“You could find yourself reflected in any of these women – or all of them – but what mattered most was that they were all powerful in their own ways, and as someone who saw themselves as more of a Tara than a Buffy, the idea that there could still be strength in timidness was a big comfort to me growing up.“
First aired Wednesday 30th December 1998 on BBC Two
Contributed by Megan Hyland
Before the news of Charisma Carpenter’s accusations against Joss Whedon for workplace harassment and abuse on the set of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, I had written a lengthy piece about how much Whedon’s writing had meant to me growing up. I talked about how he empowered women by reflecting all of their aspects and complexities, presenting the strength of women in all its different forms. However, having read Carpenter’s account, I found a host of accusations against Whedon going back a number of years that had never even been on my radar. Multiple actors and crew members from multiple other projects corroborated Carpenter’s claims, and now I find myself in the uncomfortable position of wanting to express how much Buffy meant to me growing up – without wanting to give Whedon the badge of female empowerment that he has been accused of hiding behind to shield his actions. It is with this in mind that I tread carefully when discussing the show, and try to give credit where it is due – to the cast, the crew and the characters that were my home for so long.
The first time that I have caught sight of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I was thirteen and flicking through TV channels while off sick from school. I landed on Syfy, which was playing the 2000 episode ‘Fool for Love’. I can still remember the exact scene – Buffy and vampire Spike verbally sparring at the Bronze, leading to her threatening to stake him with a pool cue. I’d never seen anything like it before. Here was a woman calling all the shots – despite seeking help from Spike, Buffy was still assertive throughout, in complete control of herself and the scene, including quite literally kicking Spike to the curb at the end of the episode. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was quintessentially Buffy – wanting to know more about herself, her history and her destiny, without having time for messy vampire love triangles.
After the episode ended, I followed the series all the way through to the end of season five. I was obsessed. So when I caught sight of the boxset on a shelf at my cousin’s house, I begged and begged to borrow it – and before I knew it, I was happily sat in the car on my way home, with the boxset in my lap. Each time I heard the epic intro to that theme music, I was drawn further and further into the world of Sunnydale, and into Whedon’s world. From the dramatic, endearing Angel – sequel to Buffy and cult triumph in its own right – to the eery sci-fi drama Dollhouse and cult classic space-Western Firefly, I loved them all. Thirteen-year-old me surrounded herself with comic books, special edition DVDs and whatever else I could get my hands on. I wanted to live in the Whedonverse for as long as I could. So to hear earlier this year that at the root of that universe was a dark culture of abuse that made the strong female leads I admired so much feel anything but, has changed the way that I see the show entirely.
Because to me, the show celebrated female strength in all of its forms. You didn’t have to be the dynamic, witty, confident Buffy – you could also be the cynical and offbeat Anya; or the shy, timid Tara; even the nurturing mother, Joyce. You could find yourself reflected in any of these women – or all of them – but what mattered most was that they were all powerful in their own ways, and as someone who saw themselves as more of a Tara than a Buffy, the idea that there could still be strength in timidness was a big comfort to me growing up. And that comfort is a testament to the complexity that each actress brought to their individual roles, making the show so formative for me and so many other young women. No character was one-note. They were all well-rounded, real, complex women – and served as a reminder that a woman doesn’t have to just be one thing, as we so often see in television even now. Buffy was a fearless vampire slayer – but she also fell apart without her mother. Tara was shy and quiet, but she was also willing to risk her life for her friends.
The show was far from progressive by today’s standards – certainly in light of the allegations against its creator – but it was unmistakably influential in its unique representation of strong women; the way that it broke so many television boundaries; and its well-deserved cult status.
Buffy might even be credited with the original vampire love triangle – the vampire slayer caught between the brooding, loving Angel and the dangerous yet charming Spike – but it was so much more than that. There was never the indication that Buffy needed to “end up” with either of them, that wasn’t the point. Both of these relationships were something that we got to watch her grow and learn from, and while thirteen-year-old me was screaming at the TV in the final episode for her to choose Spike, twenty-two-year-old me understands why she didn’t. And it all comes down to the infamous cookie dough speech from that gripping series finale – Buffy isn’t ready for a serious relationship because she’s “cookie dough”. She’s not finished becoming what she’s meant to become, and that journey is far more important than any she could undertake romantically, which is what sets the show apart from any vampire series that has come since.
But the principal boundary of television that Buffy set a precedent for, was to be the first show to portray an ongoing lesbian relationship. In the fourth season, the soft-spoken Willow met the only other character shyer and quieter than herself – Tara. And together, they discovered Willow’s Wicca powers, as well as their feelings together – leading to a loving relationship that spanned three seasons. And while a kiss wasn’t shown between them until the fifth season, their entire relationship was ground-breaking television. It was earnest and understated, and despite having aired eleven years before I watched it, it was the first portrayal of a relationship between two women that I’d ever seen on TV – and remains one of the few that I have seen to this day. The personal significance that had was something that I didn’t come to realise until much later, accepting my own attraction to women as a bisexual woman. Buffy showed me what that might look like and told me that not only was it okay, it was possible to be happy.
Willow and Tara’s relationship was the most touching and sincere display of love in the show, making its ending one of the most disappointing. Seeing Red has been quoted as one of the biggest missteps the writers made in the show, not only for killing Tara, but primarily for the attempted sexual assault of Buffy by Spike. Both of these decisions were made in order to further the storylines of other characters, and fans – myself included – were uncomfortable with the idea of introducing such dark material to the show purely for the development of Willow and Spike, and without touching on the impact on Buffy. And while the show has been credited for the first kiss between two women in a long-term relationship, it could also be credited with beginning – or at least continuing – the trope of romantic relationships between female characters ending in death and/or tragedy. While happy endings aren’t really the way that Buffy goes, it would have been refreshing for this relationship in particular – with everything that it represented – to have been seen through to the end of the show.
While this episode will forever stand out as a dramatic misfire that to this day I struggle to watch, there are so many others that stand out for the right reasons. The season 6 musical episode Once More With Feeling was an almost instant cult classic, and revolutionised musical episodes for years to come with its cringe-worthy vocal performances and the campy hilarity of an all-singing, all-dancing curse. It may not have been the height of musical brilliance, but it was so quintessentially Buffy in its humour and its heart. The moment that Buffy turns and tells the Scooby Gang that when they brought her back to life they pulled her out of heaven and that Earth was hell, by comparison, gives me goosebumps every time.
The best episodes of Buffy were always the most ground-breaking and unique. The season four episode Hush is unlike anything I’ve seen to this day – almost completely silent and scored with eerie music as the silent Gentlemen come to Sunnydale to steal the voices of its residents, it’s a testament to the fantastic performances of the cast that it’s just as epic, scary and important as all the rest.
By far, one of the most impactful episodes was the season 5 episode The Body. The previous episode closes with Buffy arriving home and finding her mother, Joyce, dead on the sofa. The Body picks up where it left off. It is a heart-rending representation of loss, and Sarah Michelle Gellar delivers her best performance as Buffy in this stripped-back episode that incorporates a range of beautifully disorienting techniques that draw us further into her grief. From the sound of the windchimes outside covering the sound of Buffy throwing up in the kitchen sink to the camera that follows her around the house as she calls an ambulance and struggles through administering CPR. As heart-breaking as this episode is, it is Sarah Michelle Gellar’s best performance in the series, bringing a deeper vulnerability to Buffy than we’d ever seen before. In the space of a single episode, Buffy goes from a fearless vampire slayer to a scared child that just wants her mother to wake up. And Gellar carries this vulnerability beautifully, particularly in the long-take, where she takes us through the volatile journey of acceptance by switching between helpless, wide-eyed whimpering and desperate screaming at a moment’s notice. The lack of music in the episode fills it with an eerie silence that echoes the gap that Joyce’s death leaves both in the cast and in Buffy’s life as she struggles for the second time that season to determine who she is – this time without her mother.
Identity was such an important theme in Buffy, and what made it so formative for so many people. When the series began we were introduced to a sixteen-year-old Buffy on her first day at Sunnydale High after being kicked out of her last high school for arson following a fight against a horde of vampires. This opening was so unique in terms of “chosen one” storylines, as we don’t get to see Buffy’s initial struggle to understand what it means to be a slayer, or even how she came to find out. Instead, we were introduced to this young, self-assured – slightly wacky – high schooler that carries a stake in her handbag. But as the series continues, we get to see Buffy explore other parts of her identity – falling in love for the first time, losing her mother, discovering her weaknesses – and we explore them with her. Buffy allowed you to grow up with its characters, to watch them fall in and out of love with each other, go to college, and come out, all while saving the universe multiple times. The characters feel so real that you forget about the impossible situations that they find themselves in and their identity struggles permeate the ridiculousness of a singing curse or a shape-shifting demon.
it’s hard to conflate the idea that Buffy meant so much to me – and still does to this day – and the knowledge of what was going on behind the scenes. Because there’s no way to praise the show without in turn praising the man behind it. And yet the talent of the cast and crew deserves it still. So if anything, the success of the show is a testament to those that worked with – and against – Whedon, and their ability to create such a charmingly hilarious and heartbreakingly tragic world with these characters despite the abuse they endured. It seems on an almost daily basis now we are reminded that we have to be critical of the entertainment that we enjoy, but we can enjoy it still. Our relationship with shows like Buffy will continue to change, and it will be uncomfortable, but for all of their benefit to the world of entertainment, we have to acknowledge their harmful contributions as well. Buffy should be remembered for all of the good that it did for pop culture, and for its portrayal of lesbian relationships on television, and what that did for millions of fans. But the pain suffered by those involved needs to be acknowledged as well.