Lewis Call discusses pop culture scholarship and his book “Sexualities in the works of Joss Whedon”

"...I had a kind of epiphany early in my academic career when I realized that I could take science fiction and fantasy, which I had loved since I was a kid, and treat them as objects of scholarly study..."

Lewis Call is a professor history at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Call’s research interests in Intellectual History, Anarchism, History of Sexuality, and Science Fiction Studies. After publishing various articles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other science fiction properties, Call has just published a book examining the presentation of sexualities in Joss Whedon’s works titled Sexualities in the Works of Joss Whedon. Wanting to learn more about his career and his latest book, I was able to interview Call for ScifiPulse.

Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what pop culture franchises were you a fan of? Are there any that still make you feel young?

Dr. Lewis Call: I grew up watching re-runs of the original Star Trek series.  Remember re-runs?  I became a bit obsessed with Star Trek.  It got to the point where I could watch the first ten seconds of an episode and name the episode, based on the color of the planet that the Enterprise was orbiting!  “Green planet—’Shore Leave’!”  Like many science fiction geeks of my generation, the defining cultural event of my childhood was the 1977 release of Star Wars.  We didn’t call it “A New Hope” back then; it was just Star Wars.  I was nine years old, and it was the most awesome thing I had ever seen.  So, I was a fan of both Star Trek and Star Wars.  I belonged to both fandoms before that was cool.  I’m grateful to J. J. Abrams, a fanboy of my generation who has made films in both franchises.  I feel like he has made it more acceptable for people to cross over between the two fandoms.

Yanes: As a fellow academic, I am aware that many scholars are researching popular culture. Why do you think this field has grown so quickly?

Dr. Call: Speaking just for myself, I had a kind of epiphany early in my academic career when I realized that I could take science fiction and fantasy, which I had loved since I was a kid, and treat them as objects of scholarly study.  I’m guessing that other people who are now scholar/fans may have had similar experiences.  There’s this dangerous period after you finally get your doctorate, when you wonder if it was all worth it.  One way to deal with that is to recognize that a Ph.D. is a research degree, so if you have that degree, you can study anything you want to, including your childhood pop culture obsessions!

Yanes: From a professional stand point, do you worry that this field is becoming too saturated with scholars? For instance, if a student said they wanted to pursue a career in academia studying popular culture, would you think that is a good idea?

Dr. Call: I would definitely encourage students to pursue academic careers studying popular culture.  As more and more people study pop culture and it becomes increasingly recognized as a legitimate area of study, it generates its own demand.  I meet so many students who love the idea of studying pop culture.  Many of them are pleasantly surprised to realize that this is even a thing.  If today’s students become scholar/fans, they will be teaching tomorrow’s student/fans, some of whom in turn will become the next generation of scholar/fans.  There is a group of people who feel that pop culture is becoming too saturated with scholars, but it’s not generally scholars who feel that way. It’s a certain segment of the fan community.  There is an attitude among some science fiction fans—though certainly not within the SF fan community as a whole—that fans should take SF out of the ivory tower, and put it back in the gutter where it belongs!

Yanes: Your latest project is the book Sexualities in the Works of Joss Whedon. What was the inspiration for pursuing this research?

Dr. Call: In the early 2000s, my best friend told me that I had to watch this show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  I said, “you’ve got to be kidding.”  But I watched it, and I loved it.  I was delighted to discover that there was a scholarly journal about Buffy, which at the time was called Slayage: the Online International Journal of Buffy Studies.  I wrote an article about BDSM on Buffy and on the spin-off show Angel.  I nervously submitted it to Slayage.  They published it, and it went on to win the “Mr. Pointy” article award for that year.  So I started writing more about Buffy, and about Joss Whedon’s other works.  I started going to Slayage, the conference for Whedon Studies (as the field is now called).  The Whedon Studies community is just incredible.  Not only are they amazing scholars, but they’re just really wonderful people.  It’s a family—a chosen family, which is also something that Whedon likes to write about.

Yanes: Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a TV show for seven seasons and a comic book series for five. Free of network interference, how do you think the comic book series explored LGBTQ+ themes in a way that it couldn’t when on television?

Dr. Call: TV and comics are two very different worlds. On the Buffy TV show, Whedon and his co-creators were very much constrained by the restrictions of network television.  Remember, this was in the 90s, when it was a big deal even to have gay characters.  Network executives would get very nervous if queer characters openly expressed physical affection, and any suggestion that these characters might actually have sex was out of the question.

This is why the Willow/Tara relationship was essentially de-sexualized.  At the time, it was the longest running queer relationship on TV, and a whole generation of young queer viewers found it inspirational.  But Willow and Tara couldn’t be sexual with one another.  Buffy ended up using witchcraft as a metaphor for lesbian sex, which worked OK, and was the best that the creators could do under the circumstances.  After the show finished, a lot of Buffy writers moved over to the comics, and they must have found that liberating, because now they could do all the things they could never do on television. In the comics, Buffy has a brief same-sex liaison with a Slayer named Satsu, Xander has a homoerotic dominance/submission relationship with Dracula, Willow has a relationship with a demon sorceress who has the lower body of a snake, we get the first male Slayer (a young gay man called Billy), and *spoiler alert!* Andrew finally comes out as gay.  Anything goes!  The comics allow for some really interesting LGBTQ+ representations, which I wrote about in another Slayage article called “Find What Warmth You Can.”  Sorry, that’s shameless self-promotion!

Yanes: Of all of Whedon’s shows, the one I remain the most fascinated by is Dollhouse. What were some of the unique ways you think this show approached sexualities and gender identities?

Dr. Call: I also find Dollhouse fascinating, but it’s controversial.  It seems clear that Whedon was trying to say something about the ethics of sex work, a theme that he also explored with Inara in Firefly.  Unfortunately, I think the message got muddled. Again, I think that was because of the restrictions of network television.  I have the impression that some network executives intervened in the production of Dollhouse in ways that made it difficult for Whedon to say what he wanted to say.

Let me just put on my angry nerd hat for a minute.  I don’t understand why Whedon kept going back to Fox.  They killed Firefly.  We’re still mad about that.  They killed Dollhouse.  I’m glad that Whedon’s new show The Nevers will be on HBO.  I hope that HBO will give him more creative freedom.

Yanes: While researching for this book, did you develop any insights into Whedon’s work that took you by surprise?

Dr. Call: I was already very familiar with most of Whedon’s works, so there weren’t too many surprises.  I did find a few things that I hadn’t noticed before.  For example, I had always thought that transgender sexuality was something that Whedon had largely ignored.  But he did a short run on Marvel’s Runaways comics, and when I was reviewing those, I realized that they do contain an interesting representation of a transgender relationship.  One of the characters is a humanoid alien named Karolina, who identifies as female and “gay.” (For some reason, lesbians in Whedon’s works have a strange aversion to naming themselves as such.) Karolina’s lover is the shapeshifting alien Skrull Xavin. Xavin’s gender presentation alternates between male and female, and Karolina is only attracted to Xavin’s female form.  So that was pretty interesting.

Yanes: Whedon has recently received criticism because of his leaked script for Wonder Woman and how he depicted the character in Justice League. Why do you think Whedon seems to struggle with this character?

Dr. Call: I heard that Whedon worked on Wonder Woman for some time and then finally gave up because he just couldn’t come up with a good story.  I have to admit that I haven’t seen Justice League.  I generally don’t like Zack Snyder’s films.  Snyder only seems to have one tone, which is super dark.  That works OK for Batman, but not for Superman or Wonder Woman.  I know Whedon came in at the end of the Justice League project when Snyder had to step down, and I’m sure Whedon did his best.  He did a lot of good work as a script doctor early in his career; he’s good at it.  But I heard that when the dust settled, Justice League was still a Zack Snyder movie.

As for why Whedon seems to struggle with Wonder Woman, it’s a mystery.  In one sense she seems like an ideal character for him:  a powerful, sexually dominant woman with a strong moral sense.  He’s been creating characters like that for his whole career.  I call them “Whedommes,” and I have a whole chapter in my book about them.  But maybe that’s the problem.  I feel like sometimes it’s harder for Whedon to write characters that he didn’t create.  You can see that in his Avengers movies too, although I really like those.

Yanes: When people finish reading Sexualities in the Works of Joss Whedon, what do you hope they take from this work?

Dr. Call: I like to get the big ideas into the preface or introduction, because let’s face it, a lot of people won’t make it past the part of the book that shows up in the Amazon preview.  This is from the very first paragraph of the preface:  “Ever since Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted on television in 1997, Whedon’s works have encouraged their audiences to love whomever and however they wish. For two decades, these works have consistently conveyed the message that the shape of someone’s sexuality should be determined by the form of their desire, not by the arbitrary conventions of our frequently heteronormative society.”

As I say at the end of the preface, my hope is that “marginalized sexual minorities may gain some hope and pride from Joss Whedon’s sympathetic portrayals of their practices, and from this book’s analysis of those depictions.”

Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to? 

Dr. Call: I have an article on V for Vendetta in press.  It treats the Guy Fawkes mask that V always wears as a floating signifier, a symbol with nearly infinite potential political meanings.  So that’s fun!  After that, who knows?  I always tell myself that I’ll take a break after I come out with a new book, but I never actually do that.  I’m sure I’m not done talking about the works of Joss Whedon!

Remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes, and to follow Scifipulse on twitter at @SciFiPulse and on facebook.

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