Exclusive Interview: Buffy Writer Jane Espenson Talks Tough TV Heroines

If you’ve been watching television in the last 15 years, there’s a good chance Jane Espenson has written for your favorite show. She might even have written your favorite episode. This is especially true if you're a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where Espenson was a writer and producer for much of the show's run.

[img_assist|nid=227|title=Jane Espenson|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=250|height=375]Espenson’s work has made an impression all over the dial, from new breakout hit Once Upon a Time to cult hit Battlestar Galatica to the charms of Stars Hollow in Gilmore Girls. However, she’s perhaps best known for her time playing in Joss Whedon’s universe on Firefly, Angel and most notably on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

You also might know her from her hit webseries Husbands which tackles the issue of marriage equality in a hilarious fashion. The show was “renewed” for a second season thanks to fans who donated $50,000 in a week as part of a popular Kickstarter campaign.

Legendary Women was recently lucky enough to speak with Jane Espenson through email about writing tough women, genre fiction and of course Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Who was your favorite female character to write for on Buffy?

Anya.  The more extreme a character is, the easier she is to write, and Anya was a great character.  More or less well-intentioned, a little self-involved, logical in a blunt way... I loved her.  Like Cordelia, she was pretty much lacking in subtext, but her text differed in interesting ways – she saw the world in a very clear-eyed way, unmucked up by sentimentality. 

You wrote some of the great farce and comedy episodes of the series. What drew you to the more comedic episodes of the show? In particular, Cordelia has always been a personal favorite character and you wrote one of my favorite episodes featuring her for Angel "Rm w/a Vu". Could you tell us a bit about writing that episode and writing for Cordelia in general?

Comedy drew me to the more comedic episodes!  There are different ways to be entertaining, but if people are laughing, you know you scored.  There is nothing better.  I loved writing Cordy almost as much as Anya.  I believe the first line I wrote for her was the "I love standardized tests"/"I can't have layers?" exchange in Band Candy, and I sort of decided when I wrote that, that I could have fun with her.   

The Angel episode was one I hadn't planned on writing, but was pulled into sort of last-minute-y because I'd written for her before.  I remember sitting with Tim Minear and Joss as they broke the episode.  I don't think I had tons of input on the story, but I remember I wanted the ghost to be named Dennis so I could get a "phantom Dennis" joke in there.  That's often how I contribute to story talk – I grab the nearest pun and hold on. 

[img_assist|nid=228|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=200|height=112]What is it about Jonathan as a vehicle for the every man that appealed to you? What do you think it meant to Jonathan especially, as lost as he ended up being, that there was a heroine like Buffy out there in the world?

Jonathan was played by the wonderful Danny Strong, now a huge writing success with the HBO hits "Recount" and "Game Change."  Danny brought this great vulnerability to the role, but his natural demeanor is so much more like the version of Jonathan that we saw in Superstar – he fills a room.  Being able to play with that contrast was a lot of fun.  But, yes, he was a lost character, and he paid the price for that.  Buffy obviously stood for different things to him over the years – she opposed/saved him in Earshot, was a hero to him in the Prom episode, and ended up being his enemy later on.  I like to think that he saw the world as a better place because she was there – he was realizing that right at the end, I'd say.

"Earshot" is one of the most powerful episodes in the series. I think most people are aware that, because of things in the news at the time, it had to be delayed from airing as did "Graduation Day, Part 2" until a later time, but I don't know if people sometimes remember it beyond the controversy. I think one of my favorite lines in the whole of the series is: "You know what? I was wrong. You are an idiot. My life happens to, on occasion, suck beyond the telling of it. Sometimes more than I can handle. And it's not just mine. Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they're too busy with their own" that Buffy tells Jonathan in the tower. How did that come to you? What were you thinking when you wrote that?

Joss wrote that.  A scene like that, a very emotional, pivotal scene like that – I knew when I wrote my version that Joss would want to take his own pass at it.  That's what having the vision is all about – there are certain moments that just belong to the creator of a show and that is definitely one of them.

"Checkpoint" is another favorite episode, not just because of the humor but because I think it was almost as big a turning point for Buffy's growing up as Joyce's death in "The Body" would be a bit later in season five. This is the episode where she fires the Watchers' Council after all their tests and interrogations. How did that come about?

That episode, if I'm remembering correctly, was written at a point in that season where we were desperately behind.  I had just written the previous episode, Triangle, where we met Olaf, Anya's ex, and it's very unusual to have writing duties on two episodes in a row, but Checkpoint needed to be written more quickly than any one writer could do it, so I was asked to co-write it with my dear friend Doug Petrie.  I had been out writing, so I don't think I could have been around for the breaking of the story, so it was pretty much a matter of "write these scenes, now". 

And that's my favorite thing – just writing under the gun like that.  I remember having great fun with all of the council scenes, because there's something so funny and also so illuminating about looking at all of our familiar beloved characters with the eyes of an outsider.  

Why do you think Buffy is a cultural touchstone that still resonates today? What is it about the show that engenders such a strong feeling in its fans and what do you hope the show’s legacy is?

It's the story of an outsider who is secretly the most important person.  She's unseen and unappreciated, but she's much stronger than she looks and her leadership is never questioned by those who really know her.  That is powerful.  Among the fans, girls and boys both identified with her and drew strength from the portrayal.  And I think the legacy is that many more strong female characters are written now because Buffy was written then.

 What made you want to write a web series about marriage equality? How is writing for the web different than for TV?  [img_assist|nid=229|title=Husbands the series|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=200|height=300]

First off, the writing is no different at all.  I write the same lines for Husbands that I would if it were on broadcast TV, use my same instincts and rhythms.  I have to be just as critical with myself, work just as hard on every word.   It's almost hard to remember now, but it didn't start out as a desire to write about marriage equality.  It was a very different project that Brad Bell was playing around with and we realized that, Buffy-style, it needed what Joss called the "reason to tell the story." 

Once we realized it was about marriage-equality, that's when it took off.  And now we're realizing that that reason is driving every story choice we make, in a good way.  If anyone hasn't seen Husbands yet, you should check it out at http://husbandstheseries.com -- I'm very proud of it.

You've written for a lot of television, including a lot of sci-fi genre TV. Do you think genre fiction has an easier time with strong female characters? If so why?

Hm.  I think sometimes it does.  Like in the Battlestar world, where the characters clearly come from a culture that didn't have the same inherited bases for discrimination that our culture does.  So Starbuck and Roslyn are just granted more automatic respect than they might otherwise have been.  And now, writing for ABC's Once Upon A Time, I'm realizing how truly female-dominated the old folk tales are.  For as much as people talk about the passivity of the traditional Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, these fairy tales are stories loaded with women (the witches count) with names and goals, while the guys are practically faceless.  And a show like the original Star Trek, as dated as it was, put women on the heavily-armed Enterprise and sent them into danger. 

So yes, I think genre has a strong history of celebrating Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination, and women characters have benefited from that.  Sometimes people comment on the preponderance of male sci-fi fans, and while that might be true, those guys really admire kick-ass female characters – there is not a lot of appetite for shrinking violets among the sci-fi fandom that I meet.

In Once Upon a Time, the fairytale heroines, Snow White in particular, seem much less passive in this retelling. And the overall hero of the series is a woman as is the villain. Would you say the show is making a feminist point or is that just how things worked out?

I think partly this grows out of what I said above about fairy tales.  It's simply a genre in which women dominate.  Name a good strong fairy tale villain.  Rumplestiltskin and... who?  Blue Beard?  Is that a fairy tale?  Even the good-guy males tend to be part of a woman's story.  So that's not so much making a point as it is just the legacy of the genre.  But having three female lead characters – that's starting to make a point, and a strong one, about what it takes – and doesn't take – to build a successful TV franchise. 

[img_assist|nid=230|title=Arya from Game of Thrones|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=250|height=376]The Game of Throne universe is a bit of a man's world, but with a good number of women carving out their places of power. How do you find the balance between being true to prewritten material and adding new scenes such as the "dancing lessons" scene between Arya and Syrio?

Game of Thrones has some of the best female characters ever.  Wow.  And they're great because they have to be that great to make their mark in a man's world – a great example of not letting the rules of the world become an excuse for weak characters.  Arya is a great character who didn't happen to appear in the part of the book I was dramatizing, so I added a scene because her absence was felt.  George RR Martin created a girl so compelling that you don't just look at her when she's there – you look at the empty space she leaves when she's not there.  There was no choice but to find a way to add a scene for her.

You recently wrote a blog for the Huffington Post about women TV writers. You said you didn't think it was a good idea to pigeonhole women as people that could only write female characters. Could you speak to that a bit more? What is some advice you would give female writers trying to break into the business?

It's a fascinating and complicated topic – getting more women in TV writing -- and it's loaded with controversy and conflict about the best ways to go about tackling the problem.  My point is simply that if you market women writers as "good at ___" –whatever the blank may be, writing female characters, or being good at writing emotion, or even at civilizing the room, then there is the implication that they're not good at other things, or that you don't need them if you don't need that thing.  A great counter-argument has been made that writers' rooms benefit from being diverse.  I'm sure that's true – TV writing staffs should look more like the world in all kinds of ways.   I'm just saying that since I believe talent is as likely to be found in a woman as in a man, that there's no need to try to sell us as having (or lacking) any particular kind of talent.

 Make sure to check out the hilarious Husbands the series and if you’re already a convert there is always time to donate to the show’s second season and snag yourself a prize!

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