When I first stumbled upon Buffy, in a very twenty-first century fashion, I binged on the series. I started randomly at season five, back in a technologically simpler time when one would watch whatever was screening on Fox 8, and a Buffy The Vampire Slayer marathon happened to be on. It kept my interest not only because it was witty, dialogue driven, pop culturally aware, genre busting and far ahead of its time, but because it was doing what only a few other shows had previously done with real success: it was driven by a strong female lead.
In today’s television context, this doesn’t sound so revolutionary, and on paper, leading character Buffy Summers could be perceived as being like any typical heroine. She is attractive, blonde and bubbly. But the subversiveness of the character was how she redefined all expectations.
Stepping back twenty years when the series’ pilot aired in 1997, the television zeitgeist was a very different place. Strong female leads, or SFLs, were seldom seen in prime time. Buffy not only directly influenced the format of television following an episodic formula (and superheroes being appropriated to the small screens), but it reshaped the paradigm for women in television. Unlike mainstream film, which is still evolving at a glacial pace, television has today become somewhat of a training ground for leading women. A growing number of series don’t merely appease the Bechdel test, but surpass it.
Buffy wasn’t the first television series to feature women front and centre, but it positioned a woman as a kickass action hero: one that could fight and win against any man, and wasn’t built to purely please the male gaze. She was someone young girls could aspire towards.
The series has had wider implications on today’s critically acclaimed shows like Jessica Jones, Orange is the New Black, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Jane the Virgin, with the narrative ethos of each dedicated to showcasing the complexities of women, and producing female driven stories that construct and highlight complicated, well rounded characters who are about much more than supporting the male cast.
Despite the increasing number of female led TV series, networks still safeguard their bets on male dominated shows, with token female characters occasionally shuffled to the front. The highest rated programs are still male dominated, such as last year’s big winners in the US: The Walking Dead, The Big Bang Theory and Empire.
Meanwhile the Emmys- and Golden Globes-nominated series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was found to be the least watched broadcast network series of the 2015–2016 season, despite its continued critical success. Today there is no shortage of SFL driven shows, but there is a disconnect between whether viewers will tune in and actually watch women’s stories.
What Buffy did was not only position a woman at the front, but in creating a counter culture, it backed her up with a host of equally meaningful female characters. This is where the classification of Buffy as the ultimate SFL falls short – it isn’t enough. The series wasn’t just about Buffy. It was concerned with a multitude of women. These included: best friend and powerful witch Willow, the always sagacious Cordelia, laugh machine Anya, the ultimate TV mum Joyce, the stylish big bad Glory, original rebel Faith, and loyal girlfriend Tara.
The women surrounding Buffy were not classically or physically ‘strong’. They were emotionally strong, complex characters with dynamic personalities, and traits derived from a base of life experiences and characteristics that were realistic to true life women.
In terms of the SFL category, what does ‘strong’ actually mean? Describing women as ‘strong’ is not only a description never applied to their male counterparts, it’s additionally somewhat meaningless. Shonda Rhimes is known for her construction of complex female leads on television – in particular women of colour – of which Buffy is severely lacking. In an interview with New York Magazine Rhimes told how she hates being asked about why she writes ‘strong female characters’:
‘I don’t know why that’s a goal or why we need to put the word “strong” in front of the word “female” – because those are the same thing’, she said. ‘Women are strong. I literally don’t understand the question when I’m asked. I don’t know how to write people other than being the people that they are, like the women that I know. So, it’s not a goal. It’s just reality.’
Buffy creator Joss Whedon did not set out to write ‘strong women’, but rather strongly written women. Buffy having slayer strength and the ability to poke stakes through the hearts of vampires don’t make her an innately strong character. Rather, that she is attentively written as a living breathing human, with a fully realised personality, personal quirks, weaknesses and vulnerabilities, make her an SFL. She is not a mere caricature of what a woman should be within a vacuum of cultural bias.
During a BBC radio special commemorating the tenth anniversary of Buffy, series writer Neil Gaiman said, regarding defining the series by its SFL:
The glory of Buffy is it was filled with strong women. Only one of those strong women had supernatural strength and an awful lot of sharpened stakes. And people sort of go ‘Well yes, of course Buffy was a strong woman. She could kick her way through a door’. And you go ‘No, that’s not actually what makes her a strong woman! You’re missing the point’.
The series demonstrated that women characters could be written as well as – if not better than – men, and only having a single female lead is nothing to celebrate. As the spectacular final episode hit on the head, the ultimate take away from the series is that Buffy can’t fight the forces of evil alone. ‘In every generation one Slayer is born, because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule’, Buffy declares in her closing address in ‘Chosen’:
So I say we change the rules. I say my power should be our power … From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power will have the power. Can stand up? Will stand up. Slayers – every one of us. Make your choice: are you ready to be strong?
Through collective empowerment, Buffy was not only an antithesis to typical femme fatales, but through championing female friendships, the series cemented Buffy as a third wave feminist icon, and yeah, she saved the world, a lot.