[31 August 2009]
Spanning across seven television seasons over the course of roughly six years, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was one of the key shows for the fledgling WB Network. It generated a fan following that has helped turn the series into a worldwide cultural landmark, while cementing creator Joss Whedon as one of the most acclaimed television writers in the industry. It’s worth addressing why the series has been so successful, considering how varied its audience is in gender, race, and most importantly, age.
Originally, in order to capture the teen audience for advertisers and merchandisers, the WB programmed a variety of teen-centered series like Buffy, whose appeals to youthfulness were collectively embraced by a multigenerational audience. This origin is crucial, because the wide range of merchandise produced for the series, such as novels, comics, role-playing games, collectable card games, and others offered a lot of material for fans of the show to take part in.
With this expansive set of merchandise and an increasingly popular television series, an emerging creative community arose with interest in producing its own cultural entities, seen in material like fan videos, fan fiction, erotic parodies, and other large amounts of media created by the fandom. Because of its vast merchandising in various media, and an interpretive and creative community which proliferates a myriad of content, Buffy the Vampire Slayer presently maintains an active following which will arguably maintain or grow indefinitely so long as fans continue to produce more original texts and media for consumers to enjoy in addition to the official canon materials.
Merchandising has long been an important part of marketing and generating fandom in a television series, and in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, merchandising is used to a great degree in order to harness a dedicated audience. The official canon of merchandise and texts approved by 20th Century Fox and creator Joss Whedon is known colloquially as the Buffyverse . While the Buffyverse originated with a disappointing 1992 film starring Kristy Swanson, it is the WB Network’s television series starring Sarah Michelle Gellar—which ran from March 10, 1997 until May 20, 2003—that is the main center for the universe. A spinoff series titled Angel followed successfully, airing from October 5, 1999 to May 19, 2004. While thought to be a product of narrowcasting, a post-network method of targeting demographics, Buffy’s serial format and focus on teenagers allows for an exploration of identity as unfixed, providing for multigenerational identifications and appealing to many contemporary viewers of different ages.
Consequently, the fandom for the series reaches a variety of demographics, making it easy for growth in popularity to occur. Importantly, it also makes merchandising for the show more profitable as well, because a wider demographic means a broader range of products to sell to audiences. The original series itself is reproducible and far reaching, given its successful release on DVD, a technology which invites repeated viewings by devoted fans, as well as an easy introduction for new fans to become acquainted with the Buffyverse.
Buffy has also seen releases in other mediums with large users, such as comics, video games, novels, magazines, and other texts, which is primarily why it has such a wide impact on mainstream culture. Notably, the official series’ 8th season was never even produced for television, and is instead presently being released in the form of a comic book series. Comics are a medium known for having devoted followings, due to their cult nature and serial form. Other comic releases in the Buffyverse include Dark Horse Comics’ Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the graphic novel Tales of the Slayers, and the limited series Tales of the Vampires.
Other written works include numerous novels, which have been steadily published since 1998. These novels are unlike fan fiction in the sense that they are approved by 20th Century Fox, and thus count as official publications in the series. Official guidebooks have been released to provide viewers with a textual accompaniment to the series, offering great amounts of information for devoted fans. Even a Buffy the Vampire Slayer magazine was released in the United Kingdom, running for several years and including interviews with stars from the show. There have also been five video games in the series, which is notable because it is a visually interactive medium that involves fans playing as characters from the series. There is even a Buffy massively-multiplayer online game (MMO) currently in development that will most likely garner dedicated users, as MMOs tend to be very gripping, engaging fans with the chance to communicate together and play as their favorite characters.
The most intensive mediums allow for full engagement for devoted fans of the series, including soundtracks, a card game, and role-playing games that facilitate real world experience with the text in ways that simple viewing does not. One production element that strongly informs Buffy’s youthful aesthetic is rock music, which is the typified genre of fandom. It is important, then, that Buffy has seen several releases of both soundtracks to the series and official scores that document the music of the show. The official soundtrack to the show was released in 1999, and featured mainstream rock bands like Garbage and the Sundays, as well as lesser-known groups like Rasputina and Velvet Chain. A subsequent compilation album was released in 2003, while the official score to the series was released in 2008, illustrating lasting interest in the musical aesthetic of the show.
The official trading card game allows for not only the act of collecting rare memorabilia, but also interacting with fellow fans in a game that involves multiple players. Role-playing games take fandom even further by being fully immersive and taking place in real world interactions between fans of the show. These fan practices occur at a high level of involvement and are suggestive of a devoted following that interacts with its text in ways that most cultural entities do not.
With merchandising helping to establish a devoted fandom through aforementioned studio and licensed releases across numerous mediums, it is the interpretive and creative fan community which keeps the series alive and growing with its own textual productions. It is in fan fiction, erotic parodies, and fan videos that the Buffyverse has been able to expand despite the original program ceasing in 2003. Buffy has one of the largest collections of fan fiction on the Internet, with roughly 35,560 stories on the website fanfiction.net alone, whereas the average television show from that time has only a several hundred at most. Most fan fictions expand on the original series by giving their own explanations, or writing creatively using characters of the official canon.
Sexual pairings of characters are also prevalent in the Buffyverse fan fiction. Erotic parodies created by fans or independent producers work to bring out the sexual undercurrents from the original series and channel it into a pornographic production. Two softcore pornographic films have been released based on the series, entitled Buffy the Vampire Layer (1996), and Muffy the Vampire Layer (1992). Though not a part of the official Buffyverse canon, and most likely not advertised (for obvious reasons), they do signify a cultural trend that extends even to the demographic of the pornography-viewer. An erotic fan-made web comic called The Erotic Adventures of Buffy and Evil Vampire Willow uses adult subject matter for its depiction of the Buffyverse as well, illustrating pictures of Buffy and Willow in the nude and in sexual situations. These productions suggest an extremely diverse audience, because although the show is seemingly intended for a teen audience, the broad scope of who really watches it is reflected in the nature of its production.
Fan films are crucial texts in a cultural product’s fandom, because they’re a practice that requires time, devotion, and creativity that only certain fan communities are capable of producing. Within the Buffy fandom, there have been several fan films, aside from the undeterminable amounts of short clips on YouTube, that have gained notoriety for being impressively made or otherwise interesting. Fluffy the English Vampire Slayer is a fan-made short film from England written and directed by Henry Burrows. The film was completed on Burrows’s home computer and sports impressive special effects. Australian fans Emma Paige Langley and Darren Hawkins released the 40-minute fan film Forgotten Memories in 2007. Although these fans do not get official licensing from 20th Century Fox to produce these films, Joss Whedon is known to be understanding of fan practices and allow for distribution of fan videos on YouTube and in other mediums. This comfort makes for little tension between the creator and the fandom, providing an environment that is welcoming to fan productions.
The prevalence of fan productions and the wide circulation of fan media continues to keep Buffy the Vampire Slayer growing as a cultural product even after the original television series ended, owing much to a creative community that was built through a broad and inventive network of merchandising. Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s lasting success tells us that demographic targeting is a complex process that requires both fan participation and capitalistic forms of merchandising that literally allow everything to be for sale, whether it’s trading cards, novels, video games, or anything else. The Buffyverse stands out in contemporary television by taking this one step further, generating a fan community with such a deep love for the series that they keep it thriving through their own artistic endeavors, seen in all the aforementioned fan productions that have reached thousands of their peers.
The fact that the original series puts so much emphasis on youth, while at the same time providing an encyclopedic and ongoing mythology, enables it to be consumed by one of the widest demographics imaginable. You’d be hard-pressed at this moment to form a stereotype of a Buffy fan, while the same cannot be surely said about the overly juvenile Twilight series that is currently at the peak of its capitalistic fervor, due to the strict and alienating targeting of its young female demographic. The reason Buffy triumphs over such generalizations is that Whedon created a series with such broad appeal that gender, race, and economic divisions did not prevent anyone from enjoying an intelligent, funny, and deeply engaging production. Whether this passion will continue for decades to come with new generations of Buffy fans remains to be seen, but so long as people keep investing in the series with their money and their minds, Whedon’s vampire slayer will continue slaying all the Edwards in the world, while Bella Swan remains painfully aloof.