‘Where are all the daughters of Buffy?’ asks Naomi Alderman in the recent Radio 4 Front Row Special on cult TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. What she is really asking is this: why, after the huge, lasting success of Buffy, aren’t there more strong, complex female characters in TV and film? Good question. Where are all these awesome female characters? As Joss Whedon points out, since Buffy much of the similar (supernatural/vampire/superhero) content to flood the airwaves has gone back to the standard male characters (or two males and one female). And when the main female is going to really impact the world around her, they are often far too much like Bella Swan in Twilight (a tool – only made powerful by which boy she chooses) rather than like Buffy.
My encounter with the slayer of the undead
It is true that this show has serious staying power. What other show has such devoted fans so many years later? And constantly getting new ones? I never watched Buffy when it was on TV. It wasn’t until I was in University when a friend looked at me in horror, jaw to the floor, ‘What do you mean, you’ve never seen Buffy?!’ did I finally see it. Said friend invited me around for a Buffy marathon one Saturday. We watched the full first season and started on the second (that’s right, my friends and I have mad skills when it comes to smashing through TV series). I left her house with a care package – all seven seasons, to be carefully looked after.
I raced through the rest of the seasons (and quickly had my mother joining me on the sofa as I did). Before long, I was at the local DVD store, making an ass of myself as I tried to hold seven stacked seasons between my arms and my chin, only to have them tumble spectacularly to the floor as I reached the checkout. Stupid amounts of money later, I was the proud owner of the full run of Buffy. After I moved out of home, I bought the complete series again for my mother. Everyone needs a little Buffy in their lives.
Re-watching this series regularly seems to be necessary. When I’m ill or just bored and don’t know what I feel like doing or watching – what’s better than putting on some Buffy?
From an ugly chrysalis to a beautiful butterfly (or something equally cliché)
The series went from receiving below average ratings for much of its run to become a beloved cult show. Buffy first aired in the US on the WB network, starting in the middle of the season as a replacement for a cancelled show. Given that everyone knows of this show, it is funny to think that it had a bit of a rough time during its run. After declining ratings (and a reported ‘negotiation dispute’, whatever that means), Buffy moved from the WB to the UPN network for seasons six and seven.
Throughout its run, the critical reception of Buffy was excellent. Although it was nominated for a number of awards, it won few. ‘Hush’, from season four, was nominated for an Emmy (despite most of the episode having no dialogue), but didn’t win. The much-lauded musical episode, ‘Once More With Feeling’, was ‘accidentally’ left off the Emmy nomination voting ballots. It did win ‘most memorable moment’ for the season five finale, ‘The Gift’, however. Buffy herself, aka Sarah Michelle Gellar received several nominations for her portrayal of the titular character, including a Golden Globe, Teen Choice Award, and Nebula Award – but she failed to win. Despite the show’s failure to win many awards, it is so widely viewed as one of the greatest TV shows of all time (and appears on many such lists), it has also spawned a number of academic studies.
From writer to geek rock star: Joss Whedon
Joss Whedon had television writing in his blood. His father wrote for the classic show The Golden Girls, while his Grandfather wrote for The Donna Reed Show. His first TV writing gig was for Roseanne back in 1989. In 1992, Twentieth Century Fox produced the film Buffy the Vampire Slayer from Joss’s script. The film was a mess (but I still own it on DVD anyway – of course). The studio just didn’t get the point. But Joss saw a great opportunity in the character and universe he had imagined, and so he revived it as a TV show. Fox owned the rights, but they passed on the show, so it went to the WB instead.
When Buffy had a fairly quiet first season, I can’t imagine anyone would have predicted the superstardom it’s creator would eventually rise to. Buffy began airing in 1997. By 1999, it had spawned a spin-off, Angel, one which did significantly better in the ratings (despite being far inferior if you ask me). Also before the end of Buffy, Whedon started another project: the perfect series, Firefly. Firefly would also become a cult classic, despite being cut short before even a full season, running for only 14 episodes. Since the end of Buffy we have been privy to many Whedon projects (although not as many as we perhaps should have had): Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Dollhouse, The Cabin in the Woods, The Avengers, and Much Ado About Nothing.
I’m not sure there’s any other TV/Film writer and creator that gets fans as excited as Joss Whedon. He’s become a kind of geek god, a philosopher by which we live our lives. He’s a feminist and activist. He’s amazingly talented. And hey, he totally stands up for us weirdos. How could we not worship the ground he walks on?! Best of all, he’s admittedly a fanboy himself. He is one of us! He gets it! Which is why he did such an awesome job with The Avengers, and why he deserves all the love he gets from his fandom.
But why is Buffy so good? The techy stuff
Language and dialogue
There are a lot of reasons that Buffy is so damn good – but here I’m going to look at the purely technical aspects: the writing, mostly.
Let’s start with the simplest thing of all: the language. What is Buffy most remembered for? Well, that is arguable, I suppose, but something at the top of most people’s list is the ‘Buffy Speak’ (also known as ‘Whedonspeak’). There’s even a featurette on the language in the show on the season three DVD release. According to TV Tropes, Buffy Speak ‘can give the sense of a teenaged group’s special jargon or argot without necessarily imitating anything actually found in the real world’. In the Front Row special, Joss discusses his intention behind the language used in Buffy – he was trying not to directly ape teenager’s language, as it moved too quickly. Instead, by writing in a way that created a kind of fluid language, he could make it feel real (plausible), and possibly even have real teenagers aping the Buffy Speak.
Whedon’s dialogue is some of the best in the business. He just gets it, you know? Part of this comes from the Buffy Speak, while the rest of it is an ability to capture what people really do tend to talk about (and to do this in a world that is completely out of the normal bounds of reality). His dialogue uses references, it isn’t always ‘to the point’ (i.e. people usually don’t just talk specifically for a reason, sometimes they just say shit), and it is always indicative of the character who is saying it. It can be funny, serious, heart-warming, and terrifying. Whatever it is meant to be, or to achieve in the story, it manages to do without ever jeopardizing the suspension of disbelief in the viewer.
Monster of the week to the ‘Big Bad’
Buffy was one of the first shows to understand where the medium could go (for people who were not just casual viewers). It took a show that could have been a simple monster of the week show into one with growth and great story arcs. These story arcs took the form, generally speaking, of the ‘Big Bad’. In each season, there would be one main antagonist. There would continue to be monster of the week type episodes throughout the season, but the story would also be building to a major fight with the ‘Big Bad’ for the end of the season. This mixture of the small with the big meant that the fights could mean more and allowed for greater character growth for the main characters.
Not only did this allow for great character growth within the protagonists, it also meant that as viewers, we actually gave a damn about the villains as well. These were not your everyday super villains – no moustache twirling, motivation-less, general ‘evil for the sake of being evil’ – these baddies were characters in their own right. Many of them were even likeable. Ok, so we were always still rooting for Buffy, but we also loved the bad guys. This is particularly evident in the bad guys who came back as regular characters, such as Spike, Drusilla, and Andrew, as well as the innovative approach of making bad guys out of main protagonists. Wait, what?! Yeah, he screwed with our minds there. Angel was good then bad then good again? And Willow? I might be getting caught up in my fangirlishness here, but, like, that was totally amazeballs.
Tone is everything
We have this peppy, pretty little blonde who is a ninja badass. It was a little bit ridiculous at times, right? She had to fight vampires while keeping up with her homework and trying out for the cheerleading squad. The story was often dark, but at the end of the day, these were teenagers. Teenagers who worried about boys and being cool. The show always knew what it was and was never afraid to mix the silly with the dark. Thank god it did. One of my favourite examples of this is from the season three episode ‘Helpless’:
Angel: ‘Cause I could see your heart. You held it before you for everyone to see. And I worried that it would be bruised or torn. And more than anything in my life I wanted to keep it safe… to warm it with my own.
Buffy: That’s beautiful. Or taken literally, incredibly gross.
Angel: I was just thinking that, too.
The show had the potential to be very dark, with little relief. But what fun would that be? I mean, isn’t that what Twilight is – seriously, why doesn’t anyone in that story have a sense of goddamn humour?! M*A*S*H understood this – amongst even the darkest of times, humans have to find humour. Without humour, we don’t really have anything.
The perfect ending: ‘Yeah, Buffy? What are we gonna do now?’
Most shows outstay their welcome. By the time they end, no one cares anymore. But that wasn’t Joss’s style. Buffy ended brilliantly. It had a proper conclusion. The fans got some closure. There was a reason it ended there and it rocked. And what an ending! Sunnydale is completely destroyed, there couldn’t possibly be any more Buffy – at least not in the guise we were used to seeing it. Not only that, Buffy shared her powers with women all over the world. So what began as a single badass petite blonde, turned into a world full of empowered women. If that doesn’t send an awesome feminist message, what does?
The world has continued on in the form of comics – some of which have gone a little bit crazy, but it is always fun to continue learning about characters we all know and love. But I am glad that the show ended when it did. Too often, shows simply fizzle out. But Buffy ended with just the right amount of bang.
So where are all the other Buffy’s?
Naomi Alderman is right to ask where the other awesome shows with badass female protagonists are. There is a distinct lack of them. But why? The fact that Buffy has never disappeared from the modern zeitgeist is evidence enough that there is a big audience for this kind of story, and yet we keep being told ‘oh, the fans of SFF are generally male, and they don’t want to see stories about women.’ Ah, what? Most of the men I know who like SFF love seeing hot women kick ass. Duh! And I’m sorry, but I’m a woman, with a lot of female friends, who all love this stuff – and want to see more of it. So here I am, along with a huge Whedon fandom out there, asking the TV gods to make more shows like Buffy. Please?!