One of the themes you always hear about in Whedon's work is the idea of misfits coming together to forge a bond with each other so strong that they're no longer just friends, but family. It's stated explicitly in the Buffyverse canon with fair frequency, and fans take it up readily.
I like it too, but I have some problems with the use of the word 'family' to describe it. Truth is, I have problems with the way a lot of people use a lot of words, and it's fair enough to call me a pedant or a literalist (or let's face it, a hypocrite), and then nobody will play Apples to Apples with me, but I can't help believing that the proper definitions of words are incredibly important. Language is our primary tool for communicating with each other, and if we can't communicate, we can't accomplish anything.
In this case, the word in question has some implications for Buffy's character that I find really interesting, and I'm finally going to try to put it into words of my own. I'm also not averse to deconstructing the entire Family of Choice trope along the way. You thought that just meant that the Scoobies really love each other? Think again.
The way I see it, the positive relationships that we have with others fall into three categories that correspond with three stages of life. The first is family, and the defining feature of our earliest relationships is that we don't make any choices about them at all. We have no say in our genetics, and we can never change them. We don't decide who raises us up from infancy, or who raised them, or who is raised alongside us. For the lucky ones, hopefully most of us, there's a lot of love at this stage, but it's not the love that made the family; it's the other way around.
As we mature, we move into the second stage. One of the hallmarks of leaving childhood behind is making your own decisions, and a big one is who will be your friends. Friendship is, as you've heard before, magic: there is nothing quite like finding someone who likes you for your own sake and wants to be around you for the same reason. It's also important to know that if things begin to go badly with the friend, you're under no obligation to uphold the relationship. Severing it can be painful, but it's often the right move.
When you're young, dating works much like friendship. You make a choice about who will be your boyfriend or girlfriend, enjoy the feelings you have for each other, and if isn't working, you get out. Those feelings, for either friends or romantic partners, might very well deepen into love, and each time I use the word here you can assume I mean it in the truest and most selfless sense. But again, love doesn't run the show: you're always free to cut your connections or build new ones regardless of what your heart is telling you.
So if family is predetermined and friendship is all about choice, what's the third stage? The answer is adulthood, and the secret to adult life is making commitments, or to use an older term, vows. A vow is a conscious, deliberate restriction on your own freedom, the act of choosing not to choose. The obvious example is marriage: I decided who would be my husband, but if things begin to go badly, he's still my husband. The same goes for children - you can plan ahead, but once you've become a parent, you can't change your mind later because you and the child aren't getting along. This is the act of making your own family, in the literal sense.
Of course, not everyone gets married, not everyone has kids, and that doesn't mean they're less mature than those who do. However, it's overwhelmingly consistent that as people get older, they commit to something. Sometimes it's a career, a cause, or a religious vocation. Sometimes other people can't even identify what it is that someone has committed to, but we all tend to sense its presence in a life. These movements are guided by our biological imperative, not our social structure, and they have an impact on who we become.
Bringing it back to Buffy, there are a few ways we could look at her determination to designate her team as family rather than friends. I believe she's trapped in the second stage of life, which is very, very common in our generation, and not only for fictional characters. Choice has become the most important thing, and many of us are too uncertain and cautious to limit our options. Buffy especially would be wary of taking the plunge: from a young age, she's had a responsibility beyond that of most adults, and she was never given the chance to choose it herself.
What she needs is to make her own decision about her life, and what she wants is a stable relationship, someone who understands that they're both in it permanently. Sadly, she's so afraid of choosing the wrong person for it that she won't make even an informal or internal vow. We can see she's not at peace with the idea of never having a life partner. Someday she might be, but if that happens, we'll know it: slaying will be her right, not her destiny, and she'll be the one who will tell us that.
In the meantime, she's had an absent father and the sudden death of her mother, and she's also made some amazing friends who have shown that they can and will aid her in the mortal struggle of her daily life. There is no question that Buffy's success as a Slayer is tied to her willingness to trust the Scoobies and accept their very capable assistance and emotional support. She knows it, they know it. This is all just great, until they begin using it against her.
You know how I said that it's important to be able to cut off an unhealthy friendship? This is why. Willow and Xander have crossed the line over and over again, and Giles hasn't always been a saint either. And although I would ultimately take her side if it came to that, Buffy's been in the wrong during Scooby interpersonal conflicts, too. They always forgive and come back together in the end, and sure, it's heartwarming, but the top reason that they're not giving up on each other is that they can't - she depends on them, and even when they're at their worst, they're still a unit...just like a family.
Since they did initially choose each other as friends and they're now stuck together, it seems like one line of reasoning behind Buffy's found family is that they've all chosen each other as their commitment. Like a platonic group marriage. Look, I tried to find a better analogy and failed, let's move on. The problem with elevating a platonic friend to a family member is that it doesn't offer any of the benefits of either. You can enjoy the friend's company, but you'll both always know that you're not there just because you like each other. You won't have the history and common ties you would with a sibling or parent, and you can't build something new like you would with a romantic life partner or a child. There's also the question of what a commitment is worth if it defines no limits and requires no sacrifice; remember that a vow is something that will voluntarily restrict one's freedom, and I don't see Buffy's existent bonds stopping her from creating new ones.
So, the Scoobies aren't Buffy's third stage. If anything, they're an attempt to recreate her unsatisfactory first stage, but everyone would be better off if they had allowed their circle to remain at the second. This would entail a major shift in their dynamic: instead of remaining together out of necessity, they would be real friends, with no obligation to each other aside from what they wanted to give and take. Truly, I think that the friendships in the Buffyverse are beautiful, and in between the heartache and periodic betrayal, there's a lot of love there. But every single character is still seeking someone else for their future, so there's something missing and it's more than sex.
There's a way out of this. If Buffy can allow herself to quit keeping her options open, she can also unshackle herself from the people who can't do much for her personal growth. It would be hard on all of them - they've always taken it for granted that her commitment is to slaying, and that means the team. They certainly don't think they're holding her back; I'm sure even Xander wouldn't dream of interfering if he thought she was onto something good (his standards for what counts as something good notwithstanding). But if she ever happily settles down, her gain will come with loss like it does for all of us. You stop needing your original family. Your friendships lose their cosmic importance to you. If you've shaped your friends into replacements for your original family, it will be both at once.
Tragic as that may sound, it also makes a damn good story. "Coming of age" is a concept that's both universally relatable, and packed with drama. Not to mention, of course, that romance has been an insanely popular genre since before there was genre. The tricky thing about writing it is that once the characters have sealed the deal, the story can no longer be about coming of age or romance. Novels and movies can get around this by ending it there. Comics and TV shows make it work if they have an ensemble cast, so that there's always a new love story to follow.
Theoretically, a good one should be able to simply change its theme and explore the life of adult characters instead of juvenile ones, but I can't think of any examples that have taken that route. Conventional wisdom states that it's too risky, as TV and comics tend to be the kind of media made to appeal to one target audience which they would presumably lose after a drastic change. Well, it's understandable that the makers of a profitable series won't want to tamper with the formula that got them that far, but as fans, I bet we can all agree that we don't want our stories to be safe. Many of us have grown along with the series, and we're ready for it to evolve, as we have. In addition, the longer a character like Buffy spins her wheels, the less plausible it becomes and the less we respect her. Just like in real life, we can all sense when someone has matured, and Buffy hasn't.
That's the other side of the coin: there isn't a way out of this that the creative team is willing to take. By sticking with their old premise of a girl looking for love and her place in the world, they can keep recycling the romantic aspect indefinitely. What we've seen from the comic continuation is that this means throwing unsuitable love interests at her and blaming the failure of each relationship on her own psychological issues or the added complication of being the Slayer. This worked for a while, thanks to Buffy's beginnings as I talked about earlier. But when all of her character development is channeled into avoiding major disruptions to her lifestyle, I don't honestly know how we're supposed to care about who she's dating.
Buffy's original family is gone. Her replacement family is weighing her down. She's ready to make a new one, or to discover the kind of independence she's never had before. Until then, she's worth more as a franchise than she is as an inspiration.