A Show About Outsiders, for Outsiders - Pacific Standard
Books and movies can provide our own private oasis, but also a way to find communion with others. And there’s something special in discovering a fictional universe in which outsiders come together.

When I met the woman I would one day marry, her interests were of the utmost importance to me. I could see she was the total package: smart, funny, and beautiful. But it wasn’t until I learned that, like me, she grew up going to punk and hardcore shows and had a keen interest in both Victorian literature and robotics, that I knew things could work.

It’s hard for me to get close to someone if we don’t like the same things. I used to think it was one of my great shortcomings, petty like one of Nick Hornby’s insecure man-children. But I spent much of my childhood alone, reading comic books and watching movies, listening to music through headphones to tune out the world. I learned to enjoy the solitary life that comes with being the perpetual new kid in school, the child of a messy divorce and parents who shuttled me around from one house to the other. Today, if I’m going to build a meaningful relationship of any kind, I need to be able to first find common ground.

If you grow up feeling like an outsider, something like Buffy can be a saving grace. When people talk about tough times in their lives, what they read, listened to, and watched emerge as the handholds that got them through.

Emily was at once familiar and fascinating. She loved what I loved, and she was crazy about things I liked but didn’t yet know well. She’s shared these interests with me over the years since we first met, and I’ve come to love them too—biomedical curiosities, “Pony” by Ginuwine, and Law & Order: SVU.

But when we met, there was one thing, above all the other pop culture she celebrated, that was most important to her. More than any book or film, the woman I fell in love with has been a Buffy the Vampire Slayer obsessive since the show premiered in 1997, when she was only 10 years old.

These are the things you might know about Buffy the Vampire Slayer (often referred to as Buffy or BTVS), even if you’ve never seen an episode: The show, which ran from 1997 to 2003, is about a high school student named Buffy Summers, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar. Buffy kills vampires while trying to salvage a normal daily teenage routine. She has a gang of quirky friends and a British mentor called a Watcher, and eventually she has a deep and passionate affair with an actual vampire named Angel, played by Bones’ David Boreanaz. What you probably wouldn’t know unless you watched the show is that in the second season finale, Buffy and a now-soulless Angel go head to head in an epic sword fight. Even when things look like they might creep back to normal, Buffy decides she needs to do what is right, not what is right for her. Without giving too much away, she makes one of the show’s most pivotal decisions and kills Angel.

Sure, it’s a show about killing vampires, but really Buffy the Vampire Slayer is about a girl who fights evil, does the right thing, takes care of the people she loves, and stands up for what she believes in. As I watched the show in the early days of our relationship, I couldn’t help but notice just how much of that attitude was reflected in my wife. I became immersed in the story, but I watched Buffy because I could see the woman I was in love reflected onscreen—and I could see my wife reflecting Buffy right back.

Buffy is strong and confident. She places the happiness and safety of her friends, and the world at large, above all things. She has a job she’s great at, albeit a messy and strange job that involves putting stakes into the hearts of the undead and fighting weird, ancient bad guys, but she takes that job seriously and won’t let anybody tell her otherwise. If you Google “Buffy the Vampire Slayer feminist,” you get listicles on the show’s most empowering moments, essays about Whedon and his views on feminism, and a Wikipedia entry on “Buffy studies,” the term for the critical and scholarly ways people examine the show. But you also get the sense that, for someone like my wife, who discovered the show just at the right time in her young life, it was the perfect antidote to Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst or Eminem spouting off misogynist lyrics on MTV.

My wife knows nearly everything there is to know about Buffy. She’s seen the entire series so many times she stopped counting. She met one of her oldest friends role-playing Drusilla in a BTVS AOL chat room in the fifth grade—he played Spike. There was a period where she was a regular poster on The Bronze, a BTVS message board frequented by creator Joss Whedon and the show’s staff. Her love for Buffy was so immense. When we met, I could talk to her about nearly anything, but this vitally important piece of her cultural history escaped me. I realized that in order to get to know know the woman I was falling in love with, I had to get to know Buffy, too.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is about a girl who fights evil, does the right thing, takes care of the people she loves, and stands up for what she believes in.

At its core, Buffy is a show about outsiders. Buffy was once a popular girl, but her popularity fades as she spends her time putting stakes into vampires and saving the world. Her friends have to face jocks and bullies even as they fight otherworldly demons. This hits home: If you grow up feeling like an outsider, something like Buffy can be a saving grace. When people talk about tough times in their lives, what they read, listened to, and watched emerge as the handholds that got them through. It’s as if they’re saying, “This is where I saw my reflection, and where I saw that things were going to be OK.”

Books, movies, and music can provide our own private oasis, but also a way to find communion with others. It’s hard to feel like an outsider, but there’s something special in discovering a fictional universe in which outsiders come together. Such a universe can provide a map and a language for someone to use in the real world. Emily, raised on the Whedonverse and its unique view of morality and female agency, speaks a language hugely inflected with the ideals of bravery, loyalty, and of standing up to fight, even when the simple act of standing is enough to knock you back down. She shares that language with other fans. I could have learned this about her over time, but I couldn’t have learned to share that language just by looking at her record collection or scanning her bookshelves. Watching Buffy with Emily brought me closer to her, closer to what helped teach her to be a strong, fearless woman. It helped show me not just what she liked, but what she valued. Sometimes we hold certain books, shows, or songs so dearly that they become the thing by which our moral and emotional compasses are calibrated. Sometimes we have to see ourselves “out there” before we can find ourselves “in here.”

It’s taken me a long time, but I finally understand that needing a common interest to connect with another person isn’t a bad quality. It’s certainly not one that’s unique to me. For some of us, it’s easier and safer to throw ourselves into loving a band rather than another person. And when that band or TV show introduces us to someone special, we have a gateway to maybe learn more about each other. But to be intimate, we have to go beyond that surface interest. We have to learn to share a language. At first, Buffy was like a hand to hold, a cheat in the game, a key to a locked door. The more I saw of my girlfriend in this fictional character, the more assured I felt. This person was going to be there for me. She would love me even if I failed. Or in the unlikely event that I tried to destroy the world with magic or turned into a nasty demon from time to time, she’d still love me.

The Weekend Essay is a Saturday series edited by Leah Reich.

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