Welcome to our series on fictional role models, where we’ll take you on a whistle-stop tour of our personal feminist icons in popular culture. I’m starting off with a favourite of mine, Miss Buffy Summers, otherwise known as the Slayer. In case any of you (seriously?) have never seen an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the plot centres on the small town of Sunnydale, which also happens to be situated over the gateway to Hell and is therefore a really attractive destination for vampires and all things paranormal.
“Into every generation a slayer is born…” say the opening credits, and ours just happens to be a little blonde teenage girl who KICKS SOME MAJOR SUPERNATURAL BEHIND. When I first saw the Buffster in action around 1999, I was immediately blown away by her sarcastic one-liners and killer martial arts skills and a love affair began which continues to this day.
Joss Whedon, creator of all things amazing, said that he thought up Buffy after growing tired of horror movies where ‘bubbleheaded blondes wandered into dark alleys and got murdered by some creature’. His dream was a different story, in which the girl ‘wanders into a dark alley, takes care of herself and deploys her powers’ and old Buff certainly does this time and time again, with the help of her trusty stake. Don’t start thinking about the potential phallic significance of the stake, I’ve been to that part of the internet. It’ll take up your whole evening.
Through Buffy, Whedon tackles difficult topics every episode such as friendship, relationships, gender, education, death, having to trap your own evil, bloodthirsty paramour in a hell dimension… you name it, it’s covered. Buffy wrestles with all the typical problems faced by teenage girls across the globe whilst simultaneously saving the world over and over again. She accepts her calling as slayer with trepidation and a lot of stumbling blocks along the way, but always shows incredible dedication to protecting others and handles the burden admirably despite her own self-doubt and her young age. She and other female characters are also shown to explore their sexuality without becoming overly sexualised in the programme and, despite her oft-criticised tight trousers and low necklines, Buffy remains empowered and self-aware.
There are also many who argue that BTVS isn’t feminist, for various reasons that I won’t go into here, and I will readily admit that there are limitations to Buffy’s suitability as a role model for young girls. She is by no means perfect. She falls apart more than once, often makes the wrong decision and enters into troublesome relationships. In my opinion, however, the most crucial thing is that Buffy’s gender remains something positive, a source of power. She’s not a damsel in distress, waiting to be saved – she walks through the dark alleys and graveyards without fear. She’s her own hero.
Honourable mentions go out to the other women in BTVS – Willow, Anya, Dawn, Tara, Faith, Cordelia, Kendra, every one is multifaceted, flawed yet ultimately strong. Even the villains are often badass, terrifying and powerful women – I’m looking at you, Glory.
Finally, food for thought: JW’s reply upon being asked why he continues to write all these awesome female characters – ‘Because you’re still asking me that question’.
[full brilliant speech below]