Tag Archives: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Research as a Public Good

Buffy and her friends spend a lot of time reading. This is uncharacteristic enough for a Hollywood prime-time serial drama (it’s practically un-American). But more specifically, they spend a lot of time doing research: finding the most authoritative sources on a subject, reading up, and discussing what they read. And it’s rare that the research doesn’t pay off, in one way or another; most often, it pays off in critical discoveries and insights, knowledge of the situations, events, and adversaries they face, of the histories that have produced them, and sometimes even of vital knowledge of self. That knowledge reliably then helps Buffy to kick serious demonic ass. Buffy the Vampire Slayer routinely dramatizes research in action as a public good.

Rupert Giles, “watcher” and librarian-turned-entrepreneur

One of the main protagonists, the “watcher” Giles – Buffy’s supervisor and paternal sort of mentor – is a librarian, who runs the high school library. For all the predictable tweedy jokes, the character is an essential part of the team, as readily looked to as leader as the slayer herself. Giles demonstrates research best practices by cultivating an important specialist collection (although its place in a public secondary school is curious, and sometimes challenged by parents and other authority characters), by identifying the best sources on certain subjects, and by putting in the time and effort that research needs to take if it is to prove valuable.

In an early, character-establishing first-season episode, Buffy’s friend Willow asks Giles:

–How is it you always know this stuff? You always know whats going on. I never know whats going on.
–You werent here from midnight till six researching it.

This is a teachable moment: in subsequent episodes, the whole team is often shown in marathon, wee-hours research tableaus and montages. Here are still frames from one such typical montage, in season three’s episode 10 (“Amends”).

Need some books

Need more books, and a whiteboard

Sunnydale High: ahead of the trend in allowing food in the library

For the first three seasons, then, the school library is a regular setting for scenes in the series, scenes of research, and of modeling how to do research. The library setting also thus comments on the anti-intellectual ideology that’s more common and prevalent in popular culture. Except for the main protagonists, the school library is usually deserted. When student character extras enter, the protagonists meet them with surprise and bewilderment. That the library has an extensive specialized collection of rare and ancient texts on withcraft and demonology goes largely unnoticed by other characters, except in one third-season episode (“Gingerbread’) in which Buffy’s mother spearheads a moral panic and literal witch hunt, leading to the police confiscation of Giles’ specialist archive, and culminating in a witch- and book-burning denouement.

Just some light weekend reading for Willow

The series script regularly has characters recognizing a need for and then conducting research, often in montage scenes to suggest the significant time and effort that goes into the research process. There are plenty of jokes about how research is tiring, isn’t fun, and so on, but the protagonists still commit to it – and it usually brings results. Their research regularly results in knowledge that helps and often saves individuals, groups, the town, the world. The series reinforces its valuation of research too by dramatizing inattention and lack of rigour as research practice errors that make bad situations worse. For instance, in the third-season episode in which an imported face mask begins producing zombies, an early scene shows Giles absentmindedly turning pages in a book, ostensibly researching, but flipping past the page that illustrates and describes the mask. The show makes it imperative not only that one does one’s homework, but that one does it well: using the best sources and reading them diligently.

Researching in Giles’ home library

As the series progresses, the fact that Buffy and her team graduate from high school and go to college doesn’t change their need to do research, but changes the dramatic sites in which research is done. Interestingly, in the fourth season, as Buffy and Willow begin college, the first episode briefly shows the college library as a serious research library that dwarfs the school’s; however, the protagonists are never shown doing research there. That they refrain from researching in the university library suggests that library – unlike the school’s – does actually get used by other students, and doesn’t house the specialized archive they need. So instead, the library moves, becomes portable – and, interestingly, more privatized. In the fourth season, most of the research is done at Giles’ own home.

As Buffy and Xander read up, Giles climbs up to his shop’s not-for-sale book section

In the fifth season, when he buys the town magic shop, this retail store becomes the repository for Giles’ collection and the primary site in which the team carries out its researches.

The series thus both promotes the value of research as a public good, and – ironically if not downright paradoxically – performs the privatization of research resources, in the migration of the team’s library from the high school, to the librarian’s home, to a retail store. Buffy the Vampire rewards rewatching today with a critical eye to its representations of research, given significant developments in research and its regulation. At the global level, the various policies and trade deals that purport to strengthen copyright law, taken together, represent a multilateral, globalized campaign not only to protect Big Content businesses but even to control the Internet, to regulate and curb its demonstrated potential to subvert modern forms of state governance. At the regional level, the overdeveloped Anglophone world (e.g. the USA, the UK, Canada) privileges private corporate interests whose client governments are carrying out a systematic program of what political science professor Janine Brodie calls “manufactured ignorance”: the active destruction – through “austerity” and other policy measures – of citizens’ “social literacy,” that is, a people’s knowledge of self and history as a people. Canada, for example, has recently witnessed deep budget cuts to libraries, archives, and public broadcasting, as well as the active government muzzling of climate change researchers. To retrieve, today, a popular cultural product, from the not-so-distant past, that prominently promotes research as the first step of effective social action – a vital contribution to the public good – is a most welcome research result. It’s a lesson in history, as conceptualized by Walter Benjamin: history is the critical image that flashes before you at a moment of danger. And so, I might add, is research.

Works Cited

Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Writ. Joss Whedon. Warner Bros./Paramount, 1997-2003.

Brodie, Janine. “Manufacturing ignorance: Harper, the census, social inequality.Canada Watch Spring 2011. 30-31. http://robarts.info.yorku.ca/files/2012/03/CW_Spring2011.pdf

—. “On courage, social justice, and policymaking.” Rabble.ca 16 Sept. 2012. http://rabble.ca/news/2011/09/courage-social-justice-and-policy-making

Screen frames from Buffy the Vampire Slayer used under fair dealing provisions of Canadian copyright law.

Introduction to a Buffy Crash Course

In the wee hours before turning in, on these crisp early autumn nights, I’ve taken to bingeing on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (I’m now starting season five. No spoilers, please.) I never watched Buffy when it was broadcast, writing it off mostly for the same reasons I never watched Star Trek TNG, The X Files, and similar “genre” shows: reasons like low-budget special effects (e.g. lots of rubbery face makeup) and artificial, formulaic scripting (e.g. no swearing; plotting that caters to US culture’s social conservatism).

But as an academic with one foot squarely in Cultural Studies, I have known for some time that Buffy draws strong scholarly interest. It wasn’t until I read this Slate article – “Which pop culture property do academics study the most?” – that I started to appreciate the scope of that interest.

The article sets out to determine “which pop culture property do academics study the most?” Not designed as a formal research project, the authors’ informal survey method shows some significant limitations: they take “pop culture properties” unproblematically to mean “film and TV” productions (thus excluding literary works that are arguably just as popular, if not moreso), and more specifically US productions (thus excluding the rest of the world, though the USA’s formidable leadership as pop culture exporter sort of justifies the assumption). The authors consult similarly US-centric data sources: Berkeley’s media resource centre, university library databases like JStor and Proquest, and Google Scholar, looking for theses, dissertations, refereed articles, and books on pop culture productions. Nevertheless, from these problematic premises and methods, the authors make a suggestive observation. Comparing scholarship search results for major franchises like Alien, The Matrix, and The Simpsons, the authors quickly arrived at the conclusion that the most studied pop culture text is “Buffy … by a mile.”

More than twice as many papers, essays, and books have been devoted to the vampire drama than any of our other choices — so many that we stopped counting when we hit 200. Buffy even has its own journal: Slayage, a publication of the Whedon Studies Association. (¶4)

Putting this information together with a recently subscribed Netflix account, I thought I should finally get caught up on what is evidently now a touchstone, a canonical text for Cultural Studies. For the chronically time-constrained (I normally watch maybe a half-hour of TV on any given day), the prospect of tackling a seven-season TV series is a lot like the prospect of cracking a Victorian three-decker novel (the kind Dickens deliberately stretched out in periodical instalments to maximize profit) – which is to say, it’s a substantial time investment. Thankfully, that investment has already begun to show returns for my research interests in adaptation studies and Romanticism, and in Frankenstein adaptations especially.

In season 2, Buffy battles a reanimated football star bent on Frankensteinian wedded bliss

So as of this writing, I’m starting season five (did I mention I won’t take kindly to spoilers here?), but I am ready to report some preliminary reflections on the franchise, which I’ll be doing here, intermittently, in a series of posts: the Buffy Crash Course.

For now, I’ll just register my initial surprise at how closely the series speaks to my interest in Frankenstein adaptations. I was prepared to find some thematic and formal connections to Frankenstein, but expected them to take shape more according to the long-standing cultural associations between vampire narratives and the Frankenstein story, associations that go back to the earliest stage adaptations, even to the ghost story contest among Mary Shelley and her friends that inspired her to write Frankenstein – and John Polidori to write The Vampyre. That is, I was prepared to find resonances with Frankenstein in Buffy on the assumption that Buffy is all about vampires exclusively. Wasn’t the movie? I don’t clearly recall. But the TV show isn’t – it’s more of what one character (in an apt bit of recursive dialogue) calls a “creature feature,” and so takes part in Hollywood’s long tradition of monster-movie cross-overs. (For instance, see 1948’s monster mash Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein … actually, on second thought, don’t.) The point is that there’s a lot more directly intertextual linkage in Buffy not just to Dracula but also to Frankenstein and virtually the whole modern western tradition of Gothic horror and weird fiction, with occasional infusions of science fiction too.

“The important thing is we’re all right and we can work this out like two reasonable … frontiersmen.” One of the funniest line so far (from season 3 episode 13), in a show I wasn’t expecting comedy gold from either.

So on that count this project of TV overindulgence as research is already paying off; I’m understanding, according to my own lights, a little more about the show’s interest for scholarly research. In the next instalment, I’ll turn from the show’s relationship with research, to how the show itself represents research.

Works Cited

Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Writ. Joss Whedon. Warner Bros./Paramount, 1997-2003.
Lametti, Daniel, et al. “Which pop culture property do academics study the most?” Slate 11 Jun. 2012.

Screen frames from Buffy the Vampire Slayer used under fair dealing provisions of Canadian copyright law.