Teenage Eternity: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Turns 18
This year, Buffy the Vampire Slayer turns eighteen. It’s finally graduated high school and has set off for UC Sunnydale to ultimately wash out and become a full time supernatural hero. Oh well, Buffy the College Years were never quite as fun as Buffy on the unlimited budget of adolescent emotion and parental distance. (See: the comics, where Buffy gets a castle, an army, and a plethora of silly problems.) What made Buffy special was that it was a show about teenage girls with teenage girl problems that were treated seriously—high school is hell, said Buffy, metaphorically and actually, and problems with your peers are as vital and potentially life threatening as problems with the vampires and other demons that roamed the halls of the high school and the streets of Sunnydale at night.
Buffy was equally fun and fraught, full of romantic tragedy, self-sacrifice and heroism, an occasionally deep mythology, rich characters, and famously quippy dialogue. Eighteen years after episode one season one “Welcome to the Hellmouth” aired, it’s still beloved by many and has become a cultural touchstone for others. Still, it’s a show that frequently disappointed viewers while airing thanks to creator and showrunner Joss Whedon’s love for killing off characters and “giving [the audience] what they need, not what they want” and due to the problematic elements that shared space with feminist and progressive themes. The show has a long and complex legacy.
What is your first memory of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Did it come into your life at the “right time”?
Ashly Nagrant: My first memory is seeing the earliest ads for it on TV. I had really enjoyed the original movie, so the idea of a series made me so incredibly happy. I was glued to the TV for the premier. Love at first stake.
Romona Williams: When I was a teenager I used to secretly shame-watch Dawson’s Creek, and I’d see ads for Buffy, but I thought the vampires looked ridiculous and never watched it. Fast forward to college and two of my co-op housemates were watching an episode on TV and they were really dishing about their thoughts on the characters and which season was the best. I thought they both seemed cool and wanted to get to know them better, so when they suggested forming a tiny Buffy watching club I was all about it. This was before Netflix existed, so we actually would walk to the Blockbuster off of campus and rent one or two discs a week. We would commandeer this spooky little room in the basement that had a beaded curtain, couches from the 70s, and an old console TV, and we’d watch it together. It was so much fun. Any problematic elements of the series didn’t strike me at the time, because I was having such a blast.
Wendy Browne: Back in my LiveJournal days, many of my good friends were a big part of Buffy fandom, but back then, fandom scared me and I shied away from anything it touched. Then one day, I stumbled on one of the Halloween episodes—the one where they have to prevent a demon from spawning, but fail to do so, only, when it does appear, it’s just a wee thing that gets stepped on and Giles translates the text under the diagram in the book: “Actual size.” I couldn’t stop laughing. I’m not sure what I had thought Buffy was all about before watching that episode, but I was immediately sold.
Ginnis Tonnik: I watched BtVS religiously. But when Buffy killed Angel in the season two finale, I boycotted. My best friend at the time said that was the first time she had seen me cry, and we had known each other for three years at that point. I finally stopped boycotting it after that, but I ended up watching it when it re-aired and not on the premier nights like I used to. I am not sure why or when I found it again, but I was in grad school, and I would rent DVDs from the media library. It was my reality break and a comforting ritual for me. I would sit down with my dinner every weekday evening and watch an episode of Buffy and not think about grad school.
Sarah Register: I watched Buffy on Wednesday nights with my mom. I was bridging middle and high school, and the timing was indeed perfect, hitting me at an age where I was struggling with compulsive disorders and low self-esteem. I fell in love with the show and its sister show Angel, watching them from beginning to bloody end as the episodes premiered. I remember convincing my very religious grandmother to buy me The Monster Book and her silent, but incredibly concerned glances in the car ride home as I gleefully flipped through pictures of demons and vampires.
Al Rosenberg: My first Buffy episode was during my first year of college. In some ways I was too old, and it was too old, to really absorb it the way I would have if I had loved it earlier. I marathon watched it at a friend’s house and tried to allow myself to fall into it.
Claire Napier: Early in secondary school my friend Jen watched it, but I saw an episode once and it looked 50/50 scary/boring. Once, Kim from the other class (my school had two classes per year group) had to stay at my house for a while because of a mishap with the school buses, and neither of us were particularly good at small talk, so I pretended that I “always” watched Buffy, and we went to the living room to silently watch Buffy. I don’t recall if I was a devoted viewer after that, but I was definitely got into it before the end of the first season. We got it a year late, here, so I guess that was somewhere towards the end of 1999? Start to finish, I watched Buffy, every season, every week. That show was with me rock-solid reliably through my teens, which probably makes it one of my top five all-time friends.
Amanda Vail: I was a bit late to the Buffy party; although it was airing while I was in high school, I didn’t start watching it until I was in college. I actually credit Sex in the City for my subsequent addiction to Buffy, as a roommate of mine had begun to collect entire seasons on DVD and addict our entire circle of friends. This seemed like a good idea, and at the time I was working as a waitress near a Best Buy store. Cash tips plus giant media outlet equals a pretty fine collection of DVDs by the end of college. I got quite good at binge-watching Buffy with my roommates, but (fortunately for my grades, I’m sure) my purchases caught up with the seasons that had been released, and I had to anxiously await the release of seasons six and seven.
Megan Purdy: I watched it during high school, starting with the first episode, and how “right” it was for me depended on the season and what was going on in my life. I sometimes think that if it’d premiered a few years earlier, when I was starting middle school, I would have connected with it even more. Middle school was hell, as far as I’m concerned, but high school was just boring. Still, I watched it and Angel religiously, and sometime in the third or fourth season, became involved in fandom through an incredibly intense message board (so scary).
Lindsey David: I started watching Buffy in middle school, though I will confess to not watching it very religiously or thoroughly. I was coming into a new group of friends, a little off the beaten path. One such friend had the idea for what she called “Buffy Night.” On Tuesdays, we would all get together at her house, chip in on pizza, and veg out in her room while watching the show. We’d arrive hours before the actual episode to partake in the various hijinks one does when they’re twelve. This went on for maybe three or four years. Unfortunately, I joined the ritual mid-season in season five, so I’m woefully out of sync with the whole thing. I still enjoyed it though.
What does the show mean to you now? Is your relationship with it richer, or have you soured on it? Or perhaps grown to like it, having never enjoyed it before?
Ashly Nagrant: There is a reason I have Faith Lehane’s tribal symbol tattooed on my right arm. That show will always mean something to me. I’ve thought about it in more critical ways since, and I understand and even agree with a lot of critique the show has received. But I credit Buffy as one of the two reasons I survived high school and still one of the most real depictions of growing up out there.
Romona Williams: Buffy will always hold a special meaning for me since it was such a big factor in those close friendships. It also lead to some further geek culturing when I played a Buffy role playing game over one summer. But, repeat viewings have changed my opinion on a lot of the acting, mainly Sarah Michelle Gellar’s. I don’t buy her as Buffy at all. I’ve definitely soured on Joss Whedon altogether, and this has altered how I process the plotlines of Buffy. Another thing that I didn’t dig is when the comic book series (spoiler alert) paired up Xander and Dawn as a couple. That feels ick to me. He practically helped raise her and it feels predatory for him to switch roles from guardian to boyfriend.
Wendy Browne: Buffy remains special for many reasons. I have so many memories built in and around it. It was my first real taste of fandom and having opinions on things like Angel’s stupid soul (it’s not a soul; it’s a conscience) and being able to share those thoughts with others. It led me to other shows in Joss Whedon’s arsenal, which, in turn, led me to be more critical of the things that I enjoy. I do like much of Whedon’s work, and that certainly stems from Buffy, but I’m not blind the flaws.
Ginnis Tonik: I was a sucker—pun intended—for vampire-teenage stuff. I consumed anything about vampires, teenager heroines, and forbidden love (see L.J. Smith’s Nightworld series). Buffy hit all those points, but I think it really gained more meaning for me when I began watching it again in grad school. Like the recent article in The Atlantic noted, Buffy “is still revolutionary.” I could watch and enjoy the show and critique it and still enjoy it. It never felt like a chore, and I love/d reading critical takes on it, I think because it so clearly meant a lot to people, and people loved that it was smart and witty and deliberately and intentionally attempting to be subversive. But Romona is so right about (spoiler alert) Xander and Dawn. Ick, ick, ick. It is still my comfort show, and I still love reengaging and reinterpreting it especially when situated in different times, places, and mediums.
Sarah Register: It was a magical day when Buffy showed up on Netflix. I have binged the entire series maybe four times, even witnessing the blessed “instant play” option come into being. I loved the show when I watched it live, but I love it even more now. I appreciate the character development on a deeper level, and some of the more “adult” themes really hit home. I still cry every time I watch “The Body” and “The Gift,” and I still laugh every time Buffy reads Oz’s mind or makes Spike answer a question in five words or less.
Al Rosenberg: Buffy seems to have opened a lot of doors for strong female characters on TV, but it was still deeply problematic in many ways. The lack of diversity in the main cast was always the most irritating to me and that has only bothered me more as I have aged. A lot of the gay ladies I know are REALLY INTO the Willow-Tara relationship, but it never moved me in a way that so many other lesbian relationships on TV have. Yet, I know it was an early example of lesbians on TV, and for that I am grateful.
Claire Napier: I no longer give a damn, in the general sense. No need to re-watch. No desire to read the comics. Never very interested in the novels, either (Charmed? Roswell? Now those were TV-show novels I’d read). On accidental adulthood rerun tune-ins and I think… half a season of determined revisitation, that I got tired of, I’m appalled at how little I valued Anya (clearly the best) and Tara (sad, sad, crying). The love story between Willow and Tara, and the way my LiveJournal friends who were ladies into ladies responded to it, was an early “this is what you must defend in media” moment for me. I think I used to favour Willow? But she’s sort of awful, really. Spike is fun but atrocious, Angel is a creep, Xander…what’s the point of Xander? Watching as a grown-up, I want to smother Buffy with support and presents and tell her jokes, poor thing. As a teenager, I couldn’t stand her stuffiness. Oz is still good, but now I’ve kissed a real alterna-sensitive boy with great hair, and the fake just can’t compete.
Amanda Vail: I still love Buffy, and when I discovered a few years back that my wife had not been properly indoctrinated to the series, I immediately pulled out the old DVDs. We slogged through the first few seasons and had fun with seasons five through seven (the last is definitely my favorite now, although I hated the whiny young slayers at the time). That being said, it feels a bit like an old crush: my fond remembrance is for who I was at the time, not necessarily for the object of my affection.
Megan Purdy: I don’t rewatch Buffy these days, although I used to do so regularly. There are episodes that I still adore (“The Body,” “The Gentlemen,” and “The Gift”!) but many of the story arcs feel unfinished, and characters I once loved now grate. Willow and Tara’s relationship frustrates me more than ever—even when it first aired I thought it was a cop out—and Willow seems creepier than ever. But oh, Buffy, especially during the later years. I empathize even more with her troubles. After high school, Buffy’s life was just disappointment after humiliation after failure after loss. Each season she gets a little harder, a little colder, and this new emotional distance sets in. The unease in the Scoobies over this change is palpable. She was their personal hero and now she’s becoming someone else. I love that part of the Buffy’s story: the settling in to adulthood, dealing with absolute limits, and always, somehow soldiering on. What I love less are the quirks of the show, the writerly tics that crop up repeatedly; Joss Whedon’s “things.” Slight, vulnerable girls, with great power and improbable instruments of stabbing. The inevitable return to whiteness in the core cast. And the quips—maybe I’m just done with them? The patter is less delightful to me, now that know the rhythm so well.
Lindsey David: I don’t know if Buffy itself holds any meaning to me, but it was my introduction into the wider world that is Joss Whedon, for which I am forever appreciative.
Buffy is often credited with changing the pop culture landscape forever, cutting a path for shows as diverse as Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars. I tend to think that too much weight is placed on Buffy’s shoulders—it came out after Scream, and at a time where the SF/F TV landscape included Dark Angel, Xena, and later Roswell and Charmed. Buffy was a big deal, but it wasn’t a big deal in a vacuum. What is Buffy’s specific legacy, and what is the legacy of this generation of girl-centric romance-adventure shows?
Ashly Nagrant: I feel like one of the biggest things Buffy really influenced was the idea that being a tough girl didn’t mean being less feminine. The very idea of a series where the protagonist was both a cheerleader AND a bad-ass martial artist defending the world still seems laughable on paper, but Buffy showed that it didn’t have to be played for laughs. In fact, a lot of the lessons in Buffy tended to be about defining yourself as a person when you have everyone around you trying to define you by some stereotype or model of how you SHOULD be. Buffy is constantly being told she can be a “normal” girl or she can be a Slayer, but she is determined in the end to just be Buffy.
Romona Williams: I was about to say that Buffy was unique in that it characterized supernatural creatures as multi-faceted and emotional beings, but that happened in many previous shows (The Addams Family, The Munsters, Dark Shadows, etc.) It also wasn’t anywhere near being the first show to feature women action stars. But I think it may have stood apart as far as creating a sci-fi fandom that predominantly appealed to younger women. I think that a current example of a tv show with a specific impact on lady shows is Orphan Black. It’s set in so many different societal areas with so many sub-plots and so many strings of narrative to chase after; shows in the future will struggle to be as complex as Orphan Black.
Wendy Browne: Buffy certainly helped broaden the landscape, but I hate the idea of giving the show all that credit, as much as I hate giving Joss Whedon the “first male feminist” badge because of it. I’ve come to appreciate that Whedon writes interesting female characters, but there are precious few of them that I would consider great role models to hold up in front of my children—with Buffy herself being at the bottom of the list. But mainstreaming is where the magic is, and I guess Buffy helped bringing the genre to more people, particularly, as Romona noted, the younger women.
Ginnis Tonik: I agree, I think too much is placed on Buffy especially considering the pop culture landscape at the time. But I do think Buffy stood out because it so obviously played with genre and treated it’s audience with respect. It took teenage drama without mocking it, but still didn’t take itself too seriously, and it was smart and wacky.
Sarah Register: I think Buffy really set the bar for the supernatural comedy, but its legacy for me personally will always be the way it portrayed its characters. Women, cheerleaders, teenagers, and monsters were all written like people, and everyone managed to escape a stereotype. Cordelia could have just been that popular bitch foil to the protagonist, but she ultimately became a hero goddess while still maintaining the same charming personality. Giles was a just a flustered librarian until you find out he used to conjure demons for fun and then watch him kill an innocent man to save world. People, even bad people, are deep and complex and can be many things, and this was the first show I ever watched that took this amount of care with its characters.
Al Rosenberg: This will probably be a very unpopular opinion, but I think the best thing Buffy opened the door for was Angel. When I think of strong women in that universe, I think of Cordelia. I have never had my feelings so changed about any character as much as they changed about Cordelia. She was so horrendous, such a stuck-up, entitled brat in Buffy, and she becomes such a relatable person in Angel.
Claire Napier: I think Ashly’s answer is pretty great. Buffy combined punching and chopping (with a real axe!) with sensibly-cut leather trousers and quips about sales and shoes and high school popularity. It was just as much a descendent of Clueless as it was a preponderance on the final girl. Nobody in Charmed was as physical a threat as Buffy (and their wardrobes were ABSURD in a way that Buffy’s wasn’t), and Charmed was, from the start, a show about grown women. Neither Liz nor Maria in Roswell were punchers, and neither were Isobel or Tess—besides, there was less comedy in Roswell, despite/because of the fully ridiculous premise. My personal favourite forty-five minute teen-woman asskicker series, Dark Angel, was all the way into being a sci-fi show set in a future that’s different from our present. The romance, the friendship, everything was hung on the world-building, whereas Buffy is primarily a teen life show that has vampires and demons and witches hung on it as metaphors and entertaining gimmickry. It’s beautifully integrated, this isn’t a knock, but that’s how I see it.
Amanda Vail: I concur with Ashly’s thoughts above, as for me the biggest takeaway and message was self-determination. Although I don’t think Buffy can take all the credit for changing the pop media landscape FOREVER (insert echo here) as it was just a piece of what I think had been a prevailing zeitgeist for awhile, as shown by the shows referenced above.
Megan Purdy: I think it’s interesting, Ashly and Sarah, that for you, Buffy‘s legacy is primarily its questioning.
Lindsey David: To be honest, I don’t know if I’ve ever thought of Buffy that way. I as always aware that it was based on a movie, which I also enjoy. In fact, I might say the movie was more dynamic, as she was both a girly-girl and a bad-ass slayer.
We’ve talked about the Buffy comics in the past, but I think the subject is worth revisiting. Reading them now, with the reminder that the show debuted eighteen years ago, does that affect how you approach the comics? Is there anything about the basic building blocks of Buffy, either the show or the comics, that seems dated? Or do you think this is a franchise that can continue indefinitely?
Ashly Nagrant: Buffy comics? What do you mean. That’s silly, like they would release a follow-up comic series that would eventually kill off a particular character in a way that caused me to forget I ever read the comics or that they had ever existed in the first place? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! HA! HA! Fray was pretty good, though.
Romona Williams: The comics pissed me off early on for two reasons: The Xander/Dawn romance (remember when he’s touching her giant underwear?) and the slayers voluntarily forfeiting their magic to avoid Twilight’s detection. Even if it was temporary, I found that gross. “Let’s give up a bunch of our power because we’re skeered!” I stopped reading them after that.
Wendy Browne: I have the first season of comics after the show ended on my bookshelves and will keep it there as a legacy, but I did not like much of it at all. It was the season Whedon eventually had to apologize for because he just went off the rails with the no-budget crazy things that happened. I tried to give him a chance again after that apology, but I finally came to the conclusion that all good things should come to an end. For me, Buffy ended when Sunnydale sank.
Ginnis Tonik: I still read the comics though I wait for them to come out in trade. I think actually Angel & Faith is doing some of the best work with the Buffyverse which probably is because it’s not really about Buffy; it’s about Faith. I also enjoy some of the other character spin-offs such as the Willow and Spike comics. As for the Buffy-centered comics, I read them, it’s okay, but again to reiterate what Romona said—Xander and Dawn is gross and not even a particularly interesting dynamic or subplot. It feels like having a couple for the sake of a couple because none of the other characters are paired off. Overall, I think we may have squeezed everything we can out of the Buffy character, but I think the Buffyverse still has a lot to offer so in that way I think it could continue indefinitely if the writers and creators are willing enough to let Buffy go. We no longer need the petite, blonde white girl to challenge our expectations of femininity—we are past that. Let’s do some more character diversification.
Sarah Register: I was initially very stoked for season eight, because it meant more of what I loved! Of course, that turned out to be only partially true. I could still visit my old Sunnydale friends, but the comics were problematic for the various reasons already covered. I lost interest before season nine premiered, but I plan on catching up one day so I can tout my well-versed Buffy knowledge.
Al Rosenberg: I think I looked at them once.
Claire Napier: I couldn’t care less.
Megan Purdy: They are so bad. So very very bad.
Amanda Vail: Oh, dear. I really wanted to like the Buffy comics. I borrowed them from a neighbor for awhile, but when he moved away I honestly didn’t care to seek them out. Like Romona and Ginnis point out above, the Xander/Dawn romance made me squidgy. The transition from sibling/guardian to romantic interest needs to be handled verrrryyyy carefully and, although I can’t put my finger on how Xander x Dawn failed from memory alone, this one was pretty rough. That being said, I like that stories can be told and continued across media. Television, movies, comics, books: all have a different forte when it comes to telling stories. I guess what I mean to say is: more! more!
From time to time a Buffy reboot is considered. Let’s say the Powers That Be go forward with it: what does your ideal Buffy reboot look like? What are some elements in the original show that you’d like to see expanded on or excised entirely? (For example, all the people of colour in Sunnydale either dead or disappeared.)
Ashly Nagrant: Yeah, one of the biggest would be casting POC’s in the show that weren’t killed off before the end of a season or weren’t portrayed as thugs like Gunn was on Angel. And recognizing that in a world where there are vampires and werewolves and giant penis-like snakemen, the existence of bisexual human beings is not exactly far-fetched. The important thing to keep for me is the realness and complexity that we see develop: Buffy is not a one-dimensional Strong Female Character (™) with no emotions (except in Bizzaro Sunnydale, but that was the POINT). Her friends are not just captives or cheerleaders. A character like Cordelia, who starts off seeming to be a stereotype, ends up being more complex than you’d expected. And the end message of the series should continue to be woven into any series: the ultimate goal isn’t about being empowered, it’s about empowering others.
Romona Williams: If a reboot actually happened, there should definitely be more POC, and I want to see the Cleveland hellmouth. Also, I’d like for the community to continue going on like Buffy isn’t saving everyone all the time. I always thought it was funny how nobody seemed to recognize her and word never spread through town that she was always up at night, walking around a cemetery, staking vampires. She would rescue people from a vampire and/or monster, they’d thank her, and that would be that. No ticker tape parade. No citizenship award. No honorary deputy badge. I always got a kick out of that, because how could anyone within a thousand miles not have heard of her?
Wendy Browne: I am so tired of reboots, but I suppose I wouldn’t mind a whole new story within the Slayer nation. Leave the canon behind and start fresh with a new Slayer lore? Jump into the future and give us Fray? Or go into the past and find us a different Slayer.
Ginnis Tonik: I’m on board with Wendy. I think the best part of Buffy was not actually Buffy. I don’t dislike the character by any means, but I always loved the supporting cast, the witty dialogue, and how the show balanced drama and comedy so well. I think something really smart and intentional set in the present day with more character diversity would be pretty damn cool. Something that could like various stories and vignettes within the verse—not necessarily constantly following one singular character and their posse. I think television is more willing to do that sort of storytelling now, and I think Buffy would be a particularly good place for that.
Sarah Register: I’d love a show that exists in the same universe, but please PLEASE don’t reboot Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There’s just so much lore and so much you can do with it (sidenote: if you ever come across Tales of the Slayer Volume 1, read Greg Rucka’s short story about the Battle of Marathon runner being a slayer because it’s perfect). Buffy and Angel were amazing and wonderful shows/life experiences, but they was just begging for diversity in a universe that was primed for it. Gunn and Kendra were some of my favorite characters, but they were so underutilized (or in Kendra’s case, killed off too soon). Heck, in the final season of Angel, the best headlining character was a green demon. Keep the spirit of the original, but give us more and give us different.
Al Rosenberg: I agree with Sarah. I think another Slayer show would be great, but mostly if she was a lesbian of color and it all came out on Netflix at once so I could binge watch it with ice cream in my bed.
Claire Napier: I don’t want it. I don’t want to be a teen again. This is a question for the kids who need a heroine.
Amanda Vail: What Ashly said! And Wendy, Ginnis, and Sarah. If there’s to be a reboot, let’s not resurrect Buffy yet again. Instead, bring us a whole new set of characters, more POC, and hey, how about stories told outside of the US? I also agree with Claire: we don’t need to be teens again. The original fans of Buffy have aged, and I’d love to see them tell a more mature story.
Lindsey David: I second Wendy. I’d prefer to see a continuation in another aspect of the Slayer lore, rather than rehash the old show. It had it’s place—let’s do something new following on from it.
Megan Purdy: I think there a lot of ways they could approach it. The first issue would be deciding what’s canon and what isn’t. The novels? The comics? The vaguely defined maybe-a-thing of “Jossverse”? Next would be finding someone else to run the show. Preferably a woman of colour, who could roundly explode the problematic elements. Give me a slayer of colour, a lesbian slayer, a trans slayer, and without the stereotypical baggage. And give me a slayer who speaks to the issues this generation of youth is facing, not a middle class slayer of means and absentee parents. I’d be here for it, either a continuation or a total reboot, but it would take some rethinking.