Many non-initiates of Buffy the Vampire Slayer dismiss it as a show about teen angst or girl action. But Buffy‘s diverse fan base understands that these things are worthy of our attention, and know Buffy as a series with a little something for everyone. Over its seven seasons, the show has dealt with a range of themes (witchcraft, parent-child tension, coming out), as it has also resisted generic categorization. It’s equal parts comedy, drama, gothic tale, science fiction, and fantasy. Though its popularity (in terms of numbers) may be limited, its fans are intensely loyal and prone to discussion and debate.
Indeed, the series has been given the kind of critical attention not seen, perhaps, since the spate of Madonna studies about a dozen years ago. Buffy‘s series finale on 20 May recently occasioned National Public Radio’s recent feature on “Buffy studies,” a group of dedicated academics now in the process of putting together their second international conference (to be held in Nashville, 2004) (*
). At popular culture studies conferences, middle-aged baby boomers tout their knowledge of the series with as much seriousness as you’d find at a Shakespeare conference, or, a Star Trek convention.
Academics aren’t the only diehard Buffy watchers. Buffy, if all the gear and tie-in products are any gauge, is specifically aimed at young teenagers. (Ask college freshmen if they watch the show and many will snort derisively, asserting that only their younger siblings watch that show.) That said, some of the subject matter is pretty complex and even racy for preteens. Despite its 8pm time slot, Buffy features violence and sex, sometimes simultaneously, often venturing into “mature audiences only” territory.
At the same time, Buffy shares some elements with the “family” show, though here the focus is on a very nontraditional family. Within the Scoobies—originally Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Xander (Nicholas Brendon), Willow (Alyson Hannigan), and Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter)—Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) tended to serve as a wise but anxious father and Buffy a very assertive mother. The remaining kids in the group represented, at various time, different incarnations of children and siblings—Xander the generous but underachieving son, Willow the underconfident, overachieving academic whiz, Cordy the snooty older sister, a diva in clothes too fine for high school.
But the series has never let these roles stabilize. Sometimes Buffy has served as the patriarch, while Willow plays a maternal role. Sometimes Buffy is the child, sometimes her little sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg). They have traded positions and responsibilities repeatedly, such that viewers might come away with a broadened understanding of what constitutes “family,” or at least an appreciation of a range of alternatives to a familiar nuclear structure. Perhaps most importantly, Buffy acknowledges young people’s ability to handle difficult situations with at least as much fortitude and ingenuity as adults.
Amid all this mucking about with familial norms, Buffy notably diverged from hetero and traditionally romantic representations of sexuality. In particular, its challenges to conventional sexual morality have pleased Buffy fans. The Willow and Tara (Amber Benson) love story offered a lesbian relationship unique in television history. Queer kids loved the relationship, and found inspiration in the young witches’ example of a fully committed, healthy same-sex relationship. Seldom have two women on tv seemed so suited to one another. They kissed and hugged, weathered Willow’s magic addiction, cohabitated, and even got a pet kitten together. Sadly cut short by Tara’s death in “Seeing Red” (6-19), their relationship has continued to affect Willow’s life into the show’s final season, as she has begun a new romance with the Potential Slayer, Kennedy (Iyari Limon) (“The Killer In Me,” 7-13).
Where Willow and Tara developed a deeply intimate and romantic love, Buffy has also explored other sorts of sexual desire, specifically lust. While Buffy’s relationship with the vampire Angel (David Boreanaz) has surely turned on physicality and longing, her relationship last season with Spike (James Marsters) further complicated these terms: they had violent sex, even as Buffy worried that she didn’t even “like” Spike. This was a different kind of girl action. The fact that they are now, in the final season, moving towards real intimacy suggests that love doesn’t always proceed from romance, but can come out of desire. While Willow and Tara had a friendship that developed into something more physical, Buffy and Spike had a tangled sexual relationship that now may be growing into a more intense emotional connection.
That transition from pure pleasure to deeper attachment is a metaphor for many fans’ connection to the series. While some viewers started out watching the Buffy for its superficial aspects, such as kick-ass action scenes and snappy dialogue (Xander: “A black eye heals, Buffy, but cowardice has an unlimited shelf life,” in “Halloween,” 2-6), many now have a firmer investment in the fates of their favorite characters.
The complicated mess of good and evil that drives Buffy mirrors our own experiences. It’s obvious that Angel, Spike, the benevolent demon Clem (James C. Leary), or ex-vengeance demon Anya (Emma Caulfield) would occupy ambiguous positions. But Buffy has also committed acts she’s later regretted (deceiving her mother, deceiving Giles, slapping Dawn, tying up her friends in the basement and so leaving them to a demon). But at the last minute, Buffy always saves the day. The series presents uncertainty as a life condition, asking viewers to appreciate emotional nuance, the occasional error in judgment, and good intentions. Even now, with the end so near, we don’t know if Buffy will be victorious or will die trying. We do know that, as always, she will surprise us.