Subject: Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Angel the Series
Premise: An examination of race portrayal and relations on Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Angel the Series.
Warnings: Spoilers for all seasons, racial language, non-generous interpretations of the text.
Author's Notes: This essay entirely owes its existence to Gianduja Kiss's vid Origin Stories. I only regret that, due to page limitation in the assignment, I was unable to include discussion of her vid within the essay itself. Even if you do not read the quite possibly teel dear essay, please go and watch the video. A picture sometimes is worth a thousand words and in this case a four minute video is worth seven thousand.
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Dead Bro Walking: Characters Of Color In Joss Whedon’s Buffyverse
For a generation of media consumers writer/director/producer Joss Whedon gave a name and face to teenage angst. The name was Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the face was Sarah Michelle Gellar, a 5’2”, 100 pounds soaking wet, blonde former child soap star that would take up the role of the title character of Buffy and be hailed by critics as the face of pop feminism. Buffy, which began its run in January of 1997 and hit the status of cult success by the middle of its second season a year later, was not Whedon’s first foray into popular media or even his first take on vampire slaying. He had begun his career in Hollywood as a sitcom writer, getting small jobs on Roseanne in the late 80s and Parenthood in the early 90s, before successfully pitching the idea for a vampire comedy to Twentieth-Century Fox. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” – the movie – was the ideal parody of the often busty horror genre. Instead of the flighty blonde cheerleader being the big bad monster’s chosen victim, she was hunting him and looking good in heels while doing it. Despite having hunk of the moment, Luke Perry, playing the damsel, er, “dude” in distress the movie only made a small splash in the box office and the franchise might have died there if not for Whedon’s firm belief that Buffy still had a story to tell. And she would get a second chance, five years later, when then fledgling and now defunct “teen-focused” network The WB picked up the show as a mid-season replacement. Add a loveable cast of “Scooby Gang” sidekicks and one adorably dorky mentor-in-tweed, plus a star-crossed vampire love interest, shake a little for flavor, and the WB had a hit on its hands.
Six years and a different network later, Buffy entered its final, seventh season with a TV series spinoff, comic book series, dozens of tie-in novels, and even action figures to its name. It, and sibling show Angel the Series, also had a reputation with some fans that were less than impressed with the way the two series handled race. In the twelve years combined that Buffy and Angel were on the air only a scant dozen of the speaking part characters were characters of color – one can literally count them on the fingers and toes of one person. Only one was a main character with a person of color as a regular cast member. Only three were major reoccurring characters, with top billing in the guest credits. The rest were relegated to single episodes or supporting positions in multiple episode arcs where the show never explored the character and, instead, used the character to explore a white character’s dramatic arc instead. Even being generous with what calls a “minority ” by including the ilk of multicultural (but still predominantly Western European) Charisma Carpenter and Italian descended Robia LaMorte (who played an outcasted Romani in Buffy’s second season before being the first permanent death of a reoccurring, non-villain character for the show) the statistics still remain almost shockingly low for a franchise that valued itself on its diversity of characters. But more jarring than the blatant lack of characters, and actors, of color on the shows were the fact that when characters of color did show up they were almost inevitably evil, insane, or quickly no longer of the living (or undead, for that matter).
For Buffy, the younger and less “edgy” of the two shows, the first character of color to make it out alive and with all faculties, and body appendages, attached was Robin Wood. Introduced in the premiere of the seventh season as the new principal of Sunnydale High School – where Buffy’s once mystical little sister Dawn was starting her freshman year – many fans immediately began to wonder how long Robin Wood would remain on the show. After all, besides being the principal of a school on the Hell Mouth (the last principal was eaten by a giant god-snake-cum-mayor and the one before that by a pack of students possessed by hyenas), he was black and characters of color had a poor track record in the fan-coined “Buffyverse.” Some fans even started up a fan run community on the social blog site LiveJournal. In honor of the six year tradition of dead minorities in Buffyverse’s wake they called it Dead Bro Walking*. After the show ended its run, the community remained “[to keep] the candles burning for people of color in scifi, fantasy, and horror” and now exists primarily as a forum for discussion about race, or the lack thereof, in television genre shows.
To understand the creation of the community and the resulting shock when Wood survived the series finale, one has to go over the history of the Buffyverse to see exactly how deep the whitewash of this paranormal universe goes. Buffy began with a principle cast of four people, Buffy, her best friends Willow and Xander, and her school librarian/Watcher mentor Rupert Giles. Her nemeses, besides the creatures of the night, are in popular girl Cordelia Chase and Chase’s gaggle of giggling fashionistas that originally try to welcome born and bred Los Angeles valley girl Buffy Summers until they realize she is just a bit strange. The role of Cordelia, who would later become a full-time character and then move on to be a main character on Buffy spin-off Angel, originally went to Bianca Lawson, a black actress. Lawson had to turn down the role due to contractual obligations to do the short-lived television comedy “Goode Behavior.” After Lawson pulled out, Charisma Carpenter was cast but Lawson was kept in mind by the Buffy casting department and would later return in a guest starring capacity. In the first season of Buffy the closest one came to diversity was in character Willow Rosenberg’s Jewish heritage (the red-haired, pale Willow would, by the middle of the second season, convert to Paganism) and Rupert Giles’s seemingly upper crust English background.
The first character of significant color to appear on the show, which does not include western European LaMorte, would be played by Bianca Lawson. In the final episode of Buffy’s first season Buffy fights The Master, the season one “Big Bad,” and though she ultimately triumphs she does briefly die from drowning before being resuscitated. In the Buffyverse mythos, which states that “To each generation a Slayer is born” and that “she alone must stand against the darkness,” this means that Buffy’s time as Slayer is technically up and though she retains her Slayer abilities the line is passed on to former potential Kendra. Kendra, no last name, is from Jamaica
At the end of the season she returns with a warning that a now evil Angel is going to try and open the Hell Mouth beneath Sunnydale using a demon named Acathla. Kendra’s Watcher has given her a sword that can send Acathla back to his stone-like slumber and Kendra passes this sword on to Buffy, feeling that the more experienced and personally invested Slayer would be the best one to wield the weapon despite Kendra’s greater skill at blades. When Buffy, the Scoobies (which now include Willow, Xander, Cordelia, and recent addition Oz), and Giles set a trap for the Big Bads Spike and Drusilla, Kendra remains to keep watch as now witch-powered Willow attempts to restore Angel’s soul and turn him good again. Because of Kendra’s unfaltering loyalty to the cause and authority, the ghostly (pale) and English-born vampire Drusilla, who contains some witch-like paranormal powers of her own, is able to easily hypnotize Kendra’s mind and slits the Slayer’s throat while Kendra stands there passively. Buffy arrives too late, finding her fellow Slayer dead on the ground and her other friends missing. In the end, thanks to the sword that Kendra provided and Willow’s persistence in completing the spell, Buffy is able to close the mouth to Hell -- though she must send the now once again re-souled Angel to Hell in the process.
Three months and an angst-ridden summer in Los Angeles later finds Buffy returning to Sunnydale and a new Big Bad on the rise. Mayor Richard Wilkins III of Sunnydale is seemingly as squeaky clean as a boy scout, except for the fact he sold his soul over a century earlier and is attempting to Ascend into demonhood. Mayor Wilkins is assisted, at first, by Mr. Trick, a pimp-like black vampire who does the mayor’s dirty work until Kendra’s replacement, Faith, stakes him in the heart in order to take over his job. Mr. Trick’s major distinction is his name and the vibrant royal purple he tends to wear; he primarily provides comedic relief during his short run and we learn nothing more of his background except that he came to Sunnydale from a big city.
Meanwhile, with Kendra dead, the Slayer line must continue and working class Bostonite Faith LeHane is called to the cause. While Eliza Dushku’s Faith is not a minority – though Dushku shows her Albanian descent fairly clearly – she is coded in that way from beginning to end. In contrast with California blonde Buffy, Faith is a low class, urban East Coast girl from a bad background. Often times during their early, contentious interactions and, later, when they go from being uneasy friends to enemies, the show goes out of its way to frame Dushku’s dark features and often equally dark make-up against Gellar’s blonde hair, baby blue eyes, and baby blue sweaters to match. When Buffy briefly flirts with her darker impulses, and Faith’s “Want. Take. Have.” Attitude, both her clothing and her make-up, once in bright pastels but now suited for a darker skintone, begins to resemble Faith’s. Conversely, when Faith enters a pseudo-familial relationship with the Mayor, who chastises her to drink her milk like a 1950s father, Faith is shown to be happy for the first time on the show. In parallel, her clothing and make-up become lighter, her grooming more clean-cut and she seems to begin taking fashion cues from Buffy’s closet instead of her own. So while Faith is not an ethnic minority, the coding of her as “dark” is both obvious and intricately linked with her urban history. In that way, it seems to be intentional and, when paired with the fact she kills Mr. Trick only to replace him, it has racial undertones.
Aside from the visual coding of Faith’s “black hat” tendencies, her attitude is clearly too “dark” for PTA-loving, Hell Mouth-denying Sunnydale. Her view is that, as someone forced to have unasked for responsibilities and protect the “normals” – people who have done nothing but reject her through her life, she has the right to take the tools she needs to protect them and to survive even if she does not have the money to pay for such tools (and is not willing to bow to the Watcher’s Council, a council consisting primarily of old, white men, for funding). Though she is never shown to take much – she survives by living in a dingy motel room on the outskirts of Sunnydale for much of the third season, until her new boss the Mayor rents a high-rise loft for her out of concern for her health – the fact that she takes anything at all is morally condemned by Buffy and her gang.
In the Buffyverse Faith ultimately represents what Lawrence and Jewett call the state of “cleansing perilous cities with golden violence.” A vigilante in the tradition of Death Wish Faith is the wrong side of the right side of the fight for Buffy and her Scooby Gang during her original, S3 appearance. And though Buffy is tempted to give in to the feelings of entitlement of some sort, or payback, or reward for the services she provides the world by saving it, she resists. By resisting and continuing on her path of righteousness, she is acknowledged as a hero by her peers and her choices are validated while Faith ends up in a downward spiral and, finally, a Los Angeles prison. Even after her redemption Faith is relegated to the shadows and never fully publicly or textually acknowledged for her contributions. And when, during those post-redemption contributions, Buffy takes up the attitude that Faith once had, no longer willing to sacrifice without restitution, it becomes a textually approved, righteous choice. Even though at least one of her actions significantly impacts hundreds of innocent girls’ lives, not all of them positively, her choices are not textually questioned or condemned.
A clear double standard exists which, intentionally or not, comes down to a lightly featured, pretty woman blessedly favored and a dark featured, urban girl being consistently condemned. Like the Goetz incident, Faith’s early, vigilante behavior – while justified in the largest picture and an ultimate good for the community – is torn apart under scrutiny. The question of “what gives [her] the right” comes to the forefront and though Faith has an answer born of experience with a corrupt system that has failed to support her (though it has continuously supported the suburban Buffy) her actions are still found lacking. Yet when the question of what gives Buffy the right does, briefly, come into place, brought forth by a redeemed Faith who worries Buffy is going down the same path she did, the answer is immediately found that somehow Buffy has earned it. How she has earned it without punishment and merely through the acts of being a Slayer, the same role which Faith fulfills as a descendant of Buffy’s Slayer line, and Faith had not – and has, as the text sides with Buffy in this instance as well – is never established.
Another facet of Faith which has racial undertones is in her sexual and romantic on-screen relationships. During her original tenure on Buffy, before she spends two brief guest spots on Angel to round out her redemption arc (as, apparently, only white, male Angel can redeem her where Buffy has failed) and then returns to Buffy during the final season, she has three textual trysts. The first is with then virgin Xander, who has been lusting after the unobtainable Buffy since the first episode of the first season. Faith, after a bout of slaying that she claims “always makes me horny,” takes Xander back to her seedy motel room and energetically has sex with him. The sweat has not even dried by the time she, clad in only a sheet, is kicking him out, leaving him feeling used. This brief sexual encounter is later used as a reason to shame Xander once Faith turns to the dark side and joins forces with the Mayor.
Her second on-screen tryst is with Buffy’s off-again boyfriend Angel. In a scheme to steal his soul, as it was taken from him in the second season, and turn him to evil again, Faith tries to “steal” Angel from the other Slayer. This is shown to be primarily motivated not by her desire to have an ally as strong as Angel’s evil half but by a jealousy for what Buffy has. Buffy, in confronting Faith as the scheme fails, even goes as far as to say that Faith “does not deserve” a man like Angel even though Angel’s vampiric history of horror far outranks any evil Faith has yet committed. Later, when Faith possesses Buffy’s body for a short period of time and sleeps with Buffy’s post-Angel, farm boy, All-American boyfriend Riley, the encounter is explicitly stated to be a perversion and something Faith has no right to. Only after Faith has redeemed herself by confessing to the police and spending time in prison, is she able to have a healthy, textually approved relationship on the show – with one of the few black characters, Robin Wood. It is difficult to take all of these individual pieces in collusion and come up with a reasonable interpretation that is, in any sense, not at least tangentially connected to racial tension. In combination with the other examples thus given and the ones yet to be explored it is nigh on impossible.
What has yet to be explored? Unfortunately, quite a lot. Leaving aside the issues that emerge on Angel for the moment, which diverged from Buffy after the third season, and to take Buffy chronologically instead, the next appearance of a minority character is a black man named Forrest. Forrest is a U.S. soldier who is part of The Initiative, run by white psychiatrist Maggie Walsh and with the mandate of de-fanging the monsters, so to speak. At one point they get ahold of season two Big Bad the vampire Spike and make it impossible for him to harm humans without an immediate, electrically shook coursing through his system and rehabilitating him. Forrest is also one of Riley’s few friends before Buffy and Riley begin to date and Buffy shows Riley the light of how what the Initiative is doing is cruel, unjust, and an excuse to experiment on monsters of the night and upstanding soldiers alike. Forrest, who refuses to see the light and textually rejects Buffy’s interpretation, dies but only after being turned into a monster who attempts to kill his former friend by the Frankenstein-like out of control experiment Adam. Buffy, with the help of the Scooby Gang and Riley, is able to defeat Adam but in the process Riley must kill his once best friend Forrest, who has been corrupted by Adam. Like Kendra’s death, Forrest’s death is cited, textually, to be the result of his mindless obedience to the cause (in this case, the Initiative).
Perhaps mercifully, the next time a character of color would appear in more than a small, guest role would not be until the show’s final season. However, in the interterm three characters of colors do appear briefly and all three are significant to the underlying mythos of the show in general. As explained, the vampire Spike (sired by Drusilla, who was in turn sired by Angel back when Angel was a soulless vampire terrorizing Europe) began his presence on the show as a villain. Seemingly cockney British, though we later learn he was raised as an upperclass gentleman and poet in London during the 19th century, Spike appears on the scene early in the second season with an attitude, a plan to study Buffy’s particular fighting style so that he can use it against her, and an ever-present black duster (coat) of unknown origin. The duster, along with the platinum bleached blond hair, makes up Spike’s visual identity throughout the series. In fact, the duster integrates so deeply that when he feels horrified by later sexual violence against Buffy – violence that spurns him to pursue gaining back the soul taken from him when he was made a vampire by Drusilla – Spike leaves the duster behind and refuses, even after he returns with a soul, to take it out of storage until he feels he has redeemed himself in Buffy’s eyes. But before all this, in late S2, Spike strikes a deal with Buffy to turn over the hell-raising (literally) Angel in exchange for being able to escape with his love Drusilla, and, for a while, Spike departs the show.
A year later, in mid-S3, he returns, having been scorned by the fickle – and insane – Drusilla. Willow, an unwilling captive in his scheme to magically force Drusilla back to him, counsels him on his problems and he departs with the hope of winning his love back. He fails and returns once more in season four to, essentially, take part of the evil debauchery the hell mouth offers. Unfortunately for him, before he can do any damage the Initiative captures him and implants him with the aforementioned behavior controlling chip. Rather than be a lab experiment for the U.S. government, Spike throws himself on the mercy of Buffy and her gang to feed him blood that has been rejected from blood banks and not throw him to the wolves – or, in this case, other vampires – who would tear him apart for being weak. In time, Spike even integrates into the group, becoming a useful and active member who hunts down other vampires, as hurting monsters is in no way prohibited for him, and begins a difficult relationship with the once again single Buffy.
During the early stages of their flirtation in S5, shortly after Buffy has been abandoned by Riley, she asks him about how he came to be a vampire and, more importantly, how he came to kill the two Slayers he has the credit for killing. Broken hearted and confused by Riley’s rejection of her Slaying abilities, Buffy is worried that she, like the other Slayers, will succumb to an attack some day soon. Spike attempts to reassure her that it will not happen soon because she, unlike the Slayers he killed, does not yet want to die. In his words “Every Slayer… has a death wish. […] Even you. […] The only reason you’ve lasted so long is you’ve got ties to the world […] Sooner or later, you’re gonna want it. And the second – the second – that happens” [he claps] “I just wonder if you’ll like it as much as she did.” Alone this would perhaps speak questionably about the pseudo-rapist tone of his words but in context with the scenes interspersed throughout the episode and this dialogue, it takes on a racial tone.
See, unlike Buffy, the Slayers that Spike was able to kill – one during the Boxer Rebellion in China and another in New York – were women of color. First, the Chinese slayer who, as she lay dying from the wound Spike had made in her neck, asks, in Chinese, for him to “tell my mother I’m sorry.” His response is a callous “Sorry, love, I don’t speak Chinese.” Then, second, a black Slayer who fights a punk-dressed Spike in the late 1970s on an empty subway car. In his words, “The first was all business but the second, she had a touch of [Buffy’s] style.” The fight plays out, each gaining the upper hand at least once, until finally Spike, taking his chance as the subway car lights blink out, pins the black Slayer beneath him and then snaps her neck. Unlike the Chinese Slayer, he makes no effort to drink from her at all but, instead, takes the long, leather duster she wore into the fight and puts it on as he walks out of the subway.
Later we discover the black Slayer’s name was Nikki Wood and she, like the Chinese slayer and Buffy, did have family – a young son, Robin, who had been left outside the subway station when Nikki sensed Spike nearby and went to stake him. Robin, seemingly an orphan after Nikki’s death, manages to survive into a successful adulthood but is unable to give up the quest for revenge on his mother’s killer. In time, he tracks Spike to Sunnydale and takes the job as Sunnydale High School principal with the intention of killing Spike and cleaning up other vampires that tend to overrun Sunnydale in the process. What he does not expect is that Buffy, having forgiven Spike for his attempted rape now that he has a soul again, has Spike under her protection and will not allow him to be staked by Robin or anyone else. Despite the horrible actions Spike has committed against her, against her friends, and against Robin and Robin’s mother, Buffy feels that he should be given another chance now that he has a soul and the ability to judge morally that comes along with it. And, in Sunnydale, what Buffy says, goes.
Despite this, Robin is able to – with the underhanded help of Giles – corner Spike in a specially prepared room full of crosses and they fight, though Spike has the disadvantage given the still active Initiative chip in his head. Before Robin is able to kill Spike, however, Buffy finds them and intervenes, outcasting Robin from the Slaying group being formed to fight that season’s Big Bad, the First Evil. Robin is only able to reintegrate with the group once Faith, now redeemed, argues that his experience in fighting vampires without the paranormal strength or abilities she, Buffy, Willow, and Spike possess is invaluable given that much of their fighting force are mere Potentials – girls who have not been granted the Slayer’s abilities but have the potential to take them up were Faith to die. So, while Robin regains a grudging acceptance within Buffy’s eyes and thus the eyes of both the group and the test, ultimately, the message of Spike and Robin’s experience is clear: Buffy’s family ties are more significant than the family ties of both the Slayers that Spike killed. They, unlike Buffy, would not, did not, or could not (perhaps because of a lack of strength of will, as implied with other characters of color) hold onto their individual ties and they were consumed into the mission – and the seemingly inevitable fate – of being a Slayer.
The third and final significant guest character of color is a part which is unspeaking except through translation by the mystically calm, and very white, apparition of Tara McClay, Willow’s equally pagan, but less powerful girlfriend. This character, a Slayer, is a somewhat young African girl with her face painted in dried, white mud who is the chosen victim to become The First Slayer. Through a series of three episodes in four seasons we discover that she was abducted from her home by three medicine men during the time of early human development, when (according to Buffy mythos) pure demons still walked and ruled the Earth. Taken to a cave and chained there, the men perform a ritual which forces an equally trapped demon into the girl’s body and creates the very first of the Slayer line. This demonic ability is then passed on, one girl to one girl, as each dies, just as the ritual decreed. In the seventh season, gearing up to face The First Evil and its army of particularly primitive and inhuman vampires (from the early times), Buffy discovers that there is a ritual which can break the hold of what the medicine men did. Instead of the line being contained to one girl in all the world, the power of the Slayers will spread to every Potential. Given that this is the only way they can see to strengthen their army of collected girls and defeat the First Evil before it can unleash hell on Earth, Buffy instructs Willow to go ahead with the spell even though she knows that vampires and other part-demons are drawn to Slayers and will migrate with them (as they once did when she spent the summer with her father away from Sunnydale and consequently the residents of Sunnydale had a relatively peaceful three months).
Though we never see the results of these actions on Buffy, as the spell occurs in the series finale, an episode in the fifth and final season of Angel (which is set in the year after Buffy’s final season) details the effects on one particular girl: Dana. As a child, Dana was abducted by a serial pedophile, rapist, and killer who tortured and raped her for months before she was able to escape and was found wandering the streets, dripping in blood. Shortly after, she became catatonic and spent the next ten years in a psychiatric institution unresponsive to treatment. When Willow performs the spell, granting all Potentials the Slayer’s paranormal strength, ability, speed, and capacity to fight equally, Dana is jarred out of her catatonic state and into a violent frenzy. Eventually she is able to escape the institution. However, she is unaware of what is real versus what consists not only of her memories and nightmares but – as all Slayers gain some insight into the pasts of previous Slayers through dreams – the nightmares of many women who have been brutally killed over the years. Unsurprisingly, when Angel and his team of monster fighters, discover an active, insane Slayer is on the loose and attempt to capture and sedate her, she confuses one of them with her original captor and attempts to take revenge. Spike, now living and working in Los Angeles, is the first one to catch up with her and, as such, the one to suffer the worst of her rage.
This exchange, aside from paralleling the incident where Robin Wood attempts to take revenge for his mother’s death – a death Dana would be aware of through dreams, also visually pairs the visible representation of the First Slayer. Like the First Slayer is in all her appearances, Dana is dressed in a white, tattered wrap (in her case, it had formally been a hospital gown) and, after she kills one of the doctors, she paints her face in blood. The painting, consisting mostly of three lines down her face like claw marks, mimics the white mud paint mask the First Slayer wears and with her dingy, wild hair hanging down and her dark skin (Navi Rawat, who played Dana, is a first generation Indian-American) there is a point where she is such an exact physical replica of the First Slayer’s original appearance it is difficult to believe the parallel was unintentional. But Dana, like the First Slayer, is unable to take her revenge. Instead, Angel and Wesley, both white men from the English-speaking Western Europe (Angel’s birth name is Liam and he grew up in 18th century Ireland, while Wesley is from Cambridge, England) are able to sedate her and strap her in a bed for transport to a facility that can better contain her now Slayer strength. According to (also white, new initiate Watcher Andrew), “we take care of our own” so the help of Angel and Wesley is no longer needed as they pass Dana’s hospital stretcher from their hands to the hands of four silent new Slayers behind Andrew.
And all of this does not yet explore the single major character of color in the combined universe, the only one who has both dedicated storylines and development to himself and who is present beyond a single season. Charles Gunn, called Gunn by friends and targets alike, is a young (early 20s is the best estimate) black man who is running a vampire hunting gang in the sewers of Los Angeles while trying to protect his still teenage sister when Angel, now of Angel Investigations (“We Help The Helpless!”), and company stumble upon him in early S2. Gunn immediately rejects the help of Angel, Wesley, and Cordelia, all of whom are white, non-natives to Los Angeles, from upper class backgrounds (until Angel was turned into a vampire and Cordelia’s father was imprisoned for embezzling). Untrusting of the “helpful” intruders, it is not until Gunn’s sister Alana, who he raised from the time she was a small child in the “Badlands” of Los Angeles (“A place even the cops won’t go.”), is captured by a vampire nest they have begun to hunt that he reaches out for help. Unfortunately for all, they are too late and rather than allow Alana to continue as a soulless monster, Gunn kills her and then refuses to fully return to his position of leadership in his gang of protectors as he feels he has failed them. Angel offers him a “consulting” job until he gets back on his feet and gets his confidence back. Eventually, rather than retake his place in the Badlands as a leader, he joins Angel fulltime and little of his former home is seen again.
The next major development for Gunn comes in mid-Season Three after the team picks up another lost soul. Astrophysics prodigy Winifred “Fred” Burkle, who spent somewhere between three and five years in a demon dimension where humans were seen as nothing more than work horses and food thanks to the work of a jealous scientist mentor of hers back on Earth, is rescued from said dimension, Pylea, when Team Angel stumbles into the world by accident and manages their own escape. She initially has a great deal of trouble readjusting to Earth and no longer being hunted, though the presence of her savior Angel and his team helps her through. When she has adjusted some, she and Gunn begin a longterm relationship despite the unspoken affection Wesley has towards Fred. However, under the stress of their demon-hunting lives and very different philosophies, Gunn and Fred’s relationship begins to weaken.
The final straw is when Fred, in an early S4 episode, discovers how she came to be in Pylea and swears to take vengeance on her former mentor. Having never killed a human before, even by accident, Gunn is reasonably worried about the psychological impact that killing Professor Seidel in cold blood will have on Fred. When he refuses to help teach her how to fight so that she can overcome Seidel, she seeks out Wesley’s more willing help and they drive to the professor’s office together. Gunn is already on his way there and is able to intercede before Fred completes her plan – which has now changed from killing Seidel outright to sending him to the same demon dimension she spent years in (which is an equally probable death sentence). As Seidel falls into the portal to Pylea, Gunn delivers a fatal blow, ensuring that Fred is neither directly responsible for his death or torture. But after the incident Fred, disturbed by the lengths she was willing to go and the fact she essentially forced Gunn to go to them for her, cannot stand to be touched by Gunn and, within months, their relationship dissolves. Almost a year later, Fred takes up a romantic relationship with Wesley after Gunn gives them both his blessing.
Additionally, we see two other romantic relationships occur on screen for Gunn. The second, during the period immediately after his break-up with Fred, is with master thief and paranormal freak Gwen Raiden. Gwen, a pretty, seemingly originally upper class white woman, from the time she was a very small child, has held an electrical charge in her body so that if she makes skin to skin contact with anyone she will electrocute them. Her parents, unable to deal with their daughter’s unique nature, surrender her to a boarding school to be raised, where she is kept in almost complete isolation after accidentally killing a boy who tries to share his Matchbox car with her. Eventually she learns to make the best of her curse, using the electrical charge and her strange effect on magnetic fields to perform high tech thefts which keep her both in luxury and give her the chance to travel. In her last on-screen appearance she is able to acquire a device that neutralizes the electrical charge in her body when active against her skin and she enjoys being able to touch someone for the first time by inviting Gunn into her bed, though nothing further seems to come of it. Then, in the fifth and final season, Gunn has a brief relationship with a black legal secretary, though it is never developed beyond a few onscreen glimpses and we never learn her name.
At first glance these relationships would seem to, at least, have a more positive portrayal than Faith’s in Angel’s sibling series Buffy. However, when one considers the implications of why his relationship with Fred ended – because he did the necessary, brutish thing in order to protect her from carrying the guilt they both acknowledged she would have from the act – and the fact that Fred chose the well-educated, white Wesley as Gunn’s replacement the portrayal takes on a less positive turn. Add in the fact the additional relationships, unlike Fred and Wesley’s love affair (which was only brief because of Fred’s untimely demise shortly after consummation), were shown to be trysts and the message intended is certainly questionable.
But the portrayal of Gunn has yet more difficult questions ahead. As early as season four Gunn, feeling insecure due to the repressed flirtation between Fred and Wes and how duties within Angel Investigations are spilt up, begins to question his role in the agency. He feels that he is considered to be “the muscle” and to lack any other redeeming or useful qualities in Angel’s or the others’ views. Part of the reason he and Gwen create a romantic connection so quickly is that he does not view her as a freak and she goes out of her way to tell him that she does not desire his help because of his enforcer capacity. Shortly after Angel has textually said for Gunn to sit tight during their current crisis as “It never hurts to have some muscle on deck” Gwen appears to request help in saving L.I.S.A. (the device that will give her control of her abilities, though she presents it as a rescue of a little girl). Her exact words are “I need someone suave, a guy who can handle himself in a tight spot. [… she points to Gunn] I need him.” But even a few small incidents like this are unable to reassure Gunn of his place on the team.
When, at the end of season four, Angel and his team agree to take over the Los Angeles headquarters of law firm Wolfram & Hart, who had thus been their long-time enemy but who had recently been decimated by a major fight, Gunn is at a loss of what to do. Angel is the boss, Fred runs the science teams, Wesley does arcane research, and Lorne coordinates business meetings and social affairs, but Gunn has no place in the high-class offices of Wolfram & Hart. Ultimately, instead of leaving and abandoning his friends, he offers to undergo an experiment that will give him all legal knowledge on record (as well as an upgrade to improve his vocabulary and diction) without realizing that the upgrade is temporary. When he begins to lose the knowledge and fear the loss of respect he has gained by becoming educated (albeit in an atypical way), he makes a deal that will, unbeknownst to him at the time, lead to Fred Burkle’s dead and possession by hell god/dess Illyria. As a redemptive act he agrees to go undercover in Hell and is repetitively tortured, though able to gain some information about Wolfram & Hart’s plan to pull Los Angeles, wholesale, into the mouth of hell.
This character arc is racially disturbing on many levels, not the least of which that it gives the impression that the death of Gunn’s former (white) girlfriend Fred and Gunn’s own descent into Hell is the result of him attempting to ascend his station in life. If he did not “selfishly” attempt to keep the knowledge granted to him, Fred would be alive and he would not have been punished – though he would have been relegated to his useless role of enforcer for a firm that has special operations soldiers on hand to deal with their conflicts. In the Angel mythos, Gunn began his arc as a sewer kid, “urban” in the mythical “inner city” sense to the core and each step he takes away from that leads to some further loss. His sister, his pride, Fred, his pain, and ultimately his mortal life are all losses thrown upon him for daring to step up and try to make his life better and himself a better protector. In shades of Faith’s arc, we discover that Gunn, on the brink of death as the final credits of the series finale roll, has managed to survive through Angel’s decision to turn him into a vampire. In post-series comic book spin-off Angel: After the Fall, Gunn has broken ties with Angel and company, resentful of the fact that Angel saved his “life” by taking his soul – an option he would never have chosen himself, as shown by the death of his sister a scant three years earlier. He has decided to prove that one can still be a champion of good, even without a soul, but it is obvious, in his brutal murder and changeover of the people he “saves,” that his morals are no longer in tact. In the planned After The Fall sequel, vampire Gunn is set to become the central villain of the piece. By being unwilling to allow Gunn to die, Angel takes away an honorable, warrior’s death from him – a death that he has said he would prefer if he had to die – and put in place of it a complete disregard of Gunn’s wishes for, supposedly, his own good.
Perhaps if there were an equal amount of successful, thriving characters of color in the Buffyverse the sting of these fates would be lessened. Perhaps if the myriad of white characters had all reached equally tragic, disturbing ends, the question of ‘what does the Buffyverse [and its creators] have against characters of color?” would never have to be asked. But there are no triumph stories for characters of color in Buffy or Angel, and, as a whole, though bruised and challenged, many of the white characters – such as Spike, Buffy, Angel, and even Wesley with the honorable warrior’s death that was stolen from Gunn – have commendable, if not happy, endings. Where the characters of color fall through “lack of will,” “inability to adapt,” or purely through being unredemptively evil and thus marked for death in the often black-and-white Buffyverse, many of the white characters have the resources, support, and access to succeed and do, ultimately, stand tall in the wake of their brothers and sisters of colors’ sacrifices.
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Comments, thoughts, questions, and corrections are welcome, as always. I will somewhat that my essay's conclusion was not condemning enough but in the face of the examples what could be more condemning than the patterns that come to screen over and over themselves? What can I add to the text, or Origin Stories, that would say it any better than the visual facts do?
P.S. I know that I did not include every character of color in the Buffyverse. Specifically, I ignored Kennedy (Mexican-American), Rona (black-American), Chao-Ahn (Chinese), and Chloe (Filipina-American). All of them are potentials and, with the exception of Kennedy, have no significant arcs. Chloe is the first Potential victim of The First Evil from Buffy's "protected" group and Rona's survival at the end of "Chosen" is questionable. Chao-Ahn, before she dies, provides primarily comedic relief. Though I could have briefly mentioned each girl to support my point I felt the additional support within the size constraints was unnecessary and not mentioning them would not leave my argument open to a great deal of critique.
Additionally, I intentionally left out Jasmine from S4 of Angel because, honestly, it would have taken another five pages to detail the exact skeeviness of a black woman born from a disapproved of white union, a woman who though she appears beautiful has the true appearance of a corpse-like monster and who is brought to her literal knees by a white champion and her (equally white) own father punching in her face in. There, in fact, might not be enough skeevy in the world to explain that.
Edit: This has apparently now hit MetaFandom. Please read before you comment. For those who question my inclusion of Faith Lehane, my reasoning was three fold: one, the fact that all her relationships with white men are shown as perversions of what relationships "should be", two, in all other situations "urban" is associated with "non-white" and, three, a particular section of Origin Stories where Faith, having just returned to Sunnydale, sees Spike sulking about a graveyard and assumes -- not knowing differently -- he's up to no good. She attacks him, he fights back, goes down, and then Buffy hits her from off-screen. The shot pans from Faith staggering to Buffy standing there tall, her blonde hair and light features shining in the low light as she smiles.
Additionally, When you compare shots of Navi Rawat (who is undeniably of color, being biracial with a first generation Indian-American -- as in, from India -- mother) to shots of Eliza Dushku, I find the objection honestly questionable.
Because the fact that Dushku is not white in the sense that Gellar, Hannigan, Brendan, Marsters, Stewart Head, OR Green are white AND she's coded as urban street rather than the upper, privileged class of Cordelia, I don't question my inclusion of Dushku's character Faith in this discussion. The fact that Faith is not black is undebatable -- the fact that she is not representing minority in the Buffyverse is debatable.
I think I made a good argument here that between the coding's involved and how those coding's relate to Wood and Gunn (who are both urban and black), Faith's identification as not white is fairly firmly entrenched in the Buffy mythos. I also agree with another commenter that if they had cast Faith as of a dark color, rather than a borderline one, the outrage would have been there.
Also, the notes about Drusilla being Cockney rather than Spike has been noted, thank you. It's not changed in the post so that there's an understandability to the comments but the change has been noted on my offline draft.