This is part of the first chapter of my book BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (BFI TV Classics, published 2005).
I’m a telly baby. I was born into the postwar generation that grew up with television. This brave new medium would become our sibling and playmate, nursemaid and teacher. The programmes we watched so avidly in our childhood would one day take their place in our dating and mating rituals – hazy pre-video memories of Bill and Ben or Whirligig, F Troop or Doctor Who exchanged in a quest for common ground. My first experience of the generation gap was when I started meeting people who couldn’t remember Prudence Kitten, or Boots and Saddles, or the newsflash announcing that President Kennedy had been shot.
I watched a huge amount of television back then, as did everyone I knew, with the exception of one classmate whose Luddite parents had banned it from their home. With a choice of only two channels, we would all watch the same programmes and discuss them at school the next day, but although I tried to share my friends’ enthusiasm for Coronation Street (1960-) or Emergency Ward 10 (1957-67), soap operas never seized my imagination the way that Westerns or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-8) did. Nobody thought it odd that I preferred heroic action to domestic drama; they assumed it was because I fancied the male stars – David McCallum, say, or James Drury.
But if I identified with anyone, it was with the Cowboys and Indians rather than the women who cowered in the middle of the wagon circle while the menfolk did all the fighting. I mentally shifted genders as a matter of course, without even being aware that I was having to make the adjustment. Many years later, I read about a piece of graffiti spotted in a women’s lavatory in New York (quoted by Andrea Weiss in Vampires and Violets: Lesbians in Film, 1993) that seemed to sum up a lifetime’s experience of watching action stories written and shot from a male point of view: ‘When you watch the film Vertigo, are you Scotty wanting Madeleine, or are you Madeleine wanting Scotty to want you? Or both alternatively and simultaneously?’ I was all these things, and more.
It wasn’t until I was watching the final episode of the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that a long-buried memory stirred at the back of my brain. In this episode, Buffy’s friend Willow casts a spell enabling Buffy to share her hitherto exclusive superpowers with vast numbers of adolescent girls, who suddenly find themselves possessed of the strength and skill to fight back against the legions of vampires pouring out of hell. Shazzam! These girls were all action heroines!
And, at that point, I remembered that when I was ten years old, maybe even younger, I too used to think of myself as an ‘action heroine’, though I would never have used those words back then. In my secret fantasies, I would rescue the most popular girls in my class from evildoers who would have locked them in remote towers or chained them to dungeon walls for reasons that my innocent prepubescent self couldn’t begin to comprehend. Even though in real life I was rubbish at sports, the rescue would invariably involve acrobatic feats, swordfights and scaling castle walls, and the popular girls, once rescued, would be humbled and grateful, as well as surprised and intrigued that this quiet classmate to whom they’d never paid much attention was not as uninteresting as she appeared. That she was, in fact, a superheroine who had been leading an exciting and glamorous double life.
This was thirty years before the heroines of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Alias (2001-) or Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2002) kicked all manner of evil ass on a weekly basis. The young girls of today don’t know how lucky they are; thanks to Buffy, they’re spoilt for choice. It’s clear to me now, thinking back, that I was continually if unconsciously searching for female role models in the popular culture of my childhood. The problem was that there weren’t any, at least not in the TV shows and films and books I knew. Girls were annoying, like Violet Elizabeth in Richmal Crompton’s Just William books, or insipid, like the schoolgirls of Enid Blyton’s school stories. Or, like Snow White or the Sleeping Beauty, they were victims, forced to rely on handsome princes to get them out of trouble.
I suppose it was symptomatic that, when it came to fairy tales, I was always more impressed by the witches, especially since in the Disney cartoon versions, they were not just powerful but glamorous – at least before they morphed into dragons or crones. I grew up fascinated by evil women, from the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz (1939), to Cruella De Vil from 101 Dalmatians (1960), to Milady de Winter in the BBC’s 1966 serialisation of The Three Musketeers. Milady had a fleur-de-lys branded into her shoulder, kept a poisoned dagger by the bed and repeatedly stood up to the manly musketeers, who were able to cut her down to size only by summoning the Executioner of Lille to chop off her head on what I considered the flimsiest of pretexts. I was outraged when a well-meaning aunt gave me a children’s edition of the Alexandre Dumas novel in which all traces of Milady had been excised, leaving nothing but a story about men fighting men. And where’s the fun in that?
I was drawn to these women not because they were evil, but because they were anything but simpering victims. They played second fiddle to no man; they had their own agenda, and if that involved unleashing flying monkey demons or kidnapping spotty dogs or poisoning a duplicitous lover’s mistress – well, at least their lives were more exciting than those of the other female characters glimpsed on television, in films or in advertising; women so bland they barely registered on my childhood radar. I couldn’t understand why Samantha from Bewitched (1964-72) had opted for the life of a housewife, married to a drab mortal (Darwen, was it? Or Durwood?), forced to keep her spell-casting under wraps instead of indolently wafting around in chiffon gowns like her mother, Endora. I sometimes wonder whether my continuing fascination with the horror genre – which has endured long past the age when we’re supposed to have grown out of such foolery – had its roots in those early days, when the only decent female role models I could find were those who dabbled in black magic and murder.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, action heroes were exclusively male. The stories in girls’ comics were lacking in life-or-death situations, so I gravitated towards my older brother’s weeklies, which were packed with more colourful yarns about invading aliens or man-eating dinosaurs. My favourite TV programme was The Lone Ranger (1949-57) and my favourite character was Tonto. There were two things I wanted to be when I grew up: a ballerina and a Red Indian, perferably both at once. But I had no intention of being a squaw, confined to the wigwam, tending papooses or rustling up buffalo stew; I wanted to be a brave with long hair, feathers and weapons. On the other hand, I wasn’t interested in being a tomboy in short hair and trousers, like George in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories. My heroic ideal, I realise now, was something that simply didn’t exist when I was growing up: a beautiful heroine with long hair and pretty clothes – a heroine who looked like a princess, but who nevertheless battled cowboys, musketeers and man-eating dinosaurs.
Vampires had yet to enter the equation. It would be years before I would pass as old enough to sneak into X-rated movies, and my first glimpse of a vampire, on an early episode of Doctor Who, might have quickly been forgotten had not my older brother afterwards taken a sadistic delight in lurking in dark corners and intoning, ‘I am Count Dracula’, in a heavy foreign accent. I was sufficiently intrigued to start scouring film magazines for pictures of the Count and his cohorts. I became a vampire expert in embryo. (One of the biggest disappointments of my childhood was the discovery that the TV series Batman (1966-8), starring Adam West, had absolutely nothing to do with vampires, or even bats.) I was familiar with the faces of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing long before I’d watched them in any of their starring roles, though the title that excited me most was that of a 1963 Hammer film called Kiss of the Vampire. Even back then, the idea of kissing, or being kissed by, one of these horrible yet fascinating creatures gave me a guilty thrill.
Imagine how excited I would have been if I had been able to watch a TV show combining the beautiful long-haired heroine of my dreams with pretty clothes, swordfights, kissing and vampires.
It was children’s television that eventually provided me with my first female role model. She was a puppet on Thunderbirds (1965-6). The Tracy brothers were interchangeable (apart from Deep Space John, whom I quite fancied), but Lady Penelope was a class act, more than just a gussied-up Woodentop. She was blonde, chic and independently wealthy: a cross between Jackie Kennedy and Lady Antonia Fraser, with added strings. She knew how to handle a gun and kept a cool head even when tied up in the path of an oncoming express train. She answered to no man; men answered to her, notably her chauffeur, Parker, who drove her around in a pink Rolls Royce. She spoke in a sort of cultivated murmur. And she was the proud possessor of the ultimate girly gadget -a powder compact cum two-way radio.
I was so smitten that I bought the Lady Penelope comic and wore the free Lady Penelope X-Ray specs and practised the Lady Penelope walk – a sort of jerky wooden skip – on my way home from school. As an action heroine she had her limits; unlike the puppets in Team America (2004) twenty years later, she didn’t do kung-fu, but at the age of eleven I’d never even heard of martial arts so I didn’t miss it.
Fortunately, my next and most important pre-Buffy female role model turned out to be a heroine of flesh and blood, albeit one who existed in a fantasy world. Unlike Lady Penelope, Emma Peel of The Avengers (1961-9) did practise a rudimentary form of karate. She was the successor to Cathy Gale (before my time) and never subservient to John Steed, her partner-in-adventure. Though she was married, she was the very opposite of the Bewitched-style housewife; we never saw her husband, and neither, apparently, did she. The ‘Mrs’ tag was a cunning ploy to grant her autonomy, enabling her to flirt with Steed but imposing limits so the flirtation was never in danger of tipping over into anything mushy, which would have relegated her to mere love interest.
Mrs Peel’s habitual facial expression was an ironic smile, often accompanied by a quizzically arched eyebrow. She was sophisticated, witty and though, in her first season, she was continually being captured and tied up and rescued by Steed, she never panicked or acted helpless. She wasn’t a decorative appendage, she was his equal – unlike female sidekicks in shows such as Doctor Who or Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-7), whose function seemed to be to provide an irritating counterpoint of hysteria or stupidity to the cool-headed male heroes.
When, thirty years later, I encountered Diana Rigg in a queue for the ladies’ lavatories at the Savoy, I couldn’t help blurting out, ‘You were my role model!’ She replied, very graciously I thought in the circumstances, ‘Why thank you,’ before I remembered my manners and added, ‘And you still are.’
Mrs Peel proved that heroines could be feminine and feisty at the same time. She also proved they could be sexy without being reduced to a dumb sex object. In ‘A Touch of Brimstone’, she dresses as the Queen of Sin in a costume only a whisker away from full-blown S&M gear: tight boots, spiked collar, figure-hugging black corset. She looks like a male adolescent’s wet dream, obviously, but this doesn’t stop her from frowning disapprovingly at the villain’s description of women as ‘mere vessels of pleasure’.
It’s no exaggeration to say that watching The Avengers in the Mrs Peel era was the highlight of my life. My diaries for these years are full of entries such as: ‘Had bath and washed hair. Watched Avengers and now feel glam,’ or ‘Did loads of prep. Washed hair and had bath and watched Avengers. Feel Avengerish.’ (Evidently the life of the average 1960s teenager was not so thrill-packed with sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll as we are nowadays led to believe.) Mrs Peel was my kind of woman. I was so besotted with her, that when in 1968 she quit the series (that MIA husband had finally turned up) and was replaced by the dizzy Tara King, who was neither as pretty (cropped hair, for heaven’s sake!) nor as clever, nor as skilled at fighting, a light went out of my life and I stopped watching.
Had I but known it, female action heroes were already beginning to infiltrate Marvel and DC superhero comics in the 1960s. Since these were strictly the province of boys and hard to come by in those parts of Croydon where I grew up, they passed me by, though I did get my hands on a few copies of The Fantastic Four, featuring Sue Storm alias Invisible Girl, though I reckoned being invisible was less exciting than, say, turning into a human torch. All unseen by me, Super Girl and Bat Girl were mere afterthoughts to their better known sires, but Wonder Woman (‘beautiful as Aphrodite, wise as Athena, stronger than Hercules and swifter than Mercury’) had made her debut back in 1941 and Jean Grey alias Marvel Girl (and later Phoenix) was already making her bow in the original line-up of X-Men. In the 1970s, she would be joined by Ororo Munroe alias Storm and, in the 1980s, by Kitty Pryde alias Shadowcat, a teenage girl with the power to pass through solid matter.
Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has acknowledged Kitty as one of the inspirations for Buffy. But teenage superheroines were a long time coming, and more often than not they were part of a team rather than individuals in ther own right. One of the best things about Buffy is that, ultimately, she got to be both at once – part of a team and an independent operator.
The one comic-strip heroine I did stumble across was Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise, who started life as a cartoon strip in 1963 in the London Evening Standard, though I first discovered her in a series of novels (again by O’Donnell) published a few years later. Here, at last, was a worthy female counterpart to James Bond – a beautiful secret agent with a mysterious past, innumerable male admirers and a sprinkling of what was, for a pubescent girl in the 1960s, exciting amounts of nudity and sex. I was probably the only twelve-year-old in the world who rushed out to see Joseph Losey’s 1966 film version, starring Monica Vitti. I confidently looked forward to seeing more kick-ass heroines like Emma and Modesty.
Except there weren’t any. It was as though Emma Peel had never existed, and in the 1970s television ceased to be of vital importance to my life; at long last, I had better things to do than wash my hair and feel Avengerish. I was vaguely aware of Police Woman (1974-8), though Sgt Pepper Anderson seemed to spend more time disguised as a gangster’s moll in fishnet stockings than engaged in active police work. Charlie’s Angels (1976-81) was an insult to my nascent feminist sensibility (which unfortunately went hand-in-hand with a temporary sense of humour bypass, though compared to the twenty-first:century film versions, the original TV series now looks almost politically correct), while Wonder Woman (1976-9) was just too camp to take seriously.
The 1980s weren’t much better, though Alexis in Dynasty (1981-9) was a soap-opera variation on Servalan, Supreme Bitch of the Universe on Blake’s 7 (1978-81), while Cagney and Lacey (1982-8) gave TV cop shows their first strong, realistic female characters, whose emotional lives were given as much weight as the cases they had to deal with. For my taste, though, they were a little too drab.
In any case, in the 1970s and 1980s, instead of sitting at home watching television, I was going to the cinema…
Extract from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BFI TV Classics, 2005)
- Lost Buffy the Vampire Slayer Footage Surfaces; Mr. Pointy Rejoices! (dreadcentral.com)
- Buffy in Scotland – Choice, Women’s Power and Independence (villageaunties.org)
- Joss Whedon: 20 greatest moments from ‘Buffy’, ‘Firefly’, more (digitalspy.co.uk)
- A fun 30-minute look behind the scenes of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (io9.com)
- Ranking The “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” Vampires (buzzfeed.com)