When Buffy The Vampire Slayer debuted on the WB as a mid-season replacement on March 10th, 1997, it’s safe to say that no one expected the series’ legacy to be so widely celebrated 20 years later – and yet here we are.
I was only five-years-old when Buffy premiered, but even at that age I was fascinated. It’s hard to say what exactly pulled me in when I was so young. The snappy dialogue and pop culture references certainly went over my head, and I didn’t get the nuance of the relationships or long-term storytelling – but the idea of the series, its simplest messages, must have resonated with me even then.
Joss Whedon created a story that transcended genre, age, and gender – it was the story of outsiders overcoming the odds, and it didn’t treat the problems of young adults as frivolous or frothy like so many other teen-centered series at the time. This is why Buffy has not only aged well, but also continues to attract and impress women and men of every age and background 20 years later.
The central theme of the earliest seasons was that ‘high school is hell’, and Whedon mined that premise for all it was worth. The metaphors weren’t always subtle, but they still resonate today – Buffy tackled the feelings loneliness, rejection, and sorrow that plague so many people during the most emotionally turbulent years of their lives, and they did it with heart, humour, and occasional scares. There never was, and has yet to be, anything else quite like it.
Buffy was also an escape for so many people. Sunnydale was an extraordinary world to get lost in when we didn’t feel like living in our own. When I watch the series today, it’s still remarkable how masterfully crafted every element of the storytelling feels. Whedon created characters that reflected the best and worst of us, and he was never afraid to take risks.
People often point to episodes like “Hush” (the silent episode), “The Body” (one of the greatest television episodes of all time, tackling the first few hours after the death of Buffy’s mother), and “Once More, With Feeling” (the musical episode). All of those hours were incredible, but the truth is that the writers were taking risks every single week. Buffy expertly moved between heart-breaking drama, irreverent humour, and edge-of-your-seat scares – and then the opening credits would hit. Whedon’s stories routinely examined what it meant to be human. Over the years, as Buffy matured from a teenager into an adult, the series challenged the norms of relationships and sexuality, defied stereotypes of family and friendships, and dared to seek out the soul of even the most sinful monsters and men.
It’s also impossible to ignore perhaps the most celebrated theme of the series: women kicking ass. I was raised, predominately, as the sole male in a home with two women, my mother and sister. I know a thing or two about badass women. Still, I’ll always credit Buffy for normalizing the idea that a woman can do anything as well as, or better than, any man (and yes, it’s absurd that that’s even a debate). It also never glamorized the idea of womanhood, as if it was always easy or beautiful or without consequences. Whedon allowed Buffy to be deeply flawed while growing and learning from her mistakes – she was also smart, resilient, and remarkably brave. Most impressively, Joss drove these themes home without ever feeling preachy, and Buffy has paved the way for female-centered storytelling more than perhaps any other series before or since.
Today, the idea of strong women standing up and owning their power is more relevant than ever. Regardless of gender, though, Buffy taught an entire generation that no matter what the world throws at us, our inner strength is greater. Today we celebrate more than just a TV series – we celebrate a remarkable achievement, an indispensable statement on feminism and strength, and we celebrate a 144-episode work of art that shaped how many viewers see themselves, and the world.