‘Buffy’ proved you could save the world and still hit the mall

Austin American-Statesman - - THE PLANNER - By Alyssa Rosen­berg The Wash­ing­ton Post

At the end of the fourth sea­son of “Buffy the Vam­pire Slayer,” which pre­miered 20 years ago this week, Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gel­lar) and her men­tor and friends fall asleep while watch­ing a movie and lapse into a se­ries of sur­re­al­is­tic and pre­dic­tive dreams. Buffy finds her­self in the desert, con­fronting the First Slayer (Sharon Fer­gu­son) with her friend Tara (Am­ber Ben­son) act­ing as an in­ter­me­di­ary. The First Slayer is try­ing to con­vince Buffy that her role as the cho­sen cham­pion against the forces of dark­ness means that she is fun­da­men­tally iso­lated, liv­ing “in the ac­tion of death, the blood cry, the pen­e­trat­ing wound.” Buffy is hav­ing none of it. “I am not alone,” she in­sists, firm in her con­vic­tion even as she lapses into the lan­guage of her dream. “I walk. I talk. I shop, I sneeze, I’m go­ing to be a fire­man when the floods roll back. There’s trees in the desert since you moved out. And I don’t sleep on a bed of bones.”

There are cer­tainly things that don’t hold up about the se­quence. A marker of the in­tel­lec­tual de­vel­op­ment of main­stream fem­i­nism in the decades since “Buffy” ar­rived on tele­vi­sion is that if “Rest­less” aired to­day, it would have been im­me­di­ately taken to task for pre­sent­ing the First Slayer as a sav­age, mute fig­ure who needs Tara to turn her thoughts into words (“Some­one has to speak for her,” Tara says. “Let her speak for her­self. That’s what’s done in po­lite cir­cles,” Buffy re­sponds), and per­haps for dress­ing Tara in an In­dian get-up. “Buffy” in gen­eral might have gar­nered the same back­lash that ac­crued to Lena Dun­ham’s “Girls” for its racial ho­mo­gene­ity, and with greater jus­ti­fi­ca­tion.

But the scene, which orig­i­nally aired in 2001, has lin­gered with me for the way it cap­tures the cen­tral idea that made “Buffy” such a pow­er­ful and in­flu­en­tial show. Not only does be­ing a teenage girl with a fond­ness for the mall, a mild dis­in­cli­na­tion to­wards aca­demics and a ten­dency to­wards Val­ley-Girl-ese pre­vent a per­son from killing vam­pires, but it’s no im­ped­i­ment to be­com­ing a com­pli­cated fem­i­nist icon, ei­ther.

The great an­i­mat­ing joke that in­spired “Buffy,” of course, was the idea that a high school cheer­leader with a fluffy Pekingese dog of a name would turn out to be the world’s sav­ior. As se­ries cre­ator Joss Whe­don put it, he was en­tranced in gen­eral by the idea of “some woman who seems to be com­pletely in­signif­i­cant who turns out to be ex­tra­or­di­nary,” and specif­i­cally by the prospect of the blonde bait in horror movies fight­ing back.

The ex­e­cu­tion mat­tered as much as the in­ten­tion. “Buffy the Vam­pire Slayer” never posed a false choice be­tween the pref­er­ences and stylis­tic tics that made Buffy who she was as a per­son and the skills and sense of obli­ga­tion that made her who she was as a Slayer.

Buffy tried out for cheer­lead­ing; when she made the squad, her watcher Giles (An­thony Head) sput­tered, “This is mad­ness. What could you have been think­ing? You are the Slayer. Lives de­pend upon you. I make al­lowances for your youth, but I ex­pect a cer­tain amount of re­spon­si­bil­ity, in­stead of which you en­slave your­self to thisthis … cult.”

She got grounded by her mother, fought with her lit­tle sis­ter Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg), got drunk at col­lege par­ties and blew off classes and her friends to sleep with her boyfriend, went danc­ing at clubs, and wore a lot of leop­ard print, jean jack­ets and un­for­tu­nate head wear. She loved the mall even if some­times she had to blow it up with anti-tank weapons. On the eve of yet another apoc­a­lypse in the show’s fi­nal episode, she and her best friend Wil­low (Alyson Han­ni­gan) joked about hit­ting up Ar­den B, or whether to sat­isfy Buffy’s “wicked shoe crav­ing.”

There were sto­ry­lines, in­clud­ing in the sixth and sev­enth sea­sons, when Buffy had to recom­mit to her mis­sion af­ter hav­ing been yanked out of heaven by the friends who as­sumed they were sav­ing her from hell or learn how to be a leader af­ter po­ten­tial Slay­ers started flood­ing into Sun­ny­dale. But Buffy never had to be­come less fem­i­nine, or less in­ter­ested in clothes, ro­mance and friend­ships in or­der to be more ef­fec­tive at fight­ing vam­pires, de­mons and other man­i­fes­ta­tions of dark­ness.

Buffy’s blonde hair and bright wardrobe might have con­vinced some view­ers to stereo­type her, and over the years, they def­i­nitely con­vinced plenty of bad ac­tors, big and oth­er­wise, to un­der­es­ti­mate her. Those as­sump­tions were al­ways wrong: Buffy’s cheer­ful ex­te­rior wasn’t in­com­pat­i­ble with a richly tex­tured and eth­i­cally com­plex in­ner life.

“Buffy the Vam­pire Slayer” al­ways took Buffy’s ro­man­tic life se­ri­ously. Buffy’s re­la­tion­ship with her col­lege boyfriend Riley (Marc Blu­cas) pre­sented her with pro­fes­sional chal­lenges af­ter he re­cruited her to work in con­cert with the Ini­tia­tive, a mil­i­tary or­ga­ni­za­tion he was a part of that fought de­mons. And over time, their re­la­tion­ship fal­tered as Riley strug­gled to ac­cept that Buffy was more pow­er­ful than he was: his char­ac­ter be­came a warn­ing to any­one who wanted to en­joy Buffy’s abil­i­ties, as long as her pow­ers didn’t chal­lenge their own sense of self, or any man who says he likes pow­er­ful women but doesn’t re­ally mean it.

I think about “Buffy the Vam­pire Slayer” a lot, some­times as a marker for how much pop cul­ture has evolved and more of­ten as an in­di­ca­tor of how much farther it has to go. And I es­pe­cially think about “Buffy” and Buffy when peo­ple get shocked that Teen Vogue is pub­lish­ing pointed po­lit­i­cal con­tent, or ev­ery time a story about a girl do­ing some­thing amaz­ing and un­usual goes vi­ral.

I don’t know whether to be frus­trated that peo­ple still haven’t re­al­ized that you can care about both lip­stick and re­sis­tance, or to ap­pre­ci­ate that peo­ple are still be­ing de­lighted by the sur­pris­ing ways girls’ brains work and the jux­ta­po­si­tions be­tween their var­ied in­ter­ests and tal­ents. We walk. We talk. We shop. We slay. And “Buffy the Vam­pire Slayer” helped some of us learn how to do all of those things at once and in “stylish, yet af­ford­able boots.”


“Buffy the Vam­pire Slayer” pre­miered 20 years ago this week.

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