Wes alum finds fame with “Buffy”

From The Wesleyan Argus

By Liz Garcia – Consulting Features
April 13th, 1999

This Thursday, Wesleyan welcomes home Joss Whedon ’87, creator, executive producer and sometimes writer/director of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of the most popular shows on television.

Whedon will screen an episode of Buffy in the CFA cinema and then answer questions. Word is mum on which episode specifically, but it is one Whedon wrote and directed himself and custom-selected for his Wesleyan audience.

Wesleyan is a hotbed for Buffy-worship. Fans here applaud the show for its humor, its intelligence, and its progressive presentation of female characters. The show, now in its third and darkest season, is about Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), whose dynamic high school social life is rudely interrupted by the prophecy that she is the Chosen One, the girl in her generation who will have to defend the earth from evil.

Buffy moves to Sunnydale, Calif., the center of vampire and demon activity and attempts to balance her fate with friends, school, and a boyfriend who happens to be a 240-year-old vampire. It’s not easy being the slayer, and each show uses the premise, as a metaphor for the trials and tribulations of growing up, of discovering one’s true identity; a process which takes its toll on girls Buffy’s age.

Variety magazine called Whedon a Hollywood whiz kid three years ago, before he even went the way of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” the television series. A third generation television writer, Whedon started out writing a few episodes for “Roseanne” before becoming the whiz kid script doctor who saved “Speed,” won an Oscar for “Toy Story” and penned “Alien Resurrection.”

Whedon was a film major at Wesleyan and a student of Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film, Jeanine Basinger. Basinger remembers Whedon as one of her brightest students, someone whom she regarded as a peer. Whedon remembered working harder for Basinger’s classes than he had for anything, ever before.

His film education was eclectic; he cites Minelli, Hitchcock, Borsege and Keaton as influences, all studied in his classes at Wesleyan.

“Buffy is the product of my film classes, stealing from every genre I ever saw,” Whedon said in a phone interview in December.

An inspirational aside for all those hoping to succeed in film and television, Whedon referred to his senior thesis film as “an unendurable piece of shit.”

Ten years later, he won an Oscar.

While an undergraduate, Whedon made another film, a black and white post-apocalyptic Western with a woman doing the “man with no name” role. His focus in film studies was gender and feminist film theory and his television show is most telling of this.

“Buffy is a feminist role model because she counters the myth that to be a physically strong woman you have to be a manly woman,” said Meg Loomis ’99, head of the Women’s Resource Center. “[Buffy’s friend] Willow, too, is a role model because she’s the brains. The women on Buffy fulfill the qualities usually left to male characters.”

Buffy Summers is not the typical female action heroine. She is the polar opposite of Linda Hamilton. She’s tiny and so are her skirts and when she trains for slaying, it’s in designer work-out gear.

“Buffy the Lesbian Separatist will not be on the network anytime soon,” Whedon said, in response to the idea that Buffy’s sexiness and femininity negates her legitimacy as a feminist character.

“There’s something about strength that’s attractive and yes, she’s attractive, and the men in her life not only are OK with that they find it attractive,” Whedon said.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer doesn’t even beat time-slot competitor Judge Advocate General in the ratings. But, Buffy fans are hard-core, the kind that write their own on-line episodes like “What the Watcher Watches” by a girl who professes her love for the show supersedes any copyright laws.

And then there are the 100-plus web pages for Sarah Michelle Gellar: the official Buffy web site, the unofficial Buffy web sites, the calendars, the official episode-by-episode “Watcher’s Guide.” And then there’s the fact that Entertainment Weekly rated the show number one in television this year.

While the show’s expressive lighting and camera movement make it more cinematic than most sitcoms, Whedon cites several television programs as influences on Buffy. They are: “The Simpsons,” “because they can go from genre to genre”; “My So-Called Life,” “a documentary about me, Brian Krakow,” and “Party of Five,” the blueprint for Buffy’s heart-wrenching, tear-jerking scenes.

“Once Sarah [Michelle Gellar] was able to do very dark personal stuff and all of our actors were, we could go to the dark scary place where most writers actually live,” Whedon said.

One of the differences between Buffy and other prime-time sitcoms, particularly teen sitcoms, is that the former manages to elicit fans from a remarkably broad demographic; from teenagers to middle-aged parents to liberal arts college students. When asked who his intended audience was Whedon answered, “People. Me.”

“Obviously, I speak to myself and my generation because that’s who I am and that’s what I know but basically the idea was always to make it accessible to everyone,” Whedon said. “There are some people who won’t accept a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer in their lives.”