What Social Issues Would 'Buffy The Vampire Slayer' Tackle If It Was Still Running Today?
As hard as it may be to believe, it's actually been 20 years since Joss Whedon welcomed us to the Hellmouth in the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
As hard as it may be to believe, it's actually been 20 years since Joss Whedon welcomed us to the Hellmouth in the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was a powerful show, recognized for its depth of characterization and an unusual willingness to dive deep into the social issues of its time. The genius of Joss Whedon's work is evident in how well Buffy has aged. Episodes which tackled the deepest issues of the heart (such as the interrogation of grief in 'The Body') feel just as raw and true today as they did when they first aired.
But Buffy was very much a creature of its time, and many of the issues tackled in Buffy tapped into the deepest anxieties & pressures faced by '90s & '00s teenagers specifically. So let's imagine a world where Buffy was relaunched, one in which Joss Whedon dove deep into the social issues of 2017. How would this new series differ to the classic?
The Role of Technology
The world's changed a lot since 1997, and technology's moved on at a rate of knots; and yet, Buffy the Vampire Slayer seeded some pretty intriguing ideas. Season 1 introduced us to Robia LaMorte's Jenny Calendar, a powerful techno-pagan who combines witchcraft with the love of computers. I can't help suspecting that a modern-day Buffy would focus on this development a lot more, most likely through the character of Willow.
When we were first introduced to Willow, she was a smart social wallflower with a love of computers. Whedon used her hacking skills as a simple way of getting plot-relevant information to the Scooby Gang at the appropriate juncture; her love of computers was largely a plot device, and was almost completely ditched as Whedon instead developed her as a witch. It's only quite late on in Season 6 that we saw Willow integrate sorcery and the Internet in a particularly creative way, as she used a spell to trigger internet searches rather than bothering to do it manually.
I suspect that a present-day Buffy would blur the lines between technology and sorcery, probably using social media as a way for witches across the world to consult and train one another.
Teenagers' experience of life in 2017 is a digital one. Schools and governments struggle to deal with the rise of new digital concepts, ranging from online bullying to sexting. Adults often find their children's lives impenetrable, with teenagers locked in a digital world that their parents are shut out of.
Buffy was made during a time when digital culture was much less prominent in our lives. At the same time, Buffy was pretty groundbreaking; 'I Robot, You Jane' explored these themes to a degree, with a demon cast into the digital realm and unleashing mayhem, ultimately building itself a robot body. Still, the reality is that the show never even toyed with the idea of people embracing a digital life. For many teenagers and adults alike, the digital world has become a place for escape; while that can be a good thing, some very real issues are becoming visible. Just look at the rise of trolling and online harassment, for example, or the spread of fake news during the 2016 US election.
Joss Whedon is one of Hollywood's most socially aware figures; he made a public show of opposing Donald Trump during the election. There's no way a present-day Buffy wouldn't comment on this new, complex, digital world. I can see it now; the kind of digital demons glimpsed in 'I Robot, You Jane' becoming major, overarching series-long 'big bads', fake new campaigns conducted to persuade people that vampires are just misunderstood, and that Buffy is just a teenage delinquent...
Fear of Youth
The idea of the 'teenager' didn't really exist until the early 20th century, but by 1954, Newsweek was giving voice to a headline that's now become a trope: “Let’s Face It: Our Teenagers Are Out Of Control.” Back in 2002, Mike Males of the Los Angeles Times described teenagers as "the new demons", pointing to the difference between perception and reality; teenagers are believed to be a social threat, rather than posing any actual danger.
The issue's only worsened because of changes in technology, with parents unable to even understand the basics of their children's lives, let alone enter into them. Buffy toyed gently with the idea in the chilling episode 'Gingerbread', which led to the adults attempting to burn their children alive for fear they were witches - but this mostly focused on a very general sense of 'fear of other'. I suspect that a present-day Buffy would dive deep into this issue, trying to send a resonant message of hope and empowerment to teenagers, reminding youths that they do have the power to make a difference to their world's future.
Joss Whedon wears his liberal politics on his sleeve, and his opposition to right-wing politics would undoubtedly slip into a modern-day Buffy show. In this case, I can easily see Whedon using the idea of "fear of the other": a term in social politics that derives from the way societies develop. The idea behind "fear of the other" is simple: that we tend to bond with people who are like us. This similarity can be about literally anything under the sun; nationality, religion, hobbies, favorite films, race, political persuasion, anything.
The dark side of social development, though, is that even as we build a society out of common aspects of identity, we also restrict access for those who are different. Ultimately, every time a social grouping develops, it runs the risk of becoming exclusive, and of treating those who don't share these attributes as 'other'. I'm not going to go into any examples here — they're far too politically sensitive, and that's not the purpose of this post — but you really don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to spot examples of this in everyday life.
The classic Buffy series already explored this idea quite a bit, mostly through Buffy's relationship with Angel, whom her friends distrusted because he was a vampire ('other'). I can easily see a modern-day Buffy moving this idea closer to the center-stage, exploring it through characters like Anya or the Inca mummy girl (perhaps she'd become a recurring character, rather than awakening - and dying - in a single episode?).
These are only four of the social issues that I think would become central to a present-day Buffy series. No doubt I'm only scratching the surface; from drugs to teen suicides, Buffy would dive deep into the social problems of 2017, and would confront them with the same whip-crack humor that made us fall in love with the series 20 years ago. I know this imagined present-day show will never happen, but it's fun to imagine it at the very least; to imagine how a present-day Buffy the Vampire Slayer would confront the world of 2017 head-on, and likely leave its mark on the history books once again.
(Sources: Los Angeles Times)