Arts Agenda - Pop smart

Local academic plumbs the depths of 'Buffy'

It used to be that film scholars were the crackpots, looked down upon by the humanities and literature crowd as proponents of a quack discipline.

But now that film is accepted as a legitimate art form and its professors securely tenured or comfortably retired, television studies has become the latest bastard science — the new questionable forum for academic theory wrasslin'.

Ronda Wilcox, a professor of English at Gordon College in Barnesville, Ga., is probably tired of sticking up for the latest network offerings amongst the Virginia Woolf and Shakespeare set. As rare as an orchid in the Arctic, Wilcox is as big a fan of high culture as she is of low, and her current lowbrow obsession couldn't inspire more snickers.

Wilcox, it seems, is mad about Buffy.

Wilcox has undeniable street cred in the ivied academic sense. She has an undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, a Ph.D. from Duke and a full professorship under her belt. And she has chosen to apply that high-minded seriousness to the most disreputable of study areas, the teenybopper adventure series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Created by third-generation TV writer Joss Whedon and starring the big-eyed babe Sarah Michelle Gellar, "Buffy" centers on a girl "slayer" whose mission is to keep vampires at bay in her slice of California.

"The thing I'm trying to get across is that a lot of times people have an unfortunate snobbery about whatever is being written during the time period that they live in," says Wilcox of the disdain some have heaped on television studies.

For instance, says Wilcox, Shakespeare's plays in their time were "not considered to be high on the list of literary art." Likewise Dickens, she says, building her case toward Buffy acceptance.

When Wilcox is not watching "Buffy," she is writing about the show as a trailblazer in the field of Buffy just co-edited a well-reviewed anthology (with David Lavery) of writings about "Buffy" titled Fighting the Forces: What's at Stake in 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'.

Wilcox's students "think it's fun" that their professor is hooked on Whedon's vampire heroine and her bildungsroman transformation from cleavage-baring teen hottie to empowered feminist heroine and college student. "Buffy" enthusiasts, both its fans and academic commentators, like to talk about the series' use of vampirism as a metaphor for teen tribulations, like a bad boyfriend who turns out to be a literal monster, or teenage cliques represented as packs of hyenas who eat the Sunnydale High School principal (see also I Was a Teenage Werewolf, The Lost Boys, Teen Wolf etc.). But "Buffy" is more than a horror show of adolescent mutation. It subverts the horror movie cliche of helpless women attacked by monsters, instead offering up an ass-whooping feminist avenger.

"Symbolic" television like "Buffy," says Wilcox, features fantasy elements that allow it to address deeper themes and meanings such as the role of women in today's society. Like Barbie and Jackie O. in their glory days, "Buffy" has become a potent cultural barometer invested with the post-feminist values of her age, a starting point for roiling debate about gender roles, race, homo- sexuality, mother-daughter rivalry and probably any other issue exploitable in its six-year run.

"The center of meaning is this story of a young girl that people can identify with because she has something heroic within her, and yet the world at large doesn't see it," says Wilcox.

Whether you agree with the elevation of "Buffy" to the status of art, you can't help but admire enthusiasts like Wilcox for their very atypically academic, fan-like infatuation.

"I think all of us are always fighting the forces, and that's why people can identify with 'Buffy.'"

Fighting the Forces: What's at Stake in 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer.' Edited by Rhonda V. Wilcox and David Lavery, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., 290 pages, $24.95.??

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