How Buffy The Vampire Slayer Made Losers Cool

Photo: 20th Cent/REX/Shutterstock
I use the term 'losers' lightly but, looking back to over 15 years ago – pre-WiFi or the invention of social media, the ease of Netflix and the youth becoming woke — populating the high schools of the UK was a big bunch of losers (save for celeb kids, and everyone at Latymer). These high schools existed in a bubble that reached to the school gates, and perhaps as far as that park up town where everyone got fingered.
Before the promise of 50+ likes on a photo, teenagerdom was so savagely dull that the social hierarchies in school became everything. These unfair social strata still exist today – naturally – but, back then, what happened on that school yard, or on the 55A bus to Lancaster, or round the back of the drama block, could thrust you to the top of the ranks or make you the laughing stock of the school quicker than you could say Tabula Rasa. Beyond the tiny world of your high-school cliques, there was nothing.
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That meant you had to find the meaning of life in pleasures outside the realms of school, of your reality. Unless you were into team sports, or you were one of those really intimidating kids with older friends who'd drive you round, blasting happy hardcore bangers from the sub-woofer in the boot while smoking a 10-deck of Lambert & Butler Blue, it’s pretty likely you were at home, watching TV. Subtract the popular kids and the sports teams, and you’re left scraping the social barrel of high-schoolers, to find people like me and my friend Alexandra: the losers. But people like us, all over the world, didn’t fear: we were in on a secret. And her name was Buffy (cue theme song).
Today marks the 20th anniversary of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s first ever airing. This was the show that depicted the first lesbian kiss on American TV; a show which took the usual ‘blonde girl with a ditsy name who dies in the first scene of a horror’ and made her a heroic, deeply flawed, feminist icon who saved the world over and over again, often costing her her life, or the life of her soulmates, Angel and Spike. The show featured a clan of unlikely losers with both strengths and weaknesses, who supported each other in their constant, secret fight to save the world from falling into the Hellmouth, and into oblivion. Here was a show that put us – the high-school losers – on screen and gave us the power to save the world.
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“She's the most important high school outsider that I think has ever been on television, mainly because you never felt like she was going to try to fit in,” Ben Schofield, avid Buffy fan number one tells Refinery29. “There was never a suggestion that she was going to try to become cool because you knew that she was so above that. It was like being a teenager but seeing it through the eyes of your adult self. And all of that stuff mattered.”
It’s only through hindsight that being a worshipper at the feet of the Slayer has become not just socially acceptable, but actually cool. Looking back now, it's everything people wish they had: from the '90s style to the lack of insecurity about their place in the social scene.
It’s also a proper feminist text, and has spawned an entire academic discipline known as "Buffy Studies", with findings published in the journal Slayage. For young people at that time, Buffy was one of the only shows on television which had a direct feminist take-home message: it’s that kind of imagery that instils you with views you carry through to adulthood, views that make you a better person.
“In the final episode, when Buffy gave all women everywhere her strength, with the images of the women being beaten by their husbands standing up: that was the most proto-feminist moment of my teenage years. If not my life”, Lauren De’Ath, avid Buffy fan number two explains.
“There’s women supporting women all over that show!” adds Rosie, avid Buffy fan number three. “Buffy and Cordelia hate each other, but when one is in trouble, the other is always there to back her up. Same with Anya: neither Willow nor Buffy like her very much for a long time, but there's never a question over protecting her or her helping them. Also, she always looks great and she never abandons her love of traditionally 'feminine' things, but she's still the toughest person around and not ashamed of any of it.”
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There’s stories from friends, on internet forums, on blogs, vlogs and podcasts all detailing how Buffy the Vampire Slayer helped people to be strong, to be powerful, to stand up and continue to live. A friend of mine tells me how Buffy got her through an abusive relationship, while another friend explains that it was Joss Whedon’s exploration of power, sacrifice and strategy that taught her everything she knows about activism.
“On the very surface it's teenagers battling demons and Whedon did that justice, each series became more and more in depth to 'the gang’s' inner troubles,” Alex Graveson, avid Buffy fan number four, tells us. “They pretty much all go to dark places and it focuses on the fact that as people we probably won't all come out the other side. Look at the quote Giles says at the end of ‘Lie to Me'. Look at Willow after turning into dark Willow. I've always been able to binge-watch Buffy during my periods of gut-wrenching depression and, while it was never a solution, it was always somewhat comforting. The wit, sarcasm and approach to the real-life problems usually helped a bit with my 'carry on' attitude.”
Before there was woke, there was Buffy. Before there were '90s style icons, there was Buffy. Before there was fourth-wave feminism, there was Buffy. This show, which is often pushed aside, mocked, and ridiculed because of its name and its inclusion in the teen drama, fantasy realm, bestowed its obsessors with values that weren’t prioritised in mainstream pop culture.
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“Losers don't just change the world, we lead the world, we keep it safe and we don't ask anyone to say thank you,” adds John Donaghy, avid fan five. “Buffy didn't get praised for saving the world time and time again, life just went on and not a soul knew the alternative without her.”
It’s hard to explain because, for so many of us, this love is genuinely emotional, formative: it saved us. Buffy is my generation's version of getting – and staying – woke, and if being politically engaged and celebrating the power in difference is not cool, then I don’t know what is. Buffy made a generation of watchers empowered, engaged, active. It made losers cool. In this time of political turmoil, let's take today to remember one of Buffy’s final messages:
“There is only one thing on this earth more powerful than evil. And that’s us!”
Losers of the world unite!
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