Feminism and Joss Whedon: The Whitewashing of Sunnydale

I’ve been rewatching bits and pieces of Buffy for various projects and I am struck, yet again, by the notable abscence of Latino and Latina characters on the show. I am not the first person to have noticed this, nor will I be the last. tablesaw did an excellent and very thorough analysis looking at the representation of Latina/o characters. Buffy is an extremely white show and Angel isn’t much better.

Generally speaking, Latino/a populations are very poorly represented on television. I can think off the top of my head of only one Latina in a leading role on prime time broadcast, America Ferrera on Ugly Betty. There’s a clear underrepresentation just in general, but it’s particularly glaring on these two Whedon shows because of there they are set.

Buffy and Angel are fantasy shows, but Whedon did choose to set them in California. They are obviously not going for objective realism or an honest depiction of life and communities in California, but, nonetheless, they are set in the Golden State. A state where almost 37% of the population declares ‘Hispanic or Latino’ on Census paperwork. Are almost 40% of the characters on these shows Hispanic or Latino? No, no they are not. Now, granted, I’m going off recent Census numbers, when these shows were airing, these numbers were closer to 32%. Still.

According to tablesaw’s analysis, 21 Latino/as were shown on screen in Buffy. The vast majority of them appeared in very brief roles, like one as a janitor. A handful of reporters. Bit parts in single episodes. Kennedy is really the standout Latina on the show, appearing in a number of episodes in the final season and playing opposite Willow as her new love interest; Whedon killed two birds with one stone there, eh?

There are a number of things that bother me about the complete erasure of the Latina/o community on Whedon’s California shows. One, it just bothers me on general principles; racism is rampant in this country and it’s reflected in the type of racial representation we see on television. Producing primarily white shows set in a state with a lot of nonwhite people and people of colour erases a lot of the culture and history of California. Showing Native Americans only briefly, for example, and in a horrible, horrible episode to boot, was a really poor decision. Showing virtually no Asian characters on the show was a poor casting decision when, surprise surprise, almost 13% of California’s population is Asian and Southern California has a large Asian population because Los Angeles is a major port and there’s a long history of Asian agricultural workers in the Valley.

It’s also notable to look at how Whedon depicted Latina/os on Buffy, since I happen to have a handy analysis right in front of me, although similar issues can be seen with the handling of Latino/a characters on Angel. Why is it, for example, that they are often shown as janitors and construction workers? What does that tell viewers about the Latino/a community? That members of this community are generally menial labourers, perhaps? When there’s a majority white high school on the show, it kind of tends to suggest that the Latino/a residents of Sunnydale aren’t going to school and aren’t finishing school; when we never really see the handful of Latina/o students on the show doing anything academic, it’s a reminder. They don’t do academic things! Sunnydale’s college features a lone Latino student who is promptly eaten by vampires.

We see one character with a professional degree, Doctor Powell, who appears in Graduation Day to put Buffy back together again, and there’s a fleeting glimpse of a Latino paramedic. Two educators, Principal Stevens and a nameless teacher who appears only briefly in season seven. That’s it. Latina/o business owners? Not a chance. Latino/a attorneys, athletes, activists, and everything in between? No.

A population already grossly underrepresented in television in general is almost wholly absent from shows set in California? Does anyone else think that this is unacceptable? Because I definitely think it’s not acceptable to neatly erase a huge chunk of California’s population in favor of a majority white cast, especially since some people tend to talk about Whedon’s shows like they are racially diverse. Buffy is not a diverse show. It’s a mostly white show, like most things airing on primetime, and like most things airing on primetime, it also depicts people of colour and nonwhite people in primarily troped roles. Not for nothing are people with darker skin routinely playing villains, people.

Another issue with the underrepresentation of Latinos is the tendency to only read certain people as Latino/a. Many people have a very decided idea about what a Latino person looks like and that includes dark skin, dark eyes, and dark hair. In fact, Latina/os are light-skinned. Blonde. Blue-eyed. Never seeing these people represented specifically and explicitly as Latina/o means that people never have their ideas about skin colour and race challenged; people with pale skin, light hair, and pale eyes are automatically read as white which means that many racial identities are erased and ignored.

When I look at racial breakdowns of television shows, magazines, films, and other things we encounter in pop culture, a lot of them make the ‘pale=white’ fallacy, unless someone is singled out as nonwhite or a person of colour, or the character/actor has a name people decide is ‘ethnic.’

It is entirely possible that there are more Latino/as on Buffy than tablesaw or I can spot, because you can’t always identify someone’s race simply by looking at the person. But even taking that into account, it’s clear that the numbers of people who are not white on this show are pretty dismal.

Did Whedon have a responsibility to do better than other creators at the time? Well, no. But the mark of a truly great and innovative creator, the mark of someone who thinks outside the box and leaves a legacy, is the mark of always doing better, even when no one is looking and no one is asking for it. When it comes to racial representations, Whedon consistently falls down on the job. Sure, everyone else does it, but since when has that been an acceptable excuse?