What I Learned From Buffy About All The Versions Of My Queer Girl Self

I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer and I love The Toast, so it’s no surprise that a thoughtful essay about the slayer published over there last week, “A New Version of You,” is currently my favorite bit of reading on the internet. I’d call it “light reading” but it’s not, really, though the tone is conversational and it’s certainly not a research thesis or anything like that (though if you’d like to read some serious academic texts about Buffy, that can be arranged). The subject matter is heavy, though, and it gets to the heart of why Buffy is still so meaningful and important to so many of us even though it has been off the air for over a decade. Kim O’Connor, the author of the essay, is talking about identity and expectations and reality versus cultural narrative, and being the introspective dyke that I am the whole thing forced me to take a walk down memory lane and remember how hard I was on myself when I first started coming out as queer, all because I couldn’t cut myself enough slack to realize a thing that O’Connor posits that Buffy as a show accepted all along: “…Despite the limitations of its 45-minute format, the characters juggled multiple versions of themselves all the time, constantly grappling with the contradictions, anxiety, and consequences surrounding who they had been, who they were, and who they would become in a surprisingly cogent way.” The idea of a person having multiple versions of themselves, sometimes all at once, is one of those brain nuggets that I give quite a bit of thought to every single day, so I was anxious to learn how I could situate my favorite teen girl badass into this line of thought. O’Connor did not disappoint, and I’m left with much to mull over.

via fanpop.com

via fanpop.com

O’Connor suggests that Buffy’s brilliance lies in the fact that “unlike most teen dramas, Buffy wasn’t a narrative about finding an identity; it was always about having a lot of them.” This speaks to me, as someone who never fit comfortably into any one of the high school stereotypes pop culture insists we must slot ourselves into from a very early age. I never had one group of friends in high school, and the people I did hang out with were not culled easily from after school activities or common interests. And while of course there were soccer players who mostly hung with the soccer team, theater kids who never left the confines of the auditorium, and smokers who seemed to never set foot outside the parking lot in the back, the truth is that most of my peers – even the jerks, even the insufferable ones – were similarly three dimensional human beings, not thin slices of personalities that fit easily into one tired trope or another. I’ve never thought about Buffy’s acceptance of this basic human truth, but O’Connor’s essay argues it clearly and convincingly, showing me yet another layer of the show that makes it so consistently enjoyable and so consistently heartbreaking at the same time. “As the show progressed, and the Scoobies coped variously with sordid pasts, spells gone wrong, and a horrifying spectrum of abusive boyfriends, its moral universe grew more complex. Identities and alliances shifted and relationships grew ever more muddled as evil—no longer relegated to the Big Bad in the basement—was embodied by familiar faces.” Never mind the fantastical (and sometimes spotty!) plot lines and the seemingly never-ending onslaught of apocalypses; Buffy and the gang were actually keeping shit really real.

Despite all that I knew about myself from my high school experiences – that it’s okay to not “fit in” with the dominant cultural narrative, that it’s hard to know yourself and it’s a project that needs a lifetime of upkeep and effort, and that you’re allowed to learn and grow and change your mind and your heart and even your brain and your soul as that growth occurs – figuring out that I was queer and that it was okay was really fucking hard. I just could not quite figure out how to navigate the new information I learned about myself and my sexuality when I fell for My First Girl. In some of the more obvious ways it was easy: Emily kissed me, I pined for her, I told my parents and we fought about it but it was mostly sort of okay. I was in London at the time Everything Happened, and then I was in New York after that, and it would be a lie to say my environment was anything other than accepting and educational. Coming out as a queer girl as a junior at New York University in 2009 is pretty much an ideal situation. And yet. I just kept encountering second guesses… pretty much exclusively from myself.

i'm too embarrassed to show you a photo of myself from pride 2009 when i was trying really hard to look super queer, whatever the fuck that means, but the point is this is from pride 2013 and i'm not trying so hard anymore i'm just letting my identity exist with all my other identities and it's rad

i’m too embarrassed to show you a photo of myself from pride 2009 when i was trying really hard to look super queer, whatever the fuck that means, but the point is this photo is from pride 2013 and i’m not trying so hard anymore i’m just letting my current identity exist with all my other identities and it’s rad

While my friends accepted my new feelings (mostly) easily, I tortured myself. I knew my feelings for girls were real – I felt them! – but how could I possibly be queer if I’d made it nineteen years on this earth without realizing it at all. Sure, I’d liked holding hands with my childhood friend Jess, and okay, I was a little unreasonably upset when Eliza acquired a boyfriend when we were 16, but surely that didn’t count as proof. At the end of the day, I had kissed and dated and fucked men for a long time, and I’d never considered that I might want to do those things with women too, or perhaps only with women exclusively, and so surely I had no business going around cloaking myself in this new queer identity. How could it possibly be real? If I hadn’t known it since I was small, was it a thing that could ever truly be mine?

Looking back I want to either punch myself in the face or give myself the tightest hug and the warmest mug of tea, but at the time I just struggled silently. I had grown up in this culture, the one that “place[s] a lot of emphasis on the coming-of-age story, as though it’s something that happens just once, early in life,” and I had drunk the Kool-Aid. Even as I felt feelings I knew to be true, and even as I intellectually knew that my identity was my own to define and redefine as often as need be, I couldn’t quite let myself be. O’Connor’s essay makes me feel like what I really needed was Buffy (duh), but unfortunately I wouldn’t discover The Slayer until a couple of years later. Had I seen the show earlier, perhaps I would have benefited from its core message. O’Connor writes:

Life on the Hellmouth required a certain amount of flexibility. You might, for instance, spend 19 years of your life as an only child, only to one day find you have an annoying little sister that monks made out of mystical energy. At any given moment, you might turn into a rat, a demon, a werewolf, or a lesbian. In Sunnydale, no one was ever what they seemed, and by the time you’d figured someone out, they had already turned into someone else.

While I know it’s simplistic to say “you might turn into… a lesbian,” I think we can all agree that sometimes, for some people, it feels that way. It felt that way for me. And looking back on the unrelenting barrage of doubt I heaped upon myself, I really wish I had been watching BtVS when I came out to myself, because I think watching the show could have helped me. I think that is the point of O’Connor’s essay. Taking on the perspective the show holds about identity can help all of us. It was far more honest than any other teen dramas at the time (or since?), and frankly, it’s far more honest in its fictional narrative than most of us are with ourselves in real life.

girl i know

girl i know

O’Connor writes that Buffy’s “real artistic achievement was in its flat rejection of the notion we can ever come to know ourselves, much less someone else.” I love this, and I want to write it on a slip of paper and keep it close to my heart at all times. Now, four years after realizing I really (really, really) like girls, I finally feel safe in my body and my brain and the words I choose to define my own identity. I know that I’ll keep evolving, and I know that’s the way it’s supposed to be – how boring if we were all “done” at a certain point, if our identities tapered off and became static, if we “found ourselves” like we are so often told we should. I don’t want to find myself just once; I want to keep finding new pieces of me every day, and I want to remember that I am allowed to discover bits and pieces that I never saw before, and that those versions of myself are just as valid as any versions that came before, and any that might come next. O’Connor’s conclusion makes me certain that Buffy (and O’Connor herself) agree with these sentiments:

The thing is, Buffy was never about a girl coming of age. In her universe, as in ours, no one ever finds herself, at least not for long. With its relentless parade of Big Bads, demonic possessions, and fug leather pants, Buffy shows us how to face life’s central challenge: accepting the monsters we have all had to be, and those we have yet to become.


 

Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” column exists for individual queer ladies to tell their own personal stories and share compelling experiences. These personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.

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Vanessa is a queer feminist writer, NYU grad, crush monster, and Jewish Grandma In Training. She has a radical brain, a mushy heart, and a million floral print dresses. She's currently on a big adventure but she'll be back one day, pinky swear. In the meantime, she can sometimes be found on twitter and instagram.

Vanessa has written 198 articles for us.

48 Comments

    • Thumb up 9

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      Yup, that was amazing.

      Though I *still* haven’t gotten into Buffy myself, I can definitely relate. A lot of my own coming out narrative is tied into my adolescent obsession with Madonna and her constant reinventions. There is just something so comforting with the thought that in one moment you could be one person and in the next you might be someone completely different.

      I suppose I still struggle with feeling like all of those potential identities are “complete” or “whole” in and of themselves. Perhaps that is just a symptom of being a mixed-race, gender-queer weirdo, or maybe like you said, we’re all discovering new bits and pieces of ourselves everyday, and that’s okay too.

  1. Thumb up 7

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    HOLY SHIT, V. I AM CRYING AT MY DESK.

    I related to so, so much of this (I mean, of course), even though I didn’t discover Buffy until my later years after I had gone through my coming out process.

    BUT THIS “you’re allowed to learn and grow and change your mind and your heart and even your brain and your soul as that growth occurs” is something I want to print out and keep in a wallet. Forever.

    Thank you for writing this and also for existing.

  2. Thumb up 19

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    “At the end of the day, I had kissed and dated and fucked men for a long time, and I’d never considered that I might want to do those things with women too, or perhaps only with women exclusively, and so surely I had no business going around cloaking myself in this new queer identity. How could it possibly be real? If I hadn’t known it since I was small, was it a thing that could ever truly be mine?”

    Vanessa. This is me and my feelings. I can’t tell you how comforting it is to know that someone else has experienced and felt what I experiencing and feeling.

    I’m definitely going to finally watch Buffy.

    • Thumb up 3

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      That bit was exactly my feelings as well! And then I was ok with calling myself gay but I still hadn’t really accepted the fact that it took me so long to get there and when I went to queer events I didn’t want people to know that I was a babyqueer because it felt like saying I wasn’t gay enough? I don’t know, my world had just turned sideways and my feelings were all over the place.

      “Looking back I want to either punch myself in the face or give myself the tightest hug and the warmest mug of tea, but at the time I just struggled silently.”

      Yep. Definitely. I really, really, really wish I could go back and tell my oblivious younger self a few things and talk some of the nonsense out of her… but no spoilers, of course.

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          I see how you could feel that way about the term! Thanks for bringing it up, I hadn’t thought about it. Personally I actually found it comforting to think of myself that way (I don’t recall anyone else calling me that), because I felt really really young and clueless and occasionally totally overwhelmed, as if I were discovering the world for the first time… so “baby queer” felt appropriate and reassured me that it would get easier, I just needed time to grow into my new-found identity.

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    This is great. I haven’t even watched Buffy, but certainly the amount of times it’s appeared on AS are becoming seriously tempting motivation. But as a late-blooming babygay who still throws a lot of doubt/second guesses at herself, each time I hear this story from someone else’s head, and the following message that you’re under no obligation to feel the exact same way/understand yourself the same way from day to day, it really calms me and reminds me that I’m still young and growing and — I might not get a definitive lightbulb moment like some people, but I’ll get to the place I want to be for sure. Thanks, Vanessa :)

  4. Thumb up 5

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    I love this! I am actually getting into Buffy right now on my girlfriend’s recommendation (her encouragement was “I think it would be a good investment in your lesbianism”) and really wish I’d discovered it back when I was first starting to figure out I was queer and trying to wrap my head around it.

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    Basically YES at everything in this article, but this part especially resonated with me:

    “I don’t want to find myself just once; I want to keep finding new pieces of me every day, and I want to remember that I am allowed to discover bits and pieces that I never saw before, and that those versions of myself are just as valid as any versions that came before, and any that might come next.”

    Thank you so much for writing this, Vanessa.

  6. Thumb up 5

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    Buffy was my favorite show when I first came out, and I never thought anything of it. After reading your words Vanessa, I can see why I clung to it so tightly when going through such drastic changes in my life. Your feelings seem to have matched mine exactly when realizing I wasn’t as into boys as I thought I was. I really did feel like it just happened one day, not that I knew my entire life. It makes me feel so much better to know there are others who have experienced these feelings when figuring out different aspects to their identity.

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    This really resinated with me and how I felt when watching Buffy. There definitely was a certain flexibility to identities on the show. Things were constantly shifting, and I loved that. Plus, I really love your writing style.

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    “Unlike most teen dramas, Buffy wasn’t a narrative about finding an identity; it was always about having a lot of them.”
    So true! Buffy gets so overwhelmed at times trying to balance all of her identities.

    For a queer film class I’ve written about Sabrina the Teenage Witch, linking the concept of queer otherness to science fiction characters. With their added identities they are often obligated to keep secrets and closet themselves. Unlike ‘muggles’ they have whole other realms to navigate. Watch Sabrina and replace the word “witch” with “gay”: magical things happen..

    The greatest TV shows are those with enough -“other”- dimensions that just about anyone can relate to them.

  9. Thumb up 7

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    “I knew my feelings for girls were real – I felt them! – but how could I possibly be queer if I’d made it nineteen years on this earth without realizing it at all.”

    This is literally me. Although I’ve only watched a few episodes of Buffy, I really enjoyed reading this essay. Thank you for writing it! It’s so much easier to understand our own identities when we have fiction to help us, right?

  10. Thumb up 8

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    “While my friends accepted my new feelings (mostly) easily, I tortured myself. I knew my feelings for girls were real – I felt them! – but how could I possibly be queer if I’d made it nineteen years on this earth without realizing it at all.”
    This is me exactly, I realized I was queer (and a couple months later, gay), after hearing some queer women read some poetry after several different venues last year (I’m 20). I still want to know why it took me so long when a lot of the queer people I know knew when they were really young (most of those were cis gay men, though). Thank you for writing this! This is the first time I’ve read something that I could immediately identify with.

    • Thumb up 13

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      I can definitely relate! Once I figured it out it was SO obvious that for a while I kind of beat myself up for not seeing it before and kept obsessively going over various events in my life trying to understand why it took me so long. Ultimately I decided to stop torturing myself, left the blame at heteronormative society’s doorstep, forgave myself and all the other people (and stories!) who never acknowledged the possibility that I might be queer, and moved on. Mostly.

      Now I just really want to tell all young humans: don’t assume that you’re straight! Actually *think* about it first. Seriously, shouldn’t it be considered every parent’s responsibility to make sure that their kids know that the possibility exists? Clearly we’re not there yet. Hopefully one day…

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    I love this whole article but I have to call out the caption on your Pride photo b/c I too went through a phase when I first came out of trying to look “super queer.” For me it was 1998 and my outfit of choice was baggy jeans w/ wifebeater tanks. No, I will not share a photo, but just wanted to say I feel you on that.

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    I love this article. I identify so much with what you’re saying. I didn’t figure out that I was actually gay (after spending high school in an all-girl environment) until I finally kissed a boy at 18 and realised “Oh. Oh, okay. Oh wow. Shit. Sorry dude, I think I’m a lesbian.” I didn’t actually tell him that of course… Just sorta stopped answering his calls.

    It’s only in the ten years since then that I’ve come to realise that the signs were all there, that I have always been attracted to women (ahem, Xena, Buffy, Charmed….) And that I didn’t just wake up gay one morning, but rather that I was just oblivious to my own sexual desires.

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    “Coming out as a queer girl as a junior at New York University in 2009 is pretty much an ideal situation. And yet. I just kept encountering second guesses… pretty much exclusively from myself.”

    I related so much to this part. Accepting environment but still had a hard time forgiving myself for changing how I identify and hurting a guy along the way.

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    If taken slightly out of context, parts of the silly cookie analogy from “Chosen” seem fitting.

    “I’m not done baking yet. I’m not finished becoming… whoever the hell it is I’m gonna turn out to be. I’ve been looking for someone to make me feel whole, and maybe I just need to be whole. I make it through this, and the next thing, and the next… maybe one day I turn around and realize I’m ready. I’m cookies. And then if I want someone to eat m — or, to enjoy warm delicious cookie-me, then that’s fine. That’ll be then. When I’m done.”

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    I loved the essay from The Toast and I loved this. I recently binge watched all of Buffy and it was perfectly timed with my love life/school/career changes. I’m just not finished developing into who I’m going to be yet and that’s totally okay. <3

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    As a tiny 10 year old baby child I really loved Buffy in a way that somehow felt more important than my love for other shows, and I think it was because Buffy was the only one that seemed to not impose onto its viewers a black and white vision of “good” and “evil.” The world of Buffy felt safe (and still does), like I could let out all my ‘weird’ thoughts and feelings and nobody was going to make fun of me, and my favourite character was going to have a crush on Xander but then she was going to be in love with girls and I was like “omg samezies, Wills.” I love that in Buffy, the changes in people aren’t shown as an “identity crisis” like in other teen shows, but more like a natural and inevitable progression.

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    This speaks to me on so many levels and I can’t even copy and paste my favorite lines because I would literally have to copy and past THE WHOLE THING.

    Buffy will just always be one of my favorite shows just because these characters feel so real. Their very real emotions, problems, identities are all set against a backdrop of demons and vampires. It’s just brilliant and awesome.

    And NOW I have to make it through the workday. I just didn’t think it was going to start with an article about Buffy making me all introspective.

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