Amber Benson Talks Her New Book, Feminism, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer at New York Comic Con
We caught up with Buffy the Vampire Slayer actress/writer/director Amber Benson at this weekend's New York Comic Con. She was promoting her new book, Witches of Echo Park, as well as speaking at a panel about diversity in geek media. Read on to find out about her book, her views on feminism, and when Joss Whedon originally wanted to kill off Tara.
(She also compares Buffy to Jesus at one point, and I wasn't even wearing my WWBD t-shirt!)
OP: So you're here to promote your book, Witches of Echo Park?
AB: I am, indeed. This is the first book in a new series that I'm doing for Penguin, it's called The Witches of Echo Park. It's about a young woman who comes home to Echo Park, California and finds out that her great aunt is actually the coven master of a coven of powerful witches, and they want her to join the coven.
I wanted to talk about women's relationships with each other, outside of- you know- talking about boys. I feel like so often, things don't pass the Bechdel test, and I wanted to write something that would.
OP: You also have a few films in the works, right?
AB: I do. I have a film that I did with [fellow Buffy alums] Charisma Carpenter and Clare Kramer called, "The Griddle House," that will hopefully be coming out at the beginning of next year. And then I did a webseries for Geek and Sundry called Morganville, based on the Rachel Caine series. That'll be coming out at the end of October, beginning of November. And I get to be a vampire queen called Amelie, she's large and in charge. Very Grace Kelly, ice queen, awesome power suits. [Laughs]
OP: I saw you in the Fight What You Know panel. It was so great.
AB: Oh, yay!
OP: I was wondering how your ideas about feminism and about writing strong female characters played into your writing.
AB: You know, I'm all about strong female characters, but they have to be real. They have to be three-dimensional, and by three-dimensional I mean human, because being human means to be imperfect. If they're not imperfect, if they're not fallible, if they don't make mistakes, then I don't feel like they're real. You can't have a character that's perfect right off the bat.
OP: I read a statistic recently that said the top 100 movies of 2013 had women play only 30% of their speaking roles. But television seems to have a lot of great female characters that are very flawed, like Carrie Mathison on Homeland, or even Skyler on Breaking Bad.
OP: So what do you think about the difference between the mediums right now?
AB: Filmmaking right now is all about tentpole filmmaking, you spend a lot of money and you have a big return financially. So they're thinking, "How do we not offend the greatest population of people? How do we make these things as bland as possible so that everybody can enjoy them?"
Whereas television, there's a lot more latitude because you're trying to reach a niche audience, so you're sort of given more leeway to create interesting characters. So you see a lot of antiheroes on television, you see a lot of flawed characters, you see a lot of real characters. Especially female characters. Basically what was independent film ten or fifteen years ago is now being done on television.
OP: And in the panel yesterday, you were also saying that independent comics have more room for representation than mainstream comics?
AB: Definitely. My friend Sina Grace, is working on Burn The Orphanage. It's so wonderful, so unique and different. It's not a story you would see in the mainstream world. But it's valid and necessary, and there's a giant group of people that it speaks to. Without independent comics, they wouldn't have a voice.
OP: You mentioned that there are a lot of antiheroes on television. And there are a lot of male heroes especially- like House or Dexter- that are kind of loved for their flaws. Do you think women on television have gotten there yet, or do you think people still love them in spite of their flaws?
AB: I don't think women have gotten there yet. I think women are loved in spite of their flaws. There's this idea that women are maternal, and they have to be uber-giving, and if they're not, then there's something wrong with them. Then they're the whore. It's that madonna-whore stuff, If you're not maternal and giving, then you're the slutty, bitchy whore. And there's no middle ground.
OP: I heard on another diversity panel that, although in a perfect world, the heroine's journey would be the same as the hero's journey, because of societal influences the heroine's journey has to be distinct. Is that the attitude you took when writing your novels?
AB: I think that's bullsh*t. [Laughs] I think women and men are different, we all know that physically we're different. There are some things that women are better at than men, like giving birth to babies, men aren't so great at that. But I think, on a human level, the journey is the same.
I get frustrated because I always like to call myself a humanist, but I really had to take on the mantle of feminism too because we're not there yet. I wish we didn't have to be feminists, I wish we could just be humanists, but it's not equal yet. And it's not a slight on men because I know a ton of dudes who are working to make it equal.
OP: What do you think about women's roles in films that were originally written for men, like Sigourney Weaver in Alien or Angelina Jolie in Salt? Do you think that's helpful because the parts are written as humans who can be either gender, or do you think it's harmful because it's implying that strong female protagonists basically need to be written exactly like men?
AB: I don't think strong female protagonists need to be written as men. I think that's- ridiculous. Because the sexes are different. Different but equal. Just know who your character is, answer the questions about them, know their backstory, and the gender becomes superfluous.
OP: Could I ask you a few questions about Buffy?
AB: Sure! Please.
OP: Just to preface, I've been watching it since I was nine.
AB: [Laughs] Since you were embryonic, I got it.
OP: Your character's death was a little bit controversial. Do you have an opinion on that controversy?
AB: I think from a story point of view, it was necessary because Joss was dealing with an addiction storyline, and anybody who's dealt with addiction knows that in order to come back from an addiction, you have to hit bottom. And for Willow, hitting bottom was losing the most important thing in her life, which was Tara. As an actor I was like, "Does she have to die? Can't she just lose an arm? Nick [Brendon] just lost an eye, that's not fair."
OP: And there's a running joke that Joss Whedon tends to kill half of any happy relationship. Angel was killed when Buffy was happy with him, do you think Tara is comparable to that?
AB: [Laughs] I know he didn't want to kill the character. He just kept putting it off, like it was supposed to happen at the beginning of season 6, and he was just like, "Um, it's going to happen a little later. Okay, a little later. Just a little later." So I think it was really difficult for him to do it.
OP: That's flattering!
AB: I know! But it's not me, it's her, she was a sweetheart, everybody loved her. You don't want anything bad to happen to Tara.
OP: Can you talk a little bit about Tara's impact on the young LGBTQ community, do you get a lot of feedback about that? Because they were one of the first lesbian couples on television, and the scene where they're in bed together was a first for network TV.
AB: I feel like that relationship broke barriers. It wasn't the first, but I think it was the first one that was about a relationship that just happened to be between two women. But the relationship was real. I would get letters from kids that said, "I'm gay and there's nobody else like me. And I watch this show, and I feel like I'm not alone. I didn't kill myself because of the Willow/Tara relationship." Alyson [Hannigan] and I were both blessed to have portrayed those characters. We were really, really lucky.
OP: And Buffy was a flawed character, as well as a strong character.
AB: Absolutely. 100%.
OP: I thought she was a very good modern feminist role model.
AB: Yeah, definitely. Talk about the hero's journey, she was like, "No, I don't want to go on this, screw you. Leave me alone, I want to be normal." And then she was kind of forced into it, and then she accepted her destiny. She was willing to fight the good fight, and that's what's really important. How can you be considered a good character unless you've been tested? It's like Jesus being tested by the Devil, then you're like, "Okay, I'll go with him on this journey now, because I see that he fought the good fight. He wasn't just good off the bat." And Buffy was like that.
OP: I read a criticism that said that at the beginning, Buffy sort of represented the "special girl" trope, that she was strong because she was special. But then the ending of the show was a reversal of that trope, where all women are strong. What do you think?
AB: I think that's really interesting, I don't know if that was the intention, that's a Joss Whedon question. But I definitely love the idea that every woman is special, that every woman can be Buffy. I think that's important, and that in the end the message we're left with is that everybody can find that specialness inside of them. Everyone can transcend their fears and can become the person they want to be. Every woman, especially.