Joss Whedon and his crew of creators committed to exploring political and social identities, through all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This is one of the chief reasons Buffy creates new, devoted audiences 20-years after its debut. It takes seriously, to use the parlance of our our times, identity politics. To some, the notion of identity politics is anathema to intelligent discourse. It’s a debasing reduction of individuals, forcing us into blocs that fail to demonstrate our inherent contradictions and complexity exploitation.
But that understanding of public and political identity is false. People are complicated, yes; we search for ways to understand our own lives, and identity politics–or simply the ability for every person to have equal opportunity for actualization–helps us do that. Buffy’s careful attention to identity and self-definition allows viewers representation and opportunity for self-examination. It was one of, if not the first, TV show to make that offer, and in doing so, remains ever-relevant to new generations.
In the lat 90s and early 00s, Buffy provided a generation of young people a space to define their identity in a feast of horror and pop culture. I admit, I did not watch Buffy when it aired. Buffy and I were in the same year–high school graduating class of ’99–and I didn’t watch much TV in high school or college that wasn’t The Simpsons or Jeopardy. But I did find Buffy later, and I loved it, immediately. Not because it was a time-capsule of my exact age group moving through young adulthood with special attention to my own moment in time (which it is), but because Whedon and his team created characters that inhabited multiple, complicated identities in shifting and uncertain social times. And as an adult, on the verge of parenthood, I related deeply to the emotionally taxing task of adopting a life-changing identity.
Buffy takes seriously the shifting nature of youth and identity, and it made that emotionally wrought experience fun, and scary, and full of potential apocalypses. The richness of the layered identities in Buffy the Vampire Slayer are demonstrated in the titular hero, Buffy Summers, and her two best friends, Willow and Xander (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, and Nicholas Brendon).
Being a mashup of horror and high school drama–a literal ‘teenage life is hell’ situation–Buffy demanded a lead who could operate simultaneously inside and outside of the social dynamics of high school. Thus a young woman with a desirable social station– popular, petite blonde who loves fun!–becomes The Slayer, a mythical hero who must live apart and dedicate her life to battle training and fighting demons, until she is killed and another slayer is activated.
Buffy wants to be the former, but she has no choice. She must be the latter. Buffy’s identity as the slayer, and her experience of being the ONLY slayer, creates an emotional core that is easily graspable for audiences. But that specific struggle is also uniquely Buffy’s. Thus the youthful challenges of her life are always tinged by the unshakability of her slayer-self. She loves a boy, who’s also a vampire. She is forced to raise her sister, who is also a mystical ball of light. She works dead-end jobs, that end up being run by demons.
By turning the everyday difficulties of life into a struggle against one’s identity, Whedon makes Buffy sympathetic, while always distant. ‘Slayer’ stands in for any number of individual identities, usually in covert ways, but sometimes in surface level ways, too. When Buffy eventually tells her mother, Joyce, about her secret life slaying vampires, Joyce responds, “Have you tried not being a slayer?” It’s the kind of rich, funny, and identity-oriented reaction that rings true.
Both Willow and Xander have similar relationships in the show. Willow is a quiet geek who longs for her best friend, Xander. But she sees Xander is in love with Buffy. Buffy is the slayer, offering danger and power, while Willow only has computer skills. Then she becomes a witch. That switch gives Willow power, literally, but it also begins a powerful turn for a character who has seen little value in her own identity. When Willow later falls in love with Tara, her identity as a lesbian intrudes into her previous primary self, witch. The consequences of Willow’s struggle to actualize herself around both identities, lesbian and witch, brings great drama, yes, but tangible graspability for audiences.
Xander’s identity problems are of a different kind. In the fantasy horror world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xander is doomed to be the normal. He has no powers, learns no magic, and brings nothing particularly useful to the fight against demons. As a result, Xander often acts like an asshole to his friends. He feels entitled to something he cannot have, Buffy, and he lashes out. Eventually, he meets Anya, who stands toe-to-toe with Xander’s dickish qualities, and allows Xander to come to terms with his role as the non-magic, non-hero, which in turns, becomes Xander’s power.
This just scratches the surface of transitioning identities in Buffy. Buffy, Willow, and Xander each incorporate many more such shifts, as do the wonderful host of characters in Buffy. Anya is a former vengeance demon, struggling to cope with a new, often much more horrible identity: human. Spike spent centuries as a soulless vampire, roaming the countryside and doing all sorts of delightful evil. Then scientists put a chip in his head, and he must adapt to his new role: an impotent vampire. Oz is a werewolf, which speaks for itself.
Characters evolving over the course of a multi-season television show may not be unique, but Buffy was the first to pause for each identity itself to take shape, only to force changes–whether cultural, political, social–on those identities.
This identity-driven character structure even existed on the creative level of the show.
Buffy debuted during and contributed to the girl power movement on television. Shows like Alias, Dark Angel and Le Femme Nikita came in the same era, and brought with them tough-edged women who broadened the definition of heroes on television. These four shows–Buffy, Nikita, Alias and Dark Angel–were all created by men, and each explored feminism and patriarchy, for better or worse, in their own manner. But only Whedon baked feminism into the series on the surface.
Joss Whedon’s interests in Buffy are overtly feminist. And feminist, as a cultural identity, attached itself to Buffy. Every character in Buffy has her or his own identity as it relates to feminism. Whedon’s exploration of feminism is an overt textual concern throughout the entire series. From the notion that the small, blonde cheerleader will be the hero of the horror story, to the teenage girl stuck in the misogynist patriarchies of high-school, college and young adult jobs, Whedon applies his feminist lens to every aspect of Buffy.
Whedon and his writers were particularly fond of creating villains who were patriarchal monstrosities, such as the Mayor and Adam, who represented actual apocalyptic threats and old-world masculinity looking to kill a young women who poses a threat to their power.
In 2017, fluid identities and identity politics are the language with which discourse in the US operates. But that wasn’t the case when Buffy debuted, 20 years ago. That Whedon was open about his feminism as a source for the show opened Buffy to criticism, but it also made the show uniquely identity oriented. The fact that Buffy has been such a popular text in academia, that it has become a touchstone of gender studies and feminist studies, and remains a classic of horror and genre, reflects how attuned Buffy The Vampire Slayer was to the crucial, changing, and complicated identities it portrayed.