July 16, 2015

Shadowcon Overviews- Buffy and the Strong Female Character, Part VII

Buffy and Sexuality

“I know you'll never love me. I know that I'm a monster. But you treat me like a man.”

-Spike to Buffy in “The Gift”

Oh boy. Here we are, looking at one of the most controversial and talked-about relationships in the whole series, and on No-Pants Thursday, no less, so things are already at risk!

Like any other section of this work, I would like to ground this analysis in the context of what this means for Buffy as going against (or conforming to) the “strong female character” stereotype. I mention this because this section was probably the most challenging for me to write for three reasons. First, my handle on the discussed relationship is fairly slippery compared to what has been said before by other people; this section had the most rewrites, expansions, edits, and god-knows-what-else done to it before finally arriving here because I always felt that I was talking too much about one thing and not enough about another.

Second, what this section covers is probably the most debated and indeed problematic relationship of the whole show. While some may be quick to defend this as being “daring” or “a gutsy move” by the writers, I think this is a case where the writers’ faults and imperfections should be as much a part of the discussion as the content itself; it is okay to admit that a show has some artistic and narrative faults, after all, and I don't think those who see this relationship as a problematic one in terms of narrative and characters are not without ground on which to stand. That's why this is so complex; like any good story, there are differing and equally valid points to be made regarding this relationship, and I hope to explore that to the best of my ability.

Finally, my stance on this whole thing is that it was a fascinating relationship if a bit overdone. It had a lot of complexity to it, and I feel that everything in there was needed so that we as the audience could explore it fully. The mere act of saying this, however, is enough to rile many people up, with some thinking, because I think this relationship is effective and interesting, that this somehow equates it to being morally or ethically correct, so I would like to stress that I obviously would never think that this is a healthy relationship, or a good example of what a relationship should be like in real life. And that's as it should be, I think, because the show doesn't glorify this, it never makes things out to be happy (until the end), and it presents its subject matter with maturity, building around themes and characters far more than fan service and novelty. That said, it is shoved down our throats a bit, and the resolution in Season Seven proves a sticking point for me. Previous drafts of this had me discussing this topic form a single point of view (my own), but as I began getting deeper into it, I found that this just never captured the full extent of what this relationship was about or what it means and implies to the audience and to the rest of the show, so I decided to take a step back and explore several different arguments and views regarding the subject matter.

Buffy and Spike's first night of intimacy comes about
through an initial fight, with the building coming down
around them, likewise serving as a metaphor for how
far these two have fallen and will continue to fall.
Buffy’s role as heroine is not without its questionable behaviors. Because she is the protagonist, we are sympathetic to, or at the least are able to understand to some degree, whatever she is doing. What she does may be frowned upon some of the time, but she is never cast as a villainous person, so we are able to understand her actions from a character-and narrative-point of view and that includes her antics in Season Six. Buffy’s sexual relationship with Spike is really where her display of sexual dominance comes to the forefront, initiating sex first when she and Spike have a fight that quickly spirals into lustful behavior. This would continue over the course of nine whole episodes, with Buffy becoming increasingly more aware of what she is doing, connoting a purely sexual relationship with the supposed antagonist as a bad thing. For Spike, this is a chance for him to fulfill his sexual fantasy that he has desired since Season Four. Spike has feelings for Buffy that start out as nothing more than physical attraction to her, but by Season Six, he is desperately in love with her, though Buffy insists otherwise:

“I’m in love with you.”

“You’re in love with pain!”

-Spike and Buffy in “Smashed”

For Buffy, sleeping with Spike elicits physical pleasure, and while their relationship is an emotional rollercoaster, she does not think of it as an emotional bonding experience. Stooping down to the level “where you screw a vampire just to feel” is something that Buffy finds repulsive, yet she keeps coming to Spike to feel more. This is in contrast to her previous relationships with Riley and Angel, with whom she had strong emotional ties (indeed, when she and Spike have a morning conversation in one episode, both see this as strange and unfamiliar for their relationship, whereas with either of the other two, this would have been perfectly in character). She has a strong emotional connection to Spike as well, but here she is both in denial of it and the emotion itself is not the same as it was when she was with Riley or Angel. Spike is not her shoulder to cry on; he is her punching bag when she is really angry or depressed, and so the emotions that drive the two are not ones of romance, but instead are things like anger, lust, desperation, and wanting to feel whole. And note that throughout the whole affair, Buffy is denying that she has feelings for Spike at all, as presented in the above quote, but this also echoes and is in keeping with her position on the matter in Season Five. At the end of "Fool for Love", Buffy declares that she would never date, sleep with, or otherwise engage on a romantic or sexual level with Spike, that Spike is "beneath [her]". It serves as a quiet foreshadowing of the next season (with obvious sexual images going along with it), but that Buffy does end up with Spike serves to illustrate the changes that Buffy's death has caused her to endure.

Buffy has died twice, and the second time she went to heaven. To be cursed with the fact that she was not only pulled out involuntarily to resume a battle she knows she will lose again in time, but that she was pulled out by those whom she considered her closest friends is damning to her moral compass and her sense of right and wrong. Thus, the only comfort she can find with anyone is in Spike. He is the only one of the people with whom Buffy surrounds herself who knows what she is going through, and for her, Spike is someone who is not considered part of the team (at least not officially by any of her friends), and so this could be seen as an excuse that Buffy uses so as to absolver herself of not taking advantage of any of her friends in the core group.

Note that throughout Buffy’s sexual escapades with Spike, it is she who initiates the relationship, save for two times, thus serving as a counterpoint to her verbal position of not accepting him as anything more than a sexual partner, that she "hates [herself" for even entertaining the notion that htis is anything more than that. Spike may love Buffy enough to want her physically, but he also loves her enough to care about her emotional state. Spike is also all too aware of what dying can do to a person since he’s a vampire, and so he attempts to give Buffy emotional comfort and guidance in the world that she now sees as new and as a kind of hell. But she does not want guidance or emotional comfort from him. She wants to feel something, even if it is merely physical:

Buffy: “It’s over.”

Spike: “I've memorized this tune, love. Think I have the sheet music. Doesn't change what you want.”

Buffy: “I know that. I do want you. Being with you... makes things... simpler. For a little while…. I’m using you. I can’t love you.”

This reinforces the idea that Buffy is not only wanting to feel alive physically, but that she is also attempting to shun responsibility and personhood in this world that she sees as a living hell. She does not want to be here. She is yearning to let it all end just as it was supposed to back in the finale of Season Five, and finding comfort in Spike gives her a way of experiencing death (in that Spike is dead) and being alive (in sexual stimulation). This is why the relationship I don't think is meant to be taken as a good thing; Buffy is clearly and obviously making a mistake here, but it is one that many people do make in their relationship ventures, and some even seek out a purely sexual relationship devoid of any emotional attachment. That's what this is, partly, and that is a commendable message to put into this show.

Buffy’s being dead serves as a bridge between the two, giving them something in common. Spike is the first to figure out how Buffy’s hands got cut (she had to claw her way out of her grave, something Spike had to do when he died and became a vampire), and he is the first person to not bombard Buffy with materialistic comforts. The rest of Buffy’s friends barge into her house and are loud and obnoxious, more so basking in their victory of getting her back than actually worrying about her mental state. Dawn too, while more sensitive, is still very much in the mindset of reasserting Buffy’s place in the world through reestablishing her sister’s familiarity with the things inside her house, instead of contemplating what Buffy's reintegration might mean for Buffy herself. Spike, meanwhile, is focused on Buffy’s emotions and his guilt over having failed her, and he recognizes what she is going through emotionally.

Spike is the only one who notices Buffy's hands are bleeding
from clawing her way out of her own grave.
“I do remember what I said. The promise. To protect [Dawn]. If I had done that... even if I didn't make it... you wouldn't have had to jump. But I want you to know I did save you. Not when it counted, of course, but after that. Every night after that. I'd see it all again, do something different. Faster or more clever, you know? Dozens of times, lots of different ways. Every night I save you.”

Spike demonstrates tentativeness and care for Buffy in this scene; his love for her is not a mere sex fantasy anymore, but is now real come Season Six, and while he has demonstrated this deeper love for her prior to this moment, this is the first time that Buffy recognizes it as such, because this is the first instance where the two have had something other than violence and situational heat-of-the-moment commonalities to bond over. What’s more, Spike’s love for Buffy here is based not only around his love for her, but also around his guilt over having failed her. In her analysis of sexuality and its thematic uses in Buffy, Vivien Burr backs this reading up in her article published in 2003 in the monthly journal Sexualities. She states that Buffy “is drawn to both light and dark, life and death. Buffy’s desire for death becomes coterminous with her desire for the undead Spike, and sex (Sartrean desire) and violence (Sartrean hatred) are powerfully collapsed.” And so we see desire for both pleasure and death become mixed for Buffy.

The way the two participate in their many trysts points to the issue of role reversal. Buffy is the initiator and dominant partner in the act, and she is frequently shown as physically abusing Spike during their relationship. Were their roles reversed, the audience would rightly feel sorry for Buffy and angry towards Spike, so why are we not full of rage when Buffy forces herself upon Spike? First, aside from the fact that Spike seems to enjoy Buffy’s practices as a sexual partner (so as to avoid putting the protagonist in the position of raping someone that would've gone over real well), Buffy’s antics in Season Six suggest that she is only human, prone to mistakes just as anyone ever is. (Obviously, I should not have to mention that I am not condoning rape or any other type of sexual violence, and I do not think the show is either. I am merely trying to approach this issue from multiple angles to better analyze it.) Buffy’s actions, though frowned upon, are forgiven since her character has been through so much development already.

Second, the show plays on our (read: society’s) assumption that women are not the abusers in the relationship, that women are passive, softhearted and soft-spoken. “Elements of ‘masculine’ genres like horror and action are subverted by the way Buffy uses role reversal, attempting to separate roles or behaviors from gender,” and while the show skillfully subverts genre in comparison to gender, it likewise subverts sexual roles and themes. Thus, Buffy’s antics are excused because, even though the audience has been watching the show for over six years by this point, we are still tuned to being surprised that Buffy is able to do such “manly” or “masculine” activities as being the dominant partner in sex. I do not think the show is advocating such, but rather pointing out through example how wrong this behavior actually is while simultaneously highlighting society’s biased understanding with regard to sexual violence and abuse.

An alternative view regarding power in their sexual dynamic is that Spike himself is in power (in the show itself, Spike takes their first night together as proof that he has control over her), merely allowing Buffy to do these things to him knowing that it fulfills his desires for her. Now that she has initiated sex with him, he perceives this as having control over her in ways that he could not before. While I personally think that Spike’s character has evolved past the point of solely wanting to control or beat Buffy as an antagonist, it could be argued that Spike is the one using Buffy. The male gaze is very much in play this season with Buffy exhibiting “slutty” or “shameful” behavior, with Spike on the receiving end and more confident in himself with her because of it.

The Spike/Buffy sexual relationship does highlight one of the problems that fans and critics bring up when analyzing Season Six, that Buffy’s character is crossing the line of subverting gender stereotypes, instead practicing abusive behavior that, in today’s social justice climate (with more awareness towards male victims of rape and sex violence), could turn a lot of people away from the show. And plenty of people have levied legitimate complaints regarding this aspect of the season. I think that there is an argument to be made regarding how Buffy’s character is exhibiting amoral or downright monstrous behavior, and while I think that this strengthens the layered nature of Buffy’s character, obviously abusing someone is not something that should be encouraged. This is part of the show’s point: we are conditioned against this type of behavior in men alone, and so the surprise overshadows our instinctual reaction that this behavior is wrong in either gender.

The times in which Buffy is not the initiator are the times in which the audience does feel bad for her, and rightly so. Whenever Spike tries to come on to her, he is painted as being in the wrong, as being sleazy, as representing the worst aspects of men. This resulted in a very conflicting scene for fans, some decrying it as being "anti-feminist", others praising the writers for going this far at all, and others still (myself included) landing somewhere in the middle, clearly and obviously uncomfortable with the scene itself, but intrigued enough at the story and character possibilities to see where they went from there.

In “Seeing Red”, Spike attempts to force himself onto Buffy in a very realistic rape scene meant to express Buffy’s vulnerability and to illustrate just how far Spike is willing to go in order to make his fantasy a reality. This does serve to illustrate that while Spike and Buffy’s relationship has evolved, Spike’s initial desire for her is still there and prowling just beneath the surface (indeed, their whole relationship is built on selfish desires; while certainly masked as love some of the time, in actuality, most of the time this relationship is very unhealthy). While Buffy has been the initiator through and through, it could be argued that this is not what Spike wants, that he sees himself as a dominator, not a submissive, something that he has unwittingly become throughout Season Four especially, and here in Season Six as well. The attempted rape scene is without music, shot at realistic gritty camera angles, and is one of the few times in the whole show where we see Buffy as a victim. As Jowett points out, “[the] physically powerful Slayer is frozen and initially does not fight back…. Although she does manage to stop Spike, her vulnerability normalizes Buffy (demonstrating a noticeably ‘real’ reaction), and by becoming the “victim” she also retains… her innocence.”

This scene is treated as important to both characters. Buffy is presented in a weakened state, and Spike is genuinely horrified by what he has attempted to do. The way the show deals with the ramifications of this scene does make many fans angry. That Spike essentially gets off scot-free here, with Buffy relying on him for help and even emotional comfort later on, seems to brush off this scene almost entirely. As some fans have rightly put it, what kind of message does that send people who have been sexually abused? Xander is the only one to vocally protest Buffy relying on Spike later in the season for backup, and the fact that the show ends on a relatively high note with regards to the Buffy/Spike love story in Season Seven (with Buffy's "I love you" line being said and presented genuinely) seems to suggest that the writers condone this scene, or indeed treat rape as a means to further Spike’s, and thus need I remind you, the rapist’s, own character development. Fans take this even further, saying that this had no effect on Buffy’s character, something that I personally do not see at all, and I explain why below. But that aside, yes, this is a legitimate argument to bring up. The argument that the writers crafted Spike’s redemption arc around his attempted rape of Buffy or at the least used the action as a catalyst for Spike's eventual search and gaining of a soul, is something that is problematic, and definitely deserving of scrutiny.

But while it might be easy to say that the show considers rape as something to be walked off, I think this comes more so as an unintended side-effect of all the character dynamics that the writers were juggling in the rest of Season Six and especially in Season Seven, and as a sad byproduct of the times in which the show was written. In a 2012 interview with Al Norton of 411mania.com, James Marsters, who played Spike, said the following of the attempted rape scene that I think is very telling:

“I do understand why they did it but I still think it was a mistake.… One of the writers, a female writer, had a situation in her life where she [and] her boyfriend were breaking up and she decided if she just made love to him one more time, that they wouldn’t break up. She ended up trying to force herself on him and decided to write about that. The thing is, if you flip it and make it a man forcing himself on a woman, I believe it becomes a whole different thing. Even though Buffy is super strong, even though she kicks him through a wall at the end of it, how it plays to the audience changes when you change the sex that way. It worked out and everything but I’m not really sure it expressed what the author was intending and on that score it was not successful. I think it was a big risk for everybody but I think if she could have found a female character to express that with [regarding Spike] it would have gotten closer to what she was trying to say, and I’m not really sure that we got there with that episode.”

(Thanks to Sophie Tsokas for directing me to this source.) While previous episodes showed Buffy physically and emotionally abusing Spike (their relationship is almost entirely for the benefit of physical pleasure and pain for Buffy, casually casting Spike off when she is not in need of him), her antics are exempted while Spike’s are treated as monstrous, which in and of itself is understandable; obviously what Spike did to Buffy is worse on the grounds that this was presented as attempted rape. However, a possible counter to that is that this scene is not condoning rape, sexual violence, or Spike’s actions, but rather is serving to illustrate the dangers of abusive relationships, showing how terrible and unsustainable this relationship actually is. This scene, according to this particular reading of it, serves as a final "nail in the coffin" if you will for the reasons not to continue with it. And even disregarding this view, it is not as if Buffy herself is not affected by this. On the contrary; her reaction, both the immediate one and her long-lasting impressions left by this encounter, are noticeably human and well executed; one episode in Season Seven in particular has Buffy physically flinch and shrink away from Spike’s lightly tapping her on the shoulder. However, this does not change the fact that Buffy still considers Spike an ally even after the attempted rape encounter, something that in today’s setting seems obviously counter to what the feminist movement (and common sense, for that matter) is all about.

One could argue that this scene and the Spike/Buffy relationship in general does not contradict or butt heads with feminism however, modern or otherwise, but instead offers a much-needed commentary about abusive relationships, sexual relations, and comments on a more subtle feminism. (Thanks to Sabina Nilsson for pointing out this argument.) And I am not interested in championing one side of this issue over the other; like any good topic, there are multiple points of view regarding this relationship, the context and implications, and fallout of the attempted rape scene, and the overall arc of the whole ordeal. I am merely attempting to address as many of them as I can, and point out the dualistic nature of the characters and how their actions both mirror and contrast each other. Personally, I do find the Buffy/Spike relationship fascinating, and its final phase in Season Seven is one of the few character-related pieces of material that manages to remain relatively well written, with good character explorations and themes being drawn out with it.

Regardless of all of this, however, I think everyone can agree that Buffy remains human during this scene (and during the whole of their relationship) by being shown as a victim, that even someone as good and physically powerful as she can still come under abuse, and I think that is very important because it once again illustrates real life situations as posing the greatest threat to an otherwise extremely powerful Slayer. I also thinks it strikes a good balance between being realistic and not being overly or overtly novel. This type of relationship is a very real thing for some people, and to sweep that under the rug would have been a mistake, and quite frankly insulting. Having it in here does allow the writers to explore it, to show how Buffy, the hero of the story, deals with it, and that does send a powerful message I think to the show's audience. Next week, I examine how sexuality and character development is treated with another Slayer, and that Slayer's relationship to Buffy.

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