When Joss Whedon’s classic show Buffy the Vampire Slayer went off the air in 2003, its cult status was still very much nascent. Cue the novels, comics, video games, and spinoffs, not to mention fan sites, fan fiction, conventions, and inclusion on scores of “Best TV Shows of All Time” lists. But while it remains good fun to watch a seemingly ditzy teenager and her friends fight the forces of darkness with super-strength, magic, and witty banter, the show’s seven seasons have also become the subject of critical inquiry from a more intellectually rigorous fanbase: academics.
Buffy, along with critically acclaimed series like The X-Files and Twin Peaks, came before The Sopranos and the beginning of the Golden Age of Television, but helped pave the way for scholars to treat television shows like The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad as sprawling works of art to be dissected and analyzed alongside the greatest works of literature. Academics have found Whedon’s cult classic to be particularly multi-dimensional—trading heavily on allegory, myth, and cultural references—while combining an inventive narrative structure with dynamic characters and social commentary.
As a result, hundreds of scholarly books and articles have been written about Buffy’s deeper themes, and an entire academic journal and conference series—appropriately called Slayage—is devoted to using the show and other Whedon works to discuss subjects such as philosophy and cultural theory. Buffy as an allegorical spectacle of postmodern life? Check. Buffy as a progressive, feminist challenge to gender hierarchy? Check. Buffy as a philosophical examination of subjectivity and truth? Why not?
Douglas Kellner, a professor at UCLA, has written that popular television does a particularly good job of expressing the subconscious fears and fantasies of a society, and that Buffy is an especially useful example. The show’s fantastical elements, he said, provide “access to social problems and issues and hopes and anxieties that are often not articulated in more ‘realist’ cultural forms,” like cop shows or sitcoms. But even popular dramas with similar surface-level conceits like Teen Wolf and Vampire Diaries, which focus mostly on soap-opera romance and teen issues, lack Buffy’s allegorical elements, which elevate the show and make it fascinating for scholars to study.
In Buffy, monsters act as physical stand-ins for societal differences and threats: Vampires symbolize sexual predators, werewolves represent bodily forces out of control, and witches tap into tropes about how female power and sexuality is seen as threatening. By fighting the “Big Bad,” Buffy and her friends fight the monsters everyone faces—oppressive authority figures, meaningless rules, confining social norms, sexual awakening, loneliness, redemption—in other words, the terrors of growing up and finding one’s way in the world.
Buffy scholars have taken dozens of different approaches to understanding the television show or using it to further work in other disciplines. In the decade since it went off the air, a Stanford University population ecologist used mathematical formulas to determine potential vampire demographics in Sunnydale, the fictional California town where the show is set. A strategist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the prominent Washington, D.C. think tank, compared Buffy’s war against the forces of evil to the U.S.’s war on terror and named a new paradigm in biological warfare after the fictional vampire slayer. An English-language historian and linguist published a lexicon of ‘Buffyspeak,’ the insider name for the particular slang and expressions used in the show (Examples include: “Love makes you do the wacky,” “What’s with the grim?” and “She’s the Do-That Girl”).
“Whedon seems to be an almost inexhaustible source,” said David Lavery, an English professor at Middle Tennessee State University who teaches courses on Mad Men, Doctor Who, and Lost as well as Buffy, and co-founded the Whedon Studies Association, an academic organization devoted to analyzing the works of the eponymous writer, producer, and director. “There’s the complexity, intertextuality, authenticity of his stories that makes them so rich for study. If he keeps making stuff for the next 10 years, I think Whedon studies will be going on for quite a long time.”
Even though it helped set the stage for prestige shows like Mad Men to be studied in an academic context, Buffy lacks some of the same gravitas those series do. The New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum has lamented that Buffy doesn’t look the way “worthy” television should look, which has made it difficult for her to convince friends and peers of its quality. (In early seasons, she noted, “the werewolf costume looked like it was my great-aunt Ida’s coat.”) Still, Buffy’s sometimes Dr. Who-esque campiness itself has merited critical essays. Meanwhile, other scholars have unpacked the complex relationship Joss Whedon has to his universes, examining him as an auteur on par with show creators such as Vince Gilligan, Matthew Weiner, and Shonda Rhimes.
Beyond Buffy, the field of popular-culture studies is rising in universities across the country. Students are critiquing Madonna, Jay-Z, and Harry Potter, as well as The Sopranos, The Wire, and Lost. These scholars—many of whom are fans of the works they study—sometimes brush up against an academic culture that looks down upon their texts of choice, despite television’s formal and thematic similarities to other well-established areas of study.
But throughout history, yesterday’s lowbrow is often tomorrow’s cultural classic. Rhonda Wilcox, who also co-founded the Whedon Studies Association, frequently compares the episodic format of television to 19th century serialization of novels, like those of Charles Dickens. Dickens, as well as Shakespeare, was considered “pop culture” and thus unworthy of study by close-minded academics who maintained that epic poetry was the most legitimate text. Literary studies and film studies as they’re known today both underwent similar battles for legitimacy that television studies is currently facing. “I think that we’re slowly getting people to recognize that television studies needs to be taken seriously. It’s a general prejudice because it’s fun,” Wilcox says.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Whedon himself supports the rise of the discipline. In an interview with The New York Times in 2003, he said, “I think it’s always important for academics to study popular culture, even if the thing they are studying is idiotic. If it’s successful or made a dent in culture, then it is worthy of study to find out why.”