Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Why Buffy Still Slays Us

The Buffy the Vampire Slayer effect is still felt in pop culture. Here's why it's the perfect time to revisit Buffy...

Watch virtually any horror film from the ‘70s and ‘80s and chances are you’ll be greeted with the following scene: A helpless, somewhat ditzy nubile young woman – scantily clad, of course – running towards the camera. Her perky breasts are nearly escaping the confines of her halter top as she desperately tries to flee the grip of a deranged psycho killer (usually a man or a pint-sized killer doll).

The vulnerable female victim was a definite fixture in both horror films and television programs for the better part of nearly three decades. It was something we were totally used to seeing and, if I’m honest, it was something that was totally expected in the horror genre. I mean, can you honestly picture a thirty-year-old horror film in your head without a helpless blonde female victim? I thought not.

I’ve never particularly liked horror movies and one of the main reasons is because I always found it hard to relate to women who proved helpless and couldn’t – wouldn’t? – defend themselves. Surely a woman could outrun a masked serial killer who was lumbered down with a chainsaw or heavy knife claws! It was almost as if every single female character in a horror film automatically gave up as soon as the movie’s opening credits finished rolling. Oh boohoo there’s a psychotic killer that’s just crashed through my font door, guess I’ll just lay down and die now.

In my world, that’s not how I roll. Until the horror movie genre started showing women a little more respect, I wasn’t going to have any part of it. I was sick to death of the frantic running, the tear-stained cheeks, the helpless cries of a young teenager, the gratuitous shots of bare flesh, and the seemingly horrendous and unfair portrayal of women.

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Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon wanted to change all that and he ultimately succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. He flourished where no one else had before in creating a female superhero that still resonates with fans today. Buffy remains pertinent in a world that oftentimes brushes women aside in favor of the stronger, more potent male superheroes that saturate the entertainment industry. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why the show is regarded as one of the best binge-watches out there. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is still incredibly relevant and, let’s be honest, it’s a work of freaking art!

I suppose, like all of us, Whedon was tired of watching endless reams of female characters being victimized at the hands of dangerous, unruly men. What he wanted to do was revolutionary: He essentially wanted to turn the modern horror story on its head and have the bad guy be victimized by the innocent young waif.

“The first thing I ever thought of when I thought of Buffy, the movie, was the little […] blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie. The idea of Buffy was to subvert that idea, that image, and create someone who was a hero where she had always been a victim,” explains Whedon in the “Welcome to the Hellmouth” DVD commentary (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, S1E1).

With such a refreshing and dynamic premise, it’s shocking that the Buffy film wasn’t more of a success when it was released in 1992 – the film was critically panned and earned only $16.6 million at the box office.

Perhaps the world just wasn’t ready yet for a powerful female protagonist who could kick ass at the drop of a hat. Maybe the image of a strong young woman took a little getting used to because it wasn’t until a few years later, in 1997, that the world finally sat up and took notice of Whedon’s dream woman. Whedon revisited the idea behind his failed film attempt and eventually turned his story of a powerful female slayer into a network television show. Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted on The WB in the spring of 1997 and instantly became a hit for the young adult audience it was created for.

“Into every generation a slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their number. She is the slayer.”

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Sarah Michelle Gellar played Buffy Summers and changed the face of womanhood in pop culture. Sure, she had a little help from her friends Willow (Alyson Hannigan), Xander (Nicholas Brendon), Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), and Watcher Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), but she basically always came through on her own, winning the day every single week on primetime television. Gellar’s interpretation of Buffy Summers meant brute strength coupled with teenage angst, independence coupled with a heart-wrenching reliance on family, friends and loved ones and, perhaps most of all, a responsibility to rid the world of evil whilst also trying to figure out her own life; its perils, its emotional upheavals, its joys and its failures.

If I think back now and remember my very first reaction to the show, I grow a little misty-eyed and smile because it seems like I’ve come such a long way since then. I was 15-years old when the show premiered and I wasn’t exactly what you would call a confident young lady. I was more broody, less sure of myself and mega-awkward. Unfortunately, being geeky wasn’t considered cool or trendy back then so I was basically deemed a loser who had her nose buried in books all day, every day. Buffy served as my awakening and it wasn’t until the show started airing that I actually grew up. I began to feel better about myself and I definitely stood about a couple inches taller (note to self: slouching is never a good look).

Buffy – both the show and the character – gave me the strength and confidence I needed to begin living my young life anew in a world that often thought of women as weak, defenseless creatures. I now had a super cool heroine to look up to. She was someone I could try to emulate, someone who was changing the face of television entertainment with every word she said, every vampire she staked, and every ass she kicked back into the Hellmouth.

And I wasn’t the only one. Girls everywhere were growing up alongside me and watching Buffy religiously every Thursday night at eight o’clock without fail. For one hour every week, fans would escape to a world that looked upon women as the true goddesses they were. No longer held captive by men – human, vampire, demon, or god – and no longer shackled to the prehistoric conception that women are unable to do anything on their own or without a man’s help.

Buffy not only overcame the threat of demonic activity, but she also tackled things that hit close to home for a lot of people – not just women – growing up. The show tackled emotional and physical abuse, rape, the death of a loved one, and the very real threat and impact of school gun violence. It also touched on the abuse of drugs and alcohol, the angst and turmoil of surviving high school, dealing with the uncertainty of what lies ahead, and the pain of knowing you’re alone in the world and must fend for yourself when everyone else around you fades into the background. These issues are as real now as they were when the show originally aired and it’s why Buffy has remained at the forefront of television history since its debut. Any audience, no matter its age demographic, can relate to this show.

The Buffy Re-watch

The appeal of re-watching the entire series from start to finish is very real, folks. I like to give it a re-watch at least once every couple of years or so. I love revisiting the world of Sunnydale (no matter how demon-infested it may be) and watching my favorite characters grow from awkward high school freshmen and ungainly vamps to self-sufficient, noble adults and vampires with souls. The really neat thing about Buffy’s cast of characters is that no matter how secondary they may be in the credits, each one of them is so multi-faceted and layered and they’re each given their moments to shine. No one, apart from maybe Buffy Summers herself obviously, is singled out as the star of the show. Instead, each player is rewarded with stupendously intricate storylines and poignant personal growth arcs.

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The show lasted for seven seasons and produced 144 episodes, some of which are studied by university scholars and professors today on account of how much each has contributed to the ideals and opinions of modern popular culture. Granted, some episodes are harder to watch than others particularly “The Body” (S5E16) and “Touched” (S7E20) – both of which make me whinge and wail like a newborn baby – but others are a complete joy to revisit, like “Hush” (S4E10) and “Once More, with Feeling,” (S6E7) the all-singing, all-dancing episode that has since won a place on Channel 4’s list of 100 Greatest Musicals.

I’ve spoken to quite a few fans while putting this essay together and every single one of them – both male and female, may I add – said that they occasionally revisit the show as well to reminisce about what it was like for them growing up in the late ‘90s and early 2000s and to discover how far the show has carried them. The general consensus seems to be that the show aided in its audiences development from high school student to college/university scholar, all the way to legitimate adulthood. We grew up alongside our favorite characters, taking their strength, their nobility, and their wisdom and gobbling it all up faster than a turkey dinner at Thanksgiving.

Let’s temporarily set aside Buffy’s influential strength and fortitude for now and dive head-first into another taboo issue (at the time) that Whedon’s show brought to the forefront of society’s viewfinder: the astoundingly realistic depiction of lesbian love on television. Before Willow and Tara (Amber Benson) I had never seen two women kiss let alone actually love each other on television before – not even in a movie come to think of it! Have I mentioned how innocent and pure I was growing up?

The fact of the matter is is that Willow and Tara’s relationship was my intro to gay love and it was absolutely beautiful; it was never salacious or gratuitous, harmful or intentionally shocking. No, it was love like I had never seen before and it pretty much changed television. “I was so grateful to have been a part of such a wonderful relationship,” Alyson Hannigan told the Huffington Post. “The people that it’s touched that I’ve met […] it’s such a gift to have been able to do that.” Though Buffy the Vampire Slayer wasn’t the only television show to depict gay love – Dawson’s Creek also dived headfirst into that topic – it certainly helped pave the way for both existing shows and future ones like Orange Is The New Black, The L Word, and Queer As Folk.  

Joss Whedon and his team of talented writers helped to usher in the age of modernity and social acceptance for the kids of my generation. Our parents had never seen stuff quite like Buffy the Vampire Slayer before on TV and at first they may have been scandalized and slightly wary of its narrative and content but they soon grew to accept (and admire) it, knowing that this kind of televised entertainment was meaningful, valuable and, perhaps most of all, genuine.

If you’ve ever been to Comic-Con International in San Diego, you’ll know how much of a veritable feast it is for the senses. Comic-Con has always been really generous to us Buffy fans, scheduling panels and special guest appearances nearly every year since the show debuted.

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Even now, with the show having been off the air since 2003, the Buffy fan frenzy has barely subsided; Buffy-themed panels and celebrations are often the hardest to get tickets for because they’re known to sell out within minutes of going on sale to the public. This year’s Comic-Con featured The Buffy Effect: Teen Heroines Then and Now, a panel discussing the influence the television show has on popular media like films, TV, and books (especially those categorized as Young Adult fiction).

The Buffy Effect

Since the late ‘90s, strong, independent women have become the central characters on many TV shows and films, bulldozing the popular male superhero and breadwinner to smithereens. It’s been referred to as The Buffy Effect. Today we have shows like Orphan Black, Game of Thrones, Nikita, and Agent Carter where women lead the way and drive the action. We also have powerful literary heroines like Hermione Granger (the Harry Potter series), Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games) and Lisbeth Salander (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) to admire and emulate; these are women who are resilient and courageous, kicking just as much proverbial ass as Buffy did on TV. The world has never known the likes of these women before and I consider myself extremely lucky to have matured in a world in which characters like these have saturated the market and become the norm. Before Buffy, who’d have ever thought that something like this could ever happen?

So, the next time you’re sitting in front of the television with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in your lap, take a moment to think about how Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer has changed the face of modern entertainment and pop culture. Why is this show – that itself grew up from being an awkward, somewhat campy upstart to an awe-inducing, highly influential juggernaut – still in the public’s consciousness? Think about how many of your favorite TV shows and movies have been directly influenced by Whedon’s creation and how far the Buffy Summers character has advanced the depiction of women in all types of media.

The world is a very different place compared to what it once was in the latter decades of the twentieth century; we have strong, capable women staring back at us from the screen and from the pages of books daring us to stand a little taller, take the bull by the horns, and do some damage of our own. Never apologizing, never doubting ourselves and never frantically running away from the clutches of a mad serial killer ever again. Face him and pummel him into the ground, just like Buffy taught you!