It’s funny to think of Buffy as 20 years old, since it isn’t for me, not exactly. I mean, I became aware of the show at its outset. I had seen the lackluster 1992 movie of the same title a few years before, which had followed in the wake of some pretty hilarious teen satires like The Brady Bunch Movie (Sure, Jan!) and the darkly comedic apotheosis of all 80s teen fare, Heathers. The trailers and the title certainly set it in that light, so my friends and I had high hopes. Unfortunately, the story meandered, and the humor kept its fangs retracted, despite a potentially great cast in Kristy Swanson, Luke Perry, Donald Sutherland, and even Rutger Hauer for god’s sake. We even got a very young Hilary Swank. When I heard this property had been turned into a show, I merely rolled my eyes.
When Buffy was in its heyday I was in the middle of grad school – yes, folks, I’m really that old. I spent my days in libraries reading dusty 19th-century German tomes, taking classes about feminism and film, going to two hours of martial arts classes a day, having abs and arms that I tragically didn’t fully appreciate or utilize to my advantage, being a riot grrrl who had no time for “The Man” and his cable TV, and generally being what the kids now call “gay af.” I played in a band called the Hussies. I produced local music fests with names like Lezbopalooza. I carried a chain wallet made of metallic blue vinyl and wore the de rigeur cutoff overalls / tank top look and sported KStew’s latest hairstyle, all of which screamed “Tank Girl.” If you don’t know Tank Girl, get to know her. The movie is also good, and here’s the Spotify to its killer soundtrack. (Just trust me. You’re welcome in advance.)
In other words, I was basically Buffy’s target audience but just didn’t know it yet.
Oh sure, friends of mine constantly suggested I watch it, but I resisted it. Because I was all about resisting. I resisted pretty much everything like it was my job back then.
Until one night, I was home alone sometime in the spring of 2003. True, I had no cable, but the old house-turned-triplex where I lived still had an antenna on the roof, and I had run a wire in from the outside and attached it to my beat-up 19” TV. Occasionally I watched the news to see what fresh hell G.W. Bush had unleashed on the world that day. For some reason that evening, I decided to go on and flip through my four fuzzy channels instead of reading The Dialectic of Sex or The Dialectic of Enlightenment or some other dialectic of something, and I found what turned out to be the series finale of Buffy. “Chosen,” Season 7, episode 22.
I don’t recall at what point in the episode I joined the broadcast, or what precisely hooked me, but all I can say is that it drew me in immediately. By the end of the episode, I found myself sobbing uncontrollably for the characters in their losses and triumphs. I vaguely knew Buffy and Willow, but of the rest, I remember thinking, “I have no idea who any of these people are, but I love them!” Boohoohooohoohoo, and so forth.
But you know, I had Foucault to read, patriarchy and concrete slabs to smash (the slabs are far easier than they look: physics; patriarchy: still working on it), and a dissertation that wasn’t exactly gonna write itself, so I kind of forgot about Buffy over the coming months. Meanwhile, my girlfriend finished her Information Science degree and got a job setting up an American Studies library database in Azerbaijan, like you do. (Don’t worry, I had to look it up on a map too.) I was done with classes and in full-time research mode now, and with that plus the 10-hour time difference and the lack of Skype existing, I got really lonely really fast. My anti-capitalist, anti-cable ideology crumbled when I came home one afternoon to an early adoption deal on digital cable for $29.95 a month, an offer I couldn’t refuse.
The amiable cable guy showed up the next day and set me up. The second he left I started flipping channels and found all these broadcasters I never knew existed. I shortly stumbled onto FX and got immediately sucked into a horror movie where this predatory-looking guy and a girl were walking down a school hallway. The typical seduction scenario with all the classic telegraphs of “guy is clearly the monster, no, honey, run away! run away!” But then, she suddenly turns out to be a vampire and bites the dude! What? Holy flipping of typical gendered horror movie conventions!
And then the opening credits rolled. It was no movie. It was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “Where has this been all my life?” I remembered the episode I had seen over the air a few months before, remembered all the times friends had recommended this show. I saw the light now. I was hooked. Instantly. No going back.
Other than research, teaching, and my taekwondo / hapkido classes, Buffy became my life. Buffy was my girlfriend, my course of study, my religion, my breakfast and my dinner. FX showed two episodes a day. Two at 7 and 8 in the morning, and then repeated the same two at 4 and 5 in the afternoon. I mainlined it, planned my schedule around it, became a Buffy-holic. But the broadcasts got too slow, and I started buying seasons on DVD. They had only released up to Season 6 at the time, so imagine my clamoring during the month or two I had to wait for the release of Season 7. I started reading the episode novelizations and original novels and comics they continued to release even after the show’s run was over. And then fanfic of course. Thank goodness for fanfic. I quickly gravitated towards the Willow/Tara ones. Because of course.
Obviously, I found myself captivated by Willow and Tara’s relationship. I had known of it even before I knew much about the show. Friends had told me of it to try and entice me into watching. Strangely enough, the concept of representation didn’t really mean much to me at the time. That is, until I actually saw Buffy for myself.
Even though a lot of their relationship got couched in the metaphor of “doing spells” and holding hands, I knew enough about the entertainment industry at the time to realize that’s probably all they could get past the networks. I had seen Xena and Ellen. Boundaries were just barely pushable at the time. But having studied feminist folklore, I also knew that mythologies of witchcraft and lesbianism and “women’s spirituality” had been tied together for centuries, so the metaphor fit well in my view. I eschewed the whole “goddess” thing in favor of a punk aesthetic myself, but I had those friends in college with the jingly bell hippie skirts. Reclaiming women’s mythologies was a whole thing in the 80s and early 90s, so sure, why not?
Honestly, just seeing two women openly loving each other onscreen touched my heart in a way I hadn’t known was possible. Since then, I’ve come to understand that I gravitated towards sci-fi, especially as a kid, because the typical teen nonsense my peers liked (Sweet Valley High, Babysitters’ Club, type stuff) all revolved – at least tangentially – around heterosexuality. Sci-fi, though it featured male protagonists 99% of the time, rarely presented me with a bunch of unrelatable heteroromantic drivel. Sure there were Han and Leia, but we just got a few tasteful sprinkles of that, nothing overpowering. I could live with it. In Star Trek, I also got prominent female leaders and again, with only the occasional hint of heterosexual romance, so I could easily see myself reflected in them. Sci-fi gave me stories I could relate to without all the romantic clutter.
Yet even after I came out, I never thought of myself as much of a romantic person. It had just never occurred to me. That is, until I saw and began to read about love and romance that actually showed people like me. That changed the way I saw myself, changed the way I conducted myself in relationships. Buffy’s Willow and Tara played a huge role in that transformation for me. Anybody who knows me now knows I’m “extra” in the romance department, wear my heart on my sleeve, and don’t care who knows it. In fact, I want you to know it. My life is a positive representation of queer relationships. So there.
But as much as I love Willow and Tara, I won’t let the “bury your gays” in Season 6 slide. Whatever Whedon’s intent – and author intent is actually not relevant in terms of audience impact – he took part in the decades-old tendency to kill the lesbian and leave her partner distraught, sending her on a grief-fueled rampage. It happened. It was tragic. Fans were devastated. Whedon’s level of contrition was highly debatable, if existent at all. I will say, however, that at least we got to see the relationship develop over time, come to fruition, and endure some hardships. We saw Willow and Tara get to be domestic, loving, see them dance together, kiss, smile, flirt, give each other little gifts, be included as a couple among their group of friends, all over the course of three seasons, or the majority thereof. They were known, loved, and accepted. That’s far more than we got for Clarke and Lexa on The 100, even fourteen years and several major cultural shifts later.
Even now, I think I gravitate towards young adult stories, particularly queer ones with romantic and coming-out arcs, because having come out in my early-mid 20s, I didn’t really get to have an adolescence with the loves and losses and elations and heartbreaks my peers had. To adults I looked like the smart, sensible girl who didn’t have that silly “boy crazy” phase. Really, I was just indescribably lonely and pre-gay. Sci-fi and comics, literature and music? Those were my solace. They gave me other worlds where I could feel free. I think Buffy – or maybe Xena – first offered me the possibility of an imagined world that overtly bridged the gap to this one for me as an out lesbian.
As adults, we often unwittingly seek corrective emotional experiences to make up for traumas or losses we experienced when we were younger. I have no doubt that my love for queer characters now, particularly in genre shows aimed at a young demographic, stems in part from the lack of those experiences in my younger years. I love seeing a good coming out arc where parents accept their children. I love seeing women get to express their love, particularly young women in an accepting environment. It’s something I didn’t have, and it mends a small part of my heart to experience it vicariously.
But even aside from my connection to Buffy as a queer viewer, from an overall storytelling standpoint – and I say this as someone who has devoted my life to studying literature and subsequently film and media – there has never been anything on TV that has surpassed Buffy so far.
I attended and presented at Slayage 3, a 2008 academic conference devoted to the Whedonverses, which featured a keynote talk by Dr. Jeanine Basinger, one of Joss Whedon’s Film professors at Wesleyan University. She referred to Whedon as “the village storyteller,” suggesting that he’d have been a storyteller in whatever time or culture he might’ve been born into. I have to agree with that. I’ve written about him academically before, how he drew on ancient mythology, European folklore, and contemporary pop culture references to create a richly intertextual world where Buffy and the Scoobies played and slayed. The dialogue absolutely sparkled. It still does.
Narrative threads merely mentioned in one season were never left behind, even if they weren’t picked up again until two or three seasons later. Whedon took constant risks: with riotous takes on typical high school rites like prom and graduation in Season 3; “Hush,” the near-silent episode in Season 4; or “The Body,” in Season 5, which remains a model of how to show a respectful, poignant major character death; the musical episode “Once More, With Feeling,” which somehow avoids feeling gimmicky and manages to advance the plot.
While the dark, dare I say biting satire we had hoped for on the big screen failed to come to fruition, what we got on the small screen more than made up for it. This show, which along with X-Files and Twin Peaks, first began to explore a truly episodic, novelistic approach to weekly series television, still delivers 20 years later. Many shows have tried, and some have come close, but none have yet surpassed the concentrated brilliance that coalesced on this show. I say “yet,” because there’s always room for more brilliance, and I’ve always got my eye on a few possible contenders.
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Here are some of my favorite episodes, in no particular order:
“Hush” (S4, E10) – This silent episode is in part an homage to Weimar cinema, and I use it sometimes in conjunction with discussions of Expressionist film, e.g. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), and its ties to old world folklore
“Buffy vs. Dracula” (S5, E1) – The parallels between this episode and Bram Stoker’s novel are accurate, hilarious, and sometimes surprising. See also: the first film adaptation of Dracula, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)
“Doppelgangland” (S3, E16) – The gang ends up in a parallel universe where everything is wrong. Except for vampire Willow, who’s oh so very right, if “evil, skanky, and kinda gay,” sounds right to you.
“Band Candy” (S3, E6) – Some magically contaminated candy bars to raise money for the school band make adults regress back into their teenage personae. Hilarious hijinks ensue.
“Bad Girls” (S3, E14) – Faith, the other Slayer – wait, no, the other other Slayer, sorry, it’s complicated – comes to town, busts Buffy out of class, and takes her out for a wild night of dancing and slaying. The femslash basically writes itself.
“Killed by Death” (S2, E18) – One of several times the series draws on central European folklore / fairy tale themes, in this case to create a demon called “Kindestod” – yikes! There are some great, evocative shots in this episode that remind the viewer of both Nosferatu and Nightmare on Elm Street.
“Out of Sight, Out of Mind” (S1, E11) – Marcie, played by the incomparable Clea Duvall, starts to become invisible as fewer and fewer classmates pay attention to her. This episode, in particular, does a poignantly good job of rendering high school angst as metaphor.
“Conversations with Dead People” (S7, E7) – Dead characters come back to visit the living, delivering potentially important information about the gang’s final enemy, The First. It also offers us an in-depth view into our characters’ experiences with grief and loss. One of the most finely acted episodes in the series.