Sophia McDougall’s recent article in the New Statesman, I Hate Strong Female Characters, put into words what I’ve been feeling for a while. That this supposedly praiseworthy description is in actuality a simplistic reduction of character, a way to brand women in fiction with a Strong stamp and call that deep character development. One imagines a lone writer thinking at his desk: “However shall I give the token female character in this gang of loveable misfits an identity? I know! I’ll give her super-agility and karate chop action!”
However, I’m not about to dismiss the phrase entirely as balderdash. One of my favourite characters in all genre fiction is Strong Female Character incarnate, and she’s Buffy Summers, Vampire Slayer. Created by Joss Whedon in the early 90s out of a desire to turn the classic helpless blonde horror movie victim into a figure so powerful she makes the monsters tremble, Buffy more than meets the requirements of her job description.
But Buffy being capital-S Strong doesn’t mean that Strong is all she has. Sure she has super strength, super healing, super agility and (when it suited the writers) super sense, but the programme was always showing how for all of Buffy’s super powers, they’re not what made her strong. Her defiant attitude, grit and determination succeed in doing that.
Season 3’s episode Helpless showed this perfectly. Buffy’s powers are stripped from her for a brutal trial conducted by the Watcher’s Council, the group of mostly men in charge of the Slayers, formed from the group of only men who created the Slayer line. She loses confidence in herself, she’s harassed by unsavoury boys at school and screams for help when being attacked. She appears to turn into that helpless blonde victim she was created to subvert.
That’s not to say that she’s perfect. Like anyone, Buffy makes mistakes. She naively thought a one night stand at university would lead to something more and drowned her sorrows in alcohol. She finds herself in a dead end job in a fast food restaurant after dropping out of university. She overestimates her own strength in a fight with the minions of The First Evil, origin of Sin, and suffers casualties for her hubris. Apart from the last one, they all seem like very human failings anyone could fall foul of.
Yes, Buffy is a Strong Female Character written with big, obvious superpowers. But she doesn’t suffer the simplistic reduction of character the phrase implies. Buffy fulfils every requirement of Sophia McDougall’s list of desired traits for female characters. Buffy is Strong regardless of her supernatural physical prowess. Buffy expresses herself and she has meaningful, emotional relationships with a multitude of women just as well drawn as she is. Buffy is human, she cries, and she asks for help.
Strong is the perfect definition for what Buffy is. And that’s just fine.
Being a Strong Female Character isn't so bad
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But when she finds out that her mother is in danger, Buffy runs to her aid regardless. Through bravery and cunning she defeats the vampire holding her mother without the use of her powers and passes the Council’s test. These events even inspire in her a rebellion which eventually sees her break free from the patriarchal influence of the Council.
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