From vampires and witches, to robots and demons, on the surface Buffy the Vampire Slayer may seem like just another fantasy series. It had its fair share of memorable monsters – who can forget the Gentlemen? But watch a little closer, and you find a wealth of deeper meanings in the show’s subject matter. There is so much potential for analysis when it comes to Buffy, in fact, that it’s spawned its own area of academic study: ‘Buffy Studies’.
Biennial conferences take place in the USA under the name of Slayage conferences, encompassing both Buffy and all other works by Joss Whedon. These conferences see around 200 people travel from all over the world to discuss the show. What makes Buffy so special? What makes it worthy of such in-depth study?
Matthew Pateman, head of Humanities at Sheffield Hallam University, has delivered keynote talks at previous Slayage conferences. He is also the author of The Aesthetics of Culture in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. Why was Buffy so ground-breaking? “Buffy was a first. It was clever, and demanded viewers to pay attention. The X-Files came close, but its characters never really changed or evolved. The characters on Buffy had memory, they learnt and grew as the series went on.”
The secrets to Buffy’s success – timing and ambition
Buffy, he says, simply had good timing: “It coincided with the release of DVDs, making it easier for people to re-watch and analyse episodes. The Internet was taking off, too.” Not only were there unofficial fan sites, but official sites like The Bronze encouraged users to post discussions and even saw Joss Whedon participating in threads. Buffy knew what it was doing in regards to promotion, and Whedon went in to the series knowing he wanted to create a cult classic – it wasn’t an accident.
“Buffy was ambitious, and a show about consequences,” says Pateman. Ambition was found in episodes like Hush, which featured the cast losing the ability to speak and having dialogue be absent from most of the episode. Then there’s the musical Once More, With Feeling. And episodes like The Body and Restless; the list could go on. Consequences were everywhere – even a lie Xander tells at the end of season 2 is brought up in season 7.
When it comes to musicals, Pateman argues that other shows like The Simpsons had musical numbers inserted in to the episodes with no relevance to the overall plot. Buffy was a pioneer, actively involving the musical’s lyrics in the storyline and basing the episode around a demon forcing characters to break out into song through the use of a spell.
Even the generally weaker perceived seasons have their merits. Seasons 1 and 2 may be dated nowadays and suffer from having a low budget, but they make up for it with creative uses of lighting and amazing dialogue. Seasons 6 and 7 have academic books like ‘Buffy Goes Dark’, devoted to the more adult themes present in the shows later story arcs.
Commenting on a Season 4 episode, Pateman said: “Beer Bad is one of the worst episodes of the series, but still better than most other TV.” There’s a rumour that the often-mocked Beer Bad was actually a result of the Broadcasting Standards Authority asking shows like Buffy to write in a storyline about the dangers of alcohol abuse amongst young people.
Buffy’s Female Legacy
Last December, BBC Radio 4 aired a special programme about the legacy of Buffy, and argued that whilst it seemed Buffy was ushering in a new generation of strong, empowered female characters, this new age never materialized. Dr Erica Brown, a Research Fellow at Sheffield Hallam University, agrees. “The difference about Buffy’s strong female character compared to others was she was in High School,” she said. “She was young; there’s not many other adolescent role models to young viewers. They all tend to be older.”
Pateman said it was interesting that whilst the show was full of these empowered female characters, the actresses who played them, with the exception of Alyson Hannigan, haven’t sustained their fame. Charisma Carpenter, Emma Caulfield, even Sarah Michelle Gellar until recently, have all stepped away from the media spotlight. “There’s still the pink aisle and the blue aisle in toy shops,” says Erica – and there probably always will be.
What if it aired now? Would it be received with as much critical acclaim?
That question seems a bit like the chicken or the egg debate. “It’s a difficult question, because Buffy paved the way for complex shows like Breaking Bad. Without Buffy, there may well not be any of these more demanding series, and so it would still be the first,” says Pateman. “Buffy took strides with complicated characters, characters who had memory. Nothing has recreated Buffy’s success – not even Whedon himself.”
What do you think the reaction would be if Buffy were to air nowadays instead? Would it be as influential? Would you take a course in ‘Buffy Studies’? Have your say in the comments below!