Why Buffy still slays
Originally published on Marie Claire Online
Spoilers ahead. Also, this post covers the TV series only. I’m going to go ahead and pretend the 1992 film never existed.
March 2018 marks the 21st anniversary of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s premier, which is a double-edged sword: on one side, it’s a gift-wrapped excuse to binge-watch the entire series again; on the other, there’s the whole ‘oh, so I guess I’m old now’ thing.
Buffy had a more profound influence on my formative years than any other show. Nothing but nothing could get between me and M-Net Open Time on a Friday afternoon. And no wonder: Buffy was slaying before we ever thought we’d one day use that word as a synonym for cool.
It was one of the first TV series to inspire a devout cult following, and it launched Joss Whedon’s career as a demigod of nerd culture. It was smart, it was sassy and it had so much friggin heart that I still secretly feel like the cast are my friends. If someone tells me they haven’t watched it, I offer to show up uninvited at their place with popcorn and my hard drive.
That said, Buffy isn’t a perfect text. It’s lily-white in a way no show should be able to get away with – almost every character played by a person of colour gets killed off in under an episode. Critics have also had serious concerns about how the script conflated lesbian love and witchcraft.
All I know is that 20 years ago as a preteen in South Africa, it was everything. Here’s why.
It was girl power on a level the Spice Girls could only dream about
Feminism abounds in this show.
With Buffy, Whedon said he set out to subvert the horror trope of the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed. And boy did he ever. Buffy Summers was physically stronger than every recurring male character on the show, and able to slay the forces of darkness without being made to wear a push-up bra while doing it (sorry Xena).
It was also clear from the get-go that, although Buffy’s super-strength and speed were primo assets in battle, it was her emotions (you know, those messy womanly things) and carefully nurtured relationships with those around her that really made her strong.
What else? Well, season after season she put The Watchers Council – that living, breathing embodiment of the patriarchy that seeks to control her under the guise of protecting her – firmly in their place. Two of the biggest baddies (Warren, in season 6, and Caleb, season 7) are huge, unmitigated misogynists, and both Whedon and his character take great pleasure in knocking them down. And right beside Buffy through all this was a parade of supporting female characters (Willow, Cordelia, Faith, Anya, Tara) each strong in ways we’d never seen before. Plus when push came to shove in the final season, Buffy didn’t bogard her super, Slayery powers – she shared them with every potential slayer in the world. ‘Can stand up, will stand up’ (S07E22) was probably the most empowering statement available to me in my teen years.
But where the show’s creators really got things right was that their titular character was relatable. Sure critics have denounced her as unfeminist because she regularly went to pieces over a guy, but who hasn’t? She also struggled in school, worried about the future and didn’t always know what she was doing.
In short, superhuman strength and demonic extracurriculars aside, it was easy to put yourself in the Buffster’s ‘stylish yet affordable boots’. This relatability caused a whole generation of young, female viewers to realise they didn’t have to settle for being damsels – they could strap on that shining armour, grab a stake and rescue their own damn selves.
It made nerds cool
The Scooby Gang was, on its surface, a motley crew of freaks, geeks and one stuffy, middle-aged librarian. Most of them were included in Cordelia’s ‘know your losers’ disclaimer within the first 10 minutes of S01E01.
By contrast, the evil they battled in the first three seasons came mostly in the form of too-cool-for-school vamps, cult frat boys, demon swim team captains and the like. Despite consistent snubs from Sunnydale High’s cheerleaders and jocks – who stood as signifiers for cool kids everywhere – the Scoobies managed to save the world time and time again. They’re our champions, and the show’s message is clear: the future belongs to nerds.
It dealt with real issues
Chances are, your high-school sweetheart wasn’t a vampire with a precariously attached soul, and you didn’t routinely hang out in cemeteries. But, in between the monsters, beat-downs and frankly excellent puns, Buffy also laid bare real-life subjects, from sexual identity to substance abuse, in a way that helped its young-adult audience to feel less alone.
A lot of topics – Xander’s dysfunctional family, Buffy’s parents’ divorce, Amy’s mother’s obsession with her daughter’s weight, for example – are handled in passing. It’s real, it’s relatable, it’s the stuff of everyday life. Others are zoomed in on and eerily topical. The screening of ‘Earshot’ (S03E18), the episode in which social outcast Jonathan Levinson brings a rifle to school, had to be delayed: its original air date was set for barely a week after the Columbine shooting. (Side note, the fact that Jonathan had only been planning to shoot himself – no less tragic).
It talked openly about sex
In ‘Wild at Heart’ (S04E06), Willow awkwardly begins to allude to her sex life with Oz using hypotheticals, and Xander cuts her off with, ‘If you’re doing it, I think you should be able to say it.’ Therein lies the crux of how Buffy dealt with the matter of sex over its seven seasons: the writers never swept it under the rug, nor did they use it (solely) to prop up the gothic horror aspect of the show.
It’s everywhere: the whole Angel-losing-his-soul plot device, Faith being painted as a libertine, Buffy caving in after Parker uses her for casual sex, Willow exploring her sexual identity with Tara, the don’t-tell-children-that-sex-is-dirty-they-will-come-back-to-haunt-you narrative in ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ (S04E18) … everywhere. And whether you agree or not with the value in how each of these scenarios plays out, the joy of it is that they were dealt with at all on a ’90s teen show.
And then we had Anya – wonderful, hilarious, shoot-from-the-hip Anya. A former vengeance demon and newly minted mortal, her lack of understanding of human interaction is frequently used as a comic device, but her casual volunteering of information about her and Xander’s sex life is usually met with censorship. Case in point: Giles suggesting ‘we should continue to pretend we heard none of the disturbing sex talk’ in ‘The Replacement’ (S05E03). And yet it never derails her. It’s such a win to see Anya, immune to the patriarchy, continue to just do her thing.
It taught us about loss
If you didn’t cry like a baby during ‘The Body’ (S05E16) then what are you … a Fyarl demon or something? Arguably one of the best episodes of Buffy ever, ‘The Body’ was light on demons and heavy on the reality of death.
Who can forget the deafening silence in the scenes that follow Buffy finding Joyce dead of natural causes in the living room, something Whedon described as ‘the airlessness of losing somebody’. Favourite characters come and go in Buffy, but the production of this episode makes it the worst loss of the entire series. RIP Joyce.
(And somebody give Emma Caulfield a retroactive-Emmy for her perfect speech in this episode about trying to understand death.)
It was our first experience of being co-opted into rape culture
Spike is hands-down my favourite Buffy character, thanks to a masterful portrayal by James Martsers. He’s charming, he’s hilarious, he’s loveable. He’s got cheekbones for days and he makes overly gelled, peroxided hair look good. He nurses an unrequited love for Buffy that’s almost more romantic than her entire liaison with Angel and … oh, wait, there I go again, casually forgetting that Spike is one of the most rapey characters on TV outside of Law and Order SVU or Thirteen Reasons Why.
Have we forgotten that from the moment he realises he has a thing for her, Spike forces his company on Buffy repeatedly even after she tells him to stay away from her? What about ‘Crush’ (S05E14), when he kidnaps her, chains her up in his lair and threatens to set Drusilla on her unless she says she loves him too (to which she replies, ‘The only chance you had with me was when I was unconscious’)? Or, hey, the bathroom scene in ‘Seeing Red’ (S06E19) when they’ve broken up and he actually does attempt to rape her, justifying himself with ‘Let yourself love me. I know you felt it when I was inside you. You’ll feel it again. I’ll make you feel it.’
All is magically forgiven after he goes and gets himself a soul and then dies sacrificing himself to save Sunnydale in the series finale. Except, wait, no, he’s so popular a character that up he pops in Angel as a non-corporeal entity haunting Wolfram and Hart in LA. As though we all self-lobotomised because nobody wanted to deal with it.
It gave us a new approach to the English language
When I caught myself referring to The Walking Dead’s Negan as ‘the big bad’ the other day, I realised just what a long-lasting effect the dialogue of Buffy had on my vocabulary. Buffyisms abound to this day. All in favour of bringing ‘the wiggins’ back into popular speech, say aye.
It made musicals cool again 20 years before La La Land did
‘Once More With Feeling’ (S06E07) not only inspired other TV shows to follow suit with their own musical episodes (Grey’s and Scrubs come to mind), it was also as iPod-worthy as it was watchable. It’s a smorgasbord of diverse musical genres, hilarious and heartfelt lyrics, and plot-furthering singalongs. Plus it gave us the best ever moment in musical TV comedy.
Happy 20th birthday Buffy. Thanks for the memories.