Monday, February 9, 2009

Just a Girl (Buffy)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of my favorite shows. It is smart, funny, and emotionally dramatic. Its creator, Joss Whedon, is a self-proclaimed feminist and many of the show’s themes deal with empowerment and equality. However, I have some issues with the way the character of Dawn is treated. It is my personal belief that although the primary protagonist Buffy is treated well, the show presents ageism in the depiction of her sister Dawn.

When the show starts off, Buffy is a 15-year-old girl, an ex-cheerleader from L.A. She knows about fashion and speaks with a Valley-Girl-ish manner of speaking, which is filled with slang adults find hard to understand. She’s also the chosen one. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.
Buffy is a teenage girl with a sacred destiny. She is the last hope of the town of Sunnydale to stop vampires and other nasty creatures from coming into power on many occasions. Problem is, the authorities don’t recognize her as a keeper of the peace. Despite her desire for normalcy and the security that comes with anonymity, she remains subject to the ageism of society that comes with being a teenage girl. The episode School Hard comes to mind, in which Buffy has to keep horrid Principal Snyder from telling her mother she’s a delinquent and getting grounded, while simultaneously dealing with Slayer-killer vampire Spike’s plan to make her his latest kill.
Buffy is quick to develop a romantic relationship with fellow warrior for the side of good, Angel. Angel was at first a mysterious character, a man who would show up to offer intel on the plots of the underworld, and then disappear until next time. He’s handsome and has that mysterious bad boy sex appeal, so it’s no wonder Buffy becomes attracted to him and wants to pursue a relationship. She assumes him to be about college age and doesn’t consider their age difference to be an issue, except where her mother is concerned and she lies to her and says Angel is a tutor.
Of course, Angel turns out to be a centuries-old vampire. Once one of the world’s worst mass murderers, he was cursed with a soul (basically, a conscience) and is now on the side of good. As soon as Buffy is assured of Angel’s loyalty, she resumes her romantic relationship with him. Their quite broad age difference is rather progressively treated as a nonissue (although I suspect things would be different if Angel were less sexually attractive and youthful in his appearance). It’s just an aspect of Buffy’s supernatural nightlife, which she must keep secret from her mother who wouldn’t understand.
On Buffy’s 17th birthday, she takes their relationship to the next level and has sex with Angel. Angel has a moment of perfect happiness and the curse is broken, restoring him to his soulless sociopathic state. Now the Scourge of Europe once again, Angel stalks and harasses Buffy to take his revenge on her for making him feel love. He is evil and is a metaphor for the nice guy you sleep with who turns bad. Buffy is forced to kill him to prevent him from opening a portal to Hell, but Willow conjures up his soul at the last instant and Buffy purposefully kills her lover to save the world from literally being sucked into Hell.
Even when Angel is evil, the age gap is a nonissue. Buffy and Angel are portrayed as two individuals involved in a serious relationship. Although Buffy is technically a minor, this never keeps her from being given proper respect by the creators or most of the audience.
Skip ahead to season five. Monks decide that Buffy is the best candidate to be the guardian of the mystic Key, which can open portals across universes, and they transform the Key into a girl made from Buffy’s blood: Dawn. They alter everyone’s memories so they think that Dawn is Buffy’s little sister and always has been.
Dawn is 14-years-old in appearance and state of mind (opposed to the eons of Key existence, and few weeks of existing in human form, which complicate the issue in terms of technicality), and is considerably more carefree and simplistic than Buffy was when she was 15. Despite having memories of having grown up with Buffy being “out” about being the Slayer far earlier than in proper reality, Dawn has been kept sheltered and shielded in an attempt to protect her innocence. She is so protected from the harshness of the world that she has developed a skewed perspective in which she simply does not recognize the danger that exists around her. Instead of being educated and given tools to avoid risk on her own, Dawn is “shielded” from such things and is denied the respect she deserves.
The monks specifically engineered the family dynamic as a means to get Buffy to keep the Key protected, so some of the Scoobies’ behavior is justifiable. By making Dawn unable to take care of herself or be trusted on her own, fewer risks would be taken that would put her in any kind of jeopardy. This is the template from which the gang was working, so it makes sense that things would be skewed the way the monks wanted things for a while (manipulative little weasels).
However, once the truth comes out that Dawn is the Key, the way they treat her should be revised. And it is revised to some extent, but not nearly as much as they should. At first Buffy and Giles are the only ones who know, and then they tell the others but keep it secret from Dawn herself. Dawn can tell they’re acting weird around her and with Spike’s help she sneakily reads Giles’ notes about her to learn what’s going on.
The revelation causes such an identity crisis that Dawn is triggered into self-injuring and she cuts her arm. The Scoobies explode with concern and all care about her psychological well-being. This is the real catalyst for change from the monk-made template. Now the gang can finally act unburdened from those weaselly monks and live by their own free will, but they still don’t treat Dawn with proper respect (and will refrain from doing so until Buffy realizes she should in the last few minutes of the season six finale episode).
Feeling alienated by the Scoobies, Dawn develops a crush on Spike. Her previous crush on Xander was, after all, just monk manipulation. Now Xander’s treating her all weird and Spike was the person who helped her discover what she really was, so her crush is understandable. Plus, as many a fangirl will attest, Spike is really sexy with that bad boy charm. So, tired of dealing with the Scoobies, she visits Spike in his crypt after school.
Spike: “I’ve got things to do…” (Dawn looks skeptical) “Bad, evil things!” (Dawn looks amused) “That are not for a child’s eyes.”
Dawn: “I’m not a child. I’m not even human. Not originally.”
Spike: “Yeah, well, originally I was. I got over it. Doesn’t seem to me it matters very much how you start out.”
Dawn: “That’s smart. I get that. I like how you talk to me like I can understand things. Everyone else is being all twitchy and secretive.”
After convincing him to let her stay, they talk all day, somehow transitioning into Spike telling her creepy stories about his serial killing exploits. Dawn hangs onto his every word, showing incredible tolerance for his conscienceless idea of a good time. Although, I can imagine that it wouldn’t go quite as well if Spike shared his hobby of raping girls Dawn’s age (“It’s not worth it if they don’t cry”), but I digress.
Spike, alas, is in love with Buffy. Although Dawn is pretty obviously flirting with him throughout her visit, he is so preoccupied with thoughts of Buffy that he fails to notice. When Buffy shows up, he completely abandons his charismatic serial killer persona in favor of a responsible non-sociopathic persona to hopefully appeal to the object of his affection.
It doesn’t. Buffy remains disgusted by Spike. After dismissing him, she argues with Dawn on why it is not okay to have a crush on Spike:
Dawn: “It’s just, he’s got cool hair, and he wears leather coats and stuff… and he doesn’t treat me like an alien.”
“He’s a killer, Dawn. You cannot have a crush on something that is dead, and evil, and a vampire.”
Dawn: “Right, that’s why you were never with Angel for three years.”
Buffy: “Angel’s different. He has a soul.”
Dawn: “Spike has a chip. Same diff.”
Buffy: “I can’t listen to this! Spike is a monster, okay? And plus, you are only 14-years-old.”
Okay, Buffy’s got a point as far as the soullessness goes. Generally speaking, sociopathic serial killers don’t make the best boyfriends (Dexter notwithstanding). Dawn’s suggestion that his behavioral modification chip could act as a suitable replacement for a soul is suspect. Getting electrocuted every time he tries to physically hurt anything non-demony is hardly the same thing as a conscience. For one thing, while Spike’s actions are restricted, he is still free to think evilly and yearn for his days of bloodshed. In addition, he can hurt people non-physically or indirectly through getting unchipped vampires to fight for him.
Spike’s not the usual vampire, though. He can feel love to some extent. His devotion to Buffy and fondness for all of the Summers women makes him behave uncharacteristically human. This ultimately culminates in him seeking out a soul of his own initiative, sacrificing his evilness in favor of goodness “so Buffy can get what she deserves.”
This event is yet to occur and Spike has yet to evolve into the sort of person who would do it, so it is reasonable for Buffy to be skeptical of Dawn’s insistence that Spike is as harmless as Angel. Spike simply isn’t unless he has a soul, anyway. However, Buffy is just being unduly ageist by naming Dawn’s age as a significant factor in why Dawn shouldn’t crush on Spike.
Buffy was just 15, only a year older than Dawn, when she first got into a relationship with Angel. The vampires’ ages vary due to continuity errors, but the generally used canon holds Angel’s age at around 250 and Spike’s at around 150, give or take a few decades. Only a year’s difference between the two girls is hardly significant when comparing the respective age separation between them and their undead objects of affection.
As Buffy was fine with liking Angel when she thought he was just college-age, and okay with dating undead Angel once she found out he had a soul, it seems like she’s saying that Dawn shouldn’t be allowed to have control over her love life just because she is 14. Like if Joyce had forbade Buffy from dating college-age Angel, she wouldn’t do it behind her back anyway. [insert eye roll] It’s just horrid ageism denying Dawn her free will and right to conduct her affairs as she should be able to do.
Now, it could be said that Dawn’s mentality is considerably more immature than Buffy was at 15. The monks constructed her in a way that makes her mind less like a 14-year-old girl, and more like a (say) 8-year-old girl. Okay, maybe, but this doesn’t change the fact that Dawn has a right to make her own decisions. The pseudo-pedophilia of a mental 8-year-old getting amorously involved with a sexually mature boy dissolves away when you consider that Dawn, for all her potential mental ages, is very much a 14-year-old in physical form, possessing all the feelings and emotions that come with that.
For most of my life, I have been underage, legally a minor. I believe some of my more complex thoughts began around the age of 7 and my sense of identity solidified around 14, give or take. I believe my consciousness truly came into its finest form around that time, and what I am now is just an aged version of what I was. Who I am as a person has essentially not changed over the years, although I am certain there have been changes, and I consider myself really a kid. Can’t help it if my body has aged, but I’m still a kid inside, if that makes sense.
So, I have a lot of issues with what general society mandates with their ostensible goal of “protecting the children.” Much of this so-called “protection” involves restriction of the rights of the demographic whose lives they supposedly wish to improve. Our culture is saturated with harmful ideology that holds that children are in an irrational state and must be coerced and indoctrinated for their own good.
Children are very much second-class citizens of the contemporary era, much as women and black people have been treated in the past. Society evolved and became better since then. Not to say sexism and racism don’t exist nowadays, just that the situation’s much better off for everyone. While the situation for children has definitely improved over the years, what with the steps to eliminate corporal punishment and all that stuff, the situation is still poor. Just as the popularly-respected minority demographics have been denied their agency, kids everywhere are treated with age-based prejudicial oppression stemming from the insidious line of thought that it’s “all for their own good” and through being viewed as irrational and silly they are denied the ability to act as independent individuals.
Were Dawn being disrespected by a masculine figure such as Xander or Giles, I can imagine the scenario would be portrayed very differently. Dawn would be respected by the writers and by the audience for embodying that girl power feminist spirit (Hoorah!). But because it’s Buffy, Dawn is just a troubled young woman who has all her identity issues but is ultimately just a McGuffin for Buffy to protect as well as a way for her to find out about Spike’s infatuation.
Later on in season six, when Dawn is 15, she convinces Tara to let her research demons with the rest of the Scooby Gang. Tara’s main reservation with letting Dawn look at the book she eventually hands over to her seems to be an image of a demon with a large penis Dawn initially mistakes for a horn. It seems like a bit of a double standard considering that the Scoobies were researching demons at that age or near enough back in the first season. Buffy and Willow seemed fine with Xander checking out all the books on witchcraft specifically to look at the semi-nude engravings. One could interpret this double standard as sexist, but considering that it is Buffy the Vampire Slayer we’re talking about I’ll chalk it under ageist.
In conclusion, despite my undying love of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I find the treatment and portrayal of the character of Dawn to be ageist. The initial portrayal of Buffy in her high school years had some real ageism-challenging material that was progressive in nature. Unfortunately, the show lost some of its empowerment of young people in its later seasons when the main cast became adults.

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