“‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’ Listen. Just the name of it and you know it has to be bad.” That was my brother-in-law a few years ago, when my family was sitting around the porch on our rocking chairs. It was a day when I’d hounded them particularly hard to just give the show a try. I’d said it was a masterpiece, that never had I ever found a work of art that meant so much to me, but they remained and remain untouched, despite all my tactics. “I’m not the only one who feels this way,” I said once. “It’s very popular.”
My dad half-conceded. “It has what you would call a cult following,” he said, adjusting his glasses like Rupert Giles.
I suppose he is right. Joss Whedon, the show’s creator, has said he would rather make a show one hundred people need to see than a show one thousand people want to see, and with Buffy, he has done just that. Buffy isn’t a mainstream obsession, but those of us who do watch it love it hard. We love the campy combination of heart-wrenching drama and cheesy humor.
We love the experimental episodes, like the one where no one talks, or the one made up of dream sequences. We love the overt girl power, the deeper themes of female empowerment, and the way the show re-spins old fairy tales and religious stories. We are beyond proud that in 2001, Buffy the Vampire Slayer became the first TV show to portray a lesbian relationship—not just Helen and Carol for background entertainment while Ross and Rachel have the true romance in the center, but the real deal: sweet, stammering flirtations to erotic sex, mundane housekeeping to high romance, a break-up that hurt more than your own, and a reconciliation that that left you never minding whether Rachel got off the plane.
But it can get overwhelming trying to cite everything that makes Buffy amazing. So here, I’ll just hone in on three reasons why she means so much to me.
1) Buffy makes me feel like a true child of my time.
When I was a kid, I loved the things that have become iconic of 90s culture, but in a longing sort of way. It was a bright, colorful era, from my cousin’s lime-green green Skip-It, to the Lunchables and fruit roll-ups my best friend Hannah always had in her lunch box. In my lunch box, I had sandwiches on whole wheat bread and apple slices in what used to be a cottage cheese container. At home, I had baby dolls and tea sets my grandmother found at yard sales. For the record, I loved those toys, but considered in light of the vibrant Polly Pockets and Power Rangers on Saturday morning commercials, my collection—and my existence itself—seemed pale.
In ways, Buffy is the classic young female protagonist of late nineties/early thousands TV, the kind of protagonist who made me feel as isolated in my adolescence as I did in my childhood. Like Lizzie McGuire, Buffy Summers is a character who supposedly doesn’t fit in with the cool crowd, but would obviously be Queen Bee in any real world school. Buffy and Lizzie both have wavy beach hair when they want it, and killer retorts for the vapid meanies who try to bully them. And like D.J. Tanner from Full House, Buffy has a really annoying little sister who she hates to love so damn much.
Yet in spite of there being tropey aspects to her character, Buffy is someone whose feelings and struggles I relate to on a level that can bring me to tears. Buffy’s experience of clinical depression was portrayed more like my own bout with depression than anything I’ve seen in another TV show, movie, or book. Beyond being someone I can relate to, Buffy is someone I look up to like crazy. She protects her friends and her family as she learns and models a bold and limitless compassion. I feel so connected to this character, and through her, I now feel connected to the 90s.
2) Buffy helped me answer a question that’s been nagging me all my life.
When December rolls around, everyone starts pondering the meaning of Christmas. The question is not an easy one to answer, but at least there is a slew of movies and TV shows to help us process through the complexities. “Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.” Though Dr. Seuss doesn’t tell us precisely what Christmas means (no one can) he at least lets us know that it’s not limited to ribbons and tags!
I might write a book someday called “How the Literalist Stole Halloween,” or something similar, because for the longest time—from childhood to young adulthood—I could never fully enjoy myself during the month of October for not being able to answer the question, “What is the true meaning of Halloween?” If Christmas was about more than packages, boxes, or bags, surely Halloween was about more than candy and costumes. If Christmas was about elusive but real things such as Generosity and Faith, did that mean that Halloween was about elusive but real things such as…Evil and Horror? How could I fully celebrate that?
I could have saved myself some trouble by watching Buffy first. Buffy has some spooky and morose elements in every episode and is occasionally truly violent and disturbing. Yet it is so different from all the scary movies I’ve ever seen, which inevitably leave me feeling as if I’ve been tarred and feathered on the inside. One, because the frightening elements in Buffy are normally imbued with a clever metaphor rather than being an end in themselves. Two, because it is ultimately such a redemptive show. Vampires, werewolves, witches, and demons sometimes choose to battle the “beast within,” and though this may seem trite, the show’s smart and sensitive writing makes it anything but. So, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has shown me at least one meaning of Halloween: We all have a dark side that will scare and fascinate us by turn. Don’t let it rule you, but don’t ignore it either. Take the time to understand and occasionally laugh at it.
3) Buffy makes me excited to be alive.
For those first four seasons of the show, Buffy struggles with her calling to be the vampire slayer: Was a “Slayer” just a “Killer”? Was the daily routine of violently taking down demons making her a callous and desensitized person? Was her work doing any good at all when the dark forces kept coming back? Could she have true community with her friends and family, or did she have to succumb to the lonely and isolated life patterned by every Slayer called before her?
In the last few moments of the Season 4 finale, Buffy is haunted by a line directed at her in a dream: “You think you know what’s to come, what you are. You haven’t even begun.” As an audience member, I felt excitement and apprehension when I heard those words. Was the dream foretelling an answer to these questions? Was it foreshadowing good things or bad?
Turns out there were some bad things in store for Buffy. Not only were her worst fears legitimate, most of them were fully realized in one way or another during the last three seasons of the show. Yet Buffy does greater things because of and through these tragedies than she ever would have imagined doing during those first four seasons of the show, when she would have given anything for her fears to be quelled. Ultimately, she overturns an age-old patriarchal and oppressive system of magical law by mystically divesting herself of her “chosen” status in order to empower a larger community of women. Thus, she turns her lonely calling into a sisterhood. It happens in the last episode of the series and catches the audience by surprise while at the same time being a classic Buffy move: loving, selfless, and badass.
Sometimes now, I hear a voice in my head that says to me, “You think you know what’s to come, what you are. You haven’t even begun.” It is not exactly a comfort—I don’t want all my fears to be realized, though I know from life experience that many of them will be. We can’t keep our demons at bay forever. Knowing that, though, it is mighty comforting to believe that, like Buffy, I may draw from those experiences something that allows me to become my truest self and do some good by other people while I’m at it.Tweet This