[Note: I’m writing a series about consent issues in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I will post a new entry in this series every other Tuesday – or perhaps on a weekly basis, if I have the time. In this series, I will look at an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that deals with rape, sexual assault, or consent issues as a main plot point or as a featured event of the episode. I will examine these episodes in chronological order. If, in my writing of this series, you feel that I have skipped an episode that should be a part of this series, feel free to submit a guest post, and I will consider publishing it.]
EPISODE: “Go Fish”
INCIDENT: Attempted assault, setup for assault
PERPETRATOR: Cameron Walker, Coach Marin
VICTIM: Buffy Summers
The specifics: Cameron and Buffy go on a drive together. He bores her with talk about swimming and then asks her if she’s wearing a bra. Over her objections, he locks the car doors and creepily tells her that “I’m not going to hurt you.” She replies, “Oh, it’s not me that I’m worried about.” He makes a pass at her, but she grabs him by the back of the head and slams his face into the steering wheel, breaking his nose. In the nurse’s office, Cameron claims that Buffy led him on and gestures to her outfit, commenting on the way she dresses. Coach Marin tells Buffy to dress more appropriately.
Later, after several members of the swim team turn into fish monsters, the coach orders Buffy into the sewers, holding a gun to her head. When she jumps in, she sees the floating dead body of the school nurse and assumes that the coach intends to feed her to the fish monsters. He replies, “Oh, they’ve already had their dinner. But boys have other needs,” implying that he intends to let the fish monsters gang-rape her.
The mind of the perpetrator: As a member of the swim team who is used to receiving perks and privileges denied to other students, Cameron sees Buffy as another privilege. He seems like a decent (if pretentious) guy on the night he first talks to Buffy at the party, but on the day of the drive, he ignores all of the signs that she’s bored out of her mind, and immediately jumps from saying he wants her to be comfortable to asking if she’s wearing a bra and locking her in the car. He’s perfected the art of seeming nice and non-threatening until he lets his true colors show.
Later, in the nurse’s office, he complains that Buffy was leading him on. “Look at the way she dresses!” It’s unclear whether he truly believes Buffy was leading him on, or if he’s only using that as an excuse because he knows it will work on Principal Snyder and the coach. Based on the smirk he gives Buffy after the coach echos his comments about her outfit, I’m leaning towards the latter option.
As for the coach, he agrees with Cameron that Buffy should be dressing more appropriately – “This isn’t a dance club.” But Buffy’s so-called “inappropriate” dress comes in handy for him later when he decides to toss Buffy to the fish monsters. He also describes the fish monsters as having “needs,” still calling them “boys.” To him, women are disposable, and he gets angry with them when they fail to show the proper school spirit and don’t enjoy being victimized.
The victim’s perspective: Buffy responds to both incidents with more humor than most people would. After Cameron tries to attack her and she gets blamed for wearing an inappropriate outfit, she rants to her friends:
“BUFFY: So I’m treated like the baddie just because he has a sprained wrist and a bloody nose. And I don’t have a scratch on me, which, granted, hurts my case a little on the surface, but meanwhile he gets away with it because he’s on the ‘aren’t we the most’ swim team… …who, by the way, if no one’s noticed, have been acting like real jerks lately…”
After she gets stuck in the sewer, she says, with a mix of frustration and wry humor:
“BUFFY: Great. This is just what my reputation needs: that I did it with the entire swim team.”
She’s about to be attacked by three swim monsters, and she’s more worried about her reputation than about her safety. Granted, she is the Slayer and has more confidence than most women would have in this situation. But I feel sad that Buffy, in addition to worrying over her reputation for being violent and unstable, now has to worry about her reputation of being “slutty.”
What does this episode say about misogyny and rape culture?
This episode has a lot of victim-blaming and slut-shaming. Buffy is the one who is attacked, but she’s blamed for dressing inappropriately. She defended herself – something that assault victims are always encouraged to do – but only further incriminates herself in the process. Sure, Cameron does have a broken nose and Buffy doesn’t appear to be injured, but his word is automatically taken over hers. He’s worth more to the school administration. He’s a successful athlete who brings acclaim and honor to the school, and she’s a violent troublemaker. Buffy’s not the “right” kind of victim.
And all of the adults are complicit in this victim-blaming. Principal Snyder threatens action against her if Cameron’s nose doesn’t heal before the meet. The nurse remains silent. And even Giles seems annoyed and bemused that Buffy is ranting about being blamed for Cameron’s nose, irritated that she doesn’t seem to be paying attention to the suspicious demon behavior. There are bigger problems than the attempted assault, Buffy – pay attention!
At the same time, if you consider the case of the Texas cheerleader who was kicked off of her team for refusing to cheer for her admitted rapist (link here), Buffy got off easy.
The victim-blaming of Buffy is based on the idea that certain people are special and deserve privileges. (Cameron has a right to do whatever he wants because he’s a great swimmer, etc.) And in this episode, male characters aren’t the only ones who spout this line of thinking. Cordelia is a proponent of this philosophy.
“CORDELIA: Xander, I know you take pride in being the voice of the common wuss, but the truth is, certain people are entitled to special privileges. They’re called winners. That’s the way the world works.
XANDER: And what about that nutty ‘all men are created equal’ thing?
CORDELIA: Propaganda spouted out by the ugly and less deserving.
XANDER: I think that was Lincoln.
CORDELIA: Disgusting mole and stupid hat.
WILLOW: Actually, it was Jefferson.
CORDELIA: Kept slaves. Remember?”
Obviously, this is meant to be funny (and succeeds in this goal, in my opinion) because we’re not supposed to agree with Cordelia (though she does make a good point about Jefferson’s hypocrisy). She’s also not directly supporting the idea that men are entitled to women’s bodies. Being a former Queen Bee, Cordelia thinks that popular boys and girls deserve more than the “common wuss.” But the sense of entitlement still perpetuates a rape culture.
On another note, there’s an interesting dynamic between Buffy and Gage (Wentworth Miller), another athlete on the swim team. She not-so-subtly follows him around, trying to protect him from the monster that supposedly killed Dodd and Cameron. When he asks her why she’s stalking him, she replies:
“BUFFY: Well, um… It’s a little embarrassing. You see, I’m a swim groupie…You know, there’s just something about the smell of chlorine on a guy. Oh, baby.”
This doesn’t work on Gage, and he doesn’t believe her when she says there’s something after him. He tells her to stop harassing him and that Cameron told him about her “games.” His reaction is both understandable (because Buffy was following him and her cover story sounds ridiculous) and unfair (because he believes the trash talk Cameron spread about Buffy).
When he leaves the Bronze, he mutters to himself about Buffy being a “psycho bitch” and expressing a wish that someone would “take her down a peg.” Then Angel attacks him and Buffy fights him off. Scared, and his tough demeanor completely gone, Gage asks Buffy to walk him home. The next day during swim practice, he stops in the middle of the lane and rather adorably smiles and waves to her.
Now, I’m still disappointed that Gage turned into a fish monster, because Wentworth Miller is cute and Gage was the only human who ever had chemistry with Buffy. But I was also interested in his complete turnaround regarding Buffy. Is it realistic for a guy to go from calling a girl a “psycho bitch” in one scene to making puppy eyes at her the next, even if she saved his life? They must have had a pretty interesting conversation while she was walking him home. I’m not sure I believe that his turnaround would happen that quickly. I’m also not sure I care, because again – the only human who ever had chemistry with Buffy.
On a final note, I’d like to address the tone of this episode and how it addresses victim-blaming and slut-shaming. The episode is critical of these two things, but the tone of the story is so lighthearted and silly that I’m not sure the message gets across. It’s hard to take victim-blaming seriously in an episode about fish monsters.
On a final FINAL note, I’d like to point out that in an episode where Buffy was criticized for dressing like she was in a dance club, the direction never objectified her or indeed, any other woman on the show. The only body that was objectified, with a slow pan-up, was Xander’s. The link is here. And this is where I have to admit to some of my own hypocrisy, because even though I can see this as objectification and acknowledge that objectification is bad, I’m also not really complaining in this instance. (And I’m supposed to believe he and Cordy never had sex? BULL.)