Essays: The Lady and the Vamp |
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The Lady and the Vamp

by Zoe Williams

Falling in love with Buffy The Vampire Slayer is a subtle process. It's impossible to name the story arc, or the series, or the moment – you're in the middle of your affair before you know it's begun. Everyone who sees it feels like this about it. When BTVS was first screened over here in 1997, it was somewhat less popular than Star Trek: The Next Generation, hovering just inside BBC2's top 20. By the third series, however, it was never outside the top three, its only rivals being The Naked Chef and Gardeners' World. It has viewing figures of 3.6m, not much compared with the soaps, but loads compared with just about everything else. When the Beeb messes about with its scheduling in favour of some absurd "sport" such as snooker, there is a viewer backlash not witnessed since the days of Twin Peaks.

In many respects, Buffy is much like any other top-flight US show – it creeps up on you (something to do with character development: they teach it there in film schools). Its star, Sarah Michelle Gellar, regularly occupies Sexiest Women In The World titles in FHM and similar (though she is the only one also to get into George magazine's 20 Most Important Women In Politics, in second place after Elizabeth Dole, then head of the American Red Cross). TV critics frequently call it the best thing on telly (as they do Friends, Seinfeld, etc). It wins Emmys and the like (though it is alone in mainstream telly drama for winning a prize from the Gaylactic Network, an organisation for gay and lesbian sci-fi fans, and from Spectrum, honouring science fiction, fantasy and horror works that include positive explorations of gay, lesbian or transgender characters).

Buffy herself is a curious kind of heroine – attempts, by magazines and suchlike, to dress up Gellar in your standard-issue babe parcel always backfire. This isn't to say that she doesn't look hot in a bikini, or command the same desperate adoration as any other perfectly formed screen female. Rather, that her sexiness comes as much from her quiddity as from her perky girl-parts, and her core being would never be seen dead in a bikini unless it had specifically gone out to sunbathe. In the show, everyone with any sense at all fancies Buffy. Indeed, one of the basic indicators of a vampire's rehabilitation is that they get the hots for her, from which one can infer that failing to want to have sex with Buffy is evidence of a profound moral decrepitude (an interesting departure from standard teen-screen sirens, whose characterisation generally suggests that their viewer/admirers should feel dirty and disgusting for admiring them).

Feminist film studies have long mourned the passing of the wisecracking heroine in Hollywood – in the golden age (His Girl Friday, that one about the divorcing lawyer-couple, etc), women were crammed full of wit and silencing retorts. In today's comic romances, ladies still get the laughs, but usually on account of that hilariously dozy/self-deluding/imbecilic thing they've just done. A corollary of this shift is the screen presentation of madness, whimsy, scattiness, internal trauma and kookiness as a female ideal. Even Charlie's Angels (the film ones), though they could kung-fu kick like Lara Croft, were at their most charming when they demonstrated how, on the inside, they were just as baffled as cute little kittens.

From America's Friends, Rachel and Monica, through French cinema's Amélie, to our very own Bridget Jones, heroines can be many, many variations on daft, but they cannot be capable. Leaving aside Daniella Nardini in This Life, owing to her character's coke habit, and the fact that hers was a fairly special-interest, dominatrix appeal, Buffy is the only heroine to come out of mainstream telly in the past decade who is both sexy and awesomely competent. She is not a dominatrix – she is a regular girl with superhuman powers. Her traumas are entirely external – she lacks the cheap mystery of inner secrets. She has real and pressing duties (a profoundly unsexy attribute in modern woman), and an over-developed sense of responsibility. Buffy's creator, Joss Whedon, once remarked that the idea came to him as a result of seeing too many horror films that open with some blond chick walking down an alleyway and getting aced by a force of evil; he wanted to see a tiny blonde who was able to stick up for herself for a change. While, on the one hand, that's just straightforward reversal of expectation, with all the dramatic pace that novelty supplies, the ongoing appeal of the show is due to the fact that it stands in the way of the giant tsunami of useless females that the past 20 years of telly has supplied.

The very best of American telly is the telly of giants. There's no getting away from that. And yet, even against this backdrop, Buffy is still a stand-out experience. And here's why – TV occupies one of two moral universes. In the first, the ordinary-Joe affair, the largest moral decision any character can make is whether or not to be monogamous (other ethical choices centre around issues such as greed and loyalty; etiquette stuff, basically). Programmes in this camp – Friends, Seinfeld, Frasier and co – either wind up as comedies, in tacit admission that this moral remit is not wide enough to create its own pace, or they are comfortingly banal (Dawson's Creek, Neighbours, Hollyoaks).

In universe two, external factors intercede to give the characters more pressing dilemmas: enter hospitals (ER, Casualty, Holby City), aliens (The X-Files), leading the free world (The West Wing), people with supernatural monkey powers (Monkey), any life 'n' death stuff. Largely, the characters still have small personal decisions to make, but it is narratively unviable to mesh the larger picture – "Shall I transplant this liver/shoot this alien?" – with the smaller one – "Shall I go out with George Clooney? Well, obviously" – so plot and sub-plot form distinct units. In Buffy alone, all traumas are major, pressing and could result in the end of the world; and yet, at the same time, all function as metaphors for genuine crises in the everyday human condition.

So, take a 16-year-old girl having sex with her boyfriend, whom she loves beyond measure, for the first time – so far, so Hollyoaks. Then factor in that the boyfriend is a vampire whose human soul has been restored by a Gypsy curse; also, that one moment's perfect happiness (making lurve, say) will break the curse and turn him back into a vampire; that once he's turned back into a vampire, he'll be in possession of the blackest heart Vampworld has ever seen; that his first endeavour will be to kill the girl, in the cruellest manner he can dream up; and that he, alone among the undead, has the power to open the door between good and evil.

You now have the situation rendered, not as adults remember it, but as it really was: crucial, apocalyptic, heart-shattering. The evil beasts are both metaphors for aspects of life, and portals for the adult imagination into the teenage one. Its appeal to teens is straightforward, rooted in its non-patronising, fiercely empathic approach. Its appeal to adults has a double resonance – first, the pathos of the situation itself; and second, the unbearable realisation of how much emotional intensity you discard and extinguish just to exist as an adult, rather than a "young" adult.

This is reflected in the breadth of the audience demographic. Ever since Buffy started in the UK, there have been scheduling difficulties (teatime or post-pub?) that were ultimately resolved by showing it twice, the late showing without the pre-watershed edits. There are still constant complaints about these edits, about its cancellation for sports, about disruption of the narrative, to which the BBC constantly replies that it's not their fault.

It is very rare for a programme to appeal to anyone, really, from 11 to Gardeners' World-age (50ish?). Buffy's metaphorical punch gives the show its place in the intellectual life of the English-speaking world. The ability to render the intensity of youth in a way that speaks to the no-longer-young is the sine qua non of American cultural life – which is why their seminal novel is The Catcher In The Rye (whereas ours is some grown-up nonsense such as Pride And Prejudice). Most US TV shows spawn some post-ironic, high-flown discussion (hence the existence of the books Frasier And Philosophy, and The Simpsons And Philosophy – kind of Alain de Botton without the boring bits). The International Journal Of Buffy Studies, however, has some serious academic muscle behind it: a philosophy professor from San Jose University; a professor of child and adolescent psychology from Harvard; an education officer at the British Film Institute.

Consequently, to engage in Buffy chat – which, at the devastating end of this series, you will probably find yourself having to – it is not enough simply to know what has happened over the past 100 episodes. The level of debate, even on web fansites, is much more philosophically involved than that. Only yesterday, two schoolkids on, were discussing not whether they fancied Xander, but the nature of evil and redemption, and whether or not a vampire whose powers had been medically subdued could ever be rehabilitated to the same degree as a vampire whose soul had been restored – hard talk, no?

Significance of vampires

The undead have long been vessels for the expression of societal terror; most claims for Buffy as a show of unique intellectual content come from its gothic references, and the consonant metaphoric uses it makes of vampirism. Vamps in Buffy adhere to the basic practical models – viz, they can only be killed by decapitation or a wooden stake through the heart, they cannot survive daylight, they have to be invited into your house before they can come in, they are scalded by crucifixes or holy water, and they don't like garlic (this last aspect is played down in Buffy: no Americans like garlic). They also toy with core metaphorical vampire models, though they usually reverse or skew them.

Throughout vampire literature, the undead have turned ordinary, chaste women into crazy slappers (cf, Lucy in Dracula, turned to 'voluptuous wantonness'). The lady vampires in Buffy are also very randy (especially Druscilla, who is a 'ho). This is where the word 'vamp' comes from, incidentally. However, all female characters in Buffy do have fun, non-evil and unpunished sex eventually, because this is a cool show, unlike, say, Dawson's Creek. So, having established an association between evil and female lasciviousness, the show then muddies and ultimately neuters that association. Hey, it's 2001.

More recently, any creature that is half-alien in a teen show is seen to be a metaphor for the transition into adulthood, especially Spock in Star Trek, whose half-alien body is taken to reflect the physical changes adolescents feel taking place in themselves (cf, In Search Of Spock, by Harvey Greenberg). Vampires, in Buffy, mutate horribly when they are about to 'suck blood' (for which read, 'have sex') – they are aping the bodily aspects of puberty with their furry weirdness. Buffy, in killing them, normalises and controls the transition of adolescence, and acts as the guardian of her entire generation. It's quite a feelgood show, on some levels.

By contrast, the vampiric lifestyle in Buffy is characterised by alienation, loneliness, guilt and self-loathing. Modern Buffy critics, therefore, find strong top notes of Jean-Paul Sartre in the undead, as distinct from Gothic uses of the vampire, which predated Sartre's internal nausea and instead expressed fear of the unknowable other.

Given its associations with the rite of passage into adulthood, vampire congress has long been taken as a metaphor for all sex. It pretty much still is.

Vamps cannot get into your house until they are invited; likewise, member states of the UN cannot get into a war unless they are (attacked, convinced of imminent humanitarian catastrophe, or) invited in by another member state. This is one of a number of clues suggesting that the UN based its constitution on a combination of Dracula, The Lost Boys, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

Buffy's hair

This changes frequently. Sometimes it's long and wavy, at others it's shorter and straight, and there are many permutations in-between. The same holds for Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex And The City) and Jennifer Anniston (Friends). Yet no one mentions Buffy's hair except, in days gone by, Cordelia, the apotheosis of the shallow and pointless individual. This is because Buffy's hair is not the point. The point is that she fights huge demons.

The language of Buffy

There is much experimentation in the Buffyverse, with word order ('We so don't have time'), and with word form (Buffy often says 'sitch' instead of 'situation'). Parts of speech may be varied, with an adverb becoming an adjective ('You're acting a little overly, aren't you?'); or an adjective a noun ('Love makes you do the wacky'). Sometimes, words are metaphorical or metonymic substitutions – 'You're that amped about hell? Go there' – where amped = excited, from audio-amplification; or 'I'll talk to you later, when you've visited Decaf Land.'

Language is never irrelevant to action. When Buffy is missing, Willow points out that 'the Slayer always says a pun or a witty play on words, and I think it throws off the vampires,' and Xander replies, 'I've always been amazed with how Buffy fights, but in a way I feel like we took her punning for granted.' Americans, though, are always tinkering with words in this way, in all kinds of telly scenarios. They are just jealous that they didn't make up this language. We did.

Sexuality, lesbianity and Wicca

Witchery and lesbianism have always been synonymous to some degree (see 15th-century witch trial transcripts, if you like, or The Crucible, or The Witchfinder General), so it's only natural that the two lesbians in Buffy are also both witches. However, by the fifth series, they are amazing witches: their power has far exceeded brute, 'heterosexual' strength, and without them most of the episodes would end with the certain death of all the nice people.

Creative models of homosexuality, even positive ones such as Will And Grace, always present it as a state of stasis (spending, drinking, spending), in contrast to the 'social productivity' of heterosexuality (working, breeding, working). Buffy uses the ancient association of Wicca and rug-munching not to compound but to reverse that model.

The role of adult authority

Apart from Giles, who is English (and therefore caught for ever in the limbo of youth), the adults in Buffy consistently act to undermine the youths in their efforts to save the world. At times, this is because they don't understand; at others, it is because they are in thrall to the underworld. Their unhelpfulness is the only constant. In a stunning case of life imitating art, this is mirrored on the adult-designed Buffy websites (particularly, in which none of the designers watches enough Buffy to know that, in posting a picture from series three of Angel, they are giving away the plot of series five of Buffy (this is called 'spoiling'). Regulars on the site never get a chance to chat about Buffy, since they are always too busy policing the site itself for potential ruination of suspense, and warning other surfers of spoilers on this and other sites.

Cheerleading, baseball and all other sporting activity

Cheerleading is the apex of the pointlessness and alienation of high school. Baseball prowess is a sign of malignity (leading school jocks often turn out to be zombies). Sports suck in Buffy. As in life.

Libraries, books, computers

Even though Buffy, et al, are no longer at school, and Giles is therefore no longer school librarian, the American Association of Librarians (AAL) remains extremely chuffed: they cannot remember the last time a glamorous figure in any screen medium worked in a library.

Since Giles is also a watcher, books have been associated throughout with omniscience and wisdom, and victory over evil frequently comes as a result of an unshakable respect for ancient texts, a kind of Miltonic relationship with the written word (spend 10 years reading, and then you may be worthy, etc, etc). Certain members of the AAL, however, were irked that Giles gave librarianship a bad name – his earth-saving preoccupations often led him to be brusque with non-slayer students, and to ask them to leave the library because he was busy.


As the series progresses, the outfits get more and more functional. The message, really, is that unless you're suitably dressed to do violent high kicks on demand, you're kind of a pointless human being.

Who's who in Buffy

Buffy Vampire slayer. Into each generation, one is born. She is very strong. She never kills humans. She is mortal.

Joyce Buffy's mum. No powers.

Dawn Buffy's sister – except she is not a sister, she is a protective shell, in human form, fashioned by monks. Therefore she places Buffy under constant and unendurable strain, the way that siblings do.

Kendra Good vampire slayer. Raised by accident (for there can be only one). Dead.

Faith Bad vampire slayer. Raised by accident (see above). Dead.

Willow Buffy's best friend. Geeky, very good with computers, lesbian, witch.

Tara Willow's girlfriend. Also witch.

Xander Buffy's other best friend. Also geeky. No powers.

Riley Buffy's ex. A soldier. Left Buffy due to male inadequacy to cope with her superhuman strength.

Angel Buffy's ex-ex. The vampire. Now has his own spin-off series, called Angel. It's meant to be very good, though I haven't seen it, finding Buffy too emotionally draining to commit to a new programme.

Spike Vampire, though neutered by a computer chip in his brain that gives him a frightful headache should he attempt a violent deed. In love with Buffy. She despises him.

Druscilla Vampire. Spike's ex.

Giles Buffy's watcher, he makes sure she is all right, trains her, and refers to ancient tomes. He is the blokey one off the Nescafé advert, occasionally still prone to those fabled coffee eyebrows. In a lesser series, this would make him impossible to take seriously. Soon to have his own spin-off series, Ripper. Giles, being the only reliable and cognisant adult in the show, acts as an emissary for our nation, giving the UK a reputation for independent thought and irreverent behaviour. Spike and Druscilla are also English, and are at the uppermost glamour end of the vampire scale; all American vamps are badly dressed. Spike and Dru are also much more intelligent and multi-faceted than the US undead. One can only assume that Joss Whedon (Buffy's creator) once spent a very good holiday here.

Anya Xander's girlfriend; formerly evil-doing goddess, patron saint of scorned women. Now rendered mortal by breakage of her power-centre (by Giles).

Ted Briefly boyfriend to Joyce. Was in fact a robot, fashioned by bitter scientist to murder women who resembled his first wife. Nice precis of the nature of stepfathers.

Cordelia Briefly girlfriend to Xander. Started off shallow and mean, slowly gained psychic depth through association with Buffy and her friends.