OTI Online
Fall 1998

Brave New Girls
These Tv Heroines Know What Girl Power Really Means
by Debbie Stoller


Move over Spice Girls - there's a new breed of girl in town, and when she says "power," she means business. In the last few seasons, television shows like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Xena: Warrior Princess," "Sabrina the Teenage Witch," and "The Secret World of Alex Mack" have brought us heroines who give real meaning to the words "girl power." Whether they're chucking spears faster than a speeding bullet, kung-fu kicking unruly vampires into kingdom come, or simply breaking the laws of physics, these characters all share a common strength: the ability to leap over sexist stereotypes in a single bound.

In "The Secret World of Alex Mack," the teen of the title uses her special powers to deal with the trials of being female - but no one can know she's different.

Buffy, Xena, Alex, and Sabrina arrived on the cultural landscape just as adults were realizing that the world of teenage girls wasn't all pajama parties and pimple cream. Carol Gilligan, professor of gender studies, sounded the alarm in 1991 when she and her team of Harvard University researchers reported that girls undergo a "crisis in self-esteem" in adolescence from which they never fully recover.

Whereas young girls of nine or ten are self-confident, happy, and assertive - made of more piss and vinegar than sugar and spice - at puberty, a majority of them claim to be "unhappy with the way they are," an effect which is more pronounced among white girls than it is among Black and Hispanic girls. As a result of this loss of self-esteem, many girls become withdrawn and demure, starving their bodies and suppressing their talents in an effort to fit in.

Then, in 1994, Mary Pipher's book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls became a best-seller among parents concerned with how to keep their bratty, outgoing young girls from becoming anorexic, self-mutilating teens. In the book, Pipher, a Ph.D. and practicing therapist, describes how, at puberty, "girls become 'female impersonators' who fit their whole selves into small, crowded spaces. Girls stop thinking, Who am I? What do I want?' and start thinking, What must I do to please others?'" She lays a good portion of the blame for girls' withering sense of self flatly at the feet of the media, calling to task a "girl-hostile culture" and its ability to crush their self-esteem. "American culture has always smacked girls on the head in early-adolescence," she writes.

Seen from this angle, presenting girls in the larger than-life roles of vampire slayers, teenage witches, and warrior princesses may be just what Dr. Pipher ordered. And, judging from their popularity, these shows have been hitting a nerve among girls of all ages.

First on the scene was Nickelodeon's "The Secret World of Alex Mack," a show about a teenage girl who gets into an accident with a chemical truck that leaves her with bizarre powers - like the ability to shoot electricity out of her finger and float things around the room, d la Uri Geller, and the even stranger capacity to transform herself into a puddle of liquid. Alex uses these skills to help herself through the day-to-day difficulties of being a teenage girl, but there's one complication: she needs to keep her powers secret, not only because she doesn't want the other kids to think she's a freak, but also because the chemical company responsible for her misfortune is out to get her. (Not insignificant is the fact that the company, which is presented as being 100 percent evil, is in the business of making diet drugs.) It's this plot twist that makes Alex's situation a neat metaphor for the circumstances that most teenage girls find themselves in. As Pipher points out, girls at this age "are expected to sacrifice the parts of themselves that our culture considers masculine on the altar of social acceptability and shrink their souls down to a petite size." In other words, teenage girls can easily identify with the character of Alex Mack, because, like her, they too have far more power than they are willing to let on.

Sabrina, of "Sabrina the Teenage Witch," is another female character who has magical powers that she is trying to keep secret from the kids at school. And, like Alex, Sabrina basically uses her powers to help herself through the more mundane challenges of teenagerhood. When, for example, Sabrina decides to hold a Halloween party at her house, she begs her aunts, who are also witches, to promise they won't do any magic stuff during the party. The friends come, the aunts work at maintaining appearances, and everyone's! bored. It's only when the magical powers can no longer be kept under wraps - the furniture starts yakking away, monstrous looking houseguests arrive from "The Other Realm," and a river of candy corn pours from the kitchen - that the party really comes alive. "Cool!" says the cute boy, at which point Sabrina decides to pull out all the stops and conjures up a live band in the middle of the living room. The message to young girls? Stop trying to cover up who you are. Revealing your true self might even get you the boy.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer takes on the undead who terrorize her high school - and, in the process, makes some sharp thrusts against the dayto-day sexism faced by all teenage girls.

But it is "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" that is far and away the most successful show in the average-teenage-girl-with extraordinary-powers genre. Buffy is quite different from either Sabrina or Alex Mack. For one thing, her skills are more physical than magical in nature - she accomplishes her slaying through what seems to be a combination of kung-fu and gymnastics. And Buffy's powers serve as more than party tricks; in fact, her survival and the survival of her closest and dearest friends and family members depend on them.

Buffy is the kind of heroine most girls can relate to: she's neither the most popular nor the most nerdy at school, neither the prettiest nor the ugliest. She doesn't come from a perfect home: She lives alone with her mother; in fact, the only male authority figure in the show is the softly sexy British librarian who serves as Buffy's mentor.

The pretext of the show is that it is Buffy's destiny to fight the undead. But, as is suggested by each episode's subplot, what she's really doing is fighting back against the run-of-the-mill sorts of sexism faced by all teenage girls. When her boyfriend suddenly goes cold-shoulder on her after they've finally slept together ("Lighten up - we had a great time, let's not make a big deal out of it."), Buffy doesn't just get mad she gets even. Of course, her drop-kicking outburst is actually inspired by the fact that the boyfriend is also a vampire, but still, it's satisfying to watch Buffy avenge her pain and frustration in such a direct manner. Other objects of her wrath have been a domestic abuser ("You just went O. J. on your girlfriend!"), and anyone who threatens the safety of her best friend, the sweet and nerdy Willow. The brilliance of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is not just that it shows us life from a teenage girl's point of view, but that this point of view is vindicated. Sure, maybe you're not a teenage vampire slayer, the series tells its viewers, but we understand that your daily battles can be just as trying.

And then there's Xena. In many ways, she doesn't fit with the others: For one thing, she's certainly no high school student - in fact, she doesn't even live in the present. She's also not hiding anything about herself from anyone. Xena is powerful with a capital P, and she kicks plenty of butt.

No one would ever make the mistake of calling large-and-in-charge Xena "petite." But Xena is not simply a male superhero in drag. She's all girl, and with her blue eyes, long dark hair, and severe bangs, she resembles no one so much as legendary pinup queen Bettie Page. In her costume - a molded breast-plate contraption that would make Madonna's mouth water - she is an interesting combination of curves and combat. She's also a woman who indulges her hungers - for food, for fighting, and for men. When Xena sees a rival female make a play for one of her gorgeous, full lipped, long-haired male conquests, she doesn't bother mincing words, or actions. Flinging a knife at her opponent, she hisses, "That's my piece of meat you're reaching for!" Xena is the farthest thing from a "Rules" girl; she is a girl who rules.

Taking a stand on hospitals and meaning it by Lois Uttley
Xena, the Warrior Princess, is the farthest thing from being a "Rules" girl; she is a girl who rules, a kick-butt combo of curves and combat.

Xena's best friend is the ultra-feminine Gabrielle. While Xena is from Mars, Gabrielle is from Venus. Gabrielle is the voice of peace-loving, female maternal wisdom, playing the role of the long-suffering wife to Xena's aggressive, bull- dyke husband. When Gabrielle tries to prevent Xena from going on yet another violent rampage, Xena just pushes her aside, saying, "Gabrielle, this is something I have to do."

For girls who are getting socialized to think of their bodies as the reward they give to others, it's great to see Xena's re-working of the female body as an active and aggressive subject. After Xena punches out some mealy-mouthed enemy guys, she has the chutzpah to raise her arm, sniff her pit, and sigh, "I love the smell of warrior sweat in the morning!" And while we almost always think of a naked female body as vulnerable, Xena never seems more powerful than when she is armed in nothing but her flesh and muscle, slinking like a cat across enemy territory. It's a fantasy we women rarely have access to, and it's a particularly empowering one.

Sabrina, Alex, Bufly, and Xena are all representatives of a new kind of pop-culture heroine, one that is at once powerful and undeniably girly. This idea - that girlyness and strength aren't mutually exclusive - was first brought to light by a loosely-formed movement of young women who called themselves "Riot Grrls." In the early '90s, they gathered in latter-day consciousness raising groups in Washington, D.C., and Olympia, Washington. With their roots in punk-rock music, and their motto, "Grrls need guitars," the Riot Grrls resurrected old feminist themes for a new generation, and also reclaimed the word "girl" itself by injecting a ferocious, double-r growl into its center. Riot Grrls celebrated the fierce, tantrum-throwing little girl as one of the last examples of socially-acceptable female aggressiveness, before girls are taught to be "perfect little ladies" and instructed to suppress any display of anger.

In the Riot Grrls' wake, numerous all-girl rock bands were born, and the slogan "girl power" began to be bandied about. T-shirts with pro-girl sentiments like "Girls Rule" and "Girls Kick Ass" started to show up at malls across the country, and slowly but surely, the idea of a mass girl-power movement - one that could instill a sense of pride in girls and allow them to embrace their own power - has been taking shape. And the media, finally, have taken notice. "What female teens want is empowered female teen characters, which is something that has been missing for a long time on television," said Jamie Kellner, CEO of WB Broadcasting, in a New York Times article on the growing economic power of teenage girls.

Today, even Disney, that bastion ad nauseam of traditional male and female roles (Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty and Prince Charming, and so on), is jumping on the girl power bandwagon with their latest animated film, Mulan. The story of a Chinese girl who breaks with tradition and poses as a boy to become a respected warrior, Mulan is being touted as projecting Disney's first really powerful role model for girls. But the claim is, at the very least, problematic: Mulan only gains access to power when she's disguised as a boy - she's a heroine who relies on that old strategy, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. As important as it is to encourage girls to get in touch with the "masculine" part of their nature, and to be comfortable with the role of tomboy, we must be careful of the message that is on the opposite side of that coin. When Mulan suggests, as it does, that the best way to be a girl is to act like a boy, it supports the sexist notion that to be truly girly is to be a whiny, helpless, sissy.

In her book Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media, feminist scholar Susan J. Douglas points out that the TV shows "Bewitched" and "I Dream of Jeannie" hit the airwaves just as women were beginning to realize that there was more to happiness than housework. While The Feminine Mystique was making its way up the bestseller lists, both these shows were suggesting that if the little lady at home was ever allowed to actually unleash her powers, she could probably destroy the world, or at least do some serious damage to the male sphere.

So it is probably no coincidence that today, as teenage girls are beginning to come into their own as both a social and an economic force to be reckoned with (the financial success of the box-office hit Titanic has been attributed to the power of their purses), shows like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Xena: Warrior Princess," "Sabrina the Teenage Witch," and "The Secret World of Alex Mack" are hinting that there's a wellspring of untapped girl power out there, with the potential to change the world if it could only be released. You go, girls.


Debbie Stoller holds a PhD. in the psychology of women from Yale University, and is co-editor of BUST, a feminist magazine that bills itself as "The Voice of the New Girl Order." She has written for New York Newsday, Shift Magazine, Hues, and MTV Online.


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