By: Glynis Neely
My preoccupation with television began at a very young age. I often went to my aunt’s house on the weekends and watched hours of television. It was here that I discovered how easily I could become obsessed. First it was Highlander, then Hercules, and Xena until I had seen every episode of each. While flipping through channels she happened to stop on a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The episode in question, “Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered,” was funny and self-aware and it began my love affair with the genre. It set me on a search for positive female role models and inspired stories that to this day inform and guide my life. 20 years since the show premiered on the WB, I still find myself reminiscing, re-watching episodes and talking about it at length with anyone who will listen.
I was an impressionable kid and Buffy’s worldview was a revelation! I remember early in the show, during a conversation with her watcher/father figure Giles (the amazing Anthony Stewart Head), Buffy asks him to lie to her about life being easy and his response resonated with me: “Yes. It’s terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true, the bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies and everybody lives happily ever after.” The world is a scary place for sure, but if you surround yourself with people who build you up, life will be easier to accept. It changed the way I looked at life.
What set Buffy apart from everything else on TV was the dialogue. Creator Joss Whedon initially wanted the dialogue to be realistic, but the writing team soon settled into a heightened, culturally relevant, and referential rhythm. I loved the back and forth between characters, even when the references went right over my head. There was always a snarky undertone in the copious dialogue and I confess that my habit of responding to everyone with sarcasm likely coincided with my discovery of Buffy, along with my love of words.
Whedon was a force of creative energy that I desperately wanted to tap into, and I decided then I wanted to be a writer. Whedon knew how to break our hearts and simultaneously move the overarching narrative along, and his team of wordsmiths was adept at creating the scenes that fed his vision. With perhaps the exception of the X-Files, few, if any other shows of the period focused on the stories of the week while also building the world around these characters. I always respected the ability to kill off characters and break up relationships for the sake of the story. Tragedy always leads to interesting storytelling.
And the story was vital to the success of the show. While Buffy was originally conceived as a metaphor for the horrors of high school, Whedon eventually expanded the scope, incorporating the horrors of life in general into the milieu. I’ve never felt as close to another set of characters as I did, and still do, to Buffy, Willow, and Xander. They represented a set of characteristics and values that resonated with me; though even then I was wary of their fashion choices. I was especially drawn to the idea of there being “one girl in all the world” to save us and that she was just a normal girl with extraordinary abilities. Buffy was the answer to the boring horror trope of the blonde girl trapped in an alley by a killer: She’s the one with nothing to fear because she “is the thing monsters have nightmares about.”
I watched Buffy for hours at a time, and she became my first role model on the road to becoming a feminist. She was a force to be reckoned with who often spoke her mind and was fiercely loyal to her friends. Willow (Alyson Hannigan) had the most gradual character development with the most interesting arc. Her exploration of Wiccan magic instigated my own fascination with the practice. I had never seen a same-sex relationship portrayed on TV before and Willow’s relationship with Tara (Amber Benson) was incredibly organic and inspired, despite my undying love for her former lover, Oz (Seth Green). (It really took me years to notice all the subtext in Xena.) When it aired, it was the first gay relationship on television, but even today it still holds up as a loving and realistic lesbian relationship.
In college, I decided to focus my writing on highlighting women, in all their strengths and weaknesses, and discovered a fascination with the horror genre. Horror is an indelible source for social commentary with a proliferation of violence against and involving women. I may not have realized it then, but my passion for Buffy sparked my interest in gender and horror and all the complicated politics therein. I don’t remember the moment I knew I was a feminist, but I credit my obsession with Buffy as the source of my awakening.
My love of Buffy also invigorated a talent I didn’t realize I had been honing from a young age: the ability to recognize and identify extras or cameos and recite the rest of their (known to me) filmography. My dad had been showing me the ropes for years. I remember when I was little and he would point out extras in the dance scenes of The Music Man or West Side Story and tell me what other roles they were known for. I refined my skill when Buffy came along because so many people guest starred in the Buffyverse before launching their careers: Amy Adams, Wentworth Miller, and Jeremy Renner, to name a few.
It also didn’t hurt that the stars and writers of Buffy have gone on to work on a plethora of projects big and small: from TV and the big screen to Oscar nominated screenplays and stints on Broadway. I’ve watched Buffy’s seven seasons more times than I can count, and I always enjoyed noticing new people in the background. I still do this today with pretty much everything; ask anyone who’s ever watched anything with me. I usually spend more time trying to figure out what they were in before than watching the show itself, but it all really started with Buffy.
It’s no surprise that years later, at 2013’s San Diego Comic Con, I eagerly waited in line for Joss Whedon’s panel. When I got up to ask him my question, I was sweating bullets but I have never been so nervous and determined in my life. The moment felt like it lasted a lifetime and it’s one of my most vivid memories; not only did he answer my question perfectly, but he commented on my cosplay! I was glowing as I sat down in my seat afterwards, and then I started laughing and crying; meeting my idol turned out to be kind of emotional. This year, I will be attending Denver Comic Con and there is a slight possibility of a small Buffy reunion, so it’s entirely possible I’ll faint if I meet James Marsters, who played bad boy vampire Spike.
Over the years I’ve been on a bit of a crusade to get as many friends and family members to watch and enjoy the show like I do. Unfortunately, I only ever got my brother to really get the fun inherent in the show. My dad reminded me that he enjoyed all the episodes we watched together, but he especially liked Angel. Somehow, my mother fell in love with the musical episode soundtrack, but she always has and to this day makes fun of the show. However, I did manage to get a certain Clash Cultures contributor obsessed with the show years ago. Back in high school when I became friends with Emily Miller, we bonded right away over pop culture, but she had never seen Buffy before. I needed to rectify that immediately. Almost a decade later, she is still in love with this show and I can’t help but feel a little pride for introducing it to her in the first place.
Aside from my exceedingly personal connection to Buffy, the world around me has not forgotten or belittled its influence either. For years, academics have been writing papers, publishing books and even teaching courses in theory about themes in Buffy, including feminism and religion and everything in between. It is one of the most written about television shows in academic circles. Its fan base is growing as well; the entire show, and its spin-off Angel, was added on Netflix a couple years ago. I love that younger generations are discovering Buffy and get to experience it all for the first time. I can’t deny I’m jealous!
Glynis, what excellent writing. After reading this I’m getting out all seven seasons and will be watching. Wish you could be here with me.
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Me too! Enjoy it and let me know if you notice anything new 🙂