Women in the Box: Dawn Summers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Danw in "Buffy vs. Dracula"

By Sabienna Bowman

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) is a relatively young show, but it’s one that is so rich with fascinating female characters that I always knew I wanted to devote a column to at least one of them. My only problem was in deciding which woman to highlight. There’s Buffy, of course, the most iconic character in the Whedonverse, a stereotype-busting feminist superhero that also happens to be one of the greatest television characters of all time. Then there’s Willow, who evolved from an insecure, mousy teen into a powerful, confident witch. Cordelia was also an option thanks to the way she handily subverted the typical mean girl archetype by growing into a hero in her own right, but ultimately I realized the character I really wanted to talk about was Dawn, Buffy’s kid sister and, perhaps, the most maligned member of the Scooby Gang.

Dawn was introduced at the end of “Buffy vs. Dracula,” the first episode of season five, in a scene that immediately established her little sister status. At the time, fans were caught off-guard by the sudden appearance of the slayer’s heretofore unmentioned younger sibling. The situation smacked of Cousin Oliver Syndrome, but in truth, series creator Joss Whedon had been foreshadowing Dawn’s arrival as early as season three. It was soon revealed that Dawn was The Key, an ancient ball of energy capable of opening the barriers between dimensions and unleashing untold destruction if it fell into the wrong hands (the wrong hands happened to belong to a fabulous god named Glory). To keep that from happening, the monks in charge of protecting The Key transformed the energy into Dawn, who they then sent to Buffy, altering her memories and the memories of her friends and family so that it appeared Dawn had always been a part of their lives.

Unfortunately, the memories of the fans weren’t so malleable. Dawn was seen as an interloper, and an annoying one at that, thanks to her teenage angst. At the time of her introduction, Dawn was fourteen, and she craved attention and acceptance in equal measure. She also demanded the lion’s share of Buffy’s time in season five, especially after the sisters lost their mother, Joyce, in “The Body.” At that point, Buffy took on the role of Dawn’s guardian, forcing the slayer to embrace maturity, while Dawn was allowed to remain firmly in the kid zone. By the end of the season, Dawn became the catalyst for Buffy’s greatest sacrifice when Buffy chose to close the gateway Glory opened with Dawn’s blood in “The Gift,” dying so that her sister could live.

Buffy and Dawn in "The Gift"In the beginning, Dawn’s entire existence served to push Buffy’s arc forward as she began to accept and face the responsibilities of adulthood head on. Who Dawn was as a character was less important than what she offered to Buffy and the series which was a way to move forward from the central “high school is hell” premise that had been the show’s driving force for so long. At the time of Dawn’s introduction, Buffy had long since graduated from high school and without Sunnydale High offering up an entire student body to protect, she had no center. Dawn became her center, and her reason to continue fighting.

From a viewer standpoint, all of the things that made Dawn valuable to Buffy, made her hard to appreciate as a character. As the youngest member of the group, she often got herself into situations that required Buffy to swoop in and save the day, a phenomenon that was lampshaded in season six’s musical outing, “Once More with Feeling.” When Buffy is told Dawn has been kidnapped by the dancing demon Sweet, she responds with:

“Dawn’s in trouble. Must be Tuesday.”

At that point, Dawn had become the de facto victim of the Scooby Gang, a role that had previously fallen to Willow (before she powered up) and Xander in the early years. One of Dawn’s contemporaries, 24‘s Kim Bauer received similar ridicule for what the audience saw as her constant ineptitude that required her father, Jack, to rush in and rescue her time and time again. In both cases, the writers were leaning too heavily on the characters as plot devices. A hero needs someone to save, but if they are constantly saving the same person it reflects poorly on that character.

Dawn chained up in "The Real Me"The fact that both Dawn and Kim also happen to be teen girls only makes the audience more primed to pounce on any perceived weakness. This goes double for Dawn, who existed in a universe where teen girls regularly saved the world. Casting characters like Dawn and Kim as the proverbial damsels in distress reinforces the idea that young women are less capable than their male counterparts. Pop culture has trained us to believe that teen girls in action driven narratives are nothing more than plot devices, and when the truth is more complicated than that, our kneejerk instinct is to rebel. From action films, like 2009’s Taken, which used the kidnapping of a retired CIA agent’s teen daughter to get the former agent back into the business of killing bad guys, to the most recent season of Homeland, which catapulted Agent Brody’s daughter Dana to the top of television’s most hated characters list, teen girls are consistently perceived as the albatrosses around the heroes’ necks (and in the case of Agent Brody, I’m using the term “hero” very, very loosely). The question becomes is this a problem that lies with the writers or with the viewers’ perception of whose story is the most valuable?

Teens are angsty; it’s just a facet of growing up and one that most of us can relate to. As BTVS progressed, Dawn went on to struggle with kleptomania and feelings of abandonment as one parental figure after another failed her. Because the audience had seen Buffy and her friends grow up sans parental guidance for the most part, Dawn’s desire for stability was seen as another failing on her part, when in truth it was a natural response for a normal teenager to have. Unfortunately for Dawn, Sunnydale never had much room for normal behavior.

Unlike her older counterparts, Dawn’s teen years weren’t hyperstylized or couched in metaphor. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a teen series at heart, and one that deftly handled issues of young adulthood, but Dawn was the series’ first actual teenager. Michelle Trachtenberg, who played Dawn, was the same age as the character she was portraying. By comparison, when the series began in 1997, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nicholas Brendon, and Alyson Hannigan were all in their twenties and the visual contrast to their early appearances and Dawn’s is striking. It’s not just that they look like adults (which they do, especially when compared to Trachtenberg), it’s that they live in a world heightened by danger that requires them to behave as adults. Right from the start, Buffy, Xander and Willow were tasked with averting an apocalypse, and outside of Buffy’s Watcher, Giles, parental figures played little to no role in their day-to-day lives. Even as they went through the motions of typical high school life, it was hard to view them as teenagers.

Dawn was all teen, all the time. In her first showcase episode, “Real Me,” we see the world through her eyes: she confesses to having a crush on her big sister’s best friend (Xander), she expresses her frustration for the way Buffy regards her as “her dumb little sister,” and her deep desire to be perceived as an adult, despite the fact that she is still very much a child. By all accounts, Dawn is entirely average when we take her former key status out of the equation, and being average in a world populated by slayers, witches and vampires is a thankless job. She may have lived in the same extraordinary world, but Dawn never had to deal with the crazy in the same hands on way Buffy and the others did until very late in the series’ run.

Dawn in "Potential"As she grew up, Dawn began to embrace her role within the group. By the seventh and final season, Dawn was no longer simply a plot device, victim or angst-ridden teen, she was a fully capable member of the team, thanks in large part to Buffy deciding to show Dawn the world, rather than protect her from it. Her evolution was summed up perfectly by Xander, the only other “normal” character, in season seven’s “Potential”:

They’ll never know how tough it is, Dawnie. To be the one who isn’t chosen. To live so near to the spotlight and never step in it. But I know. I see more than anybody realizes because nobody’s watching me. I saw you last night. I see you working here today. You’re not special. You’re extraordinary.

Fan response to Dawn remains mixed, but taken as a whole her growth arc is every bit as interesting and layered as Buffy’s or Cordelia’s. The only difference is it isn’t epic; it’s normal. It’s the story of a young woman battling her way through the angst-filled landmine of teenagerdom to come out on the other side stronger, wiser and ready to face whatever adulthood has to bring. Dawnie’s story may not have the flash that comes with being the chosen one, but there is value in telling the stories of the girls who are one of many as well.

Previously on Women in the Box: Winnie, Topanga, and The ’90s Girl-Next-Door

Sabienna Bowman is a freelance writer and regular contributor at TV Equals and Film Equals. You can find her previous work at Wit & Fancy. Follow her on Twitter @sljbowman.

4 Responses to “Women in the Box: Dawn Summers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer”

  1. Emma Fraser

    I was never a Dawn fan, but this has definitely got me thinking about why. It’s interesting that you mention the age of the cast in their teen roles and it automatically made me think of Friday Night Lights and how the only actor who was a teenager playing a teenager was Aimee Teegarden and similar criticisms were levelled at Julie being an irritating teen (particularly in S2 when her asshole level was dialled up). It’s so normal to see a twentysomething play a 16 year that it becomes jarring when an actual teenager, with all the teen traits plays that age.

    Reply
    • Sabienna Bowman

      I think the actor’s age definitely plays a role in how we perceive teen characters, at least to some degree. Over the years, teen shows have sort of conditioned us to see teen characters as adults, especially series like BTVS and The Vampire Diaries, where all of the parental figures are AWOL. Then when an actual teen comes along and begins experiencing normal, angsty growing pains, it’s like you said, completely jarring.

      Reply

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