I am a writer. As such, I believe in the power of fiction to be a vehicle for truth, change, and inspiration. Today’s post is a tribute to just that — to a remarkable woman of fiction who has inspired women around the world and continues to do so years after her creation.
This woman changed the face of television’s portrayal of women. She showed the world that a tiny blonde can do more than run upstairs while chased by a murderer and die in the first five minutes of a horror flick. She showed the world that a woman can do more than just get rescued. She showed the world that a woman can live a life of honor and self-sacrifice.
She showed the world that a woman can transcend tradition.
She showed the world that a woman can be a hero.
When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a fighter. I’d play Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with my friends in preschool — but one boy would always make me be April. “You’re a girl. You have to be April.”
I thought April was stupid. All she did was get rescued. I wanted to be Michelangelo or Donatello. Or Leonardo or Rafael. I did not want to be April. I wanted to kick Shredder’s butt. All the boys said girls couldn’t fight. They said girls couldn’t rescue boys — that was the boys’ job.
When I was about eight, I discovered a movie called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. To my eight-year-old eyes, it didn’t seem as campy as it does to my now-27-year-old eyeballs. Here was a girl who could fight. Here was a girl who kicked butt. When the show came out when I was twelve, I didn’t watch it because I thought it wouldn’t be as good as the movie. It wasn’t until my sophomore year in college that I moved in with a girl named Casey and plunked down to watch season five on DVD.
Before Buffy Summers became the Slayer, she was the popular girl. She was a cheerleader, a Fiesta Queen, and she had the perfect life — with the exception of the growing arguments between her parents. Then one day, some middle-aged guy showed up and told her she was chosen to fight the vampires. And that she was the only one who could do it.
After a suitable series of “SHUT UP!” and “Yeah, right” reactions, Buffy came face to face with a few vampires, and her new calling got real. Fast forward about a year. Buffy moves to Sunnydale with her newly divorced mother. She starts high school after having been expelled for burning down the gym at her last one. She has lost every bit of security in her life — her mother pours herself into opening a gallery, mostly ignores Buffy, and reads too many pop parenting books.
Buffy doesn’t want to slay vampires in Sunnydale. It ruined her life in L.A. Landed her in a mental institution for two weeks. But when she discovers that an ancient vampire is seeking to break free of his mystical prison? She hunts him down even though a prophecy slates her to die at his hands. She risks her life — and loses it.
That should be game over, right? Except the Master made a mistake and dropped her in water. Instead of him killing her, he let her drown — and Xander is able to resuscitate her. When Buffy goes after the Master, she crushes him and stops him from opening the Hellmouth.
As the seasons progress, Buffy matures. Though she longs for a shot at normalcy, she never gives up on her duty or her calling. Although she makes mistakes along the way, the vast majority of them are honest ones. Buffy falls in love with Angel, a vampire who has showed up in Sunnydale to help her. He’s different than other vampires — he has a soul. He’s trying to atone for his past, and they fall hard. Buffy is a hero, but she is also a young woman. What is masterful about her character is the marriage between her weighty calling and her desire for the same things everyone desires: love, acceptance, friendship, family. Her relationship with Angel may be supernatural, but it tells a very human story of a young woman who is mature beyond her years falling in love with a much older man who, after making love to her, becomes unrecognizable. When Buffy and Angel have sex, Angel loses his soul and reverts to the monstrous vampire who terrorized Europe for two centuries. He decides to try and end the world, which forces Buffy into a nightmarish struggle. Although Willow is able to restore Angel’s soul, it happens too late. And Buffy has to kill her first love to prevent the world from getting sucked into hell.
Absorb that for a moment. Can you imagine having to make that choice? Can you imagine putting a sword through the heart of someone you love more than anything on earth? Buffy goes to the darkest possible place in that moment, and although few people every live out that reality, the allegory there is poignant and affecting: sometimes your first love turns out to be something other than you expected and you have to make a wrenching decision to cut them loose before your world crumbles around you and you lose yourself in your own personal hell.
In that moment, Buffy takes her heroism to a new level of sacrifice. As the series progresses, Buffy shows remarkable strength and newfound confidence as she continues to battle the world’s demons. She is compassionate and kind. She helps people who can’t repay her and who never even know who to thank. At her senior prom after the re-ensouled and resurrected Angel has dumped her, her classmates say this about her:
This is actually a new category. First time ever. I guess there were a lot of write-in ballots, and, um, well, t-the prom committee asked me to read this. “We’re not good friends. Most of us never found the time to get to know you, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t noticed you. We don’t talk about it much, but it’s no secret that Sunnydale High isn’t really like other high schools. A lot of weird stuff happens here.”
Student #1: Zombies!
Student #2: Hyena people!
Student #3: Snyder!
Jonathan: “But whenever there was a problem or something creepy happened, you seemed to show up and stop it. Most of the people here have been saved by you or helped by you at one time or another. We’re proud to say that the class of ’99 has the lowest mortality rate of any graduating class in Sunnydale history, and we know at least part of that is because of you. So the senior class offers its thanks and gives you, uh, uh, this.”
[Jonathan produces a gold, glittering, miniature umbrella with a small metal plaque attached to the shaft]
Jonathan: It’s from all of us, and it has written here, “Buffy Summers, Class Protector”.
Through the series, Buffy battles everything she comes up against. She shows such true commitment and love that she even gets through to a vampire without a soul — Spike. Before he knows why, he falls in love with her. Though his methods are often humorous and awkward, he tries to show it by protecting her sister and having tea with her mother. At the end of season five, Buffy is again faced with a choice. She can allow her sister to die to save the world, or she can use her own blood to pay that price.
Three guesses what Buffy chooses. For the second time in the series, Buffy gives her life to save her family, her friends, and the world. She does it without a second thought. She does it with a look of pure knowledge and understanding.
Buffy lives a life of violence. She is a fighter. She takes punches — and sometimes even her own stake to the gut — and she always fights, no matter how bleak things look. She keeps trying and trying. I’ve heard people call her whiny, but I’ve never seen that. If she ever wants a break, wants a moment’s respite from the burden she carries — it’s a lot less than most people in her situation. She’s experienced sexual violence and came out of it somehow stronger. That moment also catapulted Spike into a decision to seek out a way to get his own soul back — not to win her over, not to prove a point, but to be a better man. To be a man who wouldn’t hurt the woman he loves, even if she never loves him back.
And Buffy? She sees the change in Spike. She finds it within herself to forgive him. There are many things in Buffy’s character that make her truly extraordinary, and that is one of them. Buffy champions Spike for the rest of the show, and I for one believe that her actions don’t show recklessness or a disregard for the safety of others — no. They show a belief in people, that people can rise above their pasts and their own demons and be better. That people can change. And that when they do, they deserve a chance to make amends.
Buffy makes many choices throughout the seven years of the show. She has her feelings about things, her hunches. And oddly, her friends often don’t believe her — much to their detriment. She makes the best possible decisions with the information she has, and she understands that in war — especially a war against hell itself — there will be casualties. Yet she feels each one. She carries them with her. When she has the chance to share her power, Buffy makes another sacrifice. She chooses to share her calling, share her strength and power with the world. That is the mark of a true leader — a leader who could consolidate their power and hold it jealously but chooses instead to share it.
Tomorrow I will talk about my real life heroes. I will take you on a journey of women who have changed my life and have changed the world, but I believe inspiration can also be found in fiction.
Buffy Summers is this week’s Wednesday Woman. Buffy Summers is my hero.
So here’s the part where you make a choice. What if you could have that power, now? In every generation, one Slayer is born, because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. They were powerful men. This woman is more powerful than all of them combined. So I say we change the rule. I say my power, should be *our* power. Tomorrow, Willow will use the essence of this scythe to change our destiny. From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer, will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up. Slayers, every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?
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