August 6, 2015

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

Epilogue


“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!
I will be perfectly honest, after having finishedup Season One of Buffy for the first time, I was not optimistic about continuing the show. While I had of course read that it got better with most considering Season Two to be Buffy at its best (though I would hold up Season Five for that category) Season One really had very little in it that made me enjoy it. This had a lot to prove to me going forward, and fortunately, it succeeded… a lot! Going back and re-watching the show in its entirety after giving myself a break from both it and Firefly for a bit also helped me to appreciate it on a more objective level, and while not perfect, Buffy is a testament to the science fiction/fantasy genre that people are willing to see a show of this caliber and are willing to attempt to glean some meaning from the messages that the show conveys.

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".
Other shows have attempted to emulate Buffy’s character templates to varying degrees of success. As Brown notes, it cannot be denied that “recently… strong women have returned to television with a vengeance,” leading to an understandable split between how female characters in science fiction and fantasy are presented, some feeling like imitative Buffy-knockoffs focussing solely on "male" coded behavior simply for the novelty of that, others having a tight and deliberate focus on character and personhood with an attempt to make its characters more nuanced and human. Shows like Agents of SHIELD, Person of Interest, and Covert Affairs, for example, to me provide examples of typical “strong female character” tropes for their women characters (albeit with more racial representation), relying on action, military-style tight-lipped personalities, and a fetishizing of beauty and physical strength. These examples, it should be noted, however, do focus more on plot than on characters. Agents of SHIELD is more about adapting famous (or not so famous) stories and characters from the Marvel comic books for the Marvel Cinematic Universe than it is about building upon characters (in stark contrast to Agent Carter, or indeed many of the Marvel comic books themselves); Person of Interest is more so a political/espionage drama than it is a character study, and when it does focus on characters, it is the male characters who get the most limelight (and the lesbian relationship between Root and Shaw is predicated on a fetishizing of action and violence); Covert Affairs is similar to Alias in its action-and secret-agent-oriented plot, but lacking in many of the nuances and intentional nods to Buffy that Alias implemented. All of these examples are still heartily enjoyable to me (Person of Interest in particular), make no mistake, but their enjoyment comes from an engagement with their plots and stories more so than an engagement with their characters; obviously these shows are socially important in other ways besides championing gender equality.

I love this show!
On the other hand, shows like Kim Possible, The Good Wife, and Orange is the New Black are all examples of shows with human, three-dimensional women characters in the lead. These examples also point out the diversity of genre regarding the success of these characters. Kim Possible arguably the closest Buffy-like show of the three (it’s theme even calls back to a line said by Buffy in the show, and its creators deliberately took inspiration from both Buffy and Alias) is an animated cartoon appealing to young girls more so than to teenagers and young adults, and indeed is indicative of how many an animated series approach their women characters Justice League Unlimited alongside the broader DCAU, for instance, has many female characters who’s emotions run the gamut from deadpan sarcastic to heart-wrenching sadness; The Good Wife is a courtroom drama, inspiring and championing women in the workplace; while Orange is the New Black boasts a bevy of ethnically-diverse women in a comedy-drama series. Alias, which Brown notes is very much a Buffy-inspired show, also explores the humanity and femininity of its main character; it may cater to the male gaze certainly, but it does so to make a point about appearances, assumptions, and how blatantly sexist much of that gaze actually is. So obviously women like Buffy are out there, and are continuing to be written today, alongside a persistent focus and championing of the “strong female character”. To draw this claim back to previous examples, Agent Carter, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are both excellent examples of how Peggy Carter and Black Widow developed as characters that enhance the “strong female character” label itself beyond its criticisms. Star Trek Voyager took Seven of Nine into interesting situations at times as well (such as with episodes like “Dark Frontier” and “The Raven”), though reasserted the status quo by episode’s end. Buffy had no such resetting of the status quo amongst its later episodes, instead pursuing character and thematic development, and I think this is one of the elements that makes it so universally loved.

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.

Special thanks must go to those who provided invaluable input and edits and suggestions regarding this project. Of particular acclaim are Sophie Tsokas and Sabina Nilsson, who provided me with different points of view for several sweeping arguments and assertions within this paper and several invaluable sources. Also to my esteemed colleagues Eve Gronert, who's reading of an earlier draft of this again helped me to both focus and expand points most related to feminism and sexuality; and Nina Bice, who provided excellent counterarguments to my views on Marvel and Star Trek in particular.

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.


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