This month marks the twentieth anniversary of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as we know her today. However the character has existed in pop culture for nearly twenty-FIVE years with the acknowledgement of the critically-panned 1992 film of the same name.
Either way, I feel old as hell right now.
While the original film is in no way canon (or good for that matter), its existence is worth noting for the fact that it stands as one of creator Joss Whedon’s first mainstream works. Its failure as a film would lead to Buffy’s eventual resurrection (the first of many) and introduce us to the characters and stories we know and love today.
Whedon conceived of Buffy while working at a video store in college, checking out various horror/slasher flicks, and subverting the standard tropes of the horror genre by reimagining your classic murder victim, typically a young girl, as a the hero. Using this character as his template, the young writer crafted a horror story that defied convention, combining humor and scares and established what would become the mythology of the Slayer.
Whedon’s script was praised for its originality and cleverness, however by the time filming began, extensive rewrites all but erased Whedon’s voice and turned an original horror flick about female empowerment into a cheesy teen comedy featuring Kristy Swanson as the titular character. Whereas Whedon is now known for deftly balancing drama and humor, the film was very uneven and upon release was largely disliked by critics and audiences alike. Whedon was likewise disappointed in the results and moved on to better things, including doctoring the script for Speed and even earning an Academy Award for his work co-writing Toy Story.
Eventually, Whedon received a proposition: what if he could turn his original script into a TV series? Reimagining his idea as a serialized story, with actual horror film concepts as metaphors for the true “horrors of high school”, Joss Whedon would finally have an opportunity to tell his story as he intended. Rather than just rewrite the original script, he ended up writing a sequel/soft reboot of his story, picking up where the film would have left off, but making Buffy a couple years younger and uprooting her from the film’s setting and making no mention of any other previously seen characters.
The original pilot introduced us to the Slayer, one girl in all the world who would be called upon to protect the innocent from vampires, demons and other creatures that go bump in the night. This generation’s Slayer was a fifteen-year-old girl named Buffy Summers, portrayed now by Sarah Michelle Geller. While in the film she was portrayed as a ditzy valley girl cheerleader-stereotype, this version of Buffy was immediately stronger, smarter, and even a little dark. One can imagine she was changed pretty severely by the events of her origin, which we really only see in flashbacks much later in the series. This dramatic take on the character as well as the overall tone of the episode was much more in line with Whedon’s original vision, only this time he had significantly more room for character development and to flesh out the mythology.
Many of the characters throughout the series fit a particular theme: the idea that someone who is otherwise completely insignificant could turn out to be “someone extraordinary.” This ideal is not only seen in Buffy herself, defying convention as a pretty cheerleader-type who can kick serious monster ass, but also in her friends: Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon), the typical everyman who is eventually considered the heart of the team; Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan), a shy wallflower who rises to be become one of the most powerful magical beings in the world; and Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter), bitchy rich snob with a heart of gold (down very, very deep) who eventually a deity of sorts. Whedon’s own “mission statement” for the show is seen in those three women: having power, using it and sharing it.
The show broke new ground in representing feminist ideals, and its portrayal of women led to the numerous television series and movies that feature strong female protagonists, including Joan of Arcadia, Once Upon a Time, and most recently in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Buffy was also influential in developing the “monster of the week” formula to a higher level. Rather than simply having Buffy and friends fight bigger and badder monsters, the villains were often used as metaphors for real social issues facing teens. When Buffy reveals to her mother that she’s the Slayer, it’s played as a genuine yet tragic “coming out” moment, complete with her mother’s denial and eventually kicking her out of the house. Similar situations include magical gay couple Willow and Tara; while their relationship was accepted by the major characters, their devotion to the magical arts was seen by some as evil, to the point where Tara’s own parents attempted to make her pray the Wicca away.
The show’s use of actual monsters to address real fears and anxieties, along with its positive portrayal of feminism and sexuality propelled the series from its humble origins to a pop-culture phenomenon. Its influence is seen to this day in series like Doctor Who, and Orphan Black, both of which feature strong female leads in fantastic, yet oddly relatable situations, and the latest Star Wars films, not only with the introduction of Rey and Jyn to the mythos, but in its balancing of humor and compelling human drama, even in a galaxy far, far away.
Whedon himself would continue his trend of strong character work and development in later works like Firefly, Dollhouse, and even his mainstream work in films like Marvel’s The Avengers. The long-time writer has yet to lose sight of what has made him a household name and for the sake of television, let’s hope he never does.