A comment I often see among fans of superhero movies is “Why can’t they make one with a female lead!?” or often simply, “Why can’t they make a Wonder Woman movie?” The answer is complicated. Some of it has to do with sales to foreign markets, who don’t care about such things. Some of it is probably old-fashioned sexism. And some of it is Hollywood’s phobia about taking risks, especially risks that cost over $100 million. It is indeed a shame that the current crop of superhero franchise films don’t have a strong female lead, although Joss Whedon did write a good Black Widow part for Scarlett Johansson. But it isn’t as if there have been no strong female leads in popular culture.
In fact, just ten years ago there was a long-running TV show that was not only the best female-centered show in the history of television, it was everything these current Marvel movies are, and more besides. That show was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and all the Marvel Movies in the world (or the Snyder-DC ones) won’t destroy it. It’s always there on Netflix, waiting to be watched. Whenever someone cries, “Why can’t they make a good superhero movie with a woman?”, I wish Netflix would beep or buzz or otherwise jump up and down. Because there’s one right there.
Others will no doubt name other shows such as Xena Warrior Princess or Battlestar Galactica, which featured tremendous female characters. Still others might cite the execrable films Elektra or Catwoman as examples of the genre having been “tried” and “failed”. (That’s the logic Marvel and DC no doubt hear in the corporate boardroom. Funny how in that history lesson they never mention Green Lantern or Fantastic Four, because I’m fairly sure they’ve made some male-centered superhero films since those that made a few bucks.) But Buffy was different, and better, in important ways.
For one thing, Buffy was smart. It was clearly made by smart people, for smart people. It never talked down to the audience, left out information when it could be shown rather than said, counted on the audience to be emotionally ahead of the characters from time to time and pushed at the limits of its universe without generally interfering with the suspension of disbelief. (Riley Finn and the awful Professor Maggie Walsh in Season 4 really grate on my nerves and seem to have wandered in from another, crappier show, for example.) It also used language creatively, inventing a distinct vernacular with the playfulness of Shakespearean English mixed with oodles of popular culture references.
But the show wasn’t just pop culture references and precious cuteness (Big Bang Theory, I’m looking at you…). It was also an action show, with at least one kick ass kung fu fight in every episode. It was a fantasy show, in which the enemies were demons and vampires and occasionally evil Goddesses. But amidst all of that, its most powerful moments came from character and relationships. As tacky as the costumes and sets sometimes seemed, the emotional beats and character development was heartbreakingly real.
Buffy was, essentially, a coming of age story, literally the classic Campbell hero’s journey. Buffy herself receives the call to action, passes through an underworld (a couple of times), fights enemies and returns to her people with a weapon that allows her to be a savior. Like many true heroes, she rejects the call, repeatedly before accepting it. But at no point does Buffy put on an armour breastplate, or hoist a machine gun (okay, she uses a bazooka ONCE…) or in any way downplay her more feminine characteristics. Buffy was all about kicking ass in a skirt and heels. She didn’t need to make herself into a hodgepodge of male gender norms in order to be a hero. She certainly didn’t have to drain all the colour out of her costume and wander around being miserable (Zack Snyder…).
Buffy also, unlike some of her paler imitations like Katniss Everdeen or that other teen vampire series that will not be named, has sex. Enjoys sex. Deals with sex. She has sex because it feels good and dammit she wants it, just like everyone else. Sex is part of being an adult in the world, and instead of ignoring it, cartooning it (by suggesting that it only takes place within a committed relationship with Prince Charming) or making it a horrible, life-ruining event, the show allows its character to grapple with it in all its complexities. For a female character to actually demonstrate sexual agency, rather than using sex as a weapon or having to be coerced into it by some horrible ravenous “dude’ is a blast of fresh air. Such maturity and frankness in its approach. I don’t see it anywhere outside of shows such as Mad Men today.
And Buffy, of course, isn’t just for women. That seems quite silly to have to say that in so many words, but of course it’s true. There are plenty of great male characters on the show, and female as well. And the character of Buffy herself is fascinating, deepening as the show progresses in a breathtaking way that transcends gender. Her journey, though superficially about events far removed from everyday experience, hits all the emotional notes that any mature person will recognize. Sometimes your friends let you down, but you love them anyway. Sometimes you have to grow up a little faster than you’d like. Sometimes you have to accept that you can’t do it all. And sometimes you have to work a job you hate. And so on: it’s all there in Buffy.
I don’t need to sell those in the know on Buffy’s cultural importance. Right now I’m wearing a T-shirt I got at the 10th biennial conference on the Whedonverses, “Slayage”, which has resulted in a library of academic texts from the Whedon Studies Association and other scholars. While there are those who study Xena and other texts, the Whedon group is one of the most diverse, productive and the most long-lasting popular culture scholars groups in existence. Buffy, therefore, holds up under quite intense scrutiny, and is interpretable through an infinite number of academic lenses.
Which brings me back to where we started. No, we don’t have a Wonder Woman movie. Besides doing some pretty serious expectation management on that one (does anyone really think Snyder and the Gang will make a good movie?), we shouldn’t forget that there is more than one channel on your TV and more than one movie franchise in the world. Buffy did everything I can possibly imagine a whole series of Wonder Woman movies doing, and better and more besides. When I say I don’t really care if there’s a Wonder Woman movie at all, it’s emphatically not because I don’t see the need. I just turn my head slightly to the left and see all my Buffy DVD’s and remind myself that even though the market (that ill-defined collection of marketing research results) might need it, I don’t. Nor should anyone who cries out for a great female-centred superhero story.