ReviewsBtVS and Consent Issues: Episode 6.19 – “Seeing Red”

[Note: I’m writing a series about consent issues in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I will post a new entry in this series every month. 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: “Seeing Red”
INCIDENT: Attempted rape
PERPETRATOR: Spike
VICTIM: Buffy Summers

The specifics: This episode takes place shortly after Buffy officially ended her sexual relationship with Spike, and Spike and Anya had drunk rebound sex. Dawn comes to visit Spike in his crypt and implies that Spike hurt Buffy by sleeping with Anya. In the meantime, Buffy gets injured in a fight with a vampire and hurts her back. She draws a bath and Spike comes in to talk to her, apologizing for what he did with Anya. Spike tells her that he’s been in a lot of pain and she should’ve let Xander kill him. Buffy tells him she couldn’t do that, and Spike assumes it’s because Buffy loves him and won’t admit it to herself. He goes over to her and pleads with her to love him, and when he gets physical with her, she hits her back on the tub and seems to exacerbate her injury. He holds her down on the floor and the pleading turns into an expression of anger as he pulls at her shirt and says, “I’m going to make you feel it.” She finally kicks him off of her and sends him flying across the room. Spike looks shocked at what he almost did, and Buffy yells, “Ask me again why I could never love you!”

The mind of the perpetrator: Spike visits Buffy because he feels guilty about sleeping with Anya. He doesn’t go into her bathroom because he expects to have sex with her. When he believes that Buffy loves him, though, he becomes obsessed with trying to make her admit that she loves him, and thinks that if he’s “inside” her again, she’ll admit to loving him. He’s instantly regretful when she kicks him off of her, and tries to apologize.

The victim’s perspective: Buffy just wants to take a goddamn bath and Spike decides that then is the perfect time to talk to her. She admits to having feelings for him but won’t call it “love.” When he holds her down on the floor, she’s crying and begging for him to stop. Any trust she had in him is broken.

What does this episode say about misogyny and rape culture?

*takes off eyeglasses, Giles-style, polishes glasses, puts them back on, sighs, pours brandy because this might take awhile*

First of all, the very most offensive thing about this triggering and upsetting episode is the fact that the writers and producers decided to put a commercial break in the middle of the attempted rape scene. Spike hold Buffy down, his eyes wild, and then there are a few minutes of ads. “WILL Buffy be raped by her ex-lover? Find out after a word from our sponsor, Acuvue 2 contact lenses!”

Given that, it’s not surprising that this episode manages to be pretty uh, NOT GOOD in its handling of sexual assault.

Spike’s crime, for example, is portrayed as an act of desperation. He becomes desperate to make Buffy admit that she loves him, and seems to “come to his senses” once she finally kicks him across the room. In other words, his attempted rape of Buffy is portrayed as a crime of unrestrained sexual passion. He has no intention of hurting her, but when in the presence of the woman he loves, he…wait for it…can’t seem to help himself.

I don’t need to explain why that’s a dangerous message, right? Good.

Then we have the issue of Buffy’s injury. Buffy hurting her back before the attempted rape makes me uncomfortable. I feel like the writers put the injury in place because they needed an excuse for Buffy to not kick Spike off of her immediately. They wanted their drawn-out attempted rape scene, and they thought it would be unrealistic for Buffy to NOT fight back more quickly if she were at her full strength. This squicks me out. If the writers wanted to show Spike crossing the line and violating her consent, I think they could have done it without having a protracted scene without a weakened Buffy unable to fight back right away.

I also think that “Seeing Red” taints Buffy and Spike’s relationship. Their dynamic was always a little – okay, a lot – unhealthy, but their kinkier acts – public sex, using handcuffs, some BDSM-y moments – were fun to watch. Buffy the Vampire Slayer would often show the “good guys” having rather vanilla sex, while the “bad guys” (Spike/Drusilla, Angel/Drusilla) would get it on with the kinkier stuff. Buffy and Spike were the first example of a “good guy” and a semi-good guy getting a little kinky, where at least one person was in love with the other, and it was refreshing to see that the more adventurous sex wasn’t reserved for the villains on the show. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but this attempted rape almost seems like a cosmic punishment for Buffy exploring a more adventurous side to her sexuality – “If you do some kinky stuff with a guy, he’s going to try to rape you later!”

One thing I can say for “Seeing Red” is that Spike’s act is at least portrayed to be wrong. It’s not glossed over like other murky consent issues presented in Buffy the Vampire Slayer thus far. But we’re meant to feel equal sympathy for Spike and Buffy, and that’s not cool, because Buffy didn’t try to rape anybody.

Finally, we come to the issue of why. Why did the writers include a scene where Spike tried to rape Buffy?

The reason was simple. The Buffy team had decided that they wanted Spike to earn his soul – not be cursed with it like Angel was, but to actively pursue it – and they needed an inciting incident for his character. They needed for Spike to do something horrible, so horrible that he would hate himself for it and want to make sure that he would never do it again.

Hence, Spike tries to rape the woman he loves.

I have to admit that, from a storytelling perspective, this choice makes a strange sort of sense. There’s not much else Spike could do, at that point in his character’s journey, that would prompt him to seek out a soul. At that point, Spike’s sense of morality is still very small. He’s in love with Buffy and he has some affection for Dawn, but he’s ambivalent about the other Scoobs and doesn’t think much about humanity and life. He doesn’t concern himself with questions like, “What is the good and moral thing to do?” He concerns himself with questions like, “What can I do that will make Buffy love me?” His love for her is intense and strong, but selfish and self-centered.

I read a suggestion that Spike should have tried to turn Buffy into a vampire instead of trying to rape her. An attempted vamping would have kept the violation of consent within the rules of the genre, so I can see why that idea is appealing. It’s hard to argue that an attempted vamping has troubling real-life implications. Still, the plot device doesn’t entirely work, because I don’t think Spike ever wanted Buffy to be a vampire. He talked a lot about wanting her to “be in the dark, with me,” but I don’t think he wanted her to be a vampire. From a characterization standpoint, an attempted vamping wouldn’t make sense.

There’s only one other thing that I can see working as an inciting incident to provoke Spike into seeking his soul, and that’s if Spike had tried to kill Dawn. And I don’t think Spike would do that. For one thing, he couldn’t do it at the time, because he had the chip in his head, and Buffy was the only human being he could physically harm. I also think he has too much affection for Dawn to do that.

So, the writers use rape as a plot point, to set the (attempted rapist) male character on his journey to become a better person. We see more of Spike’s reaction to the attempted rape than we do Buffy’s. That is A Problem.

What makes it worse is the scene between Spike and Clem shortly after the attempted rape, where he feels momentarily guilty, then questions why he feels guilty, then curses Buffy for turning him into a person who feels guilt about trying to rape someone, and then leaves town making threatening messages to Buffy under his breath.

This is all in the pursuit of MISDIRECTION. The writers wanted us to think Spike was leaving town to get his chip removed, so they could have a surprise twist ending cliffhanger at the end of the season where whoa, Spike got his SOUL instead.

For the sake of misdirection, we had to watch three episodes where Spike shows anger and bitterness towards the woman he tried to rape.

That was an extraordinarily bad idea, and the second-most offensive thing about the attempted rape storyline (the first being the commercial break in the middle of the scene). After all that, we were still expected to sympathize with Spike and root for his redemption.

As a matter of fact, I did root for Spike in season seven, and I even rooted for him and Buffy together, but not until the second time I watched the season through, several years later. The first time I watched the seventh season, I couldn’t reconcile the attempted rape and the writers’ handling of it with the redemption story they were trying to tell.

Back when “Seeing Red” first aired, I was impressed with the writers for their attempt at a “brave” storyline, but now, I don’t see anything remotely brave or interesting about reinforcing a stereotype about rape being a “crime of passion.” I don’t think the misdirection was worth it, especially since everyone and her mother saw the “twist ending” coming from miles away, and if the writers really wanted to make Spike seek his soul, they should’ve given him a different motivation. (I can’t think of a good one right now, but heck, I wasn’t paid to write for the show, was I?)

As for why I liked the Buffy/Spike relationship in season seven despite the events of “Seeing Red”…well, I’ll save that for another post.

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24 Responses to BtVS and Consent Issues: Episode 6.19 – “Seeing Red”

  1. Gareth says:

    Well the idea of him getting his soul back as I remember it was that Spike realised that he was too changed to be what he was.

    So in a buffy where seeing red didn’t happen how’s this for an idea

    Spike tries to apologise, It doesn’t go we’ll he leaves without attempted rape. He tries to go back to old scene, hang out with a few demons or vampires etc. However it doesn’t quite feel right and he gives up.

    He feels rejected by both worlds (what he was and by buffy) so he goes to try and find out who he wants to be and that leads to soul quest.

    What do you think?

    Some behind the scenes info on the episode

    Apparently this was the hardest scene James masters has ever had to do and he won’t do such a scene again.

    Also something I thought you might find interesting is that apparently this scene is based of the experience of the writer who tried to force herself on an ex who broke up with her in the hope that sex would stop the split.

    (Because in worried about misunderstanding I am not trying to condone what Spike did or how the writers handled the events, I just thought some background detail would be interesting)

    • Lady T says:

      Spike tries to apologise, It doesn’t go we’ll he leaves without attempted rape. He tries to go back to old scene, hang out with a few demons or vampires etc. However it doesn’t quite feel right and he gives up.

      He feels rejected by both worlds (what he was and by buffy) so he goes to try and find out who he wants to be and that leads to soul quest.

      What do you think?

      I can see that working. It wouldn’t have been as dramatic!!! but heck, that episode ended with Buffy and Tara getting shot and Willow’s eyes flashing red to indicate she was going evil again, so it didn’t really need a dramatic attempted rape on top of that.

      I didn’t think you were trying to condone Spike’s actions or the writers 🙂 I did know about Marsters’ opinion of the scene and the background information.

  2. The Library Harlot says:

    So I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but I didn’t realize that Spike’s purpose for his whole trial deal was to earn his soul until JUST NOW READING THIS.

    I have seen this show over and over again and, due to the misdirection and even way the demon shaman guy phrases things, I always thought Spike was tricked into getting his soul. It never read to me that Spike’s quest was for anything other than to get his chip out. Even now, thinking it through, my original read still makes more sense to me given everything shown in the show: Spike tries to rape Buffy, freaks the hell out, is driven down a path of crazy badness, continually talking about how he’s going to show her, etc, the demon shaman mocking his weakness in being neutered and needing magical help, and ‘getting what he deserves’–then cursing Spike with a soul.

    Maybe I’m totally crazy, but that still makes more sense to me. The massive amounts of deliberate misdirection just… I dunno. They don’t work for me. I don’t buy it–that someone as ‘desperate for redemption’ to the point of going on a torturous quest to regain his soul would be badmouthing the woman he loves/tried to rape to that degree…?

    Sorry if that was long, rambling, and didn’t make sense. It’s late and I’m tired.

    • Lady T says:

      You don’t have to feel embarrassed. Almost everyone thought Spike intended to get his chip removed. I saw the misdirection coming from a mile away and I knew that he would end up with a soul, but I still thought his INTENTION was to get his chip removed. The writers even instructed James Marsters to play it that way.

      Then the writers gave interviews shortly after the season finale and explained that no, Spike always wanted to get his soul out. David Fury, Jane Espenson, and Joss Whedon all confirmed it – rather obnoxiously, especially Whedon himself: http://www.allaboutspike.com/africa.html.

      They didn’t anticipate how an audience might react badly to seeing their romantic male lead try to rape the heroine and protagonist and then act really angry towards her afterwards, and then got sarcastic with the same audience for not understanding how misdirection and plot twists work. Just goes to show how little they thought about trying to handle a rape scene sensitively. It was just any other plot device to them.

      • Wow. The attitude of those comments is really upsetting to me. I already had issues with this episode and it’s really hard to watch (it’s triggering for me, given past experiences), but those comments just… it makes me want to not watch the show. Which is really saying something, since I LOVE Buffy. How incredibly insulting. “OMG you didn’t get that we were JOKING? It was just MISDIRECTION don’t you know how plots work?”

        Um… when it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck, I’m supposed to be totally cool when it turns out to be a fish because PLOT TWIST.

        • Lady T says:

          Yeah, I don’t blame you for being upset. Their attitude was pretty insulting. The whole plot was so badly conceived from beginning to end that I can’t even be mad at Spike anymore. I’m mad at the people behind the scenes for writing him that way, if that makes any sense.

    • Itti says:

      I also thought, when I saw the “twist ending”, that it had been a mistake and that that hadn’t been what Spike intended. It was only halfway through the next series that I realised he had wanted to get his soul back all along.

      With good misdirection, you think one thing until a key event happens, at which point you think “oh my God, it wasn’t *this*, it was *that* all along!”

      This misdirection was just confusing. I think it would have been better to play it straight if they couldn’t do what they did well (which they didn’t).

      • Lady T says:

        With good misdirection, you think one thing until a key event happens, at which point you think “oh my God, it wasn’t *this*, it was *that* all along!”

        Exactly. This was misdirection that didn’t bother to make the previous events make any sense

  3. I had a little bit of a different take on the portrayal of the rape. While I understand your concern about it being portrayed as a crime of passion, I took it as making the point that no actually means no, and that even if Spike’s intent was to make Buffy realize she loved him, it was still rape. Also, it says to me that even if Buffy agreed to some BDSM aspects to sex in the past, it’s still rape if this time they are not playing and she is saying no. I feel like these are important messages. I am friends with a criminal attorney who often presents these types of scenarios to me and argues that they are not “really” rape because the man didn’t mean it to be rape, or the couple had a past relationship, or the woman previously agreed to some type of rough sex so that’s “all” that happened. More disturbing, a number of women and men I’ve talked to who are not defense attorneys echo these types of thoughts, adding to the idea that once a woman has sex with a man, and even more so if it’s any type of kinky sex, she’s basically consented to anything for all time. So I liked that the Buffy episode drew that distinction. It’s sad that it’s still a point that needs to be made, but I believe it does.

    • Lady T says:

      That’s a really interesting perspective and I hadn’t considered that one before, so thank you for bringing it up here. You’re right that, despite this episode’s faults, it does make clear that what Spike is doing is WRONG and Buffy is NOT consenting.

  4. Branwen says:

    I hated, hated, hated that scene, and in my head canon it didn’t exist. It wasn’t just the way they handled it, although that definitely helped – it also just seemed out of character for Spike. There were plenty of times that he clearly wanted to kill her after he fell in love with her, especially in season 5, but there was never a suggestion that he wanted to rape her, or even considered doing it – not even after he found out he could hurt her. I felt like they went to that because it was convenient, and not because it actually made sense.

    I do see the difficulty in finding a suitable catalyst, but I think that there are other things they could have done. He could have just blown up at her and thrown a lot of really specific details in her face in front of her friends and/or Dawn – that would have been plenty humiliating. Or Xander could have pushed him too far, and Spike might have decided to do something like really, legitimately try to set him on fire. He can’t hurt people, but it was never really established how far that goes in terms of things that indirectly cause harm. “Ask me again why I could never love you” would certainly apply to public humiliation or the attempted murder of her best friend, and I think that the outrage and disgust could have also had that effect if they’d been moving him toward it, anyway.

    Just my $.02. Ugh, I hate that scene so much.

    • Lady T says:

      Or Xander could have pushed him too far, and Spike might have decided to do something like really, legitimately try to set him on fire.

      I could very easily see that happening, especially since Spike found Xander the most annoying of all the Scoobs (although I also believe that, had Spike been human or Xander a vampire, they would have been total BFFs, since Spike is so much more of a dork than he thinks he is).

      I also think the public humiliation thing could’ve worked, because it was established pretty clearly that soul-free Spike was never able to love Buffy selflessly. He could’ve tried to get revenge on Buffy with the public humiliation, then realize that the satisfaction of tearing her down isn’t as satisfying as he’d hoped, and THEN realize that he was never, in his current state, going to be able to love her “the way she deserves.”

    • “I hated, hated, hated that scene, and in my head canon it didn’t exist. It wasn’t just the way they handled it, although that definitely helped – it also just seemed out of character for Spike. There were plenty of times that he clearly wanted to kill her after he fell in love with her, especially in season 5, but there was never a suggestion that he wanted to rape her, or even considered doing it – not even after he found out he could hurt her. I felt like they went to that because it was convenient, and not because it actually made sense.”

      ^ Omg, yes to everything you just wrote. I hated that entire episode because of that scene. I loved Spike’s character since the moment he was introduced and that rape scene ruined season 6 beyond redemption if it weren’t for “Once More With Feeling”. FYI, the music ep is the only reason I bought season 6 but that’s another story. And I agree, it was completely out of character for Spike, heck it was out of character for the both of them. Buffy has been injured before but I don’t remember it ever being bad enough that she can’t fight back. She has super healing powers so it’s not like she can’t hurt herself more just to get away (which okay.. sounds terrible but you know what I mean). I hate how the entire thing is set up because it almost made it look like she let get as far as she did, which wouldn’t have been the case if she doesn’t have super powers. It’s been years since I’ve seen that ep but it ruined how I saw Spike till the end of the show and that’s saying a lot because he was my favorite villain.

  5. Roxana says:

    >Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but this attempted rape almost seems like a cosmic punishment for Buffy exploring a more adventurous side to her sexuality – “If you do some kinky stuff with a guy, he’s going to try to rape you later!”<

    Thank you for articulating the problems I had sort of instinctively, notverywellthoughtout-ishly, with this episode. [When I watched it just a few months ago for the first time. I'm a Scoobies newbie.] I couldn't put my finger on it — didn't want to get that much into a plot I found so discomfiting (and just, really, didn't want to dive back into any time soon), and so wasn't really able to be clear, even with myself, on why I found it problematic (beyond the obvious of not wanting to watch that scene again).

    That underlying idea of "she got herself into this" is right on the nose. Not "she deserves this" exactly — like you said, the message is very clearly that Spike's actions are Not Okay, they're not advocating for it as a GOOD thing in any way — but, somehow, that it's the inevitable result of Buffy's actions and relationship with him. The idea she got herself into this mess by foolin' around with a vampire she knew was No Good. If she hadn't said yes to it once, she wouldn't be here now. If she hadn't walked down that dark alley, if she hadn't worn that short skirt. She doesn't deserve it, but, sadly shaking the head, she did get herself into it, and she should have known better, and it's fate, or karma, or punishment — whatever word, but a judgment on Buffy.

    • Lady T says:

      The idea she got herself into this mess by foolin’ around with a vampire she knew was No Good. If she hadn’t said yes to it once, she wouldn’t be here now. If she hadn’t walked down that dark alley, if she hadn’t worn that short skirt.

      Exactly. And it’s possible that the writers didn’t intend for that meaning to come across. But Buffy’s arc in season six strongly paralleled Willow’s in many ways. With Willow, magic was a gateway drug to…more magic, I guess (man, the execution of that storyline was a mess), and Buffy and Willow both struggled with control and temptation all throughout the season. So I can’t help thinking that Buffy’s kinky sex was meant to be a gateway drug to rape, in a sense.

      • That underlying idea of “she got herself into this” is right on the nose. Not “she deserves this” exactly — like you said, the message is very clearly that Spike’s actions are Not Okay, they’re not advocating for it as a GOOD thing in any way — but, somehow, that it’s the inevitable result of Buffy’s actions and relationship with him.

        I’m new to the show and the fandom as of last year myself, and I much the same reaction. (have you read gabrielleabelle’s meta on LJ, “buffy’s bad sex life”?) I don’t agree with all of her points but she does a good job of outlining the sex-negative messages on the show specifically in terms of Buffy’s story.
        http://gabrielleabelle.livejournal.com/3953.html

  6. Ceres says:

    The attitude towards Spike in BtVS is bizarre. I’ll admit to starting to hate the show around season 5 and I haven’t watched the last two seasons. However, already in S4&5 it started to become obvious that the writers liked Spike way too much and were setting up ways to have him have a character arc where he becomes a more noble character, whether through self-sacrifice or (for instance) by pursuing a soul.

    The main problem is the nature of vampires: they are soulless monsters, unrepentant mass murderers and more importantly, a twisted mockery of the original person. They should be killed, it is simply inexcusable for Buffy&Co to leave Spike wandering around and befriending him. As soon as his chip is removed he will kill again, as long as he is a demon there was no way for him to ever redeem himself. Buffy having a sexual relationship with him should be horrifying to all parties involved, it is the ultimate degradation of her character.

    Spike trying to rape her is then simply the natural outcome, with his nature as a monster who associates with Buffy. Spike can not truly be representative or symbolic for men in general and as such I don’t think the show can really turn this story line into a comment on society (rape culture and victim blaming etc.), the specific mythology set up in the Buffy universe doesn’t really allow this. Him trying to rape Buffy is precisely the responsibility of Buffy, the same as how putting your hand in the cage of a lion will make it your fault if you get wounded.

    • Lady T says:

      Him trying to rape Buffy is precisely the responsibility of Buffy, the same as how putting your hand in the cage of a lion will make it your fault if you get wounded.

      No. That argument is never appropriate, not in this context, not ever. Putting your hand in the cage of a lion WILL make it your fault if you get wounded, but lions don’t typically try to rape people.

      Your argument that the portrayal of Spike is contradictory to the show’s stated mythology about vampires is a valid one, but it really doesn’t matter in the context of him trying to rape Buffy. Whether his character development was well-done or not, whether it’s contradictory or not, the fact is they were portraying Spike as having human feelings and feeling love for Buffy at that point in the show, and then he tried to rape her.

  7. Pingback: BtVS and Consent Issues: Buffy and Spike, Post-”Seeing Red” | Theresa Basile

  8. Misha says:

    After reading a good bit of articles on the Buffy/Spike relationship and multiple specifically on Seeing Red, I’m finally able to comment on at least a small portion of the issues being touched on. You said:
    “Spike’s crime, for example, is portrayed as an act of desperation. He becomes desperate to make Buffy admit that she loves him, and seems to “come to his senses” once she finally kicks him across the room. In other words, his attempted rape of Buffy is portrayed as a crime of unrestrained sexual passion. He has no intention of hurting her, but when in the presence of the woman he loves, he…wait for it…can’t seem to help himself.

    I don’t need to explain why that’s a dangerous message, right? Good.”

    I agree that this is a dangerous message, however I don’t agree that that is how it was intended to come across. Another commenter shared some of my views on this as well. Buffy and Spike’s sexual history is not very cut and dry, it’s not black and white. The first time they had sex it seems like Spike would be the one to force himself on Buffy, but that is not the case, she kisses him first, there is more fighting and then more kissing that leads to sex. (NOTE: I’m not using Buffy’s actions as an excuse for Spike’s, just ensuring information necessary is there.) Also, an interesting note in Fool for Love when Spike attempts to kiss Buffy the first time, he doesn’t throw himself at her, but slowly tries to go for it, when rejected he tries to talk her into it, but doesn’t force himself on her. Not sure if it’s relevant, but it came to mind.
    Almost every other occasion where Buffy and Spike have kiss, have sex or are in some way intimate tend to be in a very abnormal way. It’s not playful flirting, or pretend rejection, normally Buffy outright refuses, becomes angry, then throws herself at Spike. To me the bathroom rape scene is in many ways very similar to every other sex scene with the two only instead of dramatic lighting, camera angles and music where Buffy succumbs to or throws herself at Spike, she continues to refuse, the soundtrack and lighting (along with Buffy’s extra injury) shows us a contrasting view, and unlike usual, Buffy does not allow herself to be with Spike, but is crying, from pain and the situation and eventually fights back.
    This aspect of the episode was very dangerous, looking at it from the point of view of a show that seeks to tell a message—-this episode was risky and didn’t quite achieve what it should have. However, as far as the characters go, and telling a story, (hey no one said all stories had to make you feel comfortable and safe) this felt realistic to a point, although I feel like Spike should have pulled back a few seconds before for it to be more believable. Forcing himself on her, to a point, seems realistic as she nearly always refuses, then gives in and is wildly enthusiastic about it, him misunderstanding her lack of consent is reasonable. However, I suppose it needed to get the the point where it went too far for him to have to seek a soul for redemption….however I do agree that that issue wasn’t handled well at all due to the desire for “misdirection”….but that’s a much longer post….
    Sorry, for the length, but I tried to squeeze in a very lengthy response into a (somewhat) reasonable size.

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