How Joss Whedon Helped Shape The Modern Female Superhero

In the early ’90s, 25 year-old screenwriter Joss Whedon had enough. There was an undeniable trope being repeated in Hollywood, specifically in the horror and thriller genres, that nobody was talking about or even seemed to notice.

The trope was that no matter what, the cute, weak, tiny blonde girl always died first. She would get her five minutes of screen time first, of course, which would usually involve the film representing her with limited intelligence and a Valley Girl twang. A lot of times, the majority of that five minutes was focused on some type of nudity or objectification of said cute, weak, tiny blonde girl. In the end though, she would always meet her dramatic demise.

This, Joss understood, was a horrible way for Hollywood to view women. It was misogynistic and perpetrated inaccurate stereotypes. So Whedon set out to change that; to turn this trope upside down. Thus, and it would .

Joss Whedon on the "Buffy" set (via WB).

Joss Whedon on the “Buffy” set (via WB).

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

In 1991, Joss Whedon sold his first film script, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, to 20th Century Fox. The film featured 90210 star Luke Perry and actress Kristy Swanson as the young blonde cheerleading protagonist, Buffy.

Joss wrote the character to completely squash the blonde girl trope that had made him so irritated with Hollywood. Yes, Buffy was a cheerleader — blonde, hot, and never short on Valley Girl quips — but she also had a destiny.

"Buffy The Vampire Slayer" via 20th Century Fox

“Buffy The Vampire Slayer” via 20th Century Fox

The premise was that little ol’ Buffy was the key to saving the world from being swallowed into Hell through self-sacrifice. Let me repeat: self-sacrifice! Can you hear the trope shattering around us? I can. Females, especially blondes, had mostly been portrayed as weak, selfish, and materialistic in such a way that audiences would almost feel she got what she deserved when she was the first to take an ax to the head.

The film was mildly successful, but Joss was a bit unimpressed with where the director and studio took the film. He felt it was nothing like what he had envisioned for his beloved female heroine, so he began the road to changing that. He started developing a TV series based on the aftermath of what had occurred in the Buffy film. This would be where Joss Whedon really made a statement about feminism in Hollywood and would help show the world that women can be fierce, tough, and resourceful survivors, and all while doing it in heels.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer the TV series , and premiered on The WB (now The CW) in 1997. Actress Sarah Michelle Gellar was cast as the TV version of Buffy, the petite blonde with a fierce right hook and a sharp stake at her side. At the time, there weren’t many genre films or television shows that reflected this type of heroine. Most women were written around sappy love stories or misogynistic storylines reducing them to plot devices that lacked substance.

So how would audiences react to Whedon’s bubbly and smart-mouthed cheerleader who’s out to save the world? Great, in fact. The show was a hit with critics and audiences. It was darker than the film, and Buffy was portrayed as an outsider in her new high school, which made her much more “likable” than her predecessor.

With the Buffy The Vampire Slayer TV series, Joss Whedon introduced a new type of superhero to television — the one you’d least expect — and proved to Hollywood that it could be done. This opened the door for a new era of female heroines as Hollywood saw audiences breaking down the walls that had been built around female characters. Every punch Buffy threw in the face of every man who questioned her capabilities was like dynamite to the “blonde girl dies first” trope.

Buffy’s Lasting Influence

We soon began to see film and television take on daring storylines for their female characters, with shows like Veronica Mars and Alias, and films like Kill Bill and even Legally Blonde. We now have characters leading TV’s biggest shows, like Daenerys on Game of Thrones, Kara Danvers in Supergirl, Jane Doe on Blindspot, and Olivia Pope on Scandal. The list could go on.

NY Mag once regarded 2000-2009 as the era in which , and began to rival the film industry and its illustrious productions. I think this speaks to the era in which Buffy aired (1997-2003), revealing Buffy was key in ushering in a TV renaissance full of powerful women.

Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy (via WB).

Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy (via WB).

Buffy also was one of the first teenage genre shows to introduce season long story arcs, as opposed to running in an episodic form where every episode is sealed up with a bow. The success of shows like Buffy inspired a new generation of youth TV, where the show was written with an entire season in mind, and even laid the groundwork for seasons after. So you have shows like Buffy to thank for those long intense seasons with hair-ripping stress-inducing season finales that keep you coming back for more in The 100 or The Vampire Diaries.

No, Buffy was not the first ever superheroine. For example, female-powered Xena Warrior Princess was already on the air, and everyday comics were littered with female superheroes like Rogue and Supergirl, but Buffy was the first of her kind: A strong female who could kick serious ass, but didn’t like to smudge her lipstick. She was girly, but it didn’t make her weak, and she opened the door for female characters to no longer be the victims, no longer be defined by their appearance.

This influence went well beyond TV and into video games and novels, making way for Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. In fact, Whedon expressed to his hope that Katniss would take Buffy’s lead and head the charge in shifting Hollywood’s unwillingness to make female-led superhero films. He said:

Toymakers will tell you they won’t sell enough, and movie people will point to the two terrible superheroine movies that were made and say, You see? It can’t be done. It’s stupid, and I’m hoping ‘The Hunger Games’ will lead to a paradigm shift. It’s frustrating to me that I don’t see anybody developing one of these movies. It actually pisses me off. My daughter watched ‘The Avengers’ and was like, “My favorite characters were the Black Widow and Maria Hill,” and I thought, “Yeah, of course they were”. I read a beautiful thing Junot Diaz wrote: “If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”

Katniss Everdeen "Catching Fire" via Lionsgate

Katniss Everdeen “Catching Fire” via Lionsgate

Thankfully, Joss was right: The Hunger Games series blasted Jennifer Lawrence to super stardom and made billions worldwide. Hollywood had to change its way of thinking, because audiences were way ahead of them. Currently, Marvel and DC (Warner Bros.) have two female superhero films in production, Wonder Woman — a movie Joss himself tried to get off the ground for years — and Captain Marvel.

Fans have also made it very clear in petitions and social media campaigns that Joss Whedon’s well crafted Avengers member, Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson, and her cohort, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), are deserving of .

Whedon’s imprint on the feminist and equality movement in Hollywood is significant, some might even say we wouldn’t be where we are with female-led action/superhero/horror films and TV without him and without Buffy. In 2006, Whedon accepting an Equality Now award — a non-profit group focused on gender equality –when he put himself in the role of a reporter asking a question he was always getting asked:

‘So, why do you write these strong female characters?’
Because you’re still asking me that question.

Joss Whedon had no time for Hollywood’s excuses. And that, my friends, is how you drop the mic.

Happy birthday, Joss Whedon!


Twitter: @AmieBohannon So basically I fangirl, professionally. Also I assure you I am the droid you’ve been searching for. Milk was a bad choice.