“But You’re Just a Girl” : Television and the ‘Strong Female Lead’ Pt. 1

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On this day in 1997 Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered. I have a hard time believing that it was really 18 years ago – I can’t possibly be that old – but in two years we’ll actually be celebrating the 20th anniversary. Crazy, right? In honor of the premiere of one of my favorite television shows, I thought I’d share a piece I wrote for one of my classes last year, taking a look at several strong female characters. Since my original piece is quite long, I’ll be splitting it up into two parts, one today and one later this week.

 

The Girls

When someone brings up strong female characters one of the first shows that comes to mind is Buffy, and it’s true. Buffy was a role model to young girls everywhere – she was strong, independent and knew how to defend herself in a fight. Xena: Warrior Princess had already been on the air for two years when Buffy arrived on the scene, but Xena was a syndicated show whereas Buffy was more accessible to mainstream audiences. Ever since Buffy, many shows have tried to fill that role of a strong female lead, but few have truly succeeded. Interestingly, the shows which typically end up being the most successful tend to be the genre shows – those on the fringes of popularity, who have a loyal fanbase but still have to fight each year to be stay on the air.

Two other shows with strong females that have built up a dedicated cult following are Lost Girl – a show about Bo, a transient woman who discovers she is actually a succubus and a member of a secret world of fey – and Veronica Mars, a show about a high school girl detective. All of three of these characters are women who are on the fringes of society – Buffy can’t live a normal life before she’s the Slayer; Bo isn’t human and she also won’t choose between the light and dark fey, so she doesn’t truly belong anywhere; Veronica becomes an outcast in her high school after her best friend is murdered and her father is fired as sheriff. These women are three of the strongest female leads on television – two of them from shows that aren’t even on the air anymore – and all are outsiders who don’t fit in with normal society.

By contrast, the Australian television show, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, features a strong female lead who has no dependence on any of the men in her life. The show is set in the 1920s and Phryne Fisher – aside from being a strong female – has almost nothing in common with these other women. She’s confident, well-adjusted and fits in with the high society of Melbourne; she’s also rather progressive for the time period. Not only is she completely accepted in society, but she’s accepted even though she exhibits traits that would make it difficult for a woman to fit in even in modern times, let alone the late 1928. If it’s possible to have a woman like Phryne Fisher – whom you will see is an even stronger female lead than Bo of Lost Girl, Veronica Mars or even Buffy Summers – playing a strong, confident and socially accepted character, what does the characterization of the three women from North American television shows say about our generally accepted view of female characters? Even these three women who are considered female role models demonstrate some gender stereotypes when compared with Australia’s Phryne Fisher.

 Buffy the Vampire Slayer

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy Summers is a high school student who is part of a mystical line of “Slayers” going back generations. Once called, she develops superhuman strength and abilities in order to find vampires, demons and whatever else she must face. Buffy is not only physically strong, but mentally and emotionally as well. She faces a lot throughout the course of the show – her lover turning evil, her mother dying, she herself dying – but doesn’t lose her confidence, independence or her sense of humor. Buffy creator Joss Whedon has been very vocal in the past about the need for strong female characters. Whedon has repeatedly been asked why he writes strong female characters, not only in Buffy but nearly every project he works on, and his response is simple, “because you’re still asking me that question” (Whedon, May 15, 2006).

Equality is not a concept. It’s not something we should be striving for. It’s a necessity. Equality is like gravity. We need it to stand on this earth as men and women. And the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance, and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and woman who is confronted with it.

– Joss Whedon, to Equality Now May 15, 2006

In the same speech Whedon credits his mother and wife with some of the inspiration for his characters, “She really was an extraordinary, inspirational, tough, cool, sexy, funny woman. And that’s the kind of woman I’ve always surrounded myself with. It’s my friends, particularly my wife, who is not only smarter and stronger than I am, but occasionally, actually taller too.”

Author Neil Gaiman participated in a BBC Radio program discussing the legacy of Buffy which aired on December 26, 2013. In the interview Gaiman says he often gets asked the same question as Whedon and his response is, “Well, I write people.”

“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, well that’s not actually what makes her a strong woman. You’re missing the point.’”

– Neil Gaiman, BBC Radio, December 26, 2013

It is the moments when Buffy shows strength of character, not physical strength that really show what a strong female character she is. In season two of the series her lover, the vampire Angel, loses his soul and becomes a monster who terrorizes Buffy and her friends for the second half of the season. In the finale Buffy must kill Angel to prevent an apocalypse, but just as she’s about to run a sword through him his soul is restored, making him once again the man she loves. However, it’s too late and after saying goodbye, she kills him. It’s moments like these, when Buffy understands the larger picture that show the true strength in her character. A similar moment occurs in at the end of season 5, when Buffy sacrifices her own life in order to save the life of her younger sister

BuffyDead1

However, being the slayer does not come without a cost. Buffy longs for a normal life, but can never achieve it. Over the course of the series Buffy is only involved in three serious relationships – two with vampires, one with a soldier that works for the “Initiative,” a government organization that fights the supernatural much like Buffy. Her relationship with Angel seems normal, until she sleeps with him causing him to lose his soul and become Angelus. Her relationship with Riley also seems stable, but by the end Riley has come to realize she’s not really in love with him. Her last relationship is with the vampire Spike and is toxic from the start. She only hooks up with Spike in order to feel something – anything – and not because she has any real feelings for him. Buffy may seem well-adjusted within the microcosm of her own group of friends, but she has almost no relationships outside of that circle, and cannot maintain a relationship for more than 18 months.

Lost Girl

Bo from Lost Girl has a lot in common with Buffy Summers. When the series begins Bo discovers she’s not a normal human being, but a succubus – she feeds off sexual energy in order to survive. Along with this discovery she also learns that there is an entire world of the fey she previously knew nothing about. This fey world is not like the faerie mythology most people are used to, it’s an underground society in which almost mythological creature you can think of exists in some form or another – Valkyries, Amazons, werewolves, even Slender Man all appear at some point in the series. The fey world is divided into the Light and the Dark; while Light isn’t specifically described as good while Dark is evil – indeed there are some good Dark fay and some untrustworthy Light fey – that is essentially what the division boils down to as the Dark fey are generally more ruthless and self-serving that the Light.

BoFeeding1

Bo enters this world and is forced into a ceremony after which every Fey must choose to be Light or Dark, however she refuses to join either side. She chooses to remain unaligned, and therefore sets herself up as a private detective within the Fey world, investigating cases for Dark and Light Fey. However, Bo’s decision to remain neutral also serves to alienate her – she is not human, but neither is she aligned with either of the ruling groups of Fey; She has no support from either side. Like Buffy, Bo has a close group of friends in her inner circle, but outside that group she has no one she can trust. She is strong, intelligent, confident and loyal but aside from her closest allies she is an outsider, much like Buffy. The comparison to Buffy isn’t just coincidental, according to an article that labels Lost Girl “Buffy’s sultry Canadian cousin,” Lost Girl was inspired by Buffy:

“Executive producer Jay Firestone says he started developing the show several years ago when friends pointed out that TV had nothing like Buffy the Vampire Slayer anymore. When he set out with writer-creator Michelle Lovretta to change that, he found that a lot of networks thought the idea of a girl-power fantasy show was ‘old news.’ I got one network executive telling me the show was too much like Witchblade, a show that didn’t last.’”

– Jaime Weinman, Macleans.ca

This just goes to show how even though shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer were popular, networks are still hesitant to back an idea with a strong female lead.

 Veronica Mars

When thinking of television shows with strong female leads, it’s often easier to think of fantasy shows than drama. Veronica Mars was one of the few truly strong female characters in regular non-genre programming. She’s not supernaturally strong, doesn’t have any other inhuman abilities, but she still demonstrates a lot of strength of character. She has dealt with her best friend’s murder, her own rape, her dad losing his job, her parents separating and her mom leaving town, and the entire school treating her like a freak, but she hasn’t her confidence or faith in herself. She sticks up for the little guy and doesn’t let the popular kids in school – who used to be her friends – get to her.

“The hunger is definitely there for this female character because she’s this interesting paradox of vulnerable and confident. And I think a lot of women are … For me as a viewer, it’s inherently more interesting to watch a female because of the layers she possesses. I’m just glad that other audience members feel the same.”

– Kristen Bell (Huffington Post, 3/11/2014)

Veronica’s vulnerability is another strength for her character, not a weakness – she hasn’t let the circumstances of her life harden her. However, despite this vulnerability she unable to allow herself to truly trust those around her. On more than one occasion she spies on her own boyfriend because she doesn’t completely trust him – she even goes so far as accusing him of raping her when she discovers he was in possession of GHB the night of the crime. Part of this lack of trust is a result of helping her father, a private detective, track down cheating spouses. This lack of trust even in the people whom she should be able to trust completely keeps her set apart from even her closest friends, which in some ways makes her even more of an outsider than Bo or Buffy, since they at least trusted those closest to them.

To be continued…

In the next installment I will focus on Phryne Fisher of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, and discuss how the Australian program compares and contrasts with this American shows.

And for those wondering about shows like Scandal, Revenge, or How to Get Away With Murder – this study was originally written before HTGAWM premiered, so I was not able to include it, or else I probably would have. Annalise Keating definitely is an interesting and strong female lead. I do not currently watch the other two, but I hope to expand and broaden this study at some point in the future to include more of these types of female characters, who have become popular recently.

Read Part 2! 

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