By Sara Karlovitch 

You know how in all the horror movies the dumb blonde cheerleader is always the first to die? Usually it’s in some ally and the monster sneaks up from behind and eats her brains or whatever. This is the norm of the campy movie genre.

So imagine the audience’s shock when they tuned their TVs into Buffy the Vampire Slayer 20 years ago on March 10 and saw Buffy Summers, a ditzy blonde high school cheerleader, kick the scary monster in the ally’s ass.

This is exactly what was running through the head of Joss Whedon, leader of the nerds, when he first thought up the idea of Buffy Summers more than two decades ago. He turned his idea into a movie, which premiered in 1992 starring Kristy Swanson and Donald Sutherland. It was a complete financial and commercial flop.

So Buffy was shelved for five years until Whedon breathed new life into her, this time as a TV series. The first season only had 12 episodes and was used as a midseason replacement for Savannah. They had no money, no time and lived in constant fear of cancellation.

Instead of being a one season flop like everyone expected it to be, Buffy the Vampire Slayer became what is considered by both critics and fans alike to be one of the greatest television shows of all time.

Buffy, as it’s commonly referred to, ranks 38 on Rolling Stones’ top 100 shows of all time, 22 on Empire’s top 50 shows of all time and is included on Time’s top 100 list (the list is done alphabetically).

For the uninformed, Buffy is about Buffy Summers, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, a slightly sub-par high school student from suburban California. She lives with her divorced mom in the small town of Sunnydale. She has boy troubles and typical 16-year-old insecurities.

She also just happens to be the Slayer. In each generation, one girl is called forth by the Powers That Be to fight supernatural evils like vampires and other beasts from the mouth of hell. She has super strength and healing and is responsible for saving the world on what seems like a weekly basis.

Unlike the countless Slayers before her, Buffy chooses to surround herself with friends that help her in her quest. You have Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan), a mousy-computer-nerd-turned-mega-witch and Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon), the funny, caring heart and soul of the team. Anthony Stewart Head plays Buffy’s Watcher, a sort of teacher to the Slayer and father figure.

Buffy ran for seven seasons and continues to this day in comic book form.

Sounds typical, right? Not in the slightest. Whedon and his talented team of writers created a show that asked thoughtful and provocative questions of its audience. Buffy was no brainless one hour a week guilty pleasure. Whedon expected his audience to think about profound moral and ethical questions like grief, mortality and what is worth sacrificing for the greater good.

Each monster, or “Big Bads,” as they’re called in the Buffyverse, represents some challenge that Buffy has to work through in order to become an adult. For example, the vampires represent the want to stay youthful and immature forever. Buffy has to slay them in order to grow up. In the season 2 episode “Ted,” Buffy battles an embodiment of domestic abuse.

In the groundbreaking episode “The Body” — which is considered to be the best episode of Buffy — Whedon breaks from TV norms and uses death as a way to analyze the grief process, not just as a plot device. Buffy tackles nearly every social issue imaginable, from drug addiction and poverty to contemplating the existence of God.    

Buffy not only broke TV norms, but created new ones. It was the first show to portray a lesbian couple that wasn’t a punchline of a joke. Willow Rosenberg continues to be a symbol of LGBTQA+ empowerment to this day. They were also the first show with a musical episode, as well as one of the first shows to kill off a major character mid season.

Buffy has had a profound impact on culture as a whole, right down to the way we speak. I’m not kidding. Have you ever used the phrase “to wig out” or “five-by-five?” How about “What’s the sitch?” All of these terms were invented and popularized by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Oxford Dictionary has a term for it: “Buffyspeak.”

Buffy also started an entire academic field, called “Buffy Studies.”  

Most importantly, Buffy is a symbol of female empowerment. The power of the Slayer is a metaphor for straight up girl power. Buffy was meant to normalize the fact that women can do anything they put their minds too.

Twenty years later, Buffy still has lessons to teach us. In a time of extreme political and social unrest, it seems as if we need the Slayer to battle our monsters for us now more than ever. Buffy reminds us that the potential for greatness and strength lives within each of us. As Buffy would say, “every girl in the world who might be a Slayer, will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power.”

Twenty years ago, Buffy promised the world that if the apocalypse comes, we should “beep her.” So, Buffy can we still beep you? Or would a text be better?    

Featured Photo Credit: Feature photo courtesy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Facebook.

Sara Karlovitch is a freshman journalism and government and politics major and can be reached at skarlovi@terpmail.umd.edu.

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