I have an odd tendency to get really into television shows that are old, but not quite “classic” old. The kind of TV that came and went during the Bush-Clinton-Bush years and, like Agent Scully’s shapeless pantsuits, resides in the donut hole between contemporary and retro.
That said, I’m really into Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BTVS) these days. Halfway through season 4 (yes, I still have a long way to go!), I’ve been replaying the mental archive footage of my awkward adolescence. This nostalgia for puppy love (and butterfly clips, spaghetti straps and chunky heels) has shed some light on the mystifying encounters with the opposite sex that plagued my teenage years. There are some things that happen in life that you just can’t understand until you get some distance from them, and this is particularly true for matters of the heart. Since this is “Love Week” at TOL, what better time to reflect on the life lessons that come from blindly stumbling through high school and college relationships?
(Apologies in advance for my heteronormative POV).
Lesson 1: A Cool Boyfriend Isn’t a Shortcut to Becoming an Interesting Person
Plenty of ink has been spilled already on the merits of BTVS compared to the Twilight saga, as well as the lessons they teach young, impressionable fans.* But BTVS doesn’t necessarily shine on every point where Twilight fails; both Buffy Summers and Bella Swan become romantically involved with dark, brooding men who’ve experienced a century or two of life before meeting their teenage soul mates.
Considering the audience of both stories – adolescent females – I’m skeptical of arguments that accuse BTVS as part of the larger sexist culture in which old men exploit nubile women. In a culture that, until fairly recently, told girls’ stories in terms of their relationships to boys, dating an interesting boyfriend (and older boys are always more interesting) is a shortcut to crafting an interesting identity. Call it the “My Boyfriend Plays in a Band” phenomenon: impressionable girls internalize the idea that coolness is transitive, and if a cool guy likes you, then you must be hella cool. I’ll grant that it’s certainly easier to date a guitarist/19th-century vampire than it is to get your own band together and learn to write songs, but my hope is that the heroines available to future generations of girls will be more closely resemble the kick-ass Buffy than the passive Bella.
Lesson 2: You Can’t Always Get What You Want
Buffy fans know what I’m talking about: the Parker episode. A summary for the un-initiated: Buffy goes to college, meets a sweet, sensitive guy with bedroom eyes named Parker, has a brief affair with him, and he never calls her again. She then spends the next several episodes wondering what she did wrong. (Spoiler: Parker turns out to be hiding his manipulative ways behind a faux-empowering, do-what-feels-good-damn-the-consequences ethos).
Do a Google search for “he disappeared,” and you’ll find pages of similar accounts. Far too many of these women** believe they’re owed an explanation, like an “I’m not feeling it” courtesy-dump. I feel for people in this situation, I really do. It sucks to be crazy about another person who’s cool or indifferent towards you. It sucks telling yourself that he’s probably just really busy, or he lost his phone, or he got hit by a bus and is probably lying in a coma this very minute (yes, I’ve thought this). Contrary to what the “nice guy” narrative says, the ultimate injury is not a flat-out romantic rejection – it’s being taken for a test-drive and then being rejected. But it’s a fact of life: some people are just jerks. Eighteen years is generally not enough experience to be able to, two weeks into a relationship, differentiate between a conflict-avoidant jerk, a manipulative seducer, or an earnest potential partner.
Of course, the real irony comes when you realize, months later, that you’ve been avoiding some guy’s calls because you’ve met another guy you like more. (You’ll feel like a dick sending him a courtesy dump via Facebook message, but at least you stuck by your principles, dammit).
Lesson 3: Epic Romances Are Kids’ Stuff
Having Buffy’s boyfriend leave the show (and giving him his own show that was way better than Buffy) was the right way to end that teenage romance story arc. Yes, some young couples are fortunate enough to build stable relationships that last for decades after graduation; the overwhelming majority aren’t. Going through the ropes a few times has a way of making it really clear what’s important (he’s good to me), vs. what’s just window dressing (he writes dark poetry).
Romance gets more complex as you move out of the hormone-cocktail years, but with that complexity comes a richness that just isn’t there in the stories of teenage whirlwind romance. Movies like “Parenthood” or “This Is 40” feel more sentimental to me today than the latest version of Romeo and Juliet. Everybody carries more baggage, experience, and self-knowledge. It’s more complicated, but it’s also more satisfying.
And 10 years from now, I hope to revisit this essay and be floored by how much I thought I knew about love and romance. Happy Valentine’s Day!
(P.S. and Happy Valentine’s Day to Uncle Merryweather!)
*This hilarious “Buffy vs. Edward” video sums the argument up pretty well.
**The Disappearing Act doesn’t only happen to women; women just seem more inclined to write about it.