torchwood: pterodactyl

December Meme: Buffy

Yesterday, I was supposed to talk about Buffy the Vampire Slayer for yalumesse.

Buffy is the only TV show I can ever remember grieving for when it went off the air. My senior year of college, after I came back from my first big trip abroad, I found myself watching TNG marathons on cable. I think after being in an unfamiliar place so long, I wanted to go back to my geeky childhood roots. Sadly, TNG didn’t hold up to my childhood memories. The dialogue sucked, a lot of episodes were resolved with deus ex machina technobabble, and for a universe of perfect social justice, it sure didn’t feature many ladies in lead roles. A friend of mine suggested that Buffy might meet my lady-loving, dialogue-snobbing geek needs, and I quickly managed to torrent almost every episode. Even though I hadn’t watching Buffy when most of the episodes were originally airing, it meant a lot to me that she was exactly my age. I was still grappling with how miserable high school had been, and the metaphor of a high school on the mouth of hell really spoke to me. This was the time in my life when I was finally shaking off depression, accepting that my mom’s drinking wasn’t my fault, and going out to explore the world. I was no superhero, but I empathized deeply with Buffy’s transition into accepting her powers and forging an adult life without her mother’s help.

I watched Buffy on a pretty continuous stream on up through the first year I lived in Japan, by which time I’d pretty much memorized every episode. Maybe I burned it out by watching it too much, or maybe Buffy’s concerns no longer spoke so directly to my life, but I haven’t done a big rewatch since then. What I continue to appreciate as an adult, feminist fangirl is the diversity of the female cast. So often, our media contains one “strong woman” (Star Trek, I’m looking at you), and that character bears the brunt of living up to every female fan’s expectations of what being a strong woman means. That’s where we get arguments about whether Uhura’s relationship is empowering or disempowering, whether she needs to kick physical ass as well as intellectual ass, whether she’s too much of an ice princess, etc. etc. Buffy doesn’t fall into that dilemma because it contains so many different kinds of female characters.

Buffy kicks ass, but she’s also a little ditzy and makes bad relationship choices. Faith is the archetypical bad girl, and she gets redemption arc that’s often reserved for men. Cordy is the stereotypical mean, popular girl but is also intelligent enough to get into a good school and has hidden layers of vulnerability. Willow is nerdy and empathetic, and also a little power hungry. Tara comes off as meek, but the depth of her compassion and acceptance implies a great deal of inner strength. Anya has the business acumen of a Harvard MBA and the social skills of a poorly programmed robot. Dawn starts off as an angsty teenager but slowly learns to see what her unique skills contribute to the group slayer effort. Every one of these women is strong and flawed in different ways

If any one of these women were the sole female character on the show, we would probably argue about her a lot. But because we’re presented with a variety of women making different mistakes, getting into different kinds of relationships, and living their lives in different ways, we can be more accepting of all their choices. As a fan, Buffy is my reminder not to criticize any individual female character but to criticize whatever writer decided there should only be one female character. As a writer, Buffy is my reminder to remember that strong means different things to different women, and no one type of strength is more valuable than any other.
You are so articulate, it is humbling. I agree with all your points, but wouldn't have been able to pull them out myself. I remember sitting watching and enjoying Buffy with my new born, who wouldn't be making snide comments about my taste in TV. I've watched the occasional episode since, but like you, I have moved on and it doesn't speak to me as much.
I recently did a rewatch of the third season of Buffy and enjoyed it a lot, particularly rediscovering Buffy herself and her journey. You make a compelling argument for one of the show's great strengths and delights: not only was a complex, layered girl, who was both exceptional and not, at its heart, but she had all these other girls and women around her. I really enjoyed reliving Buffy's relationships with the other female characters, obviously Willow, Faith, Joyce and Cordelia in season 3, with the tickle of where Dawn would fit into all this, in my rewatch. But I was also a little sad at how comparatively few other shows, not to mention movies, have followed Buffy in this regard.
A hundred times yes to all of this. I love buffy. I'm doing a rewatch on netflix and it's funny because there are some seasons where I bought the vhs as soon as it came out so I've seen them hundreds of times and then some where I hadn't got around to buying them before vhs wasn't a thing anymore so I haven't seen them since they aired on tv really. Maybe once or twice since then but not a lot so it's almost like having new episodes to watch and it's quite exciting :)
so many different kinds of female characters... -- This is a great summary of the women of Buffy! Though I never thought about it, I think you're so right that having lots of strong female characters who are distinct from each other, with their own unique strengths and weaknesses, frees each of them from having to try to be everything as well as freeing us up to appreciate all their complexities. (I didn't feel that way about Charmed, for example, because the sisters weren't different enough; they always seemed kind of interchangeable.)

Speaking as someone who's been a fan of the show since midway through season 3 -- I was introduced to it by a friend on New Year's Day 2001 -- I can tell you it holds up pretty well to repeated viewings over the years :)