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Deconstructing Buffy.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

OCTOBER 5, 1998:  Everybody knows in this post-Freudian, post-everything age that fairy tales are anything but simple kids' stories. "Little Red Riding Hood" is all about sex. "Hansel and Gretel"...well, that's probably about sex too. There's some funny stuff going on between those three pigs and that wolf. And don't get me started on Jack and his beanstalk.

But what about our modern fairy tales, the fables for the masses known as network TV programming? What about, to be more specific, Buffy the Vampire Slayer?

Now, I like Buffy—that is, Buffy the TV show as opposed to Buffy the so-so 1992 movie (which suffered from conceiving Buffy as a ditzy, popular cheerleader rather than a brooding outsider). Several episodes—including the two-part pilot, "Welcome to the Hellmouth"—have just come out on video. They're fun and spooky and offbeat and sometimes genuinely weird.

Still, what has made Buffy a cult hit is more than a lovable cast and loopy writing. I'm going out on a limb here, but I think the show is really about the oppression of adolescent girls in America. Buffy, played by the tough-but-cuddly Sarah Michelle Gellar, is an everygirl—or at least as much of an everygirl as the WB network is going to give us. She's socially awkward, uncertain about love and sex, confused about the future. Still in high school, she's already torn between her career—which happens to be stalking and killing vampires—and a yearning for domesticity. She also, and this is no small part of her appeal, kicks ass.

And it's the asses she kicks that give the show resonance. This isn't just a girl-power Walker, Texas Ranger. These are vampires we're talking about. From Bram Stoker to Anne Rice, the night creatures have been symbols of unbridled lust, lurking in the shadows to seduce the wayward and innocent alike. In the traditional vampire story, a helpless young woman is just about to surrender her virtue when a strapping young man bursts in and rescues her with a few quick blows of his pointed stake—saving the girl's virginity, presumably, for his own later delectation. Buffy reverses the formula, giving its heroine control of her own fate. But—and here's the tricky part—does she want it? What exactly it means to have a nubile naif wielding deadly phallic sticks is open to interpretation. But it's surely no coincidence that when Buffy finally lost her virginity last year, she inadvertently doomed her lover (a vampire-turned-good named Angel).

As the new season begins this week, Buffy is in self-imposed exile, having decided she can't be both a woman and a slayer. How she resolves that conflict may turn out to be the most interesting thing on TV this year.


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