I am a proud Whedon-ite. I have been ever since I was ten years old and I laid eyes on Buffy Summers. She was beautiful, she was blond, she was killing monsters. I became obsessed. I will admit to having watched all seven seasons of Buffy four times. Now that I consider that I realize how many hours of my life that is and I’m a little sad. But only a little. As I got older I discovered other Joss Whedon shows like Angel, the Buffy spin off that became a masterpiece in its own right, Firefly, and Dollhouse. I devoured all these shows Netflix marathon style. The writing was witty, the concepts were interesting, but most importantly the characters were fascinating and relatable.
I recently had a migraine and spent the entire day of the couch watching the second half of season two of Buffy. If you know the show you know it’s the best. While watching the all too familiar episodes I began to realize one of the reasons I am so drawn to Joss Whedon: he tells stories about women. His female characters are main characters, not sidekicks. Women are the lovers not the love interests. His female characters are fully developed and display the full range of human emotions. They are strong and independent, but they are also honest and vulnerable. Sure, there are plenty of male characters in his show whose characters are just as fully developed, but they are often not as central to the storyline as the female characters. This is a rarity in modern television and it’s so refreshing that Whedon’s shows are downright irresistible for young women.
Whedon’s female characters show what being a young women is really like. Buffy is a superhero, but instead of making her an invincible, always strong, always independent needs no one kind of Wonder Woman, Whedon chooses to make her a teenage girl with all the problems and drama of high school. She slays vampires at night and struggles with her grades during the day. She fights with her mom and kills demons. She dates an older guy, who happens to be a vampire, and deals with awful betrayal when he turns evil (the story ends up being a harsh metaphor for high school dating violence and how it affects young women). Buffy is independent, but she has a strong group of friends who are with her at every turn. It’s made clear that she may be a superhero, but she needs the intellectual and emotional support of her friends to make it through. She gets angry and punches things, she openly cries, and admits multiple times that the responsibilities of her life are just too much for her and that she needs help. Buffy Summers is all of us, well except the superhero part.
Buffy’s best friend Willow is a shy nerd girl who can’t figure out how to navigate high school as an intelligent woman. Her character starts out as the tag along friend of the group, but she soon becomes an integral part of Buffy’s demon fighting team. Her intelligence is glorified on the show and she often ends up being the one to save the day with knowledge. She is accepted without question by Buffy, even though Buffy is “pretty” and she is the “nerd”. We see Willow struggle with social interaction and then slowly start to find herself and speak her mind as she discovers that she is valuable and worth hearing. Like Buffy, Willow is seen in stark vulnerability many times throughout the series, but she is also shown providing her kind and compassionate emotional support. She’s certainly not the one dimensional nerdy sidekick to most superheroes.
Whedon’s greatest female character achievement may be Cordelia, who started as a supporting character on Buffy then went on to the main cast of Angel. On Buffy Cordelia was the shallow high school Queen Bee. She was surrounded by ditzes who talked mostly about clothes and boys and she was a frequent emotional torturer of Buffy and Willow. However, instead of leaving her to be a stereotypical “popular girl”, Whedon expands her to be a fully functional, real girl. Cordelia dates a nerd and suffers the social consequences. She laments to Buffy that she constantly feels lonely because no one really knows her, they just know her image and her money. In Angel Cordelia faces the harsh truth that the real world is not high school and we get to watch her blossom in to powerful young woman. She trades some of her vanity for book knowledge. She becomes an integral part of Angel’s crime fighting team. She learns how to emotionally support others. She learns how to be a real friend. We get to watch her grow up and see all the foibles that come along with that transformation.
These characters are why Joss Whedon is one of my favorite feminists. Sure he has some downfalls, like the handling of Black Widow in the Avengers movies, but the majority of his work is dedicated to creating fully formed female characters with all their strengths and faults. His female characters are not just left as archetypes or stereotypes. We get to see all facets of their personalities and relate on a truly deep level. The TV world needs more Whedons ad more Buffys, Willows, and Cordelias.