By Wendy Shanker
In college, my fellow feminists were busy taking back the night, forming Andrea Dworkin fan clubs, and trashing Madonna. It worked for them, but it didn’t fulfill my desire to mix the fight for gender equality with my personal idolatry of pop culture and a secret fascination with frat boys. The I saw this movie called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy was armed only with a witty quip and a bad-ass roundhouse kick. Her character proved to me that female strength and power can come in all kinds of different packages.
I watched the premiere of the TV version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer alone with the lights off, convinced everyone would think I was nuts for tuning in to some fairytale teenybopper show. Five seasons later, I’m proud to say that viewers and critics alike cheer for BTVS, the show that continues to redefine feminism for both men and women with humor, passion, and endless complications. Buffy [Sarah Michelle Gellar], her best pal Willow [Alyson Hannigan], Willow’s girlfriend Tara [Amber Benson], shaggy guy pal Xander [Nicholas Brendon], boyfriend Riley [Marc Blucas], vampire lover Angel [David Boreanaz], twisted slayer Faith [Eliza Dushku], enemy vamp Spike [James Marsters], and mentor Giles [Anthony Stewart Head] comprise Buffy’s Scooby Gang. Like us, they struggle with friendships, love affairs, sexual identity, missing fathers, misunderstanding mothers, and demons that just won’t die.
Surprisingly enough, it’s a guy who created Buffy and her world: Joss Whedon. This Wesleyan grad is an Emmy- and Oscar-nominated scribe who also wrote Toy Story, Alien 4: Resurrection, episodes of Roseanne , and Buffy’s spin-off, Angel. Joss was partly raised in England but works in LA, which makes him an interesting mix of Brit sophistication and SoCal slang. He’s a third generation writer, he’s happily married, he watches his own show every week, and he’s one of the great pop culture feminists of our time. So you can imagine the butterflies in my belly when I spoke to him on the phone.
WS: It was so funny waiting for your call-like I heard that the cute new boy was going to call me after sixth period and I’ve been waiting at home, not being able to focus on my homework or anything.
JW: How cute. No, I was like, “Okay, I’ll talk to them, it could go either way. It could be like, ‘Why is Angel such sexist crap?’ Or it could be like, ‘We like you!'” I was just going to sort of ride with it, but I do like the mag.
WS: How did you find yourself getting interested in feminism?
JW: Part of that I can’t really answer; I don’t understand myself exactly. But I do know that I was raised by and extremely strong woman, who was a teacher and who started a feminism course at the high school I went to. I didn’t actually take it, I never had a class with her. But she was a huge role model for me, my mom. And I’ve always been a great big girlie man, and I mean that in the most dreadful way. I’ve always identified with underdogs, and here we’re basically talking about an “undergender.” So I just felt an empathy coupled with a fascination-which is probably how the straight part comes in-with women, and how they thought and how they behaved and how they were treated. And the difference between and the similarities between…it was always just a part of what excited me.
WS: You say it didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to, but I’m a big fan of the movie version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I was like, “Oh, feminism!” when I saw it for the first time.
JW: Well, that’s good, because that’s the point. But I wanted it to be a cool horror movie. Because the cool horror movie would appeal to the young boys who would not notice the feminist message, but might internalize it.
WS: Do you get a sense of your TV audience’s age and gender?
JW: It’s kind of a big mix. When they charted it the second year, the median age was something like 29.
JW: It was really high. But I know plenty of 50- and 40-year-olds who watch the show. It’s not supposed to be a “teen” show in the sense of, “We are teens, a different race. And we alienate those who aren’t.”
WS: You built a second show and spun off with Angel. How do you feel about the show so far?
JW: Starting Season Two, I’m very excited. On One, I had ups and downs. I felt like we were trying to find the show as we were making it, and it didn’t work as well for me. Then some of them I thought were really, really smashing. We really found our footing towards the end, when Angel went bad and Faith came on.
WS: She’s crazy! And she’s kinky as all get out. The show is really kinky, and sometimes I can’t believe it’s on at 8 o’clock at night. Is your sense that people don’t get it, or that they’re into it?
JW: The people who want to get it, get it. And the people who don’t, let it pass. Some of the stuff we say-little kids are not going to understand what the hell we’re talking about, I sincerely hope. And then other times we’re like, “Let’s just twist it.” It’s definitely strange. Some of it’s very healthy sexuality, and some of it is less so. But it all feels kind of real.
WS: Does that come from certain writers, or is that a push from you?
JW: Well [laughs], we’ve all crowned [writer] Marti Noxon the Queen of Pains and Chains. She’s definitely into the “funny” side of everything. But it just comes from a desire to get into the weird heart of these characters, to go places other people aren’t going to go. Because that place is there, it’s the part of us we don’t want to explore.
WS: How important is it to you to either label or not label characters in terms of their sexuality? I’m thinking of the whole brouhaha that went down last season with Willow and Tara. Is it important to go, “Willow’s bisexual,” or “Willow’s gay, Willow’s experimenting?” Or is it just part of a process for a character like her?
JW: I wish we never had to do that. If we could have just let it stand as a relationship…but I don’t know how realistic that is, necessarily. I was hoping it would all just happen. They had great chemistry, and it seemed like a natural step for someone in college to expand their sexuality. It all made sense. And there was a great metaphorical way to play it, so it felt right for the show. And they’re so romantic together. Then as soon as anybody heard it, it was like, people went nuts. The papers were calling and all this stuff. And I was like, “Wait a minute, aren’t people over this yet?” I was so shocked that it was a big deal. The other thing was that we finally did an episode where [Willow] said, “I love Tara.” And everyone went through the roof. “Oh my god, you made her gay, goddamn you to hell, how could you do this, I can’t believe it.” And I’m like, “Where were you for the last ten episodes? Didn’t you see that spell? [Wicked Witch voice] That was a dirty spell!”
WS: Another issue that came up at the same time is that people were ranking on Amber Benson’s body type.
JW: On the Internet. There were some really nasty comments. These are the same people who said Marc Blucas was too skinny, so…
WS: He looks good to me!
JW: Too skinny? Wait ’til you stand next to the man! Yeah, there was some stuff, and of course I went ballistic. She’s incredibly slim, tiny, like many actresses. It’s that weird TV standard. They’re like, “Look at Lara Flynn Boyle, she’s a wraith.” Then someone shows up who looks even remotely like a woman, she actually has hips and things like that, and people say things like that. It pisses me off to no end. Poor Amber. And she’s so beautiful.
WS: She certainly is. Do you have a personal relationship with the actresses on your show in terms of nurturing body image?
JW: It’s a big issue. I know what things make them uncomfortable. They all look incredibly great, and they spend all their time saying how bad they look. Which, for those of us that do, is annoying. It’s a big issue for them. My whole thing is, “Just be healthy. You’re all gorgeous, there’s no bad, just be healthy.” I would like them to wear skimpy outfits and whatnot. I would like sexuality to be a part of the show. And I would like the attractive people to be present. I’m not going to lie-that’s part of it. But at the same time, I try not to be exploitative. They’re not running around in bikinis. There’s a comfort zone, and they wear things they’re comfortable with. Every now and then we’ll say, “Well, can we try this?” There’s a give and take in those relationships.
WS: In terms of the life of the show, is there a natural timeline, or does it go until you run out of stories?
JW: I think it goes until you run out of stories. If you can keep it fresh, keep it vital-that’s incredibly hard to do, by the way-there are two syndromes to stay away from. One is Melrose Place, where all these new people that you don’t care about or know are thrown at you, and the other is Dawson’s Creek, where it’s, “How many times can these three people argue?” It’s tough to find the next really emotional bit between all these people without either increasing it too much or becoming static. Luckily, we keep landing on new people, like James [Marsters], who are incredibly good, and who feel so integral. He’s gonna have a much bigger year, too.
WS: I don’t want to spoil anything, I know you aren’t into that. But is a younger girl also coming on this season?
JW: That’s right.
WS: Is that something you cooked up in your head?
JW: It’s something I cooked up a couple of years ago, when I decided I wanted to bring things in more. Last year was all about freedom, and all these new influences, and all these new people-first year of college, basically. This year is very much about the group, and the way life keeps happening even when you think you’re in a different place. I wanted someone who would draw us back to the kind of stories that happen in adolescence, and somebody who would have a kind of sibling relationship with Buffy that she could play off of in a way she hasn’t. But then [pretends to cry] Entertainment Weekly said I was having “Raven Simone Syndrome.” That’s what people said-“It’s the fifth year, you’re adding the moppet.” I’m like, “What are you talking about?” They’re like, “Shows always do that.” I thought I was original and brilliant, but maybe it’s because I don’t watch enough TV. Eight is enough, until we need a ninth! But the fact is, I’m not worried about that. First of all, we hired a great actor [Michelle Trachtenberg], which is fun. Second of all, if it’s working, it’s working. People will just become involved in her character. And if it’s not…then she is that syndrome, I guess.
WS: And she can always get her head chopped of. No one is safe.
JW: If I’m in a bad mood…[laughs]
Special Thanks to renewal for transcribing this article.