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What Buffy taught me about mental health, sex & being a girl

The cult classic is still relevant 20 years later, having led the way on mental health, desire, and same-sex relationships

Today, Buffy The Vampire Slayer celebrates its 20th anniversary. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s hard to understand why this would be worthy of celebration. How could a show about a blonde, Californian teenager fighting monsters have any significant cultural impact? On the surface, it seems trashy, fun, throwaway – a low budget series packed full of camp costumes, dodgy stunt doubles and shambly scenery.

And yet, despite all that, the show has managed to affect girls (and guys) across the world. It’s inspired countless academic readings, essays and university courses, because it’s actually about much more than staking vampires with wooden sticks. It’s about growing up. “We think very carefully about what we're trying to say emotionally, politically, and even philosophically while we're writing it,” the show’s creator, Joss Whedon, said back in 2003. “It really is, apart from being a pop-culture phenomenon, something that is deeply layered textually episode by episode.” Buffy and her friends fight loneliness, addiction, oppression, misogyny, heartbreak, mental illness, and loss – sometimes metaphorically and sometimes literally. They're facing demons, and they’re the same demons we all have to face.

“It really is, apart from being a pop-culture phenomenon, something that is deeply layered textually episode by episode” – Joss Whedon

When I say the show shaped who I was, it’s no exaggeration. For me and my female friends, it was unlike anything else. In Buffy, for the first time, we saw a woman who was real, complex, flawed, and a bit messed up. We saw an honest portrayal of female sexuality and desire. We saw queer culture get warmly embraced, and gay relationships take centre stage – Willow, played by Alyson Hannigan, was calmly introduced as a gay main character, while 20 years on Disney is being lauded for featuring a same-sex kiss. That’s not to say it was perfect (the show has been widely criticised for its lack of diversity and playing up to racist stereotypes) but the fact that it broke boundaries we’re still struggling with today shows how progressive, and relevant, it still is.

From a feminist perspective, the show has always been divisive. It makes sense. Buffy is beautiful, blonde, white, privileged – as are most of her friends – and the show upholds pretty rigid gender stereotypes. But I think these criticisms miss the point. While Buffy may have had immaculate style and “kickass” super-human strength, it was her vulnerability that was the real breakthrough. It felt like the first time we’d really got to see, without judgement, an imperfect woman get to grips with growing up. She fucked up, repeatedly – in a way that hadn’t really been seen with women on TV before. She was even at points straight-up unlikeable (see: “When She Was Bad”, and basically all of season six).

The show’s approach to female sexuality seems revolutionary even today. As well as showing us the classic “girl has sex with boy, boy turns into asshole” trope we’re all so familiar with, viewers get exposed to the more nuanced, complicated sides of desire. Buffy rejects Riley – someone sturdy and reliable – to embark on a sordid sexual relationship with Spike, a man she despises. She grapples with an attraction that simultaneously excites and repulses her. It’s an issue that’s examined sympathetically by the writers because it is a reality. Most of us have been there.

Buffy also fearlessly tackled mental health, shining a particularly bright light on depression. Each season, characters were faced with the “end of the world”. Each time, they overcame the challenge. When Buffy fails to survive at the end of season five and gets resurrected, we see her work through the affliction more explicitly. She feels detached, isolated, lonely – she rejects her friends, struggles with her career, and sleeps with the wrong men. Watching her flounder through these issues is familiar to anyone, particularly women, who have suffered with depression. (The show also extensively covers the nature of addiction, through vampires and their need for blood, as well as Willow’s downward spiral into black magic).

The show was, at its heart, an unflinching look at the everyday battles women are forced to face. Not with vampires and demons, but with life in general. For me particularly, it offered a vital (if distorted) reflection of my own life – growing up with a single mother, flaky patriarchal figures, and mental health struggles – and reassured me that I wasn’t alone. It did the same thing for queer friends, outsiders, or anyone who, at some time in their life, identified as “the other”. Two decades later, and I’m yet to feel the same way about any other TV show.