When people think of the women of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer... They don't always think of Joyce and Dawn Summers.
When people think of the women of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, they think of Buffy first obviously, then Willow and Tara casting spells, Anya saying something kooky, or maybe Faith blowing into town and making trouble. They don't always think of Joyce and Dawn Summers. For Dawn... well, her very existence was a hot button issue. She caught a lot of fandom flak. And Joyce is kind of brushed off. I suppose that's what happens when you're on a supernatural show and have nothing supernatural about you (at least Dawn had that mystical key thing going for her -- or against her, depending on who you ask). But these two were just as important as every other woman in the BtVS world. It just wasn't made obvious. They were rarely a direct part of the action and one could argue they pulled more than their share of damsel duty, but they were driving forces and rather kick-ass in their own way.
As she's no longer in this fictional coil, let's start with Joyce. When we first meet Joyce, she seems like a well-meaning single mother at a loss as to how to deal with what seems like your garden variety at-risk teen. During that first season, I had some preconcieved notions about Joyce. I felt like she would just be there to be vampire bait or throw motherly monkey wrenches into Buffy's slaying activities, then sort of fade away. And maybe we'd be glad to see her go. I mean, watching Buffy get slay-blocked by her clueless, well-meaning mom constantly would get old. But that isn't what happened and, really, I couldn't have been more pleased.
By School Hard, I think we had an idea that Joyce might handle the supernatural better than most parents. First, her going after Spike with an axe was pretty badass. But, most importantly, she could see the strength in Buffy's actions, that what might seem like all the wrong choices were actually the right ones if you looked hard enough. I wasn't worried about her finding out after that. Granted, she did have some reservations (what mother wouldn't?) after she found out and some growing pains, but what I love is how hard she tried to understand what it meant to be the Slayer, and connect with Buffy. She dealt with it like a pro, and then she dealt some more.
Even when she found out Dawn's true nature, her first concern was for Dawn. She knew her mind had been manipulated and that she could die, but she felt for Dawn. I think she might have, even if her memories had not been messed with to include Dawn. I think Joyce had a way about her that strove to put everyone at ease, make them feel included. Basically... a wonderful mother.
So yeah, looking back, I dare you to disagree that Joyce is awesome - but in a quiet way, the kind that creeps up on you. There was something comforting about Joyce Summers. Her presence affected every other character in the show, and her absence made things just a little harder and darker all around. While she lived, Buffy rarely worried about anything other than whatever Big Bad was threatening Sunnydale. Then she was gone and everyone was affected - Buffy in particular, considering how much of Season Six was mired in Buffy dealing with bills, custody of Dawn, home repairs and all the real-life issues Joyce took care of without complaint. The home repairs in particular must have been a real bitch, considering how often the Summers home was trashed.
She handled things with a kind of grace that no other character did and always remained caring about anyone she came across, even Spike. Joyce might have been the first human Spike genuinely liked, even though their first meeting involved her going after him with an axe. It says a lot about a person if someone with no soul can grow to care about you. Really, the same thing can be said for Spike's protective relationship with Dawn, but my point is that Spike just plain old liked Joyce. I don't think there was another human on the show you could say that about. And he wasn't the only one.
Hell, the entire episode The Body was more than just a chance for the cast to show off their continually underrated acting chops. It was about Joyce, about how one life, a seemingly quiet one, can touch so many others. Joyce had a quiet strength which was felt by everyone. Xander and Willow both had parents that, for very different reasons, made them gravitate to her warmth. Giles, though they started out with a sort of contentious relationship, became a sort of co-parent for Buffy and connected with Joyce on his own level (also on a police car while high on candy). I sometimes think Joyce being gone is one of the things that kept him staying on long after he thought he needed to move on. Even Anya was affected, though it seemed to be by the idea of death and how everyone else's lives had stopped with Joyce gone. And, needless to say, Buffy and Dawn were destroyed by the loss and barely hanging on after. I don't think they ever recovered, really. But anyone who's suffered such a loss knows you just don't.
It seems so small, when you think of the world being in constant need of saving, but Joyce dealt with that supernatural world as well as the real world with remarkable composure. And, even with all the demands, she managed to be there for everyone. She was a silent hero, that Joyce Summers, but a hero nonetheless.
Of course, Dawn is another story. Dawn wasn't brushed off. She was hotly debated, loved or hated. Or both: both is likely. Dawn was widely considered a Cousin Oliver at first (and at the last, depending on who you ask). A Cousin Oliver is a thoroughly unwelcome, supposedly cute kid brought in to save a failing show (see TV Tropes here for more). It's a a term made famous by The Brady Bunch and the inclusion of a character there called Cousin Oliver in its fifth and final season. Sure, The Brady Bunch had its troubles from the start and maybe it needed saving. But I really resented Dawn's presence on a show that I thought just fine as it was (okay - Beer Bad was a cry for rescue, but Hush was such a triumph that it almost erased it from my mind). But I suppose Dawn's presence wasn't about saving BtVS as Dawn's existence fed the entire fifth season. And, as much as I wanted to continue to be annoyed by her, she grew on me.
I resisted, though. I resisted hard. Unfortunately, Joss and Co. never shy away from fan resistance. They don't often shove a plot point or character at you, completely ignoring fan reaction (as many shows do). But they sneakily get under your skin. It happened with Anya (I just hated her... until I loved her). It happened with Tara (who I found horribly boring... then comforting and strangely necessary). And, damn them, they made it happen with Dawn, too.
At first, it was pity. Poor kid. Dropped into this world. No idea she's not a real girl. That pity kept me going when she was suddenly everywhere. It kept me going when Buffy sacrificed herself for Dawn. But that pity stopped existing at some point. I don't know how or when it happened. But somewhere between Dawn cuddling Buffybot and Spike calling her Little Bit and her crush on Xander and her connection to Willow and Tara, Dawn just became another member of the gang for me. Sometimes I think, with me using Spike liking a character as a barometer on whether they're cool, he helped a bit. He liked Dawn. Though I often think Spike's concern for Dawn is more about him protecting her for Joyce's sake and for Buffy's (though a bit tied up in an obsessive crush at the time), he cared about her. The whole gang cared about her and as a result, I cared about her.
She didn't make it easy, though. Between the self-harm, kleptomania, and abandonment issues, my patience with her wore thin at times. "Oh, look. Dawn's doing something ridiculous that puts everyone in danger because no one understands her... again." But, when I stopped to think about it, maybe I'd have had more sympathy if I'd seen her grow up. We didn't get to see it, with her being dropped into our viewing experience. But this girl had to go through her toughest years dealing with not only the loss of her father (Hank Summers was the picture of disinterested parent), but her mother, too. Also, though largely unseen, she had to deal with the inferiority complex of having The Chosen One as a sister. I'm sure many of us have an older sibling/cousin/aunt that we've looked up to, thought we'd never measure up to. And, having seen what Buffy did all those years, it must have been a tough act to even attempt to follow. And then she lost Buffy! Sure, she came back, but it didn't get easier from there. Dealing with the potential end of the world is one thing when you feel you have a part to play. But it must be tough to constantly be on the sidelines, wishing there was something concrete you can do when every person in your life is tied up in said world-ending.
Maybe Xander said it best. "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." Dawn never did step directly into it. But she was there and willing to help, often willing to sacrifice herself.
Maybe it's all the distance and years between Buffy ending and me writing this, but I see the value in Dawn Summers more now than I did then. I see how her existence made Buffy grow up, made her think of consequences in ways she might not have with only herself to care for. I see how raising her made an even tighter family of the whole gang who all pitched in to parent her.
Granted, if Joyce had lived, the responsibility wouldn't have been so heavy all around. But, between them, these unsung Summers girls made this show something it might not have been otherwise: real and relatable. I'm sure we can find it in ourselves to relate to a super-powered slayer and her gang of mostly super-powered cohorts. I mean, that's just some fun TV. But there was a mother to answer to and a kid to be responsible for, real life issues like bills and a home and Child Protective Services to deal with rather than brush off. The existence of these mere mortals made BtVS just that much more realistic. Their imprints grounded it and made me just a little more invested than I would have otherwise been. They made it a show I still remember and re-watch... even the bad episodes. Because there was something realistic about it.
And how many supernatural shows have that going for them?
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