May 3, 2010

The Token Feminists are Missing

A few months ago, I saw the-little-remix-video-that-could Buffy vs. Edward , and I subsequently fell back in love with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” (No kidding – I’ve watched the first three seasons on Netflix in the last 4 weeks). I started watching Buffy when I was 13, in the prime of my uncomfortable adolescence – we’re talking the braces, puffy hair, nose is too big for my face, but I’ve only just realized that….yeeeah. But it wasn’t all bad, and I’ve certainly heard worse junior high/high school horror stories. And, of course, I had Buffy….

One of my favorite aspects of the way that Buffy was written is the fact that she was not continually made into a victim before she had to opportunity to protect/defend herself or others. And, the vast majority of female characters are given power to protect themselves (whether it was physical [e.g. Faith] or supernatural [e.g. Anya and Willow]). I’m not going to waste too much time singing the praises of how Buffy (though sadly not Gellar herself), as well as her creator Joss Whedon, are feminist. That has been written. Many, many times. There are some valid complaints, but overall Buffy was, and continues to be, a great example of what we’re capable of. However, if you’re still not convinced and want to fight about I’ll definitely take you on *note sarcasm.*

Feeling a little drunken 90’s nostalgia, I realized that it wasn’t just Buffy. Through all of my phases and changes, I had many strong female characters to model my confused, dorky, adolescent self after. In retrospect the 90’s seem to be the era of fabulous feminist characters: Roseanne, Jesse Spano (Saved by the Bell), Murphy Brown, Rory Gilmore, The Powerpuff Girls, Dana Foster (Step-by-Step), Lisa Simpson, Andrea Zuckerman (90210), A Different World (several characters over the course), Dharma (Dharma and Greg), Marcy D’Arcy (Married with Children), Dark Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Blossom, Joey and Jen (Dawson’s Creek)….ok, I think you get the point.

So, now what I do want to know if where are all of the feminist characters? Why is it that all we see are these vapid, homogeneous, BORING female characters? Given the fact that the media that young women consume (everyone really, but I’ve never been an adolescent boy) serves as such an incredibly strong influence/unavoidable force on the creation of our self-identity and personal paradigm – I’m left wondering if Bella Swan, the girls from The Hills, Sookie oh-so-annoying Stackhouse, and Tina Fey  are the only examples that this generation of young women are growing up with? For the life of me I can’t find one female character on television that I would want my young daughter looking up to (sadly, not even my beloved Mad Men is stacking up).

What’s worse is that it isn’t just the characters. The actresses that are playing these less-than-role-model-worthy characters – or themselves (e.g. The Hills) – are not quick to pick up a feminist lifeline. Kristin Stewart has said that she doesn’t understand why feminists critique The Twilight Saga, and that “Bella wears the pants in the relationship. She’s the sure-footed, confident one…It takes a lot of power and strength to subject yourself to someone completely, to give up the power.” WHAT? Are we talking about the same story? The one where her boyfriends is a sexist stalker and she is powerless to defend herself?? She has also discussed how she grew up feeling like as a woman she could do anything.

And, there – in that statement – are our answers. The media has convinced this generation of young women that feminism is obsolete, that it’s outdated and outmoded, and that to align yourself with it is to be a pariah. They truly believe that we are living in a post-feminist world. I have heard the word “humanist” being substituted where “feminist” used to live comfortably in the mouth….and heart.

Seems a dangerous world to live in where we have to convince even the young women that the gender balances are unequal….they have finally convinced them that the lies are the truth. That we are powerful as long as we are sexy…and, so, this is what they strive for…..


  1. I am not sure if Whedon if feminist after I saw a Dollhouse episode… (but I am not getting into that discussion…).
    I don’t think all the characters you mention can be labelled as ‘feminist’, but I agree I prefer them from the Bella-club ones.

    Comment by Hithere — May 4, 2010 @ 2:53 am

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  3. I agree with you regarding Dollhouse. However, Whedon still speaks & identifies as a feminist (whatever his motivations or ideals)…at least with him and his work the door is open for meaningful dialouge.

    Comment by Lani — May 4, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

  4. Lani,

    Loved this post (especially the 90s nostalgia, I’ve been meaning to watch the entire series of Buffy on Netflix, and I still watch Saved By The Bell Reruns.) Of course I just end up wondering where the Jesse Spano’s are today – what show about high school is featuring episodes about protests, feminism, and environmentalism?

    Comment by Rachel — May 4, 2010 @ 1:14 pm

  5. I am not quite sure what Roseanna and Marcy Darcy have anything to do with feminism. Perhaps someone could enlighten me. Marcy was weak, and cowardly toward both Al and her husband, Jefferson, whom we all know was using her. And Roseanne?? I didn’t even watch that many seasons and I am hoping women don’t want to be portrayed as spitting, crotch grabbing, loud mouthed losers. Her role is the most similar to any “male” role that could be ridden with misandry. I am just a little confused, is all.
    Victoria Persichetti

    Comment by Victoria — May 4, 2010 @ 6:34 pm

  6. You should read Andi Zeisler’s “Feminism and Pop Culture.” Roseanne is the ultimate rejection of motherly perfection. She’s a working-class woman that showed us the truth about raising a family of 5, organized strikes and petitions against sexist bosses and their lousy pay. As a new mother myself, I appreciate that raw honesty but it doesn’t mean I want to go around spitting and cussing…then again, sometimes I do 🙂

    Comment by Melanie — May 4, 2010 @ 7:09 pm

  7. I just think that there are obvious feminist inspired women on television, and I admit I watch way to damn much of it. But, with The Hills, I could see the struggle to find a real woman in that lot, but Whitney went to New York to start a career in the fashion industry, and succeeded. She is extremely independent. And Bella Swan in the Twilight saga, I mean, calling Edward a stalker is a bit harsh considering he is Romeo vampirically re-incarnate. It would be different if she was mutually as obsessed with him. But, her power turns out to be herself in the end of the terrible saga. She has the power within to protect herself and everyone around her. It isn’t a weapon, it is just her soul, if vampires have souls. That is a whole other argument. And I just wanted to mention the recent passing of Susan Sontag, one of the most influential feminist writers of this century, and the last. Natalie Portman chooses great roles. Her character in The Profesional, or Leon as the french call it, or V for Vendetta. She strips herself of all she knows, right down to the essentials of strength and confidence. And how dare you put a picture of Sookie Stackhouse up there ! That was personal! I named my dog after her southern hospitality and self strength! She truly is a strong character, HBO is to blame for that. But, check out the novels. She is much more endearing with out that terrible accent. I also think something should be said for Chelsea Handler, Sarah Silverman, and I have to do this, but Oprah mothafuckin Winfrey. Her first and last name don’t even come up with that little squiggly line under them via spell check. THAT is power.

    Comment by Victoria — May 5, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

  8. I forgot a couple. Michelle Obama, Drew Barrymore, Angelina Jolie (cringe), Anne Hathaway, Ivanka Trump, Kate from Lost, Selma Hayek, who’s personal mission with Ugly Betty was exactly this topic. Just throwin’ a few more out there.
    One Love,
    Victoria Leigh

    Comment by Victoria — May 5, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

  9. First of all – I am addressing television specifically. So, Angelina (who I do not believe to be a feminist), Natalie Portman, Barrymore, Obama, et al I am not going to even touch on. I really only mention Bella/Twilight as an obvious contrast to Buffy. And, for the vast majority of the series she is not capable of taking care of herself. Unlike the relationship between Buffy and Angel – Bella is defenseless until the last – what? – 200 pages of the LAST book? Not biting. Sorry. (Oy! No pun intended).

    As for Kate from Lost – I have many bones to pick. Though she is depicted as being a strong woman, they also took the lead role away from her because the creators/writers didn’t know how the audience would respond to a woman being in charge therefore we got Jack. There is also a great post at the Ms. Blog regarding Kate which ties it up nicely:

    Mel already addressed Selma and Betty at length when the series finale happened:

    And, as for True Blood I will say that if their intention was to create a strong, powerful female character they failed. Books or no books – the character portrayed on television is weak and incessantly in need of rescue from her boyfriend. As a contrast, there were hundreds of times on Buffy when one would have expected the natural choice/course of action for her (the writers) to take would be to run to/ask her boyfriend (Angel and/or Riley) for help. She NEVER does. She takes care of herself. Another good link for True Blood disection:

    So, for arguments sake, let’s say that Kate (series is ending in a few weeks), Betty (which is no longer on), and Oprah are all exemplory, strong, feminist women. That’s a big ol’ 3. And not one of them are characters/people that a girl (10-18) would look to as a role model which is a very stark contrast to the face of television that I grew up with.

    Comment by Lani — May 6, 2010 @ 1:21 pm

  10. Buffy is not a feminist. She is a man. She solves problems punching people, using her superior physical strength.

    ¿That was a role model for you? ¿Are you saying you would have liked to punch people who you perceive to be your enemies?

    ¿In what way does that make you better that any brainless male brute?

    Comment by Bob — May 7, 2010 @ 1:34 pm

  11. It really is not about punching people (or demons, as the case may be) or being a man. It’s about empowerment, and not feeling afraid to walk down the street. Alone. At night. We see so many images of women walking down dark alleys, in parking garages, at gas stations, etc. incessantly followed by them being attacked and/or raped. Buffy was created as an antithesis to this tired, debilitated tale that young women are told quite literally from birth.

    I have had this very conversation with many, many men who despite their best efforts will never understand the incessant fear that is to be a women, alone, at night – no matter where you are. Far fewer men are faced with this reality (unless they are homosexual or just not the incarnation of sterotypical masculinity).

    As a woman of any age, I much prefer to fill myself with images of strength & capability. As for whether or not that perceived strength was real is a mute point; I knew a lot of young women who – inspired by Buffy-esque role models – took self defense courses. So, yes, she was a role model, and I wish there were more of her for this generation…..

    Comment by Lani — May 7, 2010 @ 2:40 pm

  12. Thanks for your reply, Lai. I had not thought of that Lani, you might have a point. If filling your mind with images of strength helps you feel more (perceivedly) secure in a (be it perceivedly or really) hostile world, more power to you. And if you women feel so insecure at night, of course that taking self-defence courses would be sensible.

    I couldn’t see the point in putting so much emphasis on the one and only kind of strength (physical strength) you almost universally do not possess, when there are so many more strengths, real strenghths you women possess (intelligence, willpower, resilience, empathy, etc.).

    Besides, don’t you think that if they want to portray a physically strong woman, she shouldn’t be a tiny bony mannequin like Buffy or Angelina Jolie? What they are saying is that “even if you are a powerful warrior, you should still have a model’s tiny body, bony arms, and huge boobs”. That’s more pressure for you women, right there. Even if you should want to be strong, the message is that you should never look muscular.

    Last comment, a bit more flippant: the only woman I’ve seen in this type of role who looked the part was the actress who interpreted Xena. Now that’s a big woman who looks as if she could fight well.

    Comment by Bob — May 7, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

  13. I definitely agree with that! It is certainly a contradiction. That was my favorite part of the film “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” – she was awesomely built! But, similar to all of your examples the book was written with her being very, very thin :/

    Comment by Lani — May 8, 2010 @ 7:53 pm

  14. Amen! I am so into this conversation! I thought I was all alone on this one. Thanks Bob!

    Comment by Victoria — May 10, 2010 @ 12:28 am

  15. […] is mine” objectification; conclude that pop culture icons like Sookie reflect a dangerous post-feminist world; or are reluctant fans because of racist stereotypes or depictions of violence against women. Some […]

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