Nevertheless, She Persisted: A Look Back At BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER

On the plural of apocalypse, twenty years later.

It is a tradition of Buffy the Vampire Slayerthat Buffy’s birthday is always a disaster. On her 17th birthday Angel loses his soul; on another the condescending Watcher’s Council inflicts its gruesome, paternalistic test; on a third her father figure Giles becomes himself an angry, violent demon, rampaging through Sunnydale. This time, in 2017, Buffy’s birthday catches us in the midst of almost unprecedented social disaster, as yet again a posturing monster smiles and gathers the power to hurt a generation, expecting us to sit patiently and to swell the numbers of his crowd as he finishes his speech.

It’s the end of the world – again.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, now twenty years old, was always about living in aftermath. In the early '90s Buffy was nothing but a slight, campy movie self-consciously about “The Lite Ages” of valley girl cluelessness, misunderstood by its audience and half of its cast. But on March 10, 1997, Buffy came back. It was a return to a life she didn’t want, even in the pilot; as she meets with (doomed) Principal Flutie we learn she resolutely wants to put her past (a past that both is and isn’t the past of the film) behind her. When we meet Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy, she has already seen too much, already wants to escape, her first instinct always – run away, deflect, avoid, feign indifference, ironize, make a joke – already on display. The hardest thing in this world, she learns over and over again, is to live in it.

Much is made of the show’s first scene, in which gender stereotypes are inverted, and a petite blonde (in this case the vampire Darla) reveals herself to be the powerful one against a world of male aggression and violence. But Buffy was also a show about surviving and about survivors (as, in the fullness of time, we would even learn about Darla herself – a woman who accepted vampirism as her revenge on a world’s puritanical scorn). The continuous visual incongruity of Buffy’s “waif-fu” of tiny women kicking ass has been often critiqued in the intervening years, but it in fact makes an important point about the tendency to overlook, minimize, and infantilize the suffering of young people and particularly young women. In “The Gift,” another of the show’s signature episodes, the teaser ends with the victim Buffy has saved (again male) sputtering: “but you’re just a girl!” Buffy, in the midst with another crippling choice, another taxing ordeal, responds with impossible weariness: ‘That’s what I keep saying.”

The world Buffy moves in, like ours, is one hostile by design to the marginal and minority. Buffy’s Sunnydale is a town built for demons to feed on; its world, its architecture and landscape, are zones of massacre and atrocity: dorms haunted by sexually repressed teens; ribbon-cuttings obscuring colonial genocides; the high school and its terrorized students perched upon the Mouth of Hell itself. Sunnydale is America writ small: a sparkling optimism sugarcoating a history of violence. “Silence is this town’s disease,” Joyce Summers insists, rejecting a somber (and cynical) “moment of silence” – a metaphor made literal (as so many metaphors on Buffy were) when the fairytale Gentleman descend on Sunnydale’s streets, stealing their victims’ voices. In a place presided over by grinningly polite patriarchal mayors and death-white leers in suits, Sunnydale is another Flint, another (as Mr Trick points out), Mayberry, a place where “You’re going to die screaming, but you won’t be heard.”

Its citizens, too, are figures of damage. It is easy to forget (because the show seems to want us, mostly, to forget) that one of the so-called Scooby Gang, Jesse, Willow and Xander’s close best friend, dies in its first episode; Joss Whedon had in fact intended Eric Balfour’s name to be in the opening credits montage, to make the loss all the worse. Death when it came on Buffy – to Kendra, to her mother, to Tara, to Anya – always comes as a shock, as a horror without coordinates or coherent meaning, as a force that engenders monsters with which we must grapple. Jesse rises again, of course, and the gang learns what it takes to slay him, and learns what it takes to move on.

In the end Buffy as a series only had one kind of villain: creatures that somehow endure past when they ought to have died. Sunnydale was attacked regularly not just by undead vampires, but by Lovecraftian demons – remnants, we are told by Rupert Giles, from a time when “contrary to popular mythology,” the world was not a paradise but their Hell, and who now refused to recognize the world that was theirs is gone. Frankenstein football players and super-soldiers, unhappy poltergeists, hapless wolf-attack victims turned monsters themselves: they were all figures of being leftover, of incomplete and injured survival. Even the show’s surprisingly deep bench of robots enact this strange fascination with the echo; from Ted’s outdated chauvinism to April’s dejection and dying battery pack to even the cheerfully bewildered Buffy-Bot herself, these beings persist in a world that isn’t theirs to be in anymore, that no longer makes sense within the parameters they were programmed to expect.

But the monsters were not the only thing that refused to stay dead. In the course of the show Buffy dies twice – both times to redeem a thing worth saving, both times brought back by the people who love her, to endure a world too bright and hard, populated by figures of misogyny, hatred, and despair, unsure of how to live in the world with the choices it offered her.

Nevertheless, she persisted: rising fiercer, stronger, and learning sometimes with difficulty not to let that strength and ferocity make her hard and unkind. Buffy returns, and by returning taught me and a generation of people like me the courage to make new friends, to let guards down, and in its tender staging of a gay relationship between Willow and Tara, offered a model (one of the first on television) for what queerness, and what queer heroism and queer joy and even queer rage, might look like.

Confronted in a dreamscape by the First Slayer who is enraged that Buffy is not alone, and has not become a razor in the face of evil, Buffy rejects isolation and bare survival: “I don’t sleep on a bed of bones.” Instead, her heroism insists on hope, on friendship, on life; she wants to “date, and shop and hang out and go to school and save the world from unspeakable demons.” She wants, in other words, “to do girlie stuff.” The show’s title – which the network hated – was always a joke, and a mission statement. You can be a Slayer, and still be Buffy. In the show’s series finale Buffy watches the only world she and the show have ever known swallowed in a massive cataclysm. And, a broad bright horizon in front of her, asked what comes next – where do we go from here? – she smiles.

Terrible things happen; we can let it destroy us, let it turn us into something dark and cruel and desperate, or we can endure it, find and share power, and come back. Buffy taught a very precious lesson: it is possible to survive the end of the world and to live long enough to learn, as poor befuddled Riley Finn puts it, the plural of apocalypse.

Buffy Summers saved the world a lot. One of the worlds she saved was mine. She taught me that it is possible to live on the edge of Hell itself and still find friends, find joy, find life. The Mouth of Hell will open; your job is to make sure it chokes on you. She taught me to be brave, yes, but also to live.

Happy birthday, Buffy.