[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
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.