Buffy’s message to a post-COVID world
Rewatching the TV series of my youth during lockdown reminded me of what’s important in life
As lockdown loomed, a message went round: let’s all rewatch Buffy, together.
And so, every Thursday night, our Scooby gang would stop learning the jargon of this then-new pandemic, pause from terrorising ourselves with ‘r’ numbers and hospitalisation figures and death tolls, congregate on WhatsApp and thrill ourselves with two episodes of near-perfect television.
Soon after our routine began, another Thursday night ritual developed – and so we moved Buffy back half an hour, so we could take to our doorsteps and applaud the NHS. But that, as it turned out, was a relatively brief moment. Buffy night became a tradition.
Of course, twice, it clashed with other cyclical ceremonies. Christmas Eve and Hogmanay fell on Thursdays, and we all agreed to skip Buffy night for those. On the latter, we were busy anyway: my partner was giving birth to our daughter, the second baby born to our Thursday night club.
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I envy those first-timers for whom the twists were surprises. The opening scene of the show, when the ‘vulnerable woman’ lured into the empty night-time high school by her macho date turns out to be a vampire, and kills him. Season three, episode one, ‘Anne’, where Buffy overcomes her own false consciousness, and leads a workers’ uprising in a mine, armed with a hammer and a sickle. ‘Hush’, in season four: a fairytale in mime and a sinister essay on human communication. The dark depths of ‘Normal Again’, when Buffy wakes up in a psychiatric ward, believing her life as ‘Slayer’ to be a long delusion. The glory of them bursting into song in the musical episode ‘Once More with Feeling’ (and yes, I know all of the words). The shock when Buffy realises that her mum isn’t just lying on the sofa, and that she’s died from something much scarier than any monster in the show: a brain tumour.
The lesson in almost every episode is simple: Buffy may have superpowers, but when she tries to solve problems alone, she fails
If you’re my age, then Buffy was around your age – the series ran for the same period as I was in secondary school, from the election of Tony Blair to the bombing of Iraq. And so we grew up with the characters. When Tara and Willow finally get together, it was one of the first lesbian kisses broadcast on US television, and it was certainly the first time I came across a same-sex relationship as just one aspect of the wider life of a major character in popular culture. The first use of the word ‘Googled’ on TV was on Buffy.
Like other major TV events for those of us who came of age around the millennium, it shaped our understanding of the world. We were told that the funeral of Princess Di – in September 1997 – is when the nation learned to cry, but we hadn’t really known the nation before that. World Cup ‘98 taught us which team we were on. Big Brother, debuted in 2000, launched reality TV, the forerunner of social media. But it was Buffy, which first aired in the UK on 30 December 1998, which talked about our generation.
The lesson in almost every episode is simple: Buffy may have superpowers, but when she tries to solve problems alone, she fails. She needs her team, her Scoobies, her comrades. While most superhero shows teach the ultimately reactionary message that power lies with a race of übermenschen, Buffy inverts the trope, showing that we all have skills to bring, and we solve our problems by working together against dark and powerful forces.
After her mother dies, Buffy’s need to get a job – first in a burger joint, then as a school counsellor – gets in the way of her world-saving. It’s an allegory for the problems with capitalist models of women’s liberation: you can’t have it all in a world that takes everything from you. Other characters struggle, too: Willow discovers magic and then battles with addiction to it; Cordelia descends through America’s class system when her dad loses his job; Xander finds purpose as a builder. The genre may be fantasy, but the show had much more contact with reality than contemporaries such as Friends.
If there’s a crux of the seven seasons, it’s the point when Buffy sacks the council of (mostly English) male ‘Watchers’ who considered themselves her boss. She realises that, ultimately, they need her, she doesn’t need them. It’s she, not them, who has the power: a clear allegory for workers – and for women – everywhere.
Buffy’s anarcha-feminist propaganda was watched by up to one in 20 households in America, and its political influence on our generation is so vast, it’s possibly the subject of more academic study than almost any other TV series in history.
As we emerge from lockdown and into a new world, the lesson Buffy teaches couldn’t be more relevant
The characters are glorious: Buffy and Willow taught us that women can lead, can be computer geeks, and can be strong – all at once. Xander’s struggles against toxic masculinity and to accept his place as Buffy and Willow’s sidekick were a better exploration of the gendered politics of what became the Trump phenomenon than almost any essay you’ll read in a major publication.
And Spike and Angel – vampires who switch sides from the dark to the light – teach us about male violence against women. Their stories show that redemption isn’t a change of mood, but something men have to struggle for through huge amounts of hard work.
Of course the show has its flaws. The tropes about ‘Gypsy magic’ in early seasons are awkward, and the fact there isn’t a major Black character until the final season is a real problem. The cast disappointingly conform to attractiveness norms. And recent allegations about creator Joss Whedon’s behaviour have marred the feminist message.
As the popularity of the podcast ‘Buffering the Vampire Slayer’ demonstrates, Buffy maintains a vast cult following to this day, nearly 25 years after it first aired. Our weekly Buffy club reminded us why, bringing structure to those endless weeks of lockdown – and through our collective WhatsApp commentary, conviviality to the loneliness of being locked up with a new baby for months on end. After all, while variety is the spice of life, routine is its carbs. Our Thursday night injection of Buffy helped us power through.
Time to resist
We watched the final episodes last Thursday. In the end, as an ultimate showdown with evil beckons, Buffy realises that she doesn’t have to be the ‘chosen one’. This is a rule made up by “a bunch of old men who died thousands of years ago”. She and Willow rewrite this rule, and pass on Buffy’s power to every woman who has the potential for it. It isn’t exactly subtle as an allegory for patriarchy. But Buffy’s speech explaining the plan is a wonderful TV moment.
Now that we’re emerging from lockdown and into a new world, the lesson Buffy teaches couldn’t be more relevant. We can stand up against the forces of darkness. Neoliberalism is dead, and the future of the planet will depend on what replaces it. Will we bow to a misogynistic and racist authoritarian capitalism that looks like it will burn the planet? Or will we learn to follow the powerful young women of the world, who more than any other demographic, are resisting, and insisting on something different?
Will we let those who are sucking life from the world for profit keep running things, or will we come together to resist? As Buffy says, “make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?”
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