Angel or Spike? That probably wasn’t the question my physics teacher wanted us to consider, but nevertheless it was what preoccupied our attention. Every week, we’d spend science class digesting the previous night’s episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, from the demons she slayed to the dramas engulfing Sunnydale. We’d debate the merits of the men and plaster pictures of them over our homework diaries; we would obsess over Oz’s whereabouts, if Faith could be redeemed or whether Buffy was entirely fair to Dawn.
Developed out of the ashes of a terrible film of the same name, Joss Whedon’s Buffy first aired 20 years ago this week. And, despite its B-movie title, high-school setting and California blonde protagonist, audiences realised it was more than the sum of its parts. “Yes, She's a Vampire Slayer. No, Her Show Isn't Kid Stuff,” noted The New York Times a few years in. Buffy Summers – along with Willow, Xander and the ever-wise Giles – was sardonic, knowing and unwilling to take any crap.
From early episodes warning of the dangers of cyber romance (with a demon) to those addressing pushy (witchy) mothers or the perils of falling in with the wrong crowd (of hyenas), Buffy was never just about good versus evil. At heart, it dealt in the struggles of adolescence; the horrors of the real world were simply, in this case, literal. Later episodes covered first love gone sour, coming out, bereavement, even rape.
It was insightful, important and radical, and, 20 years on, Buffy is the teen television heroine who has not disappointed. Back then, the Chosen One was one of many; in her ranks stood Joey and Jen, Sabrina Spellman, the Charmed sisters, Marissa and Summer, Liz from Roswell.
Fictional they might have been, but I adored them all as only a teenager could, dreaming of possessing some combination of their poise, confidence and luck with boys. But few have stood the test of time. Last year, the adult Rory Gilmore, the Holy Grail of such role models, emerged as self-involved and entitled, having squandered her potential by assuming she was better than the opportunities life presented.
She went from putting herself first – sleeping with Angel, thus jeopardising everyone else – to always putting the needs of others before her own
Other heroines were betrayed by their writers, stripped of what made them special; Jen’s noble death on Dawson’s Creek was an unjust end for a character that deserved better, while feisty Joey became a sanitised version of herself. When Gossip Girl and The OC wrapped, Blair and Summer had become shrill and boring, thinly drawn identikits focused on the men in their lives at the expense of other ambitions. If I wanted to be these heroines once, I’d run a mile from their fates now.
In contrast, Buffy started as a vapid proto-Cher Horowitz, frustrated when world-saving got in the way of cheerleading and dates, horribly ungrateful to Giles. Yet, over seven seasons, she grew up, grew as a person and shouldered her responsibilities. She dealt with heartbreak, the death of her mother, navigated a relationship founded on violence and tackled all manner of demons, both real and emotional. The finale showed her victorious, her sacrifices having saved the world, again. She went from putting herself first – sleeping with Angel, thus jeopardising everyone else – to always putting the needs of others before her own.
I never noticed it then, but Buffy was an important, quietly feminist show, with a powerhouse of a protagonist. Whedon portrayed a strong, capable woman fighting back, without reliance on a man to save her (usually saving him instead). The show never sought to suggest this was unfeminine. The slayer was female – fact.
If she was underestimated, because women always are, she used it to her advantage (and it was usually by baddies who got their comeuppance). Boyfriends threatened by her prowess got short shrift – it’s why Riley never made the distance. Buffy’s happily ever after, in the finale, was the achievement of her life’s work.
There have been other such heroines – most recently Supergirl and Jessica Jones – but in the age of Bechdel test-failing entertainment, a mainstream female-focused action story remains a rarity. Twenty years on, there’s plenty about the show that seems dated: the midriff-baring tops, that a student could spend so much time with a staff member without raising eyebrows, that they researched the Big Bads using books, not Google. Buffy herself, though, doesn’t feel dated at all.
Buffy – the episodes that slayed:
- Witch (season 1) - Cheerleaders, mean girls and some black magic, setting the tone for the show it would become
- Innocence (season 2) - The ultimate lesson in sex changing a relationship
- Consequences (season 3) - Faith crosses over to the dark side
- Once More, with Feeling (season 6) - Long before Glee, this proved that musicals could kill it on the small screen
- Chosen (season 7) - Buffy saves the world, and how