Defending Dawn: Confessions of a Michelle Trachtenberg Fan

I belong to a very small group of people:  I am a Dawn Summers fan.  That’s right,  Dawn Summers, the much-vilified younger sister of Buffy Summers, considered by many Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans to be the whiny “Scrappy Doo” of the Buffyverse; the character who constantly appears on “Worst TV Character Ever” Top 10 Lists.  I love Dawn Summers.  She’s easily my favourite Buffy character.  So it probably doesn’t surprise you that I am also a fan of Michelle Trachtenberg, the actress who portrayed Dawn Summers in the cult television series.  I know.  It doesn’t make much sense.  My friends don’t understand it either.  The type of programs she appears on aren not typically the type I watch.  The movies that she makes aren’t the types of movies I see.  However when it comes to Michelle Trachtenberg I am always compelled to watch.  It sort of comes down to this:  every man has his “thing”.  For Jack Benny it was money and his violin.  Ronald Reagan loved his jellybeans.  Frank Sinatra was all about women and booze.  But my thing?  Well, I guess it’s Michelle Trachtenberg.  She’s not an “it”girl.  She’s not winning Oscars.  She’s not getting top headlines in US Magazine or cover stories in People but she is the only person working in Hollywood today whose career I follow.  I mean, all my icons are dead or retired… except for Michelle Trachtenberg.  If she’s in a movie you can bet I’ll be sitting in the audience.  If she makes a TV appearance I’ll be watching.  If she is on a magazine cover I’ll probably lay down a few bucks for it.  My friends accuse me of being obsessed with Michelle Trachtenberg.  I simply say that everybody has their fans.  Am I obsessed?  You be the judge as




Michelle at age 11 in Nickelodeons Harriet the Spy

Michelle at age 11 in Nickelodeon's "Harriet the Spy"

When Michelle Trachtenberg first began her acting career I was oblivious to her arrival on the pop culture scene.  Born in Brooklyn, NY, Michelle started her acting career at the age of three in a commercial for Whisk Detergent. She went on to make over a hundred more commercials as a child before getting her first regular gig as Lily Montgomery on the daytime soap opera All My Children.  By age ten she was a regular on the Nickelodeon program The Adventures of Pete and Pete, which lead to the starring role as the title character in Nickelodeon’s first feature film Harriet the Spy in 1996.  I didn’t see any of these.  In 1996 I was a first-year cultural studies student/film “hipster” who was too busy watching Eisenstein, Hitchcock and Tarantino to even notice Michelle Trachtenberg.  Harriet the Spy didn’t even cross my radar.  Oh, I’ve seen it since then.  In fact it sits in my DVD collection today, filed in between The Harder They Fall and HarveyHarriet the Spy was actually a fairly sweet film:  a step above many children’s films of the 90s, Harriet the Spy never talks down to children, and it features Rosie O’Donnell back when she was still endearing.  At eleven years old Michelle Trachtenberg proved that she could carry a film on her shoulders and be engaging, entertaining and interesting.

Michelle as Dawn Summers

Michelle as Dawn Summers

It wasn’t until Michelle Trachtenberg was introduced to the cast of the cult TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 2000 that I perked up and took notice.  The whole Buffyverse fan community was wondering the same thing as I was:  who was this kid that was suddenly Buffy Summers’ sister?  Buffy Summers didn’t even have a kid sister!  What the hell was series creator Joss Whedon doing?  Did Buffy the Vampire Slayer really need a “Cousin Oliver” added to the cast?  Well, Joss Whedon was attempting to develop Buffy Summers’ character by making her attached to something other then a love interest.  Introducing Dawn Summers as a mysterious entity called “the Key” and having memories implanted into Buffy in which she has a blood relationship with Dawn forced the focus of the show to move away from vampire-based romance and into deeper emotional ties.  It was a risky plot twist that is still debated today.  Joss Whedon had originally intended to cast a younger girl for the part of Dawn Summers.  However, Sarah Michelle Gellar had worked with Michelle Trachtenberg when she played Kendall Lang on All My Children and brought Michelle to Whedon’s attention.  Michelle Trachtenberg won the part, and as a result found her way into cult fandom…or had she?  Unfortunately, her arrival on Buffy the Vampire Slayer was met with near universal criticism from a large demographic of fans.  Why?  Well, to tell you the truth I could never figure it out.  In my mind, Dawn Summers’ introduction to the series added a new dimension to the series that actually saved it from the brink of destruction.  That’s right!  I said it!  Dawn Summers SAVED Buffy the Vampire Slayer!  Try to argue this point with me and I WILL fight you!

Buffy the Vampire Cast:  Season Five

Buffy the Vampire Cast: Season Five

Let me geek out for a minute while I recap what happened in the season before Dawn Summers was brought onto the show.  Season four was a very difficult season for Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  The series was at a true crossroads that seemed to be constantly twisting down the wrong paths.  When the series was moved from the familiar location of Sunnydale High to UC Sunnydale, the series lost three of its most popular stars:  David “Angel” Boreanaz and Charisma “Cordelia Chase” Carpenter had departed for the brand new spin off series Angel, and werewolf hearthrob Seth “Oz” Greene had left the series mid-season to pursue a promising career in movies.  It seemed that the writing team just didn’t know what to do with Buffy and her friends.  Giles and Xander were terribly underused, Willow was suddenly a lesbian (probably the only interesting turn of events in the season), Spike got neutered and Buffy was shagging a military goon named Riley (one of the dullest characters ever to be introduced to the series), and joined his black ops-type squadron in battling a Frankenstein-type monster named Adam.  The season was a true low point of the series and I can remember, as a fan, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was no longer “must watch television.”  In fact, I think I was switching to another channel and watching Charmed or something.  Buffy needed help.  Enter Dawn Summers.

Michelle Trachtenberg and Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy and Dawn Summers

Michelle Trachtenberg and Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy and Dawn Summers

Season five was all about getting back to the basics:  Buffy returned home with all her friends around her.  It was about bringing back strong emotional ties to the characters, and Dawn Summers was the component that tied that all together.  By developing a strong sisterly bond between Buffy and Dawn, filled with lots of sibling rivalry as well as a strong urge to protect each other, brand new elements were brought to Buffy Summers.  Some of Gellar’s strongest performances on the series emerged as Buffy Summers became responsible for a younger sibling, creating a brand new dimension to the character.  With one of Buffy’s character traits being her often self centeredness, her love/hate relationship with her sister made Buffy mature in a way that college wasn’t able to.

Yet, Sarah Michelle Gellar wasn’t the only one who proved to have a winning chemistry with Michelle Trachtenberg.  Fan favourite Spike the vampire, played by James Marsters, developed an interesting and endearing relationship with Dawn as well.  Discovering, to his dismay, that he was actually in love with the Slayer, Spike was trying to “make good” by being an ally to the Scooby Gang.  While the Scoobies rightfully mistrusted Spike, it was Dawn who befriended the vampire and gave him the benefit of the doubt.  As a result, Spike became like an older brother to Dawn and their scenes together were delightful.  Eventually the Buffy/Spike romance would spark the imagination of viewers, but little fan acknowledgement went to Dawn Summers as the glue that brought that romance together.

No love for Dawn Summers?

No love for Dawn Summers?

As a fan I felt season five of Buffy was the show’s return from the brink of disaster and Dawn Summers was to thank for that.  Michelle Trachtenberg introduced a whole range of sides to the character.  She could be bratty and moody and clever and enthusiastic and she was so freakin’ cute.  I thought the character was delightful and after a time something strange happened:  Dawn Summers became my favorite character on the show.  Yet it seemed I was in the minority; the fan revolt increased.  Perhaps it was the people who felt that Dawn was taking too much screen time away from Buffy swooning over vampires.  However, I think the problem occurred in the season six when it seemed that the writers didn’t know quite what to do with Dawn anymore.  When her plot had concluded and she was out of danger after the end of the fifth season, Dawn didn’t have much of a place with the Scoobies.  Instead the writers just wrote uninteresting sub-plots where a moody Dawn pulled annoying stereotypical teenage antics like shoplifting, temper tantrums and raising the dead.  Even Michelle herself observed this annoying trend when she said in a post Buffy interview “I felt like every year, my character got younger as I got older. The scripts even had me speaking grammatically incorrectly.”

“Yeah Buffy?  What are we going to do now?”

“Yeah Buffy? What are we going to do now?”

Yet, while fans began to complain, Joss Whedon was smart enough to try to fix this trend.  Dawn Summers had episode stealing moments in the final season, and Michelle Trachtenberg was able to show her strength as an actress in episodes like Conversations with Dead People, where Dawn is visited by the ghost of her dead mother, and Potential which contained a memorable scene between Dawn and Xander where Dawn talks about “not being special” and Xander explains to her that she is “extraordinary.”  The majority of fans may not have realized Michelle Trachtenberg was extraordinary, but I did.  When Buffy the Vampire Slayer ended in 2003 and Dawn uttered the final line of the series, “Yeah Buffy?  What are we going to do now?”  I realized that the one cast member I was going to miss the most was Michelle Trachtenberg.  That’s when I made a pop culture vow to support her career by watching everything she does:  I was going to go to every movie, buy the poster, wear the T-shirt, drink from the coffee mug….for better or for worse…and believe me….it got worse before it got better.

Michelles famous bikini scene from 2004s EuroTrip

Michelle's famous bikini scene from 2004's "EuroTrip"

Michelle’s first post-Buffy outing was in the 2004 movie EuroTrip.  Made by the makers of Roadtrip, EuroTrip was a mean-spirited teen comedy full of cultural intolerance and dick jokes.  I should know.  It sits in my DVD collection, filed between Eugene de Sade and The Exorcist.  However, it seems to be a rite of passage for every young actor to make these sorts of films, and by catering to the lowest denominator, EuroTrip was fairly popular.  But Michelle Trachtenberg seemed to have another reason for making EuroTrip: at age 19 it was time that the world discovered that Michelle Trachtenberg had grown up.  The result was her daring scene where she pulls off a grey pullover…in slow motion…to reveal herself in a baby blue bikini.  The scene, used prominently in the trailer and TV spots, showed the world that Michelle Trachtenberg wasn’t a kid anymore.  Wowza!  Dawn Summer had grown up, and she was a knock-out!  Michelle’s next film, Mysterious Skin, was far better then EuroTrip.  However, due to the controversial subject matter of child molestation, Mysterious Skin never found its way out of the film festival circuit where it was praised by critics and viewers alike.  Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mysterious Skin is possibly the best film Michelle ever made.

Yet Michelle Trachtenberg would finally get her day in the spotlight when she received her first starring role since Harriet the Spy in Disney’s family-friendly 2006 film Ice Princess .  Thankfully I had a date for this one, and didn’t have the uncomfortable experience of being a lonely adult man sitting in the theatre watching a film made for little girls.  That would have been fifteen shades of creepy.  Co-starring Kim Cattrall and Joan Cusack, Ice Princess was basically Rocky, but on skates.  Only difference between Sly Stallone and Michelle Trachtenberg is that she never practiced any double axels with slabs of raw meat.  It was basically about the underdog that “goes the distance” in the world of figure skating.  However, the overall message was mixed:  obviously the writers wanted to instil the message of “you can fulfill your dreams by believing in yourself” but in the meantime they also put feminism back by a decade or two by portraying Michelle’s on-screen feminist literature professor mother as an unattractive, dreary bore whose dream for her daughter to be independent, strong and educated seemed like a terrible idea, leading Michelle’s character, Casey Carlyle to choose figure skating over a Harvard scholarship.  Although Ice Princess was set up for a sequel, which I assumed would be a reworking of Rocky II, the film wasn’t the smash success that Disney hoped it would be and a sequel was never developed.  However, Michelle Trachtenberg succeeded in making herself visible to a wider audience that didn’t know her from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

What followed for Michelle after Ice Princess proved to be a mix of highs and lows but through it all I was trudging along right along behind her.  Making memorable appearances on such critically acclaimed TV programs as Six Feet Under, House and Law & Order:  Criminal Intent kept Michelle visible on the pop culture radar.  However, it seemed that stardom was passing her by:  film projects titled Vinyl and Odd Girl Out never saw the light of day; her scenes from the box office bomb Kickin’ it Old School were left on the cutting room floor; an independent film, Beautiful Ohio, was seen by only a handful of people until it was eventually released on DVD with absolutely no fanfare.  She made a few TV films that went primarily unnoticed.  She was part of a gaggle of gorgeous sorority sisters in the brutally disappointing remake of the horror classic Black Christmas where, on the German poster, she appeared decapitated with her eyes plucked out.  She was cast as the lead in a TV pilot called The Hill that wasn’t picked up by networks.  She gave a try at voice acting in a direct to video Dragonlance animated feature that the Dragonlance fans didn’t even want to watch.  Barely in her twenties, it looked like Michelle Trachtenberg’s career was starting to dry up.  I began to wonder how long it would be before she was appearing in straight to DVD films or playing roles such as “girl in van” and “screaming woman #3.”  However Michelle would prove my cynicism wrong, She wasn’t quite done yet.

Michelle as Georgina Sparks

Michelle as Georgina Sparks

Michelle would bounce back to new heights when she was cast as gorgeous psychopath Georgina Sparks on the CW teen drama series Gossip Girl.  Premiering with little fanfare in the fall of 2007, Gossip Girl filled a void left by shows like The OC and Dawson’s Creek, becoming a surprise hit during the 2007-2008 TV season.  Georgina Sparks would be an entirely different type of role for Michelle Trachtenberg.  Up until that point Michelle had been playing nice girls.  Sometimes they had issues, such as in Beautiful Ohio and Six Feet Under, but for the most part Michelle had always been cast in roles where she could be sweet, pretty and fairly inoffensive.  Georgina Sparks was everything opposite of what she had played before.  Cruel and manipulative, Georgina Sparks’ only real goal in life was to cause chaos in the life of the show’s heroine Serena van der Woodsen.  Upon making her first appearance on the show, Georgina just seemed like the typical Michelle Trachtenberg role.  For the exception of Serena’s reluctance to let Georgina into her life, Georgina seemed fairly harmless.  However, quickly the character started taking calls from drug dealers, drugging drinks, breaking up relationships, blackmailing characters and just generally being a total bitch.  Originally intended to be only a short-lived character, even amongst a cast of vapid and unlikeable characters, Georgina Sparks quickly became the most vapid and most unlikeable of the bunch, quickly establishing herself as the series’ biggest threat and a fan favourite.  Her popularity with Gossip Girl fans secured additional appearances for Michelle as Georgina where she became a semi-regular cast member.  The approval of Gossip Girl fans of Michelle’s addition to the series was the exact opposite of the reception of Buffy the Vampire Slayer viewers.  Finally it seemed like Michelle had found a core group of fans.

Michelle with Zac Efron in 2009s 17 Again

Michelle with Zac Efron in 2009's "17 Again"

Michelle’s profile would be raised even higher a year later when she appeared in the teen comedy 17 Again.  I brought my Aunt who was visiting from out of town to this one and didn’t admit to her that I would have been willing to sell my soul to Satan to have been able to switch places with Zac Efron, if only for the thirty seconds it took Michelle Trachtenberg to lick the tip of his nose in probably her most memorable scene, in which she attempts to seduce Zac Efron, not realizing that he is, in fact, her own father in teenage form  I’m sure my Aunt would have been disturbed by that confession.  Co-starring as the teenage daughter of Matthew Perry/Zac Efron, 17 Again was, in some ways, three steps back for Michelle:  despite trying to assert herself into mature roles for a number of years, Michelle was once again playing a high school student.  Furthermore, as the result of the film being a vehicle for teen heartthrob Zac Efron, Michelle’s performance was often lost under the overwhelming presence of Hollywood’s newest superstar. Yet, playing opposite of Zac Efron proved to be a stroke of major luck for Michelle.  With hordes of teenage girls rushing the box office to see Zac, the film not only made $23.7 million in its first weekend, but remained the number one movie in North America for most of the month of April.  For the first time in nearly a decade Michelle Trachtenberg found herself in a hit film.  Furthermore, since Zac Efron was almost completely inaccessible to the press, by being the most accessible of 17 Again’s stars Michelle found herself in the spotlight as various media sources snatched her for interviews about the film.  Between Gossip Girl and 17 Again Michelle Trachtenberg was suddenly everywhere.

Michelle as Chloe Payne

Michelle as Chloe Payne

Thus, it wasn’t much of surprise when it was announced that Michelle had been added to the cast of NBC’s new medical drama Mercy.  Attempting to fill the void left by the end of the long-running hit series ER, Mercy was released as one of three brand new medical dramas that was unleashed upon the TV audience to a schedule already over-saturated with medical shows.  However, by focusing on the lives of nurses instead of doctors, as well as the result of a friendly time-slot, Mercy not only proved to be watchable but quickly gained a strong following by viewers waiting for Criminal Minds and Glee to come on, securing it in the 2010 schedule when NBC extended the program to a full 22 episode season.  In Mercy, Michelle returned to her roots by playing sweet and pretty rookie nurse Chloe Payne who wins the friendship of the more cynical and hardened nurses Veronica and Sonia at a tough New Jersey hospital.  With her sweet nature being a contrast to the harsh feel of the series, Michelle often finds herself as the comedic relief and since the series began she has grown tremendously as a comedic actress.  The highlight thus far was been when Chloe beat a rabid raccoon which gets loose in the hospital with a pair of crutches.  It’s far funnier than it sounds, and no real racoons were hurt in the making of the scene.  Yet, for me, I was just happy to have Michelle Trachtenberg back on TV each week.  If Michelle Trachtenberg was my nurse I’d be jumping off of rooftops, running into traffic and accidentally shooting myself in the foot on a weekly basis because, well, she could Chloe my Payne any day!  Yet, it should be noted that while playing Chloe Payne each week on Mercy, Michelle still continues to appear in episodes of Gossip Girl as Georgina Sparks.  By playing two totally different kinds of characters in two different television shows on two different networks Michelle Trachtenberg has become one of Hollywood`s busiest young actresses.

But the question remains:  am I truly obsessed with Michelle Trachtenberg?  Well, I’m not about to pitch a tent and camp out on her front lawn during my next trip to LA.  That’s how one gets oneself a restraining order.  However, I do own all of her films that are available on DVD (and, yes, that includes Richie Rich’s Christmas Wish, which is filed between Reservoir Dogs and Ringu).  Furthermore I do have an Ice Princess poster framed in my office, as well as a Dawn Summers action figure which was given me as a gift from one of PCA’s former editors.  I must admit that during every trip to nearby Millbrook, Ontario, where Disney shot scenes from Ice Princess, I always stop at an ice cream shop where Michelle filmed a short scene for a double scoop of rocky road, and, yes, I probably have played the “six degree of separation” game once or twice (Michelle’s upcoming film Cop Out is directed by Kevin Smith; Kevin Smith knows Paul Dini and Misty Lee, Paul and Misty are friends of mine….three degrees!  WHOO HOO!)  Obsessed?  You be the judge.  All I know is that everybody has their fans and when it comes to Michelle Trachtenberg I am biased.  She’s my thing.  I don’t get it, but perhaps its not for anybody to get.  Extraordinary or not, I’m still watching, and with a career that is just now gaining momentum it looks like I could be watching for a long time to come.

  1. Aeri’s avatar

    I, too am a Dawn fan. Nice to see more of us around!

  2. Spirit’s avatar

    I actually took an interest in Buffy the Vampire Slayer only a few months ago after a friend kept laughing (good-naturedly) at me and pointing out whenever I had a “Dawn” moment.

    I finally sat down to watch the series to find out what the hell he was talking about – turns out he was right. I do have “Dawn” moments. At least I assume I do. She’s my favorite character and the one I find myself most readily identifying with.

    Dawn is the real element of the show. She’s just an ordinary girl (well except for that whole thing with her being the key), she’s tired of being treated like a kid, and she has all these larger than life things going on around her.

    But people don’t like her? Maybe I have a biased opinion but I find that weird. Nice to see I’m not the only one who likes Dawn. Also “Ice Princess” and “17 Again” are awesome too.

  3. Sam Tweedle’s avatar

    I think all of us have Dawn moments once in a while. I know I do! :)

  4. Gio’s avatar

    Im from Italy,and i love this post!!! IM OBSESSED WITH MICHELLE,MY ACTRESS I LOVE HER STYLE,HER EYES,ALL SHE IS THE BEST <3 <3 <3 <3 <3

  5. Crystal’s avatar

    I think the big reason that I (and many others) did not like Dawn is because of how she was fairly shoehorned in & how she’s a repeat of sorts. First of all, her very existence in the story violates a rule of storytelling: show your audience, don’t tell them.

    Look at, for example, the way they added Anya into the group. Her relationships with the others are built over time. She can be an incredibly grating character from time to time (some of the jokes get stale, but that doesn’t stop Whedon & co. from beating on them again & again), but she’s very easy to accept and like because we are shown her dynamics with the group and how they develop.

    You get none of that with Dawn.

    Yeah, the characters have attachment to her, but they have false memories to create those ties. The audience does not have that. The audience can say, “Hey, remember that time Buffy & Willow had a conversation about ____?” But you can’t do that with Dawn. There’s just nothing there. I won’t argue against or lie and say that Dawn didn’t add a new dimension to Buffy never before seen, but it’s very easy to overlook. Especially when, as you mentioned, Dawn was continuously acting younger and younger than she actually was. (I also think after that GOD AWFUL season 4 with Riley, it’s hard not to think season 5 was a dramatic improvement! Haha~ C;) I disagree that she somehow became so much more mature by the seventh season, but I think that’s more personal opinion and the fact my hatred for her was very solidified by then.

    I think another problem with Dawn is the whole “normal girl” thing. We got that with high school!Buffy to be totally honest. Buffy was a normal girl before she got thrust into this world of vampires, demons, and dark forces and all throughout seasons 1-3, she was constantly trying to hold onto that normal girl as much as possible. By the end of season 3, I think Buffy came to terms with the fact normal wasn’t entirely an option for her. She could have pieces of normalcy, but she could never be entirely normal. Season 4 was an utter disaster because, as you said, they were struggling to figure out what to do with these characters. I think Buffy regressed a lot during season 4 and regained what she had learned/matured to be seasons 1-3 in season 5. But Buffy’s focus on wanting to be normal shifted by then. Instead, she was doing what she should have been doing in the first place – trying to figure out just what the hell a Slayer is and what is that part of her?

    I feel like Dawn is just a revisit to that concept of normalcy in an abnormal world/circumstance. Although that’s honestly what makes 1-3 some of the best seasons of Buffy from most fans’ (and my own) opinions, going through it again doesn’t bring anything to the table. It feels entirely forced by then because everyone had matured past that.

    I will admit that I liked some of the interactions between Spike & Dawn, I did not like Spike a whole lot by season 5 when he started to get lovesick for Buffy. That whole relationship (Spuffy, I mean) was a disaster. It was co-dependent and abusive. It always left me wondering just what the hell Buffy was thinking even more than her one-night stand.

  6. Matthew’s avatar

    Dawn was the character that pulled me into the program, and I admit, I’ve watched season five constantly. Along with Tara, Dawn is a definite favorite. I’ve since collected Michelle’s other works as to not typecast her. It’s that bad…

  7. Robert’s avatar

    I’m right there with you! I love Michelle Trachtenberg. I’ve had a 8×10 picture on my dresser for years of her. She’s so pretty. I wish her all the best in her life!

  8. E.M’s avatar

    Obviously, some time has gone by since this article was originally posted but I just rediscovered Michelle since Buffy was uploaded on Netflix. I loved her when I was a kid in Harriet the Spy, Inspector Gadget with Matthew Broderick. And growing up, she really helped me with my self esteem. Seeing the tenderness between Dawn’s character and Tara was life changing for me. I was struggling to come to terms with being a lesbian, and even though I am very feminine like Tara, I was worried straight girls would never want to be friends with me because they’d think I was wrong or something. Seeing Dawn treat Tara like a human and a sister meant and still means so much for me. I also completely agree she gave the story focus again and brought out so much more depth in all the characters that never could’ve been possible otherwise. Cheers to Michelle and Dawn, and to you for writing this!


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