There will be many people destined never to discover the unique charms of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, purely because of the daftness of the name.
I, too, was once guilty of such rash discrimination. I used to work in a bookshop and when young guys would come in and buy the Buffy books I’d snigger, thinking it was trashy, corny nonsense. Then a long time later I got around to actually seeing an episode of the TV series and I quickly realised that it was, in fact, smart, hilarious and emotionally gripping stuff. The show set the bar with its depiction of a female hero, and even 20 years on, it is still some of the best writing on TV. (Though you might want to squint through the special effects.)
For those unfamiliar with the show, Buffy is a supernatural drama created by the unfailingly brilliant Joss Whedon (Avengers). The titular character, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, is a small blonde peppy teenager who also happens to be the Slayer – a young woman chosen to protect the world from vampires and demons.
Much loved for its unique humour, pop culture references, and the astute emotional story running under every plot, the real gift of the series is in how Whedon balances Buffy’s superhero abilities as a Slayer with the challenges of her life as a teenager.
One the one hand, Buffy’s physical abilities are surely every right-thinking woman’s fantasy. I often find myself angry that I don’t feel safe walking alone, and I would dearly love to be able, not only to sufficiently defend myself, but to make potential attackers flee me, shrieking in terror. (I know, I should take kick-boxing lessons. It’s on my To Do list). That Buffy looks so vulnerable but is possessed of such power just adds to the satisfaction I feel when watching her turn a would-be-attacker into so much dust (or, occasionally, slime)..
On the other hand as well as being a Slayer Buffy is a young woman only just learning about life. She starts the series as a sixteen year old and by the final seventh season she’s twenty two. During that time the emotional demons she faces – in her friendships, her family, her relationships and her livelihood – prove to be just as important and just as compelling as any gnarly monster-of-the-week or latest season-dominating Big Bad.
Whedon is particularly adept at depicting the high drama of heartbreak. Buffy’s boyfriend, Angel, is a Vampire with a soul who ***SPOILER ALERT*** loses it the first time they have sex – as good a metaphor for getting your heart broken as any I’ve ever seen. And don’t even get me started on Willow and Tara. *SOB!* (Willow will get her own Favourite Female Hero blog post in due course).
Sure, the Slayer might be able to stake a horde of Vamps, come back from the dead and impale her re-souled ex on a gigantic sword in order to plug up a portal to hell, but, in the other areas of her life, she’s just as clueless as the rest of us.
In Season 4, Buffy goes off to Sunnydale University. Here, she has to grapple with unwelcome change in everything, except, alas, her relationship prospects. Buffy falls for a blue-eyed, pseudo-deep romeo called Parker, who rapidly cools his affections after one night together. She’s shell-shocked. She thought they had a connection. Maybe he’s just scared of intimacy? Did she do something wrong?
Even when Buffy understands that she’s been romantically conned by the one thing worse than a cursed vampire – a charming narcissist – she can’t let go: “He’s manipulative and shallow” she laments to best friend Willow. “Why doesn’t he want me?”
This is what I love most about Buffy the character and Buffy the series. Sure, the Slayer might be able to stake a horde of Vamps, come back from the dead and impale her re-souled ex on a gigantic sword in order to plug up a portal to hell, but, in the other areas of her life, she’s just as clueless as the rest of us.
As the seasons progress, we’ll watch Buffy and her friends go through much, much worse. At no point will the demons stop coming, and at no point will this tough life stuff stop hurting, either. But, still, she’ll never give up.
This is the sort of female hero I want to see – a young woman who gets knocked around by life, and who makes mistakes, but who, with tenacity and the love of her trusted friends, will learn from what she experiences and come back stronger.
And if she can kick some evil ass and save the world into the bargain? So much the better.