The Case for Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Cordelia Chase, an Unexpectedly Inspirational Mean Girl

TV Features Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The Case for Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Cordelia Chase, an Unexpectedly Inspirational Mean Girl

This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s series finale, titled “Chosen.” In celebration, Paste is looking back on the episode itself, the series as a whole (in both episodic and season rankings), and the characters that defined it. And for more Buffy, look no further than our past musings on one of the greatest supernatural TV shows of all time.

The good old-fashioned high school mean girl; we all know them and may (secretly) love them. Regina George. Blair Waldorf. Girls who stomp around with their minions, shoving aside anyone in their way and harboring a—usually inexplicable—hatred for the female protagonist. What has made these mean girls, at sixteen, so bitter to the world and to others? The answer is almost never revealed before she is inevitably defeated by the “good girl,” but Buffy the Vampire Slayer gives us a rare glimpse beneath the cold mask of the mean girl with Cordelia Chase. 

Perhaps no two characters better epitomize the “good girl/bad girl” high-school-rival trope than Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter), a popular cheerleader who tries to befriend Buffy when the latter first moves to Sunnydale. But in the same way that Harry Potter rebuffs Draco Malfoy’s offer of friendship, Buffy dismisses Cordelia as vapid and superficial, embarrassing her and thus beginning their iconic rivalry. 

While Buffy makes her fair share of mistakes, it would be pretty difficult to argue that selfless, pure-of-heart Buffy is not the personification of a “good girl” protagonist. That said, Cordelia is not your average mean girl. Unlike most other mean girls, she’s not the true antagonist. She doesn’t immediately hate Buffy for being “prettier” than she is, or for other extraneous reasons why mean girls often hate the new girls; in fact, she has every reason to bear animosity toward Buffy for rejecting her. 

Buffy challenges a number of mean girl clichés though with Buffy’s own former stint as the “Cordelia” type at her old school prior to moving to Sunnydale. No one would deny a mean girl her designer clothes and impractical shoes; she is, in general, the ultimate girly girl, caring deeply about her outward appearance, while her foil—the new/good girl—is effortlessly beautiful even while dressing like a slob. But in this series, both the new girl and the mean girl have a serious penchant for fashion and style. While most other mean girl characters are reduced down to their materialism, Cordelia and Buffy are actually cut from the same cloth.

One shared trait with her Mean Girl predecessors and successors though is Cordielia’s sharp tongue. She wields her words as weapons but knows how to aim her insults artfully. In Season 2’s “When She Was Bad,” Buffy is reincarnated and lashing out at Willow and Xander because she doesn’t know how to deal with her trauma. But when Buffy is rude to Cordelia, Cordy demonstrates her hidden emotional depths by telling Buffy she can’t walk around acting like that just because she’s hurting. Of course, she does it while telling Buffy to “spank [her] inner moppet,” but the sentiment rings true regardless.

Thanks to her tactlessness, Cordy becomes, oddly, the most sincere person on the entire show. Make no mistake: by no means is she the nicest person on Buffy, but she’s the only one who doesn’t lie or cut corners—just because she’s popular doesn’t mean she’s fake. In “Earshot,” Buffy accidentally acquires the ability to hear people’s thoughts. Cordelia’s are the exact same in her head as they are aloud, in stark contrast to Buffy’s other friends, who will think one thing and say something else. So while Willow lied to protect her friends’ feelings, and Buffy lied to keep her friends safe and out of harm’s way, Cordelia told it how it was, no holds barred. (Perhaps everyone should take a page out of her book on How to Avoid the Dreaded Miscommunication Trope.)

One of the more intriguing aspects of Cordelia is the redemption arc she is given, without having to bear the burden of a tragic backstory. So often, the bully with a heart of gold is shown sympathy by the protagonist after they learn of the former’s dysfunctional life at home. Yet Cordelia has it all. She isn’t mistreated, she just knows what she wants and doesn’t let anyone stand in her way. And when she does join the show’s Scooby Gang, she doesn’t magically morph into a softer, kinder version of herself; in fact, quite the opposite. She never loses that biting edge.

It is then a bitterly ironic twist of fate that, when the “mean girl” won’t allow herself to be treated poorly when she doesn’t deserve it, she ends up being shunned anyhow… and all for reasons that are entirely out of her control. To understand the character of Cordelia is to know that she was as much of a friend (and, possibly, an honorary Slayer) as she was capable of being to the rest of the gang. She risked her life for them time and time again, but without receiving any real thanks or acknowledgment. 

Despite begrudgingly joining the “good guys” and displaying some semblance of humanity during her time on Buffy, Cordelia Chase ultimately didn’t get the happy ending she deserves, even after all her development and hard work fighting against character stereotypes. She exits Buffy after Season 3, having almost died when impaled by a stake. The Scoobies then unfairly decided to distance themselves from her without consulting her at all. This becomes an even tougher watch after learning at the beginning of the episode that Cordelia is planning on dumping Xander for good after catching him cheating on her with Willow. 

Deciding to cast Cordelia aside for her own “safety” was likely to showcase the strong moral compass of Buffy and her friends. And yet, had they not essentially shunned her, perhaps she might not have ultimately died in the Angel spinoff (that is if the rumors about Joss Whedon writing Charisma Carpenter off because of her pregnancy are just that). Her death on Angel is brutal in more ways than one. Feminism is not her friend, not even in death: the last appearance she ever makes in the Buffy-verse is to give Angel, her love interest, guidance to lead him back toward heroism after he’s starting to lose it. The last time we ever see her, she’s nothing but a plot device to move the male characters forward. 

After all her superb character development over the course of almost ten seasons of television, Cordelia is reduced back down to a pseudo-villain, possessed by a demon and puppeted for evil. When the demon finally leaves her body, Cordelia falls into a coma and dies off-screen, never redeemed for a second time for the problems she caused while possessed. Everything leading up to then may as well have been for naught. 

In the end, Cordelia fell victim to the fate originally bestowed upon her at Sunnydale High. Because let’s face it: no matter how much development they may go through, the popular mean girl will never win. It’s just not the way the fictional world works. At least she was not destroyed by Buffy, and she did break the mold of what could have been a very formulaic character—but I wish she had been given a better ending, one that gave her the credit she deserved. And with that, I say: Justice for Cordelia, and all the other redeemed mean girls whose stories still need to be played out.

Gillian Bennett is a writer and editor who has been featured in Strike Magazine, Her Campus, and now Paste Magazine. She enjoys watching copious reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and fantasizing about living in London. You can find more of her neverending inner monologue and online diary on her Twitter or her blog.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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