There are moments in memory where, when looking back, you see these little pushpins of moments that changed life. Sometimes they’re good moments, and sometimes they’re bad. One of the first of these pushpins in my academic life was a class I took my first quarter at the University of Washington, called Buffy as Archtype: Rethinking Human Nature in the Buffyverse.
I hadn’t wanted to take the class, truth be told. Buffy? Oh, please. (Yes, hold your laughter.) I had no interest in Buffy. Friends who were huge fans had tried to make me watch the show for years at that point, and I humoured them, and would be shown this or that favourite episode, and I would roll my eyes and continue to pass on the whole thing. Because of course, the problem with showing someone your favourite episode is their utter lack of context for why it’s your favourite; to me, it was people I didn’t know behaving senselessly. I had no background, and I really didn’t care.
But the academic adviser for CHID would not be deterred. I needed another class, and she needed a body – especially a body that did know her mythology and her Joseph Campbell. Besides, it was a CHID class, and would let me meet my fellow department-mates, and get to know people. It was sound argument, and I acquiesced. This was probably one of the two best decisions I ever made at UW.
The Buffy class did several things for me. First and most obviously, it introduced me to Buffy and the wider Whedonverse. I used Netflix to rent the series from the beginning, because if there’s one thing I hate, it’s not knowing – and watching just an episode here and there for class wasn’t doing it for me. I had to know the characters, I had to know the back story, I had to know the why’s. And what I discovered was a story of a female hero, friendship, strength, and even the value of weakness and the virtue of relying on your friends – all things I needed just then, as I was going through my divorce. Buffy kept me company at night, after work and schoolwork, and it helped me reshape my world to one where I could be that strong, too.
But the class had another major influence on me: it showed me that critical academic theory in a pop culture framework was possible. I don’t mean those light philosophy books and whatever popular TV show at the moment sort of things, but actual critical theory, Zizek-style (if you will). Perhaps even more importantly, it showed me the power of pop culture in teaching complex theories, something that has gone on to inform the basis of my own pedagogical style. It’s not coincidence or even passing brilliance on my part, that I illustrate my own lectures and courses with clips from The Daily Show, relevant movies, newscasts, and whatever else catches my eye and is appropriate. It is a direct callback to this class, which showed me the power of pop culture to form a concrete basis to then connect more tenuous academic concepts to.
In typical CHID tradition, one of the co-facilitators of the course was another CHID student, Jennifer K. Stuller. Jen was really amazing (and kind of intimidating) from the get-go. She herself was a great model of the sort of funny, warm, brilliant, strong female academic I wanted to be, an embodiment of the strong female hero that she was so fascinated with, and that formed the basis of her CHID thesis. (I would feel tongue-tied and shy around her, although if she ever noticed this, she was kind enough to not say.) It’s also formed the basis of her first book, Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology, which is available now, and something I really think everyone should buy. Moreso if you have daughters, because women need strong role models – the fictional ones Jen talks about in her book, and the ones like Jen herself.