Friday 24 January 2020

All hail Buffy - she brought out the inner feminist in all of us

Moments of brilliance: Buffy Summers was probably the most important, yet most underappreciated, character in recent TV history
Moments of brilliance: Buffy Summers was probably the most important, yet most underappreciated, character in recent TV history
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

It was violent. It was horrifying. It was funny. It was brilliantly written and yet it has been largely forgotten. Anyone who saw the 1992 movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer would have sniggered at the idea that such a throw-away flick, most notable for the sight of Donald Sutherland going through the motions while he waited for his cheque to clear, would spawn a TV show which would go on to become one of the most important pieces of television of its generation.

The ideas were there in the movie, that much is true. But it just didn't work. As the show's creator, Joss Whedon, would later admit, it was chewed up and spat out by a studio system which just didn't get it.

But the TV show? Well, it's not an exaggeration to say that when Buffy the Vampire Slayer first aired on our screens 20 years ago, it helped to change the way television was made.

It's rather depressing to realise that a show you loved and still seems fresh is now two decades old, but as I've spent the last few weeks rewatching favourite episodes it's reassuring to see that it hasn't just aged well, it hasn't aged at all.

For those of you still in the dark, Buffy Summers was a cute, blonde, all-American high school girl in Sunnydale, a typical suburban town with a difference - it was on a 'hell mouth' which meant it was prone to demons, vampires, ghouls and giant spiders. Buffy was different to the other girls as well - she was a Slayer.

According to the legend, one girl in every generation is born to slay demons and help the innocent. It's a short, nasty and brutish life which invariably ends at the fangs of a vampire.

If that all sounds rather daft, you have obviously never seen an episode.

Because over the course of seven seasons, this was a programme which seemed to deal with everything - social isolation, suicide, the death of a parent, loyalty and betrayal.

But what is perhaps most notable about Buffy is that it reminds us just how much the culture has changed in the last few decades.

It's probably fair to say that without Buffy, there would have been no Katniss Everdeen, no Hunger Games. It brought vampires back to the mainstream which, in turn, allowed subsequent shows like True Blood and The Vampire Diaries to flourish.

But more importantly than that, it was a show which brought out the inner feminist in everyone, even the male viewers.

If we are to take, for example, the appalling Lena Dunham as the voice of her generation and compare that whiny narcissist to Buffy, then you can see how something terribly wrong has happened in our culture.

Where Dunham's terrible show Girls is representative of a sense of spoiled entitlement, a constant desire to be offended and a weird obsession with identity politics, Buffy was the opposite.

She was resilient, loyal, funny and kicked ass. In fact, she was probably the most important, yet most underappreciated, character in recent TV history.

There were moments of genuine brilliance in Buffy, from the episode 'Hush', which was almost entirely silent; there was a genre-bending musical episode 'Once More, With Feeling' which now looks like a forerunner of Glee. And, in the most powerful episode of them all, there was the truly moving 'The Body', which saw Buffy discover her mother's dead body and realise that all her powers are useless when it comes to fighting raw grief.

It's always easy to place too much importance on any one single television show.

But TV is our great cultural barometer, and Buffy is a symbol of a culture that has morphed into something very different to how it was 20 years ago.

In fact, even a casual observer can see that something terribly rotten has crept into our society.

We now live in a febrile, hair-trigger atmosphere which has fostered the tyranny of the professionally weak; where you're now nobody until you have secured some special victim status.

The phrase Generation Snowflake is both reductive and unfair to Millennials. But it is also undeniably indicative of a growing demand for special treatment, or the toxic idea that there is virtue in weakness, or the demented belief that words you don't like are akin to violence and ideas can harm you.

I know it's inevitable that as people get older they get grumpier and like to carp about those pesky young 'uns.

But one of the reasons why Generation Snowflake doesn't really work is because these appalling traits are not confined to people of just one generation.

Everyone's a victim these days, to the extent that it's now common to see middle class, university educated women shriek and whine about 'white male privilege', without realising, or merely refusing to acknowledge, that anyone who lives in the West and has gone to college automatically leads a life of privilege unknown to the rest of the planet.

One of the reasons I become so wistful when watching the old episodes (there's a Buffy marathon on SyFy this weekend) is because the characters all looked outwards.

They were brave, sometimes reckless, sometimes terrified. But they come from a time when the modern trend for tedious self-obsession and boastful fragility would have been dismissed as nonsense.

So happy 20th birthday, Buffy. We need you now more than ever…

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