The Unicorn Scale: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

By Liam Lambert

October 28, 2022



Photo credit: Image/Moby Games

Everybody has a Goth phase. Whether it’s a full cape-and-ankh, Bauhaus-loving, living like a vampire period, or just dabbling in Anne Rice and Wicca for a semester, everybody goes through some sort of period of time where darkness, creepy stuff, and eeee-vil, to quote Mermaid Man, appeals to them. For me, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a UPN/CW series by Joss Whedon, based on his original concept for a cult 1992 movie with Kirsty Swanson and Donald Sutherland (and Pee-Wee Herman!) was kind of a late addition to my goth phase.

Buffy follows Buffy Summers, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, a young cheerleader and stereotypical horror movie victim, as she realizes she is, in fact, the Slayer, the once-in-a-generation Chosen One, entrusted to do battle with the vampires and forces of darkness which plague our world. Lucky for her, from one perspective, her town is situated on a Hellmouth, so demons and vampires and other creepy crawly whatnots are a normal feature of her town, alongside Spanish rooves and beach access. From here on out there will be SPOILERS for several seasons of the show. And, if you are unfamiliar with our rating system, be sure to check out the original article here.

But we aren’t (necessarily) here to talk about Buffy. She’s great and all, but the main focus of this article is actually going to be what I consider to be the real hero’s journey of the series, that of young apprentice witch Willow Rosenberg, (Alyson Hannigan). She is introduced as the Scooby Gang’s (the name they give themselves) resident Velma, nerdy, awkward, ridiculously computer savvy and smart. She falls in love with Seth Green’s moody guitar-playing werewolf Oz and gets interested in magic while trying to help Buffy’s vampire boyfriend get his soul back. 

I told you this was a soap opera, right? Eventually, she and Oz break up, and her college Wicca group introduces her to Tara, a quiet, possibly demonic lesbian witch. They fall first tentatively, then madly in love. It’s remarkably progressive for a 90s CW show to be so queer-positive, with only a few “Huh?” moments from her friends before Tara is accepted as a new Scooby, no different from Xander’s demon lover Anya, or any of Buffy’s revolving door of hunky, broody boyfriends.

The cast of the first couple seasons of Buffy posing.
Image/20th Television

What I Liked:

The show is a lot of fun to watch. For those of us who grew up in the 90s-00s, there’s a lot of nostalgic slang, the music is decent, and the acting is... passable. More important though, queer identity is a fairly consistent, if not always positively shown throughline in the show. Aside from Willow and Tara, we also are given the gift of season 4, which prominently features a new Slayer. Death and resurrection are a fairly common trope on this show. You come to accept it, like the tides, or awkward slang coming out of the mouths of 20-something teenagers on a basic cable soap opera.) 

Willow and Buffy looking at someone out of frame in front of steps to the school.
Image/20th Television

Faith. Faith is the diametric opposite of Buffy’s squeaky-clean badass. She’s all leather and menace to Buffy’s helpful cheerleader. The bi energy that comes off of Faith is practically its own character, and she and Buffy’s interactions have a strong queer subtext that is truly a thing to behold. Aside from that, watching Willow come into her own as a witch and a person, capable of decisiveness and abiding love for Tara, is truly empowering to watch. The way that the end of Tara and Willow’s relationship is handled shows a lot of sensitivity for such taboo-at-the-time subject matter. 

Queer kids should certainly see themselves in Willow, or Tara, or Xander, or someone in the show’s cast. The inclusiveness is what initially drew me to the show, and what kept me going through some of the earlier, less-than-stellar episodes.

What I Didn't Like:

For all of my earlier trumpeting about inclusion and openness and all that, this is still a teen show from the 90s. So, it has a tendency to fall into certain patterns, with a bit of gay panic, especially in the early episode’s dealings with characters like Xander, the sensitive, slightly jock-y, but pretty nerdy Scooby and Spike, a blond, British vamp, who is sort of a Billy Idol caricature, and eventually Buffy’s second vampire boy-toy. The vampirism-as-disease trope is sometimes a little tired, and the writing is sometimes not great. 

Xander looking at someone out of frame with a concerned expression inside a home.
Image/20th Television

Do not get me started on the "suddenly Buffy has a little sister” plotline in Season 5. Also, given what we have subsequently found out about creator and showrunner Joss Whedon, some of the show can be a difficult watch for some people. But if one can separate the art from the artist, the show still has value as some people's (myself, for instance) introduction to bi-ness, and as a fun, goofy, involving show on its own merits.

The Rating:

While Joss (his name is Josh, guys) Whedon’s extracurricular activities and onset behaviors have rendered him somewhat problematic, the overall quality and impact of the show that made his name remains. Remarkably open-minded and progressive while still being a slightly cringey time capsule of its time, Buffy has a lot to offer newbies and repeat watchers and did some solid work to normalize queer characterizations on television.

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