Monday, June 09, 2008

Buffy Slayage Conference, Parti Deux

Hey y'all. I'm sitting here in the Arkansas airport in Little Rock, where we came early because we hitched a ride with another conferencee who was flying out earlier than we were.

When I last left you, I was heading out to a final session of papers, and the topic was Buffy and Feminism. The first paper was reading Willow's addition to magic as her going through a 12-step program of recovery. The presenter compared each stage of Willow's descent and ultimate recovery to one of the steps of the 12-step program of AA or NA, and it was a really good paper. I took some notes because it was a topic that interested me -- in my book, Bite Me, I argued that Willow's use of magic as a metaphor for drug addiction (or any dangerous, destructive addiction) just doesn't work, simply because her magic is actually used for good, and there's no good use of drugs that I can think of. I mean, would the world be better off if Angelus had remained soulless at the end of Becoming, Part 2? What about at the end of season 5, where Giles was gravely injured and Willow had to put the protective barrier around the hovel where everyone was? Or where Buffy went so far into herself in Weight of the World that Willow had to descend to her world to pull her out? It's where this thesis doesn't work for me. That said, I really liked her paper nonetheless, and it made me revisit this whole arc in my head. She suggested that an addiction often culminates in the addict completely destroying his/her world, and Willow literally destroyed the world around her, and was intent on bringing down the universe. I liked that parallel, and hadn't thought of it that way before. Someone pointed out the flaw of the paper, that Willow somehow finds out a good way to continue magic, whereas the essential thing in NA recovery is total abandonment of the addiction. An audience member offered the possibility of arguing that Willow is more like Overeaters Anonymous - you NEED to eat, but there are good and bad ways of eating. I loved that idea.

The next paper was presented by two women, and was called "...And Yet: The Limitations of Buffy's Feminism." The paper was superb, both intellectually and structurally. I say that, however, even though I didn't really agree with it for the most part. It was refreshing to hear a paper that wasn't a positive look at Whedon's world, despite wishing there was SOMETHING positive in it. The paper pointed out all of the ways in which women are not exactly role models on the show. In one section in particular, they talk about Walsh, who should have been a positive role model on Buffy, cut down because she's a woman. Buffy tells Giles that she thinks Walsh is the smartest woman she's ever met, and Giles, full of jealousy, goes down to confront her, and calls Buffy a girl. Walsh corrects him, calling Buffy a woman, and Giles shoots back, "Oh forgive me for choosing my own words" (I'm quoting from memory, so I could be off). The paper argued that in this scene, we're meant to root for Giles, the one who infantilizes Buffy and cuts down Walsh just because she doesn't. But I would argue that Giles, in that scene, is acting like Buffy's father, not her teacher. He's jealous that this other woman has usurped him as a mentor and parental figure, but he's also very protective of Buffy. He believes this woman isn't treating Buffy the way she should be treated, and he is trying to set things straight. I absolutely see the point of their paper -- and like I said, as a paper it was beautifully done -- and I agree with many points of it. But I also detected sort of an underlying hostility toward the show (despite the presenters having watched each episode so many times they can practically quote the entire series from beginning to end) and while I'm the first to snark where I see an opening in which to snark, I rarely become hostile. It was just not for me.

Next up was my keynote. The banquet was across the street from the university. I got in there and met Rhonda Wilcox, who I'd briefly met earlier in the day, and David Lavery, which was great because I'd worked with him as his editor on email for over a year, and it was nice to actually MEET one of my authors! He was lovely, and madly began introducing me to everyone there. Sue and I met up with our buds from the ride in from the airport, Ian and Ryan (whom I called Mark in an earlier post... Sorry. I was high.) and they sat with us.

The dinner was fine, but because the banquet had apparently been moved at the last minute (another conference in town wanted the same lodge we did, so they offered more money and the lodge cancelled our booking and took theirs. NICE.) they didn't have a podium for me. I said no problem, swept aside a few plates with pies on them at the front, and said I'll just stand here. I totally killed. Nyar. Ah, I'm kidding, I'm a really bad judge of an audience when I'm not a part of it, but from my perch, I felt it went well. I was happy. Earlier that day, I had had my paper all written up, and then saw the first keynote of the conference, and immediately thought, "oh my god, I can't compete with that!" Out of four keynotes, I feared I'd place sixth in the estimation of the conference-goers. So, I decided the only way to deal with it would be to simply be up front with the audience, tell them how daunting I found it, and make a joke or two that I knew they'd sympathize with, and we'd be fine. I rushed back to the B&B and wrote up a new opening to the talk where I filled them in on some experiences I had getting to the convention, and because they all probably had similar experiences, they were roaring with laughter (yay!), and it eased me into the rest of my talk. I'll post my keynote here soon, but here was the opening I ended up going with:

Hello, and welcome to the non-academic portion of your weekend. When David and Rhonda graciously asked me to come and give a keynote at the conference, I was flattered, honoured, and terrified. I wrote them back, saying, “You do know I’m not exactly scholarly, right?” “Don’t worry,” David emailed back, “We know that. We’ll put you at the banquet.” Oh, that’s better, I thought. Now people will be too busy eating their mashed potatoes to notice that I’m not talking about Foucault or Lacan and mirrors and such. I would love to thank David and Rhonda for having me here, and to the volunteers who have been so accommodating and amazing, especially Kevin, Brent, and Jeremy. I am so thrilled to be here; I wanted to be at the 2004 Slayage conference, but I was 7 months pregnant at the time, and unable to fly. This time around, I have a second bambino, who is now 8 months old, and I thought again that maybe I wouldn’t be able to come because he’s a little guy and I’ve never been away from him.

But then I thought to myself, look, I did my Masters in English Literature at the University of Toronto, studying under Linda Hutcheon and other theorists who always inserted pop culture references into their teaching, and when friends of mine went off to do their PhDs, I began writing books about television shows. Surprisingly (to me at least) my profs were thrilled. Linda says she still tells her students that someone she taught a few years ago graduated and wrote a book about Xena. So delivering a keynote at an academic conference on Buffy the Vampire Slayer was just too good to pass up. It’s like my two worlds FINALLY came together.

Not that it’s been easy to explain, mind you. Matthew Pateman’s fantastic keynote this morning made me think of my own problems with trying to explain what I mean when I say I write books about television shows. I’m sure you can all sympathize. I’m from Toronto, and flew out of Detroit. As I was crossing the US/Canada border with my friend Suzanne who accompanied me on the trip, I handed over my passport and declared my Canadian citizenship. “Purpose of the trip?” asked the border guard. “I’m attending an academic conference in Arkansas, and we’re flying out of Detroit,” I replied. I was remembering my husband’s advice that I don’t let on that I’m giving a talk, lest they think I’m “working” in another country and then they pull me over and want visas and such. “Are you both teachers or something?” she asked. “No, it’s actually a pop culture conference on a television show, and we’re both fans so we’re heading down out of interest,” I replied, purposely keeping it vague. It didn’t work. “What show?” she asked. Sigh. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” I said, maybe a little too sheepishly. She cocked an eyebrow, silently handed back the passports, and waved us through. My friend Sue and I were in stitches as we pulled away, and Sue said, “Well that was easy; now she thinks we’re a couple of big geeks who couldn’t possibly do anything bad in her country.”

And then again, on the plane. Guy beside me is silent for most of the trip, and then begins chatting with me 20 minutes before we land, asking me what I was doing in Arkansas. “Academic conference,” I said, and he asked what it was on. I explained that I wrote books on television shows, and this was on one of those shows so I’m delivering a talk while I’m there. “Oh really?!” he said, genuinely impressed. “What show, The Sopranos?” Sigh. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” I said. He laughed, “Really?!” We chatted for a bit about television, and then we were silent for about 5 minutes. Then he looked at me and said, in his thick Arkansas accent, “You know, if you really want to write a book about a show that would sell gobs down here, write one on Walker, Texas Ranger.”

The audience really seemed to enjoy it, and as David had said to me right before I got up, "You'll love this audience -- you won't have to explain a single Buffy reference, because they're right here with you." And man, were they ever. I was in Buffy discussion heaven.

That night we went back to the B&B (which was gorgeous, it's called Henderson House and was this gigantic mansion that was stunning on the inside. It took your breath away when you walked in the door) and all the keynotes were staying there, so we hung out on the veranda (see the veranda here) until late into the night discussing Buffy and other television, with Rhonda Wilcox, David Lavery, Mary Alice Money, Elizabeth Rambo, and Matthew Pateman. As Matthew would say in his lovely British accent, "It was fanTAStic." The air was warm, there was a nice breeze, a few people had smuggled in some alcohol... the only downside were the absolutely ENORMOUS bugs that reduced me to a squealing little girl whenever I'd see one. They're AWFUL. Rhonda said they were palmetto roaches, and they could fly (that freaked out Sue and me even more) and they're the size of your thumb, they're black, and they glide on the floor like they're on roller skates. In other words, gaaaahhhhhh :::shudder:::. I sat the entire time with my legs pulled up and my feet on my seat, for fear they'd run up my legs or something. :::shudder::: again. And then we went to bed, anticipating Day 2. What a lovely Day 1!


Jennifer said...

Hi Nikki! I hope you had a safe trip home from Slayage (I sat next to you at the Chinese Buffet we went to on Saturday). I completely agree with you about the feminism paper. Even though I could see several of the paper's specific points, the points just didn't quite add up to their conclusion for me (the conclusion being that Buffy's feminism is a limited second-wave type). But I also agree that it was very valuable to see another side of the argument represented.

And thanks for posting your keynote. It was one of the highlights of the conference for me.

Sarah said...


I'm so glad you gave a keynote at the conference, it definitely made me feel all nostalgic and weepy. :-D And thanks for informing me about the mutant bug we saw on the sidewalk -- I'm the girl who was poking it around with my shoe trying to figure out what the hell it was, lol. I remained wary and kept my eyes out for those disgusting things the rest of the weekend. :-D

Question for you -- I spoke with Ryan for awhile at the conference but didn't get his contact info; I was interested in discussing his thesis with him further. Did you happen to get his email address or last name? If so I'd greatly appreciate it if you could send me his info, my email address is

I hope you'll come to the next conference, everyone I talked to thought it was awesome that you came. And the things you mentioned at the Buffy Bookers session were especially helpful -- my dream has always been to publish a book someday, so that info will definitely be useful for me later on.

Nikki Stafford said...

Jennifer: That's so sweet of you to say my keynote was a highlight, thank you! I'm also relieved to see I wasn't the only one who thought that about the paper. :) It was so nice to meet you!

Sarah: LOL! Yes, I have many more stories about the bugs!! I'll contact Ryan and give him your address, and hopefully you two can connect. :)

K. D. Bryan said...

there's no good use of drugs that I can think of.

Well, there's always Bill Hicks' assertion that we wouldn't have any quality rock and roll without the existence of drugs. It's an argument I find far more plausible than Terence McKenna's theory that evolution couldn't have happened without magic mushrooms. :P Still, I very much like the Overeaters comparison; that's a perfect analogy if ever there was one.

Also, I love your blog! Just found you through and it's great to read about Slayage and your thoughts on TV. :)

heraclitusunplugged said...


Thanks for the kind words. It was great having everybody in my little part of the world. I was quite taken with your keynote and I'm quite pleased you've posted it.


Nikki Stafford said...

KD: LOL! That's great... but I'm still not convinced (sorry, Mr. Hicks). ;) Welcome to the blog! I hope you stick around, I loved your comment.

Heraclitus: Thank you so much for having us all there. This conference couldn't have happened without you!

John Roberts said...

The professors are wrong about the Giles/Walsh exchange.

Walsh is a baddie, through and through. Giles is a goodie, through and through. That about covers it.

The "girl" interchange doesn't reveal the secret limitations of Giles, or the limitations of the show's feminism, or anything of the sort. It's a baddie being a jerk. Walsh affects concern for Buffy by implying that she's a better mentor (and a better person) than Giles because Walsh calls Buffy a woman while Giles uses the word girl ... but of course it's 100% bull. The terminology is immaterial. The reality is, Giles would die for Buffy and is a wonderful mentor (and father figure), whereas Walsh doesn't give a damn about Buffy and is happy enough to kill her.

I am willing to believe that there are limits to feminism in Buffy, sure. Perhaps I will read the paper to see if the professors found better examples.