It has been 20 years since the first episode of Buffy the Slayer aired on March 10, 1997. Looking back, the show left a greater impact than just being a cult classic. From inspiring new styles of TV shows, causing a major surge in online fans and tackling difficult issues, the show was much more than a popular series.
Originally, no one thought much of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A 1992 movie with the same name, also written by Joss Whedon, left little impression and created a similar outlook for the new show. The new series, featuring Sarah Michelle Gellar and varied storylines, destroyed this view, creating a phenomenon that ran for seven seasons and pulled in over five million viewers at its peak.
These fans could share their passion online and were one of the first fan bases to do so. Very few shows, such as Fox’s The X-Files, had found this intensity of digital presence. Fans used message boards, the most popular of which was “The Bronze,” named after a nightclub in the show, to dissect each episode. Occasionally, Whedon and the stars of the show would add their own opinions on the board. The discussions were early developments in the growth of social media, creating a Twitter-like back and forth.
Buffy left a distinct mark on the way TV shows used monsters in their stories as well. Vampires and other demons are no strangers to television. The show Dark Shadows (1966-1971) and several series and movies about Dracula were popular when they aired, but Buffy removed the elements of formulaic, old-Hollywood horror. More than just scare tactics, monsters became metaphors for the challenges in high school and the horrors of the real world.
As the audience of Buffy grew up and went into careers as TV writers and producers, more shows with these concepts have appeared. The Vampire Diaries, Being Human, True Blood and The Walking Dead all borrow elements from the classic series, using the beasts in their shows to represent and explore geopolitical challenges, LGBTQ rights, the nature of humanity and a host of other deep concepts.
Buffy also challenged the way teenagers were portrayed in acting and writing in TV shows. For years, television series about youth reminisced about the 1950s, focusing on trivial problems of a typical teen. Even though fighting monsters could have set Buffy’s character apart from other traditional characters, Joss Whedon pushed for more. The show tackled issues surrounding sexual identity, psychological health, safety and feminism.
Willow, played by Alyson Hannigan, explored her sexuality throughout the show, and at the end of the series had represented a dedicated lesbian relationship. Buffy also deals with a series of psychological traumas and demonstrates the struggles of having been and healing from being abused and having anxiety and depression. The show also showed characters struggling with the real issues of social ostracism, suicidal thoughts and habits of self-harm.
Whedon is known for writing strong female characters, and he got his start writing Buffy, Willow and the other minor characters. Buffy is the original feminist bad-ass, fighting both metaphorical and literal demons to show how strong women can be. Willow, while less direct, also made waves for women. Besides showing what a healthy lesbian relationship can look like, Willow frequently knew more and was more well-versed in technology than the other characters, inspiring women in taking charge of their sexuality and in pursuing their passions in their careers.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is well-known and well-loved, but the cult classic had a bigger cultural impact than simply being a popular show. Very few series touch on as many relevant issues in a relatable way as Buffy did, and the impact hasn’t been lost over the course of 20 years. Looking back on the anniversary of the show’s release, we can be thankful that the perfect storm of characters, writers and producers came together to create an amazing show.
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