Women, Culture and Politics: Buffy’s Critical Bite
Politics is as much about fictions as it is about the “real world.” Politicians commonly refer to their opponent’s views as fairytale – unrealistic and unsophisticated. Within the academy, the consideration of fairy-story lives an isolated life in the margins of cultural studies and humanities departments.
In an academic world where positivism rules, there is little room for what imagined narratives can tell us about real world politics. Yet, if we cast our gaze beyond the small world of political theory and those who manage the polling and policy shops, another reality emerges. For example, a $115 billion video game industry is fuelled largely by role-playing games that allow players to inhabit fantasy worlds of all shapes and sizes – worlds populated by dragons, demons, zombies, and aliens.
President Obama has been featured on the cover of Marvel’s Spider-Man and helped the title character solve crime in its pages (Irvine, 2009). Abraham Lincoln has fought zombies, vampires and other creatures in film and graphic novels (see Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2010), Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012), The Art of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) and Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies (2012)). Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has joined the Marvel super-hero team Alpha Flight in one of its issues (“Justin Trudeau joins Canadian superheroes,” 2016).
Indeed, despite some attempts to stamp out the value of traveling to the fantasy realm via art, it seems the desire to inhabit it is as strong as ever, even pulling primary world political leaders into its nexus. Could there be a value in exploring fictional narratives as a means to see “real world politics” more clearly? Could there be a human imperative to balance our senses with our powers of imagination?
Raw science has little power in a fairy-story – natural laws may not apply. Human minds have the power to invent things that do not exist in a physical sense. But the things we invent in our mind’s eye have tremendous influence in the primary world, and the fact they don’t exist in a physical sense may be irrelevant – this is the case with fantasy fiction. The fairy-realm (expressed through fantasy art) is a unique branch of creativity and has immense power to influence culture and politics, often through subtle means.
JRR Tolkien describes this fairy-realm as a place of wonder, but it is also a “perilous” realm because once entered, through the portal of your imagination, it can change you in ways you never intended. In an enchanted world the rules are different, as Tolkien describes it, “…when we cross the borders of Faerie we believe…that the scientific, measurable, facts and ‘laws’ of the relationship of things and events are only one aspect of the world. There is a world where things are not so: where will, imagination and desire are directly effective” (OFS p. 257).
In this essay, I argue that women’s fortunes in fantasy art (the fairy-realm) are directly connected to their political fortunes in the primary world. In essence, if you want to change your political fortunes, a means is through fantasy art; political change has to be imagined before it can be implemented. When political agency is achieved in a culture’s imagination, real-world politics tend to absorb that narrative. Women have won many battles in the fairy-realm, now it appears that success is being felt in the primary world of politics, too.
Women and cultural imagery
The conflict over recognizing women’s political agency in 20th and 21st century Western culture plays out in two forums: first, in the world of activism and political policy; second, in the fictive realm.
From the suffrage movement, to the Person’s case in Canada, to the political critiques of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, women have achieved much in terms of breaking down the doors to political office. But this activism was complemented by a parallel process playing out in the fictive realm. Indeed, there is a strong case to be made that the victories females won in the fictive realm were a necessary condition for achieving greater political agency in the real world. I have argued elsewhere that framing proceeds policy (see MacLeod & Webb, 2011). Similarly, cultural framing must precede how a group is received in political and economic contexts.
The dominant theme of women as objects to be desired and won by male characters in works of fiction is pervasive and has ancient origins. From the 2100 BC epic of Gilgamesh, originating in Mesopotamia, through the Holy Bible, Greek and Roman lore, medieval tales, to James Bond, the dominant Western narrative is one of women as either a source of sexual temptation to test the male hero’s character, or as an object to be rescued and then awarded as a sexual prize.
It is difficult to be taken seriously as a legitimate political and economic agent when your cultural narrative constantly frames you as apolitical, politically naive, incompetent, or irrelevant.
The narratives of Cleopatra, Joan of Arc and Elizabeth I may be exceptions to the submissive rule, but then again Cleopatra was extremely intelligent, beautiful, witty, charming, and well-versed in politics. Joan of Arc had visions and premonitions from God which was enough to lift the spirits of a nation in military and economic malaise, and Elizabeth I was a ‘virgin queen’ with great presence and a bad temper at a time when heads were still to be chopped off. In short, exceptionality can turn cultural norms, even those of gender, but the overall trend of gender bias has continued within Western culture.
However, there is a counter-narrative which is apparent in such diverse sources as 19th century British painting, the reach of the press, early 20th century radio and middle century television, the voices of university-educated women, and comic books and graphic novels. Change in women’s status is as much attributable to the fictive realm as our lived experience. Rarely in the culture of a nation can one point to a single event or date when a cultural narrative shifts. It is more likely an incremental process and it is rarely linear – narratives are expressed or suppressed. Despite this, there seems to be a sustained and increasing trend throughout the 20th and 21st centuries of treating female and male fictional characters as equals. I contend that the change in women’s fortunes in the fictive realm has contributed to changing roles for women in the primary world of politics and economics.
As in history, the fairy-realm is messy, narrative tropes advance and retreat in their expression or suppression. The current trend featuring the ‘woman as hero’ trope was foreshadowed much earlier: for example, it can be seen in the paintings and drawings of the distinguished British artist, John W. Waterhouse. His most famous pictures reflect the narrative of the Lady of Shalott. By Waterhouse’s hand, this character is seen struggling to escape from her oppressive tower seemingly desiring to experience life directly rather than simply watch the world go by through a mirror (see Tennyson’s poem ).
Another interesting example from Waterhouse’s hand is The Magic Circle: completed in 1886, this oil on canvas presents a subtle political element. The picture presents a dramatic scene where a dark-haired sorceress is preparing a spell over a boiling cauldron; she is drawing a circle in the sand at her feet while gripping a scythe in the other. Outside of the circle, ravens group ominously around her, and further into the background, dark mythical creatures seem to lurk in the mouth of a cave. She is surrounded by dread, ill-omens and what appear to be ghouls, or similarly threatening creatures; yet, she shows little fear as she prepares her spell of protection and steels herself for the battle to come. Unlike many contemporary depictions of female spell-casters in fantasy art, she is not rendered in an overly sexualized way. She is shown wearing a full-length dress, with sleeves which go to the middle of her forearm, the viewer sees her face in profile, but heavily shrouded by her hair, which is pulled back as she is getting ready for ‘business.’The narrative can be read as a woman capable of defending herself against the evil the world in this painting is able to set against her.
This picture found a receptive audience at the Royal Academy, and it was considered worthy of the national collection, but for its time its narrative frame was the exception rather than the rule (Prettejohn, Teippi, Upstone, & Wageman, 2010, p. 106).
One of the greatest challenges to reframing women’s narratives more progressively is found in the frame evoked by Disney cartoons, specifically the theme of the Disney princess. The narrative is supported by well-crafted animated movies, featuring the work of talented and skilled animators and superb voice-actors. Their appeal in popular culture is well-established, and their connection to the childhood memories of generations makes any critical assault on them fraught with economic and emotional peril – what academic criticism can prevail against our childhood memories? Yet, the design and insight from every Disney princess cartoon follows a clear pattern – a young woman is being oppressed by her family and/or social context, usually at the hands of an older woman (e.g. Snow White and the witch, Ariel and Ursula, Cinderella and her step-mother and sisters). Her salvation comes in the form of a male character, usually a prince, who has access to political power. The male prince and potential princess must overcome the oppressor(s) attempting to thwart them, which results in a climax involving the prince saving the princess with a kiss.
Like a relentless marketing campaign, this narrative is reinforced with movie plots from a variety of time periods and ethnic/regional settings (Aladdin, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tangled). But are these are just cartoons for kids – isn’t this naïve theme abandoned in fiction for adults? Hardly, if anything it is more prevalent because of its subtlety.
Let’s look at two contemporary examples. The Twilight series’ (2008–2012) main character: Bella – they only slightly changed her name from the character from Beauty and the Beast. In the first fifteen minutes of the opening film of this series, Twilight (2008), she abandons her family and friends to follow the dark stranger who catches her eye, who vacillates through the rest of the film from wanting to kiss her to contemplating biting her neck, and in one scene he throws her across a room (Mooradian, Morgan, Godfrey & Hardwicke, 2008).
The Hunger Games series (2012–2015) also fits this mold – the final climatic scene in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2005) has the female protagonist, Katniss, assassinating the female rebel president, while sparing the white male tyrant who bedeviled her for four feature length films (Jacobson, Kilik & Lawrence, 2015). The threat is an older woman, her male opressor may be spared.
Moreover, outside of the realm of fairy, the Disney princess trope gets repeated in most romantic comedies and paperback romance novels.
A clear example of a competing narrative is evident in the evolution of the art-form of comics and graphic novels. This form of literature started to shape Western culture with the creation of Superman and Batman in the 1930s. Whatever can be said about this industry and its ascendance as a cultural force, what is incontestable is that for much of its history it was male-dominated. The publishers, especially the ‘Big Two’ – Marvel and Detective Comics (DC), were staffed almost exclusively by men; comics were made by men and marketed to men and boys. The giants of the field in the 1950’s through to the present reflect this: among others, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Neal Adams, George Perez, Marv Wolfman, Alex Ross, Frank Miller, Todd McFarlane, all deserve recognition for their business and artistic achievements, but it is glaring how little diversity is in this group.
That lack of diversity has showed itself in the content too – in the more than 70-year period of superhero comics, the vast majority of hero protagonists are depicted as ideal-type male figures striking Greek-godlike poses in form-fitting spandex. They triumph usually by using physical force to defeat their foe and save the girl. When female heroes are allowed into the parthenon, they tend to be derivative versions of male characters, e.g. Superman/Supergirl; Batman/Batwoman/Batgirl; Spiderman/Spiderwoman; Hulk/She-Hulk and so on.
Of course, there is one notable exception: Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman was first published in 1941. She was created by American psychologist and feminist, William Moulton Marston (1893 – 1947). He framed her as the daughter of a Greek goddess from an island of amazon warriors. Diana, Princess of the Amazons, travels to the United States to return a rescued American soldier and to further her quest to bring justice to a troubled world. Marston’s imagery is replete with scenes of bondage, and Wonder Woman carries a lasso of truth to compel those caught in it to tell all of their dark secrets. She references pagan imagery and even evokes the ancient lesbian poet Sappho in her famous “Suffering Sappho” battle-cry. However, I would point out that her costume is highly sexualized as her initial design was little more than a one-piece bathing suit, offering little protection and very passive weapons – the lasso, a pair of bracelets to block bullets (when cuffed together they robbed her of her powers, it is bewildering why she would carry such a device with her with such an obvious weakness) and an invisible plane (hardly the transportation of an aggressive warrior).
Nevertheless, Wonder Woman is an independent character, with a distinct persona and personal agency separate from a male character. The prominent feminist magazine Ms. featured her on the cover of its inaugural issue (1972) and Gloria Steinem herself intervened with DC comics to maintain the integrity of Wonder Woman (Knowles, 2007, pp. 160-164). She stands as one of the oldest female characters in American comics and she now stars in a feature film which, at the time of writing, is setting box-office records and getting glowing reviews from top critics. Wonder Woman (2017), starring Gal Gadot, artistically reframes her origin story. It primarily takes place during WWI and sets Wonder Woman against the god of war, Aries, who the film portrays as the divine influence behind the Great War. The film explores several themes related to violence, gender equality and the transitional superhero trope. It will be interesting to see if this artwork alters the frame of future blockbuster films in this genre.
Following Wonder Woman’s lead in comic books, a cultural narrative shift began to build momentum in the 1980s and 90s. Set against the theme of woman as a powerless victim and an object to be saved, we see television and movie fantasy stories depicting women in leadership roles and as action heroes in their own right. For example, Ridley Scott’s Aliens franchise features Sigourney Weaver as a gutsy spaceship commander, leading a valiant defense against a formidable alien foe. A similar storyline is evident in James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day where we see Linda Hamilton develop into a military leader preparing the ground to resist the formidable terminator machines bent on destroying humanity. Between 1995 and 2001, Kate Mulgrew (Capt. Janeway) became the first female starship captain in the Star Trek universe through Star Trek:Voyager – a strong but nurturing pursuer of what was right and just, a clear contrast in leadership style when compared to Capt. Kirk in the original Star Trek series. This franchise has continued the trend of supporting women in leadership roles by casting two female leads in Star Trek: Discovery (2017 -) with Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham and Michelle Yeoh as Captain Georgiou.
Buffy’s Critical Bite
The narrative seemed to be aided further in the 1990s with the introduction of Joss Whedon’s television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This Emmy-award winning show aired from 1997- 2003, and starred Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy, a high school student gifted with superpowers allowing her to lead a band of her friends to fight vampires, demons and other dark creatures from popular lore.
It was an interesting take on the typical horror genre which usually showed a blonde teenage babysitter or cheerleader being lured to her death by the monster of the film. Buffy was the antithesis of the helpless blonde victim as she had the ability to fight back and indeed hunt the creatures of the night. Moreover, she was not overly sexualized. She wore stylish but conservative clothes, did not compete with the male stereotypes typical of comic book heroes and was a tough, capable warrior who liked to go shopping and bicker with her mother.
Buffy was a powerful example of how the dominant fantasy/adventure trope could be turned in alternate directions through allowing a young woman to star in a series and not employ overt sexuality. Also, the series demonstrated that allowing a strong female character to carry the narrative could lead to critical and financial success. Whedon is an avowed feminist and made a political statement through his art, an act which is more likely to trigger cultural change than most ‘objective’ academic treatments on popular culture.
Buffy has led the charge into the 21st century of reframing women’s roles in the fantasy realm reflected in film, television, graphic novels and other mediums. Others have followed, for example, Netflix’s Jessica Jones is a retelling of the Marvel superhero as a gritty, psychologically damaged private detective who battles crime and confronts corporate greed in her ripped jeans and leather jacket. Another example is Ronald D. Moore’s retelling of the 1970s space adventure Battlestar Galatica where he reframes the ultra-masculine Viper pilot, Lt. Starbuck into Kara “Starbuck” Thrace – a talented pilot, every bit as capable as her male peers and equally rough around the edges.
In addition, my case is supported by the creation of the 2015 CBS television series Supergirl. This long neglected DC comic heroine is certainly derivative of her cousin, Superman, but this family-friendly, optimistic take on Kara Zor-El is bold in that it allows a young woman (Melissa Benoist) to lead a cast in a primetime television series.
Other contemporary examples depicting women as the hero in the story include: iZombie (2015–) which features Liv (Rose McIver), MAD MAX: Fury Road (2015) featuring Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), Selene (Kate Beckinsale) in the Underworld series (2003–2017), Rey (Daisy Ridley) in Star Wars the Force Awakens (2015), Star Wars: Rouge One (2016) with Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, and it has recently been announced (at the time of writing) that Doctor Who (2005–) will cast its first female Doctor, to be played by Jodie Whittaker.
What is interesting about the portrayal of women in fantasy art in the 21st century is a noticeable shift in the visual depictions – Buffy wears typical clothing for a teenager, Starbuck wears the same uniform as her male colleagues, and Supergirl dons a spandex costume but it is not overly sexualized in that the neckline is high and does not reveal any cleavage, her midriff is not exposed like other versions of her costume in comic books and she wears a thigh length skirt. Jessica Jones sports jeans and a t-shirt, more reminiscent of James Dean than a cheesecake pin-up.
Our culture now has an easier time imagining women in a broader range of roles – including political leadership – in the primary world as a result of work done by Buffy and others to reimage women in fantasy fiction. Women are no longer merely objects of desire for male characters and helpless, powerless victims requiring saving. Although, as I stated earlier, one trope rarely entirely supplants another – as there are still many examples of the Disney princess formula in 21st century fantasy literature (there are signs that Disney itself is beginning to reimagine its long-held trope). Yet, the emergence of a woman as a hero in a less objectified and sexualized manner is undeniable.
Before a public policy goal – such as a recognition or advancement of a groups’ rights – can be achieved, a political collective must be able to imagine the change before it can be implemented. Therefore, as I argue in this paper, an effective way to create political change is to frame it artfully through fantasy fiction; yet, it is a dangerous cauldron in which to brew a new political order as it requires an artistic glue which binds the artist and audience, allowing for the creation of a new world which neither can fully control.
- The author would like to thank Dr. Nick Webb for his advice and editorial support for this article. Also, thanks goes to Ms. Katelyn O’Brien for her research assistance and diligent copy-editing of this manuscript.
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