ReviewsBtVS and Consent Issues: Buffy and Spike, Post-”Seeing Red”

“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.

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17 Responses to BtVS and Consent Issues: Buffy and Spike, Post-”Seeing Red”

  1. Fascinating post – thank you. I never thought about the fact that the other traumatic events in the end of Season 6 don’t happen in real life, while rape does. Reading your post, I think you’ve put your finger on why the attempted rape storyline is so troubling. Also, as I read, I realized that while I didn’t find the use of the storyline as disturbing as many people did, it’s because I never after that rooted for Buffy and Spike to get together romantically. I believed she forgave him, and he’d changed, and I wanted them to be friends. But I also believed they never had sex again, even during what they thought was possibly their last night on earth. I couldn’t get past the attempted rape, and it was only after several viewings of the season that I believed that Buffy had, and that she and Spike probably did have sex that night.

    • Theresa Basile says:

      I think they were probably intimate in “Chosen” as well, and in order to imagine that, I have to consciously not think about “Seeing Red.”

      If I want to be That Person who constantly compares one vampire to the other, I can say that “if Buffy could take Angel back in season three, there’s no reason why she couldn’t take Spike back in season seven,” but since I hated Buffy/Angel in season three, I’m not sure I can do that.

  2. Jen Anderson says:

    Excellent points. I’ve pretty much decided that bad writing doesn’t count, and having Spike try to rape Buffy was even worse writing than the whole magic addiction nonsense. I realize this is willful self delusion, but I don’t think it’s fair that the characters and fans have to suffer because the writers couldn’t come up with a better motivation and decided to do the misdirection thing.

    The whole selling demon eggs thing he was doing when Riley showed up–they were weapons of mass destruction and Buffy just shrugged it off as Spike being Spike. She could’ve made that an issue, making him realize that she might love him back if he stopped being less amoral and mass murdery. And I’m sure there are dozens of fan fiction alternatives that make more sense than what was filmed.

    • Theresa Basile says:

      Oy, that episode. I try to pretend “As You Were” doesn’t even exist. I have Riley issues, to say the least.

      • Gareth says:

        I’d love to know why that is.

        • Theresa Basile says:

          My Riley issues will probably take a whole other post. Or two. Or five. :)

          Short version for now: I think he has a real problem with Buffy being stronger than he is, and instead of examining that aspect of his personality, he takes it out on Buffy. And I think the show makes us want to think he’s more heroic than he really is.

  3. lauren says:

    Joss has made it quite clear in the commentaries etc. that Buffy and Spike were never physical after the attempted rape. One of my main problems with the attempted rape scene is that it doesn’t make sense for Spike’s character. Spike has a long history of women he is obssessed with rejecting him, and he never tried to rape any of them. I wish the writers had made him try to vampify her. He was always going on about how she needed to embrace the darkness with him, and that could have set the story arc events of Season 7 the same, without the complicated implications set about by attempted rape.

    • That’s a good point about Spike’s history. Also that trying to turn Buffy into a vampire would have fit better with the narrative. It was Joss’ commentary in one of the last episodes that caused me to rethink whether Buffy and Spike had sex again. The scene was the one where Buffy and Spike just look at each other in the basement after he’s said she can stay with him for the night. Joss said he felt it was open to the audience’s interpretation. If the watcher believed they made love, great. If the watcher believed they just held each other and slept, great. I was a little surprised by that because I felt Buffy would not want a physical relationship with Spike again. I’ll have to listen to the commentary again, though, since you thought Joss ruled it out. Maybe I missed part of what he said.

    • Theresa Basile says:

      I understand the reason why many people prefer an attempted vamping storyline, but it doesn’t quite work for me – because for all of his bluster about wanting Buffy to “be in the dark” with him, I don’t believe he ever wanted her to be a vampire.

  4. Lexi says:

    Great post – your experiences were my experiences. I still want Buffy and Spike together, after all these years, because within the universe the soul is a way to excuse behavior (even though I believe Angel is a construct Angelus made when he experienced guilt – he wasn’t a different person, but he tried to be).

    My stance on Seeing Red is that it is incredibly irresponsible, but it is understandable and fits somewhat into the storytelling. I would have expected Joss and his ace team of writers to be able to come up with something different and less problematic.

    I’m curious as to what you’d think about consent in the Season 8 Buffy comics, especially the latter parts. I would never recommend that someone read the comics (they’re terrible), but there are major issues in Season 8 that the boy’s club of writers, editors and artists don’t seem to recognize (hint: Angel gets Buffy raped. By the Universe), and I would be fascinated by your take.

    As for Joss and Buffy/Spike sex post-Seeing Red, at a convention immediately after the episode aired, someone in the audience ranted about Spike being a rapist (I assume she liked Buffy/Angel), and Joss had to say yes, he thought it would be wrong for them to have sex. Later on the commentary for the episode was made, and by that time Joss decided to leave it up to the viewer. About a year ago he told an interviewer that Spike/Buffy was his favorite pair because of the Beatrice/Benedick relationship going on, which he’s obviously a fan of, if his directing Much Ado About Nothing is anything to go on.

    • Theresa Basile says:

      In terms of the season eight comics, I read the first half, and then spoiled myself for the latter half, and that was enough for me to declare it NOT CANON and forget about them.

  5. lauren says:

    You don’t have to declare the horrible comics NOT CANON lol. Joss said that he would have gone a completely different direction if he had done a Season 8 on tv. Fans of the comics argue this with me, but to me that makes the entire “Season 8″ title of the comics irrelevant.

  6. Jojo says:

    That’s really an excellent summation of why I could see Spike and Buffy getting back together in the way they did – because after an experience like that trust is so much more important than whether or not they had sex. One thing that has always bothered me is the fact that Xander actually made a very serious attempt to rape Buffy and it was not only never dealt with, Giles decided Xander could pretend he didn’t remember it. I actually find that more upsetting than Seeing Red because there was no atonement, no recognition of the enormity, and being a hyena doesn’t really give him a pass (hyena rape of human girls not being a real problem).

    As for Willow – if you take the horrific drug metaphor and run with it (yeah – so hated that sledgehammer approach) you could say Willow got addicted to meth and almost killed Dawn, and then later when she was higher than a kite tried to kill…well, everyone.

    Most of all, the fans who refuse to even look at the subject rationally drive me nuts. Yeah – Bangel vs Spuffy (I’m actually a Spangel fan – so no dog in that race) is way too emotional – way to real – for some people. Rape can be a huge trigger for some, which is why accusing people of liking rape is beyond the pale.

    • Theresa Basile says:

      I’ve written about “The Pack,” and honestly, I do give Xander a pass for that action. I think demonic possession by an animal is an extenuating circumstance. (This is the post I wrote on it: http://theresabasile.com/wp/2012/04/10/btvs-and-consent-issues-episode-1-06-the-pack/).

      As for Willow, yeah, she tried to destroy the world and also brought Buffy back from the dead against her will. People don’t seem to have a problem with Buffy forgiving Willow for the gross violation of Buffy’s body so I’m not sure why it’s a huge shocker that she would also forgive Spike.

  7. AutoCorrectHappens says:

    1. Unlike some fans I have never actually found BtVS to be a show with a strong “feminist” message. I don’t believe that making a woman capable of kicking ass automatically equates that character with being a feminist role model. Buffy was not the first female to have super strength and fight the forces of evil and she won’t be the last. I am not saying that there isn’t any grounding in feminist ideology on the show, but I just never saw the show as particularly female empowering. In fact one could make the argument that Buffy has even less autonomy and authority of her life than any other woman in the history of the world because she has no choice in being the Slayer (which is also a frequent battle cry of hers throughout the seasons). Having no choice but to be a hero ipso facto means that Buffy is not quite as much the hero that some people would like to make her out to be.

    2. From a strictly artistic perspective (writing, directing, etc) it is ridiculous to assume that the unique circumstances of the show should be left out of the explanation for what happened between Buffy and Spike. Again ipso facto, anyone too daft to realize they shouldn’t model their lives and romantic choices off of what someone is doing on a tv show involving fictional creatures is in serious need of help.

    3. You point out on several occasions what happened after the attempted rape but are including almost none of what led up to the attempted rape. What am I talking about? Their on again off again status for several seasons, Buffy initiating sex on many occasions and asking Spike to keep it secret even though he is telling her he wants more than a sexual relationship, Buffy telling Spike that sex with him is the only things that makes her feel, her token breathless ‘stop’ before she spins around and launches himself onto him for sex on many occasions, her beating him into hamburger meat for trying to help keep her out of jail. To ignore the pre-existing dynamics of the relationship and be shocked at his behavior in this episode is madness. I am not a rape apologist and I don’t think these are ‘excuses’ for what he did but I do think they explain how he got to that place as a character. I also think it explains some of why Buffy forgave him. Neither of them were particularly happy with their actions and both of them wanted to do things differently.

    All of that being said I too wish they had gone with a different plot device. However, I don’t think that Buffy coming to love and forgive Spike sends a message that attempted rape is hunky-dory unless the person looking at the situation takes it totally out of context (and out of it’s fictitious universe of demons and such). If the same thing happened on say….The Big Bang Theory I would probably feel much more shocked and disgusted by it. Just sayin’. Context is important.

  8. Marcus says:

    Only one thing to say : I do get where people talking about the intended rape are coming from, but I don’t think it’s the failure in storytelling so many seem to think it is.

    By this point in the season it was needed to remind us and remind Spike himself that he was a monster. A funny, relatable, sympathetic monster but a monster nonetheless. Otherwise people would never have understood why Angel acted the way he did when soulless.

    Spike was really misguided and lost but never intended to rape Buffy.
    Still, when he realized what he might have done, the horrible contradiction between his professed love for her and his action, he did what he never wanted to do before and went to get a soul.
    To resume, even a creature for which actions hold no consequences (it’s the only common denominator for soulless beings in BtVS), killing and maiming a part of its daily routine, couldn’t live with the fact that he could potentially hurt someone he loves in such a way.

    BtVS didn’t fail as a feminist show. (Nor did it ruin Spike’s character btw). It showed us that rape, even the prospect of it, was the worst thing anyone who ever wanted to belong with somebody else could do.

    Season 6 will always be my favorite season of Buffy.
    It’s ” Buffy versus Life ” and it tackled so many deep themes (depression, addiction, isolement…) in better ways than I’ve seen any TV show do before. It took courage.
    Even the addiction part that I know has been crticized sometimes, was handled quite well to my opinion. Some addictions are years in the making, rooted deep in your insecurities and fears but you can fall into quick and hard. Willow was the perfect character for such development.

    I know some people don’t like it, think BtVS should have stayed in some kind of eternal S1-S3 mindset but I think season 5 (The Body !) AND season 6 are the best thing that happened to the show.
    Suddenly it wasn’t about just life and its easily fixed problems (as much as the term “easy” can be used to describe giant snakes and apocalypses), it was about the ones that you couldn’t fix, the ones that stay with you or that you didn’t want to admit you had, the ones that put you down.
    It’s what really distinguished BtVS from any other show for me and will always give it a special place in my heart.

    (I’m only mentionning it because most Spike rants accompany a season 6 bashing)

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