TW; Rape, rape culture
Fran and I have been watching a marathon
of the full series of Buffy The Vampire Slayer on Netflix. And we all
know it's an excellent, well-written series often dismissed as schlocky
sci-fi fantasy that is far better than it has any right to be. Hell, the
season 5 episode "The Body" alone was some of the single best (and most
heart-wrenching) TV ever. Incredible acting all around, emotional
weight, gravitas that eclipsed some Shakespeare stories.
after watching the entire series something very interesting has occurred
to me. It's not a new theory that Buffy may be an allegory for rape. A
lot of folks have posed that idea. But I think it's a lot more complex
than that. I've come to the conclusion that it's an allegory for rape,
rape culture, rape privilege, and how to fight back, stand up, be
strong, and accept responsibility for rape culture being perpetuated.
And it was a subtle allegory, and I never realized it until near the
very end, and then I looked back over the series and it smacked me right
in the face as if to say "Hello? I've been standing right here the
It occurred to me when it reached near the end of
Season 6. Spike, a vampire for those unfamiliar with the series, has
spent a season and a half in a mutually
abusive sexual relationship
with the show's titular lead. Near the end of the 6th season, he
becomes so miserable, so lost in feeling hurt that Buffy just uses him
for angry sex, that he feels entitled to just do the same thing and
tries to rape her, and she fights him off, and he leaves the country and
no one tells Dawn (Buffy's younger sister, sort of, who idolizes
Spike), because they don't want her to think less of her friend Spike.
that all makes a sad sort of sense, because that's how rape culture
works right? Rapists feel entitled to rape and people want to protect
the rapist from the repercussions. We see examples in real life all the
time. Such as a case in a rural Texas town where a dozen men ages 15 to
28 gang-raped an 11 year old girl, and the general reaction among the
town was A) The child was "asking for it" by dressing past her age and
acting older than she was, and B) to fret about how the charges could
ruin the lives of the men who raped a child.
sickening, sad fact of life. And of course TV shows frequently reinforce
this stereotype. So I expected Buffy to do like most TV does in that
So after the almost rape, Spike goes off to Africa,
(while everyone else goes on about their lives like nothing happened),
to undergo a horribly painful ritual to regain his soul so Buffy will
love him, and goes insane from the guilt he can now feel over everyone
he's ever hurt. At this point it seems like it's going to end up being
the cliche romantic happy ending ala Luke And Laura where Hey! He feels
really really extra bad about almost raping her so now everything's
awesome again and she'll fall madly in love with him because OMG U GUYZ
he's SOOO sensitive now! And they live happily ever after!
Except that wasn't what Joss Whedon was ACTUALLY doing. Whedon is the guy who created Buffy, and he had other plans here.
season 7 begins and during the course of the episode, Buffy finds a
disheveled Spike living in a high school boiler room, eating rats,
self-harming and rambling incoherently. She leaves him alone.
season 7 episode 2, Spike has cleaned himself up and tries to help Buffy
and friends deal with the Monster Of The Week. After a lot of conflict,
near the end of the episode, Spike starts acting loopy and erratic
again and runs away, into a church. Wanting answers for his confusing
behavior, Buffy chases him and finds him wandering around in the
darkness inside. He's rambling and confused, and he misunderstands her
thinking she wants to just use him for sex again, she pushes him away,
he mumbles something about "No, right, she doesn't want that, she
shouldn't be made to right right" and he starts wandering around again,
rambling about his guilt. He talks as if there are other people in the
room, ghosts of his past victims, and seeing death all around him. He
talks about overwhelming guilt driving him insane.
It's at this
point that Buffy remembers Angel, (another vampire with a soul who got a
spin-off series and had left Buffy itself at the end of the fourth
season), describing to her how he had spent a lot of time immediately
following his soul being restored feeling overwhelmingly consumed with
guilt, remembering all the people he'd hurt or killed. With a look at
shock and almost revulsion at the thought, Buffy realizes what Spike has
done and asks him incredulously, almost horrified, why he would do
that, subject himself to that kind of torment. Why do that to himself?
of how TV reinforces Rape Culture, plus how Whedon's played this story
arc so far, you'd be justified in assuming as I did that Spike is going
to say something like "So you could love me" right? That's usually how
these things work out on TV. On the soap opera General Hospital, the
couple of Luke & Laura, (whom I previously alluded to) are still to
this dy hailed as being among the greatest TV romances of all time.
Except no one ever wants to remember that their story arc on that soap
began with Luke RAPING her. Rape Cultures teaches people that rape is
just a really passionate forceful expression of true love in these
situations. It's ridiculously common in fiction for rape victims to fall
in love with their rapists.
But Spike didn't say that. Whedon
had other ideas. Whedon knows about Rape Culture, and he goes out of his
way to write strong, 3-dimensional female characters who never just
allow themselves to give up and be victimized.
So then what DID Spike say to make me realize what Whedon was really doing?
He said "To be the kind of man who would never.... to be a kind of man..."
unfinished sentence yes, but you it was telling in what he WASN'T
saying out loud. The point where he paused. "To be the kind of man who
would never...." tells you, yes, he loves Buffy, he wants her to love
him. But he didn't endure all that pain just so she would forget what
he'd done and magically love him.
He did it to punish himself
for assuming he was entitled to her body, for hurting her, and to forge
himself into someone who could never again do THAT to a woman. To be a
man who DESERVED her love rather than just take it, to be a man who
could EARN her love rather than just believe she owed it to him. And to
be a man who was better than the behavior that Rape Culture teaches men
And that was the moment it hit me, and I started going
back over the whole series in my mind. Analyzing story arcs, themes,
character evolutions, and realized that, yes, the underlying theme of
Buffy is about rape, but not, as many believe, a straight up "Staking
the vampires who maul her physically is a visual rape allegory" way.
It's more subtle than that. Whedon's characters exist and survive in a
world with creatures that want to hurt them in ways that would make them
feel weak and powerless, just like a rapist wants to have power over
his victim. But they survive by refusing to ever BE the victim, by
standing up to the monsters and saying "No, this is NOT okay, you have
no right to do this to me if I don't want you to and I WILL defend
myself". And while dressed in anything ranging from "Borderline Hooker"
to "Nun-In-Training", from various walks of life.
it's audience that it's okay for a woman to decide for herself who my or
may not touch her, no matter how she's dressed or how she acts or where
she comes from.
I wish more TV would follow that example.