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Arts & Weekend / Art, music & theatre Print article | Email
Bite me, professor
By Ian Shuttleworth
Published: September 11 2003 19:35 | Last Updated: September 11 2003 19:35

It's one of the ultimate accolades for a writer with a genuine interest in words: being cited in a dictionary - especially one published by the Oxford University Press - as an example of first use of a particular term in a dictionary entry. This summer I found myself cited not once but seven times. The glory!

 

Except that my citations aren't in the Oxford English Dictionary or any of its authoritative spin-offs, but in a tome entitled Slayer Slang: a Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon (OUP, £12.99). There I am, acknowledged as a pioneer in the use of terms such as "five-by-five" (adj.: satisfied, good), "vamped" (adj.: turned into a vampire), and "suckage" (across which it is perhaps best to draw a veil).

 

Yet this is no youth-culture bandwagon publication. Slayer Slang's author, Michael Adams, is chair of the English department at a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania; his glossary of terms from the TV series and its various official and unofficial offshoots is not only compiled in conventional scholarly style, but is prefaced by several chapters on the forms and evolutions of slang, and grew out of an essay first published in the respected linguistic periodical Verbatim.

 

Likewise, the reason for my own inclusion in Adams' remarkable work is a chapter I wrote for a serious, in-depth critical companion to Buffy and its spin-off series Angel, entitled Reading the Vampire Slayer (IB Tauris, 2001). This also includes essays on "Feminism, citizenship and the divine", "Reading space and place" and - if I understand it correctly - an argument that Buffy and her friends combating evil from their base in a high school library can be read as a Marxist parable on the alienation of intellectual labour.

 

All this chin-stroking and cerebrating about a mere teen TV series? Well, no. As any Buffy devotee will tell you at length, the series (whose seventh and final season ended earlier this year in the US and on the UK's Sky One) was initially marketed to a youth audience, but its appeal continues to reverberate far beyond that niche. Look at its ingredients: teen coming-of-age tribulations routinely rubbed shoulders with fantasy, horror, martial arts, postmodern self-consciousness and a slew of other elements. On the one hand, its zesty wordplay could stand comparison with the finest Howard Hawks screwball comedies; on the other, it dealt with ordinary life crises in a way at once thoughtful and feeling - an episode entitled "The Body" is the finest portrayal of bereavement I have seen in any artistic medium.

 

But all that is simply to say that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a damn fine TV series. It doesn't explain what it was about this series that has set high-powered intellectual antennae a-quiver, to the extent that it generates not just fan conventions but academic symposia. (The first such in Britain, "Blood, Text and Fears", was held at the University of East Anglia last autumn.).

 

Partly, says writer and critic Roz Kaveney, the editor of Reading the Vampire Slayer, it is a matter of depth of text. And when things get dense or allusive, the series flatters its audience with the assumption that they will take the trouble to find out what it's all about. "The assumption that popular audiences resent being asked to work isn't always true," she says.

 

Kaveney also places Buffy academia in the context not simply of other TV series such as Star Trek that have acquired an intellectual edge to their cult status, but of older phenomena such as Sherlock Holmesiana. "Some areas of fiction," she says, "are very good at generating mythopoeia; this is one of the things that popular TV at its best does." Nor, as those earlier examples show, does the phenomenon end when the fount of fresh fiction dries up: "Give it five years and I suspect half the world will know who Buffy is."

 

Cambridge University English lecturer Tim Cribb agrees. A year or two ago, one of his undergraduates wanted to submit a dissertation on Buffy for his degree, which meant that Cribb had to familiarise himself with the source material. "I think the basic appeal is the storytelling, then the style," says Cribb, who compares its magnetism for a popular audience to that of Dickens' serials. "It's real before it gets commodified." (The student got a First for his paper.).

 

The fecundity of the myth can also be seen in the extent to which characters spread beyond the series itself, and beyond even those novels and comic books that are licensed by the copyright owners but do not, for fans or scholars, constitute "canonical" texts. "Fanfic" - stories written and circulated by fans - first became a perceptible phenomenon on the margins of the Star Trek franchise circa 1970; however, it is with Buffy that fanfic has really taken off. Kaveney, herself the author of several such fictions, notes that this is "an area where the world of openly abject fandom and scholarship are less distinct than you might think".

 

Trekker fanfic began in mimeographed fanzines, but, of course, it's also Buffy's good fortune to have come into being just as the internet was also burgeoning. This has vastly simplified the publication of fanfic (and its romantic-to-pornographic subset, slashfic - "slash" not in the horror-movie sense, but as in stories involving liaisons between character A/character B). At the same time, the net has facilitated the circulation of more recondite writings. Indeed, probably the most impressive sustained example of this kind of scholarship is to be found at www.slayage.tv.

 

Since 2001, Slayage, "The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies", has published nine issues online and a book-length collection entitled Fighting the Forces: What's at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).

 

The site and book's co-editor, David Lavery, recently pondered this very phenomenon of scholarly fandom in a paper delivered at a symposium in Adelaide. Lavery's description of Buffy as "the one text in all the world with the requisite strength and skill, the subtext, metatext, and intertext, the diegesis and the 'hyperdiegesis', to engage in battle with the forces of the academy", would put him on the fast track to Pseuds Corner if he weren't deliberately parodying the series' own description of "one girl in all the world... with the strength and skill to fight the vampires". And beneath the jargon, what he says is true: the series really is that rich a vein.

 

Lavery also, however, notes the double-bind brought to bear on Buffy scholars, as on most academics who delve seriously into areas of popular culture.

 

"Buffy studiers come under attack from both directions," he notes resignedly. "We are, it seems, not serious enough... [we are allegedly] infatuated with a phenomenon that is in fact nothing special. But we are as well vampires, 'brainy bloodsuckers' draining our prey of its life and imagination."

 

Shakespeare scholar Peter Holland, a former Cambridge colleague of Tim Cribb (and one who briefly attracted tabloid outrage in the 1980s for running a series of seminars examining the narrative and production mechanisms of EastEnders), now at the University of Notre Dame, puts the idea in rather more wry terms. He suggests there may be something about the subject itself that chimes deeply with academics: they are attracted by works about vamipirism and the undead "perhaps because of our endless need as literary scholars, believing that literary texts are undead, vampiric objects that suck us into their worlds".

 

Partly, too, this depth of appeal has always been intentional, or at least is claimed to be. The series' creator, Joss Whedon, has said in interview: "I designed the show to create that strong reaction. I designed Buffy to be an icon, to be an emotional experience, to be loved in a way that other shows can't be loved."

 

In the New York Times, he elaborated: "I think it's great that the academic community has taken an interest in the show. 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. Buffy, on the other hand is, I hope, not idiotic. We think very carefully about what we're trying to say emotionally, politically, and even philosophically while we're writing it... it really is, apart from being a pop-culture phenomenon, something that is deeply layered textually episode by episode."

 

In the light of all this, it's unsurprising that, even in the area of scholarship, the programme itself got there first. In an episode aired in early 2001, the Watchers' Council - a stuffy English body that provides more officious hindrance than help to vampire slayers - sends a delegation to review Buffy's renegade Californian operation. At one point during their interview of Spike, a formerly savage vampire now engaged in a slow and tortuous journey towards reformation, a star-struck female Watcher simpers in embarrassment: "I wrote my thesis on you!" As Michael Adams' Slayer lexicon would have it, not very stiff-upper-lippy at all.

 

Ian Shuttleworth is a theatre reviewer for the FT

 

Season seven of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" will be on BBC2 this autumn.

Season five of "Angel" starts in the US on October 1.

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