News of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer reboot has made headlines, but perhaps not the kind its makers might have hoped for. The idea of remaking the hit series - 21 years after it first aired - sparked a flurry of debate on social media . The initial report that Buffy would feature an as yet unnamed black actor in the title role met with a mixed reception.
While some were jubilant that the show, which ran for seven seasons, would return, others were seriously annoyed. As one commentator put it, talented people of colour “do not need white TV show and film hand-me-downs.” Indeed, one could criticise the reboot - racial debates aside - as an act of blood-sucking greed on the part of producers, eerily similar to the activities of the demons Buffy slayed.
Not to be deterred, however, producers of the show have responded by implying that the new season will not be a reboot with a Buffy who happens to be black, but rather a sequel to the old one, featuring a different slayer altogether. A sequel featuring a different slayer, with her own identity, would be a firm step towards a more radically inclusive and irrevocably transformed storytelling venture. For in the original Buffy, characters of colour were few and far between. Those that did appear tended to be heavily stereotyped.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer screened from 1997 to 2003, an era in TV not well known for diversity - think Friends and Charmed. Buffy followed the adventures of the eponymous hero and her close (white) friends - the “Scooby gang” - as they battled all manner of demons, while traversing the metaphorical hell that is adolescence and young adulthood. Alongside a plethora of supernatural monsters, Buffy and Co. battled everyday high school horrors: boyfriends turned bad, parents who just don’t understand, a part-time job that may literally kill you. But the most protracted death in the series was perhaps that of hope for a diverse cast.
A legacy of racial insensitivity
Kendra, a black slayer from Jamaica, was a second slayer activated after Buffy’s temporary death. Before being killed off after a mere three episodes, we see Kendra’s accent cruelly mocked by Buffy. And indeed, Bianca Lawson, who played Kendra, has been criticised for her poor rendition of a Jamaican accent.
The original setting was the overwhelmingly white, middle class, southern Californian town of Sunnydale. While some might argue the show implicitly explored and satirised white identity - most obviously through the protagonist’s exaggerated blondness and ditsy name - it has a poor record of exploring race and diversity more broadly.
The lack of diversity in the show was acknowledged – albeit fleetingly – by one of the few recurring African American characters, Mr Trick, in season three: “Sunnydale”, he observed, was “admittedly not a haven for the brothers – strictly the Caucasian persuasion in the ‘Dale’.”
Other characters of colour who made it onto our screens didn’t last long. Nikki Wood - mother to season seven’s potential love interest Principal Wood - met her death at vampire Spike’s hands, and appears only sporadically throughout the series.
The First Slayer - she who begat all future slayers, including Buffy herself - was in fact, black. But while she belatedly gave a woman of colour a central role in the mythology underpinning the series, her portrayal was deeply primitivist. Depicted as a noble savage, she also lacked any autonomy, being enslaved by the (all white) Watchers Council, who formed the governing body for slayers.
Lives that matter
Simply slipping a black Buffy into Sunnydale without making any other changes to the context in which she lives would do little to remedy the series’ dubious record on race.
Racial difference needs to be represented in more meaningful ways - as embodied, as having material effects and consequences, as showing lives that matter. The value of African American voices would be well expressed by welcoming a unique, coincidentally black slayer with her own narrative, aspirations, and attributes.
The initial announcement about the series remake read, vaguely and hopefully, that, “Like our world, it will be richly diverse, and like the original, some aspects of the series could be seen as metaphors for issues facing us all today”.
The new series’ writer and showrunner, half-Spanish, half-Ghanaian writer Monica Osuwu Breen, has responded to fan fallout over the idea of a reboot by enlarging on this sentiment, saying that the world is a scarier place than it was 20 years ago, and maybe “it could be time to meet a new slayer”.
Trump’s America is an undeniably frightening place, especially for minorities, and it remains to be seen how a new Buffy will tackle this.