6 November 2010
Normally I like fall semester. Students are enthused and hopeful (even the seniors, before their sad descent into apathy during the spring), the nights start to get cold after a long hot summer, I make unrealistic plans to focus on my research even though the teaching gets overwhelming. But this semester’s tough. It started with a student in true emotional crisis, continued when I frantically pulled together a public talk in three mad days, and now that I’m in the middle of an exceptionally bureaucratic period of paperwork, I feel buried alive. No, it’s worse than that: especially after a long, whiney, cranky dinner conversation in which my poor best friend listened to me patiently, I feel as if I’ve become some kind of demon zombie.
How poetic, then, that I’ve been watching “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” for the first time. And let me ask: how did I never watch this show before? I think I’ve made it clear how much I love films/TV with strong women; love scary stuff; love to immerse myself in long-running TV shows; love to look at pretty men, etc. This one has it all, yet somehow during the late 90s when it was on, I was distracted (and had a TV with only one channel, as I remember it). No, this one has MORE than it all, for there’s an entire academic sub-discipline of Buffy Studies including the peer-edited (!) online journal, Slayage: The Online Journal of Whedon Studies, which apparently branched out due to the show’s creator’s subsequent projects. (Disclaimer: I’m being facetious, honestly, and don’t really think there’s enough to this fun show to spark much academic blah-blah-blahing, so I won’t be spending much time with Buffy Studies. I’d much rather keep watching the show than reading quasi-academic prose about it. And with that I promise to keep my big words to a minimum.)
It took me a few episodes, but I really get it now why people raved about this show all that time. What a brilliant analogy for high school, what a brilliant quasi-feminist show. Even my hero, Susan Douglas, raves about it in her terrific book, Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done. For Douglas, “Buffy” was that crystalline example of a female-centered moment of 90s media and popular culture that held up women as powerful and kick-ass. It might not have been a feminist dream, but it wasn’t the horrors that we have now, like “The Real Housewives of Orange County.” “Buffy” takes all the things that are horrible about high school and characterizes them as demonic, which must have been crazily therapeutic for people who were actually in high school at the time. Let me just describe the first episode that clicked for me: “The Pack,” in which a group of high school kids already prone to petty cruelty and mockery becomes inhabited by the evil spirits of hyaenas. Not only do they continue to prey on the weak, but they might actually eat you if they get you alone in a room. They won’t prey on Buffy, because they sense she’s too strong for them; they focus, instead, on the shy and small. “Buffy” would have helped to explain a lot about high school for me. (My new favorite character is the town’s mayor — an okily dokily, Ned Flanders type who makes plans to end the world in the same sentence as reminding you to get more calcium. OF COURSE such a man is a demon.)
But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Old people like me like “Buffy” because it’s a metaphor for our lives, too. I’ve entertained myself for hours with the fantasy of stocking my office with wooden stakes and kicking a certain colleague in the head with Sarah Michelle Gellar’s taekwondo finesse. That’s why Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series appealed to me so much this summer, too — these tales of a world turned upside down and the necessity for extreme female action in a time of crisis are inherently attractive when one works for large, bureaucratic institutions and deals with soulless bureaucrats (and senior colleagues!). And they’re healthy reminders to me to keep the demons at bay lest I be turned to the side of evil. (And yeah, I’m fairly certain that the dude who plays Angel was created in some kind of test tube designed to infect the dreams of viewers. Not that I’m complaining.)
I’ve got papers to grade and letters of recommendation to write and applications to fill out and lectures to finish, and my department is at each other’s throats more than usual. I’m beat. Thank god I can explain all this by understanding that my department sits atop a new Hellmouth.