It could have been easy for Zoey Deutch to sexualize her performance in Buffaloed. Deutch’s Peg Dahl is powerful, and she repeatedly gets men to do what she wants. She instead gave a performance of an unapologetically strong woman that should resonate in film history as changing the perception of how female roles can be written and portrayed.
Simply put, Buffaloed is a revelation.
In a film about a highly ambitious woman with humble beginnings, Deutch uses her versatility as an actor to avoid giving a sexualized performance. We follow protagonist Peg Dahl, a self-made collections agent desperate to get out of Buffalo, New York, on a journey to financial independence. At times she stumbles and stresses the audience, but even when we think her plans are about to crash and burn and take her down with them, she always manages to keep us hooked.
In a time where women are begging for roles that step outside the realm of the doting housewife, sexy secretary, best friend, or mistress, Deutch provides depth to a character that is strong, motivated, independent, gregarious, funny, overwhelming and sometimes abrasive, but doesn’t fall back on her sexuality even when presented with the opportunity.
Peg is never intimidated. She is never beaten. She’s a hilarious, gun-toting, paper-swindling, larger-than-life force. She is someone who will sell everything within reach to get ahead, even her colleagues’ paychecks, but she will never compromise her body or dreams.
Does this sound familiar? It should. Aside from the reckless–but comedic–use of firearms, these personality traits depict the average woman.
Throughout the film, Deutch sets the stage to break our expectations. She is the rare female protagonist that is allowed to be as flagrantly opportunistic as her male predecessors. And what’s remarkable is that we still root for her, as cutthroat as she gets. Even when you could argue that she uses her sexuality to get what she wants, flirting with ADA Graham (Jermaine Fowler) so that she can use his phone to call the cops on Wizz, her “seduction” comes across as more of a physical comedy routine. When she gets frustrated with her uncomfortable “sexy” outfit and animatedly rips off her tights in front of Graham, reverting to her semi-sloppy tendencies, she is every woman who has ever wanted to declare that she is more than her sex appeal. That she is worth more than a sexy outfit, and can get what she wants without that crutch. In fact, she only convinces Graham to do what she wants after the outburst, when she drops the sexy facade and shows her true self, however unpolished she may be. Many have tried to achieve the balance of being relatable even when we know we shouldn’t exactly like what she’s doing, but few can do it as masterfully as Deutch.
Big budget action films and superhero flicks have elevated the role of the strong woman, but it’s not enough.
Sarah Connor in the Terminator franchise, Carol Danvers in Captain Marvel, The Bride in Kill Bill, and Diana Prince in Wonder Woman have all given something to women to idolize. But outside the action or fantasy genre, where are our unapologetic women in cinematic history?
Female action heroes have their purpose, but those characters can’t be alone in applauding the strength of an everyday woman who refuses to cower to the authority of the men around her and who uses her wit instead of sexuality to overcome situations that happen in everyday circumstances. Peg finds authority where we all hope to find it – in average business dealings, bars, relationships and everyday life.
Outside of the realm of action we do have the brainy Hermione Granger from Harry Potter, the deadly Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games, and the bubbly Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. Of course there have been women in cinema who have asserted forms of strength. Where Deutch’s Peg stands alone is in the uncompromising, sometimes selfish and unlikeable form her strength takes. Where female protagonists often rely on support systems, she plays only by rules of her own making, and when she doesn’t like the rules that exist she either finds loopholes or completely rewrites them. Where female protagonists are often encouraged to win the friendship or admiration of potential rivals, she unabashedly makes enemies even in childhood flashback scenes, forcing us as witnesses to her tenacity to take her seriously even in her slapstick or silly moments. She does have to learn by the end of the film how to temper her individualism with a degree of selflessness, but instead of reading as compromise or change it is simply character growth. She finds her own way to grow too, outside the suggestions of her loved ones.
Peg’s power as a protagonist is truly cemented in her crowning moment. When she manages to wrangle every single Buffalo collection gang and rally them around her plan for the future of collections, she does so without ever flirting at a bar or trying to date a business leader. She doesn’t even really care if any of these men like her; in fact, she’s pretty sure none of them do. She is confident in the validity of her ideas and the strength of her brute-force common sense. She doesn’t need anyone to like her or rally around her as a leader, she just needs them to realize she’s right. She never bats her eyes, but uses her raw power. She yells. She orates. She is a force.
Before our eyes Peg becomes a modern day Robin Hood. Her character feels hopeful, powerful and gives the audience a female hero who doesn’t rely on any typical qualities of being female. She knows who she is, what she wants and she goes after it. She wins, and does so without ever batting her eyelashes.
Be sure to check out Zoey Deutch in Buffaloed, available on Amazon Prime, Hulu, and elsewhere!