From ‘Buffy’ to ‘Once’: Jane Espenson on Creating TV’s Best Female Friends

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·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
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What’s the link uniting such popular contemporary genre shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Warehouse 13, and Once Upon a Time? The Comic-Con faithful know the answer to this one: Jane Espenson. Since joining the Buffy writing staff in 1998 during its legendary third season, the Iowa-born writer — who got her start penning scripts for such sitcoms as Dinosaurs and Ellen — has enjoyed a nearly two-decade career in the world of sci-fi and fantasy television, with the occasional digression into “real world” series like Gilmore Girls and The Inside.

Espenson’s illustrious list of credits means that she’s written for some of the most popular female characters in fandom, from Buffy and Willow to Regina and Emma. That makes her uniquely qualified to speak to the question of female friendships in genre television, which are rarer than you might think. Because even though there’s a surfeit of terrific female characters inhabiting the realm of science fiction and fantasy TV shows, it can be harder to think of terrific friendships they share with other women on their respective shows. Yahoo TV chatted with Espenson via email about that potential blind spot, as well as some of her all-time favorite TV buddies.

Yahoo TV: Growing up, what were some of the female friendships you saw depicted on television that made a big impression on you?
Jane Espenson: Well, you’ve gotta go with Mary and Rhoda [from The Mary Tyler Moore Show], right? Opposites who admired each other for the ways they were different, but shared the problems of being single working women of the time. Laverne and Shirley were fun but didn’t have that same feeling of a real fleshed-out friendship that I could identify with. I knew they loved each other, but I was never entirely sure why. Before my day, but still viewable in syndication as they are today: Lucy and Ethel on I Love Lucy, and Laura and Millie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Great, vibrant friendships in shows where the women usually drove story and were allowed to be beautifully flawed and human.

In my college years [during the ’80s], I wasn’t watching quite as much TV. I loved The Golden Girls and watched a good deal of Designing Women and Cagney & Lacey. I loved Murphy Brown, who had her moments with Corky and with her mother, and I loved Cheers, which had a fun, prickly friendship between Carla and Diane, who were more divided by class than united by gender. And I’d like to make a case for Bosom Buddies: Buffy and Hildy were inventions of the male lead characters, but were defined as individuals who had their own sort of separate friendship.

Related: TV’s Best Female Friendships: An Oral History of ‘Designing Women’

I notice now that a lot of my favorite shows growing up only had one woman in the main cast, like M*A*S*H, Taxi, and Welcome Back, Kotter. Or none at all, like Hogan’s Heroes, The Odd Couple. I don’t think I felt distanced from those shows, though — is that strange? When characters are written as complex and human, we can see ourselves in them despite differences. I think I was as likely to identify with Larry and Balki’s friendship — or cousinship? — on Perfect Strangers, as I was with Kate and Allie’s friendship on Kate & Allie. I saw myself in Balki’s irrepressibility more than I saw myself in the life of either single mom. By the way, there used to be a very implausible rumor around town that Perfect Strangers scripts were just Laverne & Shirley scripts with the names replaced, to the degree that the name Laverne made it into a table read draft once!

As you prepared to write your own scripts, what did you feel was lacking from the depiction of female friendships on primetime television shows that you hoped to illuminate in your own work?
I’ve been lucky to be hired on shows that had really interesting prominent female characters: Buffy, Battlestar, and Once Upon a Time, among them. I didn’t invent the relationships on these shows, but I had a great time writing for them and always sought to write people interacting in ways that rang true to me. I remember writing a conversation between Laura Roslin and Caprica Six for Battlestar, two women who hadn’t had much interaction before. Laura is trying to bridge the divide and Caprica’s not giving her any conversational handholds, if you will. I love that it was an example of two women, each with their own kind of power, having trouble connecting emotionally, just as men with a complex history might. I think sometimes women are written as totally emotionally empathetic, when I don’t think that’s really a given. I guess that’s what I want to illuminate: just people acting like people. I feel a complex, reality-based relationship between women is of more value than sweet sisterly solidarity uninformed by the complications of real relationships.

And I think there’s another point to be made, one brought to my conscious awareness by my sometimes-collaborator Brad Bell. It’s not just women who are harmed by gender assumptions. The depiction of women as universally catty and competitive is harmful, but so is the depiction of men as immune from emotional needs. If society is to be helped by scenes of supportive emotional moments between women, then it’s also to be helped by scenes of supportive emotional moments between men — the kind that sometimes aren’t written because they’re seen as “emasculating.” If we want the culture around men to change, then giving them access to the emotional tools to make that change is important. Focusing just on the female friendship side of the equation doesn’t get the whole job done.

When you were starting out, did you notice a significant gender disparity in writers’ rooms? How did that impact the way women’s relationships were depicted onscreen?
Oh, yes. On my earliest jobs, I was often the only woman in the room, or one of two. I don’t know if that’s changed because the times have changed, or because I switched from writing comedies to writing dramas. It’s been a long time since that happened, at any rate, although the WGA statistics show that things haven’t really improved all that much. In those early days, there was sometimes a sense that the female characters were to be written to be regulators of the fun times of the guys. The women were written as smarter, more responsible … and a lot less interesting than the guys in a cast. This was considered a good thing because who would object to being considered smarter? The problem, of course, is that smarter wins you no points in comedies — funnier does. It was a weird step backward from a show like I Love Lucy, where a woman got all the best lines, drove the stories, and got to be the irresponsible one.

What are your first memories of seeing Buffy the Vampire Slayer? What about the show made you want to write for those characters?
A friend recommended that I watch it, and I immediately loved it. I think the first full episode that I saw was “Ted,” from Season 2, which guest-starred John Ritter. I also saw “The Pack,” the one with the hyenas, and loved the metaphorical nature of the storytelling. I was most impressed by the series’ willingness to mix strong humor, strong horror, and real emotion. Buffy was the show that made me want to make the jump from writing for half-hour comedies to hourlong series. I saw that a show existed where I could apply joke-writing skills, but also dig deeper, and get to say something important about the emotional jungle of the high school years.

Particularly in those early seasons, the friendship between Willow and Buffy was such a key element of the show and seemed to be something that fans really responded to.
It’s funny, I don’t recall there being a lot of fan interest focused on that friendship at the time, as opposed to any other relationship on the show. I wonder if it’s something that’s come into higher relief now as we look backwards at the series. I do think there was something really great in how accepting they were of each other. Both characters’ evolution over the series was embraced by each other and by their friends without judgment. Cordelia and Harmony could be catty, but there was never a hint of that in Willow or Buffy. It’s easy to look back now and say that it struck me as unlike anything else [on television], but at the time, I’m not sure I recognized it as such. I just loved how well defined the characters were and how their friendship made sense given who they were. A character like Buffy, who was a cheerleader brought down the social scale and thrown in with the outcasts, might not have made these new friends if she hadn’t been the Slayer. Maybe she would’ve been more like Cordelia.

Did you draw on any personal friendships to write for those characters?
My best friend growing up was very much like high school Willow: brilliant, bookish, and shy. But I’m not at all like Buffy, so I don’t think I drew much on that when I started to write for the characters. I just listened in my head to the characters that Joss had created and let them talk. And as the characters changed over the years, the friendship changed. Just like in real life, change happens gradually and you don’t realize you’re writing the characters any differently until you notice, “Whoa, we’re all the way over here now!” By the way, writing conflict is always more fun and productive than writing scenes of agreement, so when you’re “writing a friendship,” you’re likely to be affirming its ability to recover from fractures. If you’re scared to write the fractures, you’re not going to have very deep relationships to write about.

Ron Moore’s version of Battlestar Galactica is one of my all-time favorite shows, with a number of marvelous female characters on it. Interestingly, though, very few of those women were friends with each other.
Well, Laura Roslin and Tory Foster had some great stuff, but it’s true that female friendships weren’t at the center of that story. Battlestar did something really interesting, though, that I think is relevant to this question: It created a universe in which the expectations set by gender and sexual orientation were very different than in our world. Laura’s leadership was questioned but never based on her gender, just as Starbuck’s recklessness was never attributed to gender. Even physical tests like boxing were conducted on an equal footing between men and women.

Given that women don’t seem to have had a history of being discounted as a result of their gender in this world, I don’t think any of the women characters on the show would have thought of gender as a primary way to categorize their friendships. In my opinion, they would have thought of military rank, occupation, planet of origin, Human vs. Cylon, and even which ship of the fleet they were living on as all being more central to how they think of themselves than gender. And it’s also worth noting that the Battlestar prequel, Caprica, centered crucially on the friendship between two teen girls, Zoe and Lacy.

Related: ‘Sex and the City’ Writers and Real-Life Best Friends Talk Female Friendships on TV

In thinking about some of the most acclaimed sci-fi shows of the past few decades — the various Star Trek series, Lost, Angel, and now Stranger Things that lack of female friendship seems to repeat itself. Why does this seem to be a blind spot for the genre? And are there ways to fix it?
That’s an interesting list. Is it longer than a similar list of non-genre shows would be, I wonder? For example, do sci-fi-fantasy shows compare poorly in this respect to legal dramas, cop procedurals, medical shows, or workplace comedies? I can’t think of how or why any inclination away from female friendships would be built into science fiction as opposed to any other genre. Science fiction is about shedding the assumptions of our time and culture, so I’d expect these shows to be among the first to adopt progressive elements, as original Star Trek did in expanding roles for women and diverse casting.

The fact that Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Jessica Jones, and Once Upon a Time are all genre shows seems pretty positive to me. Are there any four shows in any other category of series that are as positive about female friendship? Of course, I’m not urging complacency: There is always room for improvement, and you may well be right and there’s a blind spot that I’ve failed to notice because of the relationships [and shows] I’ve been lucky enough to write for. It’s not unfair at all for people to expect genre works to uphold higher standards. I hope we generally meet them and have our eyes open enough to see when we are falling short.

In terms of fixes, the apparent easy answer to solving the problem — hire more women writers — falls short. Yes, of course, more women writers should be hired because it’s a vast waste of talent if we don’t hire them. They’re just as likely to be as talented as men and can bring untold stories and awareness of unconscious bias into the room. But Joss Whedon, Ron Moore, Shonda Rhimes, and Melissa Rosenberg and others have shown that good writers can write complex characters that differ from their own personal gender. I don’t want to see a generation of women writers relegated to the task of policing the writing of women characters when there’s a whole world of writing to be done. I think the real fix is a matter of making all writers, regardless of gender and genre, aware that there’s a large aspect of the real world that isn’t being captured in the mirror they’re holding up to it.

What are some of your favorite female relationships on TV right now?
I like Orange Is the New Black, and Piper’s friendships with her fellow prisoners are always beautifully written and interesting. Kimmy Schmidt’s sometimes exploitive, sometimes supportive friendship with Jacqueline is fun and complicated. I was lucky enough to chip in at Jessica Jones during my last hiatus, and the Jess-Trish friendship is a great one with a really unusual backstory. And Grace and Frankie is all about two women’s grudging friendship, which is a great story of two people forced into acknowledging common ground where they thought they had none.

How do you approach writing the friendships on Once Upon a Time?
It’s fun being on a show with so many female characters at the top of the cast: Emma, Regina, Snow White, Zelena, Belle, and a lot of female and supporting cast too: Anna, Elsa, Merida, Ruby, Granny, and others. We often go for long stretches without passing a sort of reverse Bechdel Test: two male characters talking to each other, and when they do, it’s about the women. Most of our characters are related to each other in complicated ways, so it’s a little hard to tease friendships apart from familial relationships. But I think it’s fair to say that especially Emma and Regina and Snow White have strong, if sometimes fraught, friendships along all possible axes.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is now streaming on Netflix. Once Upon a Time airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on ABC.