to come back from, but unlike the vampires of the series who are seen frequently rising from the grave who then react with pleasure at the thought of having a second chance at life, She reacts much more like a soldier would coming back from war. She has done her duty here, and she does not know what to do with herself now that she is back. Indeed, it seems that real-world problems are far more demonic than the demons she must still contend with in Season Six. Taxes, mortgages, needing to fix the plumbing, it all serves as a reminder that Buffy is not above the tedium of regular human activity, and this reinforces her as being human all the more and serves to show that the hell that Buffy refers to is that of the human world, not just the supernatural one.

As Buffy says, she “can beat up the demons until the cows come home,” but put her in a situation that plagues the life of everyday people and she is nervous, unsure of herself. Buffy is experiencing her first taste of adulthood, personal death, and crippling emotional whiplash, and this is something new, something frightening to her, and it has a major impact on her character throughout the rest of the show’s run. This is once again miles away from what little the “strong female character” would ever come up with as development for her character. Buffy’s emotions spiral into depression and thoughts of suicide. This is a huge character development for her, and something that I always point to when suggesting the show took risks not only with its plots but also with its characters, with their emotions, their group dynamic, and their resolve as human beings; all of these are exemplified beautifully in Buffy’s character in Season Six. Something as dark and as powerful as this is not something seen on Voyager with Seven of Nine, nor in The Avengers with Black Widow. That is not to suggest that Seven of Nine (or Black Widow, for that matter) does not have personal challenges to overcome, but when compared to those seen on Buffy, to me they do not compare. Seven’s struggle to integrate into the crew of Voyager is almost too easy, the allegories between Seven’s integration and racial and sexual prejudice are clear cut and are, especially for Star Trek, elements that I would have expected to be more complicated in their representation and execution on the show than they ended up being. With Season Six, Buffy is scared, she feels betrayed, her pain is emotional, and the show does not shy away from these aspects of her character either. While Black Widow or Seven of Nine may seek to mask their emotions, Buffy embraces them wholeheartedly. In her “thank you” speech to them at the end of “After Life”, everything that she says to her friends actually has a double meaning: “You brought me back. I was in a... I was in hell. I, um... I can't think too much about what it was like. But it felt like the world abandoned me there. And then suddenly... you guys did what you did…. And the world came rushing back. Thank you. You guys gave me the world. I can't tell you what it means to me. And I should have said it before.”

But she was not in hell; she was in heaven. The world did not abandon her there; the world has abandoned her here, her friends have abandoned her here. She is alone in this world, which she sees as hell, and though the world came rushing back to her as she states above, the scene of her coming back to life stuck in her own grave and stricken with panic shows that this was not a happy moment for her. This was not some glorious return; this was Buffy’s torment beginning anew. Her speech eerily informs us that her friends did not give her the world, but instead gave her the hell that they had been attempting to rescue her from.Season Six deals with Buffy’s pain, and we see her grow from being depressed and isolated into a more open individual, one who now appreciates life and those in it.

Come Season Seven, we see a drastic change in how Buffy’s character is handled, and this is the focus of many critiques of the show by fans, scholars, and critics alike. (Personally, I am not a fan of Season Seven, though that is not to say that this season does not have enjoyable or scholastic-worthy elements in it.) This season’s primary themes are of self-awareness, leadership, power, and human potential, and we see each of these touch the main characters in different ways. While Season Six had Buffy figuring out who she is as a young adult and eventually recognizing that she still has more to live for, this season has her figuring out who she is as a leader, gathering and training the Potential Slayers to fight the First Evil. Buffy contends with her role as a Slayer as she always had, but this season deals with that arc in a way no other season of the show has done in that it delves purposefully and rigorously into the mythos of the Slayer line, showing viewers the origins of the Slayer’s power, offering up Slayer-related trinkets and information, and generally pursuing the “Slayer” portion of the series’ title far more readily than the “Buffy” portion.

The Slayer Scythe, seen here in “Touched”, serves both
as a symbol of strength in the final season and
as a physical indication of how much this season focused
on the Slayer power, as this is also the device that makes
Buffy’s final battle plan possible.
Because of this, among other reasons, Season Seven brings Buffy the closest to the “strong female character” that she has ever been, making her into a hardened warrior and forcing her into making cold and calculating decisions despite her emotions to the contrary. This often leads to her giving some speeches that have been criticized by both fans and scholars as too blunt, out of character, or too obvious in their attempt to make Buffy seem more powerful and commanding, or too blatant in their thematic or social undertones. Her line in “Selfless”, “there’s only me. I am the law” is particularly irksome. Buffy is cold, she buries her emotions, she closes herself off from people. Ananya Mukherjea observes in her essay on Buffy and animality in Reading Joss Whedon that “[through] Seasons 7 and (in the comics) 8, [Buffy] increasingly becomes an instrument of ‘just war,’ a commander more in line with the First Slayer’s insistence that her life must be all about the hunt, the precivilized drive to survive and kill or be killed but structured through military hierarchy.” Buffy is seen taking on male-associated roles: militarism, commander of an army, and hunting.

One could argue, however, that this plays into her character, that she is so exhausted and emotionally drained by this point in her career after having faced so much, that showing emotion or feeling is too taxing for her, not helped by how the First Evil is attacking Buffy’s people on a physical, emotional, and psychological level. Also, the rest of the characters do call her out on this behavior (though the validity of the scene in which this happens is a point of debate amongst fans as it portrays several characters inaccurately I personally find it to be one of the weakest scenes out of the whole show). And I think that Buffy being this emotionally cold being seen as a strength of character is a valid point of view, as by this point, we have been treated to six full years’ worth of character development; Buffy can get away with being more action-oriented and emotionally distant now. In his essay "Buffy and the Death of Style”, Michael Adams comments on the developing darkness of Buffy’s character, saying:

“[Though] Buffy comes to crisis in ‘Empty Places’ (7.19), she is nothing but confident in Season Seven; but the last season isn’t notably humorous, and in it, wordplay is also depleted. In other words, the more confident Buffy becomes, the more she fixes herself to a purpose, the more she feels conviction, the less she indulges in the verbal style that has characterized her throughout her teen years. It isn’t that the Apocalypse invites seriousness it hasn’t before. The change occurs, not in the circumstances, but in Buffy’s response to them.”

And yet, Season Seven also manages to keep Buffy well away from becoming the stereotype; her emotions, though buried, do surface at the right times and give us a great lens into Buffy’s brain. “Season Seven is not bereft of style, of course, but the terms of style have changed radically, and the importance of style as an instrument of self-fashioning has diminished as the importance of purpose or mission has increased. Buffy is still clever, if rueful.” Her relationship with Spike (discussed below) is one of the few story arcs that reaches a natural and satisfying conclusion this season. Mukherjea also notes that Buffy’s “strength is her capacity to love,” and that love of people in general shows itself in this season as well, now weighing so heavily on her mind because she is essentially ordering strangers to die for her; she has become a general who must make hard choices, and we see those choices and their ramifications weigh on her in a very human way. The show’s willingness to show her as an imperfect, even ineffective, leader keeps her just human enough to not become the “strong female character” entirely. Next week, I take a look at one of, if not the, most talked about relationship on the show.

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