This is part three in a series about sexual violence in Buffy the Vampire Slayer - you can read Part I here and Part II here
Yikes, it's been a while, folks.
Before I continue with this essay, I want to reflect a little on what the sexual violence in the Angelus plot line did. Whedon gave us a sanitized situation in which to examine a violent ex-lover. I say sanitized because the viewer and the characters understand that Angelus is not the same person as Angel (excepting the willful ignorance of Xander). There is a clear divide between the two, despite the fact that they share a body. Buffy wasn't manipulated and lead into a violent relationship like so many people are - she was the victim of a magical curse (or more like a bystander, I guess).
Whedon dips his toes in what he'll fully dive into later with Spike. The Angelus/Angel divide was a bold line in the sand and Buffy experienced torment and violence at the hands of one she'd loved, but only in a disconnected sense. With Spike she slowly establishes a relationship with him, which is built on deception and more classic abusive/obsessive behaviors. When the relationship turns more physical she tries not to lose sight of the monster she knows is there, but still develops emotional and physical bonds with him. When he does attack her there's no easy (yet horrific) explanation that this is a different man than the one she's shared a relationship with. This is the same guy.
I have more to say on this but first I want to hit quickly on a two more points of sexual violence in the show (one in particular) and then take a look at the broader Buffy/Spike relationship.
Season 2 - Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered
|Xander performing a love spell (source)|
This is a huge thing for me. Though the sexual violence in this episode clearly falls under the "magical" category and no one is sexually assaulted, the violence and violation here is huge, overt and real. For a recap, Xander's girlfriend Cordelia breaks up with him on Valentine's Day and totally breaks his heart. She breaks up with him due to the pressure from her friends (he's in a different social caste than she is) rather than anything to do with their actual relationship. But whatever, she made a choice that hurt Xander but that's life.
So Xander decides to magically roofie her with a love spell. This spell would make her completely, head-over-heels infatuated with him. This is a gross and terrifying violation. I guess it's supposed to make us feel better that he doesn't plan to rape her once the spell sets in, just emotionally humiliate her. So, to reiterate, Xander uses a sort of magical drug that removes Cordelia's free will and makes her completely susceptible to his whims and wishes (much like Warren does with his ex-girlfriend in S6, though Warren did plan to use the mind-control for sexual assault). Xander sees nothing wrong with what he's doing. He knows that he's erasing her free will in order to harm and humiliate her emotionally, but he think it's fair since she broke his heart. What the fucking fuck fuck, Xander?!?! This is not okay. This is bad, bad, violating behavior. Yecck.
The spell backfires and somehow affects the entire female population of Sunnydale with the exception of Cordelia. The women quickly become violent and try to kill him. Whatever. Yada, yada, yada, by the end of the episode, Xander hasn't really learned his lesson, and he ends up with Cordelia. Even though everyone knows what he did is totally fucked - no one really calls him on his shit. Giles is pretty pissed off but more about the danger in the situation than Xander's gross, rapist-esque behavior. Buffy explicitly gives him props for not raping her. See for yourself:
Buffy: She loved you before you invoked the great Roofie spirit. The rest of us...
Xander: You remember, huh?
Buffy: Oh, yeah. I remember coming on to you, I remember begging you to undress me... And then a sudden need for cheese. I also remember that you didn't.
Xander: Need cheese?
Buffy: Undress me. It meant a lot to me what you said.
Xander: C'mon, Buffy, I couldn't take advantage of you like that. Okay, for a minute, it was touch and go there...
Buffy: You came through. There might just be hope for you yet.
What exactly did Xander say to her? Oh you know, just stuff about how raping her just wouldn't be as fulfilling as having an emotionally fulfilling relationship:
Xander: It's not that I don't want to. Sometimes the remote impossible possibility that you might like me was all that sustained me. But not now. Not like this. This isn't real to you. You're only here because of a spell. I mean, if I thought you had one clue what it would mean to me... But you don't. So I can't.
|A magically roofied-Buffy, and apparently amazing Xander, |
who is somehow heroic for not assaulting her. (source)
I’m going to go ahead and say that this episode has lots of cognitive dissonance happening when it comes to dealing with rape culture. One the one hand, this episode is in the midst of the Buffy-Angel plotline, where Buffy’s violent ex is actively putting her in danger. So Buffy discovers that not only does she have to beware of ex-lovers, she also has to be wary of self-congratulatory nice guys (something real women know all too well). The episode also does a good job with the role reversal of Xander being sexualized and frightened by the violence his would-be lovers unleash upon him when he rejects their advances. These are all good things, I think.
But then episode completely falls apart in holding Xander responsible for his actions, and it totally downplays how bad it really was. I guess you could read these as symptoms of the larger rape culture. Willow is obviously still very hurt and won’t talk to Xander, because she gets how bad this was. Buffy, meanwhile, thanks Xander for not raping her. Maybe it’s a nice way of showing that our culture is so messed up that two reasonable responses to being roofied by a friend are outrage at what happened and gratitude that it didn’t go further.
Season 3 - Diner Patron and Lap Dance Guys
This is a quick little thing, but I think it's worth mentioning. In the S3 opener we see Buffy disguised as Anne, a normal girl, running away from her slayer duties. She's working as a server in a diner and in her first scene we see some guys being obnoxious to her (asking if they can "work her off") and then one of them actually slaps her ass (which in California is misdemeanor sexual assault).
In that scene Buffy sort of takes a second to collect herself before continuing on like nothing happened. This is really contrary to the Buffy we know, who usually hands out an ass-kicking in response. But her silence makes sense since she's on the run from being that girl. She could roundhouse kick this guy through a wall if she wanted, but she makes the choice to put up with this behavior because the disguise is more important to her than teaching this guy a lesson.
|This is Buffy's "I could kill you with two fingers," face (source)|
This is actually a pretty important moment in the sense that most women, and a lot of guys, have faced something really similar. When someone violates you like that (whether physically or verbally) but in a relatively safe environment where you're pretty sure it won't escalate too much further - what do you do? Sometimes you call them on it, sometimes you just move on with your life. How often have you been groped or pulled or grabbed while out at a bar or club or on public transit and instead of yelling a string of obscenities or educating the offender on why what s/he's doing is inappropriate, you just walked away? Probably at least a few times. Because it's exhausting to do anything else.
It's also potentially dangerous. The situation could escalate. Sometimes it feels easier to just to walk away and move on with out lives, than to raise the stakes. When Buffy is in these situations we get a form of wish fulfillment. Like when she breaks Fish-Freak's nose. Most of us can't do that. Instead we'd take the safe option of getting out of the car (if we could), or maybe flagging someone over. Buffy just breaks a dude's face.
In this scene she's pretending to be one of us, so she reacts the way many of us would. It's a subtle scene, but it always really stuck with me. Most women don't have the brute strength to be assured we can outfight any guy that gives us trouble. Instead many of us feel compelled to handle this situations quietly without getting ourselves harmed. When I see this scene, I want to yell for Buffy to do something because she's someone who can. I don't know if the writer had this in mind when they wrote that scene, but it always helps me reaffirm that I need to continue to do work to help prevent sexual violence, because I can. I have a voice and I'm armed with a certain amount of knowledge, I can talk back to rape culture, and I should. Because there's nothing more disheartening than seeing someone who's so tired that they're just pretending they can't even fight it anymore.
Next time I'll be talking about Spike and Buffy's relationship and fucked-upidness of that!
Next time I'll be talking about Spike and Buffy's relationship and fucked-upidness of that!