Buffy Isn't My Queer Show: A Personal and Cultural History
So, Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered 20 years ago this week. Twenty! Holy hell.
In the past few days, I've been revisiting this important pillar of pop culture by watching it on Netflix. Buffy was my world for several of my pre-teen and teen years, and while I was shamed for this fact by the stigma that befalls nearly all teens who obsess over "nerdy" or "cheesy" things like scifi TV shows about girls and vampires, I refuse to be embarrassed. Even if my mom straight-up laughed at me over the phone when I told her I was re-watching it. "Oh, Sarah," she said, "not that again."
Yes, that again, only with a much deeper and broader perspective on what this show means in my own personal history as well as the cultural zeitgeist, especially the queer zeitgeist. The thing is, for as important as this show was and remains for many queer women, and despite my consuming multi-year obsession with it, this was not my queer show. But I almost wish it was.
I was just shy of twelve when Buffy premiered in 1997. I was a fan from day one. As a younger child, I was obsessed with the Power Rangers (smitten with the pink ranger, of course, because gendered norms); with Punky Brewster; with Ace of Base; and with climbing around rocks and trees in our yard. (Thank goodness the internet wasn't ubiquitous yet). Buffy came along during my transition to middle school, aka the most hellish time of life, and quickly became everything to me. It was an escape from the windowless concrete slab of my "academic" institution, the unwelcome changes in my body, the suddenly fraught social dynamics of pre-teens and the looming weight of adulthood. It was also something that brought me closer with my group of friends; we made a fan club with a newsletter, called each other during commercial breaks, recorded every episode on VHS tapes (which now live in my parents' attic), and talked about it almost constantly. Its portrayal of a literal hellmouth-school comforted me. Its characters complimented each other's personalities; their friendships and romances felt messy and raw but important and solid at the same time. They were vulnerable yet powerful, and more or less fearless. I identified strongly with Willow from the start; I too was a quiet, nerdy, somewhat self-conscious girl trying to do her best and not make waves; fiercely loyal and observant. As I grew and the show progressed, my relationship with it deepened.
Like most other queer girls who didn't yet understand they were queer, when boys became increasingly interesting and clothes more trend-conscious (Delia*s, anyone?) among my friends, I felt lost. I draped myself in oversized t-shirts (one of which said "Sunnydale High," a prized possession for many years) to hide my body and my confusion, until I reached 9th grade and caved to femme-y style pressure. I didn't want a boyfriend, but I knew I should. I looked to Willow and Oz, and centered my attention on them. I saw myself in Willow, so surely I could have an Oz, right? I mean, Oz was a great guy. He was cute and sensitive and respectful. I fixated on Oz. I fixated on Seth Green. I watched their kissing scenes over and over, rewinding those VHS tapes, and tried to look only at his face. I made my dad take me into NYC so we could stand outside the MTV studios and see him appear on TRL.
Just after I turned fifteen, my family moved to a rural area in a different state. There was no cable there, so I went without my favorite show. That was right around the time that the Scooby gang went to college and Willow began her Wiccan lesbian love journey, and by the time I was able to continue watching Buffy after my brother and I convinced our parents to invest in satellite TV, I, to use an early aughts term, wigged out. Willow was a lesbian! Was I a lesbian? Shit, better stop watching!
Oh, the endless sadness and fear of a closeted queer teenager. Little me would do anything at all to be straight, including but not limited to abandoning cultural entities that meant a lot to me and may actually have showed me something I needed to see. My fears included such irrational and ludicrous ideas as, if I kept watching I would "turn gay;" someone who knew I watched the show would think I was gay by association because of this one gay character; I would feel gross about myself if I watched it and enjoyed it.
Buffy was a great show. It was full of fantastic storytelling, and the women of the show obviously appealed to me in their strength and complexity. Of course I had a crush on Willow, but more importantly for middle-school me, in the time period during which the show aired flawed and powerful female characters were hard to come by. While a lot of sexist and racist tropes ran through the veins of this show, as in practically every show ever, the nuance of the female characters was, for me, a precursor to everything I loved about Lexa. Everyone's fan experiences are obviously different, but for me Lexa was the pinnacle of queer woman power on TV. (As a cis white woman I am privileged to have even that one character to feel this way about).
I wish Willow and Tara had been that for me, more than Clarke and Lexa. Although Willow and Tara's relationship was expressed almost entirely through not-very-subtle subtext (remember their first spell-casting scene? They held hands and looked deeply into each other's eyes and talked about how they would become one, floated a rose off the ground and picked the petals off one by one. Talk about a metaphor for lesbian sex), they were arguably the most important on-screen lesbian representation ever because they were first.
Willow and Tara were the first ongoing lesbian relationship on mainstream TV. Prior to them, queer representation was pretty much relegated to the cartoonish gay men of Will and Grace and Ellen's temporarily tanked career (lol, look at her now, she is our president). Even The L Word didn't show up until the year after Buffy ended. Their legacy is undeniable; their 2001 kiss was was largely unprecedented and, since it did not fulfill network censors' fears of being the kiss of death for the show, significantly contributed to the (glacially slow) culture shift that has allowed more queer characters to show up on TV. (That said, Joss Whedon was just one in a long line of pre- and post- Jason Rothenberg's, as evidenced in an NPR interview in which he roses himself for allowing Willow to explore her sexuality while also vehemently defending his decision to kill Tara, showing zero knowledge of the Hayes code, Bury Your Gays, or simple sensitivity for the queer community so starved for representation. But I digress).
Tara and Willow shared TV's first actual lesbian kiss, they were out to their friends, they were accepted and normalized in their friend group as a couple. That kind of thing was unheard of in the mainstream, and continues to be very rare. Clarke and Lexa didn't have that. And for a giant swath of lesbians, Tara and Willow's relationship was the first time they had seen themselves culturally validated. I ran scared from what could have been life-changing for me, and as a result I waited almost two decades to feel this validation myself. Both stories ended in the exact same way- literally, the plots were nearly identical- so at least I didn't go through that twice. But still.
Today, for all of my grateful warm feelings toward Buffy and pre-3.07 The 100, I'm struck by even more parallels between the two shows, namely in how their showrunners handled the fan response to their dead lesbians. Namely, by denying any knowledge or intention regarding the BYG trope and by attempting to queerbait its post-Tara/Lexa vanished viewers back into the fray after the fact. (Ratings for both shows dropped substantially, which you would think would be a lesson in what fans want to see). In Buffy's seventh and final season, there was a lot of talk about Joss Whedon bringing Tara back as an evil witch; I refer to Amber Benson's response to being asked to return in this role: "As an actor, of course, it appeals to me to play kind of evil and bitchy and sexy, but, as a human being who gets letters that say, ‘I didn’t kill myself because of what you and Alyson did,’ that part of me goes, ‘You’re not just an actor anymore; you’re making a social commentary now, baby. You’ve got to be responsible.’ And I couldn’t be responsible coming back, because as an actor you have no control.” In last week's episode of The 100 (according to Gretchen Ellis, whose recaps save me from having to watch the drivel myself), Clarke apparently slept with Niylah out of the blue beneath the drawing she made of Lexa that she hung on her wall. Too little too late (and also way too weird), old white dudes whose names start with J.
There is a lot of criticism, positive and negative, being showered on Buffy in countless retrospectives this week. One thing they all inherently have in common is the acknowledgement that it was a force, a beacon; it was socially important and left a lasting mark on cultural discourse. On balance, I'm glad it was such a big part of my life growing up, and elated to be reading the perspectives of other queer women writers (like my absolute favorite culture blogger and professor Elizabeth Bridges, whose piece on the subject is actually perfect) on how the show and the representation it delivered/fell short on has impacted their lives. The beautiful swirl of commentary around this 20th anniversary is fascinating, validating, thought-provoking and heart-wrenching. What more could you want from a good story?
Also, I'm so into re-watching Buffy because of it, and I have to say, not only does the show stand firmly on its high-heeled feet, but it is chock full of fascinating (if at times frustrating) feminist themes and knotty questions of agency, power, gender, and morality. It's meatier than I remember, and I'm all about it.
And at least now when I get to Tara's death, I'll know exactly what to expect, as well as the subtext, context and paratext surrounding it. Now, almost 20 years after I cowered from the queerness of Buffy as I cowered from the queerness within myself, I can embrace Willow and Tara's relationship entirely without fear or shame.
Now, Buffy can be my queer show, too.