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June 12 2012

Which pop culture property do academics study the most? They write about Buffy. A lot.

Fascinating article. Thank you for posting. I knew the academic interest was strong but I didn't realize how that interest compared to the academic study of other shows.
To me it makes sense. It has always nested nicely in the intersection between fun to watch and deeper than it appears to be. As a result,I think you always find new people with new things to say on it because it's catchy. It's easier to sell a young person on Buffy than it would be The Wire, and frankly if you're publishing academically, a lot of people start young.

Frankly I am shocked that Alien is that highly studied, that the Simpsons only has 29 (20 years... seriously?), and that the Matrix is that high. Is the Alien study coming from the Ripley character I wonder?
To read makes our speaking English good.
I think Buffy's heavy use of metaphor and subtext are what make the difference. Lots of popular franchises are studied in terms of their fans and their impact on culture, but Buffy also seems to have a fair number of studies about the actual content of the show itself and its possible meanings.

It will be interesting to see whether Buffy is still popular with academics a decade from now, or whether they will have fully moved onto other objects of study. I'm assuming it will be the latter, unless something happens to make the show more culturally visible again.
Is it just me, or is that a very strange collection of properties to look at? Would something like Harry Potter or Star Wars not qualify as a "pop culture property"? I don't know about Star Wars, but I know there have been oodles and oodles of papers written about Harry Potter...
I find the snobbery annoying. Haha, those crazy academics are writing about "Buffy?" Grrrr.
As someone who graduated university solely because she found a professor who would allow her to right numerous papers on Buffy (when you are taking a religious studies course in evil things can get awesome) I fully believe this. I even snuck a Buffy quote into an english paper (although that one got a "questionable reference" remark). I only wish I was studying evil when Dr. Horrible came out.
"bone-breakingly" weird ? Huh.

I've always wondered how the volume of writing on other TV shows compares to BTVS (but not wondered enough to, you know, actually try to find out). I also wonder how much writing there is about reality shows. Can't bear to watch them myself, but it seems like they might be of academic interest.

ntertanedangel, Harry Potter might be in a different category (and a league of its own) because it's a book series.
Seems like they only checked a few "properties" that they believed beforehand to have a lot of academic coverage, otherwise the films should have qualified Harry Potter. My guess is there's more published stuff written on Buffy than on Harry, despite the fact that the latter is a book series first and foremost, but I could be wrong.
I think Buffy's heavy use of metaphor and subtext are what make the difference. Lots of popular franchises are studied in terms of their fans and their impact on culture, but Buffy also seems to have a fair number of studies about the actual content of the show itself and its possible meanings.

It will be interesting to see whether Buffy is still popular with academics a decade from now, or whether they will have fully moved onto other objects of study. I'm assuming it will be the latter, unless something happens to make the show more culturally visible again.


I'd like to think it could actually keep some of its popularity in academia even as time passes. It all depends, like you said, on if people are interested in it for its cultural impact or for the show itself, the way books or plays are studied regardless of how long ago they were written. Since media studies is such a recent phenomenon, it's hard to tell whether there will eventually be a permanent canon of TV series that are studied just for the sake of being studied. But that would be a cool way for Buffy to stick around through the years.
"While not a fan of the show himself, Handman speculated that academics were intrigued by the devotion of its fans."

LOL, silly rabbit, the academics *are* fans.

That entire last paragraph reminds me of an article written by Stephanie Zacharek a decade ago (!!! - everytime I'm reminded how long ago Buffy actually was I'm taken by surprise...) about an academic conference she attended (http://www.salon.com/2002/11/09/buffy_conference/singleton/): "Sure, there are plenty of 'serious' academics who would accuse the 'Buffy' fans of being too pop. But itís got to be sour grapes. In the world of academic research, Jacques Lacan or Jacques Derrida may have more clout than 'Buffy.' But no one wants to go to their pajama parties."

Also, I second the idea that there are other things which they might have looked at - Harry Potter, Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who...but then again, I think this was just meant to be a sampling, not anything comprehensive.

[ edited by forcorreo on 2012-06-12 18:01 ]
This article is reminding me of my experience from last year's Bumbershoot festival in Seattle. Ronald D. Moore, executive producer of Battlestar Galactica, did a panel on the last day of the festival with a couple of other writers from BSG who have also written for Star Trek: DS9 and some other things that have slipped my memory (and Moore himself also worked on ST: TNG). I managed to squeeze my question in for the last of the evening, and I asked him (paraphrased): "In the past few years, academics have started to turn their eye to television shows like Battlestar Galactica, even as the Internet has enabled writers and fans to interact more closely. Has that work ever shed light or changed how you viewed something you had worked on?"

Moore sort of flat-out said, "No. I don't even know what they're talking about most of the time." And left it at that.

One of the other writers told a bit of an anecdote about how appalled he was when he saw what his daughter was studying in her film studies classes at UCLA, and that he thinks semiotics is bullshit ó†and had even written an article in the LA Times stating as such. (I later found that article online here: http://articles.latimes.com/2003/jul/13/magazine/tm-filmschool28)

Back to the topic of Buffy academic analysis ó while I think it's a rich time in history to be studying fandom generally (DVD boxed sets and Netflix Instant certainly makes it more viable than previous times in history), I think there's a particular interest in Buffy and other Whedon works because there is some sense of openness to the idea of the work being an ongoing dialogue, to people seeing things in their work that they (the writers) hadn't necessarily intended. There's limits to that openness, of course, but as I walked out of the theatre after Moore et al.'s panel, I couldn't help but think that they were, on one level, a little miffed at the idea that a fan's interpretation might have meaning for fans above and beyond writer's canon, and that it would be bursting their bubble too much to give it any credence whatsoever.

Conversely, Joss jokes regularly and openly about fanfiction, and as a women's studies major, he's probably been exposed to plenty of alternate readings of texts, and I bet it doesn't faze him one bit (and might even delight him) to know that people are continuously scrutinizing it and finding significance and meaning in doing so.
azzers - I think The Matrix is studied so much because it has given us a brilliantly imaginative science-fiction trope which speaks directly to many philosophical arguments, including subject/object and representation/reality dualisms not to mention many ontological and solipsist questions about what it might meant to be 'alive' in un/reality.

The Matrix is heavily influenced by Jean Baudrillard's theories about hyperreality (not originally his I don't think, but he wrote extensively on the topic), the idea that we have reached a state of post-modernity such that reality no longer exists, and the reality which we perceive only reflects itself, reflects art or reflects older iterations of that reality. This raises questions thus about what it might mean to try and escape that reality (as Neo does) or what it might mean to be alive in that reality.

I guess because The Matrix was influenced directly by academic interest to begin with, it serves itself as ripe for subsequent academic thought.

Other science fiction tropes have sparked the imagination of academics. I suspect some of the most influential are found in dystopian science-fiction such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid's Tale, though this article doesn't actually mention literature, I would still term popular literature to be popular culture. (Maybe there is some 'official' definition that I am unaware of?) Nineteen Eighty-Four is obviously massively influential in surveillance studies.

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