All was well.
Source: The Huffington Post
The Legacy of Buffy Summers: Katniss vs. Bella.
With ten years since the final episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the legacy of this ‘strong female character’ can still be felt. Joss Whedon wrote a character who was not only strong, feisty, and beautiful, but flawed, reluctant and real. Fans saw Buffy grow up to come to terms with her role as the slayer, and she was potentially ahead of her time in modern media, where in 2014 the representation of women is still problematic.
Buffy has left behind a legacy that can be seen manifested in the female characters of more recent young adult media. With Twilight’s Bella Swan arguably as a polar opposite, and The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen carrying the torch, it is clear to see where Buffy has set the bar. By exploring Buffy’s legacy in the characters of Katniss and Bella, I hope to see how the ‘strong female character’, as a positive role model for young audiences, has progressed in the last ten years.
Looking at online fan opinions from all sides of the argument, it is clear there are positive and negative views of each character. What makes Buffy a better role model than Bella? Why is Katniss given more respect as a female character than Bella? What is it about Bella’s ‘weakness’ and Katniss’s ‘strength’ that can be related back to Buffy’s influence?
Joss Whedon’s Buffy Summers is what would certainly be called a ‘strong female character’. With physical strength, good looks, witty one-liners and seven seasons of emotional growth. Whedon created a female protagonist who was not the damsel in distress of his vampire series, but the hero and driving force.
Buffy may have been blessed with super human strength, but her reluctance as a hero and her emotional journey through growing responsibilities, grief and heart break made her an extremely relatable role model for her young viewers.
Whedon has become somewhat of a poster boy for the strong female character with his answer to why he writes strong women, “Because you are still asking me the question.”
Buffy’s legacy does live on, and not just in the work of Whedon, it can be seen in the recent torrents of popular young adult fiction film adaptations with strong female heroines saving the day. The Mortal Instrument’s Clary Fray, Uglies’ Tally Youngblood, Divergent’s Tris Prior, Delirium’s Lena Haloway, The Fault in Our Stars’ Hazel Grace Lancaster, have all hit the big screen, or have plans to soon, fighting hidden demons, various dystopian regimes, cancer. Their very presence and popularity on page and screen shows us the need for feisty female heroines in Buffy’s ilk is ever present.
The two major players of this book to screen journey are of course Twilight’s Bella Swan and The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen. Bella has drawn numerous comparisons to Buffy due to the vampire love interest storyline, but she has not often come out of it well. Katniss however has been frequently held up as a suitable heir to the Buffy throne.
Aside for the obviously vampire parallels, is there any of Buffy in Bella?
To start off, here is a remix video, that I have actually managed to include in almost every presentation I’ve given this year. It re-imagines the story of Twilight with Buffy in the place of Bella.
Video: Buffy vs. Edward: Twilight Remixed.
So, aside from its obvious brilliance and hilarity, it is very telling that this remix was made. As a feminist reading of Bella’s role in the series, we can see how obviously creepy and inappropriate Edward’s actions are towards her. Yet she laps it up as part of his mysterious vampire charm. There are certainly parallels to be found in Buffy, with her first meeting of Angel being him stalking her down an alley. In Twilight Bella is saved by Edward after she is threatened by a group of men down an alley.
Jennifer Jenson and Anita Sakeesian discuss this in their chapter of Fanpires: Audience Consumption of the Modern Vampire. While Buffy can hold her own physically, which is of course a luxury Bella doesn’t have, she does call out Angel’s creepy behaviour when he follows her again at the beginning of season two. Buffy comments, “You know, being stalked isn’t really a big turn on for girls.”
Jenson and Sakeesian observe: “In Buffy, overprotective, stalking male behaviour is quickly categorized as an offensive act, made clear in Buffy’s sarcastic comment. In Twilight, this same behaviour is turned into a display of affection that initiates a romantic relationship. Thus, one storyline gives agency to its lead female character, while the other denies her the right to protest, under the guise of being ‘saved’.” (p61)
Bella is the very embodiment of the damsel in distress. To be fair to Bella, her story is predominantly a romance in stark contrast to Buffy’s mythic Hero Journey. The story revolves around her love triangle with Edward, the vampire, and Jacob, the werewolf. Bella doesn’t need to be a fighter, because that is not what her story requires of her. However, she doesn’t offer much at all to her own story. Jenson and Sakeesian describe her as “shallow and somewhat predictable.” Apart from her clumsiness, she does not embody much of a personality at all. Her function within the story, is to be the object of desire of two other characters, and to be in love herself. As Kate Harding writes, “The whole point of Bella’s existence is earning the suffocating love of supernatural hotties; even if you think her obsessive devotion of Edward might waver in the face of were-love, you know you’re never going to see her throw them both over to stand on her own two feet.” (p65)
Laura Miller, writing in Salon argues that Bella is more of an empty vessel to carry the reader through the series. She writes, “But Bella is not really the point of the Twilight series; she’s more of a place holder than a character. She is purposely made as featureless and ordinary as possible in order to render her a vacant, flexible skin into which the reader can insert herself and thereby vicariously enjoy Edward’s chilly charms.”
It is Edward and Jacob who are really the central characters of the story, and clearly when you look at the activities of the fans, ‘Team Edward’ and ‘Team Jacob’ is more about who fans themselves want to end up with, than a shipping war over Bella’s romantic destiny. When writing my undergrad dissertation a few years ago, I interviewed a family friend who was 14 at the time, and a big Twilight fan. She has since seen the error of her ways, but for her, Edward was the reason she loved Twilight. When I asked her what she liked so much about the series her first answer was ‘Robert Pattinson’, and then ‘I don’t know, the cool vampireness sparkylness,” When I asked her how she felt about Bella and Edward’s wedding she said “I thot OMG GO AWAY HES MINE.” (All caps.) It’s clear for Micaela, the series wasn’t about identifying with Bella in any way other than sharing her love for Edward. Micaela’s concerns over the characters lay resolutely with the male vampire lead.
Milly Williamson discusses this in The Lure of the Vampire where she argues, “at odds with much theorising about popular vampire fiction, female fans do not identify with the vampire’s female victims, but rather, empathise with the vampire figure itself.” It wouldn’t be much of a push to think of Bella as the ‘victim’ of the story. Buffy however, was never the victim of her series, reversing this convention and being the hero and driving force of the story.
Laura Miller quotes Twilight author Stephanie Meyer, on the topic of Bella’s lack of leading lady qualities: “There are so many girls out there who do not know kung fu, and if a guy jumps in the alley they’re not going to turn around with a roundhouse kick,” Meyer once told a journalist. “There’s a lot of people who are just quieter and aren’t having the Prada lifestyle and going to a special school in New York where everyone’s rich and fabulous. There’s normal people out there and I think that’s one of the reasons Bella has become so popular.”
Bella doesn’t really leave much to aspire too. Jenson and Sakeesian conclude, “Bella appears to represent the unattainable, while Buffy offers fans a kind of alternative reality that is much more real than the idealized immortality of Bella. As one fan puts it: “I’d rather have stake-wielding Buffy over lip-biting Bella as a role model for my future daughter any day.”
There is however some hope, in the form of Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of The Hunger Games. Katniss has been well and truly attached to the ‘strong female character’ title and while her world isn’t filled with vampires and demons, it has human monsters of its own, which she has been forced to fight against. There is a lot of Buffy in Katniss; the reluctant hero, the coming of age under ‘end of the world’ circumstances, the role as provider and protector over her family, the will to sacrifice herself over others. Where Bella was deemed a bad role model for Twilight’s young viewers, Katniss has been heralded as the ultimate in female role models.
Online there is a clear alliance to Katniss and her strength. Bella will unfortunately never live down the time she rode a motorbike and jumped off a cliff in order to feel a rush big enough to allow her to hallucinate the absent Edward. In An Imagined Girls Nights with Katniss Everdeen, Hermione Ganger, Bella Swan and Buffy Summers written by Steve Radbourn (Please read, is HILARIOUS.) Bella’s personality traits are played off against the other three heroines for comic effect. While catching up on everyone’s week Hermione, Buffy and Katniss all had the task of saving the world on their plates, while Bella… well there she is not living that cliff jump down.
She is characterised by her preoccupation with love and sex. Where Buffy says of dating vampires: “There’s nothing wrong with vampires. Minus their emotional unavailability, lack of reflection, and penchant for really rough sex.” Bella weirds the rest of the group out by taking one of Buffy’s ‘minus’ points for vampires, the rough sex, and saying: “The rough sex is great, although it’s super awkward that we have to keep buying new pillows every time.”
When Bella tries to get Katniss to join in on the topic of love, she asks Katniss: “So Katniss, who are you going to choose between Peeta and Gale?” Katniss replies that she has been busy with her revolution.
Katniss is often framed as this serious, conflicted character, with her and Bella’s plots played off against each other. Buffy, Katniss and Hermione all have worlds to save, in stark contrast to Bella’s love triangle.
Another trait of Buffy’s, which Katniss also exhibits, is the playing off of femininity and masculinity within her character. Jenson and Sakeesian discuss how Buffy plays with traditional masculine and feminine roles. “As Buffy herself quips after an especially harrowing fight scene, “Tell me the truth: How’s my hair?”” They argue, “In asking about her hair, she is breaking open for the audience the tension between her more masculine role as hero/warrior and her re-invoked femininity.”
I think this is something that can be seen in Katniss. In her life in District Twelve she spent much of her time hunting with bow and arrow to provide for her family, on reaping day she allowed time to dress in one of her mother’s dresses, and have her mother plait her hair. This mother/daughter beauty regime is at odds with Katniss’s seemingly masculine traits as hunter-gatherer and also at odds with their lifestyle. Similarly Katniss is taught how to ‘perform’ femininity for the cameras during the televised pre and post hunger games interviews, her dresses often telling a lot of the story, which ultimately acts as another, very different, kind of survival tool for her outside of the arena.
What makes Katniss and Buffy such great female role models is that their feminine traits are presented as equally important to the ‘masculine’ traits, strength and ability to fight and kill, for their battle and lives. As well as feminine clothing, their love and compassion are vital tools to see the triumph of good over evil succeed.
In stark contrast to the ‘Team Edward’ and ‘Team Jacob’ narrative of Twilight, the love triangle of The Hunger Games takes up much less of fans’ time. There is definitely more of a ‘normal’, and I use that word lightly, shipping activity, with fans supporting Katniss’s choice to settle down with Peeta. ‘Peeniss’ or ‘KatPee’ being the ship names of choice. This narrative continues to the off screen real lives of the actors who play Bella and Katniss. Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Katniss, is in her own right deemed a strong female role model. She has achieved a position of adoration in Hollywood, with an Academy Award and endless love for her authenticity as a star. Her trips and falls in large gowns, her constant insistence she loves staying in, eating food and wearing comfy clothes. She speaks out on negative body images for young girls and promotes herself as a positive example. Her fans do ship her with Josh Hutchison, who plays Peeta, but the ‘Joshifer’ narrative is more of a ‘look at how amazing their friendship is’, respecting Jennifer’s real relationship with actor Nicholas Hoult.
This is altogether an entirely different story the one that has played out for Kristen Stewart, who played Bella Swan. Both are 23-year-old girls who have starred as these popular heroines, but their lives in the limelight couldn’t be more different. Kristen Stewart’s nervous, stuttering presence at public events has been a sign of weakness that has allowed the anti-fans to swoop right in. Her acting ability is criticised, the way she holds her expression whilst walking down the street, and of course her off screen relationship with Robert Pattinson, who played Edward. Again a problem arises as Twilight fans most often ship themselves with Edward of Jacob, and not Bella. This leads to much resentment sent k-stew’s way when her on-again off-again relationship with r-patz is so much in the public eye. The adulterous relationship she had with director Rupert Sanders did not do too much to help her public image. She doesn’t deserve Robert Pattinson if she is just going to cheat on him…
(Edit: had to include this Will Ferrel sketch as its hilarious and so fitting)
It is important to remember how much of this is spin, and it is somewhat unfortunate Kristen Stewart has received the brunt of this negativity. But it is interesting how these off screen stories mirror those told on screen, with Katniss massively respected by its audience, and Bella much less so.
So Buffy’s legacy as a strong female character lives on in the likes of Katniss Everdeen and I think it is clear that this kind of character is what audiences want to see more of. To fight Bella’s corner for a minute, is she simply not worthy of the same respect because she didn’t have a world to save. Is it fair that she be held up to the same standards as Katniss and Buffy? The few flash backs of pre-slayer teenage Buffy certainly leave much to be desired, but the bottom line is not how Bella acts in times of conflict, but how her relationships to men have been portrayed. Jennifer Jenson and Anita Sakeesian say of Buffy and Bella, “one character promotes change and a vision of gender, while the other settles into a deeply regressive and patriarchally inscribed gender role” (p57)
Katniss certainly promotes change and revolution. With film and televison as a “powerful means of shaping public beliefs, creating role models, or challenging dominant ways of thinking,” hopefully there is a lot more of Buffy’s legacy to come.