Laura Berger remembers the first time she watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer: it was love at first bite.
She was 11, and from her living room in smalltown Chippawa, Ontario, she says she “felt my small world open up. I actually can’t overstate how formative it was for me, and just how much the show affected my life’s trajectory.”
Now 28, Berger is the senior editor of Women and Hollywood, a blog that educates, advocates and agitates for gender equality in La La land and beyond. While she admits most of the show initially went over her head, she believes seeing a strong female character kick ass influenced the person she would eventually become.
Buffy seems to have that effect on its viewers. Berger is one of a handful of superfans and scholars that FLARE reached out to on the eve of the show’s 20th anniversary. We wanted to find out what about the show has captivated people enough to dedicate a good portion of their lives to watching and studying it—and whether it has staying power after all these years.
Buffy flipped the script and turned a teen girl into a hero
Buffy debuted on March 10, 1997, with then 20-year-old Sarah Michelle Gellar cast in the role of “the chosen one,” a 16 year old with supernatural strength (and a preference for puns) tasked with the enormous responsibility of keeping Sunnydale safe from vampires, demons and a whole manner of other “Big Bads.”
The genre show quickly gained a cult following and surprised viewers with its subtle yet strong message of female empowerment, its emphasis on friends as loyal as family and its thoughtful portrayal of a couple in a same-sex relationship. Buffy taught without lecturing. It showed teen struggles without belittling them. And it wasn’t afraid to be funny, honest and just really nerdy. While the fashion—normcore denim and chain belts! bucket hats! Juicy zip-ups!—definitely seems dated now, the actual show holds up remarkably well.
Berger loves Buffy because it offers something different from other mainstream ’90s TV. It’s the first series she saw that treated a teen girl and her teen problems seriously. And it stuck with her. In elementary school, Berger sang a song from Buffy’s musical episode, “Once More, with Feeling,” during an audition for a school play and landed the lead. By grade 8, she was reading the Buffy message board The Bronze (hosted by the WB Network) and chatting with fellow viewers daily. Later, while studying pop culture at Brock University, Berger wrote a major paper on Buffy’s watcher Giles and his role in her feminist coming-of-age. She’s since had her academic work published in Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion, too.
“So much of what was great about Buffy, both the character and the show, wasn’t just the ass-kicking,” says Berger, “The series really encourages you to ask all sorts of questions about misogyny, identity, family and free will.”
That may be why, 20 years on, Buffy is still informally considered one of the most well-studied shows of all time. Slate tallied the number of academic papers written on series like The Wire, Breaking Bad, Twin Peaks, The Simpsons and Buffy—and Buffy overwhelmingly came out on top.
Like Berger, Andrea Westaway started watching the show in her teens. She was in grade 8 in Prince George, BC, and immediately felt hooked because “it was one of the very first times I saw characters who were funny, brave and strong.” Now 33, Westaway teamed up with her friend Amanda Hennessey to create Tiny Fences: A Buffy Podcast. (The podcast’s name is a reference to a quote from Buffy’s pilot, when Buffy’s friend Xander finds a wooden stake in her backpack and wonders if she’s planning to build a “little fence” with it.)
“For many of us, high school was hell. For Buffy, it was literal hell,” says Westaway. The show didn’t have quite the same life-changing influence on Westaway as it did for Berger, but Westaway did appreciate its well-rounded characters from the start. “When I think of strong women characters in pop culture, Buffy is the first one who springs to mind. She’s not a warrior princess. She just a regular girl with regular problems, who just happens to have this calling. And throughout the series, time and again, she proves she’s an amazing fighter, who’s amazing to watch.”
Every Tuesday since the podcast’s launch in 2015, both friends have reviewed episodes for an audience that still loves to watch and analyze Buffy. Tiny Fences is one of the few Buffy-related podcasts helmed by women (a surprisingly large number are hosted by men). It’s gone from 90 downloads an episode to 2,000, with its listenership spiking by 54 percent earlier this year. This May, in a very meta edition of the podcast, Westaway and Hennessey will host a musical recap—with original compositions by musician Hennessey—of “Once More, with Feeling.”
But is Buffy still relevant today?
Purely by chance, Michael Zryd first saw Buffy in the late ’90s while he was finishing his graduate degree in New York City. Now the associate professor of cinema and media studies at York University’s Department of Cinema & Media Arts, he said he was looking for some relief from his academic work. He decided Buffy would be the perfect fix after hearing some early reviews and thinking it sounded intriguing. “Lo and behold, it ended up being smarter than a lot of books I’d been reading,” he says.
In the years since, Zryd has taught college courses on Buffy and its spin-off, Angel. He’s also written academic papers about the show, focusing on the way villainy is represented in the show.
“The cultural and political journeys of the characters on the show are just as relevant today,” says Zryd. He draws inspiration from Toronto city councillor Gord Perks, who he says watches the entire series of Buffy each year as part of his political education. “Gord says it helps him be a better politician and informs how he interacts with the world because of the show’s themes of defending the weak, making tough choices and sacrifice. I can’t blame him either, I feel the same way.”
“The show was about one person with super powers, but she worked together with her Scooby gang to succeed,” says Zryd. “Any time when Buffy became super isolated, which happens at many different points in the show, it always proved a recipe for disaster. And in our current political climate today, I think we’re really seeing how when a group of individuals come together, they can bring about change,” he says.
Berger agrees with that sentiment and thinks the show’s 20th anniversary couldn’t be timelier. “It’s a great time to watch an explicitly feminist show about a young woman facing overwhelming odds who owns her power and confronts the patriarchy daily,” she says.
Westaway homes in a single episode to illustrate Buffy’s immorality. “I think about it like this: If you took Buffy away from the show—which actually happens in the episode, “Wish” where Cordelia wishes Buffy away—you see that the whole world has gone to hell,” says Westaway. “And the same can be said about women today. I think many people still underestimate how important women are to society. But without us, I think the society would go to hell.”
Buffy is really smart, quirky TV
“We’re very much in a golden age for shows right now,” says Scott McLaren, a faculty member and librarian in the humanities and history department at York University. McLaren is also a Buffy buff and has explored the role of the soul in the show in the online academic journal Slayage. He admits there is an overwhelming amount of good TV out there to watch today, but still thinks people should make time for Buffy. “I’d say a lot of the characters we see in shows today echo much of what Buffy was doing first. While the show didn’t drive the changes that were happening in society at the time it aired, it was very much in tune with them—and it was quite groundbreaking at time,” he says.
About once a term, McLaren refers to Buffy in his lectures and is usually surprised by the number of 18-year-old students who have seen the show.
When asked what made a show about a teenager slaying vampires work so well, Berger, Westaway, Zryd and McLaren all agreed that creator Joss Whedon made real characters with real flaws and gave them space to make mistakes and grow. Buffy starts out as a reluctant hero before she learns true selflessness, Willow grapples with addiction to magic before she realizes its devastating effect on her loved ones, Xander graduates from crude locker-room humour before maturing into a caring man and Giles, wise as he may be, shows viewers that even adults themselves aren’t perfect. Vampires like Angel and Spike make us question what really makes a bad guy bad as both wrestle with morality. And they all manage to coexist in a space that doesn’t seem like a preachy after-school special. Whedon has painstakingly done his homework, and his love for good TV is obvious.
But Buffy isn’t perfect
For all the praise it garners, Berger points out one critical flaw with Buffy: by her count, only six of its 144 episodes are directed by women.
“I was horrified when I discovered how few women helmed Buffy episodes. It’s really disappointing to see a show that’s so radical come up short when it comes to employing women in this pivotal role. That said, Buffy did employ a fair number of women writers, and a high percentage in the later seasons in particular,” she says.
Berger also notes that the show is blindingly white. “While three of the four slayers depicted in the show are portrayed by women of colour—Kendra, and the two slayers Spike kills—only Kendra features prominently, and just for one season,” she says. “All of the core characters are white.”
In reviewing the show’s more problematic elements, Zryd and McLaren point to one of the most difficult scenes in the series, the attempted rape between Spike and Buffy, as well as the fact that characters are sometimes shamed for sleeping around.
Not every show can be everything for everyone, but as Berger argues, Buffy does do a good job of course-correcting itself along the way. Ultimately, it has something to offer for all ages. “Buffy speaks to my 63-year-old mother, my 11-year-old nephew and my five-year-old niece,” she says. “I loved it at 11, and I love it at 28.”