Why Buffy the Vampire Slayer Still Matters
BUFFY: My life happens to, on occasion, suck beyond the telling of it. Sometimes more than I can handle. And it’s not just mine. Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they’re too busy with their own. The beautiful ones. The popular ones. The guys that pick on you. Everyone. If you could hear what they were feeling. The loneliness. The confusion. It looks quiet down there. It’s not. It’s deafening…
(Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 3, Episode 18, “Earshot”)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is, without a doubt, my favourite TV programme.
I love many other quality TV shows too — shows like Alias, Six Feet Under, Game of Thrones and even Battlestar Galactica — but Buffy holds 1st place and always will, for a good number of reasons.
Much like in a previous blog post, ‘Why Lara Croft Should Your Girlfriend’, where I highlighted that Lara Croft mirrored the strong female role-models and archetypes in my real life; Buffy too fits into my life through it’s familiar picture of depicting a strong and empowered female character.
When the show first aired in the UK I was 16 years old — so in the grips of teenage angst and the living nightmare we affectionately call ‘High School’. During this time, I identified with the central oddball group of characters — Buffy, Willow and Xander — as they mirrored my own friend group of arty weirdos and social outcasts. In terms of character and sense of humour, I basically was Xander (except I didn’t make-out with a teacher who later tried to eat my head — praying mantis style).
Frankly My Dear, I Don’t Give A Genre
To the uneducated, Buffy the Vampire Slayer could be misread as a naff 90s programme about a hot blonde chick, violently stabbing vampires in the heart with a piece of wood.
But, as you and I know, it’s so much more than that. 😎
The programme stood out starkly in the the TV landscape for it’s dry-wit, horror sensibilities and a knack for forming an uber cultural pastiche. Blending together cultural references with an unnerved ability for self-referential humour.
There’s a sense of “…generic hybridity of the series: its ‘spasms of viciousness’ are punctuated by the conventions of the soap opera, horror, comedy, music video, action and sci-fi genres…In the age of cable and satellite television, genres have been increasingly recombined to attract niche markets and coalitional audiences” (Jancovich and Lyons [Editors], 2004: 122).
It’s this blend of genres that is one of Buffy’s stark selling points and perhaps why it has aged so well. Without adhering to the visual and storytelling norms of any one genre, it’s managed to continually bridge the gaps between the current fashions and tastes to consistently remain relevant.
Many came in the wake of Buffy and tried to recreate the magic (I’m looking at you Charmed and Alias) but just couldn’t quite reach the level of success that Joss Whedon and his his team managed to create.
Part of the success of the programme, which has since become a staple of quality TV, is the ensemble cast structure. Whilst Buffy the Vampire Slayer does follow the life (and slaying) of the main protagonist Buffy, there’s a whole cast of characters which have significant story arcs throughout the seven seasons.
“…the ensemble dynamic of Buffy…does not necessarily contradict the claim for a central agent, but rather allows multiple points for investment and the extension of the central ‘trouble’ across multiple plot-lines; ensemble casting fosters greater permutations of each narrative’s central probmatic (or enigma) and plays into the very demands of the serial structure.”
Hammond and Mazon [Editors], (2005), The Contemporary Television Series: 161
One fine example of this, and a prime example as to why Buffy still matters today, is the character journey of Willow. Through several seasons, this character journeys through a number of interesting plots including, but not limited to: stumbling through adolescence as a social outcast and bullied nerd; blossoming into an empowered female witch; a surprise turn as a supremely evil, if not vengeful, supervillain (human flailing included) and then a painful journey through mourning, self-acceptance and redemption.
The thorough-thread within these storylines is Willow’s sexual identity — a storyline which creator Joss Whedon is said to have always had in mind since the programme’s conception. Name another 90s American mainstream, internationally successful TV programme which dared to have (heaven forbid!) one of it’s main characters identify within the LGBTQ spectrum, I dare you! It was scandalous and fantastic and progressive. Apart from that one character in Dawson’s Creek, I’m struggling to come up with an example from a similar type of programme.
And to think that now we hardly raise raise an eyebrow to a token gay storyline within that one season of Game of Thrones.
We’ve come so far.
To be honest, it perhaps would have been a braver and more progressive move to have selected a male central character identify as gay. However, this would have been a move perhaps a tad too far for the 20th Century Fox TV executives. It’s undeniably easier and sexier to sell the idea of a couple of ‘sexy lesbian witches’ than ‘Xander — the token gay’. But nevertheless, this writing decision is still a powerful one.
In a world where minority groups are still fighting to have their voices heard and are fighting to protect their own basic human rights, the character of Willow still stands the test of time and proves to be a force to be reckoned with. She’s a flawed but capable role model.
We need powerful female protagonists, now more than ever.
Vampires! Vampires For EVERYONE!
One other thing that makes Buffy still relevant today is that it’s a highly globalised text. Like much of American television, it’s ready to be shrink-wrapped and exported to other westernised cultures. Like in the UK, where the BBC aired the series originally on BBC2 in the 90s.
“Globalization is about power. Which way does it flow? Is it a circuit, a connection or draining blood-suckage? “It’s about the power”, says Dark Willow on her way toward world destruction at the end of Season Six. “This is about power,” says Amy when she shows Willow “The Killer in Me” (7.13). “It’s about power,” says Buffy, teaching Dawn to protect herself at the beginning of Season Seven; and at the end of the same episode, “It’s about power.” says the First Evil to mad, unbad, and dangerous-to-know Spike. Whether the power is good or bad depends on who is using it and how it’s used; so, too, globalizastion”.
Wilcox, Rhonda, (2006), Why Buffy Matters — The Art of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: 91.
That’s not to say that TV should always be made with a globalised stance or structure. Sometimes it’s necessary or even imperative to have programmes especially made for local territories. However, part of the power of a show like Buffy is that it can speak volumes to so many people all over the world — even 20 years later!
One final reason why I think Buffy is still relevant is how the characters overcome evil and work for the good of humankind. Each season has it’s own ‘Big Bad’ which the characters have to battle throughout, sometimes episode by episode before eventually working towards the inevitable show-down in the season finale.
Perhaps the ‘Biggest Bad’ of all wasn’t the monsters, demons or things that went bump in the night. Sometimes the scariest ‘Big Bad’ isn’t the monsters at all! But the people. There’s a number of seasons which took this approach and, in turn, made the horror far more affecting. For instance the Mayor in season 3, the nerds in season 6 and even the fan favourite, ‘Dark Willow’. As we know too well, people can make questionable decisions: politicians, our peers or even our best friends.
In our ever shifting political landscape, a programme like Buffy is necessary now more than ever as it helps to critique and comment on the darkness that we face on a daily basis. It’s a programme that helps to show how when we come together, we can face the worst and overcome.
I still love Buffy the Vampire Slayer as it shows that the ‘loser’, the powerless and the disenfranchised can actually become the most powerful — particularly when they band together.
So that’s why Buffy matters.
Because she died three times, kicked ass and proved not even Sunnydale, the hellmouth or even a ‘Big Bad’ could overcome her.
BUFFY: So here’s the part where you make a choice: What if you could have that power…now? In every generation, one slayer is born…because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. They were powerful men. This woman is more powerful than all of them combined. So I say we change the rule. I say my power…should be our power. Tomorrow, Willow will use the essence of the scythe to change our destiny. From now on, every girl in the world who might be a slayer…will be a slayer. Every girl who could have the power…will have the power…can stand up, will stand up…every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?
(Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 7, Episode 22, “Chosen”)