Saturday, April 15, 2006

Is Buffy the new Hamlet?

Historical perspective is an interesting phenomenon. When I was a kid I thought Ultraman was the coolest show going, but now it seems awfully cheesy, even by today's Power Rangers' standards. The simple passage of time allows us to see things in a new light. Popular culture certainly represents this phenomenon. It is often mentioned how Shakespeare was considered something of a populist and not all that well-received by the cultural elite of his time.

While reading a biography of C. S. Lewis (The Narnian), I came across a passage that got me thinking. The author, Alan Jacobs, discusses how the modern novel as a literary genre is a relative newcomer on the literary scene (about 300 years old) and has, consequently, had to struggle for acceptance. He says that for the first hundred years of the novel's existence, people viewed it as a lightweight and inconsequential piece of popular culture that paled in comparison with epic poetry. As such, the works of people like Charles Dickens were held to be mere entertainment and not real artistry. Of course, eventually perspective shifted and the novel is now credited with contributing numerous examples of classic literature.

I can't help but wonder if we are in the midst of a similar cultural shift with respect to film and television. How much of the negative evaluation of film and particularly television is due to objective analysis as opposed to culturally constructed biases? In fact, the historical perspective appears to be shifting already . Whereas film and television was long denigrated by academics as nothing more than lightweight entertainment, now numerous academics are treating film and television as pieces of art requiring academic study. A small group of academics are even suggesting the creation of a canon of classic television, in which select television shows would be treated with the same reverence and academic interest as classic literature. Many of these same academics argue that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the new Shakespeare. I am not willing to go quite that far, but I don't deny their point.

Steven Johnson is a science writer who looks to have written an intriguing book (thanks to Emily Dial-Driver for turning me on to it). The title says it all: Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. He suggests that film, television, and, yes, even reality shows are engaging us in beneficial ways. I hope to read the book over the summer and offer a series of reflections on it as I go. But for now, I leave this thought behind: Two hundred years from now, will people be looking back at shows like Lost, Gilmore Girls, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer with the same reverence that we study Nathaniel Hawthorne, Dickens, and Poe?


At 11:18 AM, Blogger Jared Cramer said...

Excellent post, I wholeheartedly agree that too often criticism is based on these cultural biases rather than the merit of the art itself.

Furthermore, "the new Hamlet" may not be pushing it too far . . .

Angel: Look, I'm weak. I've never been anything else. It's not the demon in me that needs killing, Buffy. It's the man.
Buffy: You're weak. Everybody is. Everybody fails. Maybe this evil did bring you back, but if it did, it's because it needs you. And that means that you can hurt it. Angel, you have the power to do real good, to make amends. But if you die now, then all that you ever were was a monster. Angel, please, the sun is coming up!
Angel: Just go.
Buffy: I won't!
Angel: What, do you think this is simple? You think there's an easy answer? You can never understand what I've done! Now go!
Buffy: You are not staying here. I won't let you!
Angel: I said LEAVE!

Angel: Oh, my God...
Buffy: No! No!
Angel: Am I a thing worth saving, huh? Am I a righteous man? The world wants me gone!
Buffy: What about me? I love you so much... And I tried to make you go away... I killed you and it didn't help And I hate it! I hate that it's so hard... and that you can hurt me so much. I know everything that you did, because you did it to me. Oh, God! I wish that I wished you dead. I don't. I can't.
Angel: Buffy, please. Just this once... let me be strong.
Buffy: Strong is fighting! It's hard, and it's painful, and it's every day. It's what we have to do. And we can do it together. But if you're too much of a coward for that, then burn. If I can't convince you that you belong in this world, then I don't know what can. But do not expect me to watch. And don't expect me to mourn for you, because...

Weatherman: Sunnydale residents shouldn't expect to see the sun at all today. That cold front isn't going anywhere. With temperatures in the high 30s, means you better bundle up if you're planning to go outside and enjoy the change in the weather.

At 11:55 AM, Blogger Ron Cox said...

I have faith that Buffy will be remembered long into the future. It is its ability to combine engaging story telling and fine cultural satire that makes it stand out. Having either one of these is good, but combining them (well) is great.

At 7:06 PM, Blogger Sermoniac said...

If Ultra Man and Johnny Sakko are not part of the cannon of fine art of today then I sincerely doubt if Buffy has a prayer.

However, I still think BOC's Godzilla is a great song.



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