What Buffy means to me; as a gay man, as an author, as a human.
*Contains some spoilers for Buffy the vampire slayer, Twilight, The Vampire Diaries.
Trying to entice others into watching Buffy in a post-Twilight world is no easy feat. After all, the vampires of the late 00’s/early 10’s are moulded for a very specific audience (tweens) and have as much depth to them as their cardboard cut-outs that you can undoubtedly purchase at Hot Topic.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve watched the entirety of The Vampire Diaries, I still watch The Originals and I’ve seen all the Twilight movies. I’m riding that paranormal hype train all the way into my 30s and I don’t plan on getting off anytime soon. However, when I watch these shows I go into them knowing that they’re nothing more than melodramatic fantasies designed to appeal to a crowd that crave the traits that most modern-day vampires possess: Immortality, power, freedom. They’re designed for 15-year-old Becky that CBA with her math homework and desperately wants a boyfriend that only has eyes for her. They’re for 16-year-old Sarah who (despite being popular) feels utterly alone in the world and wants that one person she can “be herself” with. They do to teens what explicit, billionaire romance novels do to middle aged house wives/husbands that feel as if their life is slipping by them.
There’s nothing wrong with that. We all need an escape. We all deserve one. However, these shows are nothing more than fantasies, whereas Buffy is all about reality.
You see, what sets Buffy apart from the rest of vampire media is that it’s a show with purpose. With meaning. With depth. It isn’t about a bored, high school girl who feels a little awkward and needs an escape. Its sole purpose isn’t about Buffy finding a boyfriend. In fact, the show is all about the call to adulthood (being the slayer) and the sacrifices that becoming an adult (slayer) entails. It’s a show that subverts expectations (a blonde, former cheerleader kicking ass), that challenges the patriarchy (the watcher’s council), that deals with depression (season 6), addiction (black magic), the consequences of losing yourself in a relationship (season 2) and having the ability to make a choice.
This show is all about choice and consequence.
So, let’s break this down.
What is Buffy?
Buffy the vampire slayer (created by Joss Whedon) ran from 1997 – 2003. The show focuses on Buffy Summers, a 16-year-old girl who happens to be the latest in a long line of slayers; superpowered women (of which there is only one in all the world) that fend off the forces of evil. When one slayer dies, the next is chosen and it’s been that way for around one thousand years. As with those before her, Buffy is sent a watcher (Giles) to aid/train her. However, unlike those before her, Buffy has a group of friends (Willow, Xander, and more as the show goes on) who help her in her fight against evil.
But it’s still vampires, how is it different to Twilight/TVD/Etc?
Twilight is about an “out of place” teenage girl who follows her hormones into the arms of a man who could kill her. She submits herself to him entirely, giving up any semblance of a normal life in the hopes that the pair might one day have sex, doesn’t care that he stalks her, that he “watches her sleep for months” or admits to wanting to feed on her.
Sure enough, there’s the underlying message of an all-consuming love that most teenagers dream of. However, there’s also the message of Edward breaking into her home, coming onto her, then pulling away and making Bella feel bad because she was fully prepared to go there. In fact, Bella willing to die for the D is a prominent theme throughout the movies/books, as is her co-dependency and willingness to lose herself entirely (and even kill herself) for the sake of a man whose very presence puts her life (and her father’s) at risk.
If Twilight says anything, it’s that women should submit themselves to men entirely and feel bad for contemplating sex before marriage. How romantic.
On the flip side, Buffy season 2 tackles Buffy coming into her sexuality and giving herself over entirely to a man that she’s willing to shrug off her responsibilities and future for. How does the show handle it? It turns the man evil and forces Buffy to stab him through the heart. Sure enough, this sends her into a spiral as any first-love breakup would, but the important thing is that she learns, grows, and never makes the mistake of putting a man before herself (and her duties) again for the rest of the series.
Choice – consequence – growth.
The Vampire Diaries differs in that it handles multiple characters/plots. However, while Elena does prove to be more competent than Bella, she still gets with a man that murdered her ex’s sister for fun (and countless others) and kills her brother at one point (and the show provides no McGuffin to explain these actions away/ take accountability away from the characters when they do something horrific other than Vampires being “emotional heightened” within the shows mythology) Not to mention that the show itself has very little regard for its body count, and none of the characters seem to care too much that their supernatural temper tantrums result in dozens of innocent bystanders dying throughout the show’s run. (Whenever someone breaks up with someone else, they handle that by killing a restaurant’s worth of people and are usually forgiven within the next 4-5 episodes).
If TVD says anything, it’s that your own passions/desires transcend that of those around you. That only you matter: your love, your “plot” and your pain. It’s a show driven by selfishness and moral ambiguity. And, to be fair to the show for what it is, our teenage years can closely resemble these themes. However, at no point does the show do anything substantial to push its characters (or audience) into adulthood.
On the flip side, one of the main themes throughout Buffy is her call to being the slayer (growing up) and Buffy constantly having to make sacrifices so that others may thrive. She kills her first love to save the world. She works a crappy job to provide for her sister. She drops out of college to take care of her mother. She dies (twice) so that others may live.
Neither TVD nor Twilight are about responsibility. About growing up. About saving the world or caring for others. They’re about escapism, the lack of responsibility, selfish love and fending off adulthood for as long as possible. They idealize immortality, youth and passion in a “watch the world burn” way, with little regard for anyone other than the main cast.
This is everything Buffy (as a show, as a concept, as a character) fights against.
What it means to me as a gay man
Not only was Buffy one of the first TV shows to feature a prominent LGBT couple (and arguably the first to feature a relatable/realistic depiction of LGBT characters) but a major theme throughout Buffy is the struggle against masculinity – something that, as a gay man, I relate to.
Buffy isn’t a Sarah Connor or Ellen Ripley. She’s a young woman that very much still wants to go to prom, still wants to wear nice dresses, still applies her makeup and wants to melt in the arms of her boyfriend after a hard day.
She isn’t ashamed of her femininity, and at no point throughout the show’s 7 seasons does she succumb to masculine traits that other female characters (and most male leads) are written with to show that they’re “strong.” Nor does she become a mockery of femininity by tackling monsters in ludicrous high heels and impractical attire. She’s your average teenage girl with a handbag full of stakes and footwear appropriate for a battle.
Not to mention we get a young James Marsters and David Boreanaz without their shirts on in a LOT of scenes. Amen.
What it means to me as an author
Leaving behind the various metaphors and underlying themes of Buffy – the show is just brilliantly constructed when it comes to its plot and character development.
For plot -
Each season has a singular threat (a “big bad) that correlates with Buffy. In Season 2, we get Spike and Drusilla representing sexual maturity and an all-consuming love (selfish love) to mirror Buffy’s sexual awakening. In Season 3 we get the mayor (authority) to mirror Buffy’s graduating year. And, whereas a T.V. show like TVD or The Originals breeze through their plots, having character’s motivations change episode by episode, Buffy sets up a clear, consistent, cohesive narrative that we follow from start to finish without us ever wondering how we got to where we are.
For character development -
We watch Willow turn to dark magic from as early as Season 3 to solve her issues. So, when she gives herself over to it by the end of Season 6, this doesn’t feel like an unearned moment forced upon us to serve a plot. And from a “paranormal writer’s” perspective, her coming into her powers is a slow build over the course of years, unlike the irregularity of TVD’s witches who are as powerful/weak as that episode requires them to be.
On a smaller scale, in a “monster of the week” episode in S3, Buffy obtains telepathic powers which allows her to read the minds of all her fellow students. In this episode, she learns that even the most popular people in her school have their own issues/worries, and it’s a lesson she carries with her for the rest of the show. It’s never forgotten, despite the episode not meaning much in the grand scheme of things.
Both of these (plot and character development) are handled with a consistency that is rare in a 23 episode-per-season show. Sure enough, there are some “bad” episodes (and by bad, I mean cheesy) but the important thing is that no lesson is ever forgotten by the characters – they continue to develop, learn and grow as all good characters should, without ever doing something that feels unwarranted. Without ever doing something for the sake of the plot.
As a writer, you can learn a lot from watching this show.
What it means to me as a human
On a personal level, Buffy means the world to me. It reminds me of a time when I’d sneak downstairs after being put to bed to watch the show with my Dad – it’s the first memory I have of us bonding, and our mutual love of the show is still something that adds twenty minutes to every conversation we have. For that alone, I could love this show enough to do an entire article on it, but it’s given me so much more –
Buffy is a show about being mortal. It’s a show about growing up, about accepting change and responsibilities. It’s a showcase of female strength, of friendship, of building a family for yourself. It’s about remembering who you are, despite who your other half is. It’s about considering other’s feelings, regardless of how passionate you are.
Unlike Twilight, Buffy teaches you that no man is worth your life. Unlike TVD, Buffy teaches you that your pain doesn’t justify inflicting it on others. And if I could sum up the show in a single word, I’d pull from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows –
n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
P.S. As always, I’m supposed to leave a recommendation at the end of this article, but instead of pulling a random MM book from my facebook feed, I’m going to implore all of you who have not yet watched this show to give it a chance. I promise you, if you give it a little time (and can look beyond the late-90s aesthetic) you’ll gain something from it.
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