“I've seen the best and the worst of you, and I understand, with perfect clarity, exactly what you are. You're a hell of a woman. You’re the one, Buffy.”
-Spike to Buffy in “Touched”
Still one of the most badass moments in the series!
Buffy’s messages of woman empowerment, the breaking of gender norms, and especially female agency all mesh together almost seamlessly throughout the work, and the humanizing of the characters makes the show that much more compelling and helps those other elements not feel overt. It strikes that almost impossible-to-hit mark of how to tell a compelling woman empowerment story without relying solely on the “strong female character” stereotype or by relying on mere visuals to get its audience to understand its message. Buffy as a character holds up as one of the best examples of how to write a woman character not only as a role model for women in the sci-fi/fantasy/action genre, but also of how to write a woman character as a human being in that genre as well. Taking not only her physical aspects but also her emotional ones, her strength of character, her humor, her wit, her mind, her articulation of thought, and recognizing these qualities as a part of who we are as a people, helps make Buffy who she is and in-so-doing helps us connect with her on a far deeper level than we would if we were to just see her fight week after week.
Sarah Michelle Gellar actually seems to agree with my point that Hollywood has strayed from what made Buffy great, only focussing on the superficial aspects of the work and never capturing what made it tick. She stated in an interview with Perthnow.com that she is actually quite dismayed about the specific effects that Buffy is having on the industry:
"There is only one curse and it’s not what people expect. The one curse is, as an actor, you get very spoiled because you think all female characters are going to be that exciting, that interesting, that flawed- and that’s really not the case in Hollywood. The show proved it was OK to have a strong female character, a heroine, on television. Wonder Woman was a Glamazon. She was beautiful and had jewelry. [But] Buffy was a human. As humans, we fight the horrors of our life to get through the day. It was an elevated drama, an elevated comedy, and a metaphor for the different parts of life."
And that's the difference. Buffy had novelty to it, absolutely, but it crafted itself out to be something better than that.
The show makes use of both physical and intellectual empowerment for young women, taking the “girl” and “woman power” dichotomy and playing both sides’ operations with its youthful characters. It is also not afraid to show that empowerment move to physically active and intellectually powerful adult women characters as well. Even though Buffy is a young-adult show with the adult women still cast as either naive or villainous, that does not mean that the “grown-ups” are bereft of their own empowering symbolism. The Hell-goddess Glory, for example, is stronger than Buffy, both physically and mentally, but she is also older (both in-universe and is played by an older actress), so while she is a villain of the show, she is not without her own empowering traits and symbols, coming off both as a physical an intellectual threat. Joyce Summers, Buffy’s mother, fills the role of naïve mom in the eyes of teenagers, certainly, but she is also able to impart wisdom onto the other characters, especially when they are older. Likewise, the youthful characters on Buffy frequently display intelligence, wit, and problem-solving abilities that are not dependent upon violence for violence’s sake. The relationship between Buffy and Joyce saw maturity and development, specifically in Season Five; they had heartwarming and mature conversations. With Dawn, Buffy’s sister, now a part of the cast, it meant that Buffy herself took on the role of guardian and protector to Dawn (much to the irrational hatred of the audience), and I think this helps not only bridge that “girl” versus “woman power” dichotomy, but also helps to bend those two labels as Buffy does so well,
The use of the “strong female character” model as a launching pad and not as the final product for its characters is a huge boon to the show, and this is what has made me keep coming back to Buffy as the best solution out there thus far in addressing this specific problem. As Mukherjea states, “[demonic] spirits and two deaths aside, Buffy’s humanity is proven by her choice to make her own life bath, balancing her animal [Slayer, ‘strong female character’] urges and her social ambitions, integrating her many faces, needs, and talents… to protect humanity.” Whedon takes traditional tropes and not only does he turn them on their head, but he also does not simply leave them there; he plays with them, deconstructs them and reassembles them in such a way that makes them his own.
|Agents of SHIELD's Malinda May is an example of|
a typical "strong female character".
|I love this show!|
Buffy has become near and dear to my heart because it introduced me to the world of women’s and gender studies and film studies, two sides of academia that I was only vaguely aware of in the periphery of my scholastic vision when I first sat down to watch this show, and I think there is definitely something to be said for the fact that people are still talking about this even twenty years later. Today, Buffy is lauded as one of the most influential feminist shows of the mid-to late-‘90s, with still more books and essays being written about it. Indeed, the show has outlasted many of its cohorts in terms of reputation; Xena: the Warrior Princess, for example, did far stronger with ratings than Buffy did at the time− the two aired around the same time, but it is Buffy that has escaped its cult chains and has instead burst into the mainstream− helped in no small part to the success of the Avengers films, the first two helmed by Whedon himself with wider recognition given to him because of it. Xena, while popular in science fiction and fantasy circles and indeed a well-written and important show, make no mistake, has not escaped into the eye of the masses, certainly not to the degree that Buffy has. (The New York Times ran an article in 2013 discussing Jennifer Sky’s recurring role and how that impacted her, and while certainly optimistic from a personal point of view, this does also highlight how entrenched Xena was in the “strong female character” model idea.) I think there is something to be said for the fact that Buffy has gone on to gain wide critical and academic acclaim. I think the reason for that is because the show attempted to appeal to a younger audience, and so it has stuck around as that audience has grown older, and also because its themes were several tiers more complex than other shows of its time within the genre. Indeed, at times, Buffy feels far more like a dense novel transplanted into the television medium, with its themes and motifs and character elements all working in tandem to create and enhance this world.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is my favorite show for many objective as well as personal reasons. I love the quirky language; I found the characters engaging, fun, and relatable; the spunk and silliness of the world, while off-putting at first, did grow on me, and I found myself immersed in how much world-building there was for this show. But on a more objective level, Buffy is an exercise in masterful character development, great storytelling, and an unparalleled example in how to build solid thematic and metaphorical undercurrents into that story without having them override the narrative. This show carries with it a charm that is able to entice both men and women because it never hides the fact that Buffy is female in either looks or, more importantly, in personality. The empowerment the show gives to women is not overdramatized or pandering, instead conveyed through characters’ emotions and intelligent storytelling; Buffy and her friends are all played with a presence that places their larger-than-life characteristics side by side with their all-too-human frailties. The direction, score, cinematography, the acting, and above all the writing, help to make Buffy the Vampire Slayer an engaging and thought-provoking adventure throughout its seven-year run, able to keep all of its characters, especially Buffy Summers, fully and unmistakably human.
Further Reading and Special Thanks
If you are interested, here are a few sources that I would recommend on the subjects of Buffy and it's relation to gender studies and mass media in general. There's obviously a lot more written out there, and this doesn't encompass all that I read myself, but I had a lot of fun reading these works in particular because they captured many of the broader, as well as the more nuanced, perspectives on the shows in questions. I encourage you to check these out if you have any further interest on the various topics discussed throughout this project.
- Sex and the Slayer: A Gender Studies Primer for the Buffy Fan by Lorna Jowett
- Dangerous Curves: Action Heroines, Gender, Fetishism, and Popular Culture by Jeffery A. Brown
- Fighting the Forces: What's at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer edited by Rhonda Wilcox and David Lavery
- Reading Joss Whedon edited by Wilcox, Lavery, Tanya Cochran, and Cynthea Masson
- Joss Whedon, A Creative Portrait: from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Marvel's the Avengers by Lavery
- The Philosophy of Joss Whedon edited by Dean A. Kowalski and S. Evan Krieder
- Buffy Goes Dark: Essays on the Final Two Seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Television edited by Lynne Edwards, Elizabeth Rambo, and James South
- Seven Season of Buffy: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Discuss Their Favorite Television Show edited by Glenn Yeffeth
- Why Buffy Matters: the Art of Buffy the Vampire Slayer by Wilcox
- Buffy Meets the Academy: Essays on the Episodes and Scripts as Texts edited by Kevin Durand
- Buffy and the Heroine's Journey: Vampire Slayer as Feminine Chosen One by Valerie Frankel
- Whedonistas!: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Who Love Them edited by Lynne Thomas and Deborah Stanish
- Star Trek and History edited by Nancy R. Reagin
- And of course the many, many essays collected in the online database Slayage.org.
Finally, thank you, dear reader, for reading through this whole thing (or even just a single part of it). I hope this multi-part analysis of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has been informative and helpful to you in some way. Your support is and always has been invaluable. Thank you.