Immersed in the Whedonverse

By Billy Liggett

Back in 1997, Elizabeth Rambo came across a “fun little TV show” about a teenage girl who answered her calling to become a killer of vampires, demons and other forces of darkness.

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” would go on to become a hit, and the young girl who portrayed the brave heroine, Sarah Michelle Gellar, a star. But while many tuned in each week for the monsters and the mayhem, Rambo was picking up on a much deeper meaning to the show.

And she wasn’t alone. Before long, “Buffy” was the topic of college lectures and national conferences. Entire books have been written (many of them) that explore the show’s use of metaphors to portray the conflicts of teenage life, growth, power and transgression. The show went off the air in 2003; and over a decade later, it’s still a much talked about and much debated slice of American popular culture.

It doesn’t hurt that the show’s creator, Joss Whedon, has gone on to bigger and (some will argue) better things since the show, creating TV dramas like “Firefly,” “Angel” and “Dollhouse;” co-writing and writing movies like “Toy Story” and “The Cabin in the Woods;” and directing the third-highest grossing movie of all time, “The Avengers.” Study of the “Buffyverse” has morphed into study of the “Whedonverse,” and Rambo is considered one of the top scholars in the field these days.

It’s a title she never would have imagined back in ’97 when she first became a fan of a show about teenagers and vampires.

“At first, I just thought it was a lot of fun,” said Rambo, a professor of English in Campbell’s College of Arts & Sciences. “I’ve never been a fan of horror movies, but I liked this show because it made fun of the horror genre, and it starred a young girl who didn’t look like your typical hero.”

She attended a conference for the Popular Culture Association to present a paper on a historical novel a few years later and was pleased to find “serious people talking in a serious way” about “Buffy” and movies like Star Trek and Star Wars. “I said to myself, ‘Maybe if I take a closer look at this show, I can have some academic fun with it.’”

In 2002, Rambo attended her first international conference completely focused on “Buffy” — a planned one-day event at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, that became a two-day conference because of the number of speakers and presenters who signed up. The paper she presented — which likened the sixth and penultimate season of the show with W.B. Yeats’ famous poem, “The Second Coming” — became a chapter in the 222-page book, “Buffy Goes Dark,” in 2009.

“The whole show is really based on the simple metaphor that high school is hell,” Rambo said. “And in ‘Buffy,’ her high school is literally built over the gates of hell.”

Then there’s the different problems teenagers face, Rambo said. In “Buffy,” a mother swaps bodies with her daughter to become a cheerleader — a metaphor of the parents who live their lives unhealthily through their child. High school bullies are possessed by hyenas and eat the principal. A girl’s nice boyfriend becomes a real monster as their relationship gets more serious.

“Whedon’s writing style is very clever,” Rambo said. “There’s a whole book about the linguistics of ‘Buffy,’ new words were invented … new slang that has become the part of the way we all speak now.”

The Whedonverse has grown by leaps and bounds since Buffy went off the air. “Firefly,” which lasted only a season on Fox, has developed a cult following since its release on DVD and Netflix. “The Avengers” all but cemented his iconic status in pop culture, grossing $1.51 billion worldwide (Whedon’s sequel, “The Age of Ultron,” is due in theaters next year). A 450-page book, “Reading Joss Whedon,” hit the shelves earlier this year, and in it Rambo pens a chapter on the final unaired episodes of “Firefly” and their themes of alienated human nature, communication, family and death.

“There’s now a massive audience of people who may only know Joss Whedon from “The Avengers,” but many may look to his other works and discover these other shows and movies on Netflix or other services,” said Rambo, who uses an episode of “Buffy” and “Firefly” in her English classes at Campbell to demonstrate drama and metaphors. “It seems like every day on Twitter or Facebook, I’ll come across someone who’s seeing his earlier work for the first time.”

Rambo presented her most recent paper at the 6th biennial Slayage Conference on the Whedonverse at California State University this summer. As long as there are other professors and fans who want to dive deeper into these shows and movies, Rambo doesn’t see these gatherings going away any time soon.

“There are numerous testimonies from people who say ‘Buffy’ made a difference in their lives,” she said. “It helped them get through hard times. The show’s message empowered them.”

As to why Rambo became such a big fan?

“I was just happy to see a good show,” she said with a laugh. “A good, smart show with a positive message where the good guys won in the end.”



English professor pens companion book to Austen’s ‘Emma’

As an associate professor of English at Campbell University, Kenneth Morefield emphasizes to students he teaches in his British and American literature, academic writing and film classes the value and practice of “close reading.”

“Close reading” occurs when readers set aside the historical context, biography, political science or psychology of a text and read the text itself critically to glean insights. “It’s just you and the book and nothing else,” Morefield said. “What can you glean just by reading and thinking?’”

Wanting to teach this practice by modeling it, Morefield underwent his own “close reading” of a book his students often read: Jane Austen’s “Emma.” The product of that modeling is his own book, “Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’: A Close Reading Companion.” Volume I will be published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing this December.

“Part of what I’m trying to do with the book is swing the pendulum back toward some of the traditional notions of what a good liberal arts education is and why it’s important,” Morefield said.

Morefield compares his book to Biblical commentaries — or works which accompany the selected text with an in depth reading and analysis of each individual section.

“The purpose of the commentary would be reading the book of the Bible [and running] into a passage where you say, ‘I don’t get that,’ so you look it up by the chapter or the verse,” he said.