Today is the twentieth anniversary of the start of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
It is not the twentieth anniversary of me watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because I was a wimpy eight year old at the time, and when my parents watched the show, I would run through the living room with my hands clamped over my ears in case I heard anything too scary. My time with Buffy started with the launch of Season 6 in the UK, and I only started watching then because it aired at the same time as the new season of Friends, and my parents insisted that the family TV would show Buffy first, and Friends later. Two hours of sulky Buffy watching later, and I was in love.
I haven’t watched Buffy in years, and I’m almost scared to rewatch it now, because it meant so much to me as a teenager, and I don’t know how well it would hold up. A lot of things that felt progressive at the time feel outdated now, and I’m sure I could fill this site with musings on how terrible all the romances are, cringing at my past self’s shipping choices.
But it feels unfair to tear apart a favorite from 20 years ago without considering the hugely positive impact that it once had. I don’t know much about the TV landscape that Buffy launched into, because I was too young at the time, and, after Friends, Buffy was the first “grown up” TV show I watched. And fell in love with. And obsessed over.
But it was a genre show that put a powerful female character front and center. Thirteen-year-old me didn’t even realise how revolutionary that was, because Buffy just handed it to me. It gave me a protagonist who was a leader and a fighter, but who also felt like a real person, with a bunch of female friends who had different and complex relationships with one another, who had different strengths and powers, and who worked together to save the world.
I’m almost 100% sure I didn’t always get it. But in those years, the Scooby Gang were my greatest inspiration and comfort. They let me grow up in a TV landscape where female genre protagonists felt normal. Where magic and adventure and fighting bad guys and saving the world belonged to girls first, in my understanding of the fictional world. Of course, I eventually realised that wasn’t generally true, but the strength and the wit of these characters created a fictional “normal” for me that had a huge influence on me as a person and as a writer.
I rewatched it constantly. I bought the magazines. I had the script books. I read the junky companion novels and played the not-so-quality video games and went to the Buffy conventions, like the full-on nerd that I am. It taught me things about narrative and compelling storytelling, but it also taught me to love genre fiction, as my first obsession that was actually about female characters. Not Harry Potter, not Pokemon, not Lord of the Rings. Even if I wasn’t familiar with all the tropes that Buffy subverted, that subversion still provided me with a world to get lost in and a choice of capable and powerful female characters to look up to.
If it launched now, I’m sure I’d have lots to say about Buffy’s “faux feminism.” I’d be in fits of rage about how Charisma Carpenter was treated on Angel. The series doesn’t feel that progressive any more. But it did, and it was, at least to a 13 year old looking for a story to connect to. And Buffy is, in many ways, the impetus behind its own outdatedness. It inspired other female-led teen genre shows, a certain blend of wit and serious drama seen in series like Veronica Mars and the more recent iZombie. So many creators grew up on or were seriously influenced by Buffy. Writers and networks saw that female genre protagonists can lead successful series, that genre shows can be serious and thought-provoking, that the concerns of female teen viewers are worth exploring. The landscape has progressed over the past twenty years, becoming more progressive and more inclusive (although, obviously, still with many missteps), and that’s because of the work that Buffy started twenty years ago. It may not appear to be the revolutionary show that people promise to anyone stumbling across it now, but it has always been important to television, and it’s always been important to me.
Of course, now I’ve written this, I’m itching to rewatch and dig into the good, the bad, and the ugly of the show. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. But whatever I decide, I think it’s important to remember not just what Buffy is now, but what it was then. And that is a groundbreaking, inspiring, and influential series of female strength.