Why Angel Doesn’t Work

I really like this piece on vampires as privilege. It reminds me of something I meant to write last summer but didn’t. It might be something that everyone has already figured out, but I haven’t read it anywhere, so I’m gonna write it.

Some Buffy and Angel spoilers below.

I watched a lot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel last summer. I had already seen most of Buffy, but I caught up on some of the episodes I hadn’t seen, and I watched in order story arcs that I’d seen before in bits and pieces. It was good. Buffy generally is. I mean, it isn’t close to perfect – it’s super racist, to start off with – but has some good messages about gender and it nicely critiques the helpless damsel trope that used to be so prevalent in horror movies. (Has that trope actually gone away some or do I just not watch enough movies to notice it?) I hadn’t watched as much Angel before. I knew the overall storyline, and I wanted to know how those events actually happened. I figured I would enjoy it the way I always enjoy watching Buffy. Instead, I decided that Angel just doesn’t work the way Buffy does, and there’s a very good reason for that.

If Buffy (the character) is the shallow, helpless, blonde cheerleader who finally learns to protect herself, Angel (also the character) represents white, straight, cis, male privilege, and its resulting guilt. He spends about 150 years living as a metaphor for sexual violence, and then when a pissed off family curses him with a soul, he feels guilty about all of the horrible things he has done. I think he works as a character on Buffy. It makes sense to me that they would fall in love with each other (a teenage girl who grows up too fast in a way that no one else can relate to and a guilt-ridden man who hasn’t really grown up yet sort of fit well together, if not in the most healthy way). On Buffy, Angel tries to fix the problem he used to be a part of by working with the Slayer. The minute he experiences true happiness, he loses his soul. This also makes sense. When people with privilege forget about their privilege, they become part of the problem. On Buffy, Angel is an ally, but most people don’t fully trust him, and Buffy makes the decisions.

On Angel, Angel’s the boss. He briefly puts Wesley in charge in the second season, but the show still revolves around him and he generally ends up being the hero. The audience is supposed to identify and sympathize with Angel, the guy who is one moment of pure happiness away from switching sides. I think Joss Whedon forgot, or maybe never realized, that this isn’t Angel’s fight. It’s Buffy’s fight. It’s the Slayers’ fight. It’s the humans’ fight. It’s the fight of the people that actually suffered as a result of the things that Angel, and others like him, did. Angel can help, but he can’t be the solution when he caused so much of the problem.

(Also, the show just doesn’t deliver on the same critiques of gender in fantasy and horror movies that Buffy does. They have, like, a zillion mystical pregnancies and don’t handle any of them particularly well, and I then I just stopped watching when I got to the episode in the third season where Angel fully prohibits Darla from terminating the pregnancy she doesn’t want to have. Awful awful awful.)

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2 Comments on “Why Angel Doesn’t Work”

  1. Q. Pheevr says:

    “The minute he experiences true happiness, he loses his soul. This also makes sense. When people with privilege forget about their privilege, they become part of the problem.”

    Oh, I like that! I hadn’t thought of it that way before.

    Have you seen this other response to meganphntmgrl’s post? It talks about Being Human as a show that does portray vampires as a privileged class:

    The main vampire character, Mitchell, plays it like he’s oppressed, but really what makes his life hard is that he turns his back on his privilege, he tries to not be like the other vampires. But like white hipsters fetishizing poverty, whenever he’s REALLY in trouble, whenever he slips up, the vampire system of power is there to catch him.

    From what I’ve seen of Being Human, I think Mitchell actually is a lot of the things Angel could have been, or was supposed to be. (Irish, for one.) When Mitchell goes back and forth between being an ally of humans (and werewolves) and being a bloodthirsty fiend, it’s not because there’s a good/evil toggle switch that’s been installed in him by exoticized Romani; it’s because he’s a fallible being torn between what he knows is right and what’s easy and comfortable and satisfies his appetites. (There’s a fair bit of vampire-as-drug-addict in here, too.) In addition to being more realistic (and, after all, isn’t realism what we’re all looking for in our TV vampires?), this also contributes to making Mitchell (in my opinion) a more interesting character to watch than Angel.


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