Valerie Frankel, Author of Buffy and the Heroine's Journey, Interview

Valerie Estelle Frankel has won a Dream Realm Award, an Indie Excellence Award, and a USA Book News National Best Book Award for her Harry Potter parodies. She is the author of five new and forthcoming books on pop culture: From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Journey in Myth and Legend, Katniss the Cattail: An Unauthorized Guide to Names and Symbols in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Teaching with Harry Potter, Harry Potter: Still Recruiting, and Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey. She lives in Sunnyvale, California, which is apparently a real place. For more on her writing, please visit http://vefrankel.com

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1) What was it that first drew you to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and what kept you coming back?

I’d always known Buffy was out there and that I’d probably enjoy it. I was there when Once More with Feeling was up for a Hugo, and I’d read Buffy parody cartoons off my favorite science fiction spoof site. But it was only in 2012, while writing my book on the heroine’s journey (From Girl to Goddess, now in stores) that I actually sat down to watch it. I only wanted to cruise through a couple episodes because, all right, I was writing a Twilight parody for my Henry Potty books. But after watching a few Buffy episodes, I was completely hooked. I rushed out and watched all the DVDs. And all of Angel. And read the comics. And read the commentary books. And also (pushing fandom to my own crazy writer level) wrote a hundred pages spontaneously analyzing Buffy as a girl on the classic heroine’s journey.

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2) Can you tell us a little bit about why you chose Buffy to write about and what the specific character represents to you?

Among so many heroine's journey stories condensed into two hour movies or perhaps a trilogy of books, Buffy’s story is one of the longest and most developed. That makes it wonderful for analysis—there’s just so much in there. And it really follows the heroine’s journey perfectly—each season arc as she descends into the darkness or the patriarchal castle to face a “Big Bad,” and most episode arcs as she faces her unexplored shadow side and grows from the encounter. The series arc as a whole (counting the movie, when she first learns about vampires) is of course the most perfect journey of all. Movie producers could learn from this series, as they do with movies like Star Wars. Buffy’s also truly endearing because she’s a teenage girl who grows and changes, who has problems she overcomes. Everything comes too easily to Movie Buffy, and to Bella from Twilight for that matter. They win without actually risking or losing much that they care about. But as we see in Prophecy Girl and Becoming, Buffy earns her happy endings. And as she defeats all her monsters and triumphs each time, we feel like we’re saving ourselves as well.

3) How did you go about putting your book together and what was the process like?

As I said, from my first time through watching, I had a sizable draft. Later I was talking to my Heroine’s Journey publisher, and I discovered that they’d published most of the Buffy criticism out there (Buffy Goes Dark, Buffy in the Classroom, The Buffyverse Catalogue, and so many more). So we chatted, and soon after I had a contract for Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey (published February 2012). My outline was clear from the beginning, comparing the heroine’s journey step by step with Buffy step by step. I’d always pictured the mythic warrior woman like Mu Lan or Atalanta perfectly fitting the hero’s journey. But that wasn’t the case here. Buffy starts with male villains and a male mentor. But by season five, she’s on the picture-perfect heroine’s journey, defying Glory, the female killer of the innocent, to save her little sister Dawn. So as I studied the warrior woman’s path in more depth, I saw a more interesting pattern—the girl who becomes the greatest warrior of all, and then, like Tamora Pierce’s characters, Atalanta, or Eowyn, must discover what it means, spiritually and wholly, to be a woman.

4) Can you boil down Campbell's archetype of "the hero's journey" for our readers?

The hero grows up with his foster parents off in the countryside. Then a mysterious bearded wizard (the Merlin-Gandalf-Obi-Wan-Dumbledore archetype) appears and says, “You are the Chosen One, the only one who can destroy the Dark Lord and be a worthy leader for our people. Take this magical sword and come with me.” They go on many adventures until, in the underworld all alone, the hero must face the Dark Lord only to discover that this menacing figure is really his own shadow—all the emotions and powers he’s refused to face in himself. Stronger from the confrontation, he returns home to save the world as its new leader. The minute anyone dies and returns, or the words “Chosen One” pop up, we’re following this mythic plot.

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5) How is the heroine’s journey different?

The general plot arc is pretty close. But the heroine doesn’t get a sword—she gets a pair of magic slippers. Or spectacles. Or a golden compass. Or a vial of healing water. Or sometimes a silver bow. Her shadow is the wicked stepmother, killer of children—like the wicked witches of Oz and Narnia. And her mission isn’t to rule but to save her family as the archetypal mother and life-giver. And then there’s the warrior woman, like Buffy, who has a more complex path…

6) How do you think the slayer's journey would have been different if she'd been a chosen male? You have mentioned that Buffy uses male weapons like the stake and has some aspects to her that are considered more masculine, especially sometimes self isolating and retreating from her feelings to get the job done. If she'd been a Bob Summers, what do you think would change?

Buffy defends helpless women from the night creatures who want to devour them in a not-strongly-disguised rape metaphor. While Angel has a similar mission on his show, his empathy with the women and determination not to be a victim (and fighting through it when he does become a victim) is far less emphasized than it is for Buffy on her own show. On a shallower level, Bob Summers likely wouldn’t have escalated from male adversaries to female ones. A hero’s female enemy is most often the femme fatale, and I’d expect to see her in the earlier parts of the story. When “evil mom” shows up, she’s usually manipulative and incestuous rather than a literal enemy (rather like Riley and Professor Walsh’s relationship, in fact).

The hero is supposed to embrace his dark, magical, subconscious, deadly feminine side by journeying into the forest or the magical world and learning from the mysterious goddess there. Then he returns to the world of life and rules, as Angel turns from someone battling the establishment (as Wolfram and Hart) to someone commanding it. The heroine too, learns from the dark savage feminine, as Buffy journeys into the desert and speaks with the First Slayer. But the heroine often doesn’t return to the normal world, instead embracing the magical world and making it part of herself. Buffy never does learn to function as student or counselor in Sunnydale, instead letting it crumble away so she can devote herself fully to the magic—she emerges from its crater as the leader of a magical army of slayers, destined to fight the dark shadows of evil forever. She never does learn how to get a day job.

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7) You consider/use the film, show, and comics as canon for your arguments. Which of the media do you prefer or do you all see it as the same story?

Oh, it’s definitely one big story. Actually, I found the movie character frightfully shallow, and I’m not a big comic fan as a rule. However, it’s all one epic. Child Buffy learns vampires exist and turns her back on cheerleading to save the other students. Without that, her refusal to slay in the show’s first episode makes no sense (flashbacks to movie events in the episode Becoming and a comic book rewrite of the movie script to turn it into Joss-Whedon-sanctioned Buffy canon also support how necessary the events are to the overall plot). The season eight comic is wonderful because characters grow, change, start dating, break up, and even get killed—it’s also story arc. Further, most heroine’s journey stories end with the girl becoming the queen—Cinderella getting married, or Buffy creating an army of slayers to lead. Only a few stories, like that of Medea, see the young queen struggling not to slope downward from her high point and become the series’ next evil stepmother (something an all-powerful Buffy indeed struggles with in the comics as her morals begin slipping). As such, it’s another valuable part of the journey cycle.

8) You don't get into the other characters except usually as an extension of Buffy's own psyche. Out of curiosity, do you have a favorite supporting character and why do you like them?

The characters are awesome! However, their arcs have been analyzed in other criticism, and the heroine’s/hero’s journey sees all the characters, good and bad, as part of the hero, so that’s where I had to go (In fact, I had to cut some pages I’d written on Willow’s heroine’s journey arc, as it wasn’t fitting into the book very well). But Willow is awesome—she’s clever and snarky in the early episodes despite her shyness (telling Cordelia to hit the “Deliver” key on her computer code, for instance) and she’s a real genius, teaching a computer class while still a sophomore. Yet she gives up a supergenius future of Harvard scholarships to fight evil and tells Buffy that’s what she wants to dedicate her life to. That’s a real hero. But I always perk up when I see Spike on screen…

9) Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming projects and whether or not any will include Buffy?

Phew, far too many upcoming projects! In February, along with the Buffy book, I published Katniss the Cattail: An Unauthorized Guide to Names and Symbols in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. While I’m busy publicizing it, I’m also writing another book on Katniss as archetypal heroine: as protector of children, as warrior woman, on the heroine’s journey, in a dystopia, etc. In the next few months, I’m also scheduled to publish two more books: Teaching with Harry Potter, and Harry Potter: Still Recruiting (a look at the still-growing fandom with lots of interviews and photos). While doing all this, I seem to have written a great deal on Smallville as a perfect ten-season hero’s journey, just as I once spontaneously wrote pages and pages of Buffy notes.

So I think that one will become a book as well. I’d love to do a book on the other Buffyverse characters—the great journeys of Angel, Spike, Willow, Faith, and even Giles. I also would enjoy getting into the Angel TV show more—this first book really was all about Buffy. But as you can see, this year’s feeling a bit crowded. To say nothing of essays, blog posts, and other short pieces. Certainly I’ll be writing much more on the heroine’s journey—I already have published essays analyzing it in Narnia, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Torchwood, Dollhouse, and more. As such, the Buffy book will always inform my perspective—writing From Girl to Goddess helped me really explore the heroine’s journey, and analyzing Buffy helped me really explore the warrior woman’s path, something I’ll probably need in a world of Hunger Games scholarship. I can certainly feel my Buffy theories rattling around in my head with everything else. At least there’s lots of other pop culture up there to keep them company.

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ALSO - look for Ms. Frankel's guest piece tomorrow (4/22) about Buffy and the Heroine's Journey!

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