An open letter to Joss Whedon (or, “I love Buffy, but…”)

Rosel Kim recently completed her Master’s in Cultural Studies at McGill. Her writing has appeared in Vancouver Magazine, Maple Tree Literary Supplement among others.

Dear Joss Whedon, 
you’ve provided me endless hours of awesome space action during my Research Paper-writing breaks with Firefly. And in my Summer of Unemployment 2010, you’ve given me much kick-ass female inspiration (and high school/undergrad nostalgia) with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As far as depicting strong femininity, I think you are definitely committed to portraying strong women who are not just looking for a heterosexual union and domestic bliss. It’s refreshing.

But….let’s talk about the race issues in that show, because I think there’s more for me to say there.
First off, I found the Thanksgiving episode (Season 4, “Pangs”) so problematic that I almost stopped watching it. It was your one and only time of trying to deal with native American history, and while I feel you tried to acknowledge the colonialist history of America and the brutality of white settlers, the ultimate message ended up being: angry native people are bad. Yes, white people may have had a hand in making them into one-dimensional caricatures/archetype of BAD that white people must then again “tame” or “kill.” Willow defending the native American people looked like an irrational and emotional (dare I say “typical”?) woman, while Giles – a British man, nonetheless – had to come to his “rational” (aka “colonialist”) senses and tell Buffy that yes, she must kill the native people again.

I am also a little troubled by this notion of “American” ways being the “best” ways. This is repeatedly affirmed by the frustratingly incompetent/inflexible presence of stuffy British men/women and a slayer who is a woman of colour of vague origins and an insufferable, affected accent that sounds like a Jamaican accent, but 20 times slower (or, as my boyfriend likes to call it, “it’s like Joss Whedon told the actress, ‘do a Jamaican accent, but speak SLOWLY so everybody UNDERSTANDS you.”). Buffy is the most quick-thinking, adaptable and ultimately the BEST SLAYER OF THEM ALL because of her “American” upbringing of having a loving family and friends. This is reinforced by stating that Kendra the Woman of Colour Slayer’s (in Season 2) strict parents who abandoned her to her slayer training. To say that the American way is the best would be okay, if that American-ness weren’t coded so exclusively as white.

Not to mention the usual absence of people of colour in general in “Sunnydale” California. I was sort of glad to see Forrest (or, “token black man”) have some screen-time as Riley’s friend in Season Four, only to find out that he is unbearably annoying, possessive of his friend, and ultimately becomes an evil killing machine that he wanted to be all along. Big sigh.

On another note, I recently read that Willow’s character was initially played by an actress who was physically more voluptuous than her. While I agree (after seeing a few minutes’ clips of the original actress in the unaired pilot) that Alyson Hannigan is a much better actress, I also wonder about the absence of diverse body types on the show. You state in one of the special features DVD interviews that Amber Benson, the actress who plays Tara, had a more “womanly” figure than you wanted, (you envisioned someone who was skinnier for the role) and that you had to be persuaded by Marti Noxon, another producer of the show, to audition Benson again.

I’ve restricted my discussion here to Buffy because I have been watching the series obsessively for the last two months, so it’s fresh on my mind. But I will say that Firefly contains some weird Orientalist tropes as well, with everyone (who is mostly white, except for Zoe) magically incorporating Mandarin into their dialects – but we can’t seem to have an Asian person in sight.

Lastly, let me just clarify: for me to be talking about all this doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy your shows, or like them; in fact, it is the very opposite.

One of my biggest pet peeves is hearing people say “why can’t you just enjoy it for what it is?” to others voicing concern/criticism towards pop culture. Well, I totally enjoy Buffy for what it is. It has smart dialogue and emotional conflicts that many people can relate to. But what it is also happens to be problematic because everything we see in this world – our existence included –happen to be imperfect and problematic. It doesn’t mean we can’t talk about them and hope to make things a little better and maybe a little more diverse in the future. If we just stayed silent and enjoyed things as they were, we might still be thinking that blackface or yellowface was okay.

I love your shows immensely and I’m looking forward to the recently announced The Avengers movie. But I do wish that one of these days, you could perhaps feature a person (or people, but let’s be realistic here) of colour in a more complex and nuanced way without vilifying or simplifying their existence to plot catalysts, or foils to the main (white) characters’ greatness.

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