Which Pop Culture Property Do Academics Study the Most?

Slate's Culture Blog
June 11 2012 4:13 PM

Which Pop Culture Property Do Academics Study the Most?

The Wire, Matrix, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

The Matrix/Warner Bros. The Wire/HBO. Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Robert Voets/UPN. All rights reserved.

Last week in Slate, Tom Shone examined the academic obsession with the Alien quadrilogy, a movie franchise that has been the subject of dozens of scholarly articles. Shone listed 24 notable Alien studies at the end of his essay. Which got us thinking: How many more papers on the Alien movies are there? And how does the Alien franchise stack up against other films and TV shows that generate a lot of academic attention?

In addition to scouring the Internet to fill out Shone’s Alien bibliography, we also sought out academic writing on The Simpsons, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Wire, and The Matrix trilogy—pop culture favorites known to have provided plenty of PhD fodder over the last couple decades.

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Who came out on top?

Which Pop Culture Property Do Academics Study the Most?

Alien/Photo by Robert Penn – © 2003 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved. The Matrix/© 1999 - Warner Bros. Entertainment. The Simpsons/© FOX. The Wire/© HBO. Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Robert Voets/UPN © 2002 20th Century Fox Film Corporation and UPN. All rights reserved.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer by a mile. More than twice as many papers, essays, and books have been devoted to the vampire drama than any of our other choices—so many that we stopped counting when we hit 200. Buffy even has its own journal: Slayage, a publication of the Whedon Studies Association (named for the show’s creator, Joss Whedon), which features titles like “Real Vampires Don’t Wear Shorts: The Aesthetics of Fashion in Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Killing us Softly? A Feminist Search for the ‘Real’ Buffy.”

The Alien franchise did come in second with 86 studies—but it just barely edged out The Wire, which first aired in 2002, more than two decades after the original Alien hit theaters. Another turn-of-the-21st-century creation, The Matrix trilogy, is not far behind, with 71 titles. To our surprise, The Simpsons garnered only 29 academic papers, despite an ongoing, 23-season run. D’oh!

We found most of the studies listed on the website of UC Berkeley’s Media Resources Center, one of the largest repositories of filmed culture in America. We also consulted Google Scholar, JSTOR, and ProQuest. We only counted stand-alone articles and essays that were devoted primarily to the pop-culture property in question and were published either in scholarly journals or books published by university presses.

While the resulting numbers are by no means exact, Gary Handman, the Media Resources Center’s long-time director and website curator, said the result sounded about right to him. “There is so much written about Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” he said, adding, “it’s bone-breakingly weird.”

While not a fan of the show himself, Handman speculated that academics were intrigued by the devotion of its fans. (NPR’s All Things Considered tackled the question of academic interest in Buffy back in 2003.) Handman couldn’t name a television show with more written about it than Buffy, though he said The Wire seems to be catching up. He also suggested Star Trek and The Sopranos as popular choices among the titles we didn’t consider. “Oddly,” he said, “Mad Men doesn’t have a lot written about it.” We here at Slate also find this peculiar.

Daniel Lametti is a Montreal-based writer and neuroscientist.

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

Natasha Geiling is a Slate intern.

Natalie Matthews-Ramo is a Slate Web and interactive designer.

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