Where have all the Buffys gone?: the Grimm and Supernatural absence of girls who kick ass on TV

13 Aug

    A guest post from Anna Brecke,  a PhD candidate and graduate instructor in Literature and Cultural Studies at the University of Rhode Island. Her research interests include Victorian cultural studies, gender and women”s studies, television and the supernatural. 


  Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon is famous for his outspokenness on strong female characters. He claims the inspiration for Buffy sparked because he sympathized with the “female victims of all those slasher films” and wanted to give them “a chance to take back the night.” Currently, we lack strong female characters on network television that fill the void left behind by Buffy. In her place we find the übermasculine and slightly misogynist Winchester brothers of Supernatural and Grimm’s Nick Burkhardt, basically a male Buffy Summers. Like the female heroes of many programs from the late 1990s and early 2000s, these male characters have an unavoidable destiny and diegetic position requiring them to combat superhuman foes. Problematically, both programs combine this trope with the glorification of heteronormative masculinity that requires female characters be subordinate. This trend is especially disturbing in light of the fact that science fiction and fantasy are popular culture spaces where strong female leads have been a generic norm. Along with Susan Faludi, I contend that between Buffy (1997-2003) and our current television climate, the American media machine has shied away from female action heroes in favor of their male counterparts as part of a post 9/11 anti-feminist rhetoric emphasizing “neo fifties nuclear family ‘togetherness,’ redomesticated femininity, and reconstituted Cold Warrior manhood.” By removing women from battle and  repositioning them as passive victims, show writers and producers reinsert a stereotype of heternormativity that erases one of the few cultural spaces where the “kick ass” female character has historically flourished.

In 2000, a television viewer interested in science fiction/fantasy and strong female characters could find multiple viewing options. Concurrently running shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena: Warrior Princess, Dark Angel and Charmed relied on female leads combing intelligence and physical prowess to fight the big bad while simultaneously delivering messages of female empowerment. Characters like Buffy and Xena display characteristics that are traditionally gendered male as protectors, warriors, and leaders. Charmed’s brand of wicca and the Halliwell family backstory draw on pre-Christian matriarchal tropes to produce female heroes who fight frequently male demons. Most of these programs ran for five plus years, developed a loyal fan base and survive in syndication. Fast forward a few years and the number of strong female leads of this type has dwindled. The 2008 primetime line up provided Echo on Dollhouse and Sarah Connor on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, but neither program survived beyond a second season. Jump forward a few more years and we see the Winchesters and Nick Burkhardt instead.

Programming like Supernatural and Grimm does more than return the hero role to male characters. It undermines the idea that women could be heroes by reinforcing gender roles that require women be passive objects rather than acting subjects. Supernatural”s Winchester brothers spend their time hunting demons and mythological creatures. In contrast to Buffy”s “these things, never helpful” stance on guns, the Supernatural diegesis is one where the answer to a problem is often ‘shoot first and ask questions later.” More importantly, their world is one in which women who attempt an active role either die in the slasher movie victim vein or are literal monsters. The show’s dialogue employs feminization such as “girl” and “chick” to indicate emasculation, emphasizing the subordinate position of women. This feminization of weakness is supported by one of the show’s inside jokes, that any woman Sam Winchester has sex with ends up dead. The message here is that women are necessary casualties in a world where men do the tough jobs.

Grimm is similarly problematic for its repositioning of women in the victim role. Although the show’s producers cite the original Grimms’ tales as source texts, the story lines do little to retain the female agency often found in those texts. Grimm takes tales of clever, resourceful women and reconfigures them as damsels in distress. The program’s pilot episode treatment of Little Red Ridinghood is one example in which an active female hero is transformed into a victim. The Grimms’ original text has two endings and in both Red triumphantly kills the wolf herself. The Grimm version turns Red into a victim who clings gratefully to Nick after he kills the wolf. This is only one example, but the program relies heavily on the repeated action of Nick rescuing women or children through violence to resolve episodic story arcs.

What is most disturbing about these two programs is that they follow on the heels of similarly themed previous programs that featured female leads. Supernatural is a show about siblings who are charged with fulfilling their family destiny to fight demons alongside a guardian angel. This is also the premise of Charmed. A chosen hero has a secret identity that allows them to see and fight monsters to protect their town and by extension, all of humanity. Are we talking about Grimm or are we talking about Buffy? The fact that Grimm’s executive producer David Greenwalt produced Buffy and its spinoff Angel and Supernatural”s Ben Edlund worked on Angel is even more damning. It is as though these production teams are cannibalizing the texts they produced for female leads to feed male heroes. The sci-fi/ fantasy action hero teleserial is being reclaimed in the name of heteronormative masculinity when it was one of the few cultural spaces where female heroes flourished. This visible trend, the decline of the Buffy figure and rise in the Winchester type on regular network programming, coincides with Faludi’s theory on the post 9/11 return to the myth of the nuclear family. Young women looking for Buffy figures now must move farther away from mainstream programming to find them. And even if they do find them, they might find them plagued with enlightened sexism, like Trueblood”s  Sookie Stackhouse. The absent Buffy is symptomatic of an overall devaluation of strong women that mirrors our current media climate and asks young women to accept increasingly limited options in which to locate their identities. When Faludi refers to anti-feminist backlash, she refers to the way a lack or an absence can be equally damaging as the  active devaluing of female characters. Recently asked why he feels the need to write strong female characters, Whedon summed up the issue succinctly by saying “because you”re still asking me that question.”

              Susan Douglas. The Rise of Enlightened Sexism: How Pop Culture Took Us from Girl Power to Girls Gone Wild. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin. 2012. Print. 79.

              Susan Faludi. The Terror Dream. New York: Henry Holt and Co. 2007. Print.  3-4.

              “Flooded.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Writ. Joss Whedon and Douglas Petrie. Dir. Douglas Petrie. 20th Century Fox Televsion. 2001. Netflix. Web. 2013.

“Pilot.”  Grimm. Writ. Stephen Carenter. Dir. Marc Buckland. G K Productions. 2011. Hulu.com. Web.

“Little Red Cap.” Brothers Grimm. The Norton Classic Fairy Tales. Ed. Maria Tatar.  New York: WW Norton and Company. 1999. 13-16. Print.

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