(This is the re-make of a paper that I wrote in undergrad, so don’t plague me, plagiarizing gods)
One of the many hazards of being a human is that of the troublesome process of growing up. One primary spot in which this is almost universally apparent is that of adolescence, and female adolescence in particular. Oh, what a turbulent time! In one fell swoop, young girls are going through physical and physiological changes, their emotions are shifting, and culture begins expecting new, challenging things from them. Girls are expected to grow up rapidly; but instead of just being required to master growing up, they are also expected to turn into divine beauties during some of the most physically awkward years of their lives.
In Reviving Ophelia: saving the selves of adolescent girls, Mary Pipher (1994) says, “The culture is what causes girls to abandon their true selves and take up false selves.” Feminists are trying to give adolescent girls power to fight societal ideals like this. Some see feminism as a call to allow girls to be humans, individuals, and valued members of society rather than something with which to be bought and played. Ophelia Speaks, a commentary on Reviving Ophelia and a collection of adolescent girls’ writings, author Sara Shandler (1999) dismisses the simplicity of this idea.
“It is not for lack of understanding or intelligence that my circle of friends is plagued by drug abuse, eating disorders, and depression. We have all been told to love ourselves. We are all intelligent. We are all aware that we have been raised in culture that cradles double standards, impossible ideals of beauty, and asks us to listen. But we are caught in the crossfire between where we have been told we should be and where we really are. Self-directed girls are sometimes lost.”
Her argument is that girls have heard all of the self-affirming speeches and know they are supposed to attack the world’s philosophies and presuppositions; but there is a wide gap between knowing something and finding how it applies to one’s own life. Sometimes even the most stable, self-reliant girl cannot help but listen to the media and agree with what it says about her appearance, behavior, and demeanor. Adolescence is both confusing to navigate and hard to know whose advice to take regarding who to be and what to do. Even secure girls fall prey to this on occasion. As Shandler says, “self-directed girls are sometimes lost.”
Fortunately for us, others have gone before us on this rocky path and are doing what they can to help us get through. One such person: Buffy Summers, high school graduate and resident Sunnydale vampire slayer.
Yes, I am turning to a fictional character for post-adolescents to look to as an example. You’re welcome.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a show that ran for seven seasons, beginning in 1997 and ending in 2003. It centered around a girl in high school who discovered that she was “the Chosen One,” whose mission it was to “fight vampires, to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their numbers.” While she has extraordinary strength and is the coolest superhero, she also has to deal with the daily donkey work of high school, homework, and family problems. In Reason Magazine online, Victoria Postrel writes, “The show…began as a reification of the horrors of high school.” All of the horrors of high school combined in one show, plus some real monsters thrown on top. One of the points the show’s creator, Joss Whedon, wanted to get across was that sometimes the real life stuff was scarier than the vampires or other monsters that came into the picture (and there were some scary ones).
After Season Three, the main characters graduated from high school (an incredibly strenuous day for all of them, due to monsters and the threat of not getting their diplomas), and the show turned to life outside of high school. They dealt with issues like starting college, feeling like an outsider, struggling with addictions, questioning personal goals and morals, death of loved ones, and lots of relationship issues. Normal life with monsters (or normal life as monsters). And unlike most shows, the issues that the characters struggled with were not neatly packaged and wrapped up by the end of the show (Seventh Heaven, I’m looking at you). Buffy illustrated that there is no quick fix to the difficulties of life, and that is still okay. Postrel continues:
“The mere existence of Buffy proves the declinists wrong about one thing: Hollywood commercialism can produce great art. Complex and evolving characters. Playful language. Joy and sorrow, pathos and elation…Big themes and terrible choices…Buffy assumes and enacts the consensus moral understanding of contemporary American culture… This understanding depends on no particular religious tradition. It’s informed not by revelation but by experience. It is inclusive and humane, without denying distinctions or the tough facts of life. There are lots of jokes in Buffy — humor itself is a moral imperative — but no psychobabble and no excuses.”
I have never cared so much about a television show’s characters the way that I cared about Buffy’s. I rooted for, cried with, laughed with, and looked up to Buffy. She drove me crazy sometimes, but she would always redeem herself. She always put those she loved first; the only thing that kept her grounded in such chaos. I felt elation with her first love, heartbreak at her first rejection. Fear, sadness, timid new beginnings. I kept rooting for Willow the nerd-turned super-powerful chick, sometimes even cheering out loud, and crying with her as each new heartbreak occurred. I respected Xander for being such a faithful big brother to “his girls,” commended him for his personal sacrifices, and smiled as he used his optimistic sarcasm to lift everyone’s spirits. I understood Cordelia more than I expected to and found myself unnaturally proud of her as she tuned her empathy strings, and I mourned with her as her heart broke and all she knew was to make it hard again. I resonated deeply with Faith: her pain, her isolation, her longing for Buffy’s beautiful world, her self-loathing, her falling in with the power of evil, her struggle, her fear, her strength to fight her way back.
While I willingly admit that this sounds a touch ridiculous, being so close to fictional characters, I am not ashamed in the least. If I could sit every woman on the verge of adulthood down and ask them to watch 144 episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I would; not for them to become obsessed with the show or immersed in the back stories of the characters, but to see that growing up is tricky and messy and every bit worth fighting for. The show was about life, with all of its mess and joy. It was about giving power to a generation of young women who feel completely powerless. It was about permission to be confused and strong at the same time. Friendship. Love. Pain. Redemption. Kicking demon ass. Learning how to be comfortable in your own skin and how to keep fighting when it feels like there is nothing left.
Girls (and guys who also feel like they don’t know exactly who they are yet), I write this to you to whet your appetite for a show; to name characters that are brilliantly complex, and to give you a small bit of evidence that this show is worth every bit of its seven seasons. I can only explain so much, though (and by so much, I mean so much; I could talk about Buffy for hours). Now it is your turn to act: go watch, cry, laugh, and discover a new piece of yourself, or discover that you are not alone for thinking that growing up feels like hell sometimes. All of us self-directed girls are sometimes lost, and we are lost together. You are not alone. Welcome to the party!