Mention Buffy the Vampire Slayer in any conversation, even now in 2020, and there is only one possible reaction: a gasp of adulation. It’s a show that has really stuck with its viewers well into their adulthood, and now the fandom is awesome in its size and scope. After its initial seven-season run, from 1997 to 2003, the Buffyverse now includes comic books, novels and a spin-off series, and has inspired countless books, essays, podcasts and academic theses.
The basic premise is that a teenage Valley Girl, Buffy Summers, is the Chosen One, entrusted with superhuman strength and resilience to battle vampires, demons and other nasty creatures. She’s aided by her high school friends, the bookish Willow and the social pariah Xander.
On the surface, that might sound like just another teen soap opera – but Buffy is, for its fans and in actuality, so much more. It validated teenage realities and anxieties, hiding them in plain sight by putting them into supernatural stories. It tackled bullying, isolation, grief, queerness, family, misogyny and toxic masculinity, among other issues. It centred the weirdos, the nerds, the outsiders, and let them be the protagonists. That is why it was such a groundbreaking show.
Sure, the effects are dated. And, yes, some characters’ behaviours have aged very badly (I’m looking at you, Xander, television’s proto-softboi). But Buffy was a turning point for genre, teenage, queer and feminist narratives on television. Joss Whedon, the series creator, wanted to invert the stereotype of the “little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie”. Buffy, played through all seven seasons by Sarah Michelle Gellar, looks like the popular cheerleader. In a horror movie, she would certainly be one of the first characters to go. But in the show, she will roundhouse-kick a vampire in the noggin just as swiftly as she retouches her lip gloss.
Even the character’s name was picked to be ridiculously, well, fluffy. Her design plays into the idea that women in horror (and on screen, in general) are best placed as victims, and subverts it by having her as the strongest person on the show, both physically and morally.
Alongside this, by retrofitting a horror series on to the familiar blueprint for teenage TV dramas, Buffy also challenged the idea of whom horror was for. It’s not surprising that a lot of the show’s fans are women. The inner lives of female characters were prioritised and given space to evolve. It acknowledged the intense pressure of just being a teenage girl in the world – and that meant something.
Because Buffy never really was about the vampires nor the slaying, at least not entirely. As its characters prevented the end of the world (on multiple occasions), we worried about their grades, first loves, college applications and outfit decisions. Underneath it all, Buffy’s, Willow’s and Xander’s challenges were also our own.
Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill