The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Whedon Week: Buffy vs. Bella: The Battle of the Vampire Love Sagas

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

Two of our favorite vampophile heroines square off.

ImageWhat happened to vampires? They used to be scary, right? People used to shudder at the thought of Dracula waltzing into a room and biting the neck of some poor, unsuspecting victim. And let’s just face it: Bela Lugosi was nothing if not creepy looking.

But that was then, and this is now. Scary vampires are a thing of the past. Now, vampires are deep and soulful and─dare I say─sexy. They are tortured and deep. They have been effectively de-fanged, refusing to drink human blood. How can they be scary when they’re busy being the guy of every girl’s dreams?

Two sagas are responsible for bring the romantic vampire to the forefront of popular culture: Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer television show and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight book series. And on the surface, their premises are very similar: both are coming-of-age stories that focus on a teenage girl who moves to a new town and falls in love with a vampire. But the way these stories play out are completely different. With the fourth (and presumably final) book in the series, Breaking Dawn, at the top of the bestseller lists, and the Twilight movie scheduled to debut in November, it seems like a good time to consider the similarities between these two epic vampire love stories.

Buffy centers around Buffy Summers, a perky teenage girl who just happens to be the mythical vampire slayer, the sole human strong enough to battle vampires. In Buffy’s world, vampires are soulless demons who prey on innocent humans, save for one: Angel, a vampire cursed with a soul by a gypsy tribe hell-bent on having him pay for his sins through eternal suffering. Buffy and Angel are immediately attracted to one another, but she discovers he’s a vampire when she kisses him for the first time. Despite this, Buffy and Angel continue their on-again, off-again relationship for the next three seasons.

Twilight focuses on Bella Swan, an awkward, clumsy high school student who moves to Forks, Washington, to live with her father when her mother remarries. When she begins school, she immediately notices Edward Cullen, a junior who sticks out from the rest of the student body due to his eerily good looks and his refusal to socialize with the other students. Edward notices Bella as well, but for a different reason: Edward and his family are “vegetarian” vampires who have sworn off of drinking human blood. At first he tries to stay away from her, but he finds himself drawn to her because he cannot read her mind like he can other people’s, and because Bella has a knack for putting herself in life-and-death situations that he must rescue her from. Bella discovers his secret, and rather than being frightened or repulsed, she is captivated. He is intrigued by her intelligence and innocence, and they embark on an unlikely romance.

Both of these sagas focused on teenage female protagonists, yet both have transcended the Tiger Beat demographic: Buffy was considered a hit for the fledgling WB network and was arguably one of the most critically acclaimed series of all time. And although marketed as a young adult novel series, Twilight has captivated fans of all ages. Eclipse, the third novel in the Twilight series, knocked Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows out of the top spot on bestseller lists when it was released in August 2007.

But that’s where the stories start to differ. In fact, the differences between the two stories can be seen easily when comparing the two heroines, Buffy and Bella. Whereas Buffy’s supernatural strength allows her to come to the rescue of the utterly oblivious people of Sunnydale, Bella is always the person being rescued by the supernatural creatures in her life. In fact, the Twilight series has been criticized by some readers as being misogynistic or anti-feminist: Bella is always putting herself─both intentionally and unintentionally─into dangerous situations, and being rescued by someone. She even faints frequently, something I haven’t seen in literature since the Victorian heroines of the late nineteenth century.

But I can’t really blame Meyer for making Bella seem comparatively weak: after all, if I were surrounded by supernatural creatures who were much stronger and faster than I was, I’d probably look pretty wimpy, too. What frustrates me about Bella is her complete blindness when it comes to Edward – a trait she shares with just about every teenage girl falling in love for the first time. But throughout the series, she is so oblivious to his faults that she rationalizes behavior that should appall her – or at least freak her out a whole lot. When Bella finds out that not only is Edward a vampire, but that her blood holds a practically uncontrollable lure for him, she is not frightened, but overwhelmed with compassion for his suffering; a few minutes later, she even allows him to kiss her. (Strangely, Edward’s desire to drink her blood doesn’t bother her, yet for some reason she becomes frightened when Edward drives too fast.) When Edward leaves town, telling Bella that he no longer wants to be with her, she is devastated. When he returns several months later, vowing to remain with her from there on out, she lets him off the hook without so much as a pout. Sure, maybe his motivations were honorable – he leaves to protect her from the inherent dangers of being around vampires – but to me, six months of abandonment could not be forgiven instantaneously, if ever. Edward also controls every aspect of their relationship. He lies to her to “protect” her when danger is near; he prevents her from seeing her best friend because he is a werewolf (and somehow, werewolves seem more dangerous to him than hungry vampires); and he coerces Bella to agree to an early marriage that terrifies her. Although Edward frequently apologizes for his more controlling (he calls it “protective”) behavior, he still fails to treat her as an equal.

Buffy also ignores – or is oblivious to – Angel’s faults. She chooses to embark on a relationship with Angel despite their status as natural enemies: he is a vampire, and she slays vampires. The first time they kiss after her discovery, she burns him with the cross around her neck. Her friends are distrustful and warn her of the risks of being with a vampire – even one with a soul – but she routinely downplays these risks. Later, when Angel and Buffy consummate their relationship and Angel’s behavior suddenly turns callous, Buffy immediately asks him, “Was it me? Was I not good?” Even when she realizes that their sexual encounter has removed Angel’s soul, turning him into the vicious vampire he once was, she is unable to kill him.

But Buffy is able to overcome these obstacles eventually, even “killing” the re-ensouled Angel to prevent the apocalypse. When Angel returns (characters in the Buffy universe often don’t stay dead very long) they realize that they can no longer pursue a relationship because it is too dangerous to both of them. Even in the series finale, when Buffy and Angel reunite briefly and it becomes clear that they still have feelings for one another, Buffy sends him away, telling him that she is not finished growing as a person.

But by the end of Breaking Dawn, Bella had not undergone this type of evolution, and she only achieves equality in her relationship with Edward when she is transformed into a vampire herself, something she has been wishing for since the first book. But Bella and Edward’s newfound equality is artificial, the result of supernatural transformation rather than emotional maturation. Bella may be stronger and faster and nearly invincible as a vampire, but she still never sees Edward as anything other than perfection personified. And where does that leave the rest of us who don’t have the option of becoming vampires? In that sense, I was disappointed with the ending of the Twilight series: It would have been nice to see Bella realize her inherent worth as a human being before she was transformed into a vampire. Instead, she has literally given up her life for him.

Buffy gets this opportunity, and by the end of the series it is clear that Buffy is not the flighty teenager who arrived in Sunnydale six years earlier. Instead, she is a mature and confident young woman who served as a guardian for her younger sister after their mother’s death. She takes her responsibilities as a slayer more seriously, returning to save Sunnydale even when given the opportunity to leave. She has also been able to tap into her high school-era angst to help others as a guidance counselor.

Unlike Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not the story of an ordinary girl made extraordinary by supernatural gifts. Instead, it is the story of an ordinary girl – who just happens to have supernatural gifts – struggling through the all-too-human process of growing up.