Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Further Buffy Thoughts

MT, in the comments for the Buffy post below, seems to be questioning whether Buffy deserves academic scrutiny. Isn't it all commercially driven? Can it really succeed in expressing deeper themes? He says
I suppose it's just the academic idiom, but the way you talk about "the function of" this or that makes me think you're operating unconstrained by the reality that these productions are collaboratively designed and produced foremostly to keep millions of pairs of eyes on the screen
Actually, that was exactly the kind of explanation I was giving for a lot of what Joss and Mutant Enemy have done. Part of keeping eyes glued is keeping the fanbase happy. A show like Buffy is pursuing a different marketing strategy than Full House. They aren't interested in large numbers of casual middle of the road viewers. They are interested in a small number of very dedicated fans. In a 500 channel world a small dedicated fan base can be a steady source of income. MT goes on to say
So while I don't doubt that Joss has all kinds of sophisticated messages or themes or values and/or jokes he wants to convey, these things are incidental to keeping large numbers of middle-class American eyes glued to the tube. I think it's rare brilliance that accomplishes more...even in a novel.
Is it a rare brilliance that accomplishes more than please an audience? Sure, but my standards are actually lower. Basically, if something pleases an audience, that is success enough for me. That also means it is worth studying. Why does this art please this audience? What is it about the art; what is it about the audience? This question becomes especially compelling when you personally are part of the audience.

There are two standard reasons given for studying a work of popular culture, one sociological, one aesthetic. Neither are fully satisfying. The sociological reason is offered by people who want to know what such and such television show says about america today. Typically, the assumption is that it will say something bad. The aesthetic reason is offered by those who think that this particular bit of popular culture is actually brilliant, and will be seen as classic literature by future generations. Of course now it is seen as lowbrow entertainment, but even Shakespeare was lowbrow in his day.

My attraction to Buffy is closer to the aesthetic camp, because I am a genuine Buffy fan, but I still find this unsatisfying. Part of the reason is that I don't feel obligated to prove that Buffy is brilliant to a non-fan. I'm not that confident in my own judgment, and I don't think it matters that much. It is enough that a large number of people think that Buffy is brilliant, and that I am one of them. Academic Buffy studies is a way that this group of people can come to know itself better, and self knowledge is one of the deepest goals there is.

We live in popular culture; we might as well understand it.

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