BLONDE ON BLONDE
"If I had the Slayer's power ... I'd be punning right about now."
The year was 1997 and a new series debuted on the WB network with the unlikely and unpromising title Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Based on the critically reviled 1992 film of the same name, few would have anticipated that the series would soon become one of the most beloved television series of all time and pave the way for a succession of empowered female protagonists on television, including Sydney Bristow on Alias, the titular Veronica Mars, Battlestar Galactica's cigar-chomping Kara Thrace, and later Gwendoline Christie's noble Brienne of Tarth on Game of Thrones — not to mention The Walking Dead's badass katana-wielding Michonne, among others.
In the wake of the jingoistic, testosterone-fueled action fantasies of the '80s with Sylvester Stallone refighting and winning the Vietnam War in Rambo and Arnold Schwarzenegger mowing down hundreds if not thousands of adversaries, female heroes were few and far between. It's ironic given the dominance of such smart-mouthed and capable women like Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, Katharine Hepburn, and Greta Garbo in the screwball comedies of the 1930s like It Happened One Night, The Thin Man, Bringing Up Baby, and Ninotchka, which paved the way for the powerful Barbara Stanwyck and Lana Turner in noirs of the '40s like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. But women had rarely been considered action heroines; more often, they were the damsel in distress or, more likely, the scantily clad love interest for Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Norris, who seemed more interested in stroking their weapons than their women. But that was all about to change. Ridley Scott introduced a new kind of female protagonist in 1979's Alien with Sigourney Weaver's smart, savvy, and sexy Ripley, and James Cameron took her matriarchal (and Xenomorph-slaying) power to a whole new level in Aliens a few years later.
By 1993 there was Johnnie To's The Heroic Trio, a kickass Hong Kong chopsocky in which a trio of female superheroes defeats an evil master who is raising kidnapped children into a superarmy. Sound vaguely familiar?
But it was in the year 1997 that a new and thoroughly unexpected female superhero debuted on television, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As in the great Stan Lee comics of the '60s, this was a superhero who knew that with great power comes great responsibility (even if Buffy was more X-Men's Kitty Pryde than Spider-Man's Peter Parker) and who also found that her everyday problems as a student at Sunnydale High School often far exceeded the challenges created by her birthright as a vampire slayer.
It is a show that changed the small screen forever, and, while it'd be hard to consider television an auteurist medium, Buffy is one of the few shows whose success and tone can be almost entirely credited to one man, Joss Whedon, the visionary writer/director/producer who brought the Slayer to life ... death ... and life again.
JOSS WHEDON (creator/executive producer, Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
Buffy came from watching a horror movie and seeing the typical ditzy blonde walk into a dark alley and getting killed. I just thought that I would love to see a scene where the ditzy blonde walks into a dark alley, a monster attacks her, and she kicks its ass. So the concept was real simple. After all those times of seeing the poor girl who had sex and got killed, I just wanted to give her the power back.
SARAH MICHELLE GELLAR (actress, Buffy Summers)
For a long time I think there was a lack of strong female characters on television, especially for young people, and it's so hard because that's the age you really want to identify with someone. You want to have a hero and the thing I liked about Buffy, and Willow as well as Cordelia, is that they are OK with who they are. They're not the most popular or the most beautiful at school. Willow is the smartest, but they're OK with who they are and there's a comfort in their individuality.
SARAH LEMELMAN (author, "It's About Power": Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Stab at Establishing the Strength of Girls on American Television)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was revolutionary for its time as it created fresh images of females, and demonstrated this to an important demographic — young teenage girls — who are fed all sorts of conflicting and dispiriting representations of women. The show established that girls no longer had to adhere to the standards for females in society. Buffy showed that it was not acceptable for girls and women alike to degrade themselves in order to fit into society, as society should accept all versions of females — ladylike or virile, timid or outgoing, polite or crass, and even heterosexual or homosexual, among many other conflicting personalities and characteristics for women and girls.
ANTHONY C. FERRANTE (director, Sharknado)
Whereas in most horror movies, the female lead became a "survivor," Buffy's female lead became a "hero." She didn't need to become ripped like Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 or Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. She was able to be feminine and tough at the same time. The magic of Buffy is that you could relate to her. She still had insecurities, needs, and desires, but at her core she also had to be a hero and a fighter to save herself and the ones she loved.
The world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a refreshing escape for the female sex. Women were seen enacting change on their own accord, and were equalized to — if not stronger than — men. Buffy asserted that women could, in fact, be valued in society. Unlike its predecessors in Wonder Woman and The Bionic Woman,Buffy the Vampire Slayer showed that young teenage girls could be powerful, too. The members of its cast became role models for girls to escape demeaning female stereotypes that had been laid down for so long and instead showed girls that it was perfectly acceptable to define themselves.
ANTHONY C. FERRANTE
Ripley [in Alien] started out a lot like Buffy. She was the everyperson on that ship. The unlikely survivor and hero. She learned to become a badass and a hero, while not sacrificing being herself in the process. Could Buffy have existed without Ripley in Alien? Probably, but Whedon has great taste and, again, understood what he appreciated about great horror movies of the 1970s and 1980s and did his spin on it, taking the best qualities from the best movies and making it into its own.
Before Alien, movies that showed female empowerment focused on sex appeal — Charlie's Angels, Wonder Woman — which is not the case in Alien. Obviously, Buffy focuses on the title character's sex appeal, but the point of that is to undermine stereotypes. You can be beautiful and not in need of saving. Sigourney Weaver is this tireless fighter, which is something that is seen in Buffy.
ANTHONY C. FERRANTE
Buffy really paved the way for more empowered female characters in the genre. Slasher films always had the strong female lead who was the "final girl," but in some ways it was the process of elimination that made them the final survivor. In Buffy, it was less about a survivor and more about becoming a hero. In many vampire movies, women were under the thrall of a vampire and the victim in many instances, who needed to be saved by a Van Helsing–like character. Buffy, on the other hand, looked like the victim but was Van Helsing instead — but with a healthy sense of fashion and pop culture smarts.
CHARISMA CARPENTER (actress, Cordelia Chase)
She was just a normal kid and she just wants to be a girl. My worldview at that age is not the same as it is now. I was twenty-four at the time. We weren't going through what we're going through right now. There wasn't an Internet, there wasn't empowerment, there wasn't a female presidential candidate. I don't think woman power came into my consciousness until Buffy. I guess when you feel empowered in general you aren't really propagating it because you don't really need to. I never felt held down or held back or anything like that, but I learned discrimination did exist for a lot of women. I didn't go to college, so I didn't have the experience with civil rights. I was a little bit naive.
It may seem like a laughable idea that a show made up of vampires and young high school girls could possibly help pave the way for the future of women in television, but it in fact did just that, and became a popular culture phenomenon in the process. The program's heroines are presented as feminist role models to its largely teenage-girl-based audience, showing that women should fight for what they want and not be discouraged by the limits that a patriarchal society places on women. Buffy the Vampire Slayer constantly pushed the boundaries of how the female form was represented on television and showed its audience that feminism can be a normal part of everyday lives.
I was watching a lot of horror movies and seeing blondes going into dark alleys to get killed and I thought it would be interesting to see the blonde go into the dark alley and be the one who kills instead. So that became Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I wrote and was promptly rejected by everyone in Hollywood till Fran [Rubel Kuzui] came along and found it and produced and directed the movie. Then a couple of years later, Fran and Gail Berman, who was working with Sandy Gallin who had the rights, came and asked if I'd be interested in doing a TV series of it. I thought about it a while and said, "Gee, that would be cool." High school as a horror movie pretty much sums up my life. I thought there was a whole series there.
ANTHONY C. FERRANTE
I really enjoyed the original Buffy movie, but the TV show lived up to the potential of the concept. Joss Whedon decided to use all the tropes of high school and growing up and then mask it with a vampire-show template.
GAIL BERMAN (executive producer, Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
One of the things we did when we went to see Joss, Fran [Kuzui] and I, was to talk about this character and see that we were simpatico about her being a young empowered woman. Probably the most important thing we went to talk about originally. There weren't any young empowered women on television and it struck us that this was a real vacuum that could be filled. Not only creatively, but it was important for women to see someone empowered on television.
Everything I write is about power and helplessness. And somebody being helpless and their journey to power is the narrative that sustains me. A lot of it has to do with being very helpless and tiny and I had two terrifying older brothers and a terrifying father and a withholding mother and, generally speaking, I knew I was on my own and I had no fucking skills. I was like, I don't know how to survive. I got mugged every time I left the house. Just like people were waiting in line. I'm pretty sure one in six New Yorkers has in their lifetime mugged me. I would just be walking around in my head creating these narratives where these little tiny people that nobody paid attention to kicked everybody's ass in one way or another. Why they are always female I'm still not sure, but I'm not uncomfortable with it.
It may seem odd that a man, rather than a woman, had a passion to write and produce a show with a strong female lead, but Whedon — who was clearly ahead of his time — wanted to show that powerful and captivating young women can be a part of everyday life. As a graduate at Wesleyan University, he studied both film and feminist theory, and is a self-proclaimed feminist, stating that he has always found strong women interesting because they are not overly represented in the cinema [and] that there are a lot of ways to break new ground without having original thoughts. Perhaps one of the most important projects he worked on prior to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie was Roseanne, which starred a housewife who showed the world a new type of independence, while still relying on, and embracing, her femininity. This seems to have inspired and influenced Whedon, and with the success of Roseanne, he continued to hold on to Buffy.
It took a while, actually, to figure it out. I wanted to do this girl who was different and had powers. Plus I love vampires; they're so cool. But it started with Buffy. Before the vampires became part of it, I knew that I wanted to make her this special person. Someone who wanted desperately to fit in, but had a higher calling. That's how the idea of her being a vampire slayer first came to me.
STEVE BIODROWSKI (editor in chief, Cinefantastique)
The evolution of vampires on page, stage, and screen paved the way for Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the sense that, as the depiction of the undead changed, something was lost. To coin a phrase, the bat had been thrown out with the bloody bathwater. Old-fashioned, frightening vampires became passé if not outright cornball while literature and cinema focused on sexy, romantic immortals suffering existential angst.
A serious depiction of a life-and-death battle between good and evil risked being laughed off the screen. Joss Whedon found a way to give us evil vampires again and undercut the risk of unintentional laughter by affecting a droll tone, somewhat akin to the 1960s spy series The Avengers: treat the important stuff in an offhand way; treat the trivial stuff as if it were really important. So Buffy may have been averting a vampire apocalypse, but she really would have preferred to focus on fitting in at school and making friends.
The title is one of the things I fought for. The only disagreement I ever really had with the network was I would not let go of the title. A lot of people said, "But it's stupid, and it's the title of a comedy movie, and people won't take it seriously." I'm sure there are some people who still don't.
DAN VEBBER (co–executive producer, The Simpsons)
I was a huge fan of the show. You hear the stories all the time about how hard it was for him to keep the name Buffy the Vampire Slayer instead of just calling it "Slayer" because people wouldn't watch a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As a fan I found that to be the case, too; it was hard to convince people how good it was, because it just had a silly name.
I agree with Joss, though, that he absolutely should've kept the name, because it's essential to the mood and the tone of the show; that's what the show is called and it says everything you need to know.
One interesting thing about Buffy is the appellation "vampire hunter." The notion of a vampire hunter is pretty much a cinematic invention. Stoker's Van Helsing was a professor called in to consult on an unusual medical case, who recognized the signs and then read up everything he could find; in other words, he was not a professional vampire hunter. The same could be said of Kolchak, at least in The Night Stalker telefilm. The main difference between Buffy and these examples is that Buffy has a normal life — or tries to, anyway. None of us really knows what Van Helsing or Kolchak would like to do in their spare time; in fact, the very notion of them relaxing and hanging out is almost comical.
But Buffy would love to go to a club and just enjoy a night out with friends. Which brings us to probably the main reason for the success of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: it gave high school girls a protagonist they could relate to, who lives in a world that, at least on the surface, resembled theirs. For high-school-age people, everything seems to be of life-or-death importance; every failure is the end of the world. The series' little joke is that, for Buffy, this is not a metaphor but literal reality: her life is in continual danger, and she is trying to prevent the end of the world.
Women have historically been subjugated to men in both the home and workplace and I think that has permeated into literature and the media. In terms of the "girl in peril" trope, essentially, women are not capable of saving themselves. They are typically young and beautiful and need the big, strong, brave man to offer help and protection against some foe, or to get the girl out of a distressing situation.
In the first three seasons of Buffy, he is essential to the story line in helping Buffy fight the forces of evil. Angel is despised by other vampires and demons, as he is expected to be torturing defenseless victims, not helping them. His heroic acts and inner sufferings create the image of the "sympathetic" vampire, which the viewer loves and approves of.