Friday November 24, 2017

Why "Buffyworld" still matters

Detail from a publicity poster for the UPN television series 'Buffy The Vampire Slayer.'

Detail from a publicity poster for the UPN television series 'Buffy The Vampire Slayer.' ( UPN/Getty Images)

Listen to Full Episode 53:57

It's been 20 years since a midriff-baring California cheerleader leapt onto our television screens and became a riveting woman warrior — slaying vampires, demons and monsters. Her fantastical enemies were subversive metaphors for a corrupt and authoritarian culture. Today, Buffy the Vampire Slayer remains the most-studied show in television history. IDEAS producer Mary O'Connell revisits the legacy of "Buffyworld". **This episode originally aired May 17, 2017.


"There's no question that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of the most influential series in American television history and looking back 20 years later, we see the echoes of its legacy." –  Michael Zryd

"The thing about Buffy is you can't slot it — it's a teen show, a super-hero show, an adult drama —  actually it's a work of art." – Emily Nussbaum​

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

(Credit: Getty Images and Mutant Enemy Productions)

Twenty years ago, Buffy the Vampire Slayer became a monster of the week TV drama for teenagers. Today there are countless websites, chat rooms and hundreds of scholarly articles and books about a young female warrior who slays all kinds of vampires, demons and ghouls. Using her flying fists and feet, wooden stakes and crossbows, Buffy would destroy metaphors of hate, misogyny and corruption on a weekly basis. While she longed to get on with a regular teenage life, she understood that the world is a dangerous place. As she tells her friends: "when the apocalypse comes, beep me!".   

Many cultural critics believe Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a major influence on a generation of television production: long, sweeping narrative arcs; deep character development, set against a background of contemporary social anxieties and tensions. Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic Emily Nussbaum considers the program, "art" and says it should be studied this way. And it has, with essays like, Buffy as Gidget for the Fin de Siecle, or I'm Buffy, You're History: A Post-modern Politics of Buffy.   

No theme is too scary for Buffy to tackle. Toxic hyper-masculinity, the military-industrial complex, the cold rationale of the scientific id, a psychopathic internet troll, sleazy, corrupt politicians — she'll go there.  But unlike past female super-heroes, like Wonder Woman and Charlie's Angels — who were sexualized and trivialized — Buffy not only slays society's enemies, she also maintains a deep and complex inner life as well.  

The program's prevailing messages: life can be hell, so expect it. In a society that medicates sadness and quirks of temperament, Buffy the Vampire Slayer asks us to consider emotional pain as a part of being human.  And to be alive to the dangers, and joys, around us — and inside us. It invites us to be engaged, to strive towards good. It does not leave apathy as an option. In the words of British theatre critic Ian Shuttleworth, it's a "program more relevant today than ever".

Guests in this episode:

  • Ian Shuttleworth is the theatre reviewer for the Financial Times, London. He has also contributed to an academic journal, Reading the Vampire Slayer. 
  • Michael Zryd teaches cinema and media arts at York University, Toronto. 
  • Sherryl Vint teaches speculative fictions and cultures of science at the University of California, Riverside. 
  • Brian Wall is an associate professor of Cinema and Art History at Binghampton University in New York.
  • Emily Nussbaum is a Pulitzer-prize winning television critic for The New Yorker magazine.
  • Boyd Tonkin is a senior writer and columnist for The Independent, London. 
  • Marti Noxon was executive producer (and writer) of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She has moved on to equally exciting television programs. She is also a film-maker.

Further reading: 

  • Fighting the Forces: What's at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, by Rhonda Wilcox and David Lavery, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2002.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale, James South and William Irwin, 2003, Open Court.  

Related websites:

*This episode was produced by Mary O'Connell.