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“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Not Bad, Not Rad

By Amanda Ortscheid

Twenty years after its premiere, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” remains as popular as ever. Maybe even more popular. In honor of the anniversary of the premiere of the first episode on March 10, the cast reunited for an Entertainment Weekly feature. Pop TV re-aired the two-part premiere episode. And Hot Topic launched a new line of “Buffy”-themed clothing.

The anniversary also means the return of half-baked pseudo-profound “Buffy” think pieces, including this one. But how could a television show nominated for “Best Guilty Pleasure” in Netflix’s 2013 U.S. Flixies still manage to grab the hearts and minds of so many people including academics and TV critics?

The uninitiated might put it down to the increased access streaming websites provide, but I, as a self-described fan whose obsession extends to reading academic literature about “Buffy,” can tell you that doesn’t begin to explain the hysteria. We get a little closer to the answer when we turn a critical eye on popular media accounts of “Buffy’s” rise to success.

This story, which bounced around in the mainstream TV critics’ echo chamber for a good part of the ’90s, insists that “Buffy” found a previously untapped market of young women, primed by riot girl narratives of girl-power, and won them over with visions of an alternative “normalcy” in which courageous women were the usual. While there are a few characters on the show whose passions, talents, and complexities qualify them to be “inspirational,” “Buffy” doesn’t entirely deserve to be called an example of radically progressive feminism.

In fact, it takes some determination and a measure of creativity to find evidence for even the “normalcy” argument when Buffy herself doesn’t consider being a Slayer to be normal or even be desirable. She spends at least the first three seasons grouching about the inconvenience of her duties. She worries about emasculating the men in her circle of friends, and she longs to date, shop and party.

The show also consistently valorizes its white characters at the expense of its characters of color. Its few characters who are not white give up the good fight, turn evil, and die over remarkably short periods of time. A rare moment comes in the third season when Mr. Trick, the henchman of the primary villain and a vampire who happens to be black, gets to survive long enough to almost break the fourth wall complaining about this injustice: he observes that Sunnydale is “not a haven for the brothers. You know, strictly the Caucasian persuasion here in the ‘Dale.’”  At first, this line made me hopeful. But then nothing improved in the later seasons, so I had to conclude that the writers who penned it didn’t really intend to address the cast’s lack of racial diversity; they intended to brush it off.

Now I know that readers who are fans of the show are stammering, “But wait! In the very last episode of the show, all young women who have the potential to become Slayers magically do so. Clearly, that’s at least normalizing strong women!” Maybe. But in any case, it’s too little, too late to merit a gold star.

Then why is “Buffy,” by most accounts, an important influence on the fantasy genre? And having admitted to being cognizant of more disturbing–and more accurate– interpretations of it, how could I still be so callous as to describe myself as a “Buffy” fan?

While “Buffy’s” writers may not have been the most socially-conscious, they were technically proficient. “Buffy” endures not because it’s progressive, but for almost the opposite reason: because its mode of storytelling uses traditional structures, like the hero’s journey, to explore ancient themes of love, loss and loneliness. And like all good screenwriters, the “Buffy” writers show us Buffy’s story through striking visuals and incredible situations by making her struggle with her inner demons while trading quips with “real” demons in cheesy costumes.

You’ll be disappointed by “Buffy” if you expect it be radically progressive. But if you can stomach what’s not-so-progressive about “Buffy,” then it might be worth checking out for the epic story of its reluctant heroine, told with roundhouse kicks, glue-on fangs and ’90s feathered bangs.