March 16, 2009

Pangs in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

In her blog, educator Debbie Reese has brought an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to our attention. Titled Pangs, it was the eighth episode of the fourth season and it aired November 23, 1999. With a date like that, you'd be correct in guessing the subject was Thanksgiving.

I haven't seen Pangs, but Wikipedia gives us a synopsis. Here are the Native aspects of the story:The college has a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Anthropology building, and Xander is one of the construction workers. ... Xander begins to dig, the ground suddenly caves out under him and he drops into an old abandoned building. We later find this is the Old Sunnydale Mission. Buffy is upset that her Mom is going to be out of town for Thanksgiving, but then decides to cook her own Thanksgiving dinner and invite all their friends.

A green haze comes up from the old Mission and goes to the Cultural Center where some weapons are being kept. After the haze comes in contact with a spear, it turns into a large Native American man and kills the curator. Buffy and Willow later secretly investigate the murder, and wonder why the curator's body was missing an ear. They discover that a Chumash spear is missing. Buffy tells Giles about the murder while planning to have Thanksgiving at his place.

Buffy goes to find Father Gabriel, a priest who may have information for them, but finds that a returning Chumash spirit has killed him. After the mission was uncovered, his spirit was released to reenact the wrongs that were done to his people. Buffy and Giles talk about it while working on dinner. Then Willow shows up with a stack of books on the Chumash. She explains that while they were once peaceful, the people of Sunnydale horribly mistreated them. Cutting off a victim's ear is how they proved that a kill was successful. Willow and Giles argue about what happened between the Native Americans and the people who took their land and their lives.

Everyone begins to argue about what they're going to do to stop the spirit. Willow doesn't want to kill him, but everyone else argues that that's the only way. While Willow, Anya, and a weakened Xander go to find the Dean and warn him his life may be in danger, the spirit calls forth more spirits to help him get revenge for their people.

The spirits attack Buffy, Giles, and Spike with arrows. Helplessly tied to a chair, all Spike can do is try to move out of the way as he gets hit with arrows. Willow, Xander, and Anya encounter Angel on their way back and they determine that the Chumash went after Buffy. Buffy tries to go for more weapons, but gets an arrow in the arm. After riding over on bicycles, the Scooby Gang tries to attack the Chumash spirits as best they can with shovels. Angel shows up and helps them out. Buffy cuts one of the Chumash with his own knife, and reaches the conclusion that their own weapons can kill them. The spirit turns into a large black bear, which Spike desperately tries to get away from and ends up knocking the chair over. Buffy struggles with the bear and then stabs it. All of the spirits disappear.

Angel walks away without being seen by Buffy, and later, the gang sits down to Thanksgiving dinner.
Reese comments on Pangs here:

Willow (from Buffy) on Columbus Day and Thanksgiving

And here are my thoughts on it:

  • The Chumash as killer spirits: Basically false. The Chumash were generally peaceful.

  • The Chumash as vengeance seekers: Basically false. In fact, I'd say vengeance wasn't a big part of Indian cultures in general. Sure, Indians conducted raids, attacks, even massacres when involved in a conflict with their enemies. But if they were defeated and the conflict ended, how often did they strike back out of a pure lust for retribution? If a tribe ever sought vengeance, I can't think of an example.

  • Cutting off a victim's ear: Indians sometimes scalped people, but I've never heard of them cutting off people's ears. According to Debbie Reese's summary, it's what the Spaniards did to prove they'd killed someone. So the Chumash spirit does it to pay the white man back? See above about Indians not being vengeful.

    Moreover, the Spaniards' actions are only historical words while the spirit's actions are present-day dangers. The Indian is the only one cutting ears now. This makes him seem more brutal and savage.
  • No alternative to killing spirits: This is flatly ridiculous. The writers made up the rules for their Indian spirits, so they can't claim the mass murder of spirits is the only option. This gimmick of theirs emphasizes the belief that Indians are savage, murderous, evil. According to Buffy, they can't be reasoned with.

  • Spirit turning into a bear: another supernatural stereotype. An example of the idea that Indians are "closer to nature"--i.e., more like deadly beasts--than the rest of us. See Quileute Werewolves in Twilight for a recent example of this.

  • The Thanksgiving dinner: The 200-year-old Chumash spirits could've provided a ton of insight into Chumash culture and early California history. But instead of trying to find a way to keep them alive, Buffy and company kill (or re-kill) them.

  • After killing anybody, even a spirit, you might think about canceling your celebratory dinner and instead reflecting soberly on your actions. But no...Buffy and company sit down and eat as if nothing's happened. As if the genocide of Indians is ancient history of no consequence to anyone.

    Suppose one of Buffy's friends had been a Chumash Indian. Imagine how the dialogue would've gone then: "Sorry about exterminating your ancestors--again--but we didn't have a choice. Our ancestors had to kill your ancestors and so did we.

    "Anyway, it's over now, so forget about it. Would you prefer dark meat or white meat with your potatoes? Bon appétit!"

    Dialogue proves Buffy's bias

    If you think Buffy wasn't sending a message about Indians, think again. Here are some key snippets of dialogue from the characters' "argument" about Indians:Spike:  I just can't take all this mamby-pamby boo-hooing about the bloody Indians.

    Spike:  You won. All right? You came in and you killed them and you took their land. That's what conquering nations do. It's what Caesar did, and he's not goin' around saying, "I came, I conquered, I felt really bad about it." The history of the world is not people making friends. You had better weapons, and you massacred them. End of story.

    Spike:  You exterminated his race. What could you possibly say that would make him feel better? It's kill or be killed here. Take your bloody pick.

    Xander:  Maybe it's the syphilis talking, but, some of that made sense.
    Read the whole exchange if you think I've unfairly presented one side. The defense of Indians is weak or nonexistent while the attack on Indians is unmistakable. This is how a white writer justifies the genocide of Indians--and 200 years later, the genocide of Indian spirits.

    What could Buffy and company possibly say to make the Chumash spirit feel better? How about, "We'll tear down the mission and raise a Chumash monument in its place"? How about, "We'll sue the Catholic church for reparations for the lost land and lives"? How about, "We'll force the US government to uphold its Chumash-related treaties and recognize Chumash sovereignty"? Any of these responses might've been enough to placate the angry spirit.

    For more on the subject, see Chumash = "Fluffy Indigenous Kittens"? and TV Shows Featuring Indians.

    Below:  Spike the Indian hater gets pin-cushioned with Chumash arrows. Unfortunately, he's already dead so they don't harm him.


    Anonymous said...

    You seem to do a number of "reviews" based on Wiki entries and second hand info. Not defending the episode or anything, but that undermines any critical analysis you're doing. Season 3 Buffy just hit, season 4 is coming up, so maybe you could watch the episode first. There's also an early episode about an Incan princess, and one about Xander getting possessed by hyena demons, and maybe the ventriloquist one (I forget what the big reveal was), with Indian influences you might be interested in. The later seasons backstory about the first slayer as an Aboriginal girl forced to hunt the demonic forces of the world, who shows up once in a while with vengeful dreams and weird shadows, might count too.

    Pangs Transcript

    I don't remember this particular ep, but many of the storylines weren't really "about" the story being presented, but furthering the interactions of the main characters. Whedon also likes to play with horror and sci-fi tropes, so that may have been what he was doing here. One of the big story lines running through the series was that the vampire slayer was in love with a big bad vampire, who regained his human soul and now feels bad about the last, oh, century of mindless killing. Given that he spent the last season losing his soul, torturing Buffy's friends, then moving to LA to start a detective agency (Angel spinoff), the Scoobies/friends aren't too happy about her leaving murderers running around or trying to reason with them. Most of their monsters-of-the-week are metaphors for the things they're doing wrong in their own lives. I think the references to previous episodes - see "fluffy little kittens" and going back to what she was doing after having killed something - are lost on someone who doesn't have three seasons of backstory to see them. It's still a racist episode, but maybe not as much as you think it is?

    Spike is also a goading jack@$$, who just got implanted with a gov't brain chip so he can't vamp on people without agonizing pain, so I'd take his dialogue with a grain of salt. He's a vampire, so a "non-slayer" approach to the problem sounds stupid to him, and during that particular scene he's hungry. Another theme of the show is Buffy always trying to do something non-slayer, like talking or righting wrongs, rather than killing things and then getting killed so the next slayer can do the same. Sometimes this works, sometimes it backfires.

    It also sounds like the ear thing was vengeance for white people doing that to them first. There are a lot of people who turn into "animals" on this series, so I guess that didn't seem that odd to me.

    Love your blog!

    Anonymous said...

    Sorry about the length, I didn't realize I'd typed so much!

    Rob said...

    I don't have time to track down and watch everything I comment on. I trust critics such as Debbie Reese who have watched the show and summarized it for us. If they have a record of providing good insight into a show, there's little reason not to trust them.

    Whenever I do watch a show, it's almost always worse than the summary would lead you to believe. That's because I've studied Native stereotypes and pick up on things that most critics miss. If there was ever a case where I had to retract a summary-based criticism because it was too harsh, I can't remember it.

    Anyway, thanks for reading and enjoying Newspaper Rock.