Editor’s Note: New film technology in the ‘90s may pale in comparison to what we’ve got today, but it really built the potential for action films. Bigger explosions, more fast-paced chases, camera work that had you on the edge of your seat. It was beautiful. What it couldn’t achieve, though, was better representation, but that albatross hangs around the necks of the writers, directors and producers of the time. Not only were there such few women in these films, but their characterizations were cringe-worthy. Luckily, Joss Whedon’s ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’ and Robert Tapert’s ‘Xena The Warrior Princess’ changed all of that.
The action genre in the ‘90s was dominated by the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Pierce Brosnan, and more. As entertaining and innovative as it was, the genre was as a breeding ground for hyper-masculinity, and was guilty of reducing even its sparse female roles to eye-candy, plot devices, or (ugh) villains. As a kid, I was being shown that bravery, initiative, loyalty and determination were not in line with my XX chromosomes. But that idea was swung right out of the ball park when ‘Xena The Warrior Princess’ and ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ hit screens in 1995 and 1997 respectively. Sure, the special effects and aren’t as magical and energizing as I remembered them, but the less impressive directorial or aesthetic details melt away when you meet each show’s eponymous hero.
When The WB picked up the television show after a poorly received feature movie of the same name, no one could have predicted Buffy’s wild success during its seven-year run.
Introduced as a petite blonde teenager who carries a wooden stake to her first day of school, Buffy is ‘the chosen one’ who can single-handedly take down a vampire, after sassing them a bit in typical high-school style. The show picked up on many socially relevant themes, like “child abuse, rape, the LGBT community, addiction, and divorce,” but its dedication to the theme of female relationships is a real winner. I’m talking particularly about the Buffy Summers/Willow Rosenberg dynamic. They were complementary figures, who had each other’s backs through everything – whether it was the soul-corrupting power of magic, or teenage heartbreaks. Willow was also a character in her own right, breaking out of the ‘sidekick’ role, honing her powers, and had a noteworthy ‘coming out’ sequence, which Whedon had been trying to script in for a while. The show also worked out its more antagonistic female relationships pretty well, with characters like Cordelia Chase, or Dawn Summers.
In The Mary Sue, Natasha Simmons talks about how the show’s “strong female characters are sublimated to the weaker, childish males’ needs.” Valid criticism, yes, but as a media phenomenon, Buffy did succeed in re-inscribing a complex femininity. From the outset, Buffy is shown to be a tough cookie. But she’s also just a kid juggling school and relationships. In subsequent seasons her sexual agency is highlighted, and like the diverse other female characters on the show, she has to deal with issues of bullying, ‘girl-hate,’ depression, emotional dependence and more. The range of interactions between characters, especially the women is refreshing to see. Even Xander’s relentless ‘nice guy’ antics are a realistic (if annoying) touch, and it’s interesting to see how his female friends react to him.
Way over in another fictional universe, Xena, a former warlord, is kicking ass and taking names, along with her trademark war-cry (bad guys know when to scatter). Growing up, Xena was my absolute hero. She was very identifiably a woman, but one who would sooner impale ‘Princess traditions’ with her sword than play the stereotype. Her response to unwanted advances (throwing the jerk across the room) was my personal favourite. But it was the sins of her past that made her even more interesting. Can a wrong-doer redeem herself through a series of good acts? Giving that level of complexity to a female character was definitely a positive.
Xena’s original story arc was to play ‘love interest’ to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules in ‘Hercules: The Legendary Journeys’, and then die. Because that’s all the glory female characters were allowed to have. But getting her own show signalled a shift in the way fictional women were being presented and viewed.
A spin off from the ‘Hercules’ series, where Hercules and Iolaus were the centre of attention, Xena and her best friend Gabrielle were doing something new. ‘Male-buddies’ are a favourite for writers and viewers alike, and the 90s were their heyday. But between the two shows, it was Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship that stood out for me more, filling up a void that the male-buddy genre created for female audiences. Wanting to ‘be like’ Hercules was fine, but even as a kid, I knew my gender orientation was rudely diminished by that desire, so ‘Xena’ was like a dream come true. Strong female lead – check. Female bonding – check! And let’s not forget the whole tableau of interesting women characters like “the vengeance-obsessed warrior Callisto, whose family had been killed in one of […] Xena’s raids; the charismatic guru Najara, who was either a noble crusader against evil or a dangerous fanatic; Lao Ma, a fictional Chinese philosopher-empress […]; and Boadicea, Britain’s historical warrior queen.”
The show also tackled the theme of motherhood, through Xena’s daughter Eve. One may be tempted to read it as an essentialist imposition of the idea that all women are destined to be mothers, but Eve’s birth was significant for two reasons – first, it added yet another dimension to her character; and second, Xena’s lineage would carry on through her. Bonus: Like Gabrielle, Eve got her own interesting story arc. Thanks Tapert!
If slash-fics are anything to go by, both shows have succeeded well into the 21st century. There’s enough of subtext between Gabrielle and Xena, or Willow and Tara (Oh, that Whedon and his clever metaphors) to keep the fandom pleased as pie.
There’s also something compelling about the titles that start with women’s name and are quickly followed up by ‘un-feminine’ terms, “warrior” and “slayer” (the latter is even now almost entirely associated with the male-majority metal scene). This clever juxtaposition went to work on my impressionable young mind, destabilizing the binary that tells us women are soft, yielding objects of sexual desire.
The binary is hard to escape, and simply writing women who do ‘masculine’ things isn’t the feminist endgame. But what ‘Xena’ and ‘Buffy’ did was present people with a different kind of woman. Growing up with these two characters has enabled us to hold the makers of TV accountable. We can now say, “Hey, you set a precedent with these two women, don’t stop now.” I like to think the demand and supply of Jessica Jones, Peggy Carter, half the cast of ‘Game of Thrones’, and the all-female reboot of ‘Ghostbusters’ is due in part to the major success of ‘Xena’ and ‘Buffy,’ which only serves to increase their value.