Finding Sisterly Love Through ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’

Buffy and Dawn's relationship was the most realistic portrayal of sisters on TV.

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My Buffy the Vampire Slayer fandom is rooted in two different places. One is a surface appreciation of the show: I have vivid memories of watching the first season on Channel 7 as a kid (in particular, the scene in ‘Nightmares’ where Xander is being chased by a clown with a knife).

I loved the show because Buffy was a kickass girl with witty one-liners. I wanted to be her. The Monster of the Week was scary, but not too scary. I would dance to the Nerfherder theme song in my living room when no one was around.

As a teenager I continually revisited the series, borrowing my older brother’s boxsets. It was then that I came to treasure the Buffy that academics now teach classes on and hardcore fans fight about on online message boards; the one that depicted the most realistic portrayal of relationships on TV. My friends scoffed at me calling a show about a teenage vampire slayer — where vampires, werewolves and witches were main characters — ‘realistic’. At the same time, they ate up the teen drama hit The O.C. (Don’t get me wrong, I love The O.C. but even the show acknowledges how ridiculous the family tree becomes.)

It was the relationships in Buffy that always nudged it to the top of my Best TV Show Ever list. Even though a lot of Buffy fans hate Dawn Summers, it was the sisterly bond between Buffy and Dawn that had the biggest impact on me — and ended up spilling out into my real-life relationship with my sister.

Dawn: The Key To Buffy’s Heart

Buffy fans hate Buffy’s younger sister Dawn for a bunch of reasons. The first, of course, is that she seems to be a plot device shoehorned into the show to lay track for more story. Her entrance literally has no preamble — she just appears, whining “Mom” in tandem with Buffy.

Due to implanted memories by some Czech monks (yep) everyone in Buffy’s life believes that Dawn had always been around – except Buffy. We find out later that Dawn is actually a mystical energy transformed into a 14-year-old girl.

As Buffy fans know, Joss Whedon loves flipping a film or TV trope on its head (he even responded to praise of the show’s witty dialogue, by writing ‘Hush’ — an episode with almost no lines). The premise of Buffy was to turn horror’s Final Girl into the Big Bad fighting hero. With Dawn in season five, he and the writers took on the classic Cousin Oliver trope (when a character is inexplicably added to a show just to liven things up) and twisted it into not only a viable storyline, but an impressive series arc which would be the catalyst for Buffy to truly grow up.

Dawn had actually been foreshadowed two years before Michelle Trachtenberg joined the cast (730 days exactly from season fives’s air date), so if you’re still upset about this, you need to get over it.

The introduction of Dawn gave Buffy increased depth as a character. Her relationship with Dawn became the centre of the Scoobie family. After an inconsistent fourth season, navigating the transfer from high school to college, the show found a new heart by giving Buffy a sister.

Marti Noxon, one of the main writers, directors and producers on the show said Dawn was integral to growing the Buffyverse. “It was tricky to introduce someone new to the Buffy universe and some people were suspect of it as just for the gimmick,” she said. “But it was never meant as that: it was really meant as a way to explore new issues, to keep the Buffy universe alive and growing.”

Like it or not, without Dawn, Buffy may not have continued — or achieved the same levels of quality — for three more seasons.

Dawn haters also see her as a whiney burden to Buffy; someone who gets in the way of her duty as a slayer. Just as important, though less glamorous, is Buffy’s duty as an older sister. As Sabienna Bowman wrote in an excellent blog on Dawn, Dawn’s existence “served to push Buffy’s arc forward”. Who Dawn actually was, was less important.

“At the time of Dawn’s introduction, Buffy had long since graduated from high school and without Sunnydale High offering up an entire student body to protect, she had no center. Dawn became her center, and her reason to continue fighting.”

Unfortunately, it also sets Dawn up to be ‘annoying’. “A hero needs someone to save, but if they are constantly saving the same person it reflects poorly on that character,” says Sabienna.“The fact that both Dawn and Kim (Bauer from 24) also happen to be teen girls only makes the audience more primed to pounce on any perceived weakness. This goes double for Dawn, who existed in a universe where teen girls regularly saved the world.”

While Dawn grew in the following seasons, Joss Whedon blames himself for not having a chance to develop her character more. “In season six, people were like, “Oh, she whines so much.” I sort of scratched my head,” he said in an interview after the series finished. “I was like, ‘Excuse me, she’s been abandoned by about six parental figures. The girl has huge issues.’ At the same time, I was like, ‘You get it… we sort of run the same note for a while, they’re not wrong.’ We needed to make some changes. I’d hoped to be able to do more with Dawn this year, and the bigger picture just got so goddamn big, that it was hard… So it kind of fell by the wayside. She’s not the only one, but she’s a prime example.”

Frustratingly, Dawn shares more qualities with Buffy than she’s given credit for; both are stubborn, strong, independent, clever and kind. Buffy just has a few years of maturation on her and happens to be a superhero. By the end of the series, Dawn is the same age that Buffy, Xander and Willow were when season one began and she’s tallied just as much trauma, if not more. As one Redditor put it: “Dawn lost her mother, sister, and Tara all within a year. Also, she discovered she wasn’t a human. I’m surprised she held it together that well.”

It’s easy to forget that Dawn attempts to sacrifice herself in the final scene of the season five finale, ‘The Gift’ first. What makes that scene so powerful is that they’re both willing to do it for the other. But for Buffy, it’s her destiny. And for the first time, her slayer duties and sister duties are pulling in the same direction. Buffy almost smiles when she realises she can take Dawn’s place.

I cry every time I watch Buffy sacrifice herself to save Dawn and the world. In the past week since pitching this piece I’ve teared up approximately nine times thinking about it. It still makes my heart all achey.

TV Sisters And True Love

For me, that final scene from ‘The Gift’ expresses the love I have for my older sister, Lucy, the lengths I would go to if I had to, and what she would do in return. Like Dawn and Buffy, we’re five years apart in age and Lucy has been like a second mother to me as I’ve grown up.

But of course, neither one of us is going to have to face off a god and save the world. So while the feeling behind that sacrifice resonates, it’s the quieter in-between scenes with Buffy and Dawn which are the most relatable. After a cruel fight (when Buffy first discovers Dawn is actually a ball of energy called the Key), Buffy comes to Dawn’s room to apologise. Sitting on her bed, she says, “I had a bad day.”

“Join the club,” responds Dawn. Buffy asks if she can be president of the Bad Day Club, and Dawn says: “I’m the president… you can be the janitor”. “Okay,” says Buffy. Accepting punishment like this to clear the slate so you can have your sister or brother back is practically written in the Sibling Handbook.

This was the first accurate and sincere portrayal of sisters I had seen on TV. So often sisters are competitive rivals who want to outdo each other (cough Downton Abbey), or get in each other’s way. Sure, Buffy and Dawn and push each other’s buttons, but at the end of the day they love each other fiercely and unconditionally like real sisters.

It’s a relationship that is apparently kept up off-screen too, with Sarah Michelle Gellar and Michelle Trachtenberg knowing each other since they starred on All My Children together.

My sister and I became first became as close as we are today around 2008, when she moved to Canberra for two years. We began chatting on the phone regularly, for hours at a time. It was then that Lucy also started watching Buffy for the first time. Talking to her about that period, she says: “I knew that Dawn was coming but I didn’t know precisely when. And then when she showed up it was the most exciting moment ever. I remember I texted you. I just texted you ‘Dawn is here!’ and it was so exciting.”

“It was then that I started thinking of myself as Buffy and you as Dawn. Whenever I watched it I totally related to it in that way — also because I had blonde hair and you have brown hair. There aren’t many places where we have examined sister relationships in TV that I can think of.”

Lucy is the most grounding person I have in my life. She has helped me apply for jobs, given me relationship and friendship advice, picked me up at 5am when I couldn’t get a cab. I’ve been there for her too, during breakups and offering my own advice where I can. Once I attended a housemate interview on her behalf when she was moving back to Melbourne, because as Lucy put it “we’re basically the same person”. We’ll always be there to lay on the couch with the other all day, watching TV and not talking, if that’s what one of us needs.

When Michelle Trachtenberg joined season five, Joss Whedon told her, “Welcome to the cast. You’re a teenager, you’re a Key, have fun.” It’s too easy to dismiss her as simply those things. And as a clueless preteen, I’m sure I did. Not acknowledging how annoying I could be as a younger, self-absorbed sister. At the same time, I began to see the nuance and richness of the show, I was starting to appreciate my sister as my best friend.

Towards the end of our phone conversation, Lucy said to me: “I don’t know how people do it without sisters. I don’t know. Like, I look at certain people and think ‘there is someone who should have had a sister’. I just can’t imagine not having a sister”. I feel the same.

Talking about the Buffy/Dawn relationship, Joss Whedon said: “It’s about accepting that family is a part of your life, even when you think of yourself as independent. And it’s about the extraordinary love that a family can bring you. We very much said, ‘Buffy’s love interest is going to be her sister for year five.’”

Just like Buffy is a devoted sister and beloved friend to Dawn, so is my sister to me. I’m thankful that Buffy reminds me of that. She saves my world all the time.

Anna is a writer and editor from Melbourne. She’s written for places like The Big Issue and Broadsheet, and used to be the editor of TheVine. Follow her @annahoran.