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[whitespace] 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'
Xander and Deliver: Although primarily a pacifist type, Xander (right) never did like Spike, with or without a soul.

Buffy's Angels

The blonde girl with cleavage really isn't so feminist--but the men in her life are

By Allie Gottlieb

WHAT DOES it mean when a little fem hottie kicks the asses of big fangy monsters? Hmmm. "Post-feminist icons such as Buffy, the Powerpuff Girls and Lara Croft show women that they can be tough, unyielding, use deadly force and still look damn good in a skirt," gushes one Rutgers University Daily Targum writer in a March article called "The Grrl Power Generation."

Ha. How is it revolutionary that a TV heroine looks good and girly? It's not--ask Julie Newmar, Lindsay Wagner or Alyssa Milano. That's just TV's mainstream social-construct safety zone.

"I think that there definitely still is sort of a TV double standard working," says Marti Noxon, a writer and executive producer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "which is that girls have to be skinny and cute."

Still, Buffy (whose new season started this week) is revolutionary. It's not just another hour-long show in its seventh season. It's not just the story of a 21-year-old demon slayer living in sunny Sunnydale, who went to high school over the mouth of hell while splitting her energies between trying to be normal and meeting her calling as the chosen one, and who now acts as a single mom raising her teenage sister.

The show also offers smart, layered entertainment centered on strong female characters--superhero Buffy and X-chromosome pals magical Willow (Alyson Hannigan), scorned vengeance demon Anya (Emma Caulfield) and whiny-sis-turned-strong-girl-in-training Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg). And that's not the whole story of how Buffy burns bras (figuratively).

On Sept. 24's season-opening episode, Buffy's audience learned that a powerful female character who crosses the line from good to bad can begin to redeem herself, even after beating up her friends and turning a villain's skin inside out. All she has to do is go to witch school in some serene grassy elsewhere. On the other hand, a powerful male character can approach that trip toward redemption only after he loses his monster mind.

In other words, good/bad witch Willow's brain can handle the depth of character that was required of her when she lost the love of her life last season. Meanwhile, the effectively neutered vampire Spike (James Marsters) becomes something less than a whole man because he tried to overstep his power allotment by attempting to rape Buffy last season.

He must be punished--and he is, plagued by a train of emotional demons represented by characters from previous episodes, including Buffy, who teaches him a lesson about power.

"I think that when the paradigm is flipped, and the women take the strong center roles, in any good drama you kind of need your fall guys. And in our show, they become literally fall guys," Noxon says.

The contrast between the usual post-women's liberation, backlash deconstruction of the show and something more intriguing is this: the male characters take on what are typically considered feminine traits--loving, nurturing, pining, irrationality, being physically weak but having strong emotions--and yet they are still attractive.

For instance, Buffy buddy Xander struggled in last season's finale with being the only member of the gang without magical abilities. He didn't have physical strength like Willow and Buffy, he didn't have borrowed magic like Giles and he couldn't sense magical goings on or transport himself like Anya.

"I'm not the hero of this piece," he confessed at one point. He then proceeded to save the world by talking a grieving Willow out of destroying said world by telling her he loved her. That's what's truly feminist about Buffy, and the thing that supports a male-to-female power-dynamic shift.


Buffy's Boys: The men of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer,' according to co-producer Marti Noxon.


Buffy's Angles

Interestingly, this is the way fans want their Buffy men--with all their stereotypically female inadequacies--as indicated by their possessive reactions to interviews.

"I have to be so careful because I get such hate mail, you wouldn't believe," Noxon says. "I mean, people are so angry when I say anything negative about Spike."

It was the viewers' acceptance of Spike as one of the good guys on the show that inspired Noxon and Whedon to make him try to rape Buffy as an act of desperation to be close to her. "People kept saying, You know, Spike's a really great guy, he's so great," Noxon explains. "I'm like, I know, he's come a long way. But in his heart of hearts, he still doesn't quite know the difference between right and wrong. We really wanted to show that ... which is why we took it to such an extreme."

Spike had to do something so bad that he would have to confront his missing humanity and go in search of it, which is what he did when he fought to regain his soul. So, now, like Buffy's first love, Angel (David Boreanaz), a vampire who switched from good to evil when Buffy had sex with him (an insanity of a sort), Spike is a vampire with a soul.

Buffy gave UPN the station's best-ever Tuesday-night ratings last year and has inspired countless slobbering fan websites. It clearly resonates with lots of people. And whether or not those fans especially like to see skinny and cute Buffy in a skirt doesn't really matter. What matters is that the show conveys an excellent message--that girls and women can fight and plan and star on TV, and boys and men can emote and be sidekicks and still contribute.

This ethic comes from "the very first mission statement of the show, which was the joy of female power: having it, using it, sharing it," according to the show's creator and executive producer Joss Whedon.

"There are very few times when Joss isn't more of a girl than I am," says Noxon, who's a graduate of UC-Santa Cruz and came on board Buffy for its second season. She wrote three episodes last season (two of which were about Willow going bad) and is writing two for this season. (This season may be the last for the series, Noxon says, because both Whedon and Gellar are pulling away from the show.)

"It's funny," Noxon adds, "because just yesterday I was talking to Joss, and he was pitching me stuff that he wants to do at the end of this season. And I said, 'How the hell is it that you are more of a feminist than I am?'"

Buffy the Vampire Slayer airs Tuesdays at 8pm on UPN.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the September 26-October 2, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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