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Twenty Years of Buffy

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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 A lot of things that felt progressive at the time feel outdated now, and I’m sure I could fill this site with musings on how terrible all the romances are, cringing at my past self’s shipping choices.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 FriendsBuffy 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.

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Firefly in retrospect

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Over the summer, I’ve been rewatching and reviewing Joss Whedon’s Fireflya fandom darling of a show, and one of my all-time favorite series as a teenager.

Rewatching anything you loved years ago is always a risk. There’s always the chance that you’ll notice flaws you never spotted before, or that it won’t live up to your adoring memories. Unfortunately, Firefly turned out to be something of a disappointment.

Is it a good show? Yes. Is it a great show? I’d say so. Is it unique and compelling with some great plotlines and characters? Definitely. But when looked at from an intersectional feminist perspective, it all starts to fall apart.

In short, Joss Whedon is amazing at creating varied, believable and wonderful female characters. But he’s not so good at creating stories for them. And he doesn’t seem to think through the implications of his work.

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Firefly: Objects in Space

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Objects in Space was the last Firefly episode to air, and my absolute favorite before my rewatch. Finally, we get something of a peek inside River’s head, and although the villain-of-the-week gets far more screentime than River herself, it’s an episode of transition for her, the move from victim to victor, and from “object” to “subject” in the narrative and the crew.

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Firefly: The Message

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All in all, The Message is a pretty unremarkable episode with some solid moments and fantastic music. But there were a few little things that bothered me. And by “bothered,” I mean “made me question Joss Whedon and the show and all that I hold dear.”

Pretty impressive for a few background characters and barely-heard lines, huh?

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Firefly: War Stories

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No wacky space hijinxs this week. In War Stories, sadistic crime overlord Nishka finally catches up with the crew of Serenity, and he’s not looking to chat over tea and scones. He’s still angry that Mal didn’t complete his job in The Train Job, and he’s determined to show them what you get when you betray him.

Turns out, we get some of the most awesome moments for female characters on the show. Also, torture. Lots of torture.

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Firefly: Out of Gas

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Out of Gas is a fantastic piece of television. If you’re only ever going to watch one episode of Firefly, this has to be it. In the “present day” narrative, the crew of Serenity are celebrating Simon’s birthday when a fire knocks out the engines, and the life support along with them. Woven through their attempts to survive, we see how each member of the crew came to the ship in the first place, along with glimpses of a dark future, when a lone Mal, bleeding from a gunshot wound, attempts to fix the ship before the air runs out.

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