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January 09 2005

Super Women: Why Buffy can't be our superhero. Commentary on "Girls Who Bite Back:Witches, Mutants, Slayers and Freaks".

Well, okay, she can be my superhero. ;-)
"You're perfectly white, just like all your friends."
She can't be a superhero because she's white?

"...any characters of color on the show are either subservient, dead, minor, or several of the above."
I feel this is a problem of media in general, but I don't see how this relates to Buffy, the character, and why she can't be our superhero.

"You're too boring."
I completely disagree.

And just a moment on Anne from "Anne of Green Gables." I've read the entire series, and although it's been a few years, this comment:
"Sorry, Anne, but you're clinging to that man and breakin' our heart,"
is not exactly true, and not a reason why she can't be a superhero.
"...any characters of color on the show are either subservient, dead, minor, or several of the above."

as is any character NOT of color, outside the core four.
Deleted. Please discuss the article, rather than badmouthing the author.

[ edited by Caroline on 2005-01-10 02:18 ]
This, for want of a better word, criticism of the show is not new. There have been plenty of articles written in the past putting forward variations of the same argument. I think the criticism is misplaced, although I am perhaps not in an ideal position to make a judgement.

I don't think I would go as far as calling the person who wrote the article dumb. She simply has a different perspective. Like anything else, it is merely a point of view, and one that is not worth becoming too worked up about.
I'm used to hearing the buffy criticism, but if the people who criticize the show spend half the time they spend bashing the show actually watching the show, they'd realize there's a whole lot more to btvs than they could ever imagine.
She's displacing her criticism of the show's casting into the character of Buffy which is why her arguement is flawed, and why none of us agree with her.
I tire of people who insist on defining others by race, gender, age, or religion. One of the great strengths of Buffy (and Angel and Firefly) is itís refusal to do so. The stories are driven by universal life issues. Ms. Allen may have race issues, but Buffy does not. Buffy is a hero in any color and her fellow heroes are a mix of race, gender, age, and religion.
I've read those arguments before and I've found them wanting. The idea that Buffy can't be a superhero because she is pretty, thin and white seems pretty ridiculous to me. The "pretty, thin and white" thing is just surface. Sometimes you need to scratch the surface a bit before you can truly see the the value of an idea.
What's particularly insidious about the kind of argument which dismisses Buffy as not being a superhero because she's a skinny blonde white teenager is that it replaces one form of prejudice with another, while creating an appearance of enlightenment

Take this quote: "If we can't find a superhero among current examples, GWBB gives us another option. We can make our own! We'll create a superhero of color". Allen's argument is constructed to imply that the only valid superhero is one that's black. That's no different from saying the only valid superhero is one that's white. IMNSHO, if you want any kind of justice then both should be equally valid.

This kind of logical inconsistency is one of the problems I have with Critical Race Theory generally.

It also helps if you've watched the show: "Any characters of color on the show are either subservient, dead, minor, or several of the above". Principal Wood was none of those things. But I suppose he doesn't count cause he was a man.
Wood ...anyone????
yes Wood isn't a girl...however the article states..
"...any characters of color on the show are either subservient, dead, minor, or several of the above."
hell NO!!!
I see you beat me to the punch biki...
see this is what happens when one does not read the full threads or posts..
This article reminds me of the Charmed article from ages ago.

And am I the only one who remembers Nikki's death (as a supposedly minor-character, who was coloured *gasp*), became a huge plot point in season 7 (well maybe not huge)? Robin Wood, Rona, Forrest, countless non-white slayers. Whether or not they died is irrelevant--it's what they did fro the story that matters, not their colour.
I know Gunn wasn't on Buffy, but he was still a main butt-kicking character and he was a hero. Wood was the same. In my opinion, the writer has no clue what theyíre talking about!
Was this supposed to be a review of the book?

If it was, the author seemed to use it as an opportunity to drag out her own views
on women in literature and television rather than reviewing the book.

Picking on Anne of Green Gables... that ain't right :)
And the first slayer was black - Nikki was black - Kendra was black. The slayer Spike killed was Chinese. So of the six known Slayers featured on the show, only two were white. Gunn was a huge part of Angel and although Wood was only on for one season he had a huge part in that season.
I just think it is a little sad when a person can only identify with someone who fits inside a particular race, gender, theological, sexual and socioeconomic mold. It sounds kind of dull and limiting. But Iím getting the distinct impression that makes me a bad person.

As far as I can tell, the only thing I have in common with Buffy is that my skin tone is within a few shades of herís. Evidently I should only admire a character who is a male of Fin - Norwegian - Cree - French - Russian - Scot - Irish - extraction, grew up in the mountains of British Columbia, is an atheist, a libertarian, slightly less than average height, slightly more than average income, heterosexual and single.

Kind of narrows the field a bit but if that is what it takes to be progressive and enlightened Iíd better get looking. Or maybe I should take a page from their book and create my own hero? My television show might be a little limited if it targets a demographic of me and Iím thinking that Nielson ratings of 0.0000001 probably wonít keep it on the air.

Maybe I should create a character to appeal to every identifiable demographic? I could probably get away with thirty or forty lead actors who could cover an acceptable rangeÖ as long as I didnít specifically state the exact nature of the person. The actors might get a little antsy waiting two years for their turn at a script featuring them but you have to make sacrifices people!

How else can we safely go about judging books by covers?
The thing is, the character of Buffy was created to subvert those very stereotypes of young, blonde, white, middle-class, teenage girl. That's what makes her so compelling as a character. Let's face it, on the big and small screen, it's always the black girl who can take care of herself, while the white girl succumbs to hysteria and helplessness (and no, I am not being prejudicial in any way - it's already been seen in a broad range of films and t.v. shows; and yes, I am aware of the exceptions to this that are out there). To what end would having a black girl in the titular role serve? Only to reinforce the stereotype already out there on the silver screen that most young woman of color are inherently tougher and more self-assured than their caucasian counterparts? That would be just as offensive to me as the author is claiming Buffy, in her contemporary incarnation, is.

My point? People would complain either way.

I have to ultimately go back not only to what Joss has said time and again about his reasons for creating Buffy, but also what the character has said herself in a particularly riveting episode called 'Earshot'. Therein lie our answers.
"To what end would having a black girl in the titular role serve? Only to reinforce the stereotype already out there on the silver screen that most young woman of color are inherently tougher and more self-assured than their caucasian counterparts?"

Ariana75 That was the best rebuttle I've heard on this topic. I couldn't agree more.

I think the author was referring to a person of color playing the superhero role that say Buffy, Willow, Spike and Angel play. Those 4 were the main champions on Buffy. I wouldn't put Wood in that category. He ultimately came off as an angry black man on a vendetta who put aside his diffrences for the greater good. All other persons of color on the show were minor charactors, good charactors but minor. This is in no way Joss' fault, its todays TV standard. Besides UPN is there any other programs on any of the other networks with an african-american as the title role?

Tv Guide did an interview with Mark Burnett or Brunett and asked him why only a few African-Americnas on his shows (Survior, The Apprentice), he said something like Americans are made up of mostly white, soemthing like 80%/20% and that more of that 80% watch TV, then something like hes not from the states so he doesnt have to abide by their social standards, but thats besides the point.
I dunno. I wonder if one of her primary points is being lost. I mean, she does say this:

On second thought, maybe not. You see, Buffy, you ARE Wonder Bread. You're perfectly white, just like all your friends.

But then it seems like the main point is this:
Buffy, you're supposed to be an Everygirl, but you aren't. Your bourgeois, homogenous world isn't as rich and as multi-colored as ours. You can't be our superhero. You're too boring.

It seems like the main point is not necessarily "Buffy sucks because she's not black" (and since when does person of color = black? It doesn't). It seems that the author is in search of a superhero who truly represents how society really is. And the world that Buffy inhabits doesn't fit that bill. Kinda in the same way that Friends isn't really representative of New York life, because you very rarely see any people who aren't white on the show. Which may be a fair criticism. But whether or not you think it should influence your view of Buffy as a hero is up to you. I tend to think that it shouldn't, but different strokes I guess...

But I definitely don't think the author is trying to say you have to be black to be a real hero.
TV and entertainment in general isn't representive of reality and I'm not sure it should be. I mean, its entertainment right?

But if you want to follow the authors arguremnt.

Buffy's Sunnydale isn't representive of anywhere in California I've been. Friends isn't representive of New York (lived there for 5 years), but on the other hand none of the so-called "black" shows on TV are representive of my myself.

I used to think it was wierd that I related to shows like Star Trek, Star Wars, Xena and BTVS. As I got older I realized the only reason it was wierd was becaused they people around me made me feel that way about it.

While I understand the need to see yourself represented in the media etc. I think its is short-sighted to immediately define yourself by your race or sexual orientation (even if thats the way society defines you). I know there's more to me than that.
This argument about Buffy I've heard several times, and in all honesty although people of color have been on the show, certainly none have been considered a main character in any way.

Wood certainly played a part in season 7, but outside of him has there really been any even remotely main character of color? Really there hasn't. There have been minor characters that pop up all through out the series but that is about it. Whether those characters contributed to major plot points or not, none got a lot of screen time.

It's not that I agree with the author, because I don't. Buffy is very much my hero and I find her anything but boring. But I get the point.

I think perhaps the error of the article wasn't that people of color weren't strongly represented, but that because of that Buffy couldn't be a hero. That IMHO is overstepping a bit.

Also I find it amazing that Anne of Green Gables was even mentioned. I mean really. Come on.
this is true sistakaren...however...
is it actually possible to have a superhero that truly represents how society really is???

the problem is...society is percieved thru the eyes of each persons own culture..not particularly 'race' culture...but who they are, and who they hang out with, thier traditions, religion,sexual preference etc etc etc...
Hence the reason we have an endless supply of superheros and the like....

it's more about the demographic....

ya wanna bit of Foxxy Brown...then hit the dvd shop...a bit of Hong Kong vamp dusting action...check out Twins Effect...(it's cute, Buffy does Chinese)...
how about some funnys...Mystery Men, BlankMan, Incredibles...

I think the author of that article was kinda on a soapbox, that really was kinda irrelevant...

yea it's true that Friends could have used a few more ppl of is based in New York
but Buff...well that was whitebread Sunnydale....

I dunno about where you live...
but here in Australia, there are very few indiginous ppl in my town however there are plenty of I just moved here from Western Oz, from a town of only 2000 ppl....and 75% were indiginous....
so...I sppose that being Buffy is in a fairly white community...that would explain it??

[ edited by nixygirl on 2005-01-10 17:09 ]
Okay, to quote: Your bourgeois, homogenous world isn't as rich and as multi-colored as ours. You can't be our superhero. You're too boring. Buffy is "bourgeois", "homogenous" and "boring"? Yup, I remember Buffy wearing the latest fashions, tooling around town in the latest hot car, and being a spoiled little rich girl. Oh wait, I must be misunderstanding the meaning of "bourgeois".

As for the lack of "people of color", I think Mr Trick covered that one pretty well in "Faith, Hope and Trick":

Trick: Sunnydale. (looks at the man next to him) Town's got quaint. And the people? (smiles) He called me 'sir'. Don't you just miss that? I mean, admittedly, it's not a haven for the brothers, you know, strictly the Caucasian Persuasion here in the Dale. But, you know, you just gotta stand up and salute their death rate. I ran a statistical analysis, (smiles) and hello darkness. It makes... D.C. look... like Mayberry, and ain't nobody saying boo about it. We could fit right in here. Have us
some fun.

Okay, so he didn't really explain why there aren't a lot of "brothers" in Sunnydale. I thought there was another quote, but I can't find it.

Finally, Buffy is "boring". Wow, I can't say that I've ever seen someone accuse the Buffyverse of being boring before. I just don't think that point/observation is even credible.

This whole argument as to why Buffy can't be a hero is just plain wrong. The thinking reminds me of an incident from many years ago. My oldest step-son asked about forming a "white student union" at his public school. The response was astounding: "My god! That would be racist!" So my step-son asked about the "black student union". He was told: "That's different." There was more, but I think people get the point. It sometimes appears that just being white is considered racist. That is just plain wrong says the half asian guy :-)
Deleted - and to re-iterate what Caroline said, discuss the article do not bad mouth the author.

[ edited by Simon on 2005-01-10 09:38 ]
Whether or not the writer of this article is right, about Buffy being not average or colored enough: that's not the point.

This is television, and television just isn't the real world.
Unless there is a specific plotline, to discuss the poor ugly fat colored world, all that television shows is an unreal world, with wealthy, beautiful, skinny white people.
That's the tv-world as we know it, and (although maybe uncounsiously) everything that's different than that is disturbing. For tv-eyes, this is a safe haven.
Nice-looking isn't boring; it's just the language our eyes understand.

The beauty of Buffy and Angel is what happens after and within that surface. That, while you're feeling safe and cosy, everything turns upside down and shocks. All these beautiful people get depressed, hurt, shattered. And you don't even know if they survive. Safe, pretty people with everyday issues. The most ordinary, plain, gruesome, recognizable issues.

I'm not wealthy, beautiful or skinny, I don't live in a nice big house with a garden.
Nevertheless, I don't want to watch a poor ugly girl in a grey apartment building, in a town where it always rains.
I watch skinny pretty Buffy in sunshiny California, and still this show has had an enormous impact on my life.

Joss manages to suprise us with a seemingly familiar format.
That's a whole lot more interesting than discussing the format itself.
No single character can be representative of all types of people. A black character only stands for one group as well. And Buffy lived in a middle-upper class suburban Californian town. Well plenty of those ARE mostly white. So that was only realism. It also took white-well-off-suburbia as a decor to show the seedy underbelly. If it had been a black neighbourhood, people would complain the show 'demonized' black neighbourhoods as scary and dangerous. Gimme a break. The show has shown several times in several ways that it isn't racist. Yes, characters of 'colored' skin die. And gasp, guess what, so do white characters.

So Buffy is boring because she's white....I always find that a bit strange from people arguing against racial classifying. If it really doesn't matter what color our skin is, what does it matter that Buffy and the scoobies were white? That shouldn't matter then either right?

Also, who is the 'us' this article keeps referring to? All people? Women? Women of a certain race?

Well overall the article is a bit fluffy and thinks it's a lot smarter than it is. As a book review, it's one of the weirdest articles I've read frankly.
All things considered, this is a tough call.

To look at it bluntly, Buffy's main cast was predominantly white.

In Angel, there was an African american character, who transcended the stereotype of being there for muscle only by 'making a deal'

The only other character to make such a deal was a demon, 'not of this dimension'

Kendra died in season 2

The son of a slayer of colour lasted the 7th season and got together with Faith, his mother having died on screen.

Trick made some apt commentary, and then got dusted.

Full disclosure: I don't live in a country with African Americans forming a huge part of our population. But I do think it fair to say that Buffy as a show talked about the universal human condition through a fairly caucasian filter. Such is life in television. But I also think the key word here is universal. It resonates because it's more than just American, and more than just white. The format to get the stories told in no way limits the stories - europeans understand the Highschool metaphor, outsiders of every colour recognise themselves in sundry characters. It's an unfortunate truth that to get a show on wide release certain conventions need to be followed (white, attractive characters etc). Joss did a lot of work in subverting a lot of those requirements, but he didn't shatter the system, nor could he, without doing something entirely different that would have been unlikely to survive a season.

Subverting the contemporary paradigm is always problematic - Firefly is the case in point.

Argue your limitations and you'll have them.
Giles (yes, that's his real name) makes some valid points. But let me put another spin on this aspect of the BtVS myth:

Buffy was born when Joss wanted to reverse the usual cliche of the blonde girl wandering into an alley to be ripped apart by the monster. But when he created the background, the setting of the series, he relied on a few cliches of his own.

Sunnydale was deliberately set up to be a dull, relatively homogenous community, as bland as white bread and about as tangy as mayonnaise. It was supposed to be a bastion of whiteness because the contrast between the surface and the underlying demonic activity would be more dramatic. I always found it amusing that Sunnydale was described as a "one Starbucks town" by Xander, but had more churches, sewer tunnels and unexplained deaths per capita than any other town in the United States.

Could Joss and crew have injected a little more color into the proceedings? Yes. But in some ways, the pure vanilla-ness of Sunnydale worked in the show's favor. In fact, they could have gone even further with it: where were the church bake sales? The town hall meetings (a la Gilmore Girls)? Espenson went in this direction in Gingerbread, but not quite far enough.

OTOH, Angel was deliberately supposed to be set in multi-culti L.A. and we barely saw any Hispanic characters until mid-S5. What's up with that?
Superheroes are not there to reflect society. If they were, they wouldn't be super and they wouldn't be heroes. The aim of a hero is to reflect how society should be, and as a result I think the authors suggestion that cooking is a superpower... well, it doesn't hold much weight. Not least because, if she thinks BUFFY is boring, how can she not find a superhero who makes hors d'ouerves boring? Aside from the fact that "Master Chef" is a particularly awesome name for a superhero chef.

Oops, I've lost my point.

Ultimately, when it comes to our ability to find strong role models in society - be it through literature or through real-life - issues of race shouldn't even come into it. I fail to see how someone who is black or yellow would have trouble relating to Buffy simply because she is white, or her friends are white. Especially when, as people have already pointed out here, black people were present in the show in ways other than subservient dead people.

Really, if you can relate to someone who can lift a car or do magic, why can't you relate to someone who is a different skin tone than you?

On a related note, simply because something does not contain people who are black, it doesn't mean the authors are racist. Exclusion of something does not always mean a dislike of something. If I were to ever make a film, there's a fair chance that I'd make most - if not all - of the characters white. This isn't because I hate black people, but it's largely because the films would reflect the life I've lived, and where I live has a tiny, tiny, TINY black population (we're talking maybe two or three people here).
I would like to reiterate what Simon said last week.
"Some people just don't get it."
And if the author of this critique wants - she can go to the PUBLIC library and check out the series by L.A. Banks about the vampire-huntress Damali-Richards who is a woman of color. This series covers everything she thinks is missing from Buffy.
Buffy was great as a female "superhero."

The Buffyverse was kind of amazingly homogenous, as I mentioned when I moaned and groaned so charmingly (yes, it was charming, I tell you!) about Faith's last name being another British Isles name. I doesn't put me off the show at all - I mean, the show is so much more than that. But it is kind of odd. Even the very exotic-looking Iyari Limon had the unlikely first name of Kennedy. Just . . . strange.

BUT, back to the point: Buffy was a wonderful superhero. She went through what all women go through, except in an extremely dramatized style. And she emerged from it a strong, independent woman. She kicked butt, and in the end, her happiness didn't depend on having a particular guy (or any guy) in her life, and her life ahead was her own to determine, despite the fact that others had tried to predetermine what/who she should be.

This stuff - it's true and it works, even if everyone is white, blue-eyed, blonde, with the last name Smith - or even if everyone is Asian, brown-eyed, black-haired, with the last name Lee. It's human stuff.
Kennedy. We forgot Kennedy. Whatever you think of that character - she was probably one of the first (if not the first) latina lesbian action hero on TV. The fact that she called Kennedy and was apparently British (wtf?) is a bit of cognitive dissonance I can forgive.

I doubt I'd make a film with any african-americans in it at all cause in sunny ol' australia, we have very few africian-americans. I've got heaps of Indian friends though. Why doesn't Buffy represent them?

[ edited by biki on 2005-01-11 00:51 ]
Don't think Kennedy was supposed to be British; didn't she refer to her big house and private school upbringing in the Hamptons somewhere in S7?

And I just want to add that I've enjoyed reading the mostly very thoughtful comments on this issue, which I believe is a failure at a studio level (to actively seek out, sponsor, promote, hire, etc. more writers, actors, and creators of color - because G-d knows, they're out there, and those stories are every bit as compelling as those we currently see on TV, just as we've come to understand that literature written in English by people from all over the world can be every bit as beautiful, elegant, and cultured as that produced by people in Oxford, England, or Cambridge, Mass.), not at a show level.

I understand the writer's criticism of BtVS in this light; that is, as criticism of TV programming in general in its representation of the other. As many have pointed out above, it makes little to no sense to criticise Buffy itself for what it is not, just as it would make no sense to criticise "Pride and Prejudice" for not properly addressing the problems of the working poor, or "White Teeth" for not addressing the issues of Scottish separatism. The most universal themes are often conveyed in the most specific of settings, here, middle-class white people in a fictional Southern California town.

Must agree with cjl about AtS, however. The L.A. of Angel looks rather like the New York of Woody Allen; except that it doesn't have the excuse of being confined to the Upper East Side in its narrative.
Yes, Kennedy's family had a place in the Hamptons. It was part of her "I'm a brat" speech...
Well, the Kenny issue then raises the question of representation vs authenticity. In Australia, we had a show called 'Wildside' (utterly brilliant btw) which had a Aboriginal actor play a greek(!). While some were critical of how the show 'hid' the actor's Aboriginality others saw it as a victory: Aboriginal actors were no longer confined to playing only Aboriginals. A similar argument could be made for Kennedy.

OTH, I agree with what Sodding has said :)
This is why there was absolutely NO suspense about whether or not Principal Wood was evil in the seventh season: after all the flak "Buffy" got for being "racist" (i.e., featuring mostly white characters) they were going to make a black character evil? Right.

I hate when plot points are determined by howling pressure groups (another case in point: Willow & Kennedy)...
Kennedy was a necessary part of Season Seven; it wasn't a result of pressure groups. And I'd argue Wood wasn't either.

Having said that, I hate Kennedy. Hate, hate, hate. And I never hated anything in Buffy or Angel.

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