Why Do You Write These Strong Female Characters?

I had planned (and I say that in the loosest form of the word) to blog about something else today, but during my morning romp through the Book of Face, I saw a meme posted by the lovely Traci Douglass.

You can probably already guess that it hijacked that original “plan.”

In other words, because people find strong women strange.

You all know me and Joss Whedon. He’s one of my all-time heroes. And I love that quote. The greatest writers know how to dig their fingers into the pulsing heart of an issue and draw out the gold. I consider Joss a Great Writer.

But the creator of the meme did something I find interesting. And I’ll read into it, because that’s what I do.

For those of you familiar with Buffy and Angel, you’ll see two characters in this meme who are familiar, but that are using the faces of other characters.

The dark-haired witch at the bottom? For most of Buffy, she looked more like this:

Willow Rosenberg

Not so much with the veiny. Willow Rosenberg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And the blue-haired, leather-sporting chica in the bottom left corner, she is best known to us like this:

Winifred Burkle

Winifred Burkle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What struck me as interesting was that the creator of the meme either subconsciously or consciously chose to represent the alter-egos of Fred Burkle and Willow Rosenberg — Illyria and Dark Willow, respectively. Which to me says that this person felt on some level that Illyria and Dark Willow were stronger than Fred and Willow.

I disagree.

Both Illyria and Dark Willow were in part evil. Illyria was a former Old One who returned by stealing Fred’s body. Illyria was an ancient god who ruled by fear and whose temples had crumbled to dust during her long slumber in the Deeper Well. Dark Willow was a product of vengeance and fury who embraced dark magics to punish those who murdered her lover.

Fred and Willow? Fred was a brilliant physicist who got sucked into a hell dimension (at least hell to humans) for five years, where her intelligence and ingenuity saved her life over and over. When she joins Angel back in L.A., she overcomes the damage that Pylea did to her psyche and her mind. She has a darker side, seeking revenge on the professor who damned her to those five years in hell, and she is one of the more open members of Angel Investigations to joining Wolfram and Hart in season five.

But Fred is strong. She has faced huge trauma and come out of it better. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone watching Angel and hating Fred. She’s a brilliant character in her own right.

For me? Illyria is sort of meh. It should have been Fred’s face on that picture. Fred and Illyria are two discrete entities, no matter that Illyria is able to alter her own genetic structure to impersonate the former owner of her body. Once Illyria is there, Fred is gone.

And then there’s Willow.

Sure, Darth Rosenberg could sizzle Warren into a flayed, dangling pulp. Sure, she could physically best Buffy. But Dark Willow was still weak, as anyone running on pure fury is. They may have a powerful frontal assault, but they leave their flanks unguarded, which is how Giles is able to set the events in motion that allow her best friend to reach her through her anger.

Willow herself, though, is truly something spectacular. She teaches herself magic and learns through her (many) mistakes. She fights alongside Buffy and is usually Buffy’s most stalwart friend. And when the magics run away with her? She quits.

She manages to do what few people are capable of — she comes back from the darkness after letting it fully suffuse her being. And she learns the true essence of magic and uses it to change the world.

Now, I don’t know the creator of the meme, and I can only assume that he or she didn’t intend to make a statement by opting to go for the flashier characterisations portrayed by two beloved actors. But where I think Joss truly excels in his writing of strong female characters isn’t only when he makes them wield magic and guns and kick ass.

It’s what he builds over seasons and episodes. It’s that he taps deeper and deeper into what makes them go, what makes them strong, what makes them become strong. Buffy Summers, standing on the edge of the Sunnydale crater? She’s in a different  stratosphere than the Buffy Summers who buried the Master in a shallow grave.

The women Joss writes don’t come out of the gates perfect. They’re flawed. They’re sometimes broken. They’re frightened. But they persevere. And in doing so, they become something greater.

I watch a lot of different shows, and I have seen very few I would say come close to the level of development that Joss gives the women in his stories. Veronica Mars, definitely. Walking Dead? Not so much. Dexter? I could give Deb a nod for sure.

What Joss understands — that the people who continually ask him the titular question of this post do not — is that women are not memes. Women are not confined to archetypes and stereotypes. Women are more than that, and they deserve to be portrayed as such.

Joss operates in a mindset where the Strong Female Character is only a reflection of Strong Women. A mindset where “Strong Female Character” really means Strong Character, female. What is unfortunate is that, whether they want to admit it or not, much of the world still operates on tropes — which is why Joss’s attention to the development of his female characters is so mystifying to many.

And I couldn’t help but think when I saw the pictures mashed into that meme, that the creator sort of missed the point. Fred and Willow exemplify Strong Characters, period. Illyria and Dark Willow are strong females.

There is a distinction.

For every Buffy Summers, there are fifty or more Megan Fox’s in Transformers. They might have some strength, but they lack two of their three dimensions. And that, more than anything else, makes up Joss’s response.

Why do you write these strong female characters?

Because you’re still asking me that question.


The world needs more Willow and Fred. 


About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on August 30, 2012, in Buffy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. This is awesome, Emmie.

    The first thing I noticed when I saw that meme is just about every character is wielding a weapon. And yeah, they all can kick butt, but what I love about Joss’ female characters is that they have strength that doesn’t have to equate with being “bad-ass”.

    Zoe from Firefly isn’t just a soldier, she’s an awesome wife. (Yes, being awesome at wifery is a kick-butt skill.) And what about the characters that aren’t up there? Kaylee was a super-skilled mechanic and kind-hearted.

    Whedon’s female characters are multi-dimensional – which is what makes them strong 🙂

    • Yeah, the weapons caught my eye first too. In my opinion, all those characters’ strongest moments occurred when they were bare-handed. Buffy jumping from the tower in The Gift, Echo choosing who to trust….yep.

  2. As always, an excellent post.

  3. I agree and disagree. While I agree that Willow and Fred alone are incredibly strong characters, I disagree that Dark Willow and Illyria aren’t also strong characters.

    One thing people have to remember, and I think Joss did it very well in season 7, is that Dark Willow is actually Willow, just a dark side of her. A lot of people want to separate her and say this is an entirely different entity. No, this is Willow addicted to magicks, not allowing herself time to grieve.

    I just watched all of season 6 the last few days, and I saw the pain in her face while Xander kept saying “I love you” as she tried to destroy the world. She didn’t believe anyone could love her except Tara, and she was dead. Without Tara in the world, what else was there? Willow didn’t want to find out. Instead, she focused her grief on vengeance, which eventually turned into chaos. So, while I understand what you’re saying, and I think OP (original poster aka the creator of the meme) chose a pretty badass version of Willow to place in the meme, I think there is a purpose. Yes, she’s the dark version, but it is Willow.

    And if anything, Dark Willow helps Willow see how she doesn’t properly deal with reality. Through the seasons, especially as she grew stronger in the magicks, she kept fixing everything with a spell. All the way from season 4, she tried making things all better with her abilities. So, ultimately, I sign off on the choice of character.

    As for Illyria, although I get what you’re saying about her original plans of world domination, Joss still shifted her original intent from dominatrix Old God into a complex being dealing with emotions for the first time. I also find it fascinating what you said about Fred no longer being there. If anything, at the end of season 5, and in the comics, Illyria has retained bits of Fred’s memories and emotions, thus giving Illyria layers to build upon.

    She’s a weakened Old One who must reside with these “puny mortals”. She even learns to listen to Angel, who is a vampire, a weakling compared to her in the previous days. But she understands power, leadership, and how to fall in line if need be. She is compassionate, even though she denies it. When Wesley was dying, she transformed into Fred for him. When her parents came to visit, she transformed into their daughter so they didn’t freak out.

    I’m biased when it comes to Fred/Illyria. I loved Fred, I really truly did. She was a strong character who happened to be female. She was even becoming a bit of a badass with guns and fire launchers, but ultimately died. And Amy Acker’s transformation from the southern belle to an emotionless demi-god was astounding. It was some of the best acting I’ve seen in years.

    So while I understand what you’re saying, I think it is ironic the imagery the OP used to make the meme. But it still doesn’t make the quote any less meaningful. Yes, being a strong character who happens to be female means more than wielding a weapon. It’s more than being a mother. It’s being a strong individual with morals who suffers and becomes something new in the end. Illyria and Dark Willow are great representations of that, no?

    • Hmmm. I initially read your comment at work and couldn’t respond.

      While I don’t disagree that Illyria is strong and that Dark Willow is powerful (in a sense, which I will get to in a bit), I do think Fred and Willow are stronger.

      I’ll start with Illyria.

      I do like what happened with her character later, but they also had a very limited window to develop her, whereas Fred had two and a half seasons before Illyria invaded her body. I think it’s also an important distinction between them, because although Illyria can read and process the connections in Fred’s physical brain, Fred is gone. In A Hole in the World, they said in no uncertain terms that Illyria’s usurping of Fred’s body annihilated Fred’s soul in the process. Fred is gone in the truest sense of the word — that’s something else that made her death so horrific. She underwent a process that liquified her insides and snuffed out her essence. I think most humans can relate to the fear of dying and simply Not Being. So while Illyria can access Fred’s memories, it no more means that Fred remains than if Illyria had say, read Fred’s journal. Even in the post-television developments, they make it pretty clear that Illyria’s memories of Fred’s life affect her, but it doesn’t mean Fred herself is still there.

      I agree with everything you said about Amy Acker’s acting — she’s by far one of the best actresses I’ve seen on television. Her performance in Dollhouse was brilliant in every way, and she handled her dual roles on Angel with symphonic finesse. I just think that as a character, Fred is stronger and more complex.

      On to Willow…

      I don’t think Dark Willow is the strongest aspect of Willow at all. I think that what showed Willow her own shortcomings was the experience of murdering Warren and the guilt she felt at threatening the lives of the people she loved rather than Dark Willow, though that was a vehicle. Her turn to dark magics was the culmination of a long series of extremely flawed and selfish decisions. As much as I love Tara, Willow’s reaction to her death was so selfishly motivated and based in insecurity that it made her growth in season seven much more poignant.

      I understand debilitating grief. But most people handle it and mourn without going homicidal. What I didn’t like about seeing the darkest part of Willow showcased with the strength of Buffy and Echo and Zoe and River was that it glorified that selfishness rather than celebrating the true strength that Willow later found in using her magics to help people and ultimately change the world.

      While I love the arc of season six and love what they did with Willow to cap off her manic behaviour and transition her into something greater, I found the meme unsettling. As someone else mentioned in the comments, most of the women were shown with guns, and the creator opted for Illyria and Dark Willow who are more physically and metaphysically “tough” (sort of — Goddess Willow in Chosen is something else entirely) than their more human counterparts.

      Interestingly, I actually have a very different interpretation of what happened at the temple in Grave. I have always felt that Xander tapped into the real Willow with his speech and that the dark magics she absorbed had taken her over. Also, without the magics that Giles dosed her with, she wouldn’t have been reachable for Xander. Without her experiencing the true essence of magic (which to that point, she never had), the dark magics would have controlled her much like the drugs they symbolise. A person on PCP is still that person, but I doubt anyone wants to be remembered or recognised as the person they are when their bodies are at the mercy of foreign substances that cause massive changes in behaviour.

      I agree that Dark Willow is a part of real Willow, but I don’t agree that Dark Willow is an appropriate representation of Willow’s character any more than Buffy beating Spike to a pulp is the epitome of hers. I also disagree that badassery equals strength. I believe that Dark Willow is a conglomerate of the weakest parts of her humanity — her selfishness, her blindness to hurting others to get what she wants, her seeking vengeance at any cost, and ultimately, Dark Willow is a bully who goes after people for the sake of besting them and feeling better about herself. (Instanced in her words to Buffy before their fight scene, AND her many comments to Giles throughout season 6.)

      That is why I have a big problem with the meme. I don’t think of Dark Willow as a “strong” character. She is part of Willow’s complexity, but from Villains to Grave, she is weak. She gives into magics, she murders to get what she wants (even though I cheer at the death of Warren like most people do), she threatens her friends and the people who love her, and she thumbs her nose at the love everyone else has for her because she can’t have what she wants. It’s not strength that makes people choose to do those things — it’s denial and avoidance of what the real matter is. All those things signify weakness to me. And in season seven, they portray that by showing the juxtaposition of Willow’s former approaches to her new outlook in which she suffers through her pain instead of trying to erase it or make others feel worse to make herself feel better. (As an aside, the latter is something you see throughout season four after New Moon Rising — Willow is often upset by the fact that others are moving on post Oz and she’s stuck with the grief she feels.)

      Willow is one of the best characters ever created, and her stint as Dark Willow is part of that, but that is far and away the opposite of what I think of when I think of Willow Rosenberg. I think of her as someone who made a lot of wrong bloody calls and took a painful, selfish road to finding out that she had the strength within her to deal with her life’s trauma. And the face on that has red hair, not black.

  4. I love your response — you are so right. There’s a difference between a strong woman and a female action hero. Women in TV and movies don’t have to be kick-ass and carrying a gun to be strong. Even Tara from Buffy was strong (although still a bit of a mouth breather) and the Kaylee from Firefly was just as strong being a mechanic as Zoe was with her shotgun. I think the point is to write females who care about things other than finding a relationship and who can make her own decisions. I like romance too, but I need to follow a strong lead and not someone who changes everything about herself to be with a man.

  5. And interesting post and I agree with you on Fred and Willow.

    My problem is that the creator used Black Widow. While she was a very strong character, in Ironman 2, I think she became far weaker in The Avengers. That gives credit for her strength to Jon Favreau, not Whedon. True, she closed the portal, but beyond that her character was deeply minimized. And it was something that disappointed me.

    Not that anyone can blame Whedon for focusing on the boys in The Avengers, Ironman and Captain America are overwhelming characters that would suck up all the life in any movie (that was meant to be a compliment, it didn’t come out as one). But, Black Widow was already placed as a strong character from Ironman 2, where as Hawkeye was placed as a cameo appearance in Thor. By shifting focus of the smaller role on the team to Hawkeye, I think Whedon did the story and Black Widow a huge disservice.

    Also not including Kaylee, Inara, Cordie or Adelle Dewitt is criminal.

    • Those are all good points. I was also disappointed at the way Black Widow was sort of dismissed in Avengers, but I can see why Joss did it that way, I guess.

      Adelle Dewitt — oh, lawdy. Spouse and I are re-watching (well, he’s just watching) Dollhouse. Such a tremendous show. I’m still pissed it got canceled.

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