It’s Complicated: Joss Whedon and Race by Mary Ellen Iatropoulos and Lowery A. Woodall III
A Book Review by Jessica Baxter.
Let’s face it. White liberals are having a “woke” moment that is shamefully long overdue. Growing up in the 1980s and early 90s as a white middle class kid from a moderately open-minded family (albeit residing in the conservative American south east), I was taught that the most respectful way to treat people of color was to be “color blind”. That is, to behave as if the color of their skin did not matter. It’s who they are inside that counts. And while that is a lovely notion for a fictional, utopian, post-racial society, it is unrealistic for our world. Moreover, it’s disrespectful and hurtful because it negates the realities of people of color. In Virginia, I could see that racism was alive and well. But I moved to Seattle, Washington at my earliest opportunity and was quickly absorbed into a little bubble of like-minded people. How easy it was for me to forget what it was like beyond the membrane of my blue cocoon.
Mary Ellen Iatropoulos and Lowery A. Woodall III’s collection of critical essays, Joss Whedon and Race cover Whedon’s relationship with race, ethnicity, and nationality on his television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), Angel (1999-2004), Firefly (2002-2003), and Dollhouse (2009-2010), as well as the Firefly movie, Serenity (2005). Though Whedon is known for his progressive narratives, he’s not immune to perpetuating cultural stereotypes even as he seeks to subvert or transcend them. This is particularly true of his early work.
I began watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer during its third season. I had initially dismissed it as teen drivel until my college Television Criticism teacher assigned us an episode to analyze. I became hooked on this progressive show with a feminist message. By the time it ended, I was well entrenched in the Whedonverse what with Buffy, Angel, and Firefly briefly coinciding. I was a fan for life.
So, when I saw the title of Iatropoulos and Woodall’s book, I knew I was in for an enlightening read. My brain immediately began naming every Whedonverse person of color I could think of and the list was depressingly short. As they state in their introduction, Iatropoulos and Woodall collected these essays in 2011, before the release of the Avengers movie. Dollhouse had just been cancelled. Moreover Trayvon Martin was still alive, and Black Lives Matter was neither a phrase nor a movement.
Of course we white liberals have known for a long time that people of color are poorly represented on television, even on progressive shows. We knew racism wasn’t dead, even after we elected Obama. But it took the bombardment of news stories about police officers killing unarmed, often law-abiding, black people without repercussions (and with some arguing that they must have “deserved it”), followed by nearly half the country deciding to elect a man endorsed by the KKK to the highest American public office, to really get us to notice just how institutionalized racism remains. The fact that “Black Lives Matter” is a phrase that bares repeating really says it all. If this were a TV show, people would call these plot points “heavy handed”. But sadly, art imitates life. Paradoxically, art also blinds us to reality.
Television isn’t just entertainment. It’s a mirror of our cultural attitudes. What we don’t show on television is, in some ways, even more important than what we do. The sort of analysis presented in Joss Whedon and Race is absolutely vital in understanding how even people with the best of intentions are helping to perpetuate a system designed to uphold white supremacy.
These fifteen essays cover everything from Buffy’s white privilege in a line of work that was established by people of color, to the fact that skin color foreshadows narrative in Lynne Edwards’ “The black chick always gets it first”. The essay explores the multitude of ways in which both the narrative trajectory and the characters within the Buffyverse subvert the power of dark-skinned women who traverse it. Edwards covers what I’m fairly certain are the only four females of color in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s 7 seasons: Kendra (Bianca Lawson), the first “rival” slayer that Buffy encounters, is only trying to do her job, but she’s repeatedly dismissed and undermined until the end. Nikki Wood (K.D. Aubert), the slayer from whom Spike stole his signature leather jacket, appears only to embody the “Blaxploitation Jezebel” and never utters a word before we see her die. Sineya (Sharon Ferguson) is the first slayer, a “savage” girl who lacks the power of speech. Potential slayer, Rona (Indigo), represents the “Sapphire” figure with roots in Amos ‘n’ Andy, and is also the only black slayer who acknowledges her race. She is also the character who utters the essays titular quote.
An eye-opening piece by Katia McClain discusses the casual racism toward the Roma in regard to the “Gypsy Curse” trope. “Representations of Roma in Buffy and Angel” shows that it sometimes takes a very long time to understand how a culture is marginalized in pop culture. The Gypsy Curse remains pervasive. Not long after I read this essay, which clarifies how damaging the stereotype is to Roma culture, and explains how “Gypsy” is an inaccurate a term as “Indian” is to describe Native Americans, I saw a promo for a new show called “Shut Eye”, which revolves around mystical “Gypsies” and fortune tellers.
Another standout is Rejena Saulsberry’s piece devoted to the most fleshed-out person of color in the Whedonverse, Charles Gunn (J. August Richards) from Angel. Though “The Inevitable Tragedy: The Troubled Life of Charles Gunn as an Allegory for General Strain Theory” classifies Gunn’s story arc as “more tragic than heroic, a common fate for many modern African American male characters”, she also argues that “the show’s strict adherence to the core nature of Gunn as an outsider is actually a step forward for the portrayal of black characters in that it avoids the post-racial, color-blind narrative that is more prevalent and problematic”.
Mayan Jarnagin’s piece, about the ways in which Firefly’s Zoe Washburn (Gine Torres) transcends the “strong black woman” stereotype is a bit of good news. Jarnagin’s “Zoe Washburne: Navigating the ‘Verse as a Military Woman of Color”, offers one of the book’s scant character triumphs. Though Zoe “could easily be viewed as yet another example of culturally, psychologically, and physiologically debilitating Strong Black Woman stereotype”, making her unable to show vulnerability, and thus resigning her to martyrdom, the character has many moments which subvert and deconstruct this stereotype.
On a more subversive level, Brandeise Monk-Payton’s “Programming Slavery: Race, Technology, and the Quest for Freedom in Dollhouse”, argues that a show about mostly-white prisoners who are serving their time by allowing their brains to be re-programmed to bend to the will of paying customers, also reflects “the socio-historical trajectory of African Americans from slavery to citizenry, i.e., freedom”. Monk-Payton also discusses the implications of an African American man being behind this dehumanizing corporation.
Though their introduction suggests otherwise, I’m not sure this book would mean all that much to people unfamiliar with the Whedonverse. If you ever intend to watch any of his shows, be forewarned that in order to thoroughly dissect the stories, the writers discuss plot points and social implications in regard to the big picture. In other words: spoilers. But I believe that despite the racially problematic aspects, Whedon’s work contains some of the best writing, and most complex characters in all of television. The man has a ‘verse named after him for a reason. If you’ve ever considered diving into the Whedon pool, there’s no time like the present. He and his loyal team of writers deftly tackled numerous aspects of the human condition. The essayists are mostly complimentary toward him and his work. As the editors note, “we love Joss Whedon more than any other artist in the world, and exactly for this reason, we insist on the right to criticize his works, lovingly, but perpetually”.
The landscape has taken some great leaps forward in the past two years. Empire (2015- ) is one of the most popular network TV shows. But Netflix is leading the charge. Orange is the New Black (2013- ) began with a white woman, but by season two, they started focusing on the women of color and their stories are the strongest ones. Luke Cage (2016- ) is a show about a bulletproof black man in a hoodie and it has very few white characters (about which some idiots had the audacity to complain). The Get Down (2016- ) tells the story of the birth of hip-hop in the South Bronx in 1977, and stars some staggeringly talented young actors. An episode of Aziz Ansari’s semi-autobiographical Master of None (2015- ) deals specifically with his experience growing up with very few Asians on TV and in movies outside of a small set of stereotypical roles. An episode of Donald Glover’s brilliant show, Atlanta (FX Network, 2016- ), features a buffoonish wealthy white liberal who believes he understands the African American experience because he is married to a black woman, listens to rap, and has been to “Africa”. When Glover’s character responds that he has never been, the tone deaf man tells him, “You gotta go!” as if there is some innate duty for American people of color to visit “their motherland”.
We need many more of these shows and we need more books like Joss Whedon and Race if we have any hope of reducing white washing in entertainment. In hindsight, I’m sure Joss Whedon would agree that he’s made many missteps despite nothing but the best intentions. If any good has come out of the apocalypse that has been the year 2016, it’s that many of us white lefties have learned just how little progress we’ve actually made as a nation, and how far we have left to go. We are so sorry and we will do better.
Iatropoulos, Mary Ellen, and Lowery A. Woodall III. Joss Whedon and Race. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016; $39.95, www.mcfarlandpub.com, 1-800-253-2187.
For over a decade, Jessica Baxter has provided her solicited opinion on films for the likes of Film Threat, ReelTime Blog, and Hammer to Nail. She is thrilled to continue her work with Film International, where she also serves as Television Editor and Image Editor for the journal. She also wrote and directed the award-winning short films, Snow Day, Bloody Snow Day (2005) and Love & 145 Watts (2004) and worked on two critically acclaimed music documentaries for King of Hearts Productions – Tad: Busted Circuits & Ringing Ears (2008) and Mudhoney: I’m Now (2012). She resides in Seattle, Washington, USA.