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Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Chicks in charge like Buffy

Sunday 23 September 2007, by Webmaster

Wonder women: strong female TV characters include (clockwise from top) Claire Bennet (Heroes), Betty Suarez (Ugly Betty); Meredith Grey (Grey’s Anatomy); Xena (Xena: Warrior Princess); Jaime Sommers (the new Bionic Woman); Stevie Hall (McLeod’s Daughters); Kate McDonald (Rainshadow); and Buffy (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

Better, stronger, faster - There’s a new breed of heroines on TV, and audiences are loving it. Melinda Houston reports.

THERE’S always been something about a hot chick in a latex jumpsuit. But lately the female hero has been undergoing a spectacular renaissance.

From suburban heroines such as the girls of Wisteria Lane or the wicked Nancy Botwin of Weeds, to serious super-chicks such as Alias’ Sydney Bristow or the cheerleader from Heroes (not to mention all those crime-fighting dames that pack the prime-time schedule), the sisterhood has never been so strong. And now an old favourite is about to join their ranks. Jaime Sommers — aka the Bionic Woman — will make a triumphant return on October 4 on the Seven Network.

Indeed, while all the networks are generously endowed with wonderful female protagonists at the moment, Seven’s schedule is particularly rich, across all genres. But Melbourne head of programming, Graeme Hill, says that’s more a function of their output deals with the US than any deliberate strategy on their part. That said, Seven chose shows such as Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy, Brothers and Sisters, Ugly Betty and now Bionic Woman for a reason. But according to Hill, that reason could be summed up as: what’s not to like?

"These leading ladies are strong characters, they’re jumping through burning buildings, saving the universe, saving lives, burning down the neighbours’ house, living double lives, and looking immaculately groomed — all in a day’s work!" he says. "It’s pure action, adventure, escapism."

And it’s something Hill says audiences, male and female, have always responded to, from Wonder Woman through to the new Bionic Woman. While some programs, such as Desperate Housewives, do tend to attract more female viewers, others, such as Heroes or even Brothers and Sisters, attract a pretty even gender mix. "It depends who’s got the remote control!" he laughs.

In 2007, it is widely acknowledged that women tend to "control the remote", as Nine’s head of programming Len Downes says. And unlike cinema — where the core audience is understood to be teenage boys — more women than men tend to watch telly. And that has to account in part for the burgeoning of fabulous females on the telly.

"Women are half the audience," says Posie Graeme-Evans, creator of Australia’s most enduring contemporary heroines, the women of McLeod’s Daughters. "But it had always been hard for them (television executives) to hear that."

Indeed, Graeme-Evans famously faced a titanic battle to get her show on air. No one in the boardroom at Nine in the early 1990s could quite believe anyone would watch a show about a bunch of chicks, dogs and horses. "I’m lucky that it got up. But I had such certainty. I just couldn’t let it lie. Now, I’m really bloody happy they were wrong!" she says.

It’s not just the attitude of TV executives that has changed in the past 10 years. Heroines themselves have undergone something of a transformation. Like the Bionic Woman, they’re better, stronger, faster. And much more realistic.

"Certain genres have always allowed for female heroes. Sci-fi, in particular," says Angela Ndalianis, associate professor of cinema studies at the University of Melbourne. "But female heroes these days are much more grounded in reality. Even Buffy (the vampire slayer) was very much about operating in the real world, dealing with the day-to-day business of being a teenager."

Joss Whedon, Buffy’s creator, is credited with remaking the whole idea of the heroine. Buffy didn’t need a bloke to guide or control her. She wasn’t butch, she wasn’t tough in the traditional sense. She liked pretty clothes. Her heart could be broken. But boy, could she kick arse. And you can see her influence in everyone from Veronica Mars and Claire Bennett of Heroes to Desperate Housewives’ Bree Van de Kamp: pretty, feminine, with complex personal lives, but with a powerful sense of themselves and the smarts to rise to any challenge.

"The contemporary female hero doesn’t fall into the stereotypes earlier female heroes did," Ndalianis says. "They’re much tougher, more independent. They don’t need a man but they do tend to need a group. Female heroes are more approachable. And that’s true from fantasy right through to something like Law & Order."

There’s also not so much of that freak-show sense about them (Wow! A girl can do that?). Many contemporary female protagonists, from the girls of McLeod’s to the big-haired babes of CSI, are just part of the team. "In Law & Order, for instance, gender is never an issue," Ndalianis says. "Everyone just does their job."

They’re also much more varied than they ever were. And, on the whole, rather more interesting than their male counterparts. "There aren’t rules about how female heroes behave in the way there are for male heroes," Ndalianis says. "There’s more scope for experimenting with female characters."

It’s the nature of television these days that some of the most interesting developments in drama (and comedy) have been occurring on the small rather than the big screen, from The Sopranos and The West Wing to Weeds and Mad Men. "A lot of experiments, a lot of pushing of the envelope, has been happening on TV rather than in the cinema," says Ndalianis. "Especially cable television, which doesn’t have the restrictions free-to-air does. You can take these risks — if you call having a female protagonist a risk! — because the budgets are smaller, and TV has the capacity to reach a wider audience."

Like any form of popular culture, television both drives and reflects change. Joss Whedon, in his mid-20s when he wrote the first Buffy movie in the early 1990s, is part of a new post-feminist generation ready to see something of their world on the small screen. When Whedon was preparing for the final days of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he hoped his legacy would be a generation of girls who had a new kind of hero; and a generation of boys comfortable with the idea of an ass-kicking girl. He didn’t necessarily achieve that single-handedly but he laid the groundwork for both a whole new world of female heroes, and a whole new audience for them.

Something that both men and women respond to in this new breed of female hero is complexity. They’re just more interesting. They’re more unpredictable. As Ndalianis noted, there are no rules for how such a character should behave. And for writers, that’s a gift.

In Rainshadow, a new series starting on the ABC on October 7, the two protagonists are Rachel Ward as Kate McDonald, long-time vet in drought-ravaged South Australia, and youngster Victoria Thaine as Jill, her new assistant. "The Rachel Ward character has been there a long time, she has that stoic resolve you see in country women," says co-writer and creator Jimmy Thomson. "Then we inject into that this younger woman who has her own ideas about how life should be lived and how things should be done. She brings that real positive energy. So two strong female characters, you have the conflict there, their attitudes are very different even if they actually want the same thing."

Thomson says writing the series around two men would have produced a completely different — and probably far less interesting — dynamic. "Women tend to give you much more room to move in a character-based drama," he says. "Males generally — in life and in fiction — tend to fall into stereotypes. When you see a male character, you expect him to fit into a certain pigeonhole. And as a writer it’s very tough to pull them out of those pigeonholes. With female characters, very rarely is what you see what you get. Life for women is never black and white. It never is and it never can be. So you automatically have conflict there. Drama is conflict, and inner conflict is the most powerful conflict of them all."

"Of course female heroes are different, because they’re female," says Sue Turnbull, associate professor in media studies at La Trobe University. "To create her, the traits of the male hero or superhero have to be feminised. They’ll always be more complex just because they go against stereotype. They have to struggle a bit harder."

WITH any hero, the fundamental attraction is always that idea of strength, of having the power — mental, or physical, or both — to control circumstances, to change the world. In a real world where more of us feel increasingly helpless, that’s strong medicine. And for women, it’s a particularly bracing tonic.

Despite feminism’s achievements, women are not only sorely under-represented in public positions of power, they are often still less than equal with men in their working and private lives. How thrilling, then, to be able to sit down every night and see relatively ordinary women routinely achieving extraordinary things.

"With the super heroes there’s that wonderful physicality," Turnbull says. "Xena was physically a very big woman but Buffy or the Cheerleader are these petite blondes who are also incredibly strong and resilient. They don’t have to be butch to be powerful. And that’s immensely inspirational for some people."

Clearly, for a lot of people. And Turnbull reckons that’s something to be celebrated.

"The role of fantasy is vital," she says. "It allows us to rehearse the possibility that things could be different. Imagination is empowering. So female heroes are inspiring and uplifting. We don’t come away from watching the Bionic Woman thinking we can bend iron bars with our bare hands. But we do imagine standing up, being strong, fighting injustice. And that’s a wonderful thing."