How Buffy the Vampire Slayer Mishandled Characters of Color
“Where the possibilities are endless, why wouldn’t you seize that opportunity?”
“It’s kind of upsetting,” Amber Benson says when I bring up the topic of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and race. “I feel like that’s consistent with the times, but it’s a failure. It is an absolute failure.” While the show is often considered quite progressive in its views on gender roles or sexuality, when it comes to race, ethnicity, and nationality, the show is at best ignorant and at worst harmful in its depiction (or lack of depiction) of people of color.
“You asked has the show aged well, and I thought to myself, ‘Not color-wise,’” says Clare Kramer. “There were barely any minorities on this show.” Among the show’s 12 official cast members, there were no people of color. The writers’ room, too, consisted of all white people. It’s not to say the Buffyverse was entirely devoid of POC, but it’s worth meditating on how few there were—and the stymied roles they played.
Here are the Black characters on Buffy in order of first appearance, and with a parenthetical around the number of episodes they appear in: Absalom (1); Kendra Young (3); Mr. Trick (5); Olivia Williams (3); Forrest Gates (12); Sineya (3); Nikki Wood (3); Sweet (1); Robin Wood (14); and Rona (9). Other POC characters that recurred on the show in order of first appearance, and with a parenthetical around the number of episodes they appear in include: Ampata Gutierrez (1); Xin Rong (1); Carlos (1); Kennedy (13); Chao-Ahn (7); Lissa (1); and Caridad (3).
“There was a lack of humanity, grace, and complexity shown to non-white characters on Buffy,” remarks author and columnist DW McKinney. “When Slayers weren’t blatantly exoticized like Kendra or the one Asian Slayer who shows up in—surprise!—China of all places, they were reduced to gross stereotypes. The First Slayer was a Black woman who was enslaved by the first Watchers Council who moved around creeping and skittering like a creature. She embodied basic primitivism. Kendra came from Jamaica, which, given all the places she could’ve come from, Jamaica in this case represents a superficial understanding of Blackness. Whedon appealed to a capitalist and consumerist understanding of Blackness.
The Slayer came from a country that is readily identifiable to white Americans, a country where Blackness is palatable and easily accessible as much as it is exoticized. I can’t even say it’s an accomplishment that most of the non-potential Slayers were Black because it shows a lack of creativity, an inability to imagine Slayers beyond a racist duality.”
And speaking of representations of Blackness in the show overall, we saw these stereotypes in the villains, too, she says, mentioning Forrest, Mr. Trick, and Sweet as prime examples. “These reductive ideas of Black characters, and of characters of color, show a general disinterest in depicting their complexities. They weren’t given the same humanity and relatability as the other main, white characters. Each member of the Scooby Gang could have been substituted with a non-white actor. In some ways, if that were the case, the storylines and revelations would have been more significant.”
According to Danny Strong, who won an NAACP Image Award for writing and producing Empire, the lack of diversity on Buffy is a symptom of the lack of diversity that existed all over television at that time—and continues to happen today. “Joss not having diverse content and not having a diverse writing staff comes from that not being a priority in the storytelling. That’s an assumption I’m making, but, you know, you look at the staff and everyone’s white, right? That happens when you make no or very little effort to have an inclusive staff.” Just how white was the Buffy writing staff? There are 25 writers who receive credits throughout the show’s 144 episodes. Twenty-four of them are white. Diego Gutierrez, the only writer of color to write for the series, wrote only a single episode (“Normal Again”) and was not a part of the writers’ room.“It shows a lack of creativity, an inability to imagine Slayers beyond a racist duality.”
Cynthia Erivo agrees that the past-tense conversation about Buffy and race still exists in the present tense across aspects of the industry. Even still, the conversations and advancements in prioritizing diverse storytelling were in no way where they’ve progressed to today.
“There was something weird happening in that late-90s, early-2000s time where shows just really didn’t know what to do with Black characters,” says Erivo. “It was like there was an idea of what Black people were like as opposed to ‘Hey, come and have an experience with us and maybe talk us through what we could possibly do with your character.’ Or ‘Can we have an understanding of what your experience is like as a person?’ No questions were being asked. A lot of these shows were being made by straight white guys; they are clearly going to struggle with white women’s roles, and then you give them the task of trying to figure out anything for Black women and it’s often coming up short, or feeling one-dimensional, like they are either good or they’re bad. And if they’re bad, they’re really bad. Mostly, they’re really bad.
There was no time taken to really dig into the stories of young Black women, and I’m always so confused as to why, especially on a show like Buffy, because it’s a fantasy, it’s make-believe, so you really can do anything. Where the possibilities are endless, why wouldn’t you seize that opportunity?”
I decided to seek out K. Todd Freeman, who played Mr. Trick in Season 3 and was the first recurring Black actor to be featured on the show. “I was relieved that I thought I fit in with the whole world and the milieu,” says Freeman about watching back his very first appearance on the show. Freeman was a stage veteran who appeared as Belize in a production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and was Tony nominated for the 1993 production of The Song of Jacob Zulu on Broadway prior to coming on Buffy in a recurring capacity. “I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb, which is one of the things that you’re always worried about.”
In Mary Ellen Iatropoulos and Lowery A. Woodall’s book Joss Whedon and Race, they successfully attempt to unpack why conversations reflecting on the show’s overwhelming whiteness are so important. Throughout the book, which examines Whedon’s work from Buffy to The Avengers, they demonstrate how critical race theory can be a viewer’s tool for social justice. “We hope to turn the conversation away from individual blame and back onto the issue of race and representation, onto the larger cultural patterns of oppression in which our beloved characters inadvertently participate, even when they don’t mean to, especially when they don’t mean to. Because . . . in the unintentional we can see the institutional.”
This lens is critical, which is to say Buffy had a race problem, but it’s a problem the creators likely weren’t aware of, actively thinking about, or trying to combat, and that’s a problem.“I knew three things the moment I saw her. She was different. She was dangerous. And she was dead.”
“Are there aspects of the show that you watch now, some 20-plus years later, and cringe?” I asked Jane Espenson, who wrote or co-wrote 23 episodes of the series. “The whiteness,” she responds. It’s a whiteness not just felt in the absence of characters and writers of color, but one that permeates the series. Race, ethnicity, and nationality exists within the universe of the series, albeit at the margins, and it is through the relative lack of characters of color in Sunnydale (again, meant to embody Everytown, America, according to Whedon) that the show must be examined.
Let’s take, for instance, a throwaway moment late in Season 2. Willow is discussing the pressure being put on her by Principal Snyder to raise the grade of one of the swim team members. (Willow is subbing in as a computer science teacher in the wake of Ms. Calendar’s death—why the district couldn’t hire an actual substitute teacher is a conversation for another day.) “I’m interested in why, when this school is on the brink of winning its first state championship in 15 years, you slap a crucial member of that team with a failing mark that would force his removal. Is that how you show your school spirit?” Snyder asks her.
Later, Willow is discussing this not-so-veiled threat to her friends. “That is wrong, a big, fat, spanking wrong,” Xander tells her. “It’s a slap in the face to every one of us who studied hard and worked long hours to earn our D’s.” And then Cordelia, never the Rhodes scholar, interjects. “Xander, I know you take pride in being the voice of the common wuss, but the truth is, certain people are entitled to special privileges. They’re called winners. That’s the way the world works.” Xander pushes back. “And what about the nutty ‘all men are created equal’ thing?” he asks. “Propaganda spouted by the ugly and less deserving,” she counters. “I think that was Lincoln,” Xander says, attempting to get the last word. “Disgusting mole and stupid hat,” she responds. Willow well-actuallys the situation by letting them know it was, in fact, Thomas Jefferson. “Kept slaves, remember?” Cordelia adds, this time successfully getting the last word.
“Here Cordelia connects the episode’s narrative (Season 2, Episode 19, “Go Fish”) to larger systems of institutionally condoned oppression, linking the racist selectiveness of the founding fathers to the ‘special’ treatment received by the swim team at Sunnydale High,” write Iatropoulos and Woodall. It’s an apt comparison, but one that’s immediately steamrolled by more “pressing” matters—that is, how this affects Xander. “You know what really grates my cheese? That Buffy’s not here to share my moral outrage about swim team perks.”
Ethnicity is mentioned much later in the series, in the waning stages of Season 5. After a fight with Tara, Willow abruptly announces that she’s taking off and will not attend the college’s multicultural fair as planned. “I don’t feel real multicultural right now,” she says in a huff, showing in very direct terms that multiculturalism is something she can opt out of. What she’s not directly addressing in this statement is her white privilege and her ability to choose whether to be conscious of her racial identity.
And then of course there’s the show’s treatment of its characters of color—or rather, mistreatment. The show’s first Black multi-episode character arrives in the form of Kendra in the middle of Season 2. She’s given no last name. “I was an avid fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer until November 17, 1998, and then, it happened,” writes media studies professor Lynne Edwards in her essay “The Black Chick Always Gets It First: Black Slayer in Sunnydale.” She goes on to describe the “it” as “the betrayal that Black fans dread, yet have come to expect—the moment we are painfully reminded that we are Other.” Edwards goes on to describe Kendra’s entrance on the series, which sees her emerging from the cargo hold of an airplane over tribal drum beats and a flute. “I knew three things the moment I saw her. She was different. She was dangerous. And she was dead.”
Her instincts were correct. Kendra would stick around for two episodes before leaving town. She’d return unexpectedly in the season finale only to have her throat slit by Drusilla’s sharp nails. We see her collapse. When Buffy visits the hospital shortly thereafter, she checks on all of her friends (all of whom are alive)… except Kendra. Could Kendra have been pronounced dead on the scene and therefore not been sent to the hospital? Perhaps. Is there a deleted scene in which a despondent Buffy mourns the loss of the only other Chosen One? Doubtful, but I like the thought. Still, death by fingernails? Something seems off. She’d be mentioned one other time, only in reference to the Slayer lineage, not in any kind of meaningful way. It felt like an unnecessary death. Was it a necessary death? It could be argued. Without Kendra, we’d never have gotten Faith, an indelible imprint on the show. But to lose Kendra so quickly felt deliberately callous.
“I knew she wasn’t going to be a series regular, but I thought she could continue on the show in some capacity,” says author and columnist DW McKinney. “It wasn’t going to be Buffy and Kendra the Vampire Slayers, but Kendra could have returned home and fought vampires there. She could have been a reserve Slayer that Buffy called on when she needed help fighting the countless Big Bads drawn to the Hellmouth. There was no reason for Kendra to be killed except to generate an emotional rise out of Buffy and fast-track her hero’s journey for that story arc. I am still very pissed about Kendra’s death.”
Excerpted from Into Every Generation a Slayer Is Born: How Buffy Staked Our Hearts by Evan Ross Katz. Copyright © 2022. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.