Buffy: the Evolution of a Valley Girl – Janelle Tassone

Series creator Joss Whedon has said that the idea for Buffy came from all the horror movies he had seen featuring a helpless young blonde who would almost always be the first to die. He felt she ‘needed a better image.’ Janelle Tassone argues that that image can be found in the status of Buffy as a Valley Girl – starting from her first appearance on the big screen in 1992 when audiences were first exposed to Buffy’s bleach blonde Valley Girl roots. By combining this persona with the traditional female hero of horror films, Buffy has evolved into a transformed Valley Girl: a strong and improved valley girl. But just how does Buffy represent the Valley Girl and the heroine if she does not possess one of the most significant indicators of teen independence and coming-of-age: the driver’s license?


The stereotypical valley girl would have to be one of my longstanding favourite characters in both television and film. With the valley girl known for often being the quintessential popularity queen, it may not seem so obvious to include the Buffy we know today as part of the valley girl hall of fame. But one only has to go back to the 1992 film, Buffy the Vampire Slayer to observe the full extent of Buffy’s bleach blonde valley girl roots. To place Buffy within the larger category of the valley girl, first one must have an understanding of what exactly this means. Undoubtedly, the valley girl is a product of the eighties, or at least a character that was crystallised and labelled during this period, and she has been a significant presence in teen films and television ever since. It has come to my attention that there has been a definite change, or evolution over the last two decades, of the living, breathing barbie doll otherwise known as the valley girl. And, it seems, this evolution of the valley girl within teen film and television can be traced through the character of Buffy Summers, starting from her first appearance on the big screen in 1992.

For my purposes, the term “valley girl” is useful in reference to a limited spectrum of popular teen girls in film and television, who, despite originating in name from the location of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, [1] are not strictly limited or restricted to being natives of this particular site. Often alarmingly oblivious to many basic concepts of social etiquette, the valley girl is the ultra-feminine, two-dimensional character identified by an abundance of material possessions and surface features that are highly prized by herself and her peers. Some of the basic, essential signifiers of the valley girl can be extracted from examination of valley girls over time who have manipulated the following:

1) POPULARITY: which is often directly linked to the valley girl also being a cheerleader (often team captain, of course) and/or prom queen. Although, sometimes basic popularity is pure and simple enough.

2) CASH SUPPLY: generous funds, namely daddy’s credit card, often help with gaining or retaining popular status, and is especially important for it’s contribution to the following,

3) THE WARDROBE: often filled with the latest fashion trends and designer labels. The valley girl must be well-versed in knowing what is now, retro, and the dreaded zone of “five minutes ago.”[2] She is the walking, talking bible of fashion do’s and don’ts. As such, she is regularly found at

4) THE MALL: one location that she is most familiar with and often frequents with her shopaholic girlfriends. (Various alternatives for this important social site include classy shopping strips, and the latest hot spots to eat, drink and look pretty.) Naturally, to get to these important places,

5) TRANSPORTATION: is a necessity. The right car can contribute greatly to the valley girl image. However, if the valley girl in question is lacking either a license or a vehicle, often this is compensated for by a designated chauffeur, namely an associate valley girl or

6) THE BOYFRIEND: the boyfrien, or potential love interest must not only be a certified member of the popular crowd, but this popularity is quite often linked to sporting involvement of some kind – ie., the star quarterback, basketball captain, and so on. However, there are also a string of valley girl flicks, which work on the premise of the valley girl throwing out the stud for the boy from the wrong side of the tracks (or simply the other side of the cafeteria).

7) VALLEY GIRL-SPEAK: not unlike the slayer-speak we hear in Buffy. The valley girl’s ability to manipulate language is unparalleled. A master of her own language, she single handedly shortens words, creates her own, and mangles the English language with carefree abandon. (Not to mention frequently bewildering adults and peers alike in the process, forcing them to suffer the indignity of ignorance in the presence of valley girl speak)

8) RECENT UPDATES: a more recent addition to the accessory/necessity list is, of course, the mobile phone or pager. This innovation has worked its way into the valley girl’s life to replace its less sophisticated predecessor, the bedroom telephone (which often had it’s own phone line, of course.)

9) OTHER IMPORTANT STEREOTYPES: consider also that the valley girl stereotype is often sexually promiscuous, lacks self control in many situations, and has an adversity to the concept of homework (there are much more important things to attend to at high school!). Add to this her materialistic tendencies, which often make her a prime candidate for fashion victim status (often a retrospective conclusion), and her tendency to be a manipulative, insensitive and selfish mega-bitch. Having said all that, it is essential to keep in mind there are always exceptions to every rule.

In basic terms, the valley girl possesses cultural capital or status in a commodity based culture. The Buffy that we see in the 1992 film begins as one of the original L.A. valley girls, to be considered alongside these other classics:

Julie from 1983’s Valley Girl

The three title characters of 1989’s Heathers
Cher and friends from Clueless
The Sweet Valley Twins

Bitchy Taylor from She’s all that
The girls of Fast Times at Ridgemont High
The Jawbreaker girls

Kimberley, Nicole, Jennifer and Cassandra in the Buffy movie
And last on this list, Cordelia Chase, of Buffy and Angel.

Buffy Summers of Hemery High, “the Pom-Pom Princess of California cheerleaders” [3] (as it states on the bad novelization of the original movie) begins as the original valley girl, a girl who thinks the ozone layer is something that we need to get rid of. A girl who doesn’t want to be the chosen one, but, in her words, says all she wants to do is “graduate from high school, go to Europe, marry Christian Slater and die…” Conversation between herself and her friends rarely extends past fashion, boys, gossip, and the pros and cons of various movie theatres, and their respective sound systems and staff. And the impending senior dance, along with cheerleading, are her most important social activities. She’s definitely a girl well and truly living in the “Lite Ages,” a time where neck wounds on dead bodies are described on the news as resembling, “…in the words of one bystander, a really gross hickey.” Her strange behaviour after taking on her duties as the slayer is fantastically acknowledged by Kimberley, in the ultimate insult, when she says Buffy is “acting like The Thing From Another Tax Bracket.”

But if Buffy really is just another a valley girl, then certain discrepancies from the valley girl codes of conduct must be dealt with. One thing that strikes me in particular is that for most of the valley girls that grace our screens, a driver’s license is, without a doubt, an essential possession. Cher from Clueless, Romy and Michele, and many of the valley girls that appear in films including Heathers, Jawbreaker, Legally Blonde, and even Grease’s Pink Ladies rely on, if not take pride in their cars. While every girl may not own her own car, there is always at least one group member or boyfriend who provides the service of nominated driver, thereby providing the means to cruise the streets and chat up carloads of boys at traffic lights.

Buffy episodes that have indicated Buffy’s driving weaknesses include season 3’s driving disaster in Band Candy (where Snyder observes that Buffy drives “like a spaz”) and season 4’s discussion with Riley of her pedestrian status in Something Blue. My only explanation for Buffy’s place in the minority group of valley girls without a license is that there is a larger issue at work. As a symbol of teen independence, learning to drive is an essential skill and rite of passage. As such, it seems it is quite odd for Buffy, the most revolutionary valley girl of them all, to be without a car or license. Funnily enough, it appears she never actually needs to make use of such things, as all the paranormal and vampiric activity that she must fight in order to save the world somehow turn up on her doorstep – I guess it’s something to do with the whole Hellmouth thing.

Anyway, basically it seems that while the Buffster is frighteningly strong and skilled in the fine art of slaying, and capably defends herself, family and friends, hometown and the whole world from evil, it could be suggested that her strength is compensated for by her dependence on the Scooby gang, added to her immobility caused by not being able to drive. While this may seem to provide a possible and deceptively simple answer for Buffy’s lack of motoring skills, I believe that Buffy’s inability to mix with cars is not limiting to her independence. In fact, Buffy’s ability to navigate the space she inhabits is her strength. Knowledge of her surroundings, above and below ground, give her a mobility that a car cannot. Buffy’s occupation relies on her ability to control her environment and to restore balance; something she could not possibly hope to do from the front or back seat of a car. But this factor does not separate Buffy from other valley girls either. Consider that the origins of the valley girl lie in the location of Los Angeles – a city dispersed over a large space, which can only be navigated easily with transportation rather than on foot.

Valley girls rely on their cars,[4]as this is their source of gaining control over their surroundings. Valley girls in L.A. could not possibly hope to make the necessary appearances at school, parties, and the mall without a vehicle. In L.A., valley girls find it is a geographical necessity to have use of a car if they want to maintain appearances. For Buffy and Sunnydale, the environment dictates that being a pedestrian is of more value, especially in a town where the good part of town and the bad part of town are literally around the corner from one another. Despite surface appearances of defying the laws of the valley girl’s existence and image, the fact that Buffy doesn’t drive is quite logical. It is in this way that Buffy differs from representations of the valley girl as a spoilt brat, and is significant in the evolution of the valley girl from ice queen to a more fleshed out and realistic valley girl. (Besides, Buffy could always learn to drive. Perhaps some driving instructor turned demon/vampire/general source of evil, or a Herbie gone wrong possessed car is just waiting in the wings to bless our screens for that very special episode where Buffy refines her motoring skills.)

Another way in which Buffy is a revolutionary valley girl is how she compares to the representation of valley girls in horror movies. Films such as John Carpenter’s Halloween of 1978, Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th from 1979, and, more recently, Wes Craven’s Scream movies, are films that subscribe to the notion of valley girls being the types of girls that don’t survive the wrath of the psycho killer. The IMDB website notes that Joss Whedon’s idea for Buffy resulted from a desire to give the helpless blonde who always dies in horror films a better image. Sarah Michelle Gellar even plays one of these helpless blondes in both Scream 2 and I Know What You Did Last Summer. While the horror films mentioned feature a female heroine, she is most definitely not a valley girl type character. However, the types of characters that film theorist Vera Dika describes as the victims in stalker films are easily aligned with valley girls. Dika says that it is the social behaviours of the characters that determines if they are marked for death. And restrained sexuality is often the attribute of the heroine that distinguishes her from her friends who are butchered through the films. [5]

Jon Lewis, in his book The Road to Romance and Ruin, also observes that it is promiscuity, especially among female teenagers, that is punished in horror films. Lewis blames teen promiscuity in horror films on ineffective and often absent parents. [6] And in the Buffy movie, Buffy’s parents are in fact guilty of leaving her alone in the house with a boyfriend whose name they don’t even remember. The Buffy we see in the film is most definitely set up to be the victim. Buffy, as a more complex and well-rounded valley girl, is a challenge to this tradition of punishing sexual freedom with death. In the television series, the way in which Buffy defies cultural expectations within the society she lives in, along with defying the traditions of the watcher’s council, together with expressing her sexuality freely, align her with the slaughtered girls of the aforementioned horror films, rather than fully aligning her with their heroines.

Perhaps the easiest way to comprehend the valley girl is to understand her in relation to what I like to refer to as chick magazines. In terms of images of femininity in fashion magazines, especially those targeted at teen markets, the valley girl embodies and gives life and a voice to the images on the pages. That is, images of the latest must-haves in the beauty industry. And the images of today’s chick magazines include Sarah Michelle Gellar in cosmetic advertisements. Susan Douglas has called the glossy, politics-free U.S. magazine, Jane, “the triumph of valley girl feminism,” much to her disgust, and a site for the commercial culture-loving young feminist, [7] perhaps an idea that doesn’t stray far from the Spice Girls and their “Girl Power” image. It is in the pages of glossy magazines that the “ideal” teen girl consumer is created, or at least enforced, and tools for teen girls to create their own image are provided. And, essentially the valley girl is often not much more substantial than a fashionable image. What could be more appealing to readers of glossy mags, than the updated image of a valley girl who can defend herself and beat the bad guys while wearing the latest fashions, all without even breaking a nail.

Buffy, it seems, is the ultimate valley girl, who has survived the evolutionary process to emerge stronger, wiser, and more likeable than those before her, while still remaining fashionable and witty. Like many of the best valley girls, Buffy has maintained her fashion conscious style, valley-speak language and, of course, will always be a former cheerleader. While Clueless presented us with Cher, the valley girl with a heart of gold, marking a change in the valley girl, Cher still remains somewhat too clueless to be in the same league as Buffy in terms of the new and improved valley girl. The traditional valley girl has not been made redundant by Buffy. So, is Buffy still just another valley girl? While the library and magic shop may have replaced the mall as social sites, and her enemies in the schoolyard may have often had demonic tendencies, not to mention the early demise of her cheerleading career, Buffy is a valley girl at heart. Buffy looks like a valley girl, sounds like a valley girl, and fights with a valley girl’s attitude, and for a true valley girl, image is everything.

Bibliography

Bernstein, Jonathan, Pretty in Pink: the Golden Age of Teenage Movies, New York, St Martin’s Griffin, 1997.

Clover, Carol J., Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1992.

Cusick, Richie Tankersley, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (based on the screenplay by Joss Whedon), New York, Archway, 1992.

Dika, Vera, “The Stalker Film, 1978-81,” in Waller, Gregory A., American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film, USA, University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Dika, Vera, Games of Terror: Halloween, Friday the 13th and the films of the Stalker Cycle, Toronto, Associated University Press, 1990.

Douglas, Susan, “Valley Girl feminism (New Feminist Magazine Jane does not compare to Ms. Magazine),” The Progressive, Nov 1997, vol. 61, no. 11, p. 17. (downloaded from Expanded Academic ASAP, 27/08/02)

Lewis, Jon, The Road to Romance and Ruin: Teen Films and Youth Culture, New York, Routledge, 1992.

Temsah, Samia, “When you live in the Valley, you’ve gotta get creative,” www.layouth.com.

Topping, Keith, Slayer: an expanded and updated unofficial and unauthorised guide to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, London, Virgin, 2002.

Filmography

Bring It On (2000)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)

Clueless (1995)
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Grease (1978)
Halloween (1978)
Heathers (1989)
I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)

Jawbreaker (1999)
Legally Blonde (2001)
Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997)
Scream (1996)
Scream 2 (1997)
Scream 3 (2000)

She’s All That (1999)
Sugar & Spice (2001)

Television

Angel (1999-)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-)
Sweet Valley High (1994)

Notes

[1] Bernstein, J., Pretty in Pink, p. 106.

[2] Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
[3] Cusick, R.T., Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
[4] Temsah, S., “When you live in the Valley, you’ve gotta get creative.”

[5] Dika, V., “The Stalker Film, 1978-81.”
[6] Lewis, J., The Road to Romance and Ruin.
[7] Douglas, S., “Valley Girl feminism.”

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