Future Tense

How Buffy’s “Hush” Speaks to Censorship

Bald vampires screaming in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
20th Century Fox Television

Imagine a new regime coming into power whose officials take away the voices of its citizens. They do so for several reasons, including so that no one can speak about their evil deeds. We’d likely think of that as a monstrous act.

This scenario is the premise of “Hush,” the 10th episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s fourth season. It’s a remarkable program in the history of television because about two-thirds of the episode has no voices, offering us a rare opportunity to observe the dynamics of a voiceless community.

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“Hush” was the brainchild of Buffy creator Joss Whedon. In his director’s commentary on the DVD, he says that he was stagnating as a director and wanted to get away from a version of television that he called “radio with faces.” Thus came the idea of removing a Buffy staple, its witty dialog—though Whedon demonstrated through “Hush” how wit can occur in the absence of speech. “When people stop talking, they start communicating,” he says. He wanted to explore the limits of language. He wrote “Hush” and directed the episode, and in doing so, he opened a door to a greater understanding of censorship and speech freedom.

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As it is in “Hush,” the removal of the people’s voice is generally portrayed in democratic societies as an evil act. The history of the United States is punctuated by situations in which the government restricted speech—that is, federal officials censored their citizens. In the early 20th century, these incidents of censorship—typically involving political speech contrary to government policy—were ratified by the U.S. Supreme Court. Gradually, however, the concept of speech freedom broadened, as did how the First Amendment was perceived. Ultimately, the freedom to criticize the government and its officials was seen as the “central meaning” of the First Amendment by the U.S. Supreme Court in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964). This ruling was in response to a government official trying to punish (and ultimately silence) the Times for content that was critical of him. The Times was also at the center of another government attempt to censor a story. In the Pentagon Papers case of 1971, the Nixon administration’s attempt to suppress stories about a leaked government report was rejected. More recently, we’ve seen President Donald Trump repeatedly express desire to stop the publication of books that are critical of him—textbook examples of censorship. As the Supreme Court has articulated, the United States has “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

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In “Hush,” the dynamics that come with an inability to speak come to life. Whedon built the episode around a fairy tale come true in which six horrific characters known as the Gentlemen—some of the most chilling in the history of visual media—come to town. These “cadaverous morticians,” as one writer called them, want seven human hearts from people still alive at the time of their dissections. So that no one can hear the screams, the Gentlemen first mysteriously remove everyone’s voices while they sleep.

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“Hush” fully embraces the monster-as-metaphor template, with the Gentlemen as representations of government officials who restrict speech. Under a censorship regime, messages, especially those perceived as being contrary to the state’s ends, are banned by removing the political voices of both citizens and media. Like the Gentlemen, those who censor often do so to conceal truths. As Yale historian Timothy Snyder writes, “Since the truth sets you free, people who oppress you resist the truth.” Modeling some heads of state both past and present, the Gentlemen don’t care what norms have been established; they’re all about getting their way.

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We also see that nonspoken communication has its limits, as in the “Hush” scene in which Scooby Gang patriarch Giles attempts to organize Buffy and her comrades. Already deprived of their voices, their hand gestures are misinterpreted, to humorous effect. When asked how the Gentlemen might be vanquished, for example, a seated and empty-handed Buffy indicates how she thrusts wooden stakes into the hearts of vampires. Her friends think that the hand motion means something else entirely. Communication here, as in other scenes, also occurs through writing—what might be regarded as “written speech.” It, too, can be misinterpreted. Thus, while there are alternatives, the spoken word is often the best communication platform. Its absence is harmful to individuals and communities alike. “Society is crumbling” in “Hush,” Whedon says, portraying how a lot of people withdraw into their homes, while those who take to the streets engender chaos. Some might suggest it’s a typical day in 2020.

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“Hush” suggests that as evil as eliminating a people’s voice can be, it is even worse when done as a means to an evil end. With apologies for picking the low-hanging fruit, I am tempted to say that removing speech cuts the heart out of society. This notion is easily applied to government censors who seek to hide the truth, intruding on citizens’ ability to express those thoughts. Unfettered speech, on the other hand—through the exchange and debate of ideas—is a pathway to the truth. Like the Gentlemen, authoritarian leaders often get their way as long as dissenting voices are silenced. In “Hush,” when the townspeople regained their power of speech, the Gentlemen’s plans—and their heads—were blown apart.

Though Whedon intended to illustrate how communication is sometimes impeded by speech, “Hush” highlights the immense value of the spoken word and the devastating effects of its loss. Words matter. In the end, “Hush” is an episode that while largely voiceless, speaks volumes.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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