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Strong Female Characters? Why Buffy Still Rules

I was a little young to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer when it first hit our television screens back in 1997, although it finished up in 2003, when I was heading headlong into adolescence and potentially could have benefited from it the most. It was only during the course of this year, the tenth anniversary year of Buffy’s end, that a friend lent me her DVDs and I experienced a kind of refigured, second adolescence by the light of a computer screen. It was a kind of growing up in which I learned different lessons than those other products of popular culture had taught girls and young women during the 1990s and early 2000s: you can be anything you want to be, you’re every bit as good as a boy, you can be strong and fierce and feisty. Empowerment only went so far: there was no script for what to do when it turned out that a good attitude doesn’t take you to the finishing line, for when you aren’t taken as seriously as a boy, for when you’re defeated, or alone, or confused, or your understanding of who your friends are, or who you are, gets ripped out from under you. Countless young women, including, now, me, had to wait for Buffy for lessons beyond building a strong female character, for lessons on how to cope with a shifting self in an uncertain world.

That’s an interesting thing, because Buffy has been routinely – dare I say strongly? – associated with the idea of the strong female character. The show’s creator, Joss Whedon, gave a well known address on the subject to Equality Now in 2006; here is a link to a video and transcript of said address. Buffy Summers is indeed physically strong, the Chosen One who spends her evenings saving Sunnydale, California, and sometimes the world, from all manner of evil creatures with her singular slaying prowess. That strength is not what’s great about her, and that’s why there’s been a roiling current of resentment over the last decade regarding attempts to emulate scared, resentful, brave, loving Buffy that result in cookie-cutter, one-of-the-boys, tight-outfitted, “feisty” women. This current produced Sophia McDougall’s August article in New Statesman called “I hate Strong Female Characters,” which has received a tonne of pageclicks and has generated even more discussion. The core of McDougall’s argument is that male characters get to be all kinds of complicated, whereas female characters are regularly funnelled into a very limited way of expressing power: silent, enduring, and physically capable. There is little room for the feminine, unless it’s being used to make masculine characteristics more palatable, and there’s less room for emotional or psychological complexity. Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton famously captured the zeitgeist in her comic Strong Female Characters, and the zeitgeist has it that, when it comes to SFCs, we’re very, very over it.

It’s in this context of having endured a Buffyless decade that nostalgic fans are writing the most beautiful essays about the show. We’re fascinated with how that iconic SFC, Buffy, was part of a show that seemingly remains pretty much the only popular televisual model of how to transcend not only that limited conceptualisation of strength, but the boundaries of conventional characterisation. Kim O’Connor at The Toast wrote “A New Version of You,” in which she argued that ‘the show’s real artistic achievement was in its flat rejection of the notion we can ever come to know ourselves, much less someone else […] Coming-of-age stories tend to portray young adulthood as a time when we “find ourselves,” whatever that means. But that model ignores the fact that, for better or worse, the very stuff of our selves—our personalities, our preferences, and even our core values—has a remarkable capacity for change.’  Jumping off from this, Vanessa of Autostraddle offered “What I Learned From Buffy About All the Versions of My Queer Girl Self,” in which she talks about how Buffy helped her to unsettle the narrative of linear coming of age and coming out stories: ‘how boring if we were all “done” at a certain point, if our identities tapered off and became static, if we “found ourselves” like we are so often told we should’.

I am drinking down Buffy like nothing else because there is no other show I have encountered that celebrates people as unsolvable mysteries, beyond static character sheets. And that’s why, say, as per s.e. smith’s review on Friday of the latest Doctor Who episode, Doctor Who’s Amy and Clara and even River Song are such weak characters by comparison. They are reduced to flatness, subservience, sex objects, and plot points, where science fiction is singularly equipped to open up a universe of identity transformations and complexities that have lately been open only to the Doctor, even where we don’t count regenerations. Where women in sci fi are quietly moving backwards into silent, shiny sexiness, and where the Doctor wants to know whether Clara’s multiplicity means she is a trick or a trap, and that a strong character is one who cannot be reduced to ticked characterisation boxes.

We still don’t have a wide range of fully drawn female characters on TV, but Buffy, while exhibiting a titular character who fits the feisty and kick-ass labels to a T, played with the idea that an individual can ever be understood as having a singular and consistent set of characteristics, anyway. It’s still such a beloved show not because it had strong female characters, but because it refuses to resolve identity. Buffy has lessons for the whole life and person, for when you’re growing up, and for when you’re grown up enough to realise that you will never come into a final and irrevocable self – strong and female or otherwise.