Race, Passing, and Lynching: Angel’s “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been”

Curator's Note

Angel’s “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been” (2.2) takes us back to the second Red Scare of 1952 when Angel is living in the Hyperion Hotel amongst blacklisted writers and actors, closeted gay men, and a variety of other folks with secrets to keep and suspicions to bear. This historical interlude about McCarthyism metaphorically exaggerated by a paranoia demon is a complex exploration of race, passing, and lynching.

This episode situates the show within a history of passing in American culture and literature in which “anxiety over the unstable meaning of ‘race’” manifests in a variety of ways (Bennett 30). The episode’s destabilization of race extends to an exploration of the racist logic of blood purity, as demonstrated by Angel and Judy's conversation about blood. Judy’s blood prevents her from being “white,” and Angel’s desire for blood separates him from humanity. The power of blood links these two liminal figures, but it is also the catalyst of their rejection of each other: Judy uses the blood Angel keeps in his room to drink as evidence of his deviancy, leading to his lynching. The racist logic of blood purity is challenged, yet its power proves unsurmountable for Judy.

Jacqueline Goldsby argues that “anti-black mob murders [are] a networked, systemic phenomenon indicative of trends in national culture” and are “tool[s] of domination meant to coerce...to deny...and to subjugate...black people” (5,18). By placing Judy’s near-lynching and Angel’s actual lynching in the historical context of McCarthyism, Angel is presenting racial violence as a systemic policing of racial boundaries intimately bound to larger social and political events. However, this is done through the lynching of a white man, further complicating this episode’s exploration of race.

What are the implications of a white man allowing himself to be lynched in order to save a black woman who has been passing and thus violating the dominant racial order? Charges of racial paternalism and expressions of white guilt are not unfounded. Furthermore, Angel’s vampirism means that the hanging will not kill him. Does this allow for a metaphorical recuperation of the violence of lynching by allowing the victim to survive? If so, can we (should we?) reconcile this exploration of anti-black racism and lynching with its representation through a white subject? And finally, how might this exploration of race and racism in Angel inform conversations about race across the Whedonverse?



Taylor, your questions at the end of this post do a great job of pointing to the limitations of of the use of metaphor in supernatural shows. Despite vampirism serving as a metaphor (and thus something "different than" but also "similar to"), I do think it works best when the two subjects being compared are more closely aligned. Buffy gave us so many great stories about American middle class teenagehood and the difficulties we associate with that experience (love, sex, friendship, high school rivalries, parent-child and teacher/principle-student conflict), and its use of metaphor more often than not hightened them. This example from Angel, however, is careless both formally (it doesn't do that much to inform the viewer of Angel's experience) and in terms of content as it does not give viewers any substantial insight into racism but instead ultimately appropriates the affects of some of its most awful traditions for the benefit of the show's white protagonist.

Roxanne, Thank you for your insightful comment! I think this episode does a commendable job with exploring racial passing and the connections between Cold War-era political policing and the policing of race; but, as you say, the limitations of the vampire metaphor are exposed with Angel's lynching. As one of the few (only?) Whedonverse episodes to directly take on race, this episode is both fascinating and frustrating, especially when you consider its conclusion, which I wasn't able to discuss in my initial post. Angel leaves the hotel and its occupants to the demon, only to return 60 years later to find out that demon is still there and still feeding off the now-elderly Judy. Angel and Co. kill the demon and Angel forgives Judy for her role in his "death," and then she dies peacefully. In many passing narratives, particularly those featuring women, the passer is often punished for violating the racial order. While initially it seems as if Judy is saved from this fate, this development reveals that she is being punished and can only be redeemed a white man - deeply troubling, indeed. As you say, Roxanne, the supernatural-creature-as-metaphor approach to storytelling worked well for Buffy because its white, middle class concerns were easily rendered onto the demonic/vampiric body. "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been" demonstrates that this admittedly simplistic mode is less successful when attempting to engage with more complex questions. This, coupled with the lack of diversity on both sides of the camera, can go a long way in helping us explore the troubling representations of race in the 'Verse.

Thanks for the post, Taylor! And Roxanne, great comment about the pervasive use of metaphor in The Whedonverse. I'm not going to have any brilliant insights on this question, but I just want to draw attention to the (generally known) fact that one of the biggest critiques of Whedon's work is a lack of diversity in terms of racial representation. Whenever people throw that one at me, I never have a good response. Of course, there are some great characters of color in The Whedonverse, but they are rarely if ever central figures. When watching the pilot of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." (wow, it sure is annoying to type out that show title), I couldn't help but see the shot of J. August Richards and the unity mural at the train station as a way-too-obvious gesture towards this issue. What say we about representations of race in The Whedonverse?

Thanks, Casey! I too cringed at that shot in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot, although I was very happy to see J. August Richards back on my television, and I hope the rumors about his return to the show are true. The Whedonverse's representation (or lack thereof) of race is a tough one for both fans and acafans. On the one hand, the representation of race and engagement with questions of racism is lacking in almost all mainstream media, so we can certainly say that the Whedonverse's problems are merely indicative of larger systemic problems within the industry. But Whedon is well known for his progressive politics, articulated both in his individual activism (his well-known Equality Now award acceptance speech, his viral Romney Zombie video during the 2012 election) and in his various media projects. While certainly not without serious flaws and contradictions, Whedon’s work is generally acknowledged as popular culture fundamentally interested in complex questions of power and social justice. The glaring exception, of course, is race. From the racialized Others in Buffy, to the puzzling absence of Chinese people in Firefly’s Chinese-American new global order, the Whedonverse is fraught with overwhelming whiteness, problematic representations of people of color, and a general disinterest in interrogating race and racism as directly as other political and social issues. Perhaps in response to criticisms of the “strictly Caucasian persuasion in the ‘Dale,” Whedon’s post-Buffy shows have featured more racial diversity, but they have also squandered so many opportunities to both increase representation and engage with deeply important questions about race and racism. This brings up a larger question about diversity in the media: is the mere presence of people of color in a variety of roles "enough" (i.e., Gina Torres as Zoe and Ron Glass as Book in Firefly), or do texts also need to directly engage with the specific experiences of people of color? On the one hand, not acknowledging Zoe's identity as a mixed-race woman in what appears to be a predominantly white world can suggest that Firefly is imagining a future in which racial difference is no longer a pressing concern - is this a utopian vision of a post-racial future or just another iteration of deeply problematic claims of "colorblindness" and "not seeing race?" When shows do attempt to interact with an actor/character's race, as Angel does with Charles Gunn (J. August Richards), it runs the risk of falling into stereotypes and making the character's race THE defining factor in his/her identity.

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