As many of you know, I’m a big Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan. I’ve watched the series more than once. I have a Buffy T-shirt. I even own a replica scythe. So what I’m about to say may shock you.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not a feminist show. It is sometimes egregiously sexist, in fact. It showcases repeatedly negative portrayals of female sexuality and engages in blame-placing on female characters (Buffy is accused of leading Spike on, Buffy is blamed for Jenny Calendar’s death even though Angel is the one who did it, etc.) while excusing crazy behavior of male characters (Buffy should obviously instantly forgive Riley for cheating on her with vampire women). There’s the problematic treatment of dismissing rape in Season 7. And I could go on.
However, I strongly disagree with the idea that Buffy is not a strong female character. Indeed, I’ve begun to worry about our culture’s definition of what a strong female character actually is. Yes, we obviously want to get beyond the idea that a strong woman is simply a man with boobs–what a ridiculously simplified idea. But I’ve been seeing some commentary that suggests that strong female characters still have to be…well, perfect and together and always making the right decision. And heaven forbid they ever show emotion or, you know, CRY.
I’m going to unpack a few of these ideas in relation to Buffy so you can see what I mean. First up is Mur Lafferty’s critique of Buffy the character. (I actually agree with much of this article, especially the part about The Princess Bride, which is an awesome movie if you ignore the horrible female characters and particularly the passive MacGuffin who is Princess Buttercup.) “Buffy failed this test [of emotional strength] when Spike attacked her in Season… 5? Since the attack was sexual in nature, Buffy lost all ability to fight, and just struggled on the floor and cried…we’d seen her kill so many monsters – including her lover – I can’t believe she’d cave under that attack. It didn’t fit with the character.”
Okay, so the attempted rape scene in Season 6 is definitely an emotional moment. But that’s all it is: a moment. Buffy struggles against Spike and cries for all of fifty seconds before she succeeds in pushing him off her. (Yes, I timed it, just to be sure I was remembering correctly.) Not only that, but she does this while already badly injured, after dealing with several months of deep depression, and while dealing with the shock of having a former lover try to rape her. But her reaction time of fifty seconds, no, it’s just not quite good enough for her to be considered emotionally strong? Um… Yeah, it must be because she committed the cardinal sin of crying. (Not to mention this assessment smacks of victim blaming.)
Here’s another great one, this time from The Mary Sue (again, this article makes many great points but I quibble about the strong/weak character identifications): “And Buffy is textually weak in all her relationships. She falls apart not only when Angel leaves her, but when Parker (yeah, you don’t remember him, either) doesn’t want to pursue more than a one-night stand with her, too.” It goes on to discuss the badness of Buffy chasing after Riley when he flies off in the helicopter.
So does this mean a strong woman isn’t allowed to have feelings or make mistakes, even out of inexperience (as was the case with Parker)? I mean, are we just supposed to shrug after a painful break-up and decide not to care? After all, Buffy sends the vampire she loves to hell in order to save the world–not an act I’d call particularly weak. Sure, I wasn’t a fan of Buffy running after Riley, but she received bad advice from a trusted friend and had a moment of weakness. But I guess in order to be a strong woman she would have to recognize the sexist parameters of her world at all times and never have a second of doubt, disappointment, or grief… Or maybe it’s the crying.
From the same article: “And inherently problematic is the idea of the Watcher, a predominantly male presence that is the male gaze made manifest – a source of constant looking that is an explicit form of control.”
Yes, the idea of the Watcher is sexist. The origins of the Slayer are deeply problematic. But Buffy fights against this time and time again: she fires her Watcher, she rebels against the Council, she orders them to give her the information she needs about Glory, and at the end of the series, she thwarts their original intent for the Slayer by giving the power to all the Potentials. She is constantly second-guessed and undermined by everyone in her world, friends as much as foes, and yet she continues to fight and to believe in herself. How exactly is this not strong behavior? I really have no idea.
Strong female characters can still be human. They can be flawed, they can have moments of bad judgment, and they can cry. They can feel overwhelmed, and they can have bad taste in men. What they can’t be is only existing because of and judged in relationship to male characters. What they must have is some kind of personal agency. Even, and this is my key point, the agency to make mistakes and be less than perfect.
Rose Lemberg wrote an excellent article on feminist characters, and I really hope you go read the whole thing. She says:“But what we often do in genre is allow men to be uncomfortable and difficult, but erase the women who are less than warm and fuzzy-making.”
Yes. Even to the point of having unnecessarily limited definitions of what makes a strong woman. Buffy is a flawed character, but she exists in her own right, not as some kind of set piece for the male characters on the show and not only as a girlfriend, or friend, or sister, or protegé. She ultimately calls the shots and makes most of the hard decisions. And if anything, the facts that she suffers, that she feels loss and fear, that she cries, these things show how strong she really is.
So what do you think? How do you define strong female characters? And what are examples of them that you think are done well?