Friday, February 19, 2016

Strong Women Series #9: The Women of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' [Contributor: Jen]

"Strong female character" is a term that is bandied about frequently, but what it actually means is seldom discussed. When Buffy The Vampire Slayer aired, critics didn't pay it much attention. It was just the show with the silly name on that "other" network.

It took a few seasons and several years for the vampire show with the ridiculous name to garner any real attention. And when critics and audiences finally looked closer, they quickly discovered Joss Whedon was creating a narrative with depth, emotion, humor, and honesty. It was a story filled with interesting, complex, and strong female characters.

As we explore each of these characters, we'll quickly learn that while Whedon helped define what a "strong female character" means, he also simultaneously defied and exceeded those very same definitions.


The lead character of this series was born from a defiance of expectations. Buffy was an aversion to the Hollywood formula of "the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie." Whedon said he wanted to subvert the idea and create a female heroine who didn't need to be saved, one who could save herself. Thus, Buffy Anne Summers was born — a character predicated on defying expectations.

To review for those unfamiliar with the show, "into every generation a slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer." Buffy was The Chosen: a girl gifted with super strength, speed and agility, for one purpose and one purpose only... to slay vampires. Or demons, demi-gods, ultimate evils; whatever the season "big bad" called for. By casting the diminutive Sarah Michelle Gellar, Whedon created a sharp contrast between Buffy's outward appearance and her physical abilities.

While Buffy was small in stature, she was physically strong and tough. She almost immediately set forth an archetype of "kick butt" heroines. Her fighting style was unique. Buffy was adaptable, she rolled with a fight and used whatever she could in her surroundings to help her win. It was her quick thinking and ability to adapt to any environment that often kept her alive. Her talent lends itself to the belief that Buffy was dedicated to training, but that was not the case. No — for the majority of the series Buffy was a teenager girl, burdened by her duty and all that it required. She hated training.

So much of what made Buffy... well, Buffy, was natural ability. As the series progressed, her talented fighting style made Buffy unique, setting her apart from the Slayers that came before her and the ones who came after her. By setting Buffy apart from other Slayers, a lineage of powerful women, Whedon was commenting on society's  need to lump women together in one group, with a defined set of characteristics. His point was a woman's femaleness does not eradicate her uniqueness.

Yes, Buffy was physically strong and tough, but her emotional resonance was what audiences truly connected to. Underneath that tough exterior, was a gentleness and softness. She was intensely compassionate, forgiving, loyal and loved her family and friends deeply. THAT was her true strength.

She was also hysterical. Buffy’s ability to quip her way through life was one of her best coping mechanisms. It gave her a pluckiness so endearing you couldn’t help but root for her. Her ability to find humor even in the darkest moments gave her a light everyone clamored to be around. Despite failing classes and being dependant on best friend Willow for tutoring, Buffy was also incredibly intelligent. She had a real-world intelligence and analytical ability that went beyond books and tests. Whedon made it clear Buffy's poor academic record had nothing to do with a lack of intelligence when she scored a 1430 on the SAT. She was simply too busy saving the world.

The reality was, Buffy couldn't do it all and some things, like school, slipped through the cracks. As life became busier and busier and I became a wife and mother with a career,  I kept Whedon's message in mind. Women are expected to "do it all" which often requires superhero-like abilities. If we can't, we are failures. Buffy, an actual superhero, couldn't "do it all." Her inability to juggle everything in her life successfully at all times didn't make Buffy weak. It just made her really busy.

Watching Buffy struggle with her responsibilities as a Slayer against her everyday life as a teenage girl, was the life blood of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The monsters Buffy faced were the metaphors for the hell of teenage life. Whedon gave Buffy a carefully-crafted support network — her mother, Giles her watcher, her best friends Willow and Xander, and Cordelia — a "frenemy."

She also had a great love. Like so many women, Buffy fell for exactly the wrong kind of guy... a vampire. For a Slayer, it doesn't get more wrong than that. Angel was unique among vampires, though: he was cursed with a soul. He was overwhelmed by guilt from the horrors he'd committed as "Angelus" and helped Buffy in her fight against evil. After Buffy lost her virginity to Angel, he lost his soul and became the evil "Angelus" again. It was Whedon's metaphor for when a woman sleeps with a man and he doesn't call her ever again. The choice to sleep with Angel not only cost Buffy the man she loved, but her innocence as well.

Buffy defeats Angelus, but not before Willow cures him. To save the world, Buffy is forced to kill Angel, her great love. Sacrificing the person she loved most solidified her heroism. And Buffy was a completely selfless character. She did what was necessary, no matter what the personal cost. It was a behavior Buffy continued over and over again — sacrificing everything, including her own life, for the world and those she loved.

Up until season two, Buffy was never alone. She always had her "Scooby Gang" and Angel by her side. Whedon stripped Buffy of her support network to teach her self-reliance. There was no white knight coming to save Buffy. She was the white knight. And this self-reliance gave her the confidence to disentangle herself from The Watcher's Council in season three, and ultimately lead an army of young potential Slayers in season seven.

The character of Buffy was always built from a position of leadership. It was Buffy making the tough calls, not the Council, or Giles, or her friends. Buffy bore that responsibility, and the consequences of her choices, on her shoulders and her shoulders alone. She never played the blame game — unless she was blaming herself. She carried the weight of the world on her shoulders and she did so with grace and dignity. She also learned being a good leader doesn't necessarily equate to popularity.

The character wasn't perfect, but she was complex and there is a difference. Complexities reveal layers to a character, and not all layers are perfect or positive. At times, Buffy could be self-absorbed. Her destiny as the Slayer isolated her. The constant life or death choices and the neverending battles, hardened her. Buffy's emotional unavailability was something she struggled with constantly and ultimately caused the demise of her relationship with "normal" boyfriend Riley. Well, that and the fact she didn't love him.

Buffy often danced along the edge between life and death. Time and time again, she was torn down. Time and time again, all she held dear was taken from her. Time and time again, Buffy rose from the ashes. It took a toll and invariably led her to feel closer to the land of night and death.

After Willow brings Buffy back from the dead in season six, Buffy spirals into a deep depression. Unbeknown to her friends, Buffy was in heaven and was happier dead. Her guilt over her lack of desire to live created deep self-hatred that culminated in sado-masochist sexual relationship with Spike. Eventually, her desire to connect far outweighed her instinct to disconnect. It resulted in Buffy, more often than not, consciously choosing to reach out to those she loved.

So many female characters are defined by their relationships with men. They simply become "the girlfriend" and their story stops or starts based on their relationship status. This ultimately revolves the character around the man. Buffy's story, nor her character, was ever defined by her romantic relationships. Whether it was Angel, Riley, or Spike, each relationship Buffy experienced was intended to teach her something about herself. The love stories were simply a piece of the character, not the entire puzzle. The strength Buffy gained from these relationships wasn't from the men themselves, but from the lessons she learned.

Buffy Summers was a hero in every sense of the word. It was her journey, her road, that we — as the audience — traveled on. When Buffy laughed, we laughed with her. Her losses were our losses. Her victories our victories. We connected to the story through HER. Whedon's world revolved around Buffy. She was the sun and we, the audience and supporting characters, clamored to be close to her warmth and light.


In the beginning of BTVS, Willow Rosenberg was the typical "best friend" character — shy, nerdy, sweet and supportive. However, nothing is what it seems in Whedon's world and Willow was no different. In a field dominated by men, especially in the mid- to late-nineties, Willow was the computer genius on the series. Her intelligence and skills related to computer and "the Web" proved invaluable to Buffy. Additionally, Willow's shyness was a unexpected source of power for the character. When Willow spoke up, the other characters listened. An explosion of anger or frustration was unusual for her, so when it happened, it carried more weight... usually because she was right.

In Whedon's world, female friendship was power. Willow and Buffy's friendship was a source of strength for both characters. Where one was weak, the other was strong. Rather than be competitive, they loved each other unconditionally. Willow was Buffy's rock. She was always sympathetic, supportive and ready to listen. Willow was often the only one to understand the emotional challenges in Buffy's life as the slayer. In return, Buffy encouraged Willow to be brave. Underneath Willow's shyness was a colorful world only Buffy and Xander were privy to see — a loopy sense of humor, a deep compassion, and unparalleled intelligence. Buffy challenged Willow to let the world see the real her.

As Willow's friendship with Buffy grew, so did her world. Over the course of the series, she gained more and more confidence. So much so that she moved beyond her childhood crush with best friend Xander and began dating the cool guitarist, Oz. On the surface, they were a mismatch, but Oz had the same intelligence and sense of humor as Willow.

But it was in college, Willow met her soul mate... Tara Maclay. Falling in love with a woman was treated as naturally as breathing for Willow. Her sexuality was simply a natural evolution, as Willow realized who she truly was and who she truly wanted to love. Underneath each of these relationships — Buffy, Oz, and Tara — was a thematic undercurrent for Willow. Her relationship with magic. As her confidence grew, so did Willow's abilities with magic. What started out as dabbling turned into a full-blown skill.

Over the course of the series, Willow becomes a true and powerful witch — the most powerful weapon in the Slayer's arsenal. Willow cures Angel and casts a powerful spell that defeats Adam. Her magic is the only thing that can hurt Glory, a god; and she displays god-like power when she resurrects Buffy from the dead.

Ultimately, it becomes clear to everyone — from Buffy to Giles to the audience — that Buffy The Vampire Slayer is not the most powerful character. Willow Rosenberg is. It is an interesting twist on the typical "best friend" trope. The sidekick actually surpasses the hero in power.

In a powerful metaphor for drug and alcohol abuse, too — Willow becomes addicted to magic. Its effect is very similar to a heroin addiction, only worse. Much worse. After losing Tara and nearly killing Dawn, Willow begins the very slow and painful road to sobriety. She stops practicing magic and ultimately repairs her broken relationship with Tara.

In a tragic twist of fate — because that's how relationships work in Whedon's world — Tara is killed. In his attempt to shoot Buffy, Warren (the apparent Big Bad in season six) accidentally shoots a stray bullet into Willow and Tara's bedroom, striking Tara. It's then that the real Big Bad of this season is revealed: Willow. She succumbs to dark magic and becomes darkness itself. After Willow murders Warren in retribution, she reveals her power is actually a cover for her weakness.

Willow: Let me tell you something about Willow. She's a loser and she always has been. People picked on Willow in junior high school, high school, up until college with her stupid mousy ways. And now, Willow's a junkie. The only thing Willow was ever good for — the only thing I had going for me — were the moments, just moments, when Tara would look at me and I was wonderful. And that will never happen again!

The reality was no matter how powerful Willow became, she only saw a loser. Willow was dependant on Buffy's love, Oz's love and — most of all — Tara's love to feel good about herself. She never learned how to love or accept herself. Without Tara, Willow didn't know who she was. She was lost.

Until season seven, that is. Willow learns how to control her magic and helps Buffy face off against The First Evil. The only reason Willow was able to stand up against the First Evil's psychological onslaught was because she already faced the darkest parts of herself. In a stunning display of her abilities, Willow harnesses the power of the scythe and transfers Buffy's power as The Slayer to all potential slayers. Willow went to the place just beyond the darkest part in her — the light. She becomes a "goddess," or in layman's terms, the most powerful witch in existence.

Those that only see the worst in themselves can become dependent on romantic relationships to feel loved and accepted. Through Willow, we learn it's only when we love ourselves, accepting the good and the bad, the light and the dark, that we become the people we are truly meant to be.


Every hero needs a nemesis. Buffy had the Big Bads for her supernatural life. For her everyday life, she had Cordelia Chase.

Beautiful, popular, and rich, Cordelia was the stereotypical "mean girl." When Buffy first transfers to Sunnydale High, she and Cordelia initially hit it off. But after a nasty comment about Willow's clothes and an unfortunate incident outside the women's bathroom at The Bronze, they are doomed to be enemies. Cordelia and Buffy competed over the cheerleading squad, Homecoming Queen, Angel, and even Xander. Buffy was jealous of Cordelia's normal life and Cordelia was jealous of Buffy's special abilities.

And yet, slowly but surely, Cordelia found herself pulled into the Scooby Gang. At first, she was the damsel in distress or the bait. However, when Cordelia is stalked by an "invisible girl," she goes to Buffy for help and — in the process — reveals that maybe she and Buffy aren't so different after all. Buffy often struggled with isolation, which is something Cordelia understood all too well.

Cordelia begins dating Xander and officially joined the Scooby Gang, sacrificing her popularity in the process. It was a conscious choice on Cordelia's part. Cordelia Chase always knew who she was and what she wanted. Her self-confidence was innate. Cordelia was the snarky character, providing the one line zingers, that kept the Buffy the Vampire Slayer dialogue zipping along. Was she mean? Yes. Self-absorbed? Yes. Honest? Yes. Cordelia was blunt and unfiltered. She was never afraid to speak her mind. She would say what everyone was thinking, but didn't have the guts to say. In fact, "bitch" was never a title that Cordelia was ashamed of, but rather wore it with pride.

Yet, some of my favorite Cordelia moments were the times she showed her compassion. After Angelus murders Giles' girlfriend Jenny Calendar, Buffy asks Cordelia for a ride to his house. She responds with a simple and heartfelt, "of course." The real truth was Cordelia truly cared about these people.

When Angel leaves Sunnydale and moves to L.A. (for his spin-off show), Cordelia joins him in his pursuit to save souls. She may have needed a job, but it's really Cordelia's compassion that drives her to help Angel. Over the course of the series, Cordelia becomes every bit the hero Buffy was, but she never lost her zinging edge or brutal honesty.

Cordelia wasn't always likable, but that didn't mean she wasn't a strong character. In fact, Cordelia teaches all women that confidence — knowing who you are and speaking your mind — are virtues and nothing to be ashamed of.


In the third season, the Buffy writers introduced the "game-changing" character or the character intended to shake things up. Which is exactly what Faith Lehane did. After Buffy dies in the season one finale, a new Slayer is called. That Slayer, Kendra, dies in the second season finale, thereby activating Faith.

She arrives in Sunnydale and it's clear that Faith is the anti-Buffy. In fact, she serves as a mirror for who Buffy could become without her family and friends for support or by succumbing to her isolation. Faith is wild, spontaneous, and impulsive. Buffy often felt slaying was a burden, but Faith embraced it and the power that came with it. Faith taught Buffy how to be more carefree and enjoy life.

While Buffy flirted with her wild side with Faith — slaying and partying with her — she is overwhelmed with guilt after Faith accidentally kills an innocent human while out on patrol together. However, Faith is not. Whedon uses the incident to draw a moral line in the sand and launch Faith's villain storyline.

Faith: Buffy. I'm not going to "see" anything. I missed the mark last night. And I'm sorry about the guy, really. But it happens. Anyway — how many people do you think we've saved by now? Thousands? And didn't you stop the world from ending? In my book, that puts you and me firmly in the plus column. 
Buffy: We help people. That doesn't mean we can do whatever we want.
Faith: You're still not looking at the big picture, B. Something made us different. We're warriors. We were built to kill... 
Buffy: To kill demons. But we don't get to pass judgement on people, like we're better than everybody else — 
Faith: We are better. That's right. Better. People need us to survive. In the balance? Nobody's gonna cry over some random bystander who got caught in the crossfire. 
Buffy: I am. 
Faith: Well that's your loss.

And thus, the season three Big Bad is born. What caused Faith's sudden shift? Faith's turn toward evil was a cognitive choice. She looked left and then she looked right. Ultimately, she chose evil. Not only did she choose it, but she embraced it with wild abandon.

Faith became a villain because she chose to be one. It was a thematic study of humanity's free will and the consequences of our choices. But therein lies her salvation. If Faith chose to be bad, then she can also choose to be good. When we go down the wrong path — when we lose ourselves in our bad choices — coming out of that is painful.

It launches a battle for Faith's soul, one Buffy enlists Angel's help in. Ultimately, Faith sides with The Mayor and his plan to destroy Sunnydale. Whedon developed a sweet and loving father/daughter relationship between these two "villains." Underneath Faith's bluster was a woman searching for a familial connection. She was simply looking for it in all the wrong places.

It would be easy to write Faith off as a villain. Instead, Whedon crafted a story of redemption that took place on both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. The audience witnessed Faith's rock bottom as her self-hatred overwhelmed her and she begged for death.

Then we watched her climb her way out of the darkest of holes. Faith took responsibility and turned herself in for the crimes she committed. No prison could hold a Slayer, but Faith served her sentence through sheer force of will. She was committed to righting her wrongs. In the end, Buffy's greatest rival was standing by her side in the final battle.

Through Faith, Whedon crafted a darker version of Buffy, but he refused to let the pendulum swing only one way. If Faith represented the darker side of Buffy, then she must also retain a light... just like Buffy. It was a poetic commentary on humanity. Seldom can we categorize a human being as only good or only evil. The challenge is to look beyond the simplistic categorizations to the vast kaleidoscope of colors underneath.


When Cordelia left for Angel, Whedon brought in Anya, the vengeance demon, who spent over a thousand years wreaking havoc by granting wishes to women wronged by men. Now human, Anya shared the same affinity for bluntness and zippy one liners Cordelia did. Rather than brutal honesty, Anya's tactlessness came from her lack of experience with people. She was almost childlike in her unfiltered honestly.

When Buffy's mother dies in the fifth season, Anya struggles to understand what death means. Mortality was new to the immortal vengeance demon, and it leads to one of the most poignant moments in the show's history. Anya struggles with her new human feelings, especially her romantic feelings for Xander, despite her abhorrence for men in general.

Anya: You know, you can laugh, but I have witnessed a millennium of treachery and oppression from the males of the species and I have nothing but contempt for the whole libidinous lot of them. 
Xander: Then why you talking to me? 
Anya: I don't have a date for the prom. 
Xander: Well gosh. I wonder why not. It couldn't possibly have anything to do with your sales pitch? 
Anya: Men are evil. Will you go with me?

She became a vengeance demon because her first love cheated on her. Underneath the vengeance, was an intense, almost desperate, need to be loved. Anya's demonic transformation was a manifestation of her pain. She became vengeance because she loved deeply and hurt just as much. It was her way of regaining power, control and a sense of self.

Anya's other great love was money. Whedon created a female character who embraced capitalism. She was an incredibly smart businesswoman and excellent with finances. Giles floundered at running the magic shop until Anya came to the rescue. What's more, her love for money and her natural business sense was never something Anya was ashamed of.

A smart businesswoman with an intense desire to be loved. A woman who loves deeply, but reacts violently when rejected. A woman who wields great power and control, but gives freely of her heart. By juxtaposing these ideas, Whedon refused to accept they were mutually exclusive.


Every so often there comes a character who is just... kind. Tara was gentle, sweet, quiet, and shy. Her abilities as a witch notwithstanding, the magic in Tara Maclay was how unassuming she was. She was completely comfortable letting other characters — like her love, Willow — shine. Perhaps Tara viewed herself as nothing much, content to live in the backround. But in truth, she was the strongest in the Scooby Gang.

Tara's impact on Willow was life-changing. Her love transformed Willow into the woman and witch she was destined to become. Of all the teachers in Willow Rosenberg's life, Tara had the biggest impact. She taught Willow about magic. Spells were always the most powerful and effective when they did them together. More importantly, Tara's unconditional love helped Willow accept herself. In return, Willow's love made Tara brave. She grew confident in who she was and what she had to offer the world.

Unconditional love was Tara's true power. When Buffy's mother died, Tara offers the only helpful guidance, having lost a mother herself. Tara became the defacto mother of the Scooby Gang, caring for Dawn when Buffy was slaying or too emotionally cut off. More importantly, it was Tara who held the moral line. When Willow went too far with dark magic, it was Tara who demanded better. No matter how much Tara loved Willow, she never compromised herself.

Buffy, tormented with guilt for sleeping with Spike, confessed to Tara. There was no judgement or shame. All Buffy received from Tara was acceptance and love. Despite her quiet demeanor, when Tara spoke, the others listened. Her words carried weight because of who she was.

If the Scooby Gang were ocean waves, then Tara was the rock they crashed against. She was always constant and resilient. She selflessly aborbed their pain, listened to their fears, and gave nothing but comfort and love. It's why her death — more than any other — shook the them to the core. Willow became untethered because her rock was gone. Her death left a hollowness in the group because their source of constant love, comfort and support was gone.

The strongest women are those who love the deepest, with no reservations or judgement. Tara Maclay is proof that the quietest among us often leave behind the loudest echo.


Dawn Summers was introduced into the series as Buffy's little sister in the fifth season. No, that's not a typo. The god Glory required a powerful key, or energy, to return to her home dimension. By opening the portal, Glory would destroy the world. So, monks took this energy or key and hid it in human form. They entrusted it to the Slayer for safekeeping by building an entire lifetime of memories that previously never existed. Even though she was a 15 year old girl, Dawn had only been alive for a few months. In short, Dawn was truly an innocent. As innocent as a newborn baby.

Despite that innocence, Dawn could be really... well, annoying. Prone to temper tantrums and whininess, she could grate on the nerves of any viewer. She was childlike because she was a child. Unlike Buffy, Dawn wasn't responsible for saving the world at fifteen. She was simply responsible for herself. It created a slightly selfish, but realistic, worldview. Dawn was a typical teenager.

As the Slayer's baby sister, she became the damsel in distress.

Buffy: So, Dawn's in trouble... must be Tuesday.

Despite the bickering, the bond between these two sisters was deep. There was never a limit to how far Buffy would go for Dawn and vice versa. Having two sisters myself, it was an accurate depiction of the relationship.

Buffy: Look, it's blood. It's Summers blood. It's just like mine. It doesn't matter where you came from, or... or how you got here. You are my sister. There's no way you could annoy me so much if you weren't.

Where we begin with Whedon characters is never where we end. After their mother's death, it was Dawn who demanded Buffy connect, refusing to let her pull away. It was in the quiet moments with her sister that Dawn was the strongest. A simple look. A gesture. A hug.

When Buffy dies, sacrificing her life for Dawn's, she is left without family. She grows more solemn and introspective. She commits herself to learning more about Buffy's world and becomes a full-fledged Scooby Gang member. After Buffy's return, it is Dawn who pulls Buffy back from the brink of despair. Dawn becomes a powerful and important beacon of hope to the Slayer.

In the final season, Dawn is mistakenly identified as a potential slayer. After the mix-up is resolved, Dawn exhibits true grace, despite her disappointment. Whedon uses the opportunity to comment characters without special abilities or superpowers.

Xander: You thought you were all special. Miss Sunnydale 2003. And the minute you found out you weren't, you handed the crown to Amanda without a moment's pause. You gave her your power. 
Dawn: The power wasn't mine. 
Xander: They'll never know how tough it is, Dawnie. To be the one who isn't chosen. To live so near to the spotlight and never step in it. But I know. I see more than anybody realizes because nobody's watching me. I saw you last night. I see you working here today. You're not special. You're extraordinary.

As we watched Dawn grow up, she not only accepted who she was, but embraced it. Like Xander, Dawn didn't need to be a Slayer to matter. She mattered because she was... Dawn. That's all she ever needed to be, spotlight or not, Whedon's point was every human being is special because we are intrinsically unique. As for Dawn? She selflessly stepped away from the spotlight to let her sister shine, revealing she was every bit the hero as Buffy.


In a world of vampires, demons, witches, Slayers and keys there had to be a grounded center Buffy could call home — some normalcy to counteract the madness of her world. Even the world's strongest warrior needs a safe place. For Buffy, it was Joyce Summers: her mother.

The beauty of Joyce was her periphery to Buffy's mystical world. Joyce was a master of denial and her ditzy personality made it believable. Her reaction when she discovered Buffy's destiny was a very human one. Her inability to accept Buffy's destiny was often symbolic for a parent's inability to accept their child's sexuality. What made Joyce the perfect TV mother was her imperfection. She didn't always say the right thing or know what to do. She made mistakes. She was real.

After she discovers Buffy is the Slayer, Joyce never strayed too far into the mystical. When she did, it was strictly in a "mama bear" protective capacity. No matter how strong Buffy was or how talented, she was Joyce's daughter — her baby. Joyce fought for her child like any mother would. She would die for Buffy.

After she accepts Buffy's life as the Slayer, Joyce never doubted her. She always believed Buffy would save her if she was in trouble. She always believed Buffy would do what was right. In the fifth season, Joyce is diagnosed with a brain tumor. When she discovers the truth about Dawn, they have a very real and very serious heart-to-heart. Joyce recognizes her mortality and makes Buffy promise to take care of Dawn. This moment was not about Buffy's abilities as the Slayer; it was about her humanity.

Joyce: Then we have to take care of her. Buffy, promise me. If anything happens, if I don't get through this — 
Buffy: Mom. 
Joyce: No, listen to me. No matter what she is, she still feels like my daughter. I have to know that you'll take care of her. That you'll keep her safe. That you'll love her like I love you. 
Buffy: I promise.

And when Buffy discovers her mother dead in their living room she whispers "Mommy?" It is the sound of a small, terrified child. It is a goodbye. Buffy is not only saying goodbye to her mother or to the only home she's ever known; she's saying goodbye to her childhood. Buffy must accept there are simply some monsters she cannot defeat. Cancer is one of them. She's a Slayer, not God.

Joyce Summer's death was one of show's most gut-wrenching losses because of how real it was. It was a testament to the strength of Joyce's character. Joyce was the audience's tether to what was real, normal, and dependable. Like Buffy, we believed she would always be there — our safe place. So when she died, we felt the loss as if we lost our own mother. By doing so, Whedon made the familiar vital. A lifeline. He made normal. He made her special.


Jenny Calendar was the hip and cool computer science teacher in Buffy's first two seasons. She bonded with Willow over computers, and forced Giles in the 20th century with her abilities on "The Net." Her knowledge of the occult made her a natural member of the Scooby Gang. Her completely opposite personality to Rupert Giles made her a natural romantic interest.

Jenny's confidence stemmed from a secure knowledge of who she was. She pushed Giles outside of his comfort zones, but she never asked him to change. She accepted and loved Giles for who he was. He accepted and loved her the same way.

In the madness of Buffy's world, Jenny Calendar was always a calming influence. Her computer science background made her pragmatic, and her knowledge of the occult allowed her to accept the mystical. Perhaps that's why the Scooby Gang trusted her so readily. And perhaps that's why her betrayal was all the more devastating. It's revealed in season two that Jenny Calendar is really Janna Kalderash, a gypsy from the tribe that cursed Angel. She was sent to Sunnydale to impede Angel's relationship with Buffy and ensure his continued suffering. After Angel loses his soul, Jenny reveals her betrayal. She loses the Scooby Gang's trust and her relationship with Giles. She spends the rest of the season trying to earn their forgiveness, especially Buffy's.

When Jenny discovers how to get Angel's soul back, he kills her. It's the first cast member death on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and they are devasted. Despite her betrayal, Giles, Buffy, Xander, Willow and Cordelia still loved Jenny. They mourned her deeply and her murder provides the moral dilemna for the remainder of season two: save Angel or kill him?

Jenny Calendar may have looked like she had it all together  cool, calm and confident. But underneath, she harbored a secret. Strong women don't need to have it "all together" all the time. In fact, the greater strength is admitting when you don't. Everyone makes mistakes. Jenny taught us women don't need to be perfect to be strong. They just need the strength to admit when they are not... and be willing to make amends.


As we reflect on these varied and complex characters, it becomes clear Joss Whedon defined strong female characters by refusing to define specific characteristics. As soon as he set expectations, he defied those expectations. Heroes became villains. Villains became heroes. The hero made mistakes. The sidekick became the most powerful. Those that loved also hated. The brave were also fearful. The selfless were also selfish. Extraordinary became a burden while normal became extraordinary.

These women explored the vast array of human emotions and experience, which is what made them realistic. Whedon's female characters do not exist to define their male counterparts. They exist to define themselves. These women are not peripheral to the story. They are the story. Seldom do we discuss strong male characters. They are simply strong characters.  Whedon's characters are not defined by their femaleness. They are defined by their humanity. No different than their male counterparts and that's what makes them strong.
Interviewer: So, why do you write these strong female characters? 
Joss Whedon: Because you’re still asking me that question.


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