Reflecting on the Legacy of Buffy, 20 Years Later

Reflecting on the Legacy of Buffy, 20 Years Later

Joss Whedon's cult masterpiece may be long gone from television, but its influences are impossible to bury.

Joss Whedon's cult masterpiece may be long gone from television, but its influences are impossible to bury.

Text: William Defebaugh

Twenty years ago today, a television show with an otherworldly premise and an absurd name (based on an equally absurd film) aired for the first time, and changed the landscape of TV as we know it. That show was called Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Over the course of its seven seasons, from 1997—2003, Buffy not only blazed a trail for teenage dramas to follow on the CW (then the WB), it did so by tackling issues that matter, and changing how teenagers think about these “big” ideas. Series creator Joss Whedon influenced a generation (myself included), simultaneously rewriting the book when it came to storytelling on the small screen. Here’s how.

It changed what a feminist looks like

Whedon took every trope typically reserved for male action heroes—carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, charged with protecting the ones they love, needing to be strong enough to conquer the greatest evils—and gave them to a girl. Not just any girl, though: a pint-sized, former cheerleader with a valley girl vocabulary named Buffy Summers.

Sarah Michelle Gellar brought the character of Buffy to life, inventing a new picture of what a superhero can look like. She kicked ass, put others’ needs above her own, and still cared about fashion (dated nineties fashion, but still). What’s more is that, even in her selflessness, Buffy’s pain (and resilience) was always at the forefront of the show. While it may feel commonplace now, seeing a female character rescue her male counterparts (and in many instances, love interests) was a revolution.

With the character of Buffy, Whedon (and Gellar) told its female viewers that they could be “girly” and still be superheroes, that their struggles deserve to take center stage, and that they have the strength to overcome them. In the show’s final season, Buffy literally rewrites the rules of her universe and shares her gifts with young women around the world, a near-perfect parallel with what the series accomplished.

It used monsters as metaphors in a relatable way

In season 2, Buffy loses her virginity to Angel—a broody, chiseled vampire with a soul, and her primary love interest for the first half of the series. Unbeknownst to Buffy, Angel had a curse placed on him that would steal his soul after experiencing a moment of true happiness (in this case, an orgasm with his one true love—go figure). The events that follow are nothing short of heartbreaking; a vulnerable Buffy wakes up to find that Angel has disappeared, and faces cruelty and rejection at his hands before she eventually uncovers the truth of what happened: that he’d become a demon. For anyone who has ever slept with someone and had that person turn out to not be who they thought they were, this should feel immediately relatable (if only we could all blame our misguided trysts on curses!).

This module of using monsters as metaphors for everyday problems became a winning formula for the show: senior prom became a murderous game; authority figures turned out to be demons; magic was fun, but also addictive. It was an effective way of tackling serious issues (turning them into so-called “big bads”) and making audiences feel that they weren’t alone in dealing with them. The show didn’t break this formula often, but when it did, it was for a reason; the episode in which Buffy’s mom died (season 5’s “The Body”), there were no supernatural elements at play. It was a sobering look at death, and how even the strongest among us cannot escape its reach.

It brought sexual orientation to the forefront

In season 4, when the gang went to college, Willow (Alyson Hannigan) found a new love interest: a girl. Her coming out story was beautifully tied into her discovery of her own personal power, and handled with delicacy and care. More importantly, Willow’s coming out arch didn’t reflect the (few) other queer storylines on TV; her parents didn’t reject her, she didn’t hate herself, and she wasn’t bullied. She met a girl, overcame her fears about trying something new, and was rewarded for it with a loving partnership that was supported by her friends. It was a much-needed positive example for LGBT audiences, who were previously starved for representation on mainstream TV.

It blended genres seamlessly

There once was a time when film and television were divided into clear-cut boundaries: horror, romance, action, drama, comedy. Buffy was an early example of a show that threw those distinctions out the window. With fight scenes, excess of teen drama, witty dialogue and pop culture references, Whedon’s universe was a holistic one, capable of making audiences laugh and cry in the same episode. By doing this, the show was able to not only entertain, but also reach a wider audience.

It invented a new narrative structure

With Buffy, Whedon created a new structure for storytelling. Each season had a clear theme, villain, and (usually) an apocalypse. While the larger storyline would be touched on throughout the season, each episode had its own individual narrative and villain as well. A perfect example of this was season 3. The season was leading up to graduation day, which was both a very real (and very scary) coming of age moment as well as another potential apocalypse at the hands of the season’s villain, whose plans the gang attempted to thwart all season long. This structure of stories within a larger story would be adapted by countless other series to follow.

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