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Buffy the Vampire Slayer: What it Means to be a Female Hero

It’sBuffy Season One been nearly eleven years since the end of the cult TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer but after all this time it remains a significant contributor to fantasy history. The show is lauded as ground-breaking, not necessarily for its overly original speculative fiction elements but ultimately because the development of character, combined with a willingness to explore and push boundaries, led to it becoming one of the most influential TV dramas of all time.

One of the elements of this show that makes it so important is that it’s widely agreed to be a feminist text. There have been a lot of discussions and debates recently about the representation of females in genre fiction and the consensus seems to be that there is a noticeable imbalance of strong female characters and writers in a primarily male-dominated industry. Joss Whedon, Buffy’s creator and showrunner and self-proclaimed feminist, worked to level the scales throughout the show’s seven year run by subverting typical speculative fiction roles to express the power and merit of female heroes (and female characters in general) in modern storytelling. The consequence of this was that a petite blonde teenager became a strong feminine role model in a world where there are few.

The overall story arc for the show’s titular character Buffy Summers is that of an empowered individual learning what it means to be a hero and ultimately growing up to discover and face her own identity. As we are told in the opening credits:

In every generation there is a chosen one. She alone will stand against the Vampires, the Demons and the forces of darkness. She is the slayer.

Buffy is the chosen “slayer” of her generation, and with her friends, constantly faces battles against evil that stand as metaphors for various life issues such as growing up and exploring and coming to terms with one’s own identity. The fact that she is female allowed Whedon to express his feminist views by showing a strong woman who succeeds as a hero because of feminine traits, such as compassion and tolerance, as well as traditionally masculine ones, such as independence and physical strength.

Season 1 Episode 1 (screenshot)The very first scene of the series set it up as something completely different to what we’d seen before. Two teenagers – an athletic looking boy and a pretty blonde girl – sneak into their high school one night, to a feeling of impending teen slasher-movie doom. The assumption is that, as in any traditional horror film, the wide-eyed girl will fulfil her role of victim as punishment for promiscuity. No one expected the frightened girl to whip out her vampire fangs and feast on her arrogant boyfriend because that isn’t a traditionally female role.

When we first meet Buffy she isn’t actually much of a female role model. Worried about having last year’s hair, wanting to become a cheerleader and generally focusing on what people think of her she begins her hero’s journey as a fairly vapid stereotypical teenager along with her friends, the nerdy and shy Willow and the deadbeat Xander. The success of the show is in the change that occurs in the characters as they face each monster that represents the fears and challenges of growing up.

In the first season Buffy has to balance all the anxieties of being the new girl at school and wanting to fit in and have a normal life with her new found responsibility as the slayer. With a sixteen-year-old’s confidence of immortality she slacks off where she can and constantly tries to have it all. It is only after her brief death at the end of the first series that she realises the weight of her responsibility. Season two brings all the burdens of first love as Buffy tries to build a relationship with the vampire, Angel. We see her vulnerability in romantic situations but also her strength of character as she is able to sacrifice the love of her life for the sake of the world. By the third season she is realising what it means to become a hero and the strengths and pitfalls of her powers. This is explored by the introduction of a second slayer, Faith, who tries to convince Buffy that as superheroes they are above the law and that as powerful women they have the right as well as the ability to use or degrade men in vengeful role-reversal.

Buffy (Season 4)When high school is over Buffy has more to balance, having to look after herself on a practical day-to-day basis as well as saving the world by night and experiencing more mature relationships with strong men who are threatened by her physical power. As the seasons progress she becomes more jaded by her responsibilities and relationships. At the end of the series, in a metaphor for the women’s rights movement, Buffy finds a way to share the responsibility of being the slayer with women all over the world so that she can experience a life outside her burden.

Through Buffy’s journey she and all the other central characters in the show explore what it means to be a hero (or associated with one) through the strengths and weaknesses of their individual personalities rather than the traits and physicality of being male or female. Buffy becomes a positive female role model because she doesn’t allow her femininity to define or be taken from her. One of the show’s writers, Jane Espenson, said that most women in genre shows are presented with “the fallacy that women can’t be strong and effective in traditionally male milieus without giving up on everything that we associate with the feminine”. The goal for Buffy was that she be a well-rounded whole person rather than fulfilling a plot requirement as mother, lover or any other traditionally female role. She didn’t have to be a man to be a hero.

Spike and DrusillaWhedon has on occasion been criticised for being decidedly un-feminist, despite his claims to the contrary. Because Buffy’s love life is presented as chaotic and she is shown to be particularly vulnerable in that area, she arguably embodies the archetypal hysterical and needy woman that is painted so unattractively by the media. She also appears to be punished repeatedly for having sex, the female characters are all thin and attractive and the vampires represent a misogynistic, abusive sexuality that is occasionally vindicated by the audience’s affection for them. When the brutish vampire Spike is unable to bite Willow it is light-heartedly likened to erectile dysfunction and Willow is concerned that she is not attractive enough to be his victim.

While these elements are certainly present in the show I don’t believe they make it misogynistic but rather highlight the realities of the world we are living in and present well-rounded characters rather than ideal representations of women. Buffy may be weak when it comes to her romantic relationships but that isn’t because she’s a woman. Her best friend Willow is also a woman and she handles her break ups in a completely different way, showing that Buffy’s weakness is just part of who she is. Buffy’s abandonment issues from her parents’ divorce combined with her anxieties about her slayer power make her catastrophic relationships entirely relatable. The “punishment” she receives is not from the act of sex itself (as other female characters have casual relationships with no repercussions) but because she is inclined to make poor romantic decisions.

Willow and TaraWillow’s relationships are the healthiest in the show because of her growing self-confidence. When she discovers she is gay and develops her powers in witchcraft she becomes empowered in her own right, growing beyond her victim status in the early seasons. Willow’s relationship with Tara was another turning point, not because of the first lesbian kiss on television but because it showed what was a minority relationship as equal to every other kind, in both its ups and downs. Spike is a violent and dysfunctional character but, in the same way Buffy isn’t needy because she’s a woman, he isn’t abusive because he’s a man, but rather because he is a vampire who has had certain life (and death) experiences that have contributed to his nature.

While it’s true that the majority of characters in Whedon’s shows are thin and attractive it’s possible that this is as much an industry standard as a creative choice. The inclusion of Amber Benson as Willow’s girlfriend Tara demonstrates that women of a normal body type can be represented as attractive and worthwhile characters too.

The concept of heroes in fantasy is always in flux due to the changing and limitless nature of the genre. But the cult success of Buffy the Vampire Slayer suggests that the answer has little to do with gender. What it means to be a female hero really is as simple as having a hero who is realistically female rather than one who needs to take on the traits of a man in order to save the world.

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