Is Studying Buffy the Vampire Slayer More Important Than Studying Shakespeare?
How a fantastical vampire drama is making the stuffy world of academia come to terms with reality.
Back in 2012, Slate decided to do a quick, informal study to see which of the world’s most cerebral and think-piece-spawning television shows had inspired the most articles in academic journals. It was a fun exercise, an attempt to see what snobby scholars would fawn over more—the gritty “truth” of The Wire, the rampant symbolism of Breaking Bad, or the quirky, cultic appeal of Twin Peaks? But the result was totally unexpected and a little shocking: with over 200 academic articles (compared to The Wire’s 85), Joss Whedon’s campy, snarky, early tele-feminist romp Buffy the Vampire Slayer claimed the top spot by a landslide.
In fact Buffy has inspired a cottage academic specialty, Buffyology or Buffy Studies, comprised of the show’s in-jokes, innovative storytelling, and complex web of interconnecting and (for academics) interdisciplinary explorations of everything from gender to religion to psychology. Although the show’s height was during its 1997 to 2003 run, Buffyology is still a viable academic discipline. Just this year, Anthony Curtis Adler of South Korea’s Yonsei University published a book entitled The Afterlife of Genre: Remnants of the Trauerspiel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which tries to make the case that the show is a latter-day revival of little-known Shakespearian-era German playwrights’ styles, focused on personal intrigue, bloodshed, and a perhaps unhealthy obsession with the end of the world. To some, this widespread academic obsession with a decade-outdated pop cultural phenomenon may seem a sign of sad, puttering ivory tower indulgence and irrelevance. But in truth it’s a great scholarly development; Buffy Studies has proven to be rigorous and productive, more accepting of amateurs than most disciplines, and creates a uniquely passionate and accessible community.
The phenomenon started in earnest around 2001 with the publication of the first quarterly issue of Slayage: The Online Journal of Buffy Studies. Finding kindred spirits in its pages, a year later the University of East Anglia hosted the first every Buffyology academic conference, drawing in over 60 speakers and 160 attendees. The event was quickly followed by a second, bigger conference at Australia’s Melbourne University, and by 2003, National Public Radio had caught wind of the trend, just in time to report on a still larger conference set to run in 2004 at Tennessee’s Henderson State University. The papers flowing from and following these conferences include esoteric mouthfuls of linguistic analysis like “From Burke to Buffy and Back Again: Intersections of Rhetoric, Magic, and Identification in Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and clever yet thought-provoking ideological critiques like “Brown Skirts: Fascism, Christianity, and the Eternal Demon.” By mid-decade, universities across the world offered whole courses in Buffyology, a firm assertion by academics of both their interest in the cultural and philosophical concepts raised in the show and the legitimacy of their discipline.
Just because academics were willing to stick their necks out for Buffy’s relevance doesn’t mean the movement was without its detractors. Many mocked scholars who compared the show to the works of Charles Dickens, and by 2007, even other Whedon fans were taking whacks at these scholarly obsessives, writing satirical pieces accusing these academics of trying and failing to be hip and edgy by grafting mainstream academic theory onto pop culture.
Giles: a fantasy hero for the academic set
For many outside of traditional academia, Buffy Studies validated their interests as something not wasteful, but worthy of introspection and time. When these independent scholars came to conferences, they and the traditional academics in attendance tended to eschew the puffery, stuffiness, and competition inherent in your typical higher education event. Instead they interacted as informed fans, engaging with the complexity of the show rather than the minutia and continuity details like most superfans. The field became a warm, open, and thoughtful space for everyone inside the traditional university structure and beyond—a sadly rare thing.
It’s probably this environment of wide and popular scholarship and community that has helped Buffyology to live on long past the show. Slayage still runs on, now covering other Whedon works—from The Cabin in the Woods to Dollhouse to Firefly—as well as Buffy and its spinoff Angel. And acolytes of the show continue to pump out articles there and elsewhere. Those wishing to catch up on or contribute to the scholarship ought to check out the definitive bibliography of Buffyology. Or they ought to take the lessons of the field’s success and spread the world of truly popular pop academic to other worthwhile shows as well—perhaps Mad Men, another beloved pop program renowned for its unique style and musings on the human condition.