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Strong Female Characters: Buffy Summers

For those of you that don’t know, Buffy Summers is the protagonist of Joss Whedon’s hit TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Set in the American city of Sunnydale, the show follows Buffy’s attempts to rid the world of evil – although she mainly limits that to the undead. The show has been credited as a total game-changer, particular with the way that female characters are written – so naturally it was only a matter of time before I started ranting about it. Many viewers see Buffy as a feminist heroine, and as a role model for young girls everywhere.

But does she live up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

It’s explained in the very first episode that Buffy is the Chosen One – armed with supernatural abilities and destined to try to rid the world of evil. So from the outset, it’s pretty clear that Buffy has not chosen her own destiny in a larger sense. Because of her ‘Chosen One’ status, all sorts of evil entities are going to be seeking her out and trying to kill her, so she’ll be fighting the forces of evil whether she wants to or not. She does question the fate she’s been given – she runs away from home in the season two finale, and alters the way that Slayer powers are passed down in the series finale – but she ultimately accepts it. She is very aware that pursuing her own goals could result in thousands of people dying; she will never really be free to take control of her own life.

However, this is not necessarily a problem specific to her character. The ‘Chosen One’ narrative is very common, and often involves the hero/heroine being forced into situations that they wouldn’t ordinarily seek out. It’s tied up with a lot of other ideas about the inevitability of fate and the question of free will, and while these problems do surface in Buffy, they surface in many other narratives like it due to the nature of this kind of story. With that in mind, I’ll give it a half point.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

When she’s not turning centuries-old vampires into powder, Buffy enjoys ice-skating, cheerleading, and making fun of terrible movies. Some of these hobbies are remnants of her pre-slayer life, some of them are not, some she shares with her friends, some she doesn’t – all in all, it’s a very realistic mix of pastimes.

However, as far as her beliefs and goals go, most of them are dictated by her destiny as a Slayer. She wants a normal life, but does not know how she would spend it. She wants to stop vampires from harming people, but there’s no way of knowing if she would still want that if she had not been made the Slayer. When you boil it down to its most basic principle, all she really wants to do is survive. This is made very clear in the episode where Buffy and Willow discuss their plans for after school. Willow has a list of universities she wants to apply for and is already thinking about what she wants to study; Buffy hasn’t even considered it.

Buffy’s goals and beliefs are a direct result of her destiny as the Slayer. It’s impossible to separate them from her wider destiny, and with that in mind, I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

I TAKE IT BACK (image: giphy.com)

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

For the most part, Buffy is a pretty consistent character. Her supernatural strength is present through most of the series – and on the occasions where it isn’t, there’s usually a very good explanation for it. Her personality does change over the course of the series, but as all the seasons of Buffy cover her life from the ages of about fifteen to twenty-three, a little change is to be expected. The core elements of her personality are consistent, and so I’m giving it the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

A young woman determined to rid the world of supernatural evil, without losing her own identity in the process.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

Most of Buffy’s decisions are influenced by the Monster of the Week. Occasionally, this does turn out to be one of her ex-boyfriends, but we’ve all been there once or twice. Overall, Buffy’s love life does factor into some of her decision-making, but certainly not the majority of it, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

Does she EVER.

Buffy’s character development is astronomical. She grows up over the course of the series, but in each season she has her own character development arc. Her worldview changes from largely optimistic to much more pessimistic, she indulges – and then learns to avoid – self-destructive behaviour, and she goes from challenging her destiny to accepting it, but on her own terms. That’s some pretty hardcore development, right there.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Buffy has a superiority and inferiority complex all rolled into one. She knows she’s been marked out for greatness, yet she believes she deserves to be socially ostracised because of it. She hates authority figures – which really gets her into trouble with The Initiative – and is convinced she must have total control over her own life (and, in the later seasons, everyone else’s). What’s more, she’s also prone to some pretty serious lapses of judgement, particularly when it comes to her relationships.

Buffy falls for two vampires over the course of the series – Angel and Spike. Both of them repeatedly try to kill her and drink her blood, and yet she still doesn’t really see a problem with jumping into bed with both of them. Call me crazy, but when a guy stalks, murders and eats my friends, HE KIND OF LOSES HIS CHANCE TO BE MY BOYFRIEND. Yet Buffy consistently engages in relationships with vampires, knowing that they must eat people in order to survive, and that some of them have killed her friends. When it comes to her love life, Buffy sometimes forgets that her boyfriends are not always as human as she is, and doesn’t seem able to face up to the reality that those relationships will never work out. It’d be like me dating a bowl of spaghetti – sooner or later, I’m going to get hungry, and that delicious pasta is going to suffer for it.

Me and bae ❤

However, her flaws are consistent, and they impact both the plot and her relationships, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

Most of the series revolves around Buffy kicking ass and taking names. While the overall plot of the series is heavily influenced by Buffy’s destiny as a Slayer, her actions dictate the majority of the plot for every single episode, so she passes this round with flying colours.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

For the most part, Buffy subverts a lot of stereotypes about gender. In many ways she’s a typical teenage girl who enjoys shopping, cheerleading and talking about cute boys – but she’s also the unquestioned leader of a team of people dedicated to ridding the world of supernatural evil, and destined to save humanity from whatever demonic end the Monster of the Week has planned for it. Such a huge responsibility is rarely given to teenage female characters, and in that respect she’s a very subversive character.

However, this doesn’t necessarily apply to all aspects of her personality. Buffy is frequently used as a means of taking down the more overt forms of sexism. We’ve all seen this before: every so often a sexist caricature will underestimate Buffy – usually using the words ‘little girl’ in the process – and she kicks him in the face, everyone cheers, and then they all go to the Bronze for tea and celebratory crumpets (or whatever else they serve to underage teenagers in a place that is CLEARLY A BAR).

They’ve even got those red plastic cups that all Americans are legally required to have at all frat parties (image: fanpop.com)

This doesn’t apply to the more insidious forms of sexism on the show. Xander – one of Buffy’s best friends – consistently whines about how Buffy won’t have sex with him, yet Buffy never once challenges his behaviour, or asks him why he thinks he’s entitled to her body in that way. One of Buffy’s boyfriends, Riley, has a huge problem with her being physically stronger than him, and hates that she doesn’t depend on him, yet she never asks him why his need to be a ‘big, strong man’ means that she has to be weaker. As I’ve already mentioned, Buffy consistently makes poor decisions about her love life, and actually never finds a fulfilling relationship, reinforcing the idea that young women make terrible choices when it comes to men. In some ways, Buffy is a breakthrough character that shattered expectations of gender, but in others, she falls in line with some really dated stereotypes.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Much like Hermione and Katniss, Buffy has a range of different relationships with a range of different characters. She adores her best friend, Willow, has a strange rivalry/camaraderie with her fellow slayer, Faith, and has a strange mixture of hatred and pity for the vampire Drusilla. All in all, it’s a very realistic mix of relationships that is usually handled pretty well.

FINAL SCORE: 8/10

 

Buffy Summers is a well-rounded character who develops over the course of all seven seasons of Buffy. She is hugely influenced by her destiny and, at times, this calls aspects of personality and free will into question, but nevertheless she has her own strengths, weaknesses and abilities that remain largely consistent throughout the series. She’s certainly passed my test!

Next week, I’ll be venturing into the Disney universe – and in the spirit of all things wintry, I’ll be looking at Frozen. Elsa, I’m coming for you.

 

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