In defense of Dawn Summers

Contributed by
Jan 2, 2018

"I'm like a lightning rod for pain and hurt, and everyone around me suffers and dies. I must be something so horrible to cause so much pain and evil."

It is quite possible that aside from Riley Finn, no one in the Buffyverse elicits quite the level of loathing Dawn Summers does. Buffy the Vampire Slayer's very own add-a-kid, a tween bundle of emotions, a wide-eyed irritant to our heroes and their fandom alike, the younger and supernaturally created Summers girl is near-unilaterally hated, with very few defenders. Some might even think it impossible to defend this character at all.

In light of the backlash against The Last Jedi, my antenna is up for criticism that is potentially mired in some level of misogyny -- external and internal alike. Attacks on Dawn Summers always focus on one element: whininess. While male characters are certainly capable of being whiny (ahem, Xander), that particular insult is only leveled their way in extreme circumstances. Among female characters, it tends to get thrown around anytime a character is in any way frequently emotional. In a series replete with the keep-strong-and-slay-on Buffy, the always-look-on-the-bright-side Willow and the not-a-human-anyway-so-trade-the-children-for-cash Anya (characters we didn't see fully fall apart into emotional piles until the death of Joyce Summers, after Dawn was already in the picture), the continuing angst of Dawn Summers was a departure for the series that became a constant. 

Season 6, which like Dawn can conjure a guttural "UGH" upon mention, was a season in which every character was depressed or manic or crying or acting out -- often all of these things at the same time. In a show we love for its strength, we attack it for extended vulnerability. The implication from fandom? We don't want to see them be weak. And by that metric, Dawn Summers is weak. She needs to be saved and protected by the very design of the character. She's confused and angry. She aggressively scrawls in her journal, desperate for her sister to see what she's truly capable of without even knowing what that really means herself.

For some of us, Dawn is relatable -- but she's a kind of relatable we don't want to admit. I had undiagnosed major depression as a teen. It wouldn't be diagnosed until I was almost 30. I hated myself for what I saw as weakness -- my urge to cry constantly, this unrelenting feeling that I didn't matter, didn't count, and the overwhelming confusion about my future and my place in the world. I wanted to be strong, to be capable. I wanted to be Buffy, or Willow, or Anya. But in reality, I was Dawn.

Things have changed since Buffy went off the air. Depictions of depression and mental illness, something the show at times either hinted at or portrayed as an extended and ham-fisted metaphor -- have become incrementally more common and more carefully portrayed. We have hopefully become more accepting of characters who wear their emotions on their sleeves, who cry and rage and express how lost they are, and we feel more comfortable admitting that -- either sometimes or all the time -- that's us, too.

To all the Dawns of the world, you may not be a Slayer. But you're something.

And at least you're not Xander.