- Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) in Buffy The Vampire Slayer
I can’t pretend I’m a Buffy aficionado. I marathonned it at various points in my teenage life, usually when trying to impress someone who had it amongst their five thousand Facebook likes, but my specific memories of plot details jumped ship along with GCSE physics back in the late 00’s.
I’m saying this because it’s possible that this line had some greater meaning than I could find in the episode it’s contained in – it’s possible that it was a really clever and empowering callback, or an openly discussed element of her character’s internalized misogyny that’s exposed as problematic within the canon, but given Joss Whedon’s track record I’m not hopeful, and either way it’s just one example of a much wider problem.
Buffy delivers the line as a dramatic reveal to the major villain she’s about to defeat – she’s here, she’s powerful, and she’s still cute, unlike him.
There’s something about this, and sentiments like this, that a lot of women of our generation are programmed to like: we grew up with the PowerPuff girls, created with the perfect combination of sugar, spice, everything nice, and the dangerous ‘Chemical X’.
We grew up believing that what makes a ‘strong woman’ isn’t being a strong person who coincidentally identifies as a woman, but a strong person whose strength is strikingly juxtaposed by overt femininity. This juxtaposition is coded as sexy, powerful, and always a little comical; it tells us that she’s defying some expectation by flouting her femininity, and congratulates her for this.
In some situations, staying true to feminine-coded elements of your personality is a struggle, and one that should be noted; the feeling of a new male friend’s sensors going from ‘cool girl’ to ‘airhead’ as they spot a Paperchase patterned notebook or hear mention of Love Island is a constant source of genuine pain and pressure.
However, that’s not being examined here. Buffy isn’t defying social norms by being pretty. Pretty is the currency that girls pay to exist. When this line is spoken, with a smirk and a cocked eyebrow, Whedon is reminding us of something we are reminded every day: whether you’re dead or alive, fighting an eternal being or working on a progress report, the real kicker is always that you’re looking pretty doing it. That’s what makes you a powerful woman, rather than just powerful.
My advice to any girl reading this, who has ever felt bad for looking disheveled in the library despite being surrounded by greasy men in unwashed sweatshirts, is to write ‘Joss Whedonis Dirt’ on a piece of paper and eat it. Let yourself look ugly without worrying if you’re still beautiful. Sweat without thinking about whether you look like a fitness blogger. You probably don’t, and that’s fine.
Know that when you die, you will not be pretty – you will become ashes or be eaten by worms, and all will be left of you is the space dust you were made of, the things you created, and the difference you made in the world.
That is the beauty that matters.
- Untethered Adventure Seeker -