This is a guest post by Shay Revolver.
It started when I was 13. Some friends and I went to see Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It sounded like a lovely idea. A movie with a cheerleader as lead for my more “girly” friends, a vampire flick with a female heroine for me and the guy friends who were dragged along on this group “date” and just wanted to see vampires. It wasn’t like we had a choice–none of us had a car, and this was the only thing playing that we were old enough to watch at the theater our parents dropped us off at. I thought it would be perfect until it occurred to me in the lobby, while procuring nachos and popcorn, that this film was devised to please everyone, and usually when movies set out to please everyone, they pleased no one. But, it was a movie, and on a hot summer day that meant air conditioning; plus, there would be vampires, a female heroine and that was all I needed to give it a try.
I sat, I watched, I was stuck somewhere between annoyance and amusement that my nachos weren’t the only thing in that theater covered in cheese. It seemed like for every great thing about the movie there was something equally as bad, if not worse. Even at that age, I worried that the film would be remembered more for the five-minute vamp death rattle scene at the end than for the female lead. Being the resident cinephile, or film-loving smart ass, I tried to save the film by saying it was supposed to be campy. In my head that was the only way I could wrap my mind around what had just occurred. I worried that if the film wasn’t successful there would be no more films with strong female leads–that we would have to keep being arm candy and damsels. Everything that made her complex, easy to relate to and bad ass was turned into a joke. I left the theater feeling sad.
In the interim, there were other films with strong female leads that caught my eye. Some of them were American but most of the time, I had to turn my gaze to the art houses and screening rooms of the East Village and Lower East Side. The women I was looking for could only be found in indie and foreign films. Sure, there was the pop up complex, bad ass heroine (or antihero) here and there beaming in beauty once in a while on the big screens of the mainstream, but they were so few an far between that I could count them on one hand and very rarely did they resonate in the way the other films did. Then something different happened. Studying in my dorm for midterms, during a very crazy junior year with my brain frying and a cold brewing, I turned on my TV and on some random network, there was Buffy. Buffy 2.0. to be exact, and in all of its campy goodness I could not turn away.
There was a woman on TV, being bad ass and somewhat complex (as complex as a teenage girl could realistically be), and I along with millions of other people ate it up. On the surface, it was beautiful and a pleasure to watch. In my philosophy studying brain it was full of conflicts, ideas and other interesting complexities. As the series progressed there was less complexity in Buffy and more complications. During the series run, much like the movie, I found that for every step forward there was a step sideways, often back. But, I couldn’t turn away. In my head I juggled with the bizarre coincidence that Buffy’s “virtue” was linked to the sanity of all the men around her. Her virginity literally turned Angel evil. It was a pattern that played out throughout most of the show. Her sexuality was a prize to be given and taken at will. It was also her downfall. She would be punished for choosing to express her sexuality, for having desires, for not being the “proper girl.” It was one of the themes that bothered me throughout the show.
When discussing how male writers and directors portray women and their “complexities,” the name that gets called out the most is Joss Whedon and his strong, complex female hero Buffy Sommers. I, for one, was always team Faith. She was way more complex and realistic than Buffy. I could relate to her. While Buffy spent most of her non-training conversations lamenting over wanting a relationship and kicking ass in between sessions of just trying to get a date, Faith was more concerned with finding herself, being independent, and if love came along, that’d be cool too. She wasn’t nice all the time, she straddled the line of morality and was okay with who she was. She was a creature of pure impulse, turning into the woman she was going to be, who never tried for perfection. Watching her evolve was fascinating. She was like Catwoman to Buffy’s Batman and I could relate. While Buffy went on to have “relationships” that mimicked the plot line of almost every Lifetime movie, Faith was content to be alone instead of settling for the sake of not being alone. She was punished with being labeled as insane for expressing her independence and sexuality.
When the short lived Firefly and its companion movie Serenity came to us, in true to Whedon form, the “virgin” lives and is strong. The “whore” is ultimately punished for her ways and although she does manage to survive and ride off into the sunset with Mal, her redemption comes only with settling down with a man to make her honest. While I will forever love the females in power aboard the ship, they were often led astray by their desires. The message often came off as, sorry ladies you can’t have it all. Even the hard-hitting River Tam was as bad ass, complex and brilliant as they came; she was also a virgin and very broken. She had passed the age where her sexuality should be expressed. She was incapable of expressing herself, and she went insane for contact. At the end of the day, the only woman who could save herself was the one who let go of her sexual identity or any idea of companionship, and she remained isolated and broken. Despite her strength, her survival often depended on the men around her.
This trend continued with Dollhouse, where the female bodies were literally used as objects and in a way that can only be expressed as soul rape, they are forced to forget the trauma and sleep until their bodies are called upon to be used again. Yes, in some scenarios these women were called upon to be more than just a warm body in the bed of the highest bidder, only worth what someone else was willing to pay for them, but the disturbing part was that they had no choice in what was happening to them, making it akin to a psychic roofie-style rape. I’ve heard the arguments that men were kept in the dollhouse as well , or that women were in power in the dollhouse, but none of that makes the situation any less horrifying. In the end, Echo is saved by a man. She was rendered incapable of saving herself. I looked away.
That has always been my issue with Joss Whedon’s work. As strong as his female characters are, they’re often on some level tortured and in some ways punished for being exactly what I was looking for in a female lead on TV. They seemed unable to find completion without having a man in their lives. That is what completed them. That was how they found themselves. It was also how they were punished. Buffy couldn’t save the world until she fell in love with her series-long tormentor and almost-rapist Spike. River Tam would collapse under the weight of her own strength. In Dollhouse, all of his female characters were used as pleasure objects and shells for men, and other women were serving as their pimps. There was no end to his female characters’ suffering; their worlds just got grimmer. There was no chance for redemption. Yes, they’re all strong in the traditional sense of the word because it is such a rare thing to see in media, but they’re also all still traditional archetypes.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m happy that he keeps creating these strong female characters, I wish more male creators would do the same. Gender equality in casting, Salt withstanding, is often hard to come by. I just know that I would love it even more if he wouldn’t make them set up to fail, if he wouldn’t put them in situations where their survival is dependent upon men, or where their happiness was aligned with or subject to the men in their lives. I’m hoping that the Agents of S.H.I.E.L..D. proves me wrong in the long run, and a shift is coming now that he has proved his weight. But so far we’ve already seen one damaged woman, one about to fall prey to her romantic desires, one who lacks sexuality, and another who has been mind controlled. For a very long time Whedon was the only game in town for seeing a continuous flow of strong women in power. Now there are other options, and most of them are women writing and creating roles for other women. It has been proven that there is a market for the characters that Whedon has often said that he wants to create. I see glimpses of these women in the characters that he does portray. Now that he has reached the level that he has in his career, hopefully he will show us these women that he wishes he could have created, shown and brought to fruition as he often laments. I can’t wait to see them.
Shay Revolver is a vegan, feminist, cinephile, insomniac , recovering NYU student and former roller derby player currently working as a NY-based microcinema filmmaker, web series creator and writer. She’s obsessed with most books , especially the Pop Culture and Philosophy series and loves movies and TV shows from low brow to high class. As long as the image is moving she’s all in and believes that everything is worth a watch. She still believes that movies make the best bedtime stories because books are a daytime activity to rev up your engine and once you flip that first page, you have to keep going until you finish it and that is beautiful in its own right. She enjoys talking about the feminist perspective in comic book and gaming culture and the lack of gender equality in main stream cinema and television productions.. Twitter @socialslumber13