"You think you know... what's to come... what you are. You haven't even begun."
Buffy 4x22 - "Restless"
There are people who will think of Buffy as a female empowerment thing, and I suppose I’ll just have to live with that, but I think overall to think of the show solely (or even primarily) in these terms is a pretty dull reading. Sure, feminist themes are all over Buffy, andI don't want to diminish the importance of that, but the show doesn’t really try to make a feminist statement (Aside from "Buffy is a female superhero" which is not much). Feminism is really more a part of the fabric of the world than something the show ever really tries to argue for: Buffy’s power is pretty much assumed from the get-go, and nobody ever really challenges it; her qualifications to kick vampire ass are never really questioned on the basis of gender. Or are they? Because I don’t remember that ever happening. I guess I'll be on the lookout for it.
In any case, Buffy’s power and agency grows not only out of Joss’s feminist upbringing but also out of his desire to subvert generic tropes. The idea that became Buffy the Vampire Slayer was originally Rhonda the Immortal Waitress, a story about an apparently ordinary girl, the kind of character who gets killed by the monster in a horror movie, but it turns out she’s far more special than that (one must wonder whether this idea was at all inspired by another waitress who was more than she seemed, Sarah Connor from Terminator). So even more than it’s about feminism, Buffy is about subversion of genre tropes (with feminist overtones nonetheless assumed). If Whedon had an "agenda" when he began Buffy, it was "genre-busting" (a term he uses in the audio commentary for Buffy 1x01 - "Welcome to the Hellmouth," and a term I'll be using a lot over the course of The Whedoning).
But even "genre-busting" doesn’t really get at the heart (so to speak) of what Buffy came to be. Buffy was never immune to cliché, and in fact it ended up developing some pretty standard conventions within its own narrative and sticking to them pretty closely. In other words, it doesn’t always break the old rules, and even when it does, it often replaces them with new rules of its own making. And then sometimes it breaks them, but still, Buffy isn’t as fresh, original, and rule-breaking as Joss’s original concept suggests it intends to be. At least not aggressively or self-consciously so. Usually.
The core of the show was always the team Buffy, Xander, Willow, and Giles. It’s the four of them that make the show work as well as it does. So more than any abstract noun, Buffy is about a group of people, and these people in particular. I mean, you could extend that to other characters as well, of course, but it's those characters that really form the core of the show. So now that I sat down to write this, I guess it wasn’t as hard to boil the show down as I thought it would be.
See you on Monday for the review of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the movie.