Prairie Wolves in Print

reviewed by Eric Wendt

Buffy in the Classroom: Essays on Teaching with the Vampire Slayer
edited by Jodie A. Kreider and Meghan K. Winchell

221 pages | McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010 | $32

Nebraska Wesleyan University has long offered some pretty unorthodox classes. Back when I took Associate Professor of English Larry McClain’s “American Literature to 1865” course, the first thing we read was Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Though a little young for the class’s boundaries, the 1971 book was actually an ideal introduction to U.S. works more than a century its senior. (American lit is chock-full of road trips.)

But when I learned that Associate Professor of History Meghan Winchell was using the TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to teach a course on American feminism, I was still skeptical. I’d never seen the show, but I assumed she’d criticize it, asking questions like, “Do our action heroines really need to fight evil in hot pants?”

Buffy in the Classroom: Essays on Teaching with the Vampire Slayer, which Winchell co-edited with Jodie Kreider, proved there’s more substance to Buffy than roundhouse kicks in hot pants suggest. Substance enough that “more than 200 teachers… currently employ Buffy to teach multiple subjects in… religious studies, gender studies, English literature, composition, film studies, first year seminars, philosophy, linguistics, history, American studies and communication.”

In Winchell’s hands, Buffy becomes a backdoor tool to circumvent her first year students’ preconceived notions of feminism. Her essay, “Whedon Takes ‘the Scary’ Out of Feminism,” outlined her approach in her liberal arts seminar, “Decoding Buffy the Vampire Slayer”.

Before she showed a single clip from the series, Winchell asked her students, “What is feminism?”

Before she showed a single clip from the series, Winchell asked her students, “What is feminism?” Their answers ran the spectrum, but were predominantly negative. Most of her students held the view that feminists are obnoxious, abnormal, radical man haters. That’s not to suggest that these same students don’t support feminist aims. “The label ‘feminism’ scares students far more than the idea that men and women ought to have equal access to power in society,” Winchell wrote.

She didn’t challenge these initial notions of feminism in the semester’s opening weeks. In fact, she dropped the subject altogether as her students waded into the show. “My students consume one episode of ‘Buffy’ after another in the first half of the semester without associating beloved characters with disconcerting feminist stereotypes,” Winchell wrote. “The series’ tacit feminist underpinnings have made it possible for me to show students what feminism can look like in practice, before attaching a label to those practices.”

Once they came to love the show, Winchell allowed its creator, Joss Whedon, to lift the veil and out “Buffy” as a feminist series. She played an acceptance speech Whedon delivered upon winning an award from Equality Now, where he described his feminist motivations behind the show’s design.

The impact of Winchell’s approach was best seen in her students’ written responses. “Buffy essentially showed me the truth of feminism: how there is significant inequality and that accepting a woman’s strength does not make a man weak,” wrote one male student.

A female student wrote, “Now I pay more attention to the television I watch. I notice on certain shows how women are portrayed as just sexual objects…. I just think that now I do more than just watch: I actually decipher feminist ideas in the shows I watch.”

It’s enough to make this skeptic a fan of Buffy, Whedon and Winchell all at once.