This is one of two posts related to a picture doing the rounds on Facebook (and possibly other social networks, I just haven’t seen). Having downloaded a copy, this is what it looks like:
While I’m a Buffy fan and not so much of a Twilight fan, there are a couple of things I think should be borne in mind when making the comparison above. This and the other post should cover them. So…
The point covered in this post is tokenism and how it blows the importance of both Bella (Twilight) and Buffy out of all proportion. (You may remember that I said there’s a need for more women in general and more strong women in particular in the Strong Women: Perverted By Choice post.)
Compare and Contrast
Oddly enough, both the Twilight and the Buffy worlds seem to be well populated with women. By the nature of its sub-genre (see the other post), it’s understandable why only Bella is in any sense well-developed in her world – although Edward’s family and Bella’s friends are not so much less developed as cardboard cut-outs. Buffy, on the other hand, has family (all female), a gender-balanced Scooby Gang and an equally balanced background group. Her bad guys tend to male but, as bad guys are generally approached more as “things” than people, this probably doesn’t make much difference. The problem in these examples, then, isn’t that Bella or Buffy are tokens in their own worlds.
Comparing the the characters directly, we have an essentially normal female human teenager and one with super-powers. Bella, the “normal”, is passive and spends a lot of time over-thinking without doing. Buffy, the “superhero”, is more active – at least in taking on her physical demons – although she complains about being stuck in a life she didn’t ask for.
Think about it. If Bella is convinced that she is clumsy and incapable of fending off a particular threat, why would she be active and step in – until she absolutely has to. While I agree it gets wearing in a heroine for several books, it’s not unreasonable behaviour. Her internalisation of behaviours that could be considered abusive, the apparent acceptance and so on, doesn’t get any prettier – in fact, applying too much logic makes me wonder if she’s doing it all under duress. Stockholm Syndrome, perhaps?
Buffy herself can be just as weak in some ways: she never really does anything to balance out her life outside of being a slayer, she (after a number of fights) accepts that that is all she can be. It takes a few seasons of whining, a few half-hearted attempts at education – bearing in mind that there’s an expectation for bright, relatively well-off kids to progress from school to university (American: school to college), she isn’t so much bucking the trend as trying to keep two trends going at once. Sure, she messes with the structure of her world by creating many more slayers by the end of the TV series but she doesn’t actually have any ambition beyond surviving. Maybe that’s all that can be expected of someone who is essentially a soldier on the front line.
The attention they’re getting – the discussion about what “message” they carry – means that the problem is that they are tokens in the entertainment industry as a whole rather than their worlds. There isn’t a spectrum of female roles across the media platforms that would suggest it’s okay for Bella to feel overwhelmed by the superpowers around her, or for Buffy’s lack of ambition to stand out.
Roles vs. Role Models
The creators of these characters may, of course, have a message that these behaviours are desirable but it’s more likely that this is a subconscious thing behind the basic concepts – one being a romance and one being about learning to be an individual. It’s true that, if we want to enforce a characterisation of what the “texts” are saying, we could read Twilight as an endorsement of feminine passivity and chastity with Buffy a contrast of independence and liberation – which most discussion about the two agree they appear to suggest. On that interpretation alone, it’s very easy for me to agree that Buffy is a better role model. But, then, I’ve already mentioned I don’t like the Twilight franchise as much as Buffy.
That said, we could also read Buffy as a reminder that a person must focus on their work and who gives a damn if the rest of life goes to pot? With Twilight there is perhaps a suggestion that a person at least has a choice about which part of her life succeeds with Bella choosing her partner over her career. (When stacked up in comparison.) Buffy has the benefit of being almost genderless in the moral, Twilight is probably harking back to old values and doesn’t actually come out any better. Stay home and keep the home fires burning? Only if I’m burning down the miserable b******’s house, thanks.
I don’t agree totally with either assessment I’ve just presented – a lot rests on the genre of each franchise, and thus the expectations it has to meet – and I don’t think either franchise is important enough to really have a conscious lesson or moral. However, the thing that makes this so painful is that there are so few comparable examples that these franchises must be considered important and these roles must also be considered as role models. And, on that point, at least one of them falls down because Bella is a romantic heroine, a fantasy, and not an example of how to behave. Buffy, of course, is in a world that’s also fantastic and dealing with situations that are not directly comparable to real life. Trying to make her directly applicable sends us down the path of “being a workaholic with no life or outside interests and no desire for your boss’s job is a Good Thing” – or the only thing.
Because these are examples of female roles that stand-out, they are elevated to the level of role models – an idea of how a woman could and should be. The reality is that they’re just roles, fulfilling what the plot and their creators require of them – and I would say that Buffy is more well-rounded and developed but this is as much about the sub-genre and the plot(s) she’s been given as the creators’ abilities and messages. They wouldn’t stand out quite so much if there were equivalent stories of (possibly romantic) heroines who decide to jump in to action despite being “normal” in comparison to their opponents – though they’re intelligence would then be questioned – or “superheroes” who didn’t always sacrifice their partners for their independence or their friends for the greater good.
In this instance, a variety of individuals and their options is more empowering than an individual’s (faked) choice.
Making It Count
The best example of making things add up that I can give is an advert that has been winding me up of late. I’ve talked about it to people before and even mentioned it in a comments thread on someone else’s blog. But here we go again:
There is an advert for a “lawyers’ company” – despite UK lawyers being barristers and solicitors – that has four people pitching the company’s business. All four walk and talk to the camera. All four wear neat and sensible business clothing. Out of four, one is black. Out of four, one is a woman. (We can see tokenism coming or we’re getting hypersensitive, take your pick.)
This company’s adverts always have someone stumble – this is about no win, no fee accident cases, after all. In this instance, it’s the woman. She’s not wearing particularly high heels. She’s not inappropriately dressed. It’s just one of those things. So maybe I am being hypersensitive. But.
She’s basically the only representation of a woman in the adverts I’ve seen lately who isn’t being defined by her husband / partner, her kids, her grandkids, or her parents. She’s a business woman and *gasp* her private life doesn’t matter in this less than two minute presentation – which, given the nature of an advert, is not the same as Buffy being a workaholic equivalent. This advert woman functions as a representation of a lawyer, nothing more and nothing less, in the same way her male colleagues do. I’ll say that again, slightly differently: All that matters about this woman is that she is a professional, just like the other three “presenters”.
Buffy would be so proud. Or maybe not. Because, apparently, this woman can’t even walk in low heels and talk at the same time. There is one fix I can think of for the actual company in that they could have filmed this advert four times and had each of the actors fall. This would have at least given some variety – and me slightly less of a leg to stand on when I decide it must be down to sexism. (They’ve probably had men slip or trip in earlier adverts but I can’t help thinking it’s down to ensuring the three men keep their gravitas.) It’s probably not worth the cost of doing the advert several times over.
But the problem isn’t really this advert. The problem is that there aren’t more adverts where women are shown as relatively independent of family ties, or the need to be decoration, or the need to be “feminine” in a decorative sense. The problem with Bella vs. Buffy isn’t that one role is necessarily worse than the other, it’s that there aren’t more female roles – and I don’t mean lead roles, just any roles – that pick up the spectrum of differences between them. The difference in their (not so) admirable traits is understandable in the context of the stories they’re being used in, there just haven’t been other female roles that can be compared to either in the same time frame – at least not with that level of visibility.