What Buffy the Vampire Slayer means to us, 20 years later
We were in our teens when Buffy first aired, which meant we were exactly who the show was meant to appeal to. As it turned out, Buffy's reach went much, much further but it's still close to our hearts. It feels like it was ours — a defining pop culture moment that shaped us as women and gave us representation, and a hero.
On the 20th anniversary of the pilot airing, we take a look back at what made this show special to us, so much so that it still stands up as one of our favourite shows now. She saved us. A lot.
The female hero
Jo: I think for me it was the first show that had a genuine focus on what it’s like to be a teenage girl in a totally unpatronising or unrealistic way, which is all the more wonderful considering it was about a vampire slayer.
Nicki: Yes, it was totally unbelievable in its overall premise yet one of the first times you felt represented and not patronised as a teenage girl.
Jo: She’s a hero in that she’s the Slayer (I mean, that’s just awesome in itself) but she also holds up all the people around her on a daily basis. And sometimes she fails, sometimes she has a rough time, sometimes she gives in to emotions.
Nicki: I loved the fact that she was a normal teenage girl and she cared about all the normal crap that we did too, but that didn't mean she couldn't care about the important stuff too. We saw Sali Hughes speak last night and she said something along these lines. It’s stupid to think that if a woman cares about something like beauty you assume she can’t have the substance to care about other issues. And she was allowed to make mistakes, learn and change throughout the show.
I liked that she was never judged by the show’s writers. It’s so easy to dismiss teenage girls. People still patronisingly talk about what teenage girls are into like it’s an unimportant phase, but it’s actually defining who they’ll be as women.
Jo: Exactly - it made teenage girls feel important. And god, that’s such a rare thing.
Nicki:It validated what we cared about.
The life lessons
Jo: Um, everything?
Nicki: Pretty much! Was there anything it didn't cover? Love, death, friendship, same-sex relationships. Tiny demons.
Jo: Being brought back from the dead.
Nicki: I think the fact it just prepared you for the various relationships and dynamics you’d end up having in your life. People are different from you, in age, race, culture, background, opinions — even not actually being human, but it was how she worked and dealt with them all. I really remember how it dealt with death mostly. It was always a massive part of her life as standard, but her dealing with her mother and her own death were just amazing.
Jo: It did, and it was such clever writing because it didn’t shoe-horn scenarios in just for the sake of wanting to deal with a controversial issue. It always felt natural, always felt like a likely progression.
Nicki: Yes, it never pandered to anyone.
Jo: I think everyone remembers the episode where her mother dies. One of the best/most painful episodes ever.
Nicki: That was the thing about that show, I’d never know if i’d be laughing or absolutely bawling my heart out with each new episode.
Jo: It really messed with my emotions.
Nicki: In the best way though. I loved that - I was at a super-emotional stage of my life and it gave me an excuse to feel all the feelings.
Jo: It was such an emotional show but there were no apologies for that.
Nicki: And no apologies for when they just wanted to be silly too. The musical episode was just the silliest, until they decide to rip your heart out at the end of course.
Jo: I used to watch the end of Once More With Feeling over and over. Tipped the whole show over but, again, in the best way possible.
Nicki: Even when the storyline took a turn I hadn't wanted or expected, I went with it as I trusted that they knew what they were doing. I was not on board with Spike at first after Angel but then… well we all know how that turned out.
Jo: I even trusted them when they introduced Dawn. There’s a life lesson there - sometimes annoying things happen and you make the best of them ;)
The fashion (or lack of)
Nicki: Oh I so tried to recreate her outfits. I was coming out of my cargo trousers and Dr Martens phase, and thought I’d actually embrace being a female. She seemed like the perfect person to emulate.
Jo: Looking back at it today it seems I still do. I fully embraced spaghetti strap dresses.
Nicki: Yeah to be honest I think I’d happily wear a lot of the stuff from later seasons today too.
Jo: And the silky fabrics, so much sateen.
Nicki: Maybe that can stay in the 90s.
Jo: I was looking through Bad Buffy Outfits earlier and laughing at myself because I basically still dress like them all now.
Nicki: Leather biker jacket, always. Chokers. Skirt/boots combos. Dungarees.
Jo: Mini skirts, square-neck tops, peasant tops.
Nicki: And of course we still both crave the Yummy Sushi pyjamas.
We'd love to say our style has evolved but, well, this is pretty much how we dress now too. Thanks Buffy.
Jo: I was reading an interview earlier and they hit it right on the head: the fashion in a lot of the episodes is BAD. But purposefully so, because Buffy and her friends aren’t meant to be the super-perfect fashionable types.
Nicki: I'm sure it was deliberate but it also SHOULD be bad. They were teenagers and wore insane things while trying to work out who they were, and that’s how it's supposed to be.
Jo: They all had their own identifiable style though and you’d never really question what they wore, at least I didn't.
Nicki: Yes it was good, they covered lots of fashion bases.
Jo: It’s funny that I kinda appreciate Willow’s crazy knitwear more now, whereas at the time I would have been all about Buffy’s cleavage-flaunting tops and more figure-hugging stuff.
Nicki: I can't really look back on the fashion as completely bad as I'm way too nostalgic about it.
Jo: We’re always going to have more of a tie to it because it’s what we experimented with at the time. And still like it for the same reasons!
Jo: Let’s talk about the men because I have a lot to say.
Nicki: Now this show was not about the men. It was about the girls’ choices in men, which is why I'm so cool with it.
Jo: Yup and, for me, that’s one of the reasons I love it so much still. The relationships were a big part of Buffy’s life but they weren’t the only thing. It wasn’t working towards a will-they-won’t-they finale. You could see the relationships building, the chemistry between people, the natural way people fall in and out of each others' lives.
Nicki: It wasn’t like some shows where it revolved so much about two characters finally becoming a couple then, as soon as they did, lost any tension. They actually managed to lose the original big love interest and the show carried on as strong as it had ever been, if not better for it.
Jo: Oh Angel. The fact that they were brave enough to make him lose his soul and turn on Buffy. So clever to take a fantasy storyline and turn it into something that happens to girls all the time. To let them see that it can even happen to the heroes of the storyline. And that it sucks.
Nicki: He spouted some classic lines that boys really do say to girls when they wanted to really hurt them too. He knew her well enough to know how to really hurt her. That's relationships though right? You give someone everything knowing they could use it to make you happy or potentially destroy you.
Jo: She was distraught and ashamed and confused. I was distraught and ashamed and confused. I hadn’t seen that happen on TV before.
Nicki: No not really, it would have been a pregnancy scare or something in other shows
Jo: Something more moral or hard-hitting. Buffy storylines, for all their demons and humour, were incredibly subtle. They dealt with the everyday.
Nicki: It was also interesting that they slept together and it was the guy that lost something. Then she moved onto Riley, who I know people HATED but I think she needed the boring stable boyfriend so that the Spike relationship was all that more exciting and understandable.
Jo: Riley is the typical safe boyfriend that you know is never going to be the love of your life but you kinda need at the time. Nice but boring.
Nicki: It was at the time she was trying to be stable and normal too - go to uni and have a life. I mean so he was in some weird underground military operation, but he was still a normal guy with a terrible curtain haircut really. He was also that boyfriend you have that wants to know everything about your ex and how he measures up to him.
Jo: Which says a lot about us because we both hate the boring guy and were rooting for the bad boys because we are cliches. And we’ve been trained into thinking that bad boys are better when in fact they’re idiots.
Nicki: Oh of course, but the ‘bad’ boys in this show were a whole other level. We're referring to a guy who was keeping a massive military secret, who fundamentally couldn't handle that she was stronger than him and was a massive jerk about it, as the ‘nice guy’.
Jo: Haha I know. But he was still soooo boring. Whereas… SPIKE.
Nicki: I cant remember the moment I got on board with Spike. But once I did...
Jo: The relationship that never should have happened but did and OMG FEELS
Nicki: They were clever as it should never have worked but it was the hottest thing.
Jo: Basically formed the basis of so many of my bad relationship decisions since
Buffy and Spike. So wrong but so, so hot. Image from Giphy.
Nicki: I think it skewed my view of the importance of that initial all-consuming passion that really can only been maintained for so long.
Jo: It was an outlet for her though, she was in pain and needed a way to deal with it. Spike was there and he loved her.
Nicki: And he actually did change, as much as a vampire can. But as a female character goes she covered a lot of situations, even with Xander she had to deal with the whole, but-I’m-a-nice-guy-so-you-should-like-me situation.
Jo: The Xander situation was really interesting too because the writers never really pandered to it. They probably had pressure or expectations from fans who wanted them to eventually pair them up but they stayed far away from it. There was a lot of importance on friendship and boundaries.
Nicki: Nope they dealt with it in a healthy way. That ‘nice guy trope’ was dealt with in a very smartly and eventually he met someone else and worked out that Buffy could be important to his life platonically and was then able to be an actual friend to her.
Jo: It was relationships from the perspective of a teenage girl and it was her decisions and how she dealt with them. Complex and real.
Nicki: Pretty impressive for a show that on paper is about monsters, which leads us to one of my fav parts of the show... grr argh monster at the end. I love him.
Jo: Always. I suppose that’s it really, isn’t it? It’s a show about monsters but we’re drawn to talking about everything but that. The monsters are just everyday life, the shit we deal with around the important things. What’s important is the people, our relationships.
Nicki: Yep, pretty much. Other than the real standout horror and comedy moments (and the absolute joy that was the Hush and Once More With Feeling episodes it's the humanity that has stuck with us over the past 20 years. Well done Joss Whedon and thanks for giving us a role model right when we were deciding what kind of women we'd be.