Friday, July 11, 2014

SA in BtvS Part III

Trigger warning for discussion of rape, attempted rape, rape culture, sexual assault, and sexual violence.

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)
 This is all really terrible. How telling is it that Buffy is actually pleasantly surprised that her friend didn’t have sex with her when she was magically roofied? How about being pissed off at your friend for trying to enchant anyone like that in the first place?   And furthermore, Cordelia is touched by Xander’s attempt to win her back. How messed up is that?  Dude just tried to magically control your mind and emotions to take revenge on you. That’s not touching, that’s fucking scary.

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!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Sexual Violence in BtVS - Part II

Trigger warning for discussion of rape, attempted rape, rape culture, sexual assault, and sexual violence.

This is part two in a series about sexual violence in Buffy the Vampire Slayer - you can read Part I here.

Season 2 - Angelus (magical, implied AND overt)

Originally I planned to just touch on the sexual violence in the Angelus story line and not devote much time to it, since I feel that Angelus as a perpetrator of dating and sexual violence isn't subtle and doesn't require too much unpacking.  But as I started to write about it, I realized that Buffy exists and operates in the world as a woman with a violent and dangerous ex, and has lots of experiences similar to survivors of violence.  The way her friends, family, and emotions respond are really interesting.

On top of that, every single episode from the Angelus plotline (with the exception of Killed by Death) deals in some way with issues of sexual violence.  And, side note, Killed by Death deals with overcoming a dormant trauma (empowering Buffy to overcome a trauma in the midst of what's happening with Angelus is pretty cool, IMHO).

Evil ol' Angelus (source)
Let's do a quick walk through of Angelus.  Angel is Buffy's boyfriend, who happens to be a vampire.  In the Buffyverse, when you become a vampire you die and are reanimated as a vampire.  Since it's the same brain they're setting up in, it's the evil version of the human who died.  Angel is a special vampire because he has was cursed with his old human soul; the goal was to give him a conscience to make him suffer by feeling bad about all the evil vampire stuff he'd been doing.  The curse dictated that if he ever experienced a moment of true happiness, his soul would vanish and he'd be an evil vampire again, who prefers the name Angelus to Angel (whatever).  All this to say: when Angel and Buffy bang, evil Angelus is back, and the souled Angel is gone.  

First thing first - the whole Buffy-Angel relationship is fucked up.  In 1998 when their relationship takes place, he had been a vampire for 245 years.  He was turned into a vampire at age 26.  That means he's been alive for 271 years.  In the episode when Angel and Buffy sleep together, it's her 17th birthday.  The age of consent in California in 1998 is 18, but way more importantly, he's more than two and half goddamn centuries older than she is!

No, I don't think that age is the most accurate way to judge someone's maturity and ability to make choices about their body and sexuality.  And, yes, I  do think that Buffy acted with agency and knew what she wanted and was capable of making that decision.  But I still find it creepy.

And not just the sex, their whole relationship is unsettling.  Although Buffy definitely loves him and makes decisions about their relationship, it's a situation where Angel has a lot more power than she does.  He's experienced in a lot of ways she isn't; he's older and understands a lot that she doesn't; she's still a high school girl who's in love and has all kinds of notions of what that means; Angel understands the reality of their situation. But moving on. 

And here's Angel, already familiar with sexual intimacy
228 years before Buffy was born (via)
Angelus is the representation of violent men.  He's sweet and loving and tender until they have sex, and then all he wants to do is harm Buffy.  He's possessive; he separates her from friends and family; he tries to intimidate her with all kinds of gestures (sending flowers/threatening messages, killing Willow's pets); and his ultimate goal is to kill her.  But first he wants to inflict as much pain and suffering as possible.  This is really not a subtle metaphor.  Although the sex act itself wasn't  violent, it unleashed a ton of violence in its aftermath.  Angelus is an abusive, stalking, evil man who violates Buffy (or tries to) in a number of ways.  There are blatantly obvious sexual overtones to all the creepy/crazy/scary stuff he does (like leaving sketches of her sleeping).

The whole second half of S2 focuses on Buffy realizing and utilizing her strengths to move passed him and ultimately defeat him.  But the more interesting moments are sprinkled throughout the episodes leading up to Becoming.  The moments where we see how Buffy's friends and family either support her or demonize her actions.  Moments like:

1)  Giles forcing Buffy to keep Angelus a secret

In Passion it becomes clear that Angelus is targeting Buffy's loved ones, all of whom, with the exception of Joyce, know the truth about what he is.  Buffy wants to come clean about being the Slayer and what Angelus is, thinking this knowledge will give Joyce a better chance of survival.  But Giles won't allow it.  Okay, let's take a step back and talk about this one.

On the one hand, Joyce does flip a shit when Buffy finally tells her about being the Slayer.  Plus, we know from S6 that Joyce once had Buffy institutionalized for talking about vampires.  But, with the support of Giles, Willow, and Xander, there could have been a safe and well planned way to tell Joyce the truth.  They could have validated Buffy's story.  Sure, Joyce still could have reacted poorly or been in denial but it wouldn't have been hard for the four of them to secure some kind of proof.

Proof like: "Hey remember that time those guys with the evil bumpy faces were killing and eating
people and then you hit one of them in the head with an axe and yet he didn't
die or get concussed or anything? Vampire." (via)

But, let's step back even further, because talking about the pros/cons of telling Joyce is focusing on the wrong thing.  This whole line of thinking is problematic. Why should Giles let Joyce's potential reaction dictate how Buffy proceeds once she's decided that's what she wants to do?  For survivors of sexual violence it's really important to support their choices in how to move forward.  Whether that's telling family/friends, not telling anyone, reporting to police or not; it doesn't matter. A survivors' support network should help her/him do what they need to do to feel safe and in control again.

Sure, Buffy's the Slayer and she's faced death and misery before.  But she's also a 17 year old girl who's ex-boyfriend is stalking and trying to kill her.  This is an extremely traumatic experience and her father-figure is  forbidding her from confiding in her mother.  This plays out all the time for survivors of violence.  Instead of listening to what they want, we focus on the reactions of others.  Sure, a survivor who wants to file a police report should be forewarned that it likely won't be an easy experience and that the police may not support her/him.  But that's where their friends and family members come in to give them strength and support.

Often times, how survivors tell their story and whom they tell is dictated, and anyone who acts outside those prescriptions is shamed and blamed.  In the Steubenville rape trial, CNN reporters lamented the fact that the rapists lives were "ruined" since they had to serve jail time.  The implication there is that it's the survivors' fault for telling her story.

But this pressure of who to tell is a double-edged sword.

2) Buffy feeling that Angelus' crimes are her responsibility

After Angel's transformation in Innocence we have the episode Phases which deals with Oz's werewolfiness.  Werewolves in general are symbols of out of control violence and sexuality, so it's pretty interesting that this is the very next story we get.  But the most interesting moment in this episode happens really quickly and isn't really verbalized.

Angelus kills and turns Buffy's classmate, Theresa, into a vampire.  In the previous episode Buffy could have killed Angelus.  She beat him down enough that she could have staked him.  But she couldn't go through with it. 

When Buffy sees what Angelus did to her classmate, the logic is something like:  I could have killed him, and I didn't.  He killed Theresa.  I'm responsible for her death.  Although (as far as I remember) this is never explicitly stated, it's implied quite a few times by both her and Xander (especially once Jenny is killed).

This god-awful sort of logic is thrown at survivors of sexual violence all the time.  It's something along the lines of, "If you don't report your rapist to the police, you are partially responsible for any other violence s/he commits."  In my experience this line of thinking comes up a lot in conversations about sexual violence and every now and again discussions of this will pop up on Reddit.

With Buffy it's a little bit more conflated since she's the Slayer and killing evil vampires is her duty, but in this case I'd say it serves as a really nice reflection of the expectation and guilt laid on survivors of violence when they choose not to purse legal action.

3) Joyce's reaction to Angelus

In Passion Buffy tells Joyce that ex-boyfriend has been bothering her and asks that Joyce doesn't invite him in if he shows up.  Shortly thereafter, Angelus waits outside the house and follows Joyce from her car to the front door, playing the role of an obsessed ex.  Joyce doesn't know this guy is a crazy, serial-killer vampire, but she can clearly see that he's not safe. She's so frightened of him that she leaves her scattered groceries to rush to the safety of her house, tells him she's calling the police, and asks if he's threatening to kill Buffy (he is).  But then he lets it drop that he and Buffy "made love."  She handles it poorly.

A dangerous and obsessive ex,
and a mother focusing on the wrong part of this conversation (via)

After finding out her daughter's ex-lover is dangerous and obsessed, her first question to Buffy isn't, "Are you okay?"  It's not, "What can we do to make you feel safe?"  It's not, "How long has he been bothering you, has he hurt you, do you want us to file a police report," or "do you have any idea how much I love you, I'm so sorry this happened."  Her first question to Buffy is, "Was he the first?"

Fuck. That. Noise. 

Joyce, you fail.  This large man who seems to be in his mid-twenties just terrified you.  You did not feel safe.  He may have threatened to kill your daughter.  How about you worry about her hymen later?  Or preferably never.  Joyce goes on to chastise Buffy saying ridiculous things like, "He's obviously not very stable."  Really, Joyce?  What gave that away, the fact that he he just freaking threatened to kill Buffy and was obviously trying to intimidate you?  Instead of offering comfort and support, the basic gist is: "You brought this on by not avoid it."

Joyce (thankfully) goes to to say how much she loves and cares for Buffy and that nothing could ever change that.  Which is nice because most people would be feeling like shit right about then.  Joyce then declares that "the talk" is over.  Hmm, good talk.  Except you missed all the stuff about consent, and pleasure, and safety, and reassuring Buffy that not every sexual encounter will turn men into terrible, cruel, violent creatures.  But whatever, go ahead and congratulate yourself.  At least you remembered to tell her you still love her.

A few cultural reflections are going on here:

  • Joyce is conflating sexuality and sexual violence.  No, Buffy didn't say it was rape and in fact says that she loved him; but given what Joyce just witnessed, the fact he's older than Buffy, AND the fact that Buffy kept the whole relationship a secret are all huge warning signs that there may have been abuse/violence.  Joyce doesn't take the time to help Buffy work through this. As a culture we have a tendency to treat rape as a sexual act instead of an act of violence and we don't help vulnerable people navigate the complexity of being in love with someone who is violent toward you 
  • Though Joyce is reaffirming that she loves Buffy, she's also demonstrating that Buffy needs to deal with this on her own.  She offers no insight or resources to help deal with this super serious issue of a violent ex.  This is something our society does all the time.  The cultural discourse is something along the lines of: Well you saw fit to be with this guy, you deal with it.   
  • There is a severe lack of education about sex, healthy relationships, and sexual/dating violence for teens.  Joyce demonstrates this perfectly with her version of "the talk" - a victim blamey rant that includes a few I love yous.


4) Xander in all his terribleness 

I'm gonna let Xander's own words speak for him here (from Passion):

I'm sorry, but let's not forget that I hated Angel long before you guys jumped on the bandwagon. So I think I deserve a little something for not saying 'I told you so' long before now. And if Giles wants to go after the, uh, fiend that murdered his girlfriend, I say, 'Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!'  

Basically this is the attitude that a lot of people give toward survivors when their partners turn out to be violent.  It's very, "I told you so, he was no good, that's what you get for being with him."

Xander is a teenager and teenagers are usually bad people.  I don't think he's happy that Angelus is killing people, but I know that part of him is glad that Angel is out of the way. Something bad and violent happened, and now he's congratulating himself for seeing the bad when no one else did. It's gross and self-serving.   He would never wish violence on his friend, but now that it's happened he's decided the best way she should deal with it.

Violence, and especially sexual assault are very complicated.  It's especially complicated when it happens between intimate partners. It's okay to be concerned for your friends and encourage them to seek safety.  It's okay to try to get them to seek help.  It's not okay to steamroll their thoughts and opinions with your "correct" idea. Guess what?  It's not about your rage, or your confirmed suspicions.  It's about supporting, helping and validating your friend.

I know I said, "I do love Xander" in Part I of this series,
but honestly, most of the time I don't (picture source)

5) Buffy's entire world after Angelus

As I mentioned, almost every episode for the rest of S2 deals with some element of sexual violence, or things that survivors of violence face in the real world.  I'm going to delve into some more of these later but I just want to address it as a story structure thing:

  • Phases - which is about werewolves, classic symbols of violence and sexuality AND the Theresa thing
  • Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered - we'll get into it later but Xander gives everyone (including Buffy a magical roofie)
  • Passion - in addition to all the stuff mentioned above, there's the Jenny Calendar-murder-gift-wrapping Angelus left for Giles
  • I Only Have Eyes for You - a freaking murder/suicide of lovers which Buffy and Angelus play out (along with a lot of other people)
  • Go Fish - see Part I
I just find it fascinating that during her ex's crazy killer/stalker phase, she has to deal with other forms of sexual violence from magical forces (murder/suicide ghosts), friends (Xander's love spell), and even random classmates (Cameron, the fish guy).  It's an interesting that even for a strong, independent woman who's already dealing with one trauma, there's a whole world of trauma and violence that's ready to fall on her at every next turn.  

A note on chronology: Part I talks about a scene in Go Fish, which happens after the Angelus plot line. Since I had expected to only briefly touch on Angelus I didn't worry about it then, but now it might seem a little discombobulated.  Apologies. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Being the Slayer within a Rape Culture: Sexual Violence in Buffy

Major trigger warning for lots of discussion of sexual assault, rape, attempted rape, rape culture, and sexual violence in general.
My very first post on Buffy and I’m going to jump right into something pretty controversial. My original intent was to discuss Spike’s attempted rape of Buffy, but I realized that before I could broach that topic, I wanted to talk about the history of sexual violence on the show.  I knew there was a lot of sexual violence in the show, and I knew that it's dealt with in lots of different ways, both realistic and fantastical, and in ways that both expose and thwart rape culture, and in ways which play into rape culture.  But as I went back and thought about specific instances, I realized that each instance (and there are dozens of them) is complicated, multi-layered and reflects how our society treats rape and survivors of sexual violence.

So I started to move through the show chronologically and pick out instances of sexual violence that I wanted to discuss.  This is by no means an exhaustive list.  There are literally dozens of instances.  In order to keep this series focused (and shorter) I'm only focusing on instances of sexual violence experienced by Buffy; and even so I'm still missing things.  If you can think of other relevant things, please post them - they're all worth discussing!

I argue that the show has three categories of sexual violence - overt sexual violence; implied sexual violence; and magical sexual violence.  There is a lot of overlap between these groups, and just because the violence is "implied" or "magical" doesn't mean it's not actually or "overtly" happening.  We'll discuss this more as we travel through the seasons.  I haven't watched the whole series all the way through in a few years, so it's very likely I'm leaving examples out - please do comment and let me know of any others!


1. Overt - in this case I'm including things that obviously, legally, actually and to an outside observer would qualify as sexual assault/violence.  Basically anything that could go into a police report or would meet standard definitions. (I know this opens a huge can of rape-culture-dwelling-worms, but I'm hoping we can generally agree on what this means and to give a better definition is a whole other series of essays entirely.)

2. Implied - these are a little bit more elusive, but deal with both the implied instances that may have happened off screen, magical/mystical violence that have sexual overtones, and the consequences of magical occurrences.  For example - vampire feeding habits are generally portrayed as a sexual experience for the vampire.  Not always, sometimes they just eat someone.  But there's a lot of instances where it's a highly charged sexual situation.  So, though there may not actually be sexual violence happening, the violence that's happening has strong sexual overtones.
Angel vampire-eating Buffy in an obviously sexual way (for the 90s) (source)

3. Magical - pretty straightforward.  These are instances were magic steps in and causes something to happen that cannot happen in the natural world but which qualifies as sexual violence/a sexual trauma.  These cases are usually still overt - but it's just a little tougher to define since you have magical qualifiers that don't make sense in real life.    


Season 1 - Xander's attempted rape of Buffy (overt and magical).  

As it turns out the scene in Season 6 isn't the first time someone has tried to rape Buffy: Season 1 is.  From random internet discussions and conversations, it seems to me that fans tend to weigh these instances very differently, and I think a lot of that is because Spike was an actual threat (he's physically strong enough to hurt her) while Xander almost certainly wasn't.  Clearly this doesn't mean that it wasn't an attempted rape, or that we can more easily dismiss this, but I think fans (and even characters on the show) have a tendency to forgive/forget this since she wasn't in "real danger."  Which is fucked up.
In the episode The Pack the spirit of some hyenas possess Xander and four school bullies, making them act very predatory.  But before we just say, "Well Xander was possessed so it wasn't him trying to hurt Buffy," let's consider all the facts.  If this were a straight up random hyena acting on violent urges, then Xander probably would have attacked any other woman.  He would have had a much better chance of overpowering literally anyone else.  But Xander, the actual Xander, is attracted to Buffy.  Though he would never assault Buffy, the hyena would never have gone after "prey" that was much stronger than itself.  Therefore we have to surmise this predatory act was a meld of both Xander and the hyena.  Am I saying that Xander is responsible?  Not quite.  But there was some Xander built into it.  Furthermore, Xander sort of believes that Buffy is attracted to Angel because he's powerful and dangerous.  Now that Xander is all dangerously hyena, he feels more entitled to Buffy's attraction.  So although it's not pure-Xander making this leap and attacking Buffy, this kind of logic (which comes up a lot in cultural rape myths) is there.

Xander attacks Buffy, perhaps part of him believes she's attracted to dangerous,
powerful guys (another cultural rape myth about women) source
I get that Xander is a teenager and makes mistakes, and I do love him. I think he's very much the heart of the group.  But.  He's kinda a bad person sometimes.  Specifically in the way he deals with his mistakes and his desires (I plan to write more on this in other posts, but think Becoming and his message from Willow).  In this very early episode we get a glimpse of that.  Instead of apologizing to his friend who he tried to rape he claims to have no memory of any of his actions - thereby absolving himself completely.  I understand the disinclination to talk about eating a pig alive, and I understand that you weren't entirely in control of yourself, your impulses and your words.  But.  How can you look your friend in the eye and never acknowledge what happened? 

Part of why Xander absolves himself so completely from his actions is that he had no chance at hurting Buffy.  It was essentially physically impossible for him to harm her.  And this is a really dangerous way to view sexual violence.  It starts to make us focus on the outcomes instead of the intent, and on the perceived outcome instead of actual outcome.  "I didn't think it would hurt her."  "I thought she'd want me to." This is the sort of logic and thought process we have around sexual violence.  And it's not okay.  If he had attacked Willow, or some other random high school girl, and succeeded in his sexually predatory act, would the viewer absolve him so quickly?  Probably not.  Especially not if he denied any knowledge of his actions.  And I find this is weird, because, should really it matter if he succeeded?  I have a hard time forgiving Xander for not having a conversation about this. 

This is a first and early example of something Whedon does again with Angel and yet again with Spike.  Xander is someone Buffy (and the audience) loves and trusts.  And yet he becomes violent toward her.  Since it's a magical example it allows us to explore these scary notions without having lasting consequences (in Xander's case, anyway), but it's something that's reflected in real life.

Guess what?  The majority of sexual assault victims know their attacker.  Guess what?  Most rapists have friends and family that love and trust them and just don't believe they're capable of horrible actions.  Even in the world of Buffy where the bad guys are easily identified by their fangs and bumpy faces, there's a reflection of the real world.

And what I find really interesting is that Willow and Buffy decide to tell Xander about how he ate a pig, but they leave out that he tried to rape Buffy.  Obviously any survivor of sexual violence gets to choose who they tell or don't tell without any one else judging them.  But I'm really curious what Buffy's motivations were.  From what we know of Buffy and this situation it seems more to do with sparing Xander's feelings than with any kind of desire for closure for her.  Letting your friend remain ignorant of their magically-induced indiscretion is absolutely a legitimate form of closure, but this just feels like she's helping soothe the attackers feelings instead of examining her own - something that happens far too often in real life.

Let's say that instead of being possessed by a hyena, Xander was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.  All of a sudden this experience is relatable to a lot of people.  Now, just to be clear, most rapists are not making bad or violent choices because they're under the influence, usually they are very aware of what they're doing and they're preying on women who are under the influence.  But, there are men (and women) who become sexually aggressive and inappropriate when drinking.  How many people avoid talking to their friend about that inappropriate behavior in order to avoid awkwardness, defensiveness or shameful feelings?  I just think it's interesting to see that parallel in Buffy - and I want to note that we see that a lot.  The sexual violence in Buffy is always complicated and has messy implications for relationships - just like real life.

Season 2 - Fish boy's attempted assault of Buffy (overt)

Remember the mutant fish swim team (with the guy from Prison Break)?  Remember how one of the swimmers tries to assault Buffy in his car?  And then blames the victim saying she lead him on then acted "schizo" and by the way, look at how she dresses!  Yeah, that happened.

Wentworth Miller turning into a fish monster, with claws! (source)

Once again, Buffy is much more incredulous than fearful in this situation given that she can easily overpower her would-be attacker.  I'm going to post the dialogue from this scene because I think it's really important:

Cameron [mutant fish swimmer]: Are you wearing a bra? 
Buffy: What? 
Cameron: Come on. I mean, tell me you haven't been thinking about this ever since last night. 
Buffy: What I'm thinking about is that I should probably get out of this car... 
(Buffy reaches for the door, but Cameron quickly locks her in) 
Cameron: Relax. I'm not gonna hurt you. 
Buffy: Oh, it's not me I'm worried about. 
Cameron: (laughing) You like it rough
(at this point Buffy almost snaps his wrist and does, in fact, break his nose)

This is not where the trauma stops though.  Principal Snyder happens to witness some or all of this attack.  And what happens?  Well, the fish-freak swim star isn't punished.  Buffy's moral character and choice of dress are called into play.  Cameron calls her "schizo" - using the tropes that we have of hysterical and frankly, untrustworthy, women.  Buffy tries to point out that she wasn't the attacker but the attacked, and she isn't listened to.

But that's not where the trauma stops either.  Because in the very next scene Buffy explains the whole situation to Giles, Xander and Willow.  She's looking for sympathy, understanding, and probably indignation from her friends.  They give her none.  They don't care at all that one of their classmates just assaulted another classmate.  Granted, they're focusing on the human remains that were discovered and what kind of nasty creature is killing people, but they don't show the least bit of concern for Buffy.

Let me count the ways this sucks.  First of all, it doesn't matter that Buffy can defend herself and there was zero chance that Fish Guy could have physically forced her to do anything.  It doesn't matter that she fights vampires every single night and could die from it at any time and this threat didn't even register on that scale.  What matters is that a male classmate attempted to sexually assault her, her principal very likely witnessed the entire thing and still wouldn't side with her, and her friends aren't giving her any understanding or empathy. 

Maybe people didn't think about this in the 90s, but most predators are repeat offenders.  If this guy tried to attack Buffy, it's possible he's done it before or will do it again, so, can we at least be concerned for the girls who don't have super strength?  Secondly, just because Buffy is physically able to prevent someone from assaulting her doesn't mean it doesn't leave an emotional scar.  She had some amount of trust and attraction for this dude and he was going to harm her.  That's terrifying.  The fact that the administration didn't protect or validate her?  That's disgusting.  The fact that her friends barely even listened to her?  That's earth-shattering.

And guess what?  This is what happens to so many people. Once again, Whedon gives us a "safe" context to examine this in.  Buffy wasn't actually harmed and she was never in any physical danger so we can look at the reaction of the school and her friends from a distance of knowing it turned out okay for her.  But.  Just because she was never in any physical danger, doesn't mean this is a non-issue.  This is a such a major issue.

And it's very different from what happened with Xander.  Xander was under evil-magical influence and largely wasn't responsible for what happened.  Cameron is basically just a rapist.  And once again, we have a pretty accurate representation of most attackers.  This guy wasn't a stranger who grabbed Buffy and pulled her into his car.  This wasn't the first time they had been talking.  They had flirted at a party in front of lots of other students, and she was willingly in his car.  These are the sorts of situations that rapists use to protect themselves.  "She's lying - everyone saw her flirting with me last night, it was consentual and she changed her mind."  That's the sort of response that the attacker - especially popular athletes - give when they're accused of sexual violence.  Motherfucker was caught red-handed trying to attack Buffy and he looked the principal in the eye and blamed the way she dressed.

The point is, just because he couldn't have hurt Buffy physically, doesn't mean that it's not emotionally and mentally traumatic.  Especially when the reaction of the school and your friends treats another student's attempted attack as unremarkable, and unworthy of consideration.  Basically everyone said to Buffy, "So what? It happens and you're fine."  And yep, this happens all the time too.  

Wish-fulfillment Buffy just after breaking her attacker's nose, and just before being
victimized by her school's administration and dismissed by her friends. (source)
Oh, and toward the end of the episode the coach throws Buffy to several fish monsters for them to rape her, because you know, women and their bodies and their mental and physical health just pale in comparison to male high school athletes:

Buffy: So, what, you're just gonna feed me to them? 
Coach Marin: Oh, they've already had their dinner. But boys have other needs.

Check out Part II about the sexual violence in the Angelus story line.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Flu Induced Rewatch: Part II

So I started this little rewatch project because I was/still am incapacitated by the flu.  You can read Part I here.

3.16 No Rest for the Wicked

A Cracked article once said that SPN is one of the greatest shows ever based solely on the fact that the main character is graphically ripped apart by an invisible dog.  But seriously this episode is incredible.  At the time of airing, it was the best season finale to date, and it's one of the top closers of all time.

Graphically ripped apart. (source)
Some thoughts on the rewatch:

This episode packs such an emotional punch.  There are so many little moments throughout that are heartbreaking and that really exemplify the brothers' relationship.  Like when Sam says, "Everything's going to be okay." But Dean sees him as a scary-contorting-demon-face, and he's just like, "Yeah, okay."  Ugh, even when Dean is petrified and going to hell forever he's still trying to comfort his little brother.  And what's more is that after this episode Dean is fundamentally changed.  His love and desire to protect his little brother are still there, but there's lots of scar tissue in the way.  This is one of the last times we see Dean being genuinely and selflessly concerned for Sammy for a while.  It just hurts!

The Bon Jovi scene is just painful for any fan to watch.  This is the moment when all Dean's badass, sarcastic, defense mechanisms just come crashing down and he lets himself be terrified.  It's so hard to watch, especially since Sam takes the moment to enjoy a rousing chorus with his brother. Just another example of my theory that they can't experience simultaneous happiness unless someone is being very dishonest.

Lilith is creepy as shit, and her scenes as the demonic ten year old make her such an intimidating enemy.  Azazel was driven and had a goal.  That made him scary, but that also meant that you could measure him, line up what his goals were and plan accordingly. As far as we know about Lilith here, she's just nuts and enjoys pain and chaos.  We eventually learn the truth about Lilith's part in everything, but she couldn't do much before Dean broke the first seal.  Until then she just had to stay alive and make sure Dean didn't escape from his deal.  It makes sense that she would lay low and enjoy herself.

The scene where Bobby yells at the boys for trying to ditch him and reminds them that family goes beyond blood is actually unprecedented in SPN and hasn't really happened again since.  With Cas and later Kevin, Dean explains to them that they're family now because of how they care and what they've been through together.  Family is the important concept to Dean, and he starts to realize how Bobby is more of a father than John was (which he echoes back to Bobby in "Lazarus Rising").  This is a big step for Dean because it means that family can't just be taken for granted.  Being blood isn't enough, it's about acting on that.

In rewatching this episode,  I'm fairly certain that Ruby was terrified that the Winchesters may have actually succeeded in killing Lilith (thereby stopping Dean from breaking the seals and forever keeping Lucifer in the cage).  Her panic when Dean traps her in Bobby's basement is pretty legitimate and given everything we know about devils' traps, there's just no way she could have got out without help.  My theory is that she called Lilith, gave her a heads up about the incoming assault and also got released on Lilith's orders.  Obviously this is all theory, but it seems to work.

How it fits:

Dean's instincts about Ruby are right (as always).  You could say it's just (understandable) prejudice against demons, but I don't think so.  He had some respect for that demon Casey, and though he's constantly threatening to kill Crowley, he works with him when their goals align.  The problem was that Dean never had a good read of Ruby's real goal, so he trusted his instinct that it was to corrupt Sam according to Azazel's plan.  Dean's ability to understand motivation is what really makes him such a great hunter.

Dean isn't as intelligent as Sam, for sure, but he's smart because he's a quick learner.  He understands the mistakes he makes and learns how to avoid them in the future (this is different than understanding his flaws, which he has a hard time doing, and making similar choices that are bad for a number of reasons).  Think of the Dean from early S2, who was eager to partner up with Gordon and experience some kind of macho-hyper-violent male bonding.  He immediately realized that his own emotional gratification impeded him from properly assessing and understanding Gordon.  

He almost never makes this mistake again.  For the rest of the series Dean decides how much he can trust someone based on what their goals are.  This is the reason we see him team up with Meg again and again.  He wavers from this a little when he starts working with the angels.  He didn't really understand what they were doing and instead he trusted that they had to be on the side of good, at least, better than the demons.  But he pretty quickly learns that lesson, and it's not really a mistake we've ever seen him repeat again.

Interestingly, in the last episode before both guys start down their respective paths of "demonization" there is a brief objection to killing Lilith's host.  Dean questions the morality of giving "a Columbian neck tie to a 10 year old girl." But only for like a half second, and we start to see that moral ambiguity slip away.  Bobby and Sam quickly make the argument that it's about the big picture, saving more people, etc. etc.

This is an interesting shift from "Jus in Bello" (one of my all time favs), where Dean refuses to weigh some lives as worth more than others.  He won't sacrifice Nancy to save the town, himself or his brother.  In this instance, I guess there's a distinction because Nancy was not possessed but was a sacrifical lamb, and here Lilith and the innocent are occupying the same physical body.  The only way to kill Lilith is by cutting through the body.  But it's just a nice way to show that as Sam and Dean's lives get more and more entangled in the "big picture" they're willing to sacrifice more and more that they would previously have been opposed to.

I promise not to use my evil powers...unless I'm at least 60% sure it could help.  (source)
When the clock strikes midnight and Dean tells Sam goodbye he also tells him to keep fighting, to remember what John taught him, and to remember what Dean taught him.  Once again Dean believes that because he's sacrificed his life for Sam, he's entitled to control it.  When Sam makes his sacrifice in S5, he makes Dean promise to get out of the game and settle down.  But even with Dean and John both gone, Dean just can't let Sam chose something outside of the family business.

The whole way Dean defines himself has to do with his family and hunting.  He can't imagine another life for Sam, the only remaining Winchester.  This obviously has a long history and continues on throughout the series, and finally in seasons 5 and 8 we do see Dean wishing that Sam could have some peace.  It's a nice mark of growth when it does eventually happen, but Dean has to go through a lot before he gets there.

4.1 Lazarus Rising

This is probably tied with "Meet the New Boss" for my favorite openers and it's near the top of the list for all-time favorite episodes.  The most amazing thing at the time of airing was the potential it opened up.  For three years we'd all lived in this universe with the Winchesters and we were as blind-sided by the angels as Dean was.

Just like Buffy, or Uma Thurman! (source)

Some thoughts:

JA and JP play the brothers so damn well.  By now they've really settled in to their characters, which is good because each brother takes a pretty dark turn this season.  In their scenes together it's clear that they love each other and are so happy to see each other again, and they have all these great little brotherly interactions, BUT there's also a noticeable difference in their relationship.  The time they've been separated and what they've been up to in that time has changed them.  Sam continued to build off whatever differences he established in "Mystery Spot" and Dean's soul is all scarred up. That bleeds over to how they relate to each other and the balance of power.

The scene in the diner with the demons is fantastic.  Dean just confidences his way through that threatening situation, and tells Sam they need to focus on one problem at a time, while Sam decides to come back later and finish them.  This has more or less always been their dynamic, but instead of working it out internally, Sam's stepping outside of the bounds of their relationship to solve it himself.

Castiel's grand entrance is amaze-balls. From the perspective of S9 his hair looks a little silly, but it is what it is.  The build up to it, what with Pam's eyes and the demons in the diner, and the awesome handprint, AND the ear-bleeding, glass-breaking encounters, it all just points to something way beyond anything we've ever seen before.  It's a brave new world for Sam and Dean.

Look at how big his hair is (source)

How it fits:

Most obviously we see that Sam is starting down a path laid by Ruby/Azazel/Lucifer, and Dean is on one allegedly laid by God/his children.  Like I've mentioned before the good/evil dichotomy here is more complex than you might think.  We don't really know what these entities want so we've no way to know if that's what Sam and Dean want.  This built off so much from the past, especially Dean's desire to follow his father's wishes and Sam's attempt to break out of that and discover his own identity.  There's also a weirdly Oedipal thing with Sam, trying to escape his destiny and only playing in to it.  You could make an argument for Ruby as an Oedipal-mother figure too, but I won't get in to that now. 

Anyway, Once we find out what Dean was actually up to in hell, we see that for both Sam and Dean these paths they're on are about redemption.  For Sam it's about trying to get some good out of the power bestowed on him by evil forces, and for Dean it's about atoning for what he did in hell.

Dean's sense of humor is largely subdued in this episode.  I have a theory that memories of hell were kinda fuzzy after first waking up back on earth but that by the time he has the face to face with Cas all the memories had sorted themselves out.  For most of season 4 he's not so much cocky and sarcastic, as he is playing a caricature of himself, maybe trying to fake it until he makes it.

Either way it's obvious that the Dean of the early seasons is gone.  His old issues still need resolving, he's got all kinds of new issues to work out, and his old defense mechanisms just won't work.    Also, in a literal sense, his soul will need some healing.  Perhaps reconnecting with his brother and fighting the good fight could have helped there, but instead Dean needs to help Sammy heal, which only makes it all that harder for Dean to face what happens in S5.

In this episode we don't get too much of a taste for the Cas/Dean relationship, but we do get to see that Dean isn't afraid to challenge whatever assumptions there might be about it.  Right after Cas is like, "I saved you from hell," Dean stabs him directly in the heart.  Dean will not accept a relationship should be a certain way (that he should be loyal or grateful to Cas), not until he decides it for himself.  Sam, meanwhile is cool going along with Ruby even though he barely trusts her just because using his powers "feels right." I'm not trying to blame Sam or anything, but maybe this is why he's always used as a pawn, and people handle Dean with a little more care.

"Yeah, thanks for that." (source)

Anyway, this episode is fan-frigging-tastic.  And I have a lot to (eventually) say about the implications of Dean's sarcastic "Yeah, thanks for that," after Cas said he saved Dean from hell.  I mean, the self-loathing really just couldn't be any thicker without being tangible. 

4.22 Lucifer Rising

Just for the record I watched the last few minutes of 4.21 "When the Levee Breaks" before jumping into this episode because I needed to see a roided up Sam fight it out with Dean.  Why, oh why, do you boys only express yourself when you're on drugs or under the influence of magic? Huh?

I also yelled at Netflix, "Is this a f***ing game to you?" when it tried to skip the Road So Far recap - I'm sure we've all been there.


Like the rest of the series, a huge theme of this episode (and season) has to do with familial love redeeming us.  We have a hard time forgiving and loving ourselves, so our families are there to love and forgive us and show us it's okay.  Sam and Dean really push each other's limits in this episode.

Bobby is there to force Dean's hand a bit, remind him it's his responsibility - not as the big-brother-acting-as-a-father - but as one of only two people who loves Sam unconditionally, to love Sam unconditionally. Bobby goes on to point how John's weaknesses in dealing with familial conflicts and encourages Dean to be a better man and a better family member than John was (something which Dean achieves and fails at repeatedly in his dealings with Cas).

Dean's always held on to Sam's mistakes and brought them out when he's feeling hurt or defensive.  Bobby challenges Dean to let that go and move past it and just offer his brother the love he needs to heal and get through this.  Dean still struggles with that in S9 (because he's an incredibly flawed person and grudges are kinda his thing), but after this advice from Bobby he never really tries to shut out Sam again.

It just bothers me that Sam never gets to hear the real voicemail that Dean left :(

How it fits:

Like I said, we get some nice themes of family commitment and loyalty to each other over treating family as a means to an end.  This is, yet again, something we see play out spectacularly at the end of S8.  But here it's even more poignant.  We know from S5 that Dean's soul is practically dead inside.  He's done so little inner healing since returning from hell, and so much of what he has done was inauthentic.  He committed to God/the angels, but that wasn't anything.  He would trust Sammy only to be betrayed. 

Dean could have gone a few ways here.  Dean could have committed himself to a cause that was greater than he, and let  himself heal that way.  Instead he rejects that, and goes the painful and impossible way to trying to save his brother.  It's the same choice he makes in S5.  Knowing there's no chance of stopping what's predestined, he just wants to be there and let Sam know that despite the fact he's a soulless, shell of a man, he still loves and forgives his little brother. 

Time to go. (source)

This episode gives us Cas straight up rebelling against heaven.  He's done some shit before, but nothing as flat out disobedient as this.  Though we as the viewer, and Dean and Cas all feel that this is the right and just action to take; it's interesting to look at it in hindsight and see that this is the first step in a series of events and beliefs which eventually leads to Cas doing some genocide in heaven.  I'm not saying that was an inevitable consequence of this first rebellion, but turning away from orders is a slippery slope.  Especially since so much of Cas's decision to rebel came from Dean.  Dean acts as Cas's moral compass quite a bit, and when Cas finally starts making decisions without Dean's input, things get out of control very, very quickly.

We also get a very heavy dose of Dean's insistence that he doesn't have the right to weigh lives.  He'll cut down any innocent that's hosting a demon, but that's collateral damage.  What he won't do is drag in people who are lucky enough to avoid the nightmare and trade their lives for others.  This is exactly why he would never agree to host Michael (at least not while there's any bit of his sense of self left).

When Dean escapes from the angels, and all of what he does in S5, he really just affirms his believe that he has no right to sacrifice the few today to save the many tomorrow.  This is a basic tenant of his belief systems and it goes to extreme limits too (like refusing to let Sam close the gates to hell).

In his heart, Dean believes that world will end bloody and almost everyone will suffer.  Given what he's seen, he'll fight to protect the life today, rather than gamble for a better tomorrow.  In this episode he's pleading with Cas to see reason and he says, "You know what's real? People, families, that's real."  He just wants to protect the little moments for everyone.  (Side note - I think his sad, sad, experience with the djinn in S2 really made him see the beauty of little things like mowing the lawn and drinking a beer, it helped rejuvenate him to fight so that others can have that).

A huge, huge important thing in this episode is that Sam almost doesn't go through with killing Lilith.  The line he's not sure about crossing is cutting, draining and drinking a woman who's possessed by a demon.  Ruby points out that they've always killed the host and this is no different, but that doesn't make it easier for Sam to stomach.  Sam says maybe Dean was right about everything - he doesn't clarify but I have to assume he means Dean's stance on their right to take one life to save another.

In the end Sam justifies this woman's body for "the greater good" and, as it turns out, that probably wasn't the right call.  So, this is the second season closer in a row where Dean's instinct could potentially have thwarted the rise of Lucifer.  It lends lots of credence to his need to atone in S5.  Like I mentioned in my review of "The Magnificent Seven," it drives me bonkers that people blame the Winchesters for the opening of the hell gates.  There's just no logical way to draw that line.  But, in this case, Sam ignored his own instincts on a situation, and he ignored the trust he had for his brother's instincts.  By ignoring all of that and chasing instead a high of demon blood, power and revenge, he did set loose the apocalypse. 

For most of the things the Winchesters blame themselves for, they were just pawns being manipulated.  Sam was certainly being played the whole time, but when all is said and done he felt it was wrong and went ahead with it anyway.  That was his choice, so he felt he had to atone.  And that's something Dean couldn't take off his shoulders.  Buuut now we're getting into a conversation better left for S5.

"This is what you're gonna become!" (source)

I'm actually feeling much better now, so Seasons 5 - 9 will have to wait until I either get sick again or have a lazy long weekend.  I'll get to it eventually though.