The superhero is having a moment. Some readers of this blog might say that this particular moment is lasting a little too long; one can’t throw a stone without hitting a spandex suited savior these days, on both the big screen and the small (e.g. The Avengers, Supergirl, Batman vs. Superman, Daredevil, to name just a few). The genre is well on its way to feeling stale, and has long been plagued by (rightful) accusations of sexism (where, where, where is our Black Widow movie?!) and racism (the whitewashing of Asian characters has been particularly relevant of late, with Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell emerging on the scene). And one has to wonder; does Hollywood have anything new to offer us?
Yet, for all of this, we keep tuning in (the season 1 finale of Supergirl garnered 6.1 million viewers; The Avengers grossed $1.52 billion at the box office). I’ll admit, I love a good superhero flick; if I’m cynical of Hollywood’s heroes, I’m also under their sway (I was one of the 6.1 million watching Supergirl).
So, when I found myself without anything to watch, I turned to what might be one of the foundations of today’s obsession, and the first superhero I remember from my childhood; Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy is different than the heroes we see on screen today; indeed, some might not call her a superhero at all (where is her costume? Where are the spaceships, the ray guns?) But when I was a kid, she was TV’s woman of steel. I was born too late for Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, and the more fully rendered heroines of recent media—Krysten Ritter’s Jessica Jones, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch—were a long time coming. Buffy (whose show ran from 1997-2003) was part of the cultural landscape I grew up in, and made a space for complex female heroes like Jessica Jones to fill in the years following.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I was both too young and too cowardly to really follow the show when it was playing (I was only two when it premiered; I was frightened by an episode of Hey Arnold that featured a cartoon vampire). But Buffy was a presence in my life; my best friend in middle and high school watched it obsessively, and I recall many a sleepover spent with my head under the covers, cowering from the demons on screen. And when, a week ago, I asked a friend what series I should start watching she said, without hesitating, “Buffy. You’re a feminist; it’s basically required.”
Even beginning my viewing as a woman in 2017 who has watched (dare I say endured) a surfeit of superheroes, I’m captivated by Buffy Summers. In a week I’ve seen 26 episodes, much to the detriment of my sleep schedule. I have been thinking about what makes Buffy such a cultural cornerstone. It’s not the special effects (the 90’s era CGI is quaint at best, painful at worst, making the monsters less threatening than they might be), nor, admittedly, the show’s sense of pace; the episodes often introduce seemingly apocalyptic obstacles, worry over them for thirty-five minutes, then wrap them up with two minutes of hand-to-hand combat, sending their heroes back into the halls of Sunnydale High to reflect on their latest sweethearts or homework assignments. A sense of suspense is often noticeably lacking (particularly when one doesn’t have to wait a week between episodes, a fault of my own consumption rather than of Joss Whedon’s direction).
Yet there is something compelling about the fast-talking, stake yielding Buffy (played with panache by Sarah Michelle Gellar) that is worth watching, even if one has wearied of world-savers. Part of the appeal is that the stakes (hah) feel real, here, in a way that they don’t in the sanitized world of Disney’s Marvel universe or the CW’s National City. The violence, while often aimed at monsters we know to be less-than-human, is almost always shown rather than implied. The heroine even, at times, takes a perverse pleasure in causing pain (Season 2, Episode 11 sees Buffy giving a vamp a protracted beating after having walked in on her mother making out with a slimy new boyfriend; she enthusiastically slices into a 7-foot-tall praying mantis long after it is dead Season 1, Episode 4).
When a villain is killed, they are not whisked off-screen; they are stabbed to death in front of us. It’s true that they dissolve into ash, bloodless, but the camera takes a fierce joy in the moment a ghoul is staked. Each fight scene is the delaying of that gratifying moment when our heroine snaps some sign post in half and plunges it into her enemy’s chest.
The self-conscious sexualization of the protagonist also makes this series an interesting watch. Buffy has undoubtedly become a feminist icon—and Whedon intended her to be, wanting to subvert the trope of the blonde slasher-film victim—but she is also a conventionally attractive (slim, white) woman performing roundhouse kicks in high heeled boots and mini-skirts. That is, she performs normative femininity while embodying a masculinized form of power (namely, physical strength and a preternatural ability to kick ass); this is no witch, that icon of feminine power, nor is her gift one of shapeshifting or laser vision. What she does is go blow for blow in fist fights with the undead. It’s an emphatically physical power, perhaps more masculinized even than Superman’s—after all, Buffy isn’t immune to bullets, and she can’t fly. She’s super merely by merit of her grit and her ability to square up. And she does it all with a fresh coat of lip gloss to boot.
If Buffy smacks of a man’s fantasy girl it’s because, in a sense, she is. Her creator, Joss Whedon, is quoted by Patricia Pender in her book I’m Buffy and You’re History as saying, “I definitely think a woman kicking ass is extraordinarily sexy, always… if I wasn’t compelled on a very base level by that archetype I wouldn’t have created that character.” And it can’t be ignored that some of the combat has erotic undertones; Buffy is repeatedly choked, tied up, threatened with sharp teeth against her exposed, lily-white neck.
This is one of the more uncomfortable parts of watching the slayer: after all, she’s just a girl. More of a girl, even, than our modern Supergirl (today’s Kara Zor-El comes with an office job and well-furnished loft). Buffy is sixteen at the series’ beginning, a sophomore in high school. The pleasure viewers take in watching her lithe fighter’s form is complicated by the fact of her youth; and when she starts dating a 250-year-old vampire, we naturally feel a little strange about it.
Yet her girlishness is also part of the series’ appeal; Buffy’s charm lies how relatable the eponymous lead is. She isn’t the sunny, saccharine Supergirl, nor is she the brooding, tortured Batman; she’s more or less an average sixteen-year-old. She is unaccountably moody sometimes; she gets jealous when her best friend starts hanging out with someone new; she bickers with her mother. For the first time, with the advent of the Slayer, a typical teenage girl is cast as super. It is enough for Buffy to be just who she is, and occasionally kill a vamp or two. The series developed a cult following, and retains its place in the cultural lexicon, because it allows teenage girls to see themselves on screen and in power.
And I know I’m only scratching the surface; soon, I’m told, there will be lesbian witches, advice on leaving an abusive relationship, and a guide through the grieving process. But halfway through season 2, I’m already sold. If the superhero is having a moment, let it linger. And if you’re disenchanted by the current offerings, I suggest taking a look behind you; Buffy won’t disappoint.