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Sucking and Fucking: The Legacy of 'Buffy' Vampires 20 Years On

Spike, Angel and all the others were the embodiment of unbridled, kinky, sadomasochistic sex for a heavily female and LGBTQ audience.

by Hannah Ewens
10 March 2017, 8:00am

Illustration by Owain Anderson

(Illustration: Owain Anderson)

Two attractive teenagers break into a high school after dark to explore the empty corridors and each other. One of them hears a sound, freaking the other one out. It's only two minutes into the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and a teenager – or, more accurately, a 150-year-old dead one – has sunk their fangs into a neck.

I came to the show halfway through primary school, and immediately started saving up pocket money for the VHS boxsets. The vampires terrified me, but were magnetic, and I can remember the scenes featuring them above any others. Their willing victims always following them to an alleyway, ready to get to second base, but quickly finding themselves in a biting session. Their outfits were long PVC trenchcoats, chokers, lots of red and black, hair Brylcreemed back with the women walking around on six inch pinpoints. I especially remember Drusilla and Spike acting like the other was a cupcake; their orgasmic faces, fanged teeth bared, moving their open mouths in a mid-air love bite as if trying to breathe in the sex they were exuding. Drusilla with her pointed nails, drawing them across Spike's skin. These were two people operating under the kind of sexual charge I'd never witnessed before. 

If I vaguely understood it while watching as a child, I definitely wouldn't have been able to articulate what I thought all this physical contact meant. But watching the whole seven series multiple times through as an adult fan, the message is clearer every time: the vampires are a metaphor for – and the total embodiment of – unbridled, kinky, sadomasochistic sex. 

Spike and Drusilla

Spike and Drusilla (Photo via Wiki)

The way villains worked in Buffy was simple. Every season there'd be a "big bad" who dominates and threatens to end the world. Various supernatural baddies would exist within and across episodes. Besides fitting into both of those categories, vampires were ever present.

"There's a point, as a teenager, when you realise your parents don't know what they're talking about, teachers barely understand the subjects they're supposedly teaching you and the world is really messed up," says James Marsters, who played infamous vampire Spike, over the phone. "Baddies in Buffy were metaphors for all the things that you have to overcome, especially in adolescence." 

You can see this in villains from the first series in particular – puberty that turns teenagers into wild, crude hyenas ("The Pack"); overbearing parents who have unrealistic expectations of their children ("Witch"); teachers who might prey on virginal, horny students ("Teacher's Pet"); and internet predators trying to catfish young women in chatrooms ("I Robot… You Jane"). Buffy is battling school, fitting in, applying for college and everything a teenager does – but all the while fighting supernatural demons. A lot of the humour in those initial seasons comes from when she can barely tell which is worse. 

Vampires, though, are so much more than simple stand-in villains. Their cravings for blood have led to them being read as a metaphor for the temptations of drugs and the dangers of addiction. Trisha Pender, Buffy Studies scholar and author of I'm Buffy, You're History: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Contemporary Feminism highlights that vampires were the creatures who underestimated the women in Buffy

"I think Joss Whedon [the series' creator] designed Buffy as a corrective to the dumb blonde in horror who goes down a dark alley and gets killed," she says. "The vampires are foiled by girls who are smart. Even if they're not book-smart they can kick arse and take care of themselves. I think vampires get even stronger in the final season, where the antagonist – the big bad of the series – was an out-and-out misogynist. It wasn't just subtext any more."

"The show never felt like a result of the male gaze. Buffy was independent, and when she has this relationship with Angel, we see it through her eyes, never through his." – Meghan Winchell,  Buffy scholar

Ultimately, they're still just sex, though, aren't they? Biting is sexy, blood is sexy, hunting is sexy, power play is sexy, everything that happens at night is infinitely more sexy than anything that happens during the day. 

None of this is original. Buffy pulled from vampire lore throughout popular culture: from Bram Stoker's Dracula living among his harem of female vampires; from Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971), which took the creatures to a comparatively pornographic extreme; and from Anne Rice, who became the queen of sexy vamp fiction. Even in dream mythology, vampires symbolise sex and lust, a surprise to no one who has seen Spike in a leather jacket.

Meghan Winchell, Buffy scholar, agrees with me that Spike is "sex on a stick, basically". Significantly, she thinks that, in Buffy, the vampires represent female sexuality. "Angel and Spike – what they do is draw out Buffy's sexuality and draw out women's sexuality, and that's what makes them dangerous," she says. "Isn't Angel the ultimate bad boy?" 

Angel and Buffy are the original Romeo and Juliet of the show. She's a vampire slayer, he's a vampire. But take away the supernatural element: she's a teenage girl, he's an older guy. When they first meet she's 16 and he looks about 25. Jodie Kreider, Buffy scholar and author of Buffy in the Classroom: Essays on Teaching with the Vampire Slayer, noted in our conversation that "one thing some feminists have opposed is an older man who is 200 and so years older, sleeping with what would, in some countries, be an underage girl". She is, however, a girl who has sexual desire and acts upon it very much of her own will. 

Buffy and Angel in 'Surprise' (Screengrab via YouTube)

Buffy and Angel in "Surprise" (Screengrab via YouTube)

Winchell says that agency is what makes sex in Buffy so revolutionary for its time: "The show never felt like a result of the male gaze. Buffy was independent, and when she has this relationship with Angel, we see it through her eyes, never through his." When they eventually get naked after endless episodes of courting, slaying and making out, the sex is so mind blowing that Angel experiences a moment of true happiness, causing him to turn back into his evil, soulless form, Angelus.

Spike – who is undoubtedly one of the greatest characters of the show – pushes all of this. 

"For Joss, vampires were supposed to be ugly and very quickly killed off," explains Marsters. "He wanted it to be horrific. He used to say, 'I don't like that Anne Rice crap.' He got talked into one romantic vampire character, and that was Angel. It wasn't his idea. I remember Joss backed me up against the wall and said, 'I don't care how popular you think you are; you're dead, you hear me?'" 

However, the heavily female and LGBTQ audience wanted more sexy vampire, so Spike played with the trope – blurring the lines between villain and hero, soulless and soulful.

"Vampires let you get away with all kinds of things with sex that they wouldn't have if we'd been humans. As early as season two we've got Drusilla and Spike appearing and chaining people up and being devious." – James Marsters, Spike

When Spike and Buffy have sex, it's inevitable (this scene is frequently voted one of the hottest sex scenes in TV of all time), and from that point in the show the sexual content only increases. The show changed networks from WB to UPN, and this – combined with the fact the characters are older and getting into darker storylines – meant more adult content and, thankfully, a lot of Spike walking around topless. 

"Vampires let you get away with all kinds of things with sex that they wouldn't have if we'd been humans," explains Marsters. "As early as season two we've got Drusilla and Spike appearing and chaining people up and being devious – but Buffy was a show that wanted to push the envelope. Producers were always fighting people who were in standards practices. Those scenes are very tame compared to what is being shown on television these days, but at the time unheard of for a teen drama. I remember asking Joss, 'Why? Where are we going with this? It's kind of inappropriate.' And he said, 'That's how you learn, James; you watch inappropriate television.'"

Besides one misguided rape scene that caused a lot of distress and outrage at the time, Buffy always matches these vamps in her sexuality and desire. As Lorna Jowett, Buffy scholar and author of Sex and the Slayer, told me: "One of the things Buffy herself says is that she 'likes a little monster in her man', and that's justified in the narrative when you find out that the slayer was made from part-demon. It's a part of how vampire stories have always worked. There's always a monster and a hunter and a slightly intimate connection, and almost co-dependency, between them."

Spike and Buffy

Spike and Buffy (Screengrab via YouTube)

The legacy of the vampires in Buffy is undeniable. Post-Buffy they became more a part of the pop cultural landscape than ever, from True Blood and The Vampire Diaries to Twilight and more. Maybe those shows and movies would have existed without Joss Whedon, but they certainly wouldn't have featured hot vampires, teens and sex in the way they now do. If anything, Twilight's Bella stripped the female role of any agency, and Edward – the vampire – was a complete sap, which many Buffy scholars see as a step backwards for feminism in pop culture.

The vampires of Buffy are also the perfect villain for the times we're living in. "Several years after the series has ended, and 20 years since its beginning, for the Buffy fandom,  Buffy's vampires represent any retrograde arsehole we happen to be fighting now," says Pender. "Whether it's Trump or whatever power, the metaphor for the agent of darkness has a horribly wide range of applications."    

"Vampires are just cool," shrugs Marsters. "They're a very seductive idea. The werewolf is a good person who is corrupted by the moon to do heinous acts. The Invisible Man or woman has to be a jerk, because only someone with no morals will do anything interesting. Frankenstein's childlike. These characters are very tightly constrained and you can't change them much, but the vampires you can update and you can radically change them to suit the times and what you want to say. They're very malleable that way."

"Plus, they're a lot sexier than Frankenstein," he adds. "He's not sexy at all. Wolf man, a little bit. Vampires, hell yeah."

@hannahrosewens

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