What Would Buffy Do? Notes on Dusting Edward Cullen

I originally wrote this for a guest post on Women In Media & News. It was first published there on July 1st 2009.


I usually try to stay away from forces of darkness, but last week I killed a famous vampire – and let me tell you, it was fun! Actually, I didn’t stake him myself — I used new media tools to allow one of the strongest female television characters of our generation to do it. OK, let me back up a minute. Last week, at the Open Video Conference at NYU Law School, I debuted my feminist mash-up video, Buffy v. Edward. It’s an example of transformative storytelling which reinterprets the movie Twilight by re-cutting and combining it with the TV series Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

Five months in the making, Buffy vs Edward is essentially an answer to the question “What Would Buffy Do?” My re-imagined story was specifically constructed as a response to Edward, and what his behavior represents in our larger social context for both men and women. More than just a showdown between The Slayer and the Sparkly Vampire, it’s also a humorous visualization of the metaphorical battle between two opposing visions of gender roles in the 21ist century.

The response online has been swift, enthusiastic and overwhelming. Apparently I touched a nerve. Seems a lot of people thought it was about time the Slayer did something about Edward Cullen from the Twilight series (who, in case you are not familiar, is a vampire that glitters like diamonds in the sunlight to attract prey — sorta like a stalky My Little Pony with fangs). In the 11 days since I posted the remix online it has been viewed more than 950,000 times (and growing by the day), and has been translated by volunteers into 16 languages, including Slovenian, Tagalog and Bahasa Indonesian via the website dotSUB.com.

On the whole, the reaction to the video has been tremendously positive — even in such outlets as Perez Hilton’s blog, on Entertainment Weekly’s Pop Watch. Jezebel.com, a popular blog on celebrity, sex and fashion for women, headlined their post: “Buffy Shuts Down Edward Cullen In The Best Clip Ever.” And just yesterday, the top of the front page of the Los Angeles Times’ online entertainment section links to their TV blog’s post about the mashup (they interviewed me and sought responses from viewers):

buffy vs edward

With that kind of prominent placement, I wouldn’t be surprised if more than a million people see the video by the end of the week (maybe even by tomorrow). The remix has been posted on hundreds of websites and blogs, and is still circulating through Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. It has sparked a wide-ranging and timely online conversation about how obsessive and predatory male behavior passes for romance in too much of our pop culture. Some of my favorite debates about the mashup have appeared on Pandagon.net, Smartbitchestrashybooks.com, Pixiepalace.com, and there are also long discussions on many Twilight fan blogs, such as Hisgoldeneye.com. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that the exchange on YouTube – where I often dread reading obnoxious comments on videos about gender – has also been exciting and constructive. Statements such as the following, from commenter LillSenorita, have been common:

“Yes! That is a hundred times more likely reaction from any girl! Seen from this view, it really takes the “SPARKLING*ROMANTIC*AWW” from stalking.”

Perhaps most exciting is that young girls, who have so few positive role models in media, are finding that the mashup speaks to them, too. Twilight fan Dawi Zarni, age 10, told me:

“It’s really good, I liked the girl power it showed. I’ve watched it like 10 times and showed it to my friends. It’s the best thing I have ever seen on the internet!”

Since publishing the video, everyone from fellow YouTubers to Los Angeles Times reporters have been asking me why I decided to created this remix. It all started six months ago when my partner and I watched the enormously popular movie Twilight, based on the book of the same name by Stephenie Meyer. Coincidentally, we had recently finished re-watching the final season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, our favorite television show ever. As huge Buffy fans we couldn’t help but compare the two stories. We were troubled by how the main characters in Twilight seemed to embody antiquated, sexist gender stereotypes. Teenage protagonist Bella Swan is written as passive, co-dependant and perpetually the damsel in distress. Edward Cullen, her love interest, is written as over-protective, domineering and possessive.

Over the course of the film Edward is in turns patronizing, condescending and just downright creepy. He spies on Bella, he stalks her (for “her own good”), he sneaks into her room to watch her sleep (without her consent) and even confesses to a deep, overpowering desire to kill her. We marveled at how the film attempted to present this behavior as sweet and deeply romantic – and how the larger pop culture discussion continued that framing for millions of young Twilight fans. At several points during the film we found ourselves asking each other: “What Would Buffy Do?”

Each answer we came up with conjured increasingly hilarious and satisfying mental pictures of a very different narrative. Imagine if Edward Cullen met The Slayer at Sunnydale High: what kind of story would unfold if their responses were consistent with their personas, and with the value systems of the movie and TV show they represent? (Even as I type this I can imagine Buffy rolling her eyes at my idea of transplanting Edward into her universe, scolding me with this line from episode 96: “Please don’t be suggesting what I’d have to kill you for suggesting!”)

In sharp contrast to Bella’s story, Buffy’s narrative is one in which gender equity is sexy – and powerful, complex and independent women are the norm. So successful is this normalization of female strength on the show that in the few alternative reality episodes that find Buffy magically weakened, we see her lack of power as utterly absurd. Imagine Buffy being helpless, ridiculous! The very thought is played for laughs. Throughout Buffy’s seven seasons, males that display the type of behavior Edward does are ridiculed or portrayed as dangerous (or both). Buffy is not without its own controversies (especially around race and LGBT issues), but the writers did often succeed in actively and brilliantly subverting expected sexist Hollywood themes.

At first I wasn’t sure if it was possible to take footage from the movie and television show and splice them together in a convincing way. I had made remixes of popular culture before but never tried to re-construct an alternative narrative. But I knew I had to try when I realized that the stalking scene in Twilight was extremely similar to a scene in episode 13 of Buffy.

In both sequences a female protagonist walks alone at night and is followed by shadowy figure(s), while dramatic music amps up the suspense. The similarities end there. Both scenes have radically different outcomes and narrative lessons. In Bella’s case, she is confronted by a group of aggressive, drunken frat boys, and actually starts to defend herself – until she’s interrupted from the act of self-protection when the writers have Edward swoop in and save her in the nick of time. Turns out Edward has also been stalking her (supposedly in case she might need his help). In contrast, Buffy stops in the dark ally and, annoyed, confronts her pursuer – who turns out to be her own vampire love interest, Angel—and who, you guessed it, is following her in case she might need his help. Buffy’s having none of it, delivering her brilliantly pointed line (which I use in the remix): “You know, being stalked isn’t really a big turn on for girls.” She tells Angel she doesn’t trust him and that she can take care of herself, leaving him standing rejected and alone in the ally. To the show’s credit, it’s not ultimately a message of tough female individualism; Buffy does learn that working together with her friends and allies (many of them also strong female characters, alongside resourceful and supportive men) she can overcome any challenge, including saving the world—a lot.

As an aspiring feminist guy, I wanted to speak out about issues of sexism and gender oppression in media but I wanted to do so carefully and intentionally. That’s why I chose to focus my critique on Edward’s patriarchal behavior in Twilight rather than on Bella’s actions. I didn’t feel it was my place to lecture her on desire (even in remix form), especially since her character is already disempowered by the original screenplay to the point of absurdity. So I built each scene around Edward, and then looked for appropriate responses from Buffy. Sorting through seven seasons worth of witty dialog and dramatic footage from Buffy was a lot of fun, and telling the tale through her and her friends’ perspective allows us to understand the messages underlying the mythology of the film and the TV show in a new way – and to enjoy the process. I should note that I am not the first to make this critique of the Twilight series, nor did I invent the process of re-imagining pop culture stories. I was inspired by women who have been creating fan fiction as self-conscious creative communities since before I was born. I was heavily influenced by fannish vidding as well as by feminist critiques of popular culture, especially those of bell hooks, whose writings have helped opened my eyes on issues of race, gender and love.

Although my remix is not a “vid” – a fannish music video made by pairing clips from a TV show or film with a song that creates an argument or illustrates a theme – it was inspired by vidders such as Francesca Coppa and Laura Shapiro, who have both taught me much about the art form. I was also inspired by political remix videos such as Jackie Reem Salloum’s amazing “Planet of the Arabs,” which she describes as “A trailer-esque montage spectacle of Hollywood’s relentless vilification and dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims.” At their best, mash-up videos can serve as a form of critical media literacy, exposing myths and messages embedded in media typically masked by glossy Hollywood productions.

In the end the only reasonable response was to have Buffy stake Edward – not because she didn’t find him sexy, not because he was too sensitive or too eager to share his feelings – but simply because he was possessive, manipulative, and stalkery. Lastly, interspersed among the avalanche of positive feedback are a small handful of responses from people dismayed at the death of the beloved Edward Cullen. Often these notes express concern that my mash-up is a condemnation of the fans of Twilight or of the actor Robert Pattinson, who plays Edward. I would like to say that the video is not intended as a stab at the fans. Rather, it’s an argument against the specific way in which romance and gender roles are constructed in the Twilight series. Ultimately, Buffy’s triumph over Edward is only one small part of much larger story: the story of our collective journey towards a world of gender equity and empowerment.

[UPDATE: You can now watch and compare the original stalking scenes from both Buffy and Twilight for yourself on CriticalCommons.org]


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