At the end of the fourth season of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which premiered 20 years ago this week, Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her mentor and friends fall asleep while watching a movie and lapse into a series of surrealistic and predictive dreams. Buffy finds herself in the desert, confronting the First Slayer (Sharon Ferguson) with her friend Tara (Amber Benson) acting as an intermediary. The First Slayer is trying to convince Buffy that her role as the chosen champion against the forces of darkness means that she is fundamentally isolated, living “in the action of death, the blood cry, the penetrating wound.”
Buffy is having none of it.
“I am not alone,” she insists, firm in her conviction even as she lapses into the language of her dream. “I walk. I talk. I shop, I sneeze, I’m going to be a fireman when the floods roll back. There’s trees in the desert since you moved out. And I don’t sleep on a bed of bones.”
There are certainly things that don’t hold up about the sequence. A marker of the intellectual development of mainstream feminism in the decades since “Buffy” arrived on television is that if “Restless” aired today, it would have been immediately taken to task for presenting the First Slayer as a savage, mute figure who needs Tara to turn her thoughts into words (”Someone has to speak for her,” Tara says. “Let her speak for herself. That’s what’s done in polite circles,” Buffy responds), and perhaps for dressing Tara in an Indian get-up. “Buffy” in general might have garnered the same backlash that accrued to Lena Dunham’s “Girls” for its racial homogeneity, and with greater justification.
But the scene, which originally aired in 2001, has lingered with me for the way it captures the central idea that made “Buffy” such a powerful and influential show. Not only does being a teenage girl with a fondness for the mall, a mild disinclination towards academics and a tendency towards Valley-Girl-ese prevent a person from killing vampires, but it’s no impediment to becoming a complicated feminist icon, either.
The great animating joke that inspired “Buffy,” of course, was the idea that a high school cheerleader with a fluffy Pekingese dog of a name would turn out to be the world’s savior. As series creator Joss Whedon put it, he was entranced in general by the idea of “some woman who seems to be completely insignificant who turns out to be extraordinary,” and specifically by the prospect of the blonde bait in horror movies fighting back.
The execution mattered as much as the intention. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” never posed a false choice between the preferences and stylistic tics that made Buffy who she was as a person and the skills and sense of obligation that made her who she was as a Slayer.
Buffy tried out for cheerleading; when she made the squad, her watcher Giles (Anthony Head) sputtered, “This is madness. What could you have been thinking? You are the Slayer. Lives depend upon you. I make allowances for your youth, but I expect a certain amount of responsibility, instead of which you enslave yourself to this – this … cult.”
She got grounded by her mother, fought with her little sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg), got drunk at college parties and blew off classes and her friends to sleep with her boyfriend, went dancing at clubs, and wore a lot of leopard print, jean jackets and unfortunate head wear. She loved the mall even if sometimes she had to blow it up with anti-tank weapons. On the eve of yet another apocalypse in the show’s final episode, she and her best friend Willow (Alyson Hannigan) joked about hitting up Arden B, or whether to satisfy Buffy’s “wicked shoe craving.”
There were storylines, including in the sixth and seventh seasons, when Buffy had to recommit to her mission after having been yanked out of heaven by the friends who assumed they were saving her from hell or learn how to be a leader after potential Slayers started flooding into Sunnydale. But Buffy never had to become less feminine, or less interested in clothes, romance and friendships in order to be more effective at fighting vampires, demons and other manifestations of darkness.
Buffy’s blonde hair and bright wardrobe might have convinced some viewers to stereotype her, and over the years, they definitely convinced plenty of bad actors, big and otherwise, to underestimate her. Those assumptions were always wrong: Buffy’s cheerful exterior wasn’t incompatible with a richly textured and ethically complex inner life.
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” always took Buffy’s romantic and sex life seriously. When she lost her virginity to the vampire Angel (David Boreanaz), the show literalized her worst fears and had him turn evil and dismissive; ultimately, she had to kill him in what is still one of television’s most painful breakups. Buffy’s relationship with her college boyfriend Riley (Marc Blucas) presented her with professional challenges, after he recruited her to work in concert with the Initiative, a military organization he was a part of that fought demons. And over time, their relationship foundered as Riley struggled to accept that Buffy was more powerful than he was: his character became a warning to anyone who wanted to enjoy Buffy’s abilities, as long as her powers didn’t challenge their own sense of self, or any man who says he likes powerful women but doesn’t really mean it.
In later seasons, as Buffy started a relationship with another vampire, Spike (James Marsters), the show deepened its explorations of sex, rage and grief. It depicted Spike and Buffy’s physical relationship, which sometimes turned violent, as both Buffy’s understandable response to the death of Buffy’s mother Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) and to her own death and resurrection – and as an ultimately unfulfilling solution to those larger problems.
Perhaps most controversially, the seventh season of the show portrayed a tender reconciliation between Buffy and Spike (James Marsters) after he attempted to rape her, and then went on a journey to reclaim his soul. The dilemmas Buffy faced couldn’t always be neatly resolved by feminist decision trees, and the choices she made could be invitations to debate rather than the object of mindless “You go, girl!” cheering.
I think about “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” a lot, sometimes as a marker for how much pop culture has evolved and more often as an indicator of how much farther it has to go. And I especially think about “Buffy” and Buffy when people get shocked that Teen Vogue is publishing pointed political content, or every time a story about a girl doing something amazing and unusual goes viral.
I don’t know whether to be frustrated that people still haven’t realized that you can care about both lipstick and resistance, or to appreciate that people are still being delighted by the surprising ways girls’ brains work and the juxtapositions between their varied interests and talents. We walk. We talk. We shop. We slay. And “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” helped some of us learn how to do all of those things at once and in “stylish, yet affordable boots.”