Today, March 10th, 2017, marks the 20th anniversary of the official premiere of Joss Whedon’s enduring and iconic TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Underestimated and misunderstood by many from the beginning, Whedon’s humble series featured on the fledgling WB network quickly earned a loyal viewership and critical praise with its charismatic cast, clever and witty dialogue, and uber-relatable premise of high school as Hell. Twenty years later, Buffy’s popularity remains strong through its presence on Netflix, its canon comic book continuation currently being published by Dark Horse Comics, and the various impacts the series has had on pop culture, including contributing to the increase of female-led action pieces in current genre entertainment like The Hunger Games, Jessica Jones, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and many more.
I managed to randomly catch an airing of the series premiere as a teenage geek growing up in 1997, and while I didn’t become officially obsessed until the halfway through season two, I did experience the unique joy of watching Buffy week to week as I, myself, made my way through the hellish wasteland that is known as high school. While Buffy provided teenage me many things (entertaining Tuesday nights, a passionate Whedon obsession, knowledge of Claddagh rings, a massive crush on a certain blonde slayer, etc.), Whedon’s series was always designed with morals lessons “baked in,” and as the series progressed, its creators never shied away from making their values known and wearing them on the show’s figurative sleeve. The life lessons that Buffy taught me are guiding principles I’ve carried with me most of my life, and the 20th anniversary of my favorite TV show seems like the perfect time to revisit some of these pearls of wisdom forged in the flames of the Hellmouth.
High school is Hell.
Maybe there are some out there who’d disagree, but it seems to be a universal truth that high school sucked for nearly everyone who attended. As a fairly awkward and geeky teenager, Buffy spoke to me because, despite the monsters and magic, it was the most authentic high school show I’d ever seen. No one escapes those four years unscathed, and everyone suffered in some way. And at the end, we were just as amazed as Oz was at the end of Season Three.
High school. We’d survived.
It’s okay for a girl to be your hero.
While I was already well on this track as a teen geek, given my hero worship of complex and capable female characters like Ellen Ripley and Sarah Conner, Buffy the Vampire Slayer solidified this belief in my younger years in a very real way.
I remember spending an evening playing the Buffy board game with my younger brother that really drove the point home for me. In the game, one player took up the forces of evil (vampires, demons, etc.), while the other player controlled Buffy and her friends. While I had played the game many times before, this session saw a few lucky rolls in favor of my brother, allowing his vampire to have “one good day” and kill off the Buffster. I was incredibly distraught by this occurrence, so much that I took pause to contemplate why it was affecting me so drastically. It was just a game, right? After a moment I came to realize that the difficulty was that I had just watched my hero fight with all her might and die. Buffy was my hero. Up until then, I had simply thought of her as the lead character in one of my favorite shows, but I realized that I expected her to triumph, I expected her to come to the rescue. She was Buffy. That’s what she did.
Buffy provided a cast of strong female characters who were just as powerful and capable (if not more so) as their male counterparts and demonstrated weekly (at a time when such a thing was a rarity) that there’s nothing wrong, unusual, or emasculating about being rescued by a girl.
Girls are geeky.
In my experience, during the first couple seasons of Buffy, the show (and fans like me) received little to no respect from my peers. Sure, I expected to be a target for those outside my own social circle, but I was dismayed to find that even my geeky brethren, those who stood shoulder to shoulder with me as we suffered the slings and arrows that came as a price for our obsessive Star Wars and comic obsessions, turned on me when it came to Buffy given its completely fictitious reputation as “Dawson’s Creek with vampires.” But while my geeky male friends dismissed the show and mocked me for my love of it, I quickly realized that a number of my female friends were watching the show and were more than eager to discuss it with someone else. We had in-depth discussions about where the characters were heading, how great the writing is, the thematic and metaphorical elements, and what moments moved us the most. In short, we geeked out together. And geeking out with girls about Buffy quickly lead to geeking out with them about other things like Star Wars, Monty Python, and more. I’d like to say that I was more self-aware than I was at the time, but it had never occurred to me that any member of the opposite sex would ever tolerate as big of a geek as me, let alone rival me on my geekiness. Buffy was one major stepping stone to abandoning this prejudice from my life and I’ve never looked back. Both my life and Geekdom as a whole are nothing but better as a result of the geeky girls and women who are a part of it, and I thank Buffy, in part, for teaching me that lesson.
Also, smart chicks are so hot.
I should have always known this. And, yes, like Xander, I could’ve learned it much sooner.
Almost everyone can be related to.
Cordelia Chase, the most popular girl in Sunnydale High, was a figure I was quite familiar with from my time spent in my own school’s cafeteria, hallways, and beyond. Drop-dead gorgeous, completely merciless, and able to devastate with her words, Cordelia was the quintessential leader of the “in crowd” and, therefore, absolutely the enemy of anyone in the lower levels of the student caste system (which included me and my friends, of course). While Buffy easily dispatched vampires and demons each night, it was all too relatable to witness Cordelia’s ability to asses our hero’s vulnerabilities and tear her to shreds with her razor-sharp wit and words. Hence, I was very surprised when the late first season episode titled “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” began to humanize the character of Cordelia by explaining some of the logic behind her actions and the pressure that high school social structure places on every single person present in it. Eventually, Cordelia not only became part of the Scooby Gang and a friend to Buffy, but went onto become a full-fledged hero who had learned from the mistakes of her past and achieved the ability to care about something bigger than just herself.
While most high school shows would have taken the “mean girl” archetype to the extreme, turning Cordelia into a complete caricature, but Buffy and the creative team behind it made a repeated effort to defy expectations and show that almost every person in your world could be related to in some way. Whether it was understanding the pressure and pain that’s hardened the popular girl, recognizing the angst and shame that leads the school “loser” to contemplate suicide, or simply feeling a kinship to a certain bleached blonde vampire due to his love of poetry, Outback’s Bloomin’ Onion, or the supernatural soap Passions, the Buffy TV series continuously pushed the message that almost everyone can be understood and almost everyone can be related to, especially those who seem like they have nothing in common with you.
Almost everyone possesses the potential for evil.
Audiences expected vampires and demons to lean towards the evil side, but Buffy made sure that we viewers were well aware that the penchant for evil existed inside of us all. While shocking, it came as no real surprise when event’s like the loss of Angel’s soul or the damaged past of the vampire slayer known as Faith contributed to turning these heroic characters down a dark path, but the show repeatedly demonstrated that darkness also resided in the most mundane and unexpected places. Warren, the unassuming, immature, and misogynistic robotics geek whose massive insecurities lead to attempts of both rape and murder is just one example of the all-too-familiar human villains present in the show. When Willow, potentially the show’s most cheerful and innocent character, is driven to torture and to murder her lover’s killer in one of the darkest scenes of the series, Buffy demonstrated that everyone is capable of the unthinkable under the right circumstances. And, with moments like Giles’ morally questionable murder of the human being, Ben, who contained an evil and destructive goddess from a hell dimension bent on tearing apart reality, Buffy also asked if some evil was unavoidable, had to reckoned with, and, potentially, even committed for the greater good. Evil was always a complex and nuanced subject on the show, and Buffy reminded us that to think ourselves or anyone untouchable by the dark side was to tempt fate to remind us just how easily the line can be crossed.
Almost anyone can be redeemed.
Buffy was a show that featured redemption as a theme in a big way. It was revealed that Giles was a troubled youth who stole, rebelled, and summoned demons in his teen years with fatal repercussions. Still, he managed to train not only a brave and heroic slayer, but a group of young people who fight the good fight long after he’s left the position of Watcher and train the next generation to do the same. Angel’s murderous history was so vicious that Gypsies cursed him with a human soul just so he’d feel the weight of the guilt of his despicable acts. Buffy, through love and compassion, helped Angel find not only the road to redemption, but a real purpose: his mission to help the helpless. Faith murdered several people and betrayed Buffy and her friends during the Mayor’s attempt to ascend, but through the efforts of Angel and his Los Angeles team, the vampire champion pay’s Buffy’s gift forward and helps the struggling slayer find her own way to atonement and a place in the world. Willow tortured and killed the man who killed her beloved and attempted to end the world to cease all suffering. And yet, her friends stand by her and pull her back from the brink. Willow finds a way to come to terms with her murderous actions and finds a way back to helping others and fighting the forces of evil.
Buffy taught me that almost anything can be forgiven and almost anybody can be redeemed. Don’t mistake me, that doesn’t mean that it’s easy or that everyone even deserves it. But, as Giles once wisely stated to Buffy, “To forgive is an act of compassion… It’s not done because people deserve it. It’s done because they need it.”
Family is the one you choose, not the one you’re born into.
Self-chosen families have always been a staple of Whedon’s works, and while Buffy clearly had strong familial ties to her mother and sister, the core group of Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Giles have always operated as a family and have no blood ties of any kind. This makeshift family group known as the Scooby Gang expanded as the season went on and the family definitely grew, but the message was always the same. Hank Summers might be a careless, absent father, but Giles was there for his slayer time and time again. Tara’s family may have raised her steeped in doubt and shame, but when her oppressive father attempts to use this past to force her to move home, her friends (or real family) stand by her and refuse to budge. Buffy made it clear, over and over, that the people who are your family are those who are willing to be at your side in both good and bad times, despite whether they are related to you or not.
Life isn’t a song.
And as the song states, life isn’t bliss. Life is just this.
It’s a hard lesson to learn, but the world is a dark and rough place a lot of the time. While fighting vampires and saving the world multiple times while in high school and college was no picnic, Buffy’s darkest moments came in the bleak Season 6 where the newly resurrected slayer had to seek out a reason to keep living in the mundane and depressing adult world she found herself in following the death of her mother. Killing things from Hell with sharp, pointy objects was never a problem for our hero, but mounting stacks of bills, minimum-wage jobs, and a lost sense of purpose seemed like unbeatable adversaries.
Buffy eventually made it through this struggle, but the series never held back on the concept that the real world was a tough place to handle (Hey, high school is Hell, right?), even without demons, even if you weren’t the chose one. In the words of Buffy, “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live.”
You’ve got to share your power.
Sure, fighting the good fight is a noble enough endeavor, but the Buffy series constantly reinforced the importance and value of sharing one’s power. We see this is in the guidance and knowledge that Giles passes on to Buffy and her friends. We see this in the support Buffy offers and the rehabilitation she assists with when it comes to vampires Angel and Spike seeking redemption. Buffy helps these vampires stand on their own as champions, and, in turn, they go on to help others like them gain their own footing and follow the path to redemption. Ultimately, the theme of sharing one’s power is best demonstrated in Buffy’s decision in the series finale to use the Slayer scythe to empower every potential slayer in the world with her abilities. Buffy and her friends smash the patriarchal rule established years and years ago allowing only one slayer to exist at a time and give birth to a new world that, while still imperfect, is better than the one before and is filled with a new sense of hope.
None of us will change this world for the better on our own. Working together, passing on what you have learned, and not fearing the act of sharing your power is what will help us save the world… a lot.