Back in the day on my guest posts for MightyGodKing, I discussed the ways that "strength" was such a nebulous quality that virtually any female character could be termed as a "strong female character" by someone who wanted to bandwagon feminism to some of that sweet, sweet progressive/liberal cash while still writing something unbelievably sexist. I tried to set out some criteria for an actual strongly- written female character, and I'll put down the quick and dirty version of my five points here, for those who don't want to wade through the original post or can't follow the link.
A genuinely strong female character should have these five qualities:
1) She should be active, not merely powerful. A genuinely strong female character should make her own decisions, and those decisions should drive the plot.
2) She should be strong in a way that does not confirm gender stereotypes. A strong female character is not strong in the way women are allowed to be strong (femme fatale, mama grizzly, etc); she's strong in the way people are strong.
3) She should be allowed to explore a spectrum of sexuality outside of the virgin/whore dichotomy. An active sexual identity is fine, but it should not be presented as an object of male sexual fantasy.
4) She should not derive her power from a determination to avoid repeating a defining moment of victimization (particularly not sexual victimization). This isn't to say she can never have been hurt; only to say that she should not just be an ordinary woman who was hurt/brutalized/raped and swore, "Never again".
5) She should not be defined solely by her relationship with a male protagonist. Any character who is primarily motivated by her feelings for a man is being limited in some way.
I recently mentioned these on the feminism-in-pop-culture website Jezebel.com and was told that I should blog about how this relates to popular characters and series. Since I'm already doing way more blogging than I can handle, I felt like a better avenue would be to do it when I was stuck for ideas on my own blog. Which is kind of a shaggy-dog way of saying, "How does Buffy Summers stack up against these criteria?"
Pretty well, I think. Obviously, seven seasons of television, two seasons of comics with a third on the way, and a movie will produce a number of off-model moments...that said, for the most part, Buffy fares successfully when judged by all five criteria. In terms of the first, the series pretty much defines itself through Buffy's conflicts with authority figures; she is supposed to be simply the latest Slayer, a tool used by the Watchers in their endless battles (and if there's a better symbolic encapsulation of the patriarchy than the Watchers, I can't think of it). But she refuses to accept a subordinate role in her relationship with Giles, even though she accepts his role as a mentor and teacher, and their power dynamic changes repeatedly over the course of the series. By Season Eight, she is the leader of a group of Slayers, and her decisions guide most of the major story arcs throughout the show's run.
Moving on to Item Number Two...obviously, Whedon's initial concept of the series was a deliberate inversion of gender roles. Buffy is specifically chosen as an example of a gender role that has no power in traditional narratives--the damsel in distress--and then is given the power to subvert that trope and rescue herself. In one sense, this is still a gender-normative role; Buffy is a stereotypical teenage girl, at least in the early seasons. But looking at the definition, she is not drawing her power from a gender-normative role; she is drawing her power despite it. Whedon is kicking against the damsel in distress cliché, entirely on purpose.
The third question is the easiest to answer. Does Buffy get to have sex? Yes. Is she portrayed as nothing but a sex object? Nope. Even though there are times when she has had sex and regretted it afterwards, it was not sex itself which was portrayed as negative but the situation in which she had it. (And in a series where pretty much every character is sexually active, it'd be absurd if none of them ever had a bad experience.) Whedon probably has the best record here that we're likely to see in this blog.
On to Item Number Four. Does Buffy derive her power from victimization? Nope. She derives her power from ancient magic. This isn't to say that she's never been helpless or victimized, but she's no Red Sonja. (Yes, Red Sonja is the poster child for this particular trope. I may well do an entry for her just to show it.)
And finally...what is Buffy's motivation? Is she doing it all for Angel? Or Spike? Or Riley? (Who was totally my favorite, by the way, and got a bum deal from the show.) No. Although she cares for them, and although she does do things to help them out over the course of the series, she is primarily defined by and motivated by her knowledge that she is the only person who can do what she does and that the world depends on her. It's a weighty burden that sometimes feels like a trap, but ultimately she decides to do it because it needs doing. Which brings us right back to the beginning: Buffy Summers makes decisions that drive the plot. At least in my books, Whedon has done a good job of writing a genuinely strong woman.