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.
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.