We traditionally think of heroes as strong and invincible. One of my favorite things about Buffy is that she is strong but she is clearly and repeatedly NOT invincible. But the words strong, invincible and hero come with a stigma that they are also without error and without emotion. Trying to be the traditional definition of strong often isolates us from the things that actually do make us strong.
Case in point: Buffy tries to cope with the death of her mother, Joyce. Aside from being one of the most emotional plot arcs in the entire Buffy-verse, this is where I think Buffy (along with myself) learns that being strong doesn’t mean being unshakable. Weakness and Vulnerability are not the same thing.
After the funeral, Buffy tells Angel in secret that everyone thinks she is “so strong.” Buffy’s stoicism is marked by an emotional detachment from what is happening around her. The fact that her mother, her personal representation of strength, is gone breaks her to the core. But the Slayer is never to show weakness, so Buffy goes about the details of planning the funeral as she would a classroom assignment. Keeping to the task at hand allows her to hold her emotions at bay and to continue to operate on a basic level. What she doesn’t yet see, and what Angel points out, is that her version of “strong” is keeping herself separated from her emotions and from the people around her. “You don’t have to do this alone” he says. At this point she still doesn’t hear him.
The person most affected by Buffy’s distant behavior, as you can imagine, is her sister Dawn. So much so that Dawn embarks on a dangerous quest to resurrect her mother. Dawn feels so alone she is willing to break all rules of nature and accept any version of her mom that she can have. Buffy walks in at the end of the spell and begins to school Dawn on all the reasons it’s wrong. Dawn becomes the mirror that Buffy needs in order to truly see what her behavior is doing to her relationships. Buffy finally opens up to her emotions and is overcome by them. She begins to grieve at long last. But this is on the heels of a resurrected Joyce finally coming to the house. There is a knock on the door and all of Buffy’s so-called “strength” evaporates as she says “mommy” in child-like anticipation. At this moment Dawn recognizes something in her sister: the same emotion she’s been experiencing. She realizes that she and Buffy need each other, now more than ever. She understands that they need to be open and vulnerable and in turn lean on each other. Which is exactly what they do.
Being vulnerable doesn’t mean showing weakness. Being strong is about embracing our power as well as our vulnerability and maintaining that connection to the world around us.