Cinema and Media Studies Buffy the Vampire Slayer
by
Rhonda V. Wilcox
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0328

Introduction

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an American television series (1997–2003). Its first incarnation was as a movie (1992) that received mediocre reviews. The film’s writer, Joss Whedon, had the unexpected opportunity to transfer the work to television as part of the fledgling WB network. (Its last two seasons were on UPN.) The series soon garnered high critical praise and devoted viewers, though their numbers were only large in the context of a start-up network, where it was, however, allowed greater creative freedom. The show became culturally significant beyond its immediate fanbase. Buffy became famous for its gender politics: the main character reverses the usual horror trope of the young beauty killed by a monster. Buffy, whose slight stature belies her strength, derives from a long line of female Slayers, only one of whom exists in any generation. However, Buffy’s attractiveness comes in part from her flaws: she is constantly torn between her duties and her desire for a normal life. The California small-town setting suggests the darkness underlying suburbia: Sunnydale sits on a Hellmouth, where monsters converge. Each monstrous encounter is not only an adventure and a test of strength and ethics, but also symbolizes problems faced in reality, the “high school is hell” metaphor central to the show. Buffy is aided by a geeky but loyal boy, Xander; a shy computer whiz (and later witch), Willow; a book-smart mentor, Giles; a vampire seeking redemption, Angel (soon Buffy’s forbidden love); this group later expands to include others. A main theme is the idea of chosen family or working in community rather than fighting alone. Immediately admired for its witty dialogue (known as Buffyspeak or Slayer Slang), the show gradually explored more and more complex problems through building continuity of narrative, which reflects the classic hero’s journey but also involves many other storylines. Buffy is noteworthy for having the first long-running romance between two lesbian characters on network television; one of the two lovers is murdered, setting off a supernatural rampage by the survivor, Willow (and fan indignation). In the final episode Buffy shares her power around the world with Willow’s help. Buffy has a television spin-off, Angel (1999–2004) and continues in comic book form with Season Eight and more; some do not consider the comics canonical. Buffy spawned numerous online discussion forums. With its aesthetic and cultural value, Buffy has accrued more scholarly writing than any other television series.

General Overviews and Interviews

Buffy scholarship is deep and wide. Three strong collections that fit into the standard academic category are Wilcox and Lavery 2002, the first American collection, on a wide variety of topics; Edwards, et al. 2009, which presents essays on the last two seasons that nonetheless maintain the context of the series as a whole; and Wilcox, et al. 2014, a collection that includes the work of many established Buffy scholars and also covers Angel as well as other productions by Buffy’s primary creator. Each of these is not only of high quality but also written in accessible style. Less uniformly academic but also replete with good scholarship is Kaveney 2004, which importantly includes very informative interviews with two important Buffy writers; Money 2012 includes many strong essays but is a bit more uneven, and was meant for a broader audience. It nonetheless includes the work of well-known scholars in the field and some very good work by writers less well-known, along with some interesting interviews with actors and writers. The collection Yeffeth 2003 makes no pretense to scholarship but is nonetheless full of genuinely perceptive writing in engaging style, with ideas that scholars should want to learn. Wilcox 2005, Pateman 2006, and Lavery 2015 are three significant monographs. Wilcox 2005 makes a case for Buffy as art by not only examining larger themes but also devoting full chapters to individual episodes, considering their language, narrative, visuals, sound, and cultural context. Pateman 2006, a work more engaged with critical theory, nevertheless devotes four chapters to detailed analyses of one episode; and Lavery 2015, written by a longtime proponent of the concept of the television auteur, has found in Joss Whedon a highly significant subject. Lavery’s work with Cynthia Burkhead, Lavery and Burkhead 2011, is also in service of the idea of the auteur, since it collects noteworthy interviews by Whedon. While many Buffy scholars note the collaborative nature of good television (see, e.g., Halfyard 2001 under Music and Sound, the introduction of Wilcox 2005, Kociemba 2009 under Narrative), Whedon is unquestionably an important part of, indeed the initiator of, the collaboration. (See the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Cinema and Media Studies article Joss Whedon.) There are many more general studies than can be listed within the limits of this section; some are indirectly referenced in other sections.

  • Edwards, Lynne Y., Elizabeth L. Rambo, and James B. South, eds. Buffy Goes Dark: Essays on the Final Two Seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Television. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009.

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    While the essays focus on the last two seasons, they do so with a clear grounding in the context of the series as a whole. The editors provide essays that are carefully researched as well as textually accurate. The essays cover important topics such as Buffy writers other than Whedon, language, bodies, family, the debate over presentation of lesbians, and more.

  • Kaveney, Roz, ed. Reading the Vampire Slayer: The New Updated Unofficial Guide to Buffy and Angel. London: I. B. Tauris, 2004.

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    This second edition contains invaluable interviews with Whedon co-writers Jane Espenson and Stephen S. DeKnight but omits interesting essays on humor and martial arts films, fan fiction and more included in the 2001 edition. Kaveney’s lengthy introduction is illuminating on both narrative organization and themes. Though not strictly academic, the essays are thoughtful and still useful.

  • Lavery, David. Joss Whedon, A Creative Portrait: From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Avengers. London: I. B. Tauris, 2015.

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    Lavery, a highly regarded television scholar who always claimed interest in the subject of creativity over television per se, analyzes the primary creator of Buffy through the work of Howard Gruber, who connected creativity not with epiphanic moments but with lifelong practice. This is not a traditional biography, but Lavery locates the creation of Buffy within Whedon’s life and intellectual history as well as within the press of market forces.

  • Lavery, David, and Cynthia Burkhead, eds. Joss Whedon: Conversations. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2011.

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    These interviews with Whedon provide suggestive commentary on Buffy not only from its creator but also from the interviewers. Whedon has given an unusually large number of interviews, and the knowledgeable editors have carefully chosen especially fruitful ones for this collection.

  • Money, Mary Alice, ed. Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion: The TV Series, the Movies, the Comic Books and More. London: Titan, 2012.

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    Contains sixteen essays of varying quality on Buffy, covering topics such as language, religion, gender, and psychology. With a useful introduction by Robert Moore, the book is based on the set of essays Moore edited for Popmatters that formed the center of this Titan collection. The 2015 edition contains no new essays on Buffy. Designed for a more general audience, most of the essays are nonetheless worthwhile as careful analysis.

  • Pateman, Matthew. The Aesthetics of Culture in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006.

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    Thoroughly grapples with the form of the series, exploring the dream episode “Restless” in four separate chapters, one for each dream. Particularly notable for its concept of involution (see chapter 5), the interweaving of intratextual references back and forth in the long television text as a method of illuminating meaning.

  • Wilcox, Rhonda V. Why Buffy Matters: The Art of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. London: I. B. Tauris, 2005.

    DOI: 10.5040/9780755604296E-mail Citation »

    Perhaps the most frequently referenced scholarly work on Buffy, the book presents an introduction on the aesthetic place of television and twelve chapters: six on general themes (such as light imagery, naming symbolism) and six explicating episodes: “Surprise”/“Innocence,” “The Zeppo,” “Hush,” “Restless,” “The Body” and “Once More, with Feeling.” Analyzing narrative, symbolism, visuals, sound, character, language, gender and more, Wilcox argues that Buffy makes the case for television as art.

  • Wilcox, Rhonda V., Tanya R. Cochran, Cynthea Masson, and David Lavery, eds. Reading Joss Whedon. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2014.

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    Representing the work of many of the best Buffy scholars, this collection contains twenty-eight essays including seven directly on Buffy and five partly on Buffy among “Overarching Topics” such as character and time, memory and identity, technology and magic, body and soul, and contested feminism. The Buffy essays include subjects such as the significance of the first season, the Orpheus myth, animality and humanity, “Conversations with Dead People,” and more.

  • Wilcox, Rhonda V., and David Lavery, eds. Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.

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    Contains an introduction on Buffy as quality television, a foreword by Camille Bacon-Smith, an afterword by Lavery on the techniques behind “Restless,” and twenty essays, most of which are still cited by scholars. With broad subject coverage, such as the female hero and community, Buffy’s third-wave feminism, family relationships, speech and character, anger and gender, literary antecedents, race and ethnicity, music, fan studies, religion, and more.

  • Yeffeth, Glenn, ed. Seven Seasons of Buffy: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Discuss Their Favorite Television Show. Dallas, TX: Benbella Books, 2003.

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    As the title indicates, the writers are successful, sometimes famous creators of their own fictions. Among the writers is Nancy Holder, author of many Buffy novels and a series of exemplary guides to Buffy. The essays, while not academic, are often extremely perceptive and serve well to enlighten academic research.

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