“BtVS and Consent Issues” is a series I began writing over a year ago with the goal to examine episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where rape, sexual assault, sexual coercion, and/or violation of consent were major plot points. I wanted to examine the way rape and consent issues were portrayed in one of my all-time favorite television series – a series that had an explicit feminist vision.
The last episode I reviewed was “Seeing Red,” which is probably the most controversial episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This is the episode where Spike tried to rape Buffy on her bathroom floor, where he called her a bitch, where he left town in an effort to rid himself of the speck of humanity that stopped him from raping her. (Except oops – he actually didn’t rape her because she successfully fought him off, and oops – he wasn’t actually trying to rid himself of his humanity at all, and was in fact seeking his soul so that he would never hurt her again, except the writers tried to hide this through their clever misdirection and make it SEEM like he was trying to get rid of the chip of his brain.)
Anyway, I digress. (You can tell that I’m digressing when I write run-on sentences in parentheticals.) “Seeing Red” is such a disturbing episode in the Buffy canon because the male romantic lead/anti-hero tries to rape the protagonist. Subsequent episodes continue to portray Spike in a sympathetic light, and even attempt to reignite a romantic relationship between Buffy and the man who tried to rape her.
Seeing any show pursue a romantic relationship between a woman and her attempted rapist is disturbing, to say the least. Yet, all throughout season seven, I wanted Buffy and Spike to get back together. I wanted Spike to redeem himself, I looked for clues that Buffy was returning his feelings, and I felt completely swept up in their last moment together in the series finale, when she told him that she loved him.
It would be easy to say that the Buffy/Spike relationship was fundamentally different in the seventh season than it was in the sixth, due to Spike’s soul. And their relationship was very different, because Spike-with-a-soul was able to love Buffy unselfishly. Spike in season six would whisper manipulative words in her ear when she was depressed and vulnerable. He wanted her to be with him, no matter how terrible she felt about herself. Spike in season seven, however, tells Buffy, “When I say I love you, it doesn’t mean I want you. It has nothing to do with me. I love what you are.” And he means it.
But I can’t pretend that the existence of Spike’s soul is what made me root for Buffy/Spike in the last season, because in seven seasons, Whedon & co. never successfully explained what a soul was – why Angel’s missing soul turned him into a completely different person with not even a speck of humanity in him, why Spike and Drusilla were able to love each other even without souls, why Harmony the soulless vampire was the exact same person as Harmony the human (except with fangs). Besides, I don’t think hand-waving Spike’s actions with “but he has a soul now!” is appropriate when dealing with the attempted raping elephant in the room. (Ew. Sorry for the image.)
No, I rooted for Buffy/Spike in the seventh season despite my problems with the storyline from a social justice lens, because their actions after the attempted rape seemed perfectly in character to me.
“Seeing Red” and the episodes that follow make it clear that the attempted rape had a much stronger effect on Spike than it did on Buffy, even though Buffy was the victim. Buffy cried during and after the attempted rape, she condemned Spike’s actions in “Beneath You,” and she flinched when Spike put his hand on her shoulder, but by the season’s halfway point, she was in constant close physical contact with Spike without being triggered by the memory.
Spike, on the other hand, went completely insane after he earned his soul. Granted, some of this insanity was due to a hundred years of guilt catching up to him, but it was clear that attempting to rape Buffy was the single action he regretted most. (After all, that was the one thing he regretted doing before he had a soul.) The guilt tormented him long after Buffy stopped being triggered.
Strange that the attempted rapist would feel more emotional about his action than the victim would – yet given Spike and Buffy’s history, their reactions make complete sense.
We all know that Spike is “love’s bitch.” He always puts the woman he loves at the center of his world, whether the woman is Cecily, Drusilla, or Buffy. Being with the woman he loves is always his priority. This aspect of his personality was true when he was human, and it didn’t change when he became a soulless vampire, and it didn’t change when he became a souled vampire. Of course the act of hurting the woman he loves would torment him.
Buffy, on the other hand, is no fool for love. She loves deeply, but even as a teenager, she never put love in the center of her world. She put a sword through Angel even though she loved him (because that’s what heroes do. That’s my girl!)
One would think that Buffy, not being ruled by love, would cut all ties with someone who betrayed her the way Spike did.
Unfortunately, physical violation and betrayal is a sad fact of Buffy’s life, and Spike was not the first person who betrayed her or violated her body.
Here’s a short list of instances where people have betrayed Buffy or violated her body: her father walked out on her family, her mother tied her to a stake and tried to burn her as a witch, Giles gave her a poison that would weaken her strength as part of the Cruciamentum, Faith switched their bodies and had sex in Buffy’s body with Buffy’s boyfriend, Willow ripped her soul out of heaven and reanimated her corpse and left her to crawl out of her own grave, and everything Angel did in the second half of season two.
That’s not a comprehensive list. Also, notice that every single person on that list is someone who was once Buffy’s friend, part of her family, and/or someone she trusted deeply.
Then Spike tries to rape her, and the next day, one of her friends is shot and killed, and Buffy herself is shot and almost dies for a third time. Almost being raped by a lover wasn’t the worst thing that happened to Buffy in her lifetime. In fact, from her perspective, it probably wasn’t even the worst thing that happened to her in that week.
Considering all that Buffy’s been through, her forgiving and even loving Spike makes sense for her character. Despite her reputation for coldness in the last season, she’s actually a very forgiving person, and she respects people who make active efforts to change for the better. If she could forgive Willow (who tried to destroy the world and threatened to turn Dawn back into a ball of energy), she could forgive Spike.
But this is where the story becomes problematic through a social justice lens. There is no real-life equivalent of “my best friend brought my back to life against my wishes, tried to turn my sister into an energy ball, and tried to destroy the world.”
There is a very strong real-life equivalent of “my ex-boyfriend tried to rape me.”
And even though domestic violence is far too common, this feminist show depicted a storyline where a woman forgives and falls in love with the man who tried to rape her.
And even though I think their character arcs in season seven make complete sense, even though their relationship stays true to their characters, I’m still disturbed that the writers portrayed a story where the attempted rapist feels really bad about what he did, you guys, and let’s focus on his guilt and his feels. (The girl? What about her? She’s over it.)
Ultimately, I think a writer’s primary responsibility is to remain true to his or her characters, and I believe the writers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer did just this with Buffy and Spike’s slow rebuilding of trust in the show’s seventh season. But the storyline still bothers me when I view it through a feminist lens. I don’t think they considered the implications of the attempted rape, nor the implications of the storyline that followed, and I still wish they had chosen a different impetus for Spike to seek his soul.