When I first found Buffy the Vampire Slayer — my first episode was the second season classic “Go Fish” — I was the same age as the characters on the show. I went through high school with them, and in the end, the Slayer was really the most interesting, not when slicing off a vampire’s head or delivering a perfect pun, but when she was an ordinary high school kid. Her fights with her mom, her teenage rebellions, her troubles at school, her vampire boyfriend. These were things those of us growing up with her could relate to, more or less.
I even wrote media-crit papers in grad school about Buffy. The best and most pretentious was a semiotic structural analysis of my favorite seventh-season episode where Buffy, Willow, Anya, and Dawn all fall in love with a high school jock wearing a bewitched letterman’s jacket. I really know little about semiotics, but my professor showed the paper to the entire class. What I knew was Buffy. I could talk endlessly about the show, its themes, its layers, its intricate plotting that rewarded long-time fans. Once, playing Trivial Pursuit with friends, I, of all people, got a question that asked what show had delayed its 1999 season finale — and I answered “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” before my friend could finish the question. (The third season series finale was delayed over sensitivities surrounding the Columbine High School shooting that April).
By the time the fourth season of Angel rolled around, it had become clear something was amiss in Whedonverse. Charisma Carpenter’s Cordelia, who’d spent three seasons on Buffy before joining David Boreanaz on Angel, spent much of the season in a bizarre relationship with Angel’s son (after being set up as Angel’s love interest) and then rest of it in a coma—and that's when she wasn't somehow, barely explained, suddenly evil and killing people. Cordelia didn’t wake up until well into the fifth season on the series' 100th, and then was promptly killed off for good. It wasn’t just a bizarre ending; it felt cruel and mismatched.
Whedon had a reputation for killing characters when you least expected it, of course. Amber Benson’s Tara — girlfriend to Willow — was killed by a stray bullet in Buffy’s sixth season, a death that infuriated fans. Tara and Willow were one of the only mainstream gay relationships on TV at the time and it seemed out-of-character that a show like Buffy would jump on bury your gays trope. A character named Jesse appeared in the opening credits as a series regular, only to be killed by a vampire in the pilot. Amy Acker's Fred was essentially killed in the fifth season of Angel, though she returned as frenemy Illyria, a demon who inhabited Fred's body for the remainder of the series.
But you couldn’t watch the fourth and fifth seasons of Angel without the feeling something had gone wrong behind the scenes. For one of the franchise’s most venerated characters, a character who’d grown from mean girl cheer-leader to a literal sword-wielding higher power, Cordelia's ending was jarring. Most fans knew Carpenter had been pregnant while shooting season four, which explained some of her absence. But when she was out of her coma, she wasn't really Cordelia anymore. She released Angelus — Angel's evil counterpart — on her friends and even killed Lilah, a character that recurred on the series for years before being brutally stabbed to death. Later, we learned Carpenter found out she wasn’t returning for the fifth season not from Whedon or any of the show's producers, but from a reporter and that she was “surprised as anyone” to learn Cordelia wasn’t coming back.
Now we know why. Carpenter detailed on social media how Whedon treated her when she got pregnant, asking if she planned to “keep it,” calling her fat and otherwise marginalizing her. Carpenter says she's spent the last 20 years dealing with the trauma of working with Whedon. Amber Benson followed, offering her support to Carpenter and calling the set a “toxic” environment — a particularly notable disclosure since Buffy producers at the time made a big deal about failing to reach a deal for Benson to return in the brilliant 7th season episode Conversations With Dead People. Sarah Michelle Gellar said on Instagram that she’s proud to have played the character of Buffy but doesn’t want to be associated with Joss Whedon for the rest of her life. Then Michelle Trachtenberg, who was 14 when she joined the show as Buffy’s sister in the fifth season (a move obsessed fans like me noted was foreshadowed at least as early as season three), said on social media that the cast and crew had a rule: Whedon was not allowed to be alone with her.
So the question I’ve been asking myself over the last week is, what do we do now? Would I even enjoy watching Buffy again, knowing what the women on the cast went through? Should I enjoy it? I don’t have answers. I’m not sure anyone does. These questions come up every time a creator is exposed as an abusive misogynist, or a homophobe, or worse. And we’re learning with increasing frequency that a lot of men in Hollywood — even ones hailed as feminists heroes — aren’t what we were told they were.
We can take some comfort in Gellar’s statement. She's given us tacit permission to still love Buffy when she said she’ll always be proud of the character. Buffy, the symbol of female empowerment, is and always was bigger than any one man. James Marsters, who appeared in six out of seven seasons of Buffy and the final season of Angel after Carpenter was written off, said something similar. He announced on Twitter that he was proud to play the (second) vampire with a soul, Spike, but heartbroken over what his colleagues went through. They’re dissonant messages, sure. And it’s easy and justifiable to feel betrayed by the vision of female empowerment Whedon built on TV while he simultaneously tore it down behind the scenes. But life is full of dissonant messages, of competing agendas. We want things to be black and white, and they rarely are.
So how do we reconcile what we’re left with: a ground-breaking TV series that almost single-handedly defined “strong female character” for a generation, with the knowledge that the women who played those characters suffered infuriating abuse in the process. We probably can’t. When Buffy sacrificed herself to save the world (again) at the end of season five, she told Dawn that one of the hardest things in this world is to live in it. Maybe there’s something in that for us now. Like Buffy, we can take the good and the bad in life, the ups and the downs, the mixed messages, the imperfect heroes, and trust, that though the evil never stops coming, it’s the fight that matters. Buffy will live on, in our hearts, in our imaginations, as the hero that she is. No man—not even Joss Whedon—can ever change that.