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LadyGhosts of TV Past

Ladyghosts of TV Past: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Thinking About Season 1

 

“”The first thing I ever thought of when I thought of Buffy the movie was the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie. The idea of Buffy was to subvert that idea, that image, and create someone who was a hero where she had always been a victim. That element of surprise, that element of genre busting is very much at the heart of the movie and the series” ““ Joss Whedon

Before we dive into season 2, I thought we’d take a week to discuss season 1 in its entirety. Expect this to be a regular feature ““ at the end of every season, there will be a season wrap-up to talk about themes and messages, and how successful the show has been thus far. The great thing about revisiting shows like Buffy, which have already completed their run*, is that you can look at the big picture and not just judge on a week-to-week basis.

*Buffy, of course, lives on in the Season 8 and the upcoming Season 9 comic series. I will be talking about them when we get there and the problems that the continuing story presents to the universe of the show.

To begin, all of the season 1 recaps:

Welcome to the Hellmouth

The Harvest

The Witch

Teacher’s Pet

Never Kill a Boy on the First Date

The Pack

Angel

I Robot, You Jane

The Puppet Show

Nightmares

Out of Mine, Out of Sight

Prophecy Girl

 

Whedon has been outspoken about his intent to create an explicitly feminist show with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I can think of few other writers who have been so blunt about their desires and who deliberately aimed to change the way we look at female characters. Buffy was supposed to be that blonde who gets killed off in horror films, that pretty little slip of a girl who runs and screams and heaves her chest before being killed in a gratuitous and sexual manner. Joss aimed to flip that narrative on its head.

So, 12 episodes in, how effective was he?

Honestly, pretty damn effective. It’s hard to remember how revolutionary this show was when it premiered. Two years earlier, Xena had created a huge ruckus with its action heroine, kicking off the wave of fighting gals that were so popular in the ’90s, but Buffy was different. Sure, she was a fighter too, but she was also a girl that most viewers would recognize. Her school looked like your school. Her problems looked like your problems. Her single parent household was probably familiar. She had dating problems and identity problems and did badly at school and was ostracized from the popular crowd. There were just a few more vampires in her life than there probably were in yours.

You could relate, even if you weren’t the inheritor of legendary mystical powers and the responsibility to save the world from demons.

So while you were relating, you were also getting to see a girl who fought. Who stood up, even when all she really wanted to do was go catch a movie with a cute boy. Buffy was supposed to be that girl that got killed, because that’s what popular culture told you happened to girls. They get killed and some guy gets to seek revenge and her death is ultimately a story about that guy’s power. When Buffy walks down that alley in the first episode, that scene is direct confrontation of this narrative.  She doesn’t die; she knocks Angel on his ass, puts her boot in his chest, and demands that he stops stalking her. This isn’t his story. This is her story. And you’re going to respect that she’s the driving force in it.

You want some evidence about how revolutionary this is? 14 years after this scene airs, we have the exact same scenario in one of the most popular and most widely-read book series published this century, except that the heroine doesn’t protect herself or call out her stalker for his creepy behavior; she offers up her throat to him.

The show doesn’t stop with Buffy. It’s one thing to have one empowered, active character. Plenty of shows do that. Especially in the post-Buffy, post-Xena, post-girl power world. Most of them don’t have two, much less an entire roster of well fleshed-out female characters. Willow, of course, becomes the show’s breakout star, and she has a rocky start in the first season. “I Robot,” the first of the Willow-centric episodes, is a weak bit of storytelling, but it has its moments, like Willow catching on to and refusing to be snowed by her internet boyfriend’s suspicious behavior. Cordelia floats around discovering bodies and screaming, but she’s kickass when it comes to it, driving a car through a school to get her not-friends to safety. Jenny Calender has her worldview shaken by demon attacks, takes some time to adjust, and comes back to join the fight.

Over and over again, we just see women on screen. They’re everywhere. They aren’t just relegated to the hot girlfriend roles – they’re computer geeks, working mothers, invisible assassins, slayers, teachers, and prom queens. They pass the Bedschel test, over and over again – in itself, this is not “proof” that the show is feminist, but ask yourself, what’s the last TV show you can name that does this? Every week?

Season 1 isn’t perfect. There’s some problematic storytelling elements, particularly in the treatment of Xander and the episode “The Pack,” which I think the writers would like us to forget ever happens. Once you watch the episode and understand Xander’s attack on Buffy as a sexual assault, it makes accepting him and his friendship in the later years difficult. Particularly because he lies about knowing it happened.  Especially because he’s never forced to atone for it – there is no other major show character that goes so unpunished for such a major sin.

What sticks out to me most on this rewatch of the first season is how thin it actually is. Season 1 has never been my favorite – I think most critics would agree that the show really hits its stride in season 2 – but it was good enough to convince me to keep tuning in when it first aired. It dates horribly. 14 years down the line, many things that were fresh and exciting about the series are now almost commonplace on television. But the really good episodes, “Welcome to the Hellmouth,” “”˜The Harvest,” and “Prophecy Girl” showcase some fantastic storytelling and the themes the show will ultimately concern itself with. “Prophecy Girl” in particular is a gem – it is absolutely on par with “The Gift,” “The Body,” or “Becoming, Part 2” as one of the best episodes of the entire run. And her death at the end of it sets in motion a chain of events that culminates in the literal empowerment of a generation of women.

That’s pretty damn awesome, if you ask me.

By [E] Slay Belle

Slay Belle is an editor and the new writer mentor here at Persephone Magazine, where she writes about pop culture, Buffy, and her extreme love of Lifetime movies. She is also the editor of powderroom.jezebel.com. You can follow her on Twitter, @SlayBelle or email her at slay@persephonemagazine.com.

She is awfully fond of unicorns and zombies, and will usually respond to any conversational volley that includes those topics.

11 replies on “Ladyghosts of TV Past: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Thinking About Season 1”

Love Buffy but especially love season 2. I think your comment about the stalkery nature of Twilight is so apt when you think about what Buffy has to do at the end there – I won’t say as I don’t want to spoil any first timers out there – needless to say I’m looking forward to your recap of it.

I was doing some reading on Buffy and feminism the other day and came across a couple of articles citing the second season developments between Angel and Buffy as proof that the show isn’t feminist. Because she doesn’t seek that resolution sooner, or she’s upset about their relationship, or she mourns a break up and I just couldn’t recognize the show they were talking about. I don’t see how you can watch Becoming, Part 2 and make an argument that Buffy is a tool of the patriarchy.

I don’t want to pretend the show doesn’t have its problems. The lack of integration of POC gets more and more upsetting as the years wear on and I think I’ll have a lot to say about Kendra when we get there, but the show tried, which is more than you can say for 90% of mass media.

I don’t understand the argument that S2 was anti-feminist because of the Angel arc. Watching it again I’m struck by how quickly Buffy is able to face him; already at the end of the Judge episode she’s ready to fight. True, she doesn’t kill him yet, but both she and Angel are left well aware that she hasn’t been broken (‘You can’t kill me’/’Just give me time’). The more he messes with her after that, the more prepared she is to kill him. In some ways her arc is a counterpoint to Giles’ after what happens with Jenny. Giles goes blind with rage and does something stupid. Buffy picks herself back up, dusts herself off and while we see how difficult it is for her, she does what she has to do.

I think you have to pretty willfully misread the show if that is what you come away with from watching it.Most of the articles that take this approach really either don’t understand contextual analysis or don’t pay attention to the show — I’ll leave you links if you’d like.

http://feministatsea.wordpress.com/2009/02/25/why-buffy-the-vampire-slayer-is-not-a-feminist-show/

http://www.overthinkingit.com/2009/12/23/joss-whedon-feminism/

http://wondercow.blogspot.com/2005/05/joss-whedon-is-misogynist-homophobe.html

Oh wow, those links were so frustrating. You’re absolutely right – it seemed like they were talking about totally different shows. The final one in particular goes on and on about the watcher/slayer dynamic, but it seems like she missed the point completely – which is that yes, this paternalistic dynamic exists – just like it does in the real world – and that Buffy consciously overcomes it. Vague spoilers ahead: already by the end of S3 Buffy has realised that she is more powerful than the Council, and that she can do whatever she damn well pleases (and lord knows she ignores Giles countless times from the first season onwards). ‘Checkpoint’ in S5 drives home that point beautifully, in Buffy’s speech about power (one of my fave moments from the show for its punch-the-air ‘yeah!’ quality). The very point is that they want to control her power, but they can’t, because it’s her power and she realises that more and more as she matures.

As for the boyfriend stuff – please. Buffy is still a young girl growing up, she’s not sure who she is yet, and her relationships reflect that. She herself makes that point at the end of S7 (‘cookie dough’, etc).

I think you hit the nail on the head with the Watcher stuff. I’d add that in S7, the Watchers seem to have come around to Buffy’s point of view. She had been right all along — she goes out and risks everything and they never put themselves on the line. Their importance is built on her back. So when the Watchers are readying themselves to jump into the fray beside the Slayer, becoming part of her non-patriarchal line of thinking, they’re destroyed. If they were still agents of the patriarchy — and the first evil, by extension — they’d still be alive. They changed, so they have to be destroyed.

Buffy was on when I was in high school. It was one of those shows my friends and I ALL talked about. One kid (a genius) made a class project movie revolving around Buffy’s origins.

It’s one of those shows that basically shaped my generation (or those of us in my generation that watched it). I wanted to BE Buffy, white dress AND stake. Because, frankly, one can have both. Though, the coming back to life part is tricky.

I am just so thankful this show (in its entirety) exists.

This is great. I’m watching Buffy for the first time now (I’m on season 4 at the moment) and I don’t understand how I didn’t watch it when it aired. It’s awesome. It warms the cold, humorless cockles of my feminist heart.

I can’t think of anything that’s popular today that even rivals Buffy, awesome-lady-wise.

Love this. I’m so excited to hear your recap on season two episodes!

That quote from Joss almost brings a tear to my eye. That is a writer who understands the status quo and how to break it. He’s not delusional about who has the upper hand. He’s not hiding being weak excuses for torturing, demonizing, or excluding women from his work (CoughAaronSorkinCough). So many writers regurgitate the same hetero white male hero and act like they’re doing something new and edgy. Sure, they try to make that hero an underdog somehow so that we’ll forget that he’s that same white hetero bro (coughApatowcough) we’re so used to seeing. But most of us know. Sadly, some of us don’t. But I know, and I’m sick of it. I’ve been waiting for the next Buffy show just like I’ve been waiting for the next Roseanne. Most of the time I feel like we’re going backwards.

Joss’s mother was an outspoken feminist and is often described as ‘radical’, but I don’t know how ‘radical’ she was, given that most people think just being a feminist is, you know, radical. He’s flat out said its thanks to his mother that he even thinks about things like this, that he’s concerned with how women are represented and treated, and that he wants to do something about it. I think if you pay attention to his treatment of masculinity in the show — I talk about this during my ‘The Pack’ recap — you can see him discussing how destructive the traditional ideas of masculinity are.

I have hope for the future, as more children are being raised with these kinds of ideals, but many days, the future just seems so damn far off.

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