How ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ Perfected the Coming Out Scene

Despite premiering one day before I was born, Buffy was still the most formative show in my high school years.

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Aug 27 2018, 1:53pm

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox. 

When I was in high school, I couldn’t identify why I felt so engrossed in Buffy the Vampire Slayer or why I connected with its characters so viscerally. It wasn’t current, nor was it made for my generation. In fact, I was born the day after Buffy first premiered in 1997. Still, the show felt relevant.

I attribute most of its relevance to how well Buffy the Vampire Slayer captures the human experience, which you might not expect from a show about a teenage girl with superpowers. I found myself engrossed in Willow’s growth over time, blooming from a shy girl who gained confidence through her abilities. Having just lost a good friend two years prior, I felt the notes of grief reflected accurately in “The Body.” Most of all, it was the coming out scenes that put Buffy over the edge, solidifying it as the most formative TV show in my life.

The first two seasons hinge on Buffy disguising her identity as a slayer from most of her peers and, most notably, her mother. At the end of the second season, Buffy is forced to come out as a vampire slayer to her mother, Joyce. Though Buffy did not technically come out as gay, it’s still one of the most thinly-veiled metaphors in the entire series.

Joyce responds with confusion, and there are a few key lines in this scene:

“Honey, are you sure you’re a slayer?”

“Have you tried not being a slayer?”

“It’s ‘cause you didn’t have a strong father figure, isn’t it?”

“You can’t just drop something like this on me and pretend it’s nothing!”

Watching this scene, I found myself relating to Buffy. She was being persecuted for an aspect of her identity beyond her control. Though Buffy is not the first show to use the reveal of superpowers as a metaphor for coming out, it’s the one that made the most sense to me. Buffy’s identity as the “vampire slayer” is not an alter-ego, but rather a significant part of her personal identity. Joyce is forced to grapple with Buffy being a slayer as who she is, rather than accepting that Buffy is also an entirely other character.

While there have been many other queer-themed shows that have featured coming out scenes, Buffy the Vampire Slayer does something different: it offers a relatable, nuanced perspective from the other party.

Though I initially cringed at Joyce’s reactions, I understood where she was coming from. Joyce’s response is driven by her confusion, not fully understanding Buffy’s identity and her responsibilities as a slayer. Her image of Buffy, her daughter, was now shattered. Much like how queerness can make one a target of violence and discrimination, Joyce realizes how dangerous Buffy’s life as the slayer is.

In other words, Joyce’s confusion and unwillingness to accept Buffy comes from a place of protectiveness; she wants to protect Buffy from danger, but in doing so, she rejects Buffy’s identity which causes a rift in their relationship. At the time, I had never seen any media that encapsulates coming out so effectively, which is ironic given that it was done through metaphor.

During high school, I was not out to my mother. I dreaded the idea of coming out to her, and the possibility of being unfairly judged for an aspect of my identity beyond my control. Watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer alleviated this dread. I knew that my mother would have a difficult time processing my homosexuality, but seeing Joyce’s motivations gave me the context I needed.

Though I’m still not out to my mother, I’m dramatically less terrified of the prospect of being open and honest with her when the time comes. I realized that if my mother disapproved of my homosexuality, it wouldn’t necessarily be because she doesn’t love me. Rather, it would stem from her need to protect me from a lifestyle that she only understands to be dangerous. My mom would want me to have a “normal” life, much like how Joyce feels about Buffy.

It feels strange watching a coming out scene and identify with the parent who doesn’t react well. Ultimately, this scene of Buffy gave me an understanding of my mom’s perspective should I come out to her. Now I appreciate that she’s just trying her best and dealing with a situation that is completely unfamiliar to her. If she reacted badly, I wouldn’t be able to blame her. Rather, I’d hope she would eventually understand, much like Joyce did in the next season.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer would later go on to have another coming out scene, this time one between friends, where Willow comes out to Buffy. Though this scene wasn’t as formative to me, I never had issues coming out to friends, it rang true as the scene wasn’t as single-minded in its coming out scenes. Buffy was initially thrown by Willow being in an unconventional relationship, so she is initially uncomfortable and unsure of what to say, but later snaps out of it and accepts Willow’s identity without judgment.

This detail of realistically portraying Buffy’s reaction, rather than the unrealistic escapism of immediate acceptance, is what keeps Buffy from feeling like an after-school special. These are flawed characters who often need time to accept changes. This is what makes Buffy stick out to me despite there being many other shows that offer queer representation.

Buffy offered queer representation at a time when there was more resistance. At the time, The WB actively fought against the portrayal of same-sex couples to the point where most of Willow and Tara’s relationship in the fourth season was portrayed through metaphor. That Buffy provided queer representation against the grain is what makes it particularly special to me as a young queer person who has experienced many obstacles due to my identity.

Therefore, Buffy was ahead of the curve when it came to queer representation, an aspect of the original series that makes me excited for its reboot. The most interesting aspect of the reboot is recasting Buffy as a black woman. I’m personally excited for the show to explore more nuances with the intersection of being queer and a person of colour.

When I initially watched Buffy in high school, it resonated with me because, beyond mere representation, it captured the full queer experience so well. It was a show that understood my experience when none of my family or friends could. I would spend lunch hours in high school sitting alone and watching episodes of Buffy on my dad’s iPad. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the most formative at a time when I was just beginning to understand my queer identity and wouldn’t have felt comfortable watching shows that depict overt sexuality.

Follow Avneet Sharma on Twitter.

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