Buffy is a vampire slayer, not a rock musician. And yet, over the past several TV seasons, I’ve found myself thinking about her in the same way I think about Kathleen Hanna or Patti Smith. I realized this recently while discussing female vocalists with some guys I know. My tastes leaned toward women who can actually rock, while my companions preferred women who sing in bippy-dippy-doo voices about liking boys and sometimes feeling sad. One of these guys defended his love of Frente! and all female singers who have bobs and wear cutesy little dresses and skirts; the other guy was in favor of girl-power angry vagina bands (peopled by the kind of women who only exist as action stars in movies written by men who think they’re giving women positive role models because their chicks kick ass and smoke cigars). Neither of them wanted to hear about why I considered Sleater-Kinney, Le Tigre or PJ Harvey to be creators of solid rock music.
So these guys were not only the polar opposites of each other, but they also belonged to the extreme categories of their polar continents. In the end, an argument that revolves exclusively around opinions based on preference is not an argument where anyone is going down easily. So we let it go, but the theme of the argument stuck with me. What it boils down to, though, is that for me to think a girl rocks, she does not have to drink me under the table or put my friend Vinnie in a headlock because he slapped her on the butt while she was walking through the Burger King parking lot. And I don’t need any of the staring-at-your-reflection-in-a-puddle-bad-teenage-poetry-god-I’m-so-sad-and-in-Evanescence bullshit either. I especially don’t need the bippy-dippy-doo-aren’t-my-knees-cute stuff. I don’t like male rock bands that make music like this, so why should I want that out of my women rockers? That was the point I was trying to float across.
I feel the same way about my protagonists. I remember going to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when I was eight years old. I was dearly looking forward to seeing this movie, but my family had to leave shortly after the dude had his heart ripped out of his chest by Mola Ram because it freaked the shit out of my little brother. On the way to the car, I remember my mom saying that she couldn’t have taken any more of Kate Capshaw’s screaming anyway. I didn’t really process the remark at the time, but I too had been bothered by Kate Capshaw (as Willie Scott, Indy’s obligatory love interest) screaming about stinky elephants, people eating monkey brains and getting defenestrated from the Club Obi-Wan. Can you imagine what the script must have looked like?
EXT. THE VILLAGE - MORNING
Indiana walks through the village singing “jing bao jin tian zhi da anything goes” while chewing on monkey brains as various villagers follow tow-headedly along as he quizzes them in Hindi about the Sankara stones. Sajnu, their guide, is trying to coerce Willie toward two very smelly elephants so they can begin their trek.
Damn it, Willie, get on. We’ve got to move out! WILLIE
Aaaah! Aaaah! Aaaah! Aieee! Aaaah! Aaaah! Aaaah! Aieee!
Bad joke, I know. But if there’s anyone who can make a young boy dislike women, I daresay it’s Willie Scott. Girls can do a lot more than yell. Remember that by the end of the original Star Wars Trilogy, it was Princess Leia who was saving Han Solo’s doe-eyed self. And so in that spirit, I’d like to present one character who will never disappoint by dropping everything to scream hysterically: Buffy Summers, as played to perfection by Sarah Michelle Gellar on Buffy the Vampire Slayer during its seven-year run.
What makes Buffy a strong character isn’t her physical prowess, although whenever it comes to trading punches, it’s a fair bet that Buffy will provide the thrill of seeing her turn a demon into dust. No, it’s because, despite her strength coming relatively naturally, Buffy works to maintain her abilities. And it’s also because, if given the choice to lead a normal life where she could love a man who wouldn’t turn evil, wouldn’t leave her to join a paramilitary squad stationed in a remote jungle or wouldn’t gamble for kittens, well, she would.
It’s that reluctant-hero facet of Buffy that has always made her so compelling to me. When she has to sacrifice her life to save her sister, Dawn, and the world, she does so without hesitation. It’s her gift. When the love of her life, Angel, goes bad because he can’t handle the happiness of the love they share, she deals with it. If there’s one thing Buffy creator Joss Whedon learned from reading Marvel comic books, it’s that with great power comes great responsibility. It’s not as much fun when our heroes are infallible or one-dimensional. Meaning it’s much easier to accept a person with the proportional strength of a spider if he or she also has to schlep to pay the bills.
When the show first began, it built on the mythology introduced in the eponymous movie: a teenager with the ridiculous name of Buffy has been chosen to become the Slayer—the Slayer being a girl who is charged with protecting humanity from an onslaught of demons hell-bent on destroying the world. Specifically, Buffy slays those lowest on the demon chain: vampires. While Buffy may originally have been conceived as no more than a ditzy California girl fighting demons in suburban Sunnydale, she quickly grew up. And she found that not only does the life of a Slayer require immense sacrifice, but also that the journey into adulthood is fraught with its own uncertainties and insecurities.
Each season of the show focused on the different stages of becoming an adult, not only for Buffy but also for her friends, family and mentor. It was the dynamic between these disparate characters that provided a semblance of balance as the friendship between Buffy, Willow and Xander went from awkward teenage crushes to the confusion of post-high-school life—that time when you’re searching to find how you fit in with lovers, new social groups and old friends. But as Buffy sang in the musical episode (one of the best hours of television ever made), “What can’t we face if we’re together?”
Even all that doesn’t explain why I love the character of Buffy so much. Let me digress once more and then hopefully pull this mess together. There’s this movie called Out of Sight that stars Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney. It’s not a bad movie; in fact, it’s a rather down-to-earth action film, something I can appreciate. Clooney plays a rakish gent recently released from prison who finds himself frustrated in and disgusted by his attempts to go straight, and Lopez plays a tough cop who has to bring Clooney to justice despite the fact that she’s falling in love with him. Clooney’s character is head over heels for Lopez’s character, but she’s the heavy, man. There’s a scene where Lopez is in a bar and she orders a drink—and because she’s a fuckin’ tough broad, she orders a bourbon neat.
That’s where the character completely lost me. Here’s Jennifer Lopez with her post-Anaconda nose job on the verge of absolute megastardom with a rider on her contracts stipulating a hotel room furnished entirely in white—Ben, I thought I told you no wire coat hangers!—and she orders a bourbon neat. Now, I’m not an action star, but I am a bit of a drinker, and I gotta say that to swagger into a bar and order a bourbon neat, you either have to be Thelonious Monk or a cowboy. You’re pushing me into the uncanny valley, is what I’m saying. Buffy, on the other hand, may be able to jump straight into the Hellmouth, but she can’t hold her liquor. She can take charge and be strong enough to put Dawn through high school after their mother dies, but she still loves ice-skating movies. She can do all of these things because she’s Buffy, she’s a girl and she rocks.
Frank Smith lives in New York City and is a fiction writer, Iggy Pop fan and television know-it-all. TV Eye appears every second Wednesday.