How ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ Has Influenced Pop Culture

Mike Delaney
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In the 20 years since Buffy the Vampire Slayer first appeared on our screens, many of the concepts it introduced to television are now taken for granted. Created by Joss Whedon, Buffy grew beyond its original concept to become a groundbreaking series that still feels relevant today. The influence of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on television cannot be overstated — it was a breath of fresh air that took the world by storm. Here, we take a look at the many ways that Buffy the Vampire Slayer has influenced pop culture.

Leading Women

While Buffy did not start the trend of strong female lead characters, it certainly helped to popularise them. Joss Whedon’s original idea for Buffy was born out of his frustration of “the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie.” Just for once, he wanted that woman to stand her ground and fight back. He wanted her to be what the monsters were afraid of, not the other way round. And so, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was created, the latest in a long line of Slayers destined to protect the world from evil. Buffy was not the only strong female character on the show. Willow became a powerful witch. Anya was a former vengeance demon. Glory, the Big Bad of Season Five, was a literal god.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer heralded a new era in television. After proving that a genre show with a strong female lead could be both a critical and commercial success, other shows with similar premises followed. The obvious successors are genre shows such as Dead Like Me, iZombie, and Supergirl which revolve around a lead female character dealing with their own burgeoning superpowers. But shows like Agent Carter, The 100, Jessica Jones, and even Gilmore Girls all owe Buffy a debt for being a trailblazer and proving that audiences would tune in to shows with strong female lead characters.

Buffy Speak

One of the most memorable things about Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the dialogue employed by much of the young cast. Dubbed “Buffy Speak,” it serves to underline the youth of characters like Buffy, Willow, and Xander by giving them a unique way of speaking compared to the more formal and “proper” Giles. They would regularly use verbs and even proper names as verbs, and add suffixes like -y and -ness to words that would not normally use them.

“Buffy Speak” has since slipped into common usage throughout television. Perhaps one of the most memorable uses in recent times has been on Doctor Who – a show that producer Russell T. Davies admits was influenced by Buffy when it returned to television. The Tenth Doctor refers to the progression of time as a  “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey ball of … stuff.”

Season Arcs

Love them or hate them, Buffy popularised the use of season-long arcs on television. Each season had a particular “big bad” who Buffy had to defeat, with interconnected episodes building up to a climax in the season finale. This was a significant departure from the standard episodic television format. In general, a television series would consist mainly of standalone episodes where status quo was the norm. Events in one episode were rarely carried over to the next to allow casual viewers to watch episodes without needing to be aware of a lengthy backstory.

Buffy was one of the first shows to truly embrace interconnected storytelling. Character development and backstories were gradually revealed over the course of several seasons. Seemingly unimportant events would be revisited later on with unforeseen consequences. Buffy became the epitome of “must-watch” television because you wanted to know what was going to happen next, but also because if you missed an episode, you might miss something important to the story. What made Buffy more unique, however, was the ability to have the “monster or problem of the week” episode in which the plot is wrapped up within the confines of the episode but at the same time incorporate it into the larger season arc framework.

These days, we take season-long arcs for granted. All major series’, not just genre shows, will have a central theme running through the core of the season that the rest of the episodes anchor around. Even shows that try to be more episodic in format have storylines that run through the course of the season that makes watching the episodes in order more rewarding than catching the odd episode here and there.

Social Commentary

In amongst all the demon and vampire slaying, Buffy the Vampire Slayer also dealt with more “normal” issues. The main characters were all in high school, so along with worrying about the end of the world, they also worried about studying and exams, which nearly everyone can relate to. Other issues dealt with over the course of the series including bullying, relationship anxiety, losing one’s virginity, discovering one’s sexuality, and even dealing with the loss of a parent or loved one.

Buffy taught a generation that inner strength comes from recognising and owning your mistakes, dealing with the consequences of your actions, and of not being afraid to ask for help when you need it. And above all (especially in Xander’s case) you did not need to be powerful to change the world. All you need is courage and determination (and possibly a big sword).

Looking back, Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s character development and social commentary might not seem like a big deal because now we are used to shows dealing with these topics. But before Buffy, genre shows did not regularly delve into such areas.

Normalisation of Geek Culture

When Buffy the Vampire Slayer first aired, it quickly became one of the shows that it was “acceptable” to talk about in front of your non-geek friends. Buffy crossed boundary lines due to its likeable characters, fun but serious plots, and accessibility. No longer did geeks have to hide the shows they watched because everyone was watching Buffy as well.

Buffy‘s appeal to the masses paved the way for television networks to greenlight similar shows. Buffy is the reason that shows like Arrow and Agents of SHIELD are on mainstream networks in primetime slots because the show proved that it could appeal to not just a minority of television viewers, but to the majority as well. Buffy is the middle ground – you did not have to be a geek to watch Buffy, and watching Buffy did not make you a geek.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer will soon air on Syfy in the UK, including a “Best of Buffy” weekend April 1-2. Additional episodes will air weekdays at 4pm starting April 3.

Mike Delaney
Star Wars fan and general pop culture addict. Only two beverages worth drinking are tea and whisky.
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