An announcement this summer that a reboot is in the works has given me the chance to reflect on a favorite from my teenage years — “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” a TV series that follows a girl turned vampire slayer, plucked from the normalcy of high school and chosen to battle evil.
“Buffy” is funny, weird and punches you right in the gut when it wants to. It’s chock-full of beautifully witty dialogue, each word of each line perfectly tailored to each character. It’s also riddled with allegories for societal threats that have been pored over by fans and academics alike. But what really draws me to the series is its characters, especially those of the female variety.
Before my time, women were never really in leading roles. As I grew up, I saw women slowly inching into the spotlight, even though at first it was as Bella Swan types — weak, bland and having no independent goals outside of being attractive to men. But eventually I was spoon fed another brand of young adult heroine — the stone cold badasses.
These characters are lethal. They wield swords like salad forks, chop off enemies’ heads with a simple flick of the wrist and beat up 24 armed guards twice their size without breaking a sweat. They are strong because they “fight like men” and have no personality outside of their physical prowess. They’re fighting machines — unemotional and lacking in any vulnerability as they leave feminine wiles in the dust.
Max from “Maximum Ride,” Katniss from “Hunger Games” and Katsa from “Graceling” became what I thought strength was, and they shaped the way I viewed femininity.
Maximum Ride especially became my blueprint of what a woman should be. Inspired by her unfeminine ways, I swore off dresses, spit on silly emotions, and ran around with a gang of neighborhood boys who proved their daring by hurling fistfuls of dog feces. I also turned up my nose at girls who liked shopping and painting their nails, reveling at being told I wasn’t “like other girls.”
And quickly, my strength became something tough, hard, cold and “masculine.”
While I did genuinely have some traditionally boyish interests, it’s easy to tell that part of me wanted to throw away any feminine interests or desires. To be brave and heroic, to make a difference, I felt I should think and act like a conventional man, all because of characters that equated femininity with weakness and masculinity with strength.
These characters were lazy attempts at strong female characters, and they were patronizing. But Buffy was the first time I saw girliness and strength side by side, and she taught me traditionally female characteristics showed strength and should be valued, too.
Buffy loves shoes and cheerleading. She turns down military garb for hot pink halter tops while patrolling graveyards for ghouls. She loves shopping after long days of stabbing baddies and she throttles demons by the throat, even though her petite, blonde look would deem her the first to die in a horror movie.
Buffy is the chosen one, that reluctant hero who struggles with the weight of her destiny and desire to live a life not full of suffering, but no matter how hard things got, she was resilient. We also saw the wisecracking valley girl at her weakest, when her loved ones were torn from her, when she was isolated because of who she was, when she held the weight of the world on her shoulders.
Yet, it’s these emotions and her love for her friends, her compassion, her ability to inspire good in others, not the fact she beats up vampires, that give her strength.
Other “Buffy” characters, including Willow Rosenberg with her powerful intellect, Cordelia Chase with her superior sass and Anya Jenkins with her thirst for revenge, all also embraced varied degrees of traditionally feminine characteristics often devalued in other stories.
This isn’t to say all female characters should be girly. It’s great to have unfeminine female characters to show the full spectrum from feminine to masculine that varies for all of us. But when unfeminine heroines are the only image of strength we see, it becomes a problem. We need to show feminine characteristics are nothing to be ashamed of and are, in fact, something we should embrace if we see them in ourselves.
Even two decades after its release date, and who knows how long before its reboot releases, “Buffy” continues to remind me that you can wear a dress and kick butt, too.