Monday, October 3, 2011

Reading Buffy Synoptically: Is Buffy Really Ethnocentric, Racist, and Sexist?

Buffy has been called ethnocentric, racist, sexist, classist, and ageist by a host of academics. To tell you the truth, however, it is hard for me to take any and all of these claims all that seriously. After all, Asian Americans, African-Americans, the rich, the middle class, the poor, straights, bis, lesbians, gay men, mature men, and mature women are all represented in the Buffyverse.

The argument that Buffy is many prejudiced is, in part, that though there is diversity in the Buffyverse this diversity is in the background rather than in the foreground. After all, so the argument goes, Buffy, Willow, Xander, Giles, Cordelia, Tara, and Anya are all of the Caucasion persuasion, to quote the Black vampire Mr. Trick. I have never found this argument particularly compelling, however, for though Buffy’s main characters are by and large middle class varieties of the Caucasian persuasion they are rarely, if ever, portrayed as ethnocentric, racist, sexist, or nationalist.

Another argument that Buffy is prejudist comes from the pens of Kent Ono and Dee-Amy Chin. Ono and Chin contend that Buffy’s vampires are in some way, shape, or form representations of people of colour or representations of orientals respectively. The problem with this argument, however, is the fact that most of Buffy’s vampires, in fact, are European or American. Angel is Irish, Spike and Drusilla are British, and Darla is a Colonial American. Buffy’s vampires in fact are a pretty diverse bunch. There are, in the Buffyverse, black vampires (Gabriel, Mr. Trick), white vampires (Spike), male vampires (Angel), female vampires (Dru), young vampires (the Annointed One), and old vampires (the Master, Kakistos).

While a number of academics have written about Buffy’s supposed ethnocentrisms and predelections for whiteness the major issue that has caught the attention of most academic commentators on Buffy is whether Buffy is sexist or not. Some commentators have seen the representation of Buffy’s females and males as replicating the sexist attitudes of modern American society and have argued that the girl power message of this TV programme is simply superficial. While it is true that Buffy creator Joss Whedon has spoken about the “prettiness” of his male and female cast members though whether this “prettiness” was something demanded by the network, something wanted by Joss, or both is an issue that necessitates further research through interviews and archival research (Joss Whedon and David Solomon; Commentary: “Lessons”, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Complete Seventh season on DVD).

It is true that some of Buffy’s characters, Buffy, Faith, and Cordelia, for example, are your standard American cinema and television female eye candy. It is also true that Buffy, Faith, and Cordy often wear, particularly in the early years of the show, tight clothes and show some cleavage now and again though whether this is sexist or simply comfortableness with sexuality remains, I suppose, an arguable open question. And it is also true that many of Buffy’s females are concerned with how they look, what they wear, and with boys: Buffy and Willow and talk about boys on several occasions (“Angel”, for instance), Willow’s fears often have to do with her appearance (“Nightmares”, “Restless”, and “Anne”), Cordelia is almost always concerned with boys, her appearance and how her hair looks in the First and Second seasons (“Nightmares”, “Reptile Boy”, and “Anne”). All of this, I suppose, may be seen (sadly) as evidence that generally it is “prettiness” and “girliness” rather than acting skill that seems to be the main criteria for casting in American films and television series.

But there are problems with this perspective. Willow, Tara, and Veruca, for instance, don’t, at least to me, seem to be your standard TV eye candy fare. Moreover, one can hardly accuse Buffy’s cast of being nothing but eye candy. Rather the cast of both Buffy and Angel have, in my opinion and that of critic Ian Shuttleworth, the “acting chops” to go along with their “prettiness”. Nor should we forget that male Scoobies are as concerned with their looks and with “girls” as many of the females are with their looks and with men: Xander asks Willow and Buffy how he looks (“Inca Mummy Girl”, “Anne”) while Oz’s hair changes colour almost weekly during the Second season (“What’s My Line, Part 1”, “What’s My Line, Part 2”, “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”).

In reality the Scoobies are simply not your typical masculine and feminine television characters. Buffy is both a tough superhero and a young woman who hopes in the early years of the show for a normal life (like many male comic book superheroes) but is caught in an intricate and sometimes negative web of responsibility and feelings of superiority and inferiority. Willow is a computer nerd, a science whiz, a major “wicca”, a leader when needed and a young woman fraught with feelings of low self-confidence and a limited sense of self-worth. Xander uses humour to deflect his feelings of low self-worth, is scared that he will replicate the negative behaviour of his parents, evidences fears of homosexuality, is a demon magnet, has a difficult time finding his place in the working world, often has to be rescued by Buffy but grows increasingly buff over the years, is always there in a fight despite the danger to himself, and is the emotional centre of the Buffyverse. Giles is a polymath, a nurturing mentor, an experimenter in black magicks, and a sometimes emotionless killer. Oz is quiet, stoical, and strong yet sometimes driven by the beast within with its very emotional jealousies. Cordelia is a forthright, “bitchy”, feminine and a dedicated follower of fashion yet is tough and committed to helping the helpless. Anya is forthright and a successful entrepreneurial capitalist, yet is also someone who needs a man in her life so she can feel a sense of self-worth. Tara is shy, insecure, and very womanly but tough and is someone who grows increasingly self-confident over the course of the show moving, in the process, out of the shadow of Willow becoming the only responsible Scooby adult in the Buffyverse during the Sixth season. Spike is a tough and dangerous yet perceptive and sensitive crypto-romantic who loves deeply if not always wisely. Dawn is whiny, fearful that everyone will leave her, and into boys yet able to learn about the dark world, gain competence in a number of languages, and learn some fighting moves from her big sister. Angel is tough, solitary, and broody yet sometimes giddy, deeply romantic and deeply troubled by the things he has done in the past. Robin Wood is a tough vampire fighter driven, to some extent by his past, who is also sensitive and supportive. Many of Buffy’s men and women, in other words, exhibit both traditional masculine and feminine traits.

Ironically, despite condemnations that Buffy is sexist, the show has almost always been dominated by women. Slayers, the Chosen One’s called and built to kill vampires and other demons and monsters, have always been female and, apart from this and the fact that they are always young, slaying has long been an equal opportunity calling. There have been African Slayers (the First Slayer, the Primal in “Restless”), Chinese Slayers (“Fool for Love”), Korean Slayers (“The Puppet Show” 1009), African-American Slayers (“Fool for Love”), white Slayers (“Welcome to the Hellmouth”, “Faith, Hope, and Trick” 3003), Jamaican Slayers (“What’s My Line, Part 1”).

This diversity is also represented in the Potential Slayers. There is a Chinese Potential, an African-American Potential, an upper class American Potential, a Southern American Potential, an upper class British Potential, a Cockney Potential, a Latina Potential, a Turkish Potential, and a German Potential and, if the language books in Buffy’s living room are to be believed, a Greek Potential, a Spanish Potential, a Norwegian Potential, a French Potential, a Portuguese Potential, a Hungarian Potential, and a Malay Potential (“Bring on the Night”, Showtime”, “Potential”, “Get it Done”, “Dirty Girls”, “Empty Places”, “Touched”, and “End of Days”).

Slayers have existed since time immemorial and almost always die young (before the age of 25 as Buffy tells Riley in “Doomed”). They have been found in classless societies (the First Slayer presumably slew when most humans were gatherers and hunters), in societies where power was based on status, and in class based societies like industrial America, where there have been both working class and middle class Slayers.

Not only is the Slayer female but so are most of the current Slayers sidekicks. While the First, Second, and Third seasons of Buffy have equal numbers of male and female representation in the Scooby Gang by the Fifth season Buffy is so dominated by women that Xander laments the absence of an Oz who would get him and his humour (“I Was Made to Love You”).

This feminisation is also reflected in the representation of bodies in the show. But it’s not just Buffy’s women who show some flesh. In fact, it’s the males of the Buffyverse who are most often nude or semi-nude on the show (“Out of Mind, Out of Sight”, “Dark Age”, “Innocence”, “Phases”, “Revelations”, “Graduation Day, Part 1”, “New Moon Rising”, “Wrecked”, “Beneath You”, “Sleeper”).

Buffy is also a show where the consequences of human action are not gendered. The actions of all the Scoobies, male or female, have positive and negative consequences for themselves and others. It’s a show where the women are sometimes in frame in a “superior” position to the men (“Band Candy”, “Doomed”, and “Touched”). It’s a show where “feminist” mysticism, magic, intuition, and communalism are counterpointed to “masculine” hierarchical hard science. It’s a show in which community is as important as individualism. It’s a show in which there is no linear progression towards the Promised Land of some radiant future at the end of history. It’s a show in which males are shown in a very harsh light and come in for some very harsh criticism (“Phases”, “I Only Have Eyes for You”, “Go Fish”, “Beauty and the Beasts”, “Smashed”, “Help”, “Selfless”). It’s a show which has at least on one occasion parodied, satirised, and critiqued the male gaze. According to Drew Goddard, one of Buffy’s writers, one of his seventh season scripts for Buffy intentionally critiqued the male gaze (Drew Goddard; Commentary: “Dirty Girls”; Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Seventh Season on DVD).

Character identification in Buffy is no less simple and straightforward. While proponents of the male gaze early on viewed character identification as a rather straightforward, simple, and gendered process, character identification in Buffy is complex, much more complex than analysts have often made it. In fact, identification with characters in the Buffyverse reveals the complex character of character identification in films and television. I can only speak for myself but I have identified with a variety of figures in the show. I loved Mr. Trick’s take on the Dale (“Faith, Hope, and Trick”). I reveled in Spike’s witty barbs, enjoyed his unexpected insights into the Buffy and Angel condition, and marveled at his unconditional love for Drusilla and later Buffy. I loved the Mayor and admired his paternal love for Faith and his insights into the Buffy and Angel condition. I empathised with Xander when his romances failed and as he tried to find his way through a world which seemed at times to have no place for him. I felt as betrayed by Jenny Calender as the Scoobies (“Innocence”). I cried when Jenny was viciously killed by Angelus (“Passion”). I suffered with Buffy as her romances went bad and as one lover turned from loving male into psychological torturer of her and her friends (Season two). I felt a vicarious thrill when Buffy finally fought Angelus and put the boot to him (“Innocence”). I marveled at Giles’s sensitive and supportive “parenting” (“Innocence”). I was amazed by Cordelia’s growth from an acid tongued high school celebrity (“Welcome to the Hellmouth”) to a full-fledged Scooby, and later to an integral member of Angel Investigations who feels the pain of others and wants to, has to, do something about it (seasons two and three of Buffy and five seasons of Angel). I loved Cordy’s forthrightness and directness and hope I can be half as forthright and direct as she was. I marveled at Wesley’s growth from a stuck up, always in the way bumbler to a confident demon fighter infected by a difficult past, a difficult relationship with his father, and his own paranoia about Angel (five seasons of Angel). I was devastated when Joyce died (“The Body”). I felt Dawn’s pain when she learned her mom died (“The Body”). But most of all I identified with Willow. I felt her pain as she tried to work through her fears of nerdishness and being a sidekick (Fear, Itself”, “Restless”). I felt pride as her witchy power grew (seasons two through five). I cried with her when Oz left (“Wild at Heart”, “New Moon Rising”). I felt her joy as her relationship with Tara grew and flowered (seasons four through six). I felt her pain when that relationship began to fall apart (season six). I felt her joy when she and Tara got back together (“Entropy” 6018). I was horrified when Tara was killed by a stray bullet from Warren’s handgun (“Seeing Red”). I have constantly been frightened by a show which portrayed such emotional terrors as broken families, boyfriends who suddenly turn mean after they get in your pants, the sudden deaths of family members, and growing up.

As a viewer I never saw the Scoobies as the objects my male gaze. I never watched Buffy for the short skirts, the cleavage, or for the sex (though I am aware that some people do watch television and films for these reasons). I watched it for the human drama, the human tragedy, the human struggle, and for the art of storytelling. I watched it because I enjoy spending time with individuals I have come to care about even if they are only characters on TV. I watched it because the Scoobies had become my friends and I cared deeply for them and empathised with the struggles they faced as they grew up. I watched it because as a former theology student I cared about the social ethical issues the show dealt with.


  1. There's a pattern that seasons 1-3 follow: if you're a black character with more than 10 seconds of screen time and/or have more than 3 lines, you'll be killed off at some point. There are a couple of black extras that get spoken to by actual characters, but aren't given any lines themselves (i.e. Cordelia asking a black girl if her hair is real). They get to live.

    I think season 4 started letting some of the black extras have lines, but Forrest is killed off.

    I'd like to think none of this was intentional, but it's pretty noticeable when watching the series today.

  2. The fundamental problem with this argument is that it is a reader response argument. To show the perception was intended by the makers of Buffy requires institutional and auteur analysis. It requires an exploration of the documentary record, namely, an exploration of the correspondence between Whedon's company, Kuzui's company, the suits at WB, etc.. Given that those in English Studies and Cultural Studies rarely engage in such documentary emic analysis any hypothesis derived from any textual reading remains incredibly tentative.