It's twenty years to the day since Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted, introducing a soon-to-be-iconic TV heroine in Sarah Michelle Gellar's Buffy Summers. Though the show never got the acclaim it deserved in its day, its devoted cult audience has endured and grown over the years, and Buffy is now pretty widely accepted as one of the greatest TV shows of its generation.
The story of Buffy, an ordinary girl with an extraordinary calling to fight the forces of evil, was conceived by creator Joss Whedon as a way to subvert a misogynistic horror trope: the helpless, doomed blonde. On its surface, the show is about Buffy facing down vampires, demons, and the occasional god, aided by her friends-but it's also about loss, responsibility, and what it means to be strong. As she fought her way through hell on earth, she learned a lot about being an outstanding person, leader, and friend-and so did we.
Here are seven empowering lessons we took from Buffy.
1. You are strong enough on your own.
Buffy's first major heartbreak came out of her season two relationship with soulful vampire boyfriend Angel (David Boreanaz), thanks to a twist that took the "guy turning into an asshole after you have sex" trope to its most hyperbolic extreme. After Buffy loses her virginity to Angel, his soul is mystically taken from him and he becomes a ruthlessly evil sociopath who stalks Buffy, murders her friends, and ultimately concocts an apocalypse. We've all dated that guy, amirite?
Buffy's lingering feelings for Angel make it impossible for her to kill him, even as he destroys her life, and in their final battle he taunts her with everything he's taken from her while going in for the kill: "No weapons, no friends, no hope. Take all that away, what's left?" Her response?
And then she stabs him right in the chest and sends him to hell. That particular part is not to be replicated in real life, obviously, but the takeaway is that no matter how brutal the breakup, there will come a moment when you realize you are strong enough to survive alone.
2. Sexuality is fluid.
As the show begins, Willow (Alyson Hannigan) is in love with Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and has been for years, although it later proves to be kind of an elementary school crush that doesn't really go anywhere when the pair actually pursue it. Gentle Willow also had a super adorable relationship with guitar-playing werewolf Oz (Seth Green), before finally going on to meet the love of her life, Tara (Amber Benson). Willow and Tara broke a lot of new ground-they were the first long-term lesbian couple on network television-but what often gets overlooked about this storyline is its nuanced portrayal of the fact that sexuality is not binary, and can change throughout a person's life.
Admittedly, there was some consternation among fans about her total disavowal of a happy romantic past with Oz-couldn't she have been happily bisexual instead of, as she referred to herself in later seasons, "gay now"? Her place on the Kinsey scale notwithstanding, Willow was a pioneer who allowed many queer women to see themselves on the small screen for the first time.
3. Found family can be as good as the real thing.
Buffy's father is really the worst. He cheated on her mom prior to their divorce, consistently fails to show up for Buffy's birthday, and in the end totally skips town to the point where he doesn't even respond to Buffy's calls after her mom dies. The. Worst. Thankfully, Buffy has a more or less perfect surrogate in Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), who starts out as her mentor in vampire slaying but quickly becomes a much closer and more loving father figure. By the same token, the Scoobies-a nickname for her most trusted circle of friends-become family to each other as the show goes on, with their actual relatives either going unmentioned or being actively rejected, as with Tara's creepy abusive clan. Even Buffy's sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) is technically a creation and not a real blood relative-but their entirely genuine bond proves that family is whatever you make it.
4. Sometimes just showing up is enough.
At the end of season five, Buffy has been struggling with an overwhelming sense of helplessness triggered mostly by the death of her mom. When she decides to sacrifice herself to save the world, her final words to Dawn are an acknowledgement of how hard it is to simply show up for daily life when you're depressed. "The hardest thing in this world is to live in it," she tells Dawn. "Be brave. Live."
Those words end up coming back to haunt Buffy when she returns from the dead a season later, feeling anything but alive. Season six is bleak as hell, but if you squint hard you can find something uplifting in the fact that Buffy keeps on trying, even when she feels hollow inside. She shows up for slaying, for Dawn, and for her soul-destroying burger-flipping job, because it's what has to be done, and ultimately finds the light at the end of the long, dark tunnel.
5. Your sexual decisions don't determine your worth.
Speaking of season six and its bleakness, Buffy copes with her alienation and numbness by falling into an intense, increasingly toxic sexual relationship with Spike (James Marsters), the soulless but defanged vampire who's loved her from afar for months. Both Buffy and Spike are abused and abusive at different times throughout their affair; the sex starts out hot but becomes more and more degrading, and Buffy's growing sense of self-loathing over the whole thing is uncomfortable to watch.
But she comes out of it, wiser and more self-aware, and goes on to develop a meaningful and more intimate non-sexual relationship with Spike (once he gets his soul, obv). Of all the empowering messages on Buffy, one of the most surprising and rare for mainstream television is that unwise sexual decisions don't make you a bad person.
6. Fight the patriarchy-especially at work.
If you rewatch Buffy as an adult, there comes a point when you realize it is literally the story of an extraordinary woman forced to work for men who won't pay her a fair wage. Giles and the largely male, largely useless Watchers Council seem to be salaried employees with benefits, paid vacation, and the occasional corporate retreat in the English countryside. Meanwhile, Buffy, the actual Slayer-without whom these men's jobs would not exist-gets paid nothing for her highly dangerous and stressful work, and has to take a minimum-wage job at the Doublemeat Palace just to make ends meet. A young woman does the work, and a bunch of older men take the credit...stop me if you've heard this one before.
Honestly, if I think about this for too long it'll make my head explode, so let's just focus on the fact that Buffy does call BS on this centuries-old setup. In season five's "Checkpoint" episode, the Council demands that Buffy pass a series of tests to prove herself worthy of being the Slayer: kind of like a performance review, only without the getting paid part. After going along with it for a while, Buffy finally snaps and gives a glorious speech in which she sets the terms, and the men listen for once. "I've had a lot of people talking at me the last few days," she says. "Everyone just lining up to tell me how unimportant I am. And I finally figured out why. Power. I have it. They don't. This bothers them." YES. (She still should've got herself a salary, though. Never gonna not be mad about that.)
7. Question the status quo, always. And change it if you have to.
"Because that's the way it's always been" is not a good enough reason for literally anything. And so in the very last episode of Buffy, the foundations upon which the entire show is built get torn down and remade, starting with the idea that only "one girl in all the world" can be the slayer.
"In every generation, one Slayer is born, because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule," Buffy says, in a speech that gets me every damn time. "They were powerful men. This woman is more powerful than all of them combined. So I say we change the rule." From now on, she explains, the ancient prophecy that forced one woman to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders no longer applies. Now, thanks to a spell performed by Willow, every woman in the world with the potential to be a slayer can now share the same strength, and one slayer will no longer have to fight alone. "Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?" Every. Damn. Time.
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