Whether you tuned in way back when or stumbled upon it on Netflix in college procrastinating like yours truly, most people who’ve seen it can agree that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a classic. Feminists all over the world hail the show as a feminist triumph and for some good reasons.
In Buffy Summers we’re given a truly complex heroine. The show could make you both laugh and cry, and had the guts to make a 16-year-old girl the most powerful person in the world. That was pretty woke for the 90’s. And yet as the creator Joss Whedon has proved through the years, unfortunately, it has a major flaw: it wouldn’t know what intersectional feminism was if it walked up to him and said Bell Hooks.
There are many examples of Whedon’s inability to imagine people of color as well rounded individuals through his work, but as my least favorite holiday approaches what immediately comes to mind is Pangs, the Thanksgiving episode.
Pangs opened with a lonely Buffy desperate to have a good old fashioned Thanksgiving dinner. But her best friend Willow points out the holiday is a sham because Native Americans were in reality brutalized by the colonizers. The debate for most of the episode is how to celebrate Thanksgiving, while still acknowledging its genocidal history. Which is further complicated by the fact that the university is being haunted by the vengeful spirits of the Chumash tribe (an actual tribe as it turns out) who’ve been disturbed by a groundbreaking taking place.
The ghosts take to haunting and killing those who disturbed them by inflicting the woes that the colonizers inflicted on them. The attacks escalate and eventually end with a fight to the death with the Scooby Gang at Giles’ place. Buffy uses a Chumash weapon to kill the spirits, they depart to the great beyond, and everyone sits down to a nice Thanksgiving dinner. Alexa, play This is America.
Now, before this, there is quite a bit of discussion about how to handle Chumash ghosts. Buffy and Willow acknowledge, and are portrayed as being naive to do so, that the spirits’ anger is valid. However, this quickly falls apart. Giles, the Englishman brushes off that argument because vengeance is evil. Spike gives a Trump-level offensive speech about how they should quit their, “boo-hooing about the bloody Indians.”
Well, cause, “you took their land, and you killed them, that’s what conquering nations do.” Whedon freaking YOLO’d genocide. Spike’s speech about all being fair in love and genocide gets accepted as being right, without any further debate right before the showdown.
Background time: in my research I learned that while Jane Espenson penned this episode, it was Whedon who wrote the horrible speech. In the Slayerfest podcast, Espenson said that she researched the Chumash tribe and was trying to be sensitive to their culture (for the record I’d hate to see what happens when she’s being insensitive). She says the speech was meant to say that no amount of political correctness could undo the damage done.
While it’s true that calling Native Americans or Indigenous Peoples what they want to be called won’t undo centuries of damage, it shows respect for the living descendants and costs us nothing. Furthermore the very least that can be done is not playing into the racist tropes that have used to justify the crimes comitted against them. And while Willow’s white guilt won’t help the Chumash tribe and white guilt at large does nothing to benefit people of color, acknowledging history as opposed to whitewashing it does. History is told by the people who win because one of the benefits of being on the other side of the Trail of Tears is getting to control the narrative. If the writers truly wanted to be sensitive, they could’ve given the tribe an actual voice as opposed to caricaturing them into another monster of the week the “heroes” needed to cut down.
Pangs began well enough by acknowledging that the history of Thanksgiving is bloody and shameful, but then plays into the racist tropes pop culture’s relied upon in portrayals of Native Peoples for decades. The only Native Peoples we see are violent, animalistic, and borderline incapable of speech. Without ever saying the word the writer’s room tells us they’re savages who deserve what the Scooby Gang will inevitably do to them.
Thanksgiving is a holiday that represents of the worst things about this country: the desperation to romanticize the past, the tendency for photoshop uncomfortable truths out of the history books, and the reality that America was built on the suffering of marginalized people. Acknowledging the ugliness this holiday represents for many Native Americans and that most of we’re told about Thanksgiving as children is a lie is a conversation that deserved a lot more consideration than, “that’s what conquering nations do.”
There are things to love about the Whedonverse, but this episode is not one of them. It points out Whedon and his writer’s rooms ugly tendency to stereotype, villainize, and/or kill off characters of color. It’s one of the reasons I’m honestly wary of the idea of a Buffy reboot.