Joss Whedon has spoken about the origins of Buffy the Vampire Slayer many times: “I had seen a lot of horror movies, which I love very much, with blond girls getting killed in dark alleys, and I just germinated this idea about how much I would like to see a blond girl go into a dark alley, get attacked by a monster and then kill it.” (source)
That reversal of expectations, where the victim is revealed to be anything but, isn’t in the TV show. In “Welcome to the Hellmouth” Buffy’s true nature is introduced piecemeal, dropping clues to the audience then revealing the truth in dialogue, but not actually showing her in action until the back half of the episode. Instead the episode begins with a swerve on that originating set-piece, a reversal of the reversal: the boy goes into the dark place with the weak, vulnerable blonde girl, but it turns out she is not the victim, nor the slayer, but in fact she is the monster. These choices seem odd to me – Whedon had the chance to bring this potent scene to life, and passed it over. I can see why, primarily because the character arc here is Buffy figuring out that her Slayer life has followed her to Sunnydale, and it’s hard to tell that story if she fights a vampire in the precredits sequence. Still, there are ways to square that circle, and I think this stands as one of the show’s biggest missed opportunities.
As I’ve worked through season one, I’ve usually referred to the creative force behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer simply as “the show”: “the show is trying to do this”, “the show did that”, etc etc. I’m deliberately murking up the relationship between showrunner Joss Whedon and the final content we see on our screens. There are lots of complications and compromises and improvisations involved in the journey from vision to final form, and a large team is needed to make a TV show possible. In fact, I feel like pretending that the show itself has creative agency is quite truthful – large collaborative projects take on their own shape under the accumulation of conflicting interests, systemic needs and unexpected pressures. Choices emerge from the morass without any obvious author, like a planchette moving across a ouija board. You can still see the forceful vision of the showrunner, the distinctive rhythms of the director, the unique choices of the screenwriter, but these are just ingredients in the whole.
I was curious, then, to take a look at the first takes on the concept of Buffy, which are relatively undiluted Joss Whedon. Buffy originated as a screenplay that long-haired Whedon shopped around for a while before some producers took it up. His dissatisfaction with the final film is well-known, but that original script could tell us something about what he saw in this concept.
There are plenty of places to find it online – here’s the one I referenced. It’s an interesting read. It obviously isn’t the TV show, because the structural demands of film force it to resolve things that you don’t close off if you’re going to make a TV series out of it. It also doesn’t quite fit the TV show’s backstory – Buffy is older and not a virgin, and she doesn’t burn down the gymnasium. However, it does show some of what we’ve been told to expect. Buffy starts out as a Cordelia-type popular girl dating a jock and screwing up her nose at the weirdo social outcasts, and she discovers she can sense vampires and she has the strength and speed to fight them, but it’s pretty devastating for her social life.
It’s a fun expression of the bimbo vampire slayer concept, but I think the script does have one major flaw: the female characters are pretty empty. Buffy’s mother (who bears zero resemblance to the TV show’s harried but engaged version) and her popular-girl friends have nothing much to say, and nothing much going on beneath the surface. Obviously the point is that Buffy acquires new dimensions when she engages with the unpopular vampire-slayage path, but it’s unfortunate that her friends are depicted as such empty caricatures of people.
In fact, for a film with such a central interest in female power, there is a notable lack of interest in female relationships. Buffy’s important relationships are all with men – with her jock boyfriend, with her burner love interest, with her mysterious watcher, with her vampiric nemesis. Even the school principal has a more meaningful and multi-dimensional relationship with her than her mother and friends.
All of which makes me think about vampires. Buffy is conceived as a vampire slayer, and though the show expands to imagine many other kinds of critter, they are the iconic monster against which Buffy stands. The show was always aware of the metaphorical dimension of its monsters, but it was never entirely clear what vampires stood for. Partly this was because they weren’t meant to have just one meaning – different vampires could be used to represent different concepts (or just to provide an action sequence in an otherwise quiet episode, for that matter). However, the film script really points the concept of Buffy at one reading above others: that vampires are a metaphor for the sexualised power of men, which is to say, vampires are rape culture.
The film isn’t a strong coherent feminist statement of course. For example, Buffy’s internal journey is expressed primarily through realising that her current boyfriend is a sexist jerk and she should switch to a new boyfriend who is not a sexist jerk. Still, throughout the film it’s clear that the physical threat of the vampires is being mirrored by social threats from society in general: “She’s had sex!” says the random younger student at the football game when he sees Merrick is watching Buffy; “You’re a dyke!” says the motorcyclist whose come-on is rejected and whose bike is commandeered; “I’ve always wanted you!” says the vampire footballer as he prepares his killing blow. Men watching and desiring Buffy and conceiving of her in sexual terms is presented, over and over again, as an oppressive force that is threatened by Buffy’s power. The two sides come together in Lothos, the vampiric big bad, who uses the same kind of language to speak of the Slayers he has killed in the past: “The names, the faces, they all melt together. After a time, there really is no difference. One more pathetic bitch, begging for me to suck on her clotted heart.” Lothos is a big speechifying dick, basically.
I think this take on vampires-as-rape-culture makes a lot of sense in thinking about the TV show, and indeed, I am hardly the first person to frame it in this way. It’s one more point of reference I’ll try to keep in mind as I keep watching, anyway. I don’t think it was ever a deliberate interpretation but it doesn’t need to be – the nature of vampires and their associated imagery is such a good fit for the pervasive harms of rape culture that the linkage comes through regardless. TV shows are cultural products and reproduce that culture, even (especially) when they want to interrogate it. Rape culture sits under the whole series, like the spirit at the seance, slowly spelling out its name.
* Movie Buffy can sense vampires through menstrual cramps. It’s a vivid, interesting idea, but I honestly can’t tell if it’s a good idea or not.
* There’s a great Whedon 3/4 swerve in the death of Merrick the Watcher. You know it’s coming – the setup is exactly like the death of Obi-Wan in Star Wars! But how it plays out is a definite surprise.
* The weird slang that became known as Whedon-speak makes sense here. It’s the same valley girl caricature depicted in Clueless. Buffy transitions out of it as the movie goes on, to the point of saying to her friends “what language are you speaking?” – but Whedon obviously liked the rhythm of this hyper-stylised form of expression, and Buffy in the TV series keeps using it.
* The other pure-Whedon thing to look at is the original pilot for the TV series. Easily findable on Youtube (such as here) but I didn’t find much to say about it. Although it is interesting to imagine an alternative universe where Riff Regan carried on as Willow.)
* Two links relating to Buffy & rape culture, but both of them are about stuff much later on in the series – Gem told me about this episode of the F word podcast analysing the season 6 episode “Seeing Red” which has a controversial plot development; and Phil Sandifer writing cogently on the same subject. Phil’s epic Doctor Who analysis, the TARDIS Eruditorium, is transparently an influence on these Buffy posts. He’s deep into some fascinating stuff on Alan Moore and Grant Morrison in the comics world, too – basically, I strongly encourage you to check out his work.