Defending Buffy to the UninitiatedFebruary 22, 2009
The Chosen One is a girl. Wrap your brain around that one. The Chosen One has always been a girl, and always will be a girl. And not just any girl: A silver-tongued, adorable blonde girl in a mini dress and mall-rat makeup, with a D average and the irreversible brand of “Troublemaker.” She saves the world a lot. You got a problem with that?
Since Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer came crashing into mainstream television, there have been two kinds of people: Those who will defend this television show to the death, and those who just don’t get it and wouldn’t be caught dead watching it. I am one of the former, but in a peaceful, Ghandi sort of way. It’s ok if you don’t love Buffy like I love Buffy. I’m not here to beat you over the head for your woeful ignorance. Rather, my goal in the next few paragraphs is to lead you gently by the hand. I want to refute a few of the arguments for not watching Buffy, and introduce you to a few of the reasons why you should. This is my brief defense of Buffy to the uninitiated.
When Buffy creator Joss Whedon set about crafting the show, he had a very simple theme in mind: High school is a horror movie. Anyone who has managed to survive high school can recognize the truth of this metaphor. The teenage world is a scary place, and many seemingly meaningless actions can have dire consequences. The metaphor becomes starkly real and terrifying with each of Buffy’s “monsters of the week”: Have sex with your boyfriend and you might wake up to find he’s a completely different person-a sadistic vampire who tries to brutally murder everyone you love. Take steroids in order to win the state swimming championship, and end up shedding your skin to become a slimy Swamp Thing. Meet a boy online who sounds really nice, and he turns out to be a demonic robot intent on making you his demonic robot bride. Ignore the shy girl enough and she literally becomes invisible… only to hunt down her tormentors with murderous intent.
The monsters of the first few seasons of Buffy had definite moral-of-the-story overtones. But the overall theme of Buffy goes beyond the metaphor I’ve described above. Buffy conforms to the heroic journey motif of scholar Joseph Campbell, putting her and the “Scoobie gang” on a level with Odysseus and his crew, and Frodo and the fellowship of the ring. Yes, our heroine is a teenage girl from Southern California, complete with test-taking anxiety and problems with authority, but she is also a leader, a warrior, and a hero. The show constantly questions which is more important to the Buffy: her identity as a normal girl, or her calling as the Slayer. At its core the horrific monsters of Buffy are a metaphor for real life, and Buffy herself is a character to be admired. Her heroism is something viewers can aspire to. Maybe our heroic feats don’t entail blowing up the evil mayor when he transforms into a giant snake, or dying so that the rest of the world can live (Jesus, anyone?). But perhaps we can use that inner “Slayer strength” in life’s smaller battles. Next time you see a high school student defending a classmate against a bully, think of Buffy. She’s a hero who fights monsters. We can be the same.
But She’s a Girl
When I suggested to my boyfriend (a born-again fan of Joss Whedon’s Firefly and Serenity) that he might enjoy watching Buffy, he immediately rejected the idea. I pointed out that the writing of the show was just as original, amusing, intellectually stimulating, and exciting as the Space Western Firefly, but his response was basically, “But she’s a girl.”
So I’ve decided not to read Lord of the Rings because almost all of the characters are male. I’ve decided to take a pass on The X-Files because Mulder is more central to the plot than Scully. I don’t think I’ll watch Battlestar Galactica because Admiral Adama and Apollo are men. I won’t watch Fight Club because Edward Norton and Brad Pitt have balls. I think I’ll skip The Watchmen because the title is Watchmen, and not Watchwomen. The same goes for X-Men. And I’m opposed to 90% of first-person-shooter video games ever made because the protagonists are male.
Now that I’ve boycotted every form of entertainment featuring a male protagonist, I’m incredibly bored. Most art and literature, particularly action television shows, feature men in the lead roles. For a woman to close her mind to a television show because the protagonist is of the opposite gender (and therefore couldn’t possibly relate to the viewer in any way!) would be ridiculous and irrational, not only because she’d be missing out on many quality shows, but because she’d be seen as a narrow-minded femi-nazi. Why then, is it acceptable for a male viewer to discount Buffy because he doesn’t believe a female protagonist and action hero will have anything to offer him? It’s just silly.
Buffy isn’t simply a girl. She’s a hero, in the traditional sense of the word. She proves herself again and again to be intelligent and resourceful, using her wits and her creativity to defeat the monsters that threaten the innocent people of Sunnydale (most of whom don’t even like or respect her). She’s strong, both physically and emotionally. Most people would crumple under the weight of the world on their shoulders, but Buffy manages to soldier on after heartbreak and disappointment. Her physical strength allows her to protect even the men in her life: boyfriend(s), best friend, and father figure.
Perhaps this strength is intimidating to a male viewer. After all, the men in the cast willingly accept Buffy as their general, and they are grateful for her “generous life-saving.” Buffy’s strength shouldn’t be interpreted as emasculating. It is empowering and encouraging to men who value the strong women in their lives, and who are tired of the damsel in distress wringing her hands in the corner instead of helping her man defeat the villain. The women of Buffy the Vampire Slayer don’t just help their men, they help themselves. After decades of two-dimensional, weak heroines subordinate to their male counterparts, I should think a male viewer would find Buffy refreshing. Finally, we have a female protagonist who is worthy of a male audience’s attention and intellectual investment.
It’s Just a TV Show
Television, particularly science fiction and fantasy programs, have fought an uphill battle for recognition as art. When was the last time you saw an actor in a sci fi or fantasy series win an Emmy? When was the last time you heard anyone refer to a television series as “art”? When Buffy was broadcast, the stigma against “non-realistic” shows was just starting to lift, and I believe that it is one of the reasons sci fi and fantasy shows have gained respectability and popularity (Battlestar Galactica, Heroes, and Lost to name a few). There are those who consider TV an inferior form of entertainment-especially “unrealistic” shows.
Television is an incredibly dynamic storytelling medium. A book can describe to you actions and emotions, and you as the reader are left to visualize and imagine the world of the book all on your own. Movies take storytelling a step further, by providing actors to visualize the emotions and dialog for you, background music to set the mood of the scene, elaborate sets to build the world of the story, special effects to bring your imaginings to life. But television shows do something neither books or movies can: they progress. Once you reach the end of a novel or a feature film, it is done. The entire story-character growth, passage of time, beginning and ending-is encapsulated in a relatively short medium. But television, especially shows like Buffy, can give the viewer seven years of continuous storyline, allowing the characters and plot to evolve continuously and refer back to years of previous content, in a way no film and few books can. In Buffy we watch the Scoobie gang grow and change over a period of seven years. There is no montage in the middle, where we skip over five years of important events in order to pass over a character’s dark, transitional period. No, instead we get season four and Buffy’s tumultuous freshman year of college. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a long and complex story, continuously layered and self-referential.
As Buffy scholar Rhonda Wilcox once said, just because a show contains unreal elements does not mean the show is unrealistic. With a host of vampires, demons, witches, werewolves, and un-nameable gods of evil, Buffy definitely has its share of unreal elements. Magic exists in this story, but so does real human emotion and interaction. While some might dismiss the drama of Buffy because of the supernatural antagonists (and the supernatural advantages of its heroine), the truth is that many of the conflicts of Buffy are more realistic than your standard “realistic” show, applauded for its depictions of real life. If all television is meant to reflect the real world, then I would rather use Buffy the Vampire Slayer for my mirror than an endless lineup of marginally differentiated cop shows. It makes me laugh, it makes me cry, and-yes, I’ll say it-it might even have changed my life.
Don’t just take my word for it-ask somebody you know who loves Buffy! This essay is just to get you to consider watching the show. Buffy does not need defending from me. There are many, many scholarly articles and books written about Joss Whedon’s seven-season-long work of art, and if the seal of approval from respected academics, critics, and authors isn’t enough to give this show some clout, I don’t know what is. If you’d like to read more about Buffy, I recommend Rhonda Wilcox’s Why Buffy Matters, and The Watcher’s Guides by Nancy Holder and company.