Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of the best genre television series of all time, was an undeniable feminist vehicle. It boasted a bunch of strong and interesting female characters, even aside from its namesake, tackled adult feminine themes, and proved to the industry that a genre series can be led by a heroine. Sure, past genre shows had strong leading ladies at the helm, but they were so few and far between as to be negligible. And Whedon opened Buffy the Vampire Slayer with a succinct scene which represented what was to come.
When I began re-watching this series yesterday, I was struck by how simply and perfectly Joss Whedon set the table for this show’s feminist thrust in the opening scene. It’s nighttime, with crickets chirping, a dog barking in the background, and creepy music playing. We get a foreboding external shot of Sunnydale High School in the darkness. You know, standard horror fare. There’s more creepy music as the camera pans around the shadowy school interior, and WHAM! A window in the science lab is busted in. A young man and his date sneak inside.
Now, this is your prototypical horror couple. He’s brash, and she’s sweet. She asks if he’s sure it’s a good idea, and his cocky response is that it’s a great idea. Here Whedon has masterfully set the stereotypes in one short exchange–the bad boy and the good girl.
He tries to lure her to the top of the gym for some hanky panky, but she’s hesitant and doesn’t want to go up there. He assumes she’s too anxious, ready to do it then and there. She’s afraid of getting into trouble–oh, he promises they’ll get into trouble–and he goes in for the kiss.
There’s a noise in the bowels of the school which makes her really nervous. He promises her it’s nothing, then makes a creepy joke that maybe it’s something. The audience is immersed in horror vibes here. This is going to be a show about a vampire slayer, after all. What’s coming? A young couple preparing to engage in sexual promiscuity is a horror taboo. Surely they’re about to become a vampire snack.
Yet the girl’s unsure; she needs more reassurance. The boy tells her there’s nobody there. She asks if he’s sure, and he is. Okay, good, on with the nookie nookie, the audience figures. Right? Wrong. This girl, Darla, is the vampire, and since they’re alone, she slips on her vampire face and chows down on the poor boy, an unnamed character, the first victim of the series.
That’s right, Joss Whedon takes some tried and true horror tropes, stands them on their head, and opens the series off with a woman taking charge and getting stuff done. Granted, it’s a vampire, and she’s sucking a human dry, but hey, nobody’s perfect.
By using horror conventions to lull the audience into a comfort zone of what to expect, Whedon is able to pull a fast one. He sets the table for the audience to expect the unexpected, that this will not only be a new and different type of show, but a feminist show at that. He doesn’t wait to get into it, doesn’t allow it to trickle out to the audience slowly throughout the season. Whedon comes right out and shows the audience that this is how it’s going to be. Deal with it.
Well done, Joss. Well done.