Media Studies Does Buffy-And Buffy, as Always, Prevails

Reading the Vampire Slayer , edited by Roz Kaveney. I.B. Tauris, 265 pages, $14.95.

Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer , edited by Rhonda Wilcox and David Lavery. Rowman & Littlefield, 320 pages, $24.95 (paperback), $69 (cloth).

Every Tuesday night during my senior year at college, about 10 people would gather in my living room. My housemates Peter and Sarah fought over who got to sit in the pale orange chair with its own footstool in the corner. Jamie, another housemate, always claimed the right side of the oversized amber couch, while Peter’s friends Andy and Danielle tucked themselves into the other side. Sam sat on the love seat on the right wall, and Kim, our resident Alaskan, was usually content on the floor.

By 7:50 p.m., everyone was assembled. Chitchat and joke-telling ensued, until the first guitar chords of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer theme song began–then we sat in reverential silence. Phones went unanswered. If an uninitiated guest dared to make a comment–any comment–before a commercial break, they were quickly shushed by the group at large and could expect dirty looks from Jamie for the rest of the night.

Make no mistake: This was not the kind of gathering familiar to college kids across the country, a group assembled to ridicule Felicity or Dawson’s Creek or Beverly Hills 90210 , shows that were supposed to depict some facet of our lives and failed pathetically. Buffy was different. Buffy was television to be taken seriously, television that functioned as literary text replete with rhetorical figures, symbolism, foreshadowing, metaphor. And despite the fact that it was about a skinny blonde with superhuman powers, it was television in which we could actually see our own struggles and issues reflected back at us.

The show takes literally the old adage “High school is hell”: Buffy battles her teenage problems–represented in the show as vampires and monsters–with satisfying kick-boxing moves and a bag full of crossbows and axes. But there’s more to it than action-packed allegory. Buffy presents a rich and complicated emotional world that allows viewers, as creator Joss Whedon has remarked, “to bring [their] own context.” So Peter watched Buffy struggle with her identity as a “slayer” in the same way that he struggled with his identity as a homosexual. Sarah saw herself in Faith (another “slayer”)–both doing their best to balance the business of being a tough, independent girl with the need for community.

Buffy seemed to beg us to make use of the analytical tools we’d been handed in classes like “Language of Film” and “World of Cinema.” For starters, Buffy is a neat inversion of the screaming, scantily clad blonde who’s usually the first to die in horror films. And the show takes risks with the medium of television–there’s a musical episode and an episode, “Hush,” in which not one of the characters speaks for half an hour.

Professors of popular-media studies have long been aware that Buffy is not a typical teen drama. They’ve been reading enthusiastic undergrad essays on the brilliance of the show for years now (Peter wrote one in 1998 called “Strength & Suffering: The Trials of Buffy the Vampire Slayer”). And those same professors, often turned on to “the Buffyverse” by their students, have published their own essays on Buffy in academic journals. One of the earliest appeared in the Journal of Popular Film and Television in 1999, and the author, Rhonda Wilcox, went on to co-found a Web site called Slayage: The Online International Journal for Buffy Studies. But no academic books have been published on the subject until now–and suddenly we have two collections of scholarly essays: Reading the Vampire Slayer , edited by Roz Kaveney, and Fighting the Forces , edited by Ms. Wilcox and her Slayage co-editor, David Lavery. A third book, Red Noise: Critical Writing on Buffy the Vampire Slayer , is due out later this year.

All Buffy books are not created equal. I suggest that anyone interested in delving into the issues raised by the show (including what constitutes feminism, how we define “the other,” and whether the world can be reduced with Manichaean simplicity to the battle between good and evil) should invest in Fighting the Forces .

The 12 essays in Reading the Vampire Slayer were assembled in less than a year, after Ms. Kaveney learned that she had missed the deadline for contributions to Ms. Wilcox and Mr. Lavery’s book. There are a few good essays in Reading the Vampire Slayer , but too many left me with a “so what?” feeling. In “Entropy as Demon: Buffy in Southern California,” Boyd Tonkin argues that the constant threat of vampires and monsters in the show, while clearly representative of teenage problems, also reflects the constant threat of living in earthquake-and-drought-prone Southern California. Not a stunning revelation. Dave West, in his essay enticingly titled “Concentrate on the Kicking Movie: Buffy and East Asian Cinema,” decides in the end that the fight scenes in Buffy have little in common with East Asian cinema. Who cares? An essay that discusses humor in the show concludes: “Buffy reaches greater depths of feeling and insight than most books, shows or movies of the genre because it isn’t afraid to laugh.” Again, isn’t there more to it than that?

The analysis in Fighting the Forces is deeper; the essays come at the show from a better variety of perspectives (race, religion, psychoanalysis, gender, cultural history); and the book has a broader–if more academic–appeal. In “Sometimes You Need a Story: American Christianity, Vampires and Buffy ,” Gregory Erickson explains that “Behind the witty dialogue and the engaging characters … the show occupies a space between belief and disbelief, between an absolute morality and nihilism”–the same space, says Mr. Erickson, where most Americans slot their own personal-belief systems. Elyce Rae Helford’s essay, “My Emotions Give Me Power: The Containment of Girls’ Anger in Buffy,” reads like a women’s studies class and a “Reading Television” seminar rolled into one. She argues that the way Buffy uses humor–a witty pun delivered just before she drives the stake through the vampire’s heart, etc.–allows her to be both tough and feminine at the same time. Ms. Helford writes, “Buffy rejects the message that anger is entirely inappropriate for nice, middle class white girls. Of course, not just any display of anger will do. Over the course of the first four seasons, we learn that ‘proper’ display means, above all, to enact anger in a contained manner through the employment of wit and humor.” Now we’re getting somewhere. Another essay borrows from Freudian and Jungian theory to analyze the dream sequences in Buffy –a little crazy, but fun.

I confess I was never as drawn to Buffy as my friends were. Our senior year of college coincided with the third season of the show, and the story arc centered around Buffy’s emotionally grueling relationship with Angel, her vampire-with-a-soul boyfriend. Each episode was tearful and gut-wrenching–think Romeo and Juliet , every week–and while my friends watched in silent rapture, I sometimes fought the urge to roll my eyes. But having read these books, I called up Peter and asked to borrow tapes of the first few seasons from his complete collection. Buffy , I’ve learned, stands up nicely to close reading; it’s big enough to absorb any amount of academic theorizing.

But who will actually read scholarly essays on Buffy ? More people than you think. Peter and Jamie, I know; and Daniel, Andy ….

Deborah Netburn is a reporter at The Observer.