Evan Ross Katz on the Lasting Legacy of 'Buffy'

Evan Ross Katz on the Lasting Legacy of 'Buffy'

by Greg Mania

It’s been 25 years since Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered on the WB, which was a fledgling network at the time. It has since gone on to change the landscape of television — and pop culture on the whole — forever. Buffycontinues to be a subject of discussion, from podcasts dedicated to the whole series to academia, and countless articles, essays and message boards — all while continuing to amass new fans along the way.

And now, it is the subject of writer, PAPER fashion columnist and podcaster Evan Ross Katz’s first book. In Into Every Generation a Slayer is Born: How Buffy Staked Our Hearts, out now from Hachette, the self-proclaimed Sarah Michelle Gellar historian explores the show and its contributions to conversations about gender, queerness, and feminism over the course of its seven-year run and beyond.

As boundary-pushing as it was, then and now, the show is, like many seminal shows, movies and pop cultural artifacts of yore, not without its shortcomings: the stark absence of any principles (or any supporting roles for that matter) of color, the (mis)treatment of a number of its female characters, and the allegations and controversy surrounding the show’s creator, Joss Whedon, have all indivisibly attached themselves to show’s legacy.

By addressing these issues (and more) with interviews with the show’s cast, crew and creators, and famous fans like Stacey Abrams and Cynthia Erivo, Katz approaches the show’s cultural relevance and universal appeal with love and criticism, delivering an oral history that any staple of pop culture would be thankful to have.

PAPER caught up with one of its very own to discuss the preparation that went into writing this book, his friendship with Sarah Michelle Gellar and Buffy’s continued impact decades later.

I love Buffy, this book and, of course, you, but before we even get into all of that I just want to commend you for how well-researched this book is. Truly, no stone feels unturned, even if there are certain stones that obviously remain — and will probably remain — unturned. (Read: Joss Whedon, among others.) But first, tell me about approaching a project of this magnitude. Where did you even start?

I started with Sarah Michelle Gellar, which is often a very good place to start. I reached out to her to make sure she'd grant me an interview. I felt without her it would be a very different, perhaps incomplete book. Once I had her, I felt like the tank had the necessary gas for the journey ahead. I rewatched the show to begin. I also listened to the DVD episode commentaries (which meant buying a DVD player!). I listened to Buffy-centric podcasts like Buffering the Vampire Slayer and Slayerfest '98. Watched and read old interviews. Basically, I wanted to immerse myself in Buffy, for the obvious reasons and to see if there were memories of my own that might be triggered. I then began mapping out conversations I knew I'd want to have in the book, conversations I'd had over drinks with friends through the years: the overwhelming whiteness of the show, why so many beloved female characters were callously killed off and, of course, the Joss Whedon of it all. Then came the interviews: cast, creatives, fans, etc. Somehow, some way, it all came together.

Was this fanbase — and their reaction to this book — ever in the back of your mind when you were writing this book? Did you feel any pressure? If so, how did you contend with it?

Back of my mind? Yes. Pressure? Not so much. I think that's something the actors and creatives had to contend with more in talking to me. I think fans of this show have faced a series of reckonings long before the publication of this book. As Amber Benson explained in our interview, there was, for a long time, a desire to preserve the show's reputation so as not to let fans down. But I think that veneer has been lifted — thanks to Charisma Carpenter, but also thanks to Kai Cole and Ray Fisher — and there's no longer a preciousness about how this show is talked about.

You are the optimal fan: anyone or anything would be lucky to have a fan like you. You are able to love a show with all your heart, but also recognize that love also entails looking at that thing through a critical lens, because you love that thing so much. When did you start to make the transition from passive viewer to someone who is able to look at something with a critical eye?

I can't remember a time when I wasn't critical of the show. Ever since the untimely death of Kendra in Season 2, I knew that this was a show that wasn't going to have my whole heart. It's an incredibly flawed show, from the continuity errors to the callous treatment of some of its most beloved characters— cough Tara cough — I can't remember a time when I wasn't able to both love and be frustrated by this show in tandem.

I think you hit the nail on the head with this line: “[I]t could be viewed as equally ahead of its time and behind the curve. It’s not that some people view it one way and others view it another way, but rather that some of those people hold space for both truths.” I recently took a similar approach when talking about another seminal show from the same era, saying that for every trailblazing element, there was also a problematic one. But that doesn’t mean they cancel each other out; they can sit side-by-side.

Absolutely. And, for some, those cancel-able elements taint their rewatch, which is valid. For me, I'm able to see the shortcomings, which become more pronounced over time without question, but also see the ways in which the show still remains extremely ahead of its time. And I would still assert that the show remains boundary-pushing in how now heavy-handed it was with said boundary-pushing. I think, for instance, about the relationship between Willow and Tara, so tender and loving and one where you witnessed both character growth from each and the relationship grow. They weren't doing a special episode or trying to make any grand statement about lesbians or the LGBTQ+ community writ large. Willow was ready for a new love interest, and it happened to be a girl and the show made that seem matter of fact in a way that even television of today often does not.

As someone whose job also includes interviewing people — like this — I sometimes have such a hard time deciding what to keep, what to cut, because I, more times than not, wish I could keep it all. I suppose this gets easier — or not! — the longer you do it, but I still find it challenging at times. What was it like organizing your interviews with the context of the book in mind?

When I was recording the audiobook, there were so many quotes I kept in that needed to be sliced down a bit. That's the editor in me, I suppose. New and unexpected information I have my ear out for. Emotional responses to questions, too. If they're recounting something I've heard before, I might consider reframing it in my own words to give it some variation. I would conduct the interview, then give it a listen and write down the quotes that really stuck with me as I was listening. I trusted that it stuck with me for a reason. I also tried to map out throughlines amongst interviews so that I could potentially string several interviews together for a specific topic. I also made my interviews quite structured. For instance, I knew that I wanted to discuss the overwhelming whiteness of the series, so I baked that question into every interview and therefore had a bunch of quotes specifically speaking to the topic. I think the pre-interview organization really helped.

Can you share any or some of your favorite moments from the interviews you’ve conducted that didn’t make it into the book?

My favorite memories were definitely shooting the shit with SMG. There was a ton of banter between her and me about favorite costumes or hair moments that were too specific or would not have the accompanying imagery to properly contextualize them for the reader. I loved getting to jog her memory.

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by mentioning that, while you tried, you never got a chance to speak with Joss Whedon. How did you feel about turning this book in without getting to speak to the show’s creator?

I wish I had gotten him. I'm a journalist, so writing with versus writing about is always the preferred method. No matter your feelings on him as a person, without him there'd be no book to write. I would have appreciated the opportunity to talk with him about this show and see if any fresh perspectives had arisen. I'd love to get his reaction to certain choices that were made on the show through the lens of the world we are living in today. But I went into the process knowing his participation was unlikely, so it's not as though it sidelined me in any way. Also, because he's done so many interviews in the past, there was a lot to pull from. His voice is very present in this book; it had to be. So chances were, if I had a question for him, it had likely been answered. It was the fresh perspective from him that is missing. But, in many ways, not having him a part of this book is also a relief. Complex emotions.

I now pose a similar question you posed to Stacey Abrams in the beginning of the book: how has the series influenced how you approach your work?

In ways large and small. Large: Buffy-speak is something I adopted from an early age and bent to my own liking. I liked that idea of "why say a thing matter-of-factly when you can twist some words around and say the same thing but in a more unique way"? It wasn't about changing the meaning, so much as giving it a point of view entirely your own. I often think about Yoda and how his object-subject-verb speech pattern is one of the most enduring parts of the franchise. And in small ways: Like Buffy, I don't often second-guess myself. I trust my purpose and don't spend too much time thinking and more time doing.

You’ve met, and, at this point, somewhat know Sarah Michelle Gellar: how has your relationship to the series changed since getting to know her beyond as a fan?

Somewhat?! Bitch, we're besties. Joking, of course. It's changed exponentially. It's no secret that this was a challenging show to work on for all involved, but perhaps nobody more so than SMG. I really learned through her what it means to be the first on a call sheet, the responsibility that entails and how much pressure it can be, especially when you're only a teenager (remember, she was 17 when she started this show). I have so much respect for her unflinching work ethic. Her ability to crank out scene after scene and always clearing the high bar that had been set for her, but especially that she'd set for herself. And though she describes the exhaustion, I don't see it in the performance, not for a moment. So really, I don't think my relationship to the series has changed since getting to know her since I see them as very separate. Buffy was. SMG is.

And how has your relationship to the series changed since writing this book?

I'm pretty exhausted of it, to be honest. I do a rewatch of the series every two to three years, which gives me time away from it. Because I've been working on this book for two years, I've not had that time away and, as a result, I think there's definite Buffy fatigue. Don't get me wrong. I'd do it all over again... in a few years. But I think a combination of not having space from the show and the onslaught of Joss news has made it something I certainly want a prolonged vacation from. It's still my favorite show, but I'm not hankering for the And Just Like That-ification of Buffy any time soon.

How do you hope the fandom receives this book?

To be quite honest with you, it's something I don't think much about. If I gave them too much mind, it might influence how I speak about the show. I understand there's a faction of the fandom that are ardent supporters of Joss' and deify his mere existence. I'm not here to change their mind on that. I'm hoping they go into this book with an open mind about the thing they love, and that sense that to love something does not exempt it from critique. I hope they learn something new, as I did throughout many of these interviews. And I hope they come away with a better sense of the blood, sweat and tears that went into making something that for so many of us is wrapped up in pure joy. More than anything, I hope they walk away with a better sense of understanding and respect for SMG and how hard she worked (often without proper credit!) to ensure that Buffy, not just the show but the character as well, would stand the test of time.

Greg Mania is the author of the memoir Born to Be Public.

Photography: Lia Clay Miller.