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"You mean you didn’t know that Buffy is a post-feminist show? Ugh"

The dA-Zed guide to Buffy studies

You can go and study everything to do with Sunnydale and the Scooby Gang – here’s our comprehensive cheat sheet

When a generation falls in love with something so period-defining, yet eternally relevant and relatable as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it doesn’t just hit TV and then move quietly to the shelves. As with The X-Files or Star Trek, a dedicated few will analyse and contextualise these worlds until whole degrees and modules on them can be fervently studied at university. Buffy studies is here now.

There’s no 90s kid who didn’t chart the brilliant, changing hair-bangs of Sarah Michelle Gellar or want to stake vampires in the heart with the vigour of B Summers. Over the past couple of decades we’ve seen the academy acknowledging mass-loved and fetishised “trash” television, films and comics. If any show deserves legions of dedicated students and thesis papers devoted to its deconstruction, it’s this show. So if you’re thinking about joining a course, here’s your dA-Zed guide on the topic of Buffy studies.


The embodiment of both good and evil, Angel has the shifting ability to withdraw from humanity or embody vampirism as alter-ego Angelus. Some critics like Stacey Abbott have suggested that Angel possessing a soul has made him one in a long line of sympathetic, reluctant vampires such as the nineteenth-century Varney the Vampire or Nick Knight in Forever Knight, an “essentialist hero” whose goodness is determined by his ownership of a soul. Following Angel was Twlight’s mopey, brooding Edward, of course. 


They’re you, they’re me, they’re the hardcore students of Slayage and Buffy Studies. They’re the people dedicated to promoting and exploring the phenomenon of the show, and at the drop of a hat, can cite episode and season, character and quote. Find them enrolled at the nearest Film Studies MA taking classes in Cult Film and TV, and writing papers on the Capitalist Consumerism of the Hellmouth.


Forget Tolkien, creator Joss Whedon single-handedly made a language when he gave lines to his teen outcasts. Now known in the TV industry as “Buffy Speak”, the group’s special mode of talking is categorised by lacking suitable vocabulary, for example, calling a weapon a “shooty-gun thing”. And of course, there’s the certified piece of Buffy Speak: “Oh God, with the (insert any verb-ing here)”. Another trope is metaforgotten – where a character uses a metaphor that speeds ahead and completely derails, usually for comedy, as seen in the following conversation:

Buffy: Vampires are creeps. 
Giles: Yes, that's why one slays them. 
Buffy: I mean, people are perfectly happy getting along, and then vampires come, and they run around and they kill people, and they take over your whole house, they start making these stupid little mini pizzas, and everyone's like, 'I like your mini pizzas,' but I'm telling you, I am... 
Giles: Uh, uh, Buffy! I-I believe the...subtext here is, is, rapidly becoming, uh, uh, text.


The whole universe Buffy and her friends inhabit is extremely insecure. Destructive events occur at every turn: Giles girlfriend Jenny Calendar is killed in Season Two, followed by Tara and Buffy’s mother. Even Buffy herself, the protagonist, faces total destruction. As Buffy-head Professor Kellner states, “Probably no show in history of television has so consistently articulated chance and contingency in life and confronted finitude: that relations end, that stages of life (i.e. youth) come to an end, and that life can end anytime and in any place.” None of this, “it’ll be alright in the end” predictability in Sunnydale plots.


Representations of class in Buffy are fairly problematic – as, regrettably, is a lot else. The main characters are identifiably middle class, while many monsters resemble stereotypical rough, threatening working class types. Faith, of course, is a working class character central to the narrative and she’s presented to an audience as unruly, lacking in discipline and self-destructive. When Xander is presented in his menial jobs at the start of season three, it’s clear he’s at a dead end and must rise above if he’s going to be fulfilled. Or suffer forever, living a greasy life in a fast food restaurant.


Families very much break free of the traditional mother, father and two kids mould in the show. As Burr and Jarvis explore in their paper, “Imagining the Family: Representations of Alternative Lifestyles in BtVS”, a democratic, non-hierarchical vision of the family with relationships between friends in its centre is promoted. Using the central “family” groups – Buffy’s own immediate small family with her mother, the Scooby Gang and the idea of the “chosen” ones as her family – Burr and Jarvis argue that all family groups have their own advantages and dangers which are made evident throughout the show.


Down with the patriarchy. As seen within the family groupings, the father is absent for Buffy and in other cases usually weak or non-existent. The entire show provides a thorough critique of patriarchal structures via failing schooling, corrupt politics and the military. High school principles Flutie and Snyder are either seen as overly conservative and authoritarian or just completely useless. It’s really all about the democratic mixed-groups like the Buffy and crew.


Buffy fed into and benefited from an explosion of interest surrounding Wicca in the late nineties. As a result, it’s difficult to discuss the show without considering the context: the bestselling Book of Shadows had just come out in 1999 and the same year there was controversy over witches practicing on a Texas military base. Whether society liked it or not, on some minor level, witchcraft was becoming visible. In the show, representations resist historical accounts and instead explore stereotypes and classic images of witches in pop culture. Witches aren’t just old hags on broomsticks – they can be young, fun, minor-league players or dark and powerful and ageless. 


Things got weakly cryptic by Season Four with the introduction of the Initiative, a secret government project researching better ways to kill demons while also creating superkillers. During this period IRL, there was a reasonably unarticulated fear of militarism in the US, as well as fears of genetic engineering which was surfacing over stem cell research and cloning. Adam, the superhuman created by the Initiative can be clearly read as a realisation of these futuristic anxieties.


“I think it’s great that the academic community has taken an interest in the show,” the creator Joss Whedon once responded. “I think it’s always important for academics to study popular culture, even if the thing they are studying is idiotic. If it’s successful or made a dent in culture, then it is worthy of study to find out why. Buffy, on the other hand is, I hope, not idiotic. We think very carefully about what we're trying to say emotionally, politically, and even philosophically while we're writing it, it really is, apart from being a pop-culture phenomenon, something that is deeply layered textually episode by episode.” To understand Joss is to understand Buffy. And if Joss says he has enriched each beautiful moment with meaning and depth, then it’s worth analysing every second.


When class and race intersect it makes for another troubling reading – particularly when looking at the “other” slayers, Kendra and Faith. While working class Faith is portrayed as too unbalanced and wild to be truly great, Kendra is a woman of colour and  “othered” as an another lesser Slayer. In “Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake for Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, Wilcox and Lavery state that class and race are clear signifiers when it comes to stereotyping “American white trash Faith and Jamaican Kendra”. It doesn’t take a genius to see that the compulsive and fanatical Kendra is being positioned as the alternative to white hero Buffy.


On a traditional narrative level, Buffy is a female Bildungsroman – a coming of age story usually focused around a man. Here, however, it develops and subverts this classic model by making Buffy kick-ass, individualistic, interesting, and yet still (shocker) a female. It’s a perfect fantasy of a central character fighting off all that’s bad and battling to control her environment.


Monster is metaphor. In Buffy, the physical stand-ins are merely societial differences and threats. Witches tap into the fear of female power and sexuality, while vampires represent unchecked predatory sexuality. Kellner suggests that many of the demons point to the dangers of drug addiction and the gangs of monsters signify gang violence. Whatever Buffy’s “Big Bad” might be that episode, there’s always something universal about it: be it authority figures, sexual awakening, loss or loneliness. 


The veil between the spirit world and the real world is so thin you could wave your clawed paw through it. Pulseless-walking-talking vampires and reincarnated Buffy included, just because you’re dead, doesn’t mean you’re dead. In terms of a fandom, this is more than perfect: it’s a fan’s dream. It enables more plausible possibilities for fan fiction and makes its world absolutely limitless.


Of course there’s a whole paper dedicated to analysing the show’s epic, fist-pumping opening credits. Koclemba argues in his 2006 article, “Actually it explains a lot”, that the imagery, colour, logo, editing and so on function as a microcosm of the series itself. As such it heavily features one of the iconic images of Buffy as the empowered female Slayer, spectacularised and punctuated by the pulsating theme song, which both provide a “kinetic rush”. You’ll be familiar with that one.


With such a strong, male-dominating female character, Buffy was always going to be wrapped up in feminist theory. However, Lorna Jowett is a post-feminist who thinks that ‘“Buffy may be Barbie with a kung-fu grip but she is still Barbie”’. She identifies the show as post-feminist as a result of what she perceives to be the upholding of male and female stereotypes for the most part. If staking vamps, stalking graveyards all night, saving the world from destruction on multiple occasions, managing to sort-of keep up with school, hooking up with David Boreanaz and all while upholding impeccable levels of personal style is somehow post-feminist then okay, count us in.


While the show makes tentative steps with a lesbian storyline, it’s vampire Spike who plays with the idea of gender and sexuality perhaps more than any other character in the series. By being a vampire and having a strong personality, the writers have created the code for a queer identity. Amy-Chinn describes Spike’s status as a queer character as “the way that he transgresses the boundaries of the acceptable gender and sexual behaviour”. When the blonde creep himself says to Riley that Buffy “needs a little monster in her man”, he is placing poor Riley in the position of normal, beige boyfriend in comparison to himself, the boundary blurrer. Basically, Riley lacks the queerness that Spike plays with.


People of colour don’t really exist in Buffy’s world – and when they do they’re little more than a threat from a non-Western culture. In “Inca Mummy Girl”, Xander falls in love with an evil Inca princess. The subtext here implies that other cultures are dangerous and highly seductive. “Half breeds” and “non-humans” also seem to come from the East or “Third World” countries, problematically.


Spike is sexual nihilism incarnate. As Amy-Chinn and Williamson explore in “The Vampire Spike in text and fandom”, he embodies “the simultaneous expression of erotic repulsion and attraction”. Buffy desires him, but at the same time detests him. We’ve all been there. He represents a “fear of and desire for the ‘other’”. His – as well as other vampires’ – need for blood is a clear metaphor for drug addiction.


The beautiful year when Buffy Studies really came into being was probably 2001, when Slayage: The Online Journal of Buffy Studies started publishing essays on the topic quarterly. Since then numerous international conferences have been held on the Buff herself and many books have been published which apply a thoroughly academic lens. 


Characters, plots, worlds: they’re all invariably transformative and unpredictable. Good characters end up being bad while a narrative might become insecure, complex, subject to constant change and uncertainty. Angel, for example, epitomises this unstable binary. He constantly metamorphosis from good to bad, threatening to safe. In a positive sense, the possibility is always there for a character to change their identity or become a better person.


Its glorious and perhaps excessive visual violence does follow a pattern, according to Kellner. She believes it mirrored real life militarism, aggression and suspicion. “Early Buffy in the Clinton years tends to be light, satirical, and ironical, catching the wave of an intense postmodern moment circulating through US and global 13 culture,” she writes. Buffy fits into this by making fun of patriarchy and military, while the show’s monsters were laughably obvious threats to everyday life. “But as the world became more dangerous, violent, and insecure after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the Bush administration ultramilitarism in their largely unilateral interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, Buffy took a much darker, more violent, and pessimistic turn.”


So strong is the Buffyverse reach that the show was even used as a huge paper-long premise for real US defence policies. In Finding a New Paradigm: The Buffy Syndrome, the author explains the show (in case the important policy-makers don’t have younger daughters who watch it) as one where “a teenage vampire slayer lives in a world of unpredictable threats where each series of crises only becomes predictable when it is over and it is followed by a new and unfamiliar one.” This is the “Buffy Paradigm”. Just like real life really. Why not base Homeland strategies on the Scoobies vs the “Big Bad”? Sure.


You don’t have to give a thorough analysis to see the strong BDSM subtext running throughout. Whedon himself has commented that he has a “commitment to porn” and in the Buffyverse canon it’s queer and it’s feminist, all about eroticising the dominated, bloody male and positioning women on top. When it comes to vampire sex, characters have been stabbed, burnt, beated and tortured in every way possible as a means of sexual gratification for one or both of the lovers.


“She was my opposite in every way. Dutiful daughter. Devout Christian. Innocent and unspoiled. I took one look at her and I knew. She’d be my masterpiece.” That’s what Angel said about Drusilla when he decided to maliciously torture her all the way to insanity. She exists throughout as the classic “mad young woman”, thin and frail, accompanied by the twinkling of a music box to heighten her sense of madness wherever she goes.

Particularly when you consider Drusilla in contrast to Spike, she is placed in an infantile, feminine position, moving across her environment in a highly childlike manner. Her powers too embody the stereotypical mad witch – divination, hypnosis and empathy, coupled with razor-sharp fingernails. Drusilla is what happens what a good girl is crushed senselessly by a man and becomes his throwaway.


As all monsters seem to represent some societal or personal threat in Buffy, so do werewolves. The hairy half-humans connote bodily energies and forces exploding out of control. Basically, when they transform under the moon, that is humanity unable to resist its urges. Lorna Jowett argues that Oz’s anxiety about his animal transformation is his anxiety about masculinity. His sensitivity is proved by the realisation that he needs to restrain that angry, aggressive, brutish, wild side of himself.