Please enjoy Seanan McGuire‘s opening essay from Whedonistas, A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Who Love Them, edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Deborah Stanish and out on March 15, 2011 from Mad Norwegian Books.
“The Girls Next Door: Learning to Live with the Living Dead and Never Even Break a Nail”
I have a confession to make. Unlike what seems like the majority of Buffy fandom, I didn’t start with the television show—I almost didn’t even watch the television show (although we’ll get back to that in a moment).
I started with the movie.
Like all children, I spent a lot of time looking for idols. I grew up in the 80s, during one of the periods where media representations of blondes fell into two categories: the bimbo and the bitch. Being a deeply weird little girl, neither of these particularly appealed to me. I eventually grew into a pre-teen Marilyn Munster, that being the only option I could find that allowed for a) blonde hair, b) a fondness for frilly pink things and wearing ribbons in your hair, and c) hanging out with monsters. Like I said, I was a deeply weird little girl. At least answering “Who do you want to be when you grow up?” with “Marilyn Munster” didn’t get me sent to the principal’s office… unlike my previous answer to the same question, which was “Vincent Price.”
My quest for idols carried me into my early teens, and it didn’t get any easier. I enjoyed being a blonde and I enjoyed my monsters, but I didn’t want to be a victim, and I didn’t want to be rescued. I wanted a more modern idol who could combine the two. My quest seemed hopeless…
And then came 1992, and a little movie called Buffy the Vampire Slayer opened at the dome theater down the street from my friend Tiffany’s house. It looked… promising. Weird, but promising. I liked the poster a lot, which showed a clearly badass blonde girl providing a human shield for that guy from 90210. I liked what I could glean of the concept from the commercials. Eventually, I begged for movie money and decamped myself to a matinee—figuring that at worst, I was out five bucks, and at best, I’d have a little fun.
I snuck back in for the next showing (the statute of limitations on movie-hopping in the 1990s has long since expired, right?). I went back the next day. I rapidly reached the point of being able to recite large stretches of the script, complete with hand gestures and vocal inflections. Mysteriously, this did not make me more popular at school, although it probably didn’t make the other kids consider me any weirder than I was before all that happened. By the time Buffy finished its Bay Area theatrical run—including a two-month stint at the dollar theater—I had seen the movie well over three dozen times. I was in love. I was in love with Buffy’s world, with the concept, and most of all, with a bubbly California blonde girl who knew how to punch out the forces of darkness and never even break a nail.
Now let’s skip forward a few years, shall we? When asked to list my favorite movies, I reliably identified Buffy the Vampire Slayer as one of the top three (the others being Little Shop of Horrors and Beetlejuice). I quoted the film the way other people in my social circle quoted Monty Python. And no one had a clue what the hell I was talking about… until The WB started running ads for a brand-new TV show with a very familiar title.
(It also had a very familiar lead actress. I was a huge fan of Swans Crossing, the pre-teen soap opera on which Sarah Michelle Gellar played Sydney, the primary antagonist. Amusingly enough, it was on the air in 1992—the year that I was meeting Buffy Summers for the very first time.)
A lot of my friends immediately started getting excited about Buffy, since it looked, well, kinda cool. A roughly equal number of my friends dismissed it out of hand, since they remembered the movie as being, well, kinda lame. I staked out a weird sort of neutral territory between the two camps, since I remembered the movie as being totally awesome, and had absolutely no interest in watching the show. It had a lead actress I adored. It was based on one of my favorite movies ever. The man who wrote the original movie—some guy named Joss Whedon—was in charge. The bits of dialogue in the commercials were witty and well written. And there was absolutely, positively, no way it couldn’t be terrible. It had too much going for it. It was designed by the universe to crush my dreams.
I was living with my best friend and her family when the show premiered, and her mother—one of Nature’s natural-born geniuses if there ever was one—realized that sometimes, when I make decisions about things like whether I should watch a television show, I can be, well, wrong. She set the VCR to record the show’s premiere. That Friday, as she was heading out of the house, she casually said “By the way, I taped that new Buffy show for you. The tape is on the bookshelf. Let me know if you want me to record next week’s episode.”
I didn’t want to watch the show. I didn’t think it was going to be any good. I didn’t want it to hurt my memories of the movie. But if she’d gone to the trouble of taping it for me, I might as well give it a shot, right? I mean, I could always turn it off if it was as bad as I thought it was going to be, and everyone was sure it was going to be cancelled anyway. I had nothing to lose. I got myself a soda and some chips, went into the family room, and started the VCR.
Hello, Destiny. How’ve you been?
If the movie was a beautiful dream, the show was a beautiful reality. Serious—sometimes deadly serious—and well-written, with a unified cosmology and a canvas big enough to encompass just about any story the writers might want to tell. If Buffy the movie was the true love of my childhood, Buffy the series quickly became the true love of my teenage years. It was everything I’d ever wanted in a show and more.
Buffy quickly became an obsession, and, shortly thereafter, became my gateway into an incredible, insane, indescribably wonderful new world: shared media fandom. See, prior to Buffy, all my obsessions had been either outdated (like my passion for The Munsters, a show that, quite frankly, wasn’t inspiring all that much fannish activity by the late 1990s) or totally obscure (like my undying love for Night of the Comet, a movie that, for years, no one I knew had even heard of, much less seen). But Buffy was everywhere. Buffy had people talking! And sure, most of them were talking about how much fun it would be to boink one or another of the main cast, but that didn’t matter. I had finally, after years adrift in a sea of solitude, found my tribe. And my tribe really, really cared about whether or not Angel was a vampire.
The early days of Buffy were a heady merry-go-round of possibility. I remember spending literally an entire day arguing with my friend Kevin over whether or not Oz was going to turn out to be some sort of a demon. Why did we care? Because we could. Because we had something rich enough, and detailed enough, for us to really sink our teeth into it. It was an incredible feeling, and we all wandered around pretty well drunk on it. I joined mailing lists. I debated (endlessly) whether the selection of a red fuzzy sweater, vs. a yellow fuzzy sweater, meant that Willow was going to play a larger role in upcoming episodes. (Hint: it actually meant that the costume department had a red fuzzy sweater in the appropriate size.)
Since a lot of us were new to organized media fandom, we were free to create our own rules, etiquette and traditions. I’m sure we seemed like crazy interlopers on the well-manicured lawns of older, more established fandoms, but we didn’t care. We were having way too much fun to even really notice. I learned about spoilers, after accidentally blowing the fact that Angel was a vampire; I learned about taking umbrage with canon, after they killed off Jenny Calendar. (It wasn’t the fact that they killed her. It was that they didn’t follow that by having her family come to town to bury her properly, lest her unquiet ghost rise up and torment Sunnydale for the rest of time. I am occasionally deeply literal.)
These were our passwords into a whole new universe:
“I may be dead, but I’m still pretty, and that’s more than I can say for you.”
“Books should be smelly.”
“Tact is just not saying true stuff. I’ll pass.”
Seriously—we didn’t say “the crow flies at midnight,” or “remember the curse of the vampire pumpkin patch.” We said “if the Apocalypse comes, beep me” and “oh, hey, juice.” Later fans of Joss’s work would know each other by the colors of their coats, but in those early days, we knew each other by the caliber of our dialogue. And that dialogue was awesome.
After years of looking for a blonde role model on television, I finally had one… even if she did spend the first season or so more on the brunette side of the Force. What was interesting was that after I finally got my iconic blonde girl, I was able to be a little less shallow about my preferences; my characters quickly became Faith, second Chosen but never second best, Anya, who, well… Anya, and Giles, because who wouldn’t love a sexy British librarian who knew about the monsters lurking in the shadows? My high school librarian was cool, but she wasn’t that cool. For one thing, she didn’t keep weapons in the library.
I learned about fannish panic. When the second season of Buffy started, people crawled out of the woodwork to cry that the show’s best days were over, and that it would never be that good again. Never mind that the second season was better in so many ways, with the character and plot foundations already securely in place and allowing for bigger, more ambitious storytelling; it wasn’t the new kid on the block any more, and that meant it was no longer shiny enough to be utterly perfect. And I learned about fannish obsession, that strange power that convinces each and every one of us that the shows we love would be absolutely perfect if only the creators focused solely on our favorite things, and let everybody else’s favorite things fall by the wayside.
As the show matured, so did its fandom. We splintered, going from a single coherent group to dozens of sub-groups—for all I know, the final count may well have been in the hundreds. I lost track after a while, and just keeping track of the groups I belonged to or that my groups were affiliated with was exhausting enough. Half the groups had fannish blood feuds going with each other at any given time, making the fandom an increasingly difficult-to-navigate minefield of conflicting interests, preferences and ideas. It was a little scary.
(This diversification of the fandom is why I have been known to express the somewhat non-standard belief that the cancellation of Firefly, tragic as it was, was actually very good for the Browncoats as an organized group. Because their show didn’t have time to develop factions, they were able to hang together in a united fashion… and the splintering of a fandom is usually the first sign that people will, eventually, lose interest and let the fandom die. The Browncoats are more likely to endure than the various branches of Buffy fandom were. Not only did they develop around a relatively small quantity of established canon, they were promptly given reason to rally together, what with the loss of their show. Fox Network provided the Browncoats with their very own Serenity Valley… and just like the show’s Serenity, it can never be anything but a bitter unification.)
I made friends—close, lifelong friends—through my love of Buffy. I co-wrote a chain sonnet—a form of structured poetry obsessively detailed enough to border on being a form of insanity—with a fan from New York, spending hours and hours debating symbolism, character, and how many times it was acceptable to rhyme “lives” with “knives.” (In the context of Buffy, you can do it as many times as you want. So there.) I eventually wound up flying across the country to be a guest at the first BuffyCon, and played Buffy Summers in their cabaret sing-along of “Once More, With Feeling.” Let me tell you, you know you love a fandom when you’re willing to fly a couple of thousand miles to stand in front of a room full of strangers and sing about how you’re just going through the motions. That takes dedication. Or, y’know, some sort of a head injury.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer wound up teaching me another, accidental lesson: that sometimes you’re so excited to keep going down the road you’re on, you drive right past your destination. The show lost focus over its last two seasons, and while all the hardcore fans I’d come to know and love kept watching, the spark was gone, and the fire was in the process of going out. The mythology warped and twisted back along itself until Buffy Summers, the girl who once railed against the unfairness of being Chosen, looked at a squadron of girls who were just like she’d been and took away their right to Choose. It was an interesting statement about becoming the evil we fight against, and it hurt to see it made.
For seven years, I spent one night a week with Buffy and the Scoobies, and I never regretted a minute of it. For six years, I hosted season-premiere parties, watching the new status quo unfold with a roomful of people who cared just as much as I did. Like so many others, I watched the finale alone, and I cried like the world was ending.
Buffy Summers taught me that you can be a bouncy, buoyant blonde in cheer pants and impractical shoes, but still kick ass, chew bubblegum and take names. She taught me that if you do it right, you can punch somebody in the face without ever even breaking a nail. She taught me a lot of things … but in the end, it was Giles, Xander and Anya who taught me the things I really needed to know, because they taught me that you don’t need superpowers, or cool weapons, or a Calling to stand up against the forces of darkness. You don’t need to be the Chosen One. Buffy’s life was about being Chosen. For the people around her, and for the fans who chose to watch and love her adventures, it was about having the right to Choose.
Over the course of seven years, Joss Whedon gave us a stable, loving lesbian relationship; more redemptions than I really care to think about; fantastic villains; enthralling heroes; and, yes, a few big musical numbers. He created something that was unlike anything else that had come before, and now we look at genre shows the way we once looked at the second season of his first show—having seen perfection, we argue, how can anything be as good, ever again? He gave us monsters, and he made them human, and in the middle of it all was his modern Marilyn Munster in miniskirt and thigh holster, kicking ass without ever ruining her manicure. I am forever grateful to him for that, if nothing else. He changed the landscape. He’s pretty good at that.
Still, do I think it was perfect? No, at least in part because Buffy herself wasn’t perfect. Maybe it’s not fair to ask perfection of our heroines. Still, we grew apart, she and I, as the seasons went by … and when she came back from the dead at the start of Season Six, I was almost sorry. Part of me had really been looking forward to the transition into Faith the Vampire Slayer—I mean, you have to admit, that would have been one hell of a ride.
Not that what we got wasn’t one hell of a ride all by itself.
In the long run, I think I like Buffy the Vampire Slayer better as a television series, because it had so much more time and room and space to grow … but I like Buffy Summers better as a California Valley Girl who got on the back of a motorcycle with her boyfriend, and got the hell out of dodge before someone could ask her to fight some shiny new variety of evil. I like the girl who, upon being told that she was Chosen, decided she still had the right to make a Choice. I’ll still take Pike over Riley and, yes, even over Angel; he was a guy who’d let his girl do what she needed to do, and would never judge her for being a little unladylike about the way she went about it. I just wish the movie Buffy had been given the opportunity to meet Willow, Xander and Giles. I think she would have liked them as much as I did. But I guess the TV Buffy needed them more, because she had more to prove.
I’m still a Marilyn Munster girl; I’m still out there looking for monsters. Still, I owe Joss Whedon my eternal gratitude, because by giving me what I’d been asking for all along—a blonde girl allowed to be where the monsters were—he showed me that sometimes, you have to look a little more than skin deep for your ideals. Joss Whedon taught me not to be that shallow. Buffy learned the same lesson, in the end. She just had to die a few more times than I did to get there.
So thanks, Joss, for the hall pass to Sunnydale High.
It was definitely an education.
In addition to being a rabid media consumer, Seanan McGuire is a distressingly prolific novelist, with three books out in 2010 (one under the name “Mira Grant,” to make it look like she sometimes sleeps) and three more coming in 2011. She won the 2010 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Author. It came with a tiara. When not writing or watching television, Seanan releases albums of original music, draws an autobiographical comic strip and goes to way too many conventions. Her cats disapprove of all these things—except for maybe the television, since at least then, she sits still.