“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Hello, and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent”, a regular column where Ensley F. Guffey and I take turns examining the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. As regular discerning readers of Biff Bam Pop! know, we usually we use this space to discuss a film or television show or comic that gets people talking years or even decades after its premiere. The Ten Percent are the works which stand the test of time, and it’s not a question of genre here in the Ten Percent – slapstick comedy has a place, along with high-toned drama. Quality animation rubs shoulders with science fiction and over there you can find show-stopping musicals chatting with bloody horror. The Ten Percent last because they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.
But this is going to be different for, instead of talking about the show, I’m going to discuss the people. See, there is a small, ferocious band of people known as television scholars. They apply critical theories to television, and they’re not kidding about it. Think of it like this. English literature has scholars. Some of these scholars focus intently on the work of one author – let’s say it’s Charles Dickens. (Remember that, because we’re going to come back to him.) Now, some Dickens scholars dig into his works to see what can be learned about Victorian society by examining the novels (generally called “texts” in this case), while others look at the texts to discover what can be learned about Marxism, philosophy, the class system of England, teaching itself, and so on – there are a lot of different ways of looking at things.
Television scholars do the same thing, but their “texts” are TV shows, with each episode being the equivalent of a chapter. It’s relatively new (certainly compared to English literature as a field of study!), having only been around for 30 years or so.
While plenty of shows (including The Wire, The Sopranos, and The Simpsons) have been the subject of scholarly works, including graduate theses and doctoral dissertations, the one that is most often the subject of these studies is –
Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Every two years, the Whedon Studies Association holds its global conference, which is rightly and properly named “Slayage.” Participants come from around the world to present papers to peers on subjects examining all aspects of Joss Whedon’s work, from the musical themes in Angel to Buffy’s unique use of language to Firefly as neo-Western to Black Widow as an example of trauma studies. It may sound wacky, but I can genuinely say it’s four days of nonstop intellectual stimulation with a gaggle of the most intelligent, creative, funny people I’ve ever had the privilege to sing “Mandy” with.
In the beginning, this was a Southeastern United States thing, primarily because the two parents of Whedon Studies, David Lavery (The King of Tennessee) and Rhonda Wilcox (First of Her Name) were based in Tennessee and Georgia, respectively. So the first Slayage (back when it was simply “Buffy Studies”) was in Lavery’s Tennessee in 2004. There was enough interest to have “Slayage 2” in Wilcox’s Georgia in 2006. And the seed sprouted, so then was Arkansas (2008) and Florida (2010). And the WSA kept growing. Vancouver was in 2012 and Sacramento was 2014. The Seventh Biennial Slayage Conference of the Whedon Studies Association just concluded at Kingston University in London (right after the Brexit vote – Buffy does love a good apocalypse), marking the first time Slayage was a “EuroSlayage” event. New scholars, who had never been able to “hop the pond” to come to Slayage, swarmed the conference. Tweets using the hashtags #scw7 and #krupcru flooded the Twitterscape, so you can go back and re-read the happenings of the conference.
And please don’t think that Slayage is populated by moss-backed academics who are too forgetful to put on their shoes or too arrogant to talk to a mega-fan. These people are whip-smart, witty, and welcoming. To those who claim that it’s a trivial subject, I challenge you to examine the WSA website and read a few of the journal articles or explore the conference website and see what was presented. These people aren’t trifling. Just because it’s fun doesn’t mean the work isn’t rigorous. This video from Slayage 5 in Vancouver proves my point.
Popular culture is America’s Number One export. Think about it – movies, music, fashion, football – we export this by the gigabyte and popular culture is the main channel most of the world uses to get its views of the United States. (For this election season, on behalf of the entire population of my home country, I sincerely apologize.) Now those views may well be distorted and askew, but we export them. Therefore, yes – it’s worth studying them. Plus, consider this: Dickens (I told you we would go back to him and I’m a woman of my word) was popular culture during his time. He wrote his stories serially, for publication in periodicals, so he had to spin a good tale to get people to return for the next installment. (He also got paid by the word, which explains those two-page descriptions of houses.) Not just Dickens, either. Shakespeare was popular culture. (Titus Andronicus is totally his Tarantino period and Game of Thrones fans would probably love that one.)
Any contemporary fandom that inspires this sort of polished, quality work deserves to be examined in detail.
So yes, popular culture matters. It can tell us something about the culture that produced it, but the Really Good Stuff can also tell us something about our own culture and, hopefully, about ourselves.
The Slayage folks are the people who just might do it best.
Trust me – they’re part of the Ten Percent.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (2017). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.