Sunday Reflections: Watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer with Fresh Eyes
I am a huge Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan. So huge that we have had entire time periods here dedicated to it. So I was very excited when the Tween asked a couple of weeks ago if she could watch Buffy and I decided that yes, she was probably old enough for the first couple of seasons.
It has been interesting to watch it again for the first time through fresh eyes. When Buffy first came on I was in college. my high school days long past. But the Tween is just on the verge of teenagerdom, the high school years yet to come. Sometimes it has been awkward (“Mom, why are they always kissing?”, “Wait, did they just have sex?”), sometimes it has been funny, (“I like Xander, he says funny stuff.”) and sometimes it has led to some great and important dialogue – mainly about standing up for yourself, empowering messages that we don’t give to girls often enough I believe. Girls so often are taught to be demure, to shrink, to smile, to be nice, to be ladylike – with ladylike implying easy to get along with. But there are so many moments in life where standing up for yourself – and what is right – is so important. And I feel that Buffy is helping me show my daughter that she can be strong, powerful, confident, and believe in herself.
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For those of you who have seen the show or don’t mind being spoiled, here’s a recap: Angel is now Angelus and he is opening the gates of hell, the only way to stop it once it begins to open is by killing Angel. That’s how season 2 ends, with Buffy being forced to kill the man she loves in order to stop the destruction of the entire world. When we meet her again in season 3, it is in an episode called Anne where Buffy is trying to deal with emotional aftermath of what has happened; she has run away and is living on her own. As a side note, this theme is mirrored in ways in the Doctor Who episode The Snowmen when after suffering great emotional loss, the Doctor runs away, denies who he is, and must be reminded before he again decides to return to helping others.
But back to Buffy . . .
At the end of season 2, in Becoming, Part 2, Angel and Buffy are fighting. Buffy appears in every way to be losing this fight. Then Angel comes at her with a sword and taunts, “No weapons, no friends, no hope. Take that all away and what’s left?” he asks. And she looks him right in the eye and says, “Me.” That’s it, one single word. But such a powerful message. Take everything else away, she has herself.
And when we meet her again in Anne, she seems to have forgotten this message. She is lost, using her middle name, denying her destiny, trying to handle life alone. She runs into a girl she knows from before who is now going by the name Lily. Lily is a lost girl who takes on the identity those around her wish her to take. She has no strong sense of self and, just wanting to find someone to love her and a place to belong, she is willing to become whatever she thinks she needs to become to fill that emptiness in her.
She is soon recruited into what seems at first a religious, self-help themed cult but because this is Buffy they are of course demons. But like cults and other groups of this sort, they gain their power by purposefully preying on the weak and the lost and here we find an amazing example of not only empowerment, but a stark reminder that people in power like to disenfranchise the “other” and strip them of their identity and hope to make them easier to control. These kids are lined up in sack cloth like garments and a demon comes to each one of them and asks, “Who are you?” And each one in turn replies, “No one.” They give this answer in part out of fear, because they know it is the right answer to give to keep themselves alive. But they also give this answer because they have come through the courses of their life to believe it to be true.
But then the demon comes to Buffy/Anne and asks, “Who are you?” And she confidently and defiantly raises her head and says, “I’m Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Then she proceeds to kick some ass because that is what vampire slayers do.
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And then, the head demon guy grabs Lilly and threatens to kill her – to kill them all – if they continue to fight back. There is a pause while everyone is forced to consider, what are we willing to sacrifice for true freedom? But then Lilly answers for herself by pushing the demon and signalling that the revolution must continue. She takes a stand in that moment for herself. She chooses to be brave. She chooses action over inaction, knowing that the costs could be high.
As I watched this with my daughter, I was glad that we got to see this moment of empowerment. And it clearly demonstrates that life – knowing yourself, standing up for yourself – isn’t always easy. Buffy gets lost several times along the way throughout the course of the show. She makes some bad decisions. The people in her life that love her often make bad decisions. But they keep regrouping, both personally and as a family unit. That too is an important message, forgiveness, both of self and others. You don’t have to stay stuck in a moment, you can choose to move forward.
Buffy is not a perfect show, and no show is. For example, Buffy is punished in the worst ways imaginable for deciding to be a sexual creature. And I would argue that in that moment the shows creators also make the mistake of conflating sex with love/happiness. And later in the series Xander is raped by Faith who is inhabiting Buffy’s body and if I am remembering correctly they never call it rape. And I have a really hard time watching episodes after the attempted rape by Spike.
But for its sometimes faults, it is so powerful to have this show which focuses on the life of a female superhero (and yes, she is a superhero) in such realistic and empowering ways. I love those moments on the show when she looked and basically said, no matter what I always have me. And then the next episode came around and reinforced that message. I want my daughter – all daughters really – to know that no matter what, they always have themselves and that is worth everything. I want my daughter to be like Buffy, because when we fail our daughter’s we risk them becoming like the Lilly’s of the world and that puts them in great personal danger. Plus, when we teach our daughters to be Buffy, we might just help be saving the world. A lot.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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