Buffy is twenty years old. Or at least the television series that re-launched the teenaged vampire slayer on the small screen, after the disastrous feature film outing, is celebrating its twentieth anniversary. This landmark has caused a small ripple of media based reminiscences about its impact on popular culture, which has brought it back into mainstream consciousness.
I was, and am, a big Buffy fan. I am also happy to admit that I wasn’t the target audience in 1997, when the show was first broadcast, in so far as I wasn’t a teenager. I was ten years beyond that, although when I first encountered Buffy in 1999, I was enjoying a sort of second youth, because I was back at university, studying to become a librarian, which turned out to be part of the attraction.
Back home one evening, after a day of getting to grips with the Dewey Decimal System, idly channel-hopping, I stumbled across a conversation between several teenagers and a tweed-clad, bespectacled librarian, in which they were discussing the finer points of vampire slaying. My attention being doubly caught by the discussion of vampires on BBC 2 on a Wednesday evening and the fact that it was taking place in that most hallowed of ground – a library, I ceased channel-hopping and started watching. At first I was ready to be irritated by the stereotypical portrayal of a librarian, but soon realised that I was more intrigued than irritated. Yes, stereotypes appeared to be right there on screen, but they were quickly and decisively overturned, including that of the librarian, gloriously embodied in the form of Anthony Stewart Head.
There are many reasons why I liked Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its advocacy of the power of books, libraries and librarians was the first. Buffy might be the Slayer, but book learning and research underpin her success. Scoffers of experts beware – in the fight against demons, literally and figuratively, knowledge is power.
But there were many other reasons; Buffy was smart and witty, funny and poignant. High school was, literally, hell and the blond girl was no longer a victimised plot-point. As a girl who had grown up watching and loving The Dukes of Hazard, The A-Team and Knightrider, to have a female kick-ass lead, was joyous. Until then, I’d had Wonderwoman (brilliant, but problematic, a bit like her 1990s incarnation, Xena) and my personal favourite, Princess Leia (the ultimate kick-ass female lead, even if she did have to function without a space-bra). For me, one of the crucial aspects of Buffy was its celebration of the fact there is no one way to be either, a feminist, or a woman. For all her strength and power, which was without doubt a feminist statement, teenaged Buffy was still interested in clothes, make-up and boys. Being a strong woman doesn’t preclude wanting to look your best (after deciding what that might mean for you) or wanting meaningful relationships with members of the opposite sex (ditto). The show explored what female strength might mean, and that it and femininity might not be mutually exclusive. When the adult Buffy acknowledged the wider seriousness of her powers and the importance of what she does, she doesn’t stop wanting love. (Side bar: no, being a feminist does not automatically preclude wanting, needing and loving men).
But the other female characters are just as important as Buffy and gave the show an added resonance: Willow, clever and bookish, who comes learns the depth of her own power, made dangerous by hate and saved by love; Cordelia, the cheerleader pulled from her safe but shallow world by a grudging acknowledgment, first of Buffy’s heroism, and then all the pain in the world she can no longer ignore; Tara, gay, shy but with a quiet, calm inner strength; Anya, the disarmingly literal capitalist, and Faith, at first damaged and solitary, but redeemed, and then strengthened by solidarity. All of these women demonstrated the blindingly obvious reality that there are as many ways of being female, being feminine and being a feminist, as there are women.
Equally, in Buffyworld, men are important. Buffy’s relationships with them offered positive examples of how men and women can relate to one another. Buffy’s friendship with Xander might begin with his boy-crush on her, but it never descended into stalkerishness, coercion, or revenge. Instead it blossomed into a meaningful friendship, part of the support system that ultimately gave Buffy her true strength. But it’s Buffy’s relationship with Giles that is, for me, the most powerful. Buffy might drive Giles crazy with her choice of music, clothes, and eventually boyfriends but he saw her potential. Giles is Buffy’s teacher and guide, authoritarian at times, but committed to nurturing her strength and ability. Ultimately Giles, as Buffy’s spiritual father, resigned from the Watcher’s Council, refusing to sanction their belief that they have the right to dictate how a woman should behave, even if she is a Slayer. Giles put his trust in Buffy, just as she put her trust in him. And when she needed him, needed his guidance to develop and deepen her powers, she openly asked for his help, not because she was weak, but because she was strong and could be stronger with his support.
As a woman who has been lucky enough to have overwhelmingly positive relationships with men, including my own father, to see a young woman develop such a strong bond with a father-figure on screen, was equally as joyous as seeing Buffy, Willow, Cordelia and Faith there. Because while I believe in the power of women, and in the right of every woman to live their own lives, make their own choices and choose what sort of woman they want to be, without reference to men, I also believe that women and men can, and do, have strong relationships as daughters and fathers; sisters and brothers; wives and husbands; friends; partners and lovers. When those relationships are truly reciprocal, based on mutual respect and trust, they have a power that strengthens women and men equally. For me, that message remains important, maybe today even more so, twenty years on.
Plus, what’s not to love about a guitar-strumming, demon-slaying, hell-mouth closing librarian?