Final Year Dissertation

Keep your friends close: a deconstruction of the whiteness of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Table of Contents

Keep your friends close: a deconstruction of the whiteness of Buffy the Vampire Slayer 3

Prototypical whiteness in Buffy the Vampire Slayer 8

Whiteness, Hybridity and the Gothic. 13

Exploring whiteness and difference in Buffy. 18

The hybrid-through-choice, or flouting prototypical whiteness in Buffy. 23

Conclusion. 26

Bibliography: 28

 

 

Keep your friends close: a deconstruction of the whiteness of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

By the nineties, US teen television had developed to address the most pressing and controversial issues faced daily by teenagers, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which hit screens in 1997 and ran for seven seasons, is at once like and unlike others in the teen drama tradition. Buffy is similar to other popular nineties shows like Beverly Hills, 90210 in that the series opens with an outsider being introduced to an alien community and subsequently follows the daily trials and tribulations of a group of high school students. While characters in Beverly Hills and other shows such as Dawson’s Creek faced dilemmas which are socially taboo and potentially life changing, “nothing truly dire ever happened directly to the 90210 teens”.[1]

Buffy the Vampire Slayer certainly retains many of the features of this style of programming. Its accessibility to its intended viewership stems from its superficially recognisable concept, particularly as its setting is the outwardly innocuous, harmless-sounding Sunnydale, a fictional Californian suburbia which is almost hyper-normal in is adherence to media convention. It is a fairly small ‘one Starbucks town’ (1.1), populated by the white middle class and leaves nothing more for its inhabitant teens to do than negotiate and re-negotiate their insular social order.

In Buffy, however, the familiar threats and perils of the high school pecking order, sex, relationships and fitting in are amplified and extended by genuine mortal peril. In Buffy, facing your demons is a literalised experience and everyday, mundane teenage fears are represented in the demons which rise from Sunnydale’s Hellmouth, situated precisely under the town’s high school, meaning high school is literally hell on earth.

Magee introduces Beverly Hills, 90210 as a drama that “helped create the ‘teen genre’”[2], from which followed an influx of shows that “examined realistic problems such as peer pressure, teen pregnancy, drugs and cheating”[3]. Uprooted from the established positions they held in their original homes before their move to a new setting, a protagonist like Beverly Hills’ Brenda Walsh, and indeed Buffy, finds herself on the peripheries of a new community where she “must negotiate a history and a social structure with which she is unfamiliar”.[4] While Buffy is integrated into Sunnydale high’s social system,  the position she occupies is one of the more marginalised group. She thus associates with people possessing the conventional character tropes with limited social capital; academically minded Willow and class clown Xander. Bolte emphasises that Buffy’s life on the margins of Sunnydale high is an “exiled” social position, and is highlighted by the rhetoric surrounding Buffy’s scared duty. She is ‘the chosen one’ who ‘alone must stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness’.(1.1-1.12) This is a sense captured in the final image of a montage played at the start of every episode throughout season one, and the final image, a close up of Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy “solidif[ies] this central plot point – Buffy is, inherently, alone“[5]. Positioning Buffy as a cultural exile, Bolte suggests life on the margins has with it the power to “critique… the world differently and more cogently than a perspective originating within the established social structure.”[6] It is striking that in her discussion of the (albeit empowered) cultural exile, Bolte pays no particular attention to Sunnydale’s locale and predominantly white population, though this is perhaps because the narrative throughout the show’s seven seasons infrequently if ever looks beyond its comfortable-yet-uncomfortable white suburbia. Although Buffy boasts many important subversive qualities – such as the presentation of a petite, blonde female protagonist who has at once the will to shop and socialise as well as the strength to protect the earth, or the deliberate encouragement to question authority and the establishment by presenting law enforcers and politicians as demons – it is also unavoidably playing straight into the hands of “teen/youth orientated programming that overwhelmingly emphasise[s] Western, capitalist, middle class values and ideologies”[7].

Cynthia Fuchs opens her essay on race and displacement in Buffy with a quotation from George Lipsitz: “Whiteness is everywhere in U.S. culture, but it is very hard to see”; whiteness’ iniquitousness is a product of its dominance and is precisely why it is synonymous with ordinariness. If whiteness is invisible and ordinary, it follows that non-whiteness is marked and ‘othered’, and certain episodes, such the season four Thanksgiving special, where the demon element of the episode is the spirit of California’s indigenous Chumash people, have received criticism. Dominic Alessio argues that ‘it appears that the issue of “race” in BVS [Buffy the Vampire Slayer] remains one demon that Buffy can’t deal with”[8], which perhaps comes about because race is simply unmentionable. Bhabha is particularly applicable to this specific episode which is essentially about the colonisers handling of the colonised: he writes about “the repeated hesitancy afflicting colonialist discourse when it complicates its discriminated subjects”, often because the necessary discriminations required to legitimise colonial authority are not always concrete, for example, in cases of cultural hybridity.[9] An idea from Bhabha which is applicable to ‘Pangs’ is the preoccupation of the dominant with ‘sign of difference’ from ‘the universal symbol of Englishness”[10], or Westernness in general. In ‘Pangs’, this is realised by the Chumash spirits’ performance of “Otherness” from a white perspective, making them ‘a threat and unknowable’ to the Scoobies and meaning they ‘have to be eradicated like other monsters.’[11]

Buffy is even more the picture of middle-class, white, Western normalcy when one considers the very limited recurring exceptions to an all-white cast. One exception is Kendra, a vampire slayer played by Bianca Lawson who is accidentally triggered when Buffy is momentarily dead in ‘Prophecy Girl’, but who is killed off by the end of season two. Another notable exception is Mr. Trick, a malevolent vampire in the service of the Mayor, and finally Robin Wood, the son of a late vampire slayer killed by Spike and Sunnydale High’s principal in season seven (though not killed off, Robin sustains a near mortal injury at the end of the final episode ‘Chosen’ and it is unclear as to whether he died off-screen). Particularly referring to Kendra, Lynne Edwards interprets the highly infrequent insertion of solitary non-white characters into a very white scene as a casting decision imbued with tokenism and as a means “to infuse the show with a sense of cultural currency”.[12] This cultural currency is illustrated by Kendra’s cultural difference, which is realised by Kendra’s accent, her animalisation and cultural alienation. In ‘What’s My Line? Part 1’, (2.10) Kendra’s onscreen appearances often coincide with a tarot card depicting a leopard which invites her to be interpreted as one of the episode’s deadly assassins of The Order of Taraka; she is also presented as being ill equipped to conduct herself in modern Western civilisation which contributes to her position as a cultural outsider.

I would therefore suggest that, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it is not particularly productive or sensitive to dub Buffy and her friends ‘cultural exiles’ while non-white communities are actually exiled from the cast and the majority of the series’ plotlines. The spirits of the Chumash simply become another demon to slay, while Kendra, taken from her community as a child to train as the slayer is ‘the ultimate “other” who does not belong in either the black community from which she comes or the white society to which she aspires’[13]. Her quest for legitimacy in the Scooby gang is a failed one, denied to her “because of the threat she poses to Buffy’s identity as the [only] slayer”[14]. The gang’s inability to accept Kendra cannot solely result from the threat she poses to Buffy’s “chosen” slayer identity however. The only transgression she commits against the Scoobies is her struggle to get to grips with their slang, whereas Faith, the white slayer who replaces Kendra, “is at first more readily accepted than Kendra”[15] despite having committed a murder for which she showed no remorse, and having enlisted herself in the service of the demonic Mayor Wilkins in season three.

Prototypical whiteness in Buffy the Vampire Slayer     

If Blackness is marginalised in Buffy, what are we to make of its treatment of whiteness? Cynthia Fuchs suggests, contrary to its dominance from which rises its normalness, invisibility and immunity to critique, that whiteness in Buffy is “anything but transparent”, arguing instead that whiteness is self-consciously investigated “as a cultural construction by presumption, by parody, by metaphor, and, occasionally, as with the First Slayer, by contrast”[16]. While I agree that  Buffy’s “hackneyed iconography of [white] youth culture”[17] stereotypes teen life to the point of critique, characters’ deviations from prototypical whiteness usually result in a punishment in some form which worryingly suggests that this cultural template, while in some ways deconstructed, is also unavoidably revered. To illustrate this point, I will suggest that dedication to a social group or others in general (for example in acts of altruism), modernity and heteronormativity are some of the traits that are crucial to the prototypical whiteness of the Scoobies.

I have already explored Sunnydale High’s very rigid social structure, deviating from which leads to dire consequences. Although Cordelia and her comrades are privileged by this system while Buffy and the Scoobies are ostracised, everyone has a social group to stick to. Isolation is for characters like Kendra, the First Slayer and Angel, while non-friendship group systems, usually consisting of a ringleader and followers, are for vampires like Spike and his cronies throughout season two, or Glory and her minions in season five. The dangers of total white isolation are manifested in ‘Out of Mind, Out of Sight’ (1.11), in which a consistently slighted student becomes invisible since she is not perceived as existing. Buffy’s need to isolate herself following a disastrous confrontation with Angel at the end of season two is interpreted as a transgressive and selfish act by her peers; ‘You ran away,’ Xander tells her in ‘Dead Man’s Party’, ‘you abandoned your post, your friends and your mom’, and later, ‘taking off like you did was incredibly selfish, and stupid’ (3.2). Her friends’ collective and individual anger in response Buffy’s willingness to break up the group and choose isolation proves that they rely on the group in some way, be that in the way of stability, comfort, or a reinforcement of (white) identity. Although her decision to leave Sunnydale was perfectly valid, her friends never come around to her point of view, as even at the end of ‘Dead Man’s Party’, Willow is still jokingly calling her a ‘quitter’ (3.2).

Being at the cutting edge of modernity in various ways is integral to Sunnydale life right from episode one. Buffy is grilled by Cordelia to test her legitimacy for participation in the dominant social group:

 

CORDELIA:           Of course, we do have to test your coolness factor…                                   [L]et’s see. Vamp nail polish?

BUFFY:                 Um, over?

CORDELIA:           So over.  James Spader?

BUFFY:                 He needs to call me!

CORDELIA:           Frappacinos?

BUFFY:                 Trendy, but tasty.

CORDELIA:           John Tesh?

BUFFY:                 The devil. (1.1)

 

The allusion to and rejection of ‘vamp’ nail polish is perhaps a subtle nod towards Buffy covering up (and in many ways, particularly in ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth, dismissing) her connection to the archaic and vastly old-fashioned world of vampires and demons with their Latin incantations and candle-lit crypts. But, more than this, the girls’ dialogue cements their culture’s deep affinity with material culture and newness, something that is difficult to reconcile with an affiliation with the demon world.

Finally, with whiteness as the dominant cultural category comes dominance in other forms; in the case of sexuality, Sunnydale experiences heterosexuality almost exclusively. Buffy and her friends’ view of sex is entirely heteronormative, as she and her friends remain clueless to Willow’s blooming relationship with Tara in season four. After Willow’s ex-boyfriend Oz’s return to Sunnydale in ‘New Moon Rising’, Buffy is curious to know what Willow will decide to do:

 

WILLOW:     It’s complicated.

BUFFY:        Why complicated?

WILLOW:     It’s complicated… because of Tara.

BUFFY:        You mean Tara has a crush on Oz? No, you- oh. Oh,                                     um…(3.19)

 

Buffy’s instant conclusion that Tara must have a romantic interest in Oz, despite never having spoken to him, suggests how rigidly heteronormative her world is. She is visibly uncomfortable with having that world challenged; as well has her speech being stilted and unarticulated, she physically gets up from Willow’s bed and moves around the room, putting distance between herself and Willow while the camera pans to follow her movements, placing the focus on her reaction.

More specifically, for the whites of Sunnydale, the decision to have sex is not something to be taken lightly. It is necessarily agonised over, particularly for the girls. When Buffy’s slip of the tongue in ‘Surprise’ suggests to Angel she wants to spend the night with him, Buffy is in a quandary:

BUFFY:        Willow, what am I gonna do?

WILLOW:     What do you want to do?

BUFFY:        I don’t know, I… I mean want isn’t always the right                                    thing to do. To act on want can be wrong.

WILLOW:     True.

BUFFY:        But, to not act on want… What if I never feel this way                                again? (2.13)

 

This exchange seems to endorse the notion that (particularly female) virginity is precious, ought to be preserved and, once “taken” in a heterosexual sex act, fundamentally changes a person. It also suggests that sex must only be had in a loving relationship context, with the intention that the current sexual partner will be the only. In the demon world, sex means something different entirely; rather than it being a declaration of something meaningful, ’[t]hey get off on hurting one another, giving and receiving sexual pain.’[18]

Justine Larbalestier explores the different treatment of sex between the human and demon worlds. For (white) humans, “[r]eal sex is heterosexual, penetrative sex”[19]. When Angel (who, while in possession of a soul, plays the part of human) and Buffy have sex for the first and only time, “[f]irst they tell each other, ‘I love you’, then they kiss… Their faces descend out of frame, cut to white out’.[20] Similarly, Buffy’s sex with Riley is ‘[v]ery vanilla’ being ‘almost always in bed’ with ‘rolling around in sheets’[21]. Consensual, loving, pain-free sex should be the right kind of sex for Buffy, but with Angel, sex brings the return of Angelus; with Riley, sex happens without love on her part, and in season six, sex with Spike in ‘Smashed’, ‘a gorgeously choreographed fight that literally brings the house down’[22], leaves Buffy ‘disgusted with [her]self’ (6.10). Furthermore, sex with Spike transforms the prototypically white identity that she longs to uphold into something far more monstrous, also breaking the whiteness rule of social connection as it ‘eras[es] her connection to her friends’[23] but, more than that, is yet another in a long list of examples that sex is never right for Buffy.

Returning to Bolte’s investigation into Buffy’s status as a cultural exile, I would argue that this is problematic for two reasons; that no reference is made to Buffy’s very limited representation of non-white demographics and that the Scoobies are not exiled at all, but take up an inevitable and legitimate, albeit marginal, part of Sunnydale High’s social system. Furthermore, instances of the Scoobies’ exile and isolation sometimes occur within their own outsider exile group, and often arise from flouting a prototypically white identity.

My analysis of race will aim to investigate whiteness in Sunnydale by examining human whites against displacement of colonial fears of the racial and gothic hybrid back into the white subject, in the form of the white demon figure – hybrids who are at once wolf and human, demon and human, witch and human, living and dead – with the idea that these fears originate in the white subject. The prototypical whiteness discussed here will be used as a point of reference throughout this paper as white society and white identity is examined. Fuchs argues that Buffy’s (and as I will suggest other characters’) difference to her adversaries is complicated “as even the demons and vampires in the series tend to be white”[24]. What if it doesn’t mark out their difference, but their sameness?

 

Whiteness, Hybridity and the Gothic

As highlighted by Broeck, the postcolonial notion of hybridity is often written on by white academics as ‘a freshly convenient term for the white West’s seductive other” without contributing to a deconstruction of whiteness and white responsibility in creating hybridised identities’[25]. Discourses of hybridity are often authored by such white academics, which only mirrors the complicity whites, have and still have in the production of racially hybridised identities. When “we”[26], the white western population, deconstruct hybridity, we “cut [it] loose from any referential grounds” to produce “a signifier for an effort to articulate the intellectual and psychic gains for ‘ourselves’”[27]. While the white “we” may be at liberty to practice a literary discussion of hybridity, it is not necessarily the chosen identity of those “we” see it applying to. Considering the academic privilege I have, how can I write about the hybrid body as degenerate without being complicit in the echoes of nineteenth century discourse? How can I avoid being guilty of, in examining the processes of ‘othering’, maintaining the Western cultural norm as “the natural, inevitable, ordinary way of being human”?[28]

The notion of hybridity has, in recent decades, been fairly consistently considered one of the ‘specific set[s] of practices that are grounded in the discursive and material effects of the fact of colonialism[29]”. In postcolonial studies, it conventionally explores instances of ‘double heritage’, ‘roots in two or more cultures’[30]. An idea arising from an instance, be it one of identity or text, of ‘intercultural transfer’[31], hybridity is often characterised by a ‘jumbled state of identity’, thus realised as a “liminal space, in-between the designations of identity”[32]; hybridity thus has the enticing potential to provide a way out of binary thinking”[33] and provide a location where “fixed identities based on essentialisms are called into question.”[34]

Hybridity is also a concept which necessitates delicate handling; as discussed above it “cannot be metaphorically transferred into other cultural realms unproblematically” due to “the potential meaning of degeneracy carried involuntarily by the term hybridity.”[35] This limits the possibility of discussing hybridity as a notion if the term is appropriated, however benevolently, to mean the degenerate ‘Other’ as dominant racist and colonial narratives of white disgust of racial impurity are reinforced. Rather than using “hybrid” to discuss the degenerate product of cultural mixing, the white demon-human hybrids in Buffy are more the site of cultural intensification as social identities, traits and systems perpetuated by human whites individually and collectively are amplified in vampires and other demons since the perpetual existence of demons beneath the town suggests the underlying depravity of Sunnydale’s white population. Many of the human crises which become the plotlines in episodes of Buffy are also manifested in (white) hybridised monsters; in ‘The Witch’ (1.3), the pushy, pressurising mother who wants to live vicariously through her child literally does so when student Amy’s mother switches bodies with her; in ‘Go Fish’ (2.20) Sunnydale High’s swim team coach abuses his power, forcing the students to train too hard and take drugs that transform them into swimming demons; in ‘Surprise’(2.13) the narrative drummed into teen girls to deter them from sex becomes a reality as sex with Buffy strips Angel of his soul, restoring him to his former sadistic self.

Be that as it may, the hybridised being is by no means only a subject of postcolonial studies; though still relating to some post-colonial readings, it appears frequently in texts and identities as a Gothic motif, which is a more appropriate application of hybridity to this particular subject. Representing a demonic entwining of animal and human selfhood, the Gothic hybrid ‘violate[s] the dividing-line between human beings and other animals’ and challenges the humanist notion of “the embodied subject… whose authority is supposedly guaranteed by a unified and immutable form[36]”. The equivocal hybrid form that is at once one thing and another also confirms the anti-humanist principle that monstrosity has no fixed form, “despite its persecutors’ attempts to frame it as conclusively evil.”[37] Humanist essentialisms are further called into question by the ‘humane’ hybrid discussed by Birrer. For her, hybrids such as werewolves – in particular the medieval werewolf Alphonse and Oz of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – are humane in both senses of the word in that they are “possessed… of “human nature”, [and] of “human reason” and, referencing Raymond Williams’ Keywords, “kind, gentle, courteous [and] sympathetic”[38]. The idea of the humane hybrid, the benevolent monster, complicates the duty of Buffy, with the help of her friends, to “stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness” (1.1). The group’s insistence that Angel ‘is a vampire but he’s good’ (2.10) (on the whole) secures his humanity, but the ethics of slayage are not really called into question until Season four and the introduction of the Initiative.

Oz is presented as one of the most humane characters in the sense that he is benevolent and compassionate, whether he is willing to put himself on the line and be ‘referee guy’ when his friends are fighting (3.2) or be an active part of a vigilante-style group whose participants act as the guardians of the chaotic alternate Sunnydale created in ‘The Wish’ (3.9). It is fitting, then, that he should become central in the debate about the ethics of demon-slaying in season four. As a half human, half wolf hybridised being, he is ‘a walking performative contradiction’[39] of the Initiative ideology instilled in Riley, whose attitude towards the existence of demons is deeply rooted in the binary notion that all humans are good and should be protected, while demons are little more than entities fit only for bagging, tagging and extermination. Buffy attempts to highlight issues with Riley’s perception by suggesting his view is to place beings in the polarised categories of ‘demons bad, people good’, using simple language to illuminate the fact that his opinion is purely based on essentialisms which are not reasonably quantified or explored (4.19). Riley, as “Mr. Initiative”, instead defends his principles, an act which supports his statements in an earlier episode that he ‘[is] how they trained [him]’, and that ‘in the military, you learn to follow orders, not ask questions’ (4.13).

The Initiative, I would suggest, can productively be read as a critique of humanist principles; though it champions the freedom and safety of humans by trying to flush their world of evil, ‘humanist conceptions of universality’ have also brought about ‘the marginalisation, if not outright rejection or attempted eradication, of the differences rooted in gender, sexuality, class, race, ethnicity and nationality’[40]. When Riley’s confidence in the Initiative is shattered by their unethical treatment of Oz in the interests of ‘the greater good’ (4.13), his own freedom to speak, question and criticise the Initiative’s operations is denied and ultimately results in his eradication from the team, just as Buffy’s questions resulted in Professor Walsh’s attempted annihilation of her.

In the Buffyverse, an organisation founded strictly on humanist principles is one that grants the humanity of those who are strictly and completely human, but also compliant. By calling the Initiative into question, Buffy criticises ideologies that uphold a binary perception of the world, and comes out in defence of the demonic yet benevolent or harmless hybrids such as Oz, Spike and Angel. The Initiative also opens up the potential for a productive dialogue on antihumanism and race, but the debate is instead focussed on a whitewashed exploration of the ethical treatment of fantastical species. However, it does reveal the malevolence at the core of the supposed humanity of a white-dominated government organisation, causing the viewer to ask if the demons are the “hostiles” locked in cells, or the people carrying out unethical experiments on them.

 

Exploring whiteness and difference in Buffy

Both the gothic dimension of hybridity and its colonial sense are explored by Hammack in her essay on nineteenth century manifestations of hybridity; she presents Bertha Mason of Brontë’s Jane Eyre as one of the ‘best-known images of bestial hybridity’[41]. When confronted with Rochester’s Creole bride, Jane cannot align her perception of Bertha with any completely human category and Bertha thus becomes a “clothed hyena” who “snatched and growled” (384) rather than spoke. When Jane likens Bertha to “the foul German spectre, the Vampyre” (372)she illustrates the antithesis of colonial fear and desire conventionally projected on the cultural hybrid: vampirism is unavoidably pent up with manifestations of animalistic sexual license which strike both temptation and dread in every period and culture populated by Vampire myth, accompanied by the allure of the “seductive and charismatic façade” which conceals the “the intellectual and moral aberrations” beneath.[42]  Quoting Marchlow, Hammack notes the oft detected resemblance between the hybrid monster and the mixed race person and the threats to human – and racial – purity they pose[43], yet in distancing oneself from the colonial other the origin of the sexual and moral depravities embodied by them is revealed to be the white subject; throughout Jane Eyre Bertha’s confinement, pacing and struggle against Rochester is mirrored by Jane’s. Jane’s fears of the degenerate Bertha originate within herself, the white subject, as she too has been called ‘a wild animal’ for her temper and rage. The vampire’s whiteness brings forth the degeneracies which have for so long been located as spate and ‘other’ than whiteness. In this sense, the overwhelmingly white demon population of Sunnydale brings this mixture of colonial and gothic anxieties of hybridity even closer to home, making the need to establish the difference between vampire and human populations even more pressing.

The above argument works to reinforce my attempt to refer to the notion of hybridity with the goal of exploring how the fears once embodied by the colonial hybrid subject are manifested in the white monstrous body. Brontë’s use of the gothic doppelgänger to twin the experiences of Bertha and Jane serves to suggest the location of these colonial fears and desires originates in the white subject; the hybridised being bent on sucking the life out of its white colonisers are at once the objects of fear and desire, and the differences articulated by texts dealing with the theme only reveal the affinities between the white subject and the ‘Other’ s/he has created. Care must be taken, however, to establish whiteness as an autonomous category, not one that relies on the marked and ‘othered’ category as a benchmark from which to define itself, since it is all too easy to ignore the overwhelming sense of white normalcy when no Black characters are present.

Such parameters for definition are knowingly utilised in Richard Dyer’s article ‘White’. Dyer’s discussion of the film Simba in particular pits white and black communities against one another with whites being the obvious shining example of civilisation and propriety as if “only non-whiteness can give whiteness any substance”[44]. But whiteness does receive some semblance of autonomous discussion in the section on Night of the Living Dead, perhaps partly due to the only black character being the principle protagonist, Ben. Acknowledging that all of the living dead are whites, Dyer argues that both living and dead whites can often not be easily distinguished from one another in their appearance and behaviour. For example, the dead are described on mainstream media in Night as ‘ordinary people’, and Dyer goes on to describe a particular aerial shot in which group of zombie fighting vigilantes appears as “a straggling line of people moving forward uncertainly but inexorably, in exactly the same formation as earlier shots of the zombies.”[45] Dyer also notes that the life-destroying, brain-eating ‘raison d’être’, of the dead also resonates with the behaviour of the living vigilantes, who indiscriminately destroy the zombies and with them the living Ben. Whiteness in life resonates with whiteness in death, and a critique and deconstruction of whiteness is possible in Night of the Living Dead not just because of the racial difference afforded by Ben, but also the white on white difference portrayed by life and death, humanity and monstrosity.

If an element of difference of some kind is required to effectively examine whiteness as an ethnic category, the instances of white hybridity in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, be it a vampire, werewolf or witch, may allow sufficient opportunity to do just that. With very few prominent or even named Black characters, Buffy is a series dealing with white agency and the things that happen to those white agents. Sunnydale’s intensely “normal” outward appearance is the perfect site for the Hellmouth as the existence of the two worlds is the perfect contradiction: the ordinary and the extraordinary, the ordered and chaotic world, the insistence of harmony and the actuality of constant threat. Like in Night of the Living Dead, the insistence upon difference between Sunnydale and demonic whites allows for a critique of whiteness as similarities between white and demon actions are unveiled.

The Scooby gang never really have to self-reflexively consider their own whiteness until Season four and the airing of the Thanksgiving special episode ‘Pangs’. The narrative follows the resurgence of the vengeful spirit of California’s indigenous people – the Chumash – after Xander’s digging on the site of a new Cultural Partnership Centre at Sunnydale’s university campus disturbs an old mission, concealed underground. Subsequently Professor Gerhardt, an anthropologist heavily involved with the development of the Centre, is murdered with a Chumash artefact. Meanwhile Buffy, who is primarily concerned with cooking Thanksgiving dinner throughout the episode, is advised to pay a priest, Father Gabriel, a visit in order to discover more about the history of Sunnydale. She finds him dead at the hands of Hus, the vengeful Chumash spirit responsible for both murders. Thus, Hus becomes the episode’s deliberately ideologically loaded threatening force; a spirit representing ‘[his] peoples’ cry’ (4.8) and bent on avenging the demise of his people through the destruction of their killers’ descendants.

The episode’s content is grounded in hegemonic stereotyping of the Native American population which can be found in innumerable representations in popular culture, and contributes to ‘the lack of alternative portrayals [which] reduce the meta-image of American Indians in popular culture to a finite and constrained set of experiences and potentials.’[46]

What I feel can be said about whiteness in this case is that the presentation of white ethnicity is by no means as limited as the Native American portrayals in this episode, as in ‘Pangs’ in particular British and North American identity is realised differently. While white Americans agonise over how to reconcile the actions of their ancestors, the British, accustomed to notions of Empire, shrug it off and focus on the here and now; ‘your sympathy for his plight has blinded you to urgent facts’ (4.8) is Giles’ response to Buffy and Willow’s wish to reconcile the situation peacefully, and he doesn’t hesitate to further dehumanise Hus by saying ‘we have to stop this thing’ (4.8). This is one of the rare opportunities Buffy has to berate Giles for what she perceives as his lack of sympathy and understanding, telling him ‘we don’t say “Indian”’ in response to his use of the term, as well as calling out his unusual flippancy with ‘sarcasm accomplishes nothing, Giles’ (4.8). All this does seem a little ironic, though, considering Buffy refers to the Chumash as “Indian” twice before her initial confrontation with Hus and is all but dismissive of Willow feelings against Thanksgiving. It suggests how easily white guilt can be mollified when minorities are treated as a people of the past, and that while there is a clear distinction between British and American whiteness, no such diversity is afforded to the presentation of Chumash identity.

The hybrid-through-choice, or flouting prototypical whiteness in Buffy

As outlined in the previous section, the most productive way to deconstruct whiteness is not to use non-whiteness as a benchmark to discuss against, but rather maintain an argument that is situated within the category of whiteness itself. The co-existence of the human and demon worlds in Buffy invites comparison and furnishes us with the tools to analyse whiteness without homogenising non-whiteness into one “alternative” presentation of identity and using it to the benefit of such an analysis. I would therefore like to explore the alternative, chaotic Sunnydale brought about by Cordelia’s wish in season three (3.9) and alternate, vampire Willow that exists there, who is like Willow in ‘every detail’ (3.19) and who acts as harbinger for Willow’s transformation into and choice to become powerful Wicca “Dark Willow” in season six.

The chaotic, alternative Sunnydale is brought about by Cordelia wishing that ‘Buffy Summers had never come to Sunnydale’ (3.9). Without Buffy, her protection of the community and her defence and insistent maintenance of prototypical whiteness, Sunnydale becomes a town whose population is under constant threat of vampire dominance as the spaces that used to be part of the public domain are conquered and populated by the vampires. The people of Sunnydale are forced to live under regulations that strip them of their agency and freedom in order to keep them alive.

If modernity and newness is important in the presentation of prototypical whiteness in Buffy, where does this fit in the vamp-dominated alternate Sunnydale? While and material culture and consumerism in Sunnydale means that ‘shopping [is] a major theme’, the vampires in alternate Sunnydale embrace what the humans have given them: the ‘truly demonic concept’ of ‘mass-production’ (3.9). The human world’s yearning for instant gratification translates to the vampires’ establishment of a factory, designed to extract blood from living humans, then discard the bodies off the end of a conveyer belt to make way for fresh subjects. This blood-sucking process, and ‘the vampire’s domination… lead[ing] directly to the industrialisation of the human body’, is suggestive of the capitalist system that fuels it, and how it drains the life force from the dominated. Of course, whiteness is not dominated in actuality, and the marginalisation of the Sunnydale population in ‘The Wish’ is another example of the white-washing of political narratives, and their placement in a world just remote enough from ours makes it palatable for the viewer. Even so, demonic control of mass production is not just a theme reserved for alternate Sunnydale; in ‘Bad Candy’ the mayor enlists Ethan Rayne to supervise the mass production of a candy bar designed to return adults to a youthful state of mind (3.6). This exposes capitalism as a system of white dominance in place to control the people, as Mr. Trick comments: ‘You make a good product, the people come to you’ (3.6). Vampire dominance may control and marginalise brutally, but their actions originate in humans.

The alternate Sunnydale brings with it an alternate Willow, a vampire, who the viewer meets in ‘The Wish’ (3.8). Vamp Willow is a leather-clad dominatrix, and her sexualised dominance coupled with her childish speech – in Vamp Willow’s world, “playing with a puppy” translates to “the sexually gratifying torture of Angel” – is both disturbing and far removed from the Willow the viewer recognises. The two worlds – and versions of Willow – collide in ‘Doppelgangland’ (3.19) after Willow, tired of her image as ‘old reliable’ and ‘homework gal’, feebly attempts to rebel against her image: ‘Maybe I’ll change my look! Or cut class, you don’t know. And I’m eating this banana, lunchtime be damned’ (3.19). Willow’s rebelliousness is extended by the emergence of Vamp Willow into Sunnydale, whose sexuality and sadism curbs Willow’s enthusiasm for rebellion. A face-licking encounter with her vampire double is the last straw for Willow; ‘I see now where the path of vice leads,’ she says to Buffy, ‘I mean, she messed up everything she touched. I don’t ever want to be like that’ (3.19) Willow, though sympathetic at times, on the whole rejects her demonic double as ‘evil and skanky… and… kinda gay’ (3.19).  She is allowed to believe a vampire’s personality is unrelated to its former self; Angel strives to correct Buffy when she suggests ‘a vampire’s personality has nothing to do with the person it was’ (3.19), but stops himself, despite having been told by Darla ‘what we once were [as humans] informs all that we have become [as vampires]’ (Angel, 1.15).

Willow’s blossoming relationship with Tara in season four, a relationship deemed ‘unconventional’ (4.19) by the Scoobies and one that arguably exhibits her first transgression against their prototypical, heteronormative whiteness, is undeniably a link to the demonic version of self. Furthermore, through her subsequent addiction to magic and abandonment of her friends in season six she becomes Dark Willow, a powerful, vengeful witch whose penchant for torture and catchphrase ‘bored now’ (3.9, 3.18, 6.20) is eerily reminiscent of Vamp Willow. Willow’s rift with her friends is cemented when she stops complying with the group’s strong ethical compass after Tara’s death:

 

BUFFY:                 We love you, and Tara, but we don’t kill humans.                                           It’s not the   way.

DARK WILLOW:     How can you say that? Tara is dead…

…XANDER:            You’ve said it yourself, Will. The magic’s too strong,                                    there’s no coming back from it.

DARK WILLOW:     I’m not coming back. (6.20)

 

Buffy tries to reinforce Willow’s belonging to the group by using “we”, while Xander tries to encourage her to reject the archaic magical world with an ultimatum that could separate her permanently from her friends but to no avail. Dark Willow repeatedly refuses to hear her friends, finally physically forcing them back with very magic that has jeopardised their group in an expression of defiance. In the end, it is only the expression of friendship that reawakens Willow and places her back in her social sphere, but her transgressions are punished by the loss of her lover and her exile in England.

 

Conclusion

A running theme throughout this discussion has been the necessity of the social group to the performance of prototypical whiteness. When Oz feels his ties are severed from Willow upon discovering her romantic involvement with Tara, the subsequent stress causes him to ‘wolf out’ (4.19) in broad daylight, revealing his hybridity and further isolating him from the Scoobies as a whole, making him susceptible to punishing treatment from the Initiative and forcing him to leave the group once more altogether, since his hybridity poses a threat to the group. Unconventional romantic choices also break connections between Buffy and Willow and the Scoobies; the more involved Buffy becomes with Spike, the more she abhors herself, and the more time Willow spends with Tara, the more she uses the magic that will ultimately transform her into Dark Willow.

Being prototypically white is by no means an entirely comfortable identity for the Scoobies; Buffy’s heterosexuality, though prototypically white, causes her to endure a number of traumatic relationships and acts of sex, while the Scoobies commitment to a consumerist society fuels oppressive capitalist systems that are exposed as oppressive when in the hands of vampires. But the punishment the characters face for transgressing prototypical whiteness only reinforces that Buffy is product of the conservative, capitalist, middle class values of the companies that own television broadcasting, especially as none of the more potentially progressive   critiques, such as those of ‘Pangs’ and ‘The Wish’, ever really affect the characters’ conduct. The need for group involvement in the maintenance of prototypical whiteness is also suggestive of its fragility, as it needs to be reinforced socially. Finally, the fact that the group aspires towards and centres itself around these shared principles suggests that although problematic in some ways, this particular identity is revered by the series Being prototypically white is a cross to bear, but ‘it beats being alone all by yourself’ (1.11).

 

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[1] Sara Magee, ‘High School is Hell: The TV Legacy of Beverly Hills, 90210, My So-Called Life and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, The Journal of Popular Culture, 47.4, (2014) p.881

[2] Magee, p.882

[3] Magee, p.880

[4] Carolyn Bolte, ‘”Normal is the watchword”: Exiling cultural anxieties and redefining desire from the margins’ in Teen Television: Essays on Programming and Fandom, ed. by Sharon M Ross and Louise E. Stein (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland & Company, 2008) p95-6

[5] Bolte, p.95

[6] Bolte, p.99

[7] Valerie Wee, ‘Selling Teen Culture: How American Multimedia Conglomeration Reshaped Teen Television in the 1990s’ in Glyn Davis and Kay Dickinson, Teen TV: Genre, Consumption and Identity (London: British Film Institute, 2004) p.96

[8] Dominic Alessio, ‘Things are different now?: A post-colonial analysis of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, The European Legacy, 6:6 (2001) p.738

[9] Homi K, Bhabha, The Location of Culture, (London: Routledge 1994)

[10] Bhabha, p.154

[11] Alessio, p.738

[12] Lynne Edwards, ‘Slaying in Black and White: Kendra as Tragic Mulatta in Buffy’ in Rhonda V. Wilcox and David Lavery, eds., Fighting the Forces: What’s at stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (Maryland: 2002) p.87

[13] Edwards, p.88b

[14] Edwards p.88

[15] Edwards, p.96

[16] Fuchs, p.101

[17] Fuchs, p.102

[18] Justine Larbalestier, ‘The only thing better than killing a slayer: Heterosexuality and sex in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ in Roz Kaveney, ed., Reading the Vampire Slayer, London: Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2004, p.211

[19] Larbalestier, p.201

[20] Larbalestier, p.203

[21] Larbalestier, p.208

[22] Larbalestier, p.213

[23] Larbalestier, p.214

[24] Fuchs,p.105

[25] Sabine Broeck, ‘White Fatigue, or, Supplementary Notes on Hybridity’ in Joel Kuortti and Jopi Nyman (eds.) Reconstructing Hybridity, (New York: Rodopi, 2007) p.55

[26] Broek refers to Rosello article in a special issue of Paragraph, in which the collective terms “we” and “our” signify quite exclusively the white academic

[27] Broek, p.49

[28] Richard Dyer, ‘White’, Screen 29.4, 1988, p.44

[29] Kuortti and Nyman, p.55

[30] Joel Kuortti and Jopi Nyman, ‘Hybridity Today’ in Joel Kuortti and Jopi Nyman (eds.) Reconstructing Hybridity, New York: Rodopi, 2007 p.1

[31] Kuortti and Nyman, p.4

[32] Homi K Bhabha, p.157

[33] Kuortti and Nyman, p.3

[34] Anjali Prabhu, Hybridity: Limitations, Transformations, Prospects, New York: State University of New York Press, 2007 p.1

[35] Broek, p.48

[36] Dani Cavallaro, The Gothic Vision: Three Centuries of Horror, Fear and Terror, New York: Continuum, 2002 p.168

[37] Cavallaro, p.168

[38] Doryjane Birrer: ‘A New Species of Humanities: The Marvelous Progeny of Humanism and Postmodern Theory’, Journal of Narrative Theory, 37.2 (2007) p.217

[39] Birrer, p.220

[40] Birrer, p.222

[41] Branda Mann Hammack, ‘Florence Marryat’s Female Vampire and the Scientizing of Hybridity’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 48.1 (2008) p.885

[42] Cavallaro, p.171

[43] Hammack, p.887

[44] Dyer, p.47

[45] Dyer, p.60

[46] John Mihelich, ‘Smoke or Signals? American Popular Culture and the Challenge to Hegemonic Images of American Indians in Native American Film, Wicazo Sa Review, 16:2, (2001), p.130-131