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Why Xena And Buffy Were The Most Kickass Female Superheroes For ’90s Kids

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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.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer

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.

Friendship Goals: Buffy Summers And Willow Rosenberg

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.

Xena The Warrior Princess

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!

Whedon And Tapert Did Pretty Good

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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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