Spoilers: Through "Chosen"
Personal Website: innergeekdom.net
You know how everyone who signs up for this or for ship_manifesto starts by saying that as soon as they did they regretted it? Yeah, well, I'm not one to break a tradition.
In fact, I'm one to take it to the next level. I was willing to stand up on a mountain and proclaim, loudly, that I am unqualified and stupid. Also, my hair is not nearly shiny enough to write an essay on Dawn.
And then I realized that, well, none of you can see my hair. And that let me relax enough to... attempt this.
Okay, see, I was going to do this without insecurity. With a solid voice and a solid theory and one nice compact way to view... something. Anything. To make you love Dawnie as much as I do.
Except that, for any number of reasons, writing about Dawn makes that impossible. The biggest flaw of Dawn, both to the viewer and to the fic writer at large, is inconsistent writing. She changed so drastically, both from episode to episode and from season to season, that to get a firm grasp on her would be nearly impossible. Some of this is due to the fact that she is, quite simply, an adolescent girl. Other parts have to do with her being poorly written. I've found that, as a Dawn fan, the easiest way to reconcile that is to embrace the parts that you like as nuances, and reject the parts you don't like as bad writing.
What? It's a lifestyle choice.
I was spoiler-free when Dawn first appeared. If you'd told me that all of a sudden, Buffy was going to have a little sister who's cute, smart, and knows about vampires and crap, I would have asked you which Mary Sue you were smoking.
And truth be told, a lot of people do wonder that. I can't even say it's a completely unvalid criticism. (Well, I could, but people would yell at me, and that would be sad.) Dawn is, in many ways, the Cousin Oliver of the Buffyverse, fresh blood brought in when all the other characters were growing older (or, in the case of Angel and Spike, staying stagnant- but that's two other essays altogether). Except that, plot-wise? She's actually important and valid.
Let's start at the very beginning, with the story of how babies are made. When a Mommy and a Daddy love each other very, very much, monks mold an interdimensional key made of pure green energy into a fourteen-year-old girl who is made of her sister. They also mold everyone's memories, to believe that this key, this girl, has been with them for the past fourteen years. Except for the crazy people, who see her and spout pieces of nursery rhymes.
...Look, I'm not the one who wrote the scripts, man.
Basically, we have Buffy, Slayer of All She Surveys. We have her mother, Joyce, who starts "Buffy Vs. Dracula" (the first episode in which Dawn appears) with a serious case of Empty Nest syndrome and ends it with a middle school kid. And we have Dawnie.
Dawn is played by Michelle Trachtenberg. And I'm not going to perv over her at this point, because this is a very serious essay, and also because she's young, in s5, and it's kind of squicky now that I'm sufficiently older now than she was then. Suffice it to say she's a very pretty girl who (A) was already a fan of the show, (2) had already worked with SMG, and (iii) was ready to rock this bitch.
This is how it works:
The monks do a spell (no, not that kind of doing a spell...) and the key becomes integrated into Buffy's family in the form of Dawn. Because she's integrated, no one actually notices this; when Buffy leaves the house to go fight Dracula, she's an only child, and when she comes back, she's got an annoying little sister she remembers she's had since she was six.
"Real Me" is the first episode we actually meet Dawn, rather than just see her. Like My So-Called Life's "Life of Brian", the episode is shown through her eyes. We'd had POV episodes before- see also "The Zeppo" and "Superstar"- but those had been through preestablished characters. We were introduced to Dawn through her own lens. Given that most episodes are mostly either omniscient or through Buffy's POV, this was a dead giveaway that Dawn was not what she seemed.
"Real Me" paints Dawn as, well, a teenage girl, with tons of little personal quirks. She keeps diaries; she likes chocolate ice cream; she has a crush on Xander. As the season goes on, we get lots more of these little details: she likes the Harry Potter books, for example, and has a special fondness for boy bands.
Then Buffy thinks Dawn's an evil being planted in her life. Then Buffy finds out Dawn is really there for good and doesn't know it. Then Buffy tells Giles. Then Joyce figures it out.
Then no one tells Dawn for a fucking long time, because that's how we have angst. I mean, because she's too young. So she finds out with Spike, in the Magic Shop Giles owns, in "Blood Ties", which is exciting because Buffy's bad birthday tradition continues with Dawn cutting herself to see if she's real, right in the middle of Buffy's birthday party.
Those Summers girls just know how to kick it up a notch, y'know?
Anyway, angst, angst, angst, until Buffy's all "Summers blood! We're the same!" Which will be important later, when Dawn's blood is needed to open or close an interdimensional portal and Buffy's like "No, that's my job." And then she dies. And somewhere in there, Joyce dies, which is devastating for Dawn and Buffy, and Dawn blames herself because she's an interdimensional key thingy.
Seriously. That's the rest of season five, along with some Dawn Acting Like a Teenager Because She's The Key stuff thrown in.
After Blood Ties, Dawn's reactions are... bizarre. Dawn wants attention. Dawn has a ton of friends. Dawn's a kleptomaniac. Dawn has a crush on Spike. Dawn is bad at geometry. Dawn knows ancient Sumerian. Dawn is skipping school. Dawn is a Slayer- no she's not- well, at least her sister's the Slayer so she probably won't end up too dead.
The problem with Dawn, in a nutshell, is that she is written like a teenager in a landscape filled with people trying desperately to not be teenagers. By season 7, Dawn is the age that Buffy was in the first season of the show, but the maturity gap there is inescapable; Buffy was the mature lead, and Dawn is the Little Sister. To be coded as the younger sibling is to be annoying and pointless well beyond that has worn out. To be coded as teenager on a show that has grown older than that is a fate worse than death.
Yeah, when taken with everything else happening on the show, I can see where all the haters are coming from. Dawn whines. She complains. She's bitter that her life isn't fair. She's obnoxious and doesn't appreciate things.
This is what makes her realistic.
And yeah, Dawn's a little too perfect. What starts out as a Normal character like Xander becomes So Much More Than. By the seventh season, she can read dead languages, fight better than most of the proto-Slayers, and every third Sunday, she can turn water into wine.
Of course, Willow and Tara are powerful witches, Giles is a Watcher, every girl in the house is a Slayer-- dude, the Hellmouth's mojo works in mysterious ways.
The thing is, Dawn's weaknesses and her strengths are the same things. Because she's inconsistently written, and because she's a teenage girl. Do you think the Ancient Sumerian thing is cool? Then it's a positive! Think it's overdoing it? Then it's the biggest sign that Dawn was a waste of space that could have been Giles-shaped.
Interpretation's shiny like that.
For me? I like that Dawn's flawed. I like that she's a set of eyes looking in at the Buffyverse that's corrupted with a completely different set of ideals than everyone else. Buffy, Willow, Xander, Oz, Cordelia, Tara, etc.- they're all the same age range and the same rough history of life experiences. Dawn is younger, inexperienced. She's the outsider within the group, even moreso than Giles; at least they want Giles there. Dawn is the little kid who always had to sit out.
And trauma! So much trauma! I will never understand how there is not more Dawn fic out there. This poor kid suffered the death of her mother, her sister, her sister's best friend's girlfriend who was practically her mother figure, and her town over the course of three years. And her hair was still incredibly shiny. It baffles the mind.
Now. Interesting things worth pondering:
"Buffy vs. Dawn", or "Summers Blood: Dude, Are They ALWAYS On The Rag?"
Dawn was made out of Buffy. Yet their experiences were completely different. Supernatural versus natural, if by natural you mean "key made out of pure green energy" is one approach to this, but let's leave that be for a second.
There are myriad ways that they're really similar. At the same age, for example, Buffy and Dawn engaged in illicit shoplifting activity (see also: "Becoming"). And like Buffy in "Witch", in "Him", Dawn decides to join the SHS cheerleading squad.
Their main difference is in ability. Which Buffy has, and Dawn lacks.
Dawn's skill is in the academic- which we are led, by the end of s7, to believe is practically pre-Watcherdom. But that's not necessarily the case. And it's noteworthy mostly because Buffy has blood of Dawn, blood of the Key, but Dawn lacks the blood of the Slayer. It flows in only one way- which can be seen as indicative of their relationship as a whole, or could just be seen as sloppy writing. It's up to you, really.
"Family Ties", or "The Huxtables Never Had To Deal With This Shit"
The nice thing to add to this is that Dawn and Buffy fight, and often, and it's tooth and nail- and dude, Slayer? Going to have the advantage.- but we have no basis of comparison. For the first four seasons, none of the main characters had any siblings or any real sign of family outside of the Scoobies; they were forced to be their own family. Dawn is written as Annoying Younger Sibling to the entire Scooby Gang. Given that within half a season, she loses her entire family, the Scoobies become her family.
We have a girl who was exceptionally close to her mother, and after that loss grew exceptionally close to her sister. And she lost both of them, in ways that were easy for a young girl to blame on herself, especially when not presented with evidence that it wasn't her fault. Add in a stunning lack of father figure, who doesn't even come to the funeral; mix with no real friends her own age; salt to perfection. Serves a goodly portion of angst.
This leaves us with someone desperate for family, any family. Be that Tara and Willow; be that Xander and Anya; be that Giles or Spike or the robot that looked like her sister.
And the thing is, the writing doesn't explicitly reflect all of this. After the very beginning of s6, there's not much indication that this has taken its toll on Dawn. And then the BuffyBot got destroyed, Giles ran off to England, Spike attempted to rape her sister, Anya went evil, Tara died, Willow tried to end the world, and Xander got his eye poked out.
I'm sure there's a way that this SHOULDN'T be reflected in our view of the character? But I can't quite do that.
"The Primal Whine", or "How to Say Get Out In Twelve Easy Syllables"
Look, I know a bunch of people have issues with how whiny Dawnie is. Specifically how, twice- both on Buffy's birthday- somethign happens which affects Dawn, which in turn affects those around her, and she screams at them to get out, get out, get ouuuuuuuut.
There's whining. And patheticness.
And shit, man. She's fifteen.
I'm not saying this is an excuse for everything? But when we're saying "Okay, Willow destroyed the world, but she's really super sorry," there's a chance that the whole whining thing might pale a little bit.
"History", Or "A Watched Key Never Boils... But That's Why We Have Fanfic"
And this is just to throw in there, but it's something that always can be repeated: there are four years wherein we know everything that happened around Dawn, but not what actually happened to Dawn herself. Buffy s1-s4 is rife with opportunities to use Dawn to make an old dog not just play new tricks, but actually grow six years younger and have really shiny fur. Some of the comics have approached this, but the show hasn't; it's a goldmine for ficwriters, if you're in the game.
Oh! And now that we're on fic?
So much, people. So much.
There's Dawn/Xander and Dawn/Spike and Dawn/Lilah and Dawn/Wesley and Dawn/Anya and Dawn/Connor and Dawn/Faith and Dawn/Kennedy and an ungodly amount of Dawn/Buffy hidden in corners that I have not actually tracked down, thank you.
Look, I don't see a lot of these ships, honestly. I'm pretty much a Dawn/Lilah, Dawn/Wes, some Dawn/Faith if you're nasty kind of girl. But who am I to deny the hordes of fandom? Everyone's got their ship, and everyone's got their logic, and there are so many bad characterizations in canon that you have to play Russian Roulette until you find the fangirl who shares your interpretation of choice. Sometimes with Dawnie fandom you need to keep your eye out to avoid squicky underaged fic or criminally bad fic. But there's also some great stuff out there, and it’s worth looking.
Here's the overall Dawn fic site from the BTVS Writer’s Guild, by the way. And some of it's even not porn!
...Don't look at me like that, people. It's been a long night.
Look, odds are, if you don't like Dawn, you're set in your ways, and you're not going to want to change. And I respect a good, solid character hate-on as much as the next girl.
But if you're neutral? She's cute and she's smart and she's been stressed lately. Plus, she's a dork. We love dorks.
Hey, it's worth a shot.