Given the wildly fluctuating highs and lows of 2017 (let’s face it, mainly lows), this past year’s GeekGirlCon represented the perfect space to reflect on the progress that has been made in the media we love, as well as the work that still needs to be done. One panel which perfectly encapsulated this blend of nostalgia and foresight was Lassos, Lightsabers, and Stakes: Assessing the Heroine’s Journey 20 Years After Buffy.
Since 2017 was the 20th anniversary of the premiere of the complex and groundbreaking Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series, this panel highlighted the ways in which the entertainment industry still struggles to accept the lessons demonstrated by the enduring impact of the show, its characters, and its fans. Simultaneously, panelists celebrated the gains made through media ranging from Wonder Woman and Star Wars at the movies to Supergirl, The 100, and The Crown on television.
Drawing on the theory of the Heroine’s Journey – a counterpoint, most notably presented by Maureen Murdock in her 1990 book of the same name, to Joseph Campbell’s famed Hero’s Journey – in which characters experience a cyclical journey of personal and communal growth, the panelists analyzed the state of affairs in media representation for women and other underrepresented communities.
The panelists included B.J. Priester, a law professor, novelist, editor, and self-professed “lifelong geek;” Tricia Barr, an engineer, novelist, and writer at the FANgirl blog; and Jennifer K. Stuller, a writer, editor, and pop culture critic and historian specializing in the history of American female superheroines and action heroines in comics, film, and television.
Fittingly beginning with the enduring significance of Buffy, the panelists discussed the modern-day resonance of its values, especially the themes of community, friendship, mutual support, and female empowerment and leadership. The panelists argued that, while many shows shaped the values of young people at the time, Buffy truly defined those values. However, the show is not without its flaws. The panelists noted the egregious lack of diversity in the show’s cast as a particularly frustrating limitation. Similarly, the actions of the show’s creator Joss Whedon – which have been incredibly problematic and disappointing to say the least – are important to grapple with for fans who continue to glean insight, comfort, and empowerment from the series.
The panel subsequently analyzed Star Wars and Wonder Woman, pieces of media which represent both how far we have come in terms of representation for women in film, as well as highlight the limitations that we still encounter time and time again. With the emergence of the character Rey, the Star Wars universe has introduced an exceptional new example of a heroic arc, as well as an inspirational figure for audiences and storytellers to connect with. At the same time, the film series needs to ensure that all female characters are depicted as full human beings, with agency and complexity of their own.
As Jennifer noted, Wonder Woman not only became the highest grossing DC comic film ever, but had a “visceral, resonant impact,” due to the care with which director Patty Jenkins crafted a narrative of empowerment and the struggle for power and self-determination in a world marred by war and misogynistic violence. However, as Trisha noted, Wonder Woman is far from perfect, and it too falls far short in terms of full representation for women and marginalized groups as a whole.
This panel is a perennial staple at GeekGirlCon, a chance to check in on the state of affairs in feminist media. As the panelists noted, every year there are more stories to talk about, more examples of exciting and necessary representation, and more opportunities in the future to look forward to. But as with the Heroine’s Journey itself, the progress of intersectional feminist representation is never-ending, and we must constantly challenge ourselves to support diverse media, to fight for greater representation, and to create our own narratives which challenge all of us to extend our knowledge, understanding, and empathy.