In 1992, a twelve year old boy rented a movie from his local Blockbuster which featured a blonde cheerleader who also happened to be a vampire slayer.
I had fantastic tastes. I still have fantastic taste.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was Clueless with bloodsuckers; a perfect encapsulation of 90’s cinema (I mean, it did have Luke Perry and Pee Wee Herman in it). A few years later, the episodic show Buffy debuted on The WB (now The CW). Helmed by first-time director, Joss Whedon, and headlined by Sara Michelle Geller as the titular Buffy Summers, the show grew to even more popularity than its first iteration.
This past March, fans celebrated the 20th anniversary of the show’s debut and for me, it was bittersweet. Sure I lined up all of my favorite episodes and hoped that the show would stand the test of time. The good news is that it does. Buffy is just as funny, weird, and entertaining to watch as when it first ran. The bittersweet part is the dumbfounding realization that since its debut, two decades ago, shows are still getting their female protagonist all wrong. So to explain the value of its characterization and influence on our current culture, here are four things writers can learn from rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
- Friends That Slay Together
There’s no need to mince words here. Buffy and her cohort were killing demons, vampires, and fairy tale perversions from their high school years and through their college dorms. Yet the real reason we kept tuning in was to follow the various relationships and ties of all of its characters. Buffy was a young woman staking bad guys and finding her place in the world, but never once did this feel like some oddball contrivance. The Buffy from the original film was a blonde caricature, created more as a hook to lure a male horror audience. The Buffy penned by Whedon was headstrong and independent, but what made the show all the more charming was the dynamic group of friends that Buffy surrounded herself with. The Scooby Gang’s various pairings and group chemistry was only possible through its sharp writing and dedicated actors.
Let’s set aside Buffy and her suitors for the time being (or at least until our final category here) and just focus on the Scoobies as a group. Xander, Willow, Buffy, and Giles were so defined by season 2, Whedon began expanding the world with more characters that would become series staples. While not all were as critically received by fans, characters such as Spike, Dawn, and Faith greatly impacted how our beloved crew flowed and functioned. Shows such as Orange is the New Black, while featuring a group of interconnected lives, fail to find the real balance between the heroine and her entourage. The hero shouldn’t be the most interesting person on a show and, likewise, you shouldn’t be praying that the side characters on a show should get a spinoff. The Scooby Gang was always amazing together and highlights the various ways a woman can find her support in the world. Creating dynamic relationships which build over time makes us more invested in the ways these people will come together to survive. Not to mention, later seasons can explore how these relationships can be challenged in the face of tougher and more menacing hardships.
- Where Do We Go From Here?
And speaking of hardships…
I actually thought most of the “Big Bads” in Buffy were (purposefully) campy, so I never really cared about the threat the supernatural baddies posed. I was always focused on how Buffy would emotionally be affected by the problem and how she would be changed afterward. In many ways, Buffy Summers and Peter Parker share similar heroic traits. As powerful, ass-kicking protagonists, they destroy henchmen and villains without breaking a sweat. While their earlier conflicts can be resolved just by punching a few bad guys in the face, their battles matured along with them. As the seasons progressed, the stakes grew. Eventually, Buffy was unable to walk away from battles without suffering one or two emotional scars and usually this sent ripples through everyone around her. A great example of this would be the episodes “Hush” and “Once More With Feeling.” Commonly regarded as highpoints of the series, both dissect the way communication can break down amongst friends and lovers. In “Hush,” for instance, the arrival of the creepy Gentlemen results in the group being unable to speak. With their words no longer getting in the way, they find that their feelings are much easier to express (even under the duress of getting their hearts removed from their chests). “Once More With Feeling” is the opposite of “Hush” in that all of Sunnydale are forced to express their inner turmoils through the convention of song. It’s a premise that, again, should not have worked on a show that sported decapitations and blood splatter and yet it went on to inspire shows like Scrubs and (more recently) The Flash to have their own musical episodes. In typical Whedon fashion, we not only get unique episodes with entertaining quirks (Spike’s song FTW), there are major revelations that come to light in both instances.
Whether you’re in the camp that believes that the show actually should have ended at the 6th or the 7th season, Buffy always felt like the challenges were maturing along with her. What kept its fans tuning in every week was seeing our strong female lead and her cohorts attempt (sometimes in vain) to win the day.
- 99 Problems
Sure, we had some old gods and demon lords appear on the show. But there’s a reason why episodes like “The Body” and “Seeing Red” are so great. The former is beautifully acted and immaculately shot/written, executing a dizzying episode that stays stuck in your throat throughout its quiet scenes and long takes. Not even surviving a butt-naked vampire attack at the end gives the characters, or the audience, a sense of closure. The latter episode likewise managed to sever a relationship that fans adored, albeit in a way that, due to its abruptness, struck people as shocking at the time. Joyce and Tara’s deaths blindsided everyone and, in turn, served to remind Buffy and Willow (the two most powerful characters on the show) of their limitations.
These two episodes highlight the scope of Whedon’s vision for the show and stands as a major strength of what we come to love in our favorite slayer. Whedon was not afraid to kill off characters. While some did return, Joyce and Tara’s deaths left irreparable scars on the women who loved them. In season 7, when Buffy revealed to Spike the relief she felt in dying the season before, and explaining that it stemmed from knowing that everyone was safe and that she was free from pain, this could be seen as a direct result of her mother’s death. Refusing to lose another family member and in turn becoming the lone survivor of the Summers family, Buffy took her own life. This is an almost selfish yet understandable act, made all the more poignant when you listen to her last words in “The Gift”. Willow, on the other hand, grieved the loss of the woman she loved by ripping a guy’s skin off and then deciding it was best just to destroy everything in existence (which is, you know, a bit extreme). These events provided dynamic and gratifying opportunities to greatly influence both Buffy and Willow’s lives for the remainder of the show.
Shows like Supergirl (which is now also on the CW, I must add) seem to ignore this blueprint altogether. The events on that show feel like they are happening in a vacuum, serving only to move the plot, get Kara a love interest, and not to mature its protagonist. Kara’s emotional decisions seem to serve to progress towards a season finale battle, when this was never the case for Buffy and her crew. The Scooby Gang’s eventual defeat of Glory at the end of Season 6 resonated with the audience only because we were able to see and experience the various struggles and sacrifices leading up to that final confrontation. In the end, fans saw Buffy as a survivor of her trials, and that is always a message young ladies need to hear.
- Buffy’s Sexuality Was Hers to Own
I’ll admit that since Buffy, I’ve made some mistakes in my life. I watched every single episode of True Blood and have seen both Fifty Shades… movies (if that’s what you want to call them). I’m not proud of this, but please hear me out. While not inherently awful, True Blood became unwatchable when its writers made the fatal flaw of making its lead, Sookie, into a trophy for the various suitors around her to vie for. The series’ brief attempts at “sexual tension” were the few moments it took for its characters to get undressed. Sookie as a female lead was pretty damn pointless in the end and I felt insulted every time another character melodramatically exclaimed about her powers or the taste of her blood.
In short, you shouldn’t treat heroines as trophies to be won by suitors.
The whole, “There’s something special about her” excuse that men use in real life is creepy. It’s totally an online creep comment and it reeks of poor writing and an even shoddier understanding of a woman’s sexuality. At no point do I find a female protagonist in charge of her own sexuality when the males around her are trying to be the first “capture” her. I understand the fantasy aspect of having multiple suitors, but it just feels odd that the formula is “special” = sex. Men baptizing themselves in a woman’s vagina sure does sound empowering, but is it?
Let’s look at how Buffy tackled that same issue.
Throughout the span of the show, most of Buffy’s suitors were handled pretty well. In fact, of the three– Angel, Spike, and Riley– only one of these lacked proper build. In his defense, I’ll say this: while we had already spent three years with the crew, Riley and Buffy did seem like a possibility. At least, it made sense. Buffy’s attempt to be a slayer and also find a true connection with someone with at least the appearance of normalcy was understandable. And while we all knew it was doomed from the start (I state this by purging Riley’s blood brothel escapades from my mind), their relationship never gave me the same feeling that characters like Twilight’s Bella and even The Hunger Game’s Katniss gave me. There was palpable chemistry between Buffy and the men in her life, built through actual trials, missteps, and misunderstandings that naturally drew them together. Maybe it’s the lack of space and time with the other heroines but compared to Buffy, they just come across as cold dating simulators with fantasy creatures thrown in for good luck.
Let’s focus on the big one: Buffy and Angel/Angelus. Whedon was careful to build their relationship up from their first real meeting. Even though it began as an unlikely partnership, there was still a hint of chemistry between the two. Angel seemed hell bent on gaining her trust and Buffy was ready to put a stake to him. The power dynamic right out of the gate was bred in conflict, slowly turned to respect, and respect gave way to attraction. And when season 2’s “Surprise” aired, it was both amazing and tragic- amazing of course because the slow build allowed us to see the clear connection the characters had without Buffy ever losing the same power she had when they first met. And tragic….
Well, let’s get to it then. The Angel/Angelus switcheroo.
I think it’s safe to say that not all “first times” are created equal. The Angelus turn could be dissected in many ways, but here are just two. Angel turning into a violent stranger as a direct result of the intimacy he and Buffy shared could be seen as an insensitive betrayal–Whedon slut-shaming the very character he created. Like Spike’s rape attempt of Buffy later in the show’s run, ensuring that our titular character retained her importance and self worth was vital in keeping the show honest. Let’s not forget, Whedon had created, up until that point, a strong lead that was sharing a network with Dawson’s Creek— a show that featured men weeping as they bore the brunt of the world on their shoulders (and the women that were, you know, kind of there on the show with them). Up until that point, sex had been a one-sided affair on television. Men were featured celebrating their first sexual encounter while women were regulated to cautionary tales and “Very Special Episodes.” That’s why while “Surprise” stands as an iconic episode of Buffy, I personally believe that the following episode, “Innocence,” featured one of the most important events of the series for Buffy as a character. While she was forced to deal with her regret– questioning what she had emotionally and physically given to Angel– Buffy came to realize that she had not lost the agency in her own life and was capable of moving on from the shame she felt as a result. As Giles so eloquently put it:
If it’s guilt you’re looking for, Buffy, I’m not your man. All you will get from me is my support. And my respect.
This is an amazing line from a fantastic scene that sticks out in my mind more than the love scene in “Surprise” (okay, only slightly). It’s no wonder Buffy has left such a long-lasting impression on its fans, including members of the LGBTQ community. Owning your sexuality and unapologetically living your life is a message Buffy taught us all.
And let’s not forget the various relationships surrounding Buffy that proved to only bolster our love for these characters. Whether it’s the destructive obsession of Drusilla/Spike, Willow/Oz’s puppy dog love (pun intended), or the feels watching one of the most prominent lesbian couples on television at the time in Willow and Tara– we all felt invested in the love and loss felt by these people because, no matter what dark magic was involved to create them, they each showed us amazing insight into the human spirit.
In short, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has worked its way into feminist text and television lore as it contains some of the most memorable moments ever aired. Twenty years later and fans of the show, like me, will remember its run for the amazing lessons we learned, the adventures we were caught up in, and the time we shared with these iconic characters. This is why Buffy still stands as one of the most important female characters to ever grace a TV screen.