Esquire: The Legacy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

The Slow-Burn Legacy of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’

The teen TV show that taught me how to live

By Naomi Alderman

At the very start of my writing career, I was a published academic in Buffy the Vampire Slayer studies.

My first piece of published writing was a co-authored paper – you can still find it online – called “Para-sites of the soul”. The first lecture I ever delivered was on madness in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its links to depictions of madness in Greek tragedy. I was an eager reader of the journal Slayage.

This hadn’t been part of my plan. I’d always been what you might call an academic-labels snob. I went to Oxford, did a degree in PPE. I’d really wanted to do a degree in English and Philosophy at, let’s say, Manchester University, but Oxford had the better academic brand name and they didn’t do English and Philosophy, so I picked another subject. When I decided I wanted to study creative writing I applied, obviously, to the best brand name in the country: the University of East Anglia’s famous MA.

And when I got there, the English department at UEA was hosting a Buffy the Vampire Slayer conference. And I knew that however much I’d planned to be a Very Serious Writer thinking only Very Important Thoughts, all I wanted was to go to that conference, to meet the people there and hear what they had to say.

What was it about Buffy? I’ve thought sometimes of suggesting a new academic paper on the subject “Why is Buffy the Vampire Slayer so fucking good?” It’s funny, the plotting is for entire seasons at a time extraordinarily perfect, it treats its own continuity seriously and remembers who the characters are, which is surprisingly rare. It was a feminist show with well-written women characters at a time when the terribly thin Ally McBeal and her longing for a baby and the four dress-up fashion dolls of Sex and the City were what passed for female-centric television. But it was more than all that, I think.

Looking back now I think that what made Buffy the Vampire Slayer, created by Joss Whedon, so fucking good for me is the character doubling: every single character contains their opposite within them. It is a show about having the sense that you have a strange other lurking inside. That is the theme or argument of the show. Skip this next paragraph if you’ve never seen the show (and do watch the show).

Buffy is a cheerleader and a vampire slayer. Sweet, shy Willow contains the vengeful Dar Willow. Gleeful killer Spike used to be soppy poet William. Steadfast, heartsick Angel is holding the vicious Angelus inside. Anya the business owner is Anyanka the revenge demon. Intellectual librarian Giles still has the terrifying Ripper’s friends and enemies. Ben is Glory, Glory is Ben. Sorry, what was I saying?

It is a show about having the sense that you have a strange other lurking inside

Well, anyway, that’s who I was too. I watched the show with the kind of religious zeal you can only manage if you are or have ever been extremely religious. I was an Orthodox Jewish girl when I went to UEA, when I was watching Buffy, when I was drawn to that conference like a vampire to a throbbing neck vein. I was holding this novel-writing, video-games making rebellious ex-Orthodox Jewish weirdo inside me. I was struggling to hold her in. I knew she was fighting her way out. For all that I was on the UK’s most prestigious literary-fiction course, I liked vampires and I was beginning to think that I didn’t really agree with a lot of Orthodox Judaism and also that I probably fancied girls as well as boys. Someone was emerging from me, someone unexpected and strange.

I didn’t know all that then, though. All I knew was that the show was doing something I’d never experienced before. I wanted to be among people who were talking about it. I sat in auditoria where very respected academics in a variety of disciplines delivered fascinating, rich, extraordinary papers on this show – and they all had that slightly embarrassed, surprised air that I had. We didn’t expect to find ourselves here, they seemed to be saying. But here we are.

And for most of us, one wasn’t enough. I met the co-author of my first academic paper at that first conference. The next conference would be the following year, 2004, in Nashville, Tennessee. I had no money, I was a student, I couldn’t possibly go. And yet, I had to go. I felt – as it says in the Torah – “impelled by the force of the Divine
Word”. I sold my possessions on eBay – an SLR camera my mother had given me, some clothes – to buy an overnight economy ticket. The actual conference was over a Saturday – the Orthodox Jewish Sabbath when one is forbidden to use electricity. I had to wait by the lifts for someone else to press the buttons and wait inside the lift for it to happen to land on the floor I wanted.

I learned so much at that conference, though. Things I hadn’t know I needed to know. Somehow, if we let ourselves follow our own inner promptings, we find what we need. I learned about fan videos – then a totally new development with the rollout of broadband internet. I met scholars working on iconography, on classical references, on literary themes in Buffy. I understood that you didn’t need to make Very Serious Totally Humourless Work in order for your work to be taken very seriously.

Most wonderfully, Professor Lynne Edwards or Ursinus College delivered an extraordinary paper – please read it – on the subject “Kendra as Tragic Mulatta”. She argued that the character of Kendra the Black slayer had been consciously or unconsciously hugely influenced by the slave narratives around a well-recognised figure during Slavery in the USA. The “tragic mulatta” is the girl on the plantation who is the daughter of the plantation owner by rape of his Black slaves: her story is that she years to be accepted just as the slave-keeper’s white daughter is accepted; that she ends by sacrificing her life “nobly” to save the white girl. It is blow-by-literal-blow the story of Kendra in the show. Professor Edwards’ passion for the show, her joy in the show, were as obvious as her clear delineation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s racism.

I understood something then that I had never known before. That critique of a show is love of a show. That you never bother to write an academic paper about the racism of a show you don’t utterly adore and want to be better. That we can just relax about they things we love. The people who bother to criticise them – at least like that, thoughtfully, passionately, after real engagement with them- are on your side.

Her joy in the show was as obvious as her clear delineation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s racism

I’ve lived – good Lord – nearly half my life since that moment, but I still think about it most days. It has shaped who I’ve become. I have written novels and made games, I’ve worked on the film adaptation of one of my books and created a TV show of another. I’ve lived as a woman making videogames through the misogynist hate movement gamergate. I have turned myself inside out and become that strange weirdo version of myself who was always waiting inside. And I attribute what sanity I have about reader and player and viewer responses to that conference. There will always be haters; there will always be bad-faith shouters who just want to pull you down. But never forget that if people are telling you your thing could be better, that’s because they desperately want it to be better.

I learned that day – as a fan – that being a fan doesn’t need obsessive love, and that someone criticising the thing you love or the thing you made isn’t a threat to you. I learned that I could make the strange quirky wonk I wanted to make: funny and exciting as well as Serious. My new novel The Future is about tech billionaires, cults, the Biblical story of Lot and a lesbian romance. That’s all allowed. Somehow we go where we need to go. Run towards yourself. That’s where you’re waiting.

Naomi Alderman is the author of the international bestseller The Power, which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Her latest novel, The Future, is out now. This piece appers in the Winter 2023 issue of Esquire.

Original article at Esquire.

This article has been reproduced for archive purposes, all rights remain with the originating website.

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