[Note: I'm writing a series about consent issues in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I will post a new entry in this series every month. In this series, I will look at an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that deals with rape, sexual assault, or consent issues as a main plot point or as a featured event of the episode. I will examine these episodes in chronological order. If, in my writing of this series, you feel that I have skipped an episode that should be a part of this series, feel free to submit a guest post, and I will consider publishing it.]
EPISODE: “Dead Things”
INCIDENT: Sex, lots of it, in different positions with different implications
PARTICIPANTS: Buffy and Spike
The specifics and the respective participants’ perspectives: Buffy and Spike interact meaningfully several times in this episode.
Interaction #1: They’ve just finished having sex underneath the rug in his crypt. They have a pleasant chat about the way he’s decorated his apartment. Spike realizes that they’re having an actual conversation. Buffy enjoys it until Spike calls her an “animal” for the way she acted in bed. He asks if she even likes him, and she says, “Sometimes,” but doesn’t trust him with the handcuffs.
Spike’s perspective: He’s genuinely surprised when Buffy seems to be talking to him, and seems both bitter and accepting that she only “sometimes” likes him. He calls her an animal as a compliment of her skills in the sack.
Buffy’s perspective: She seems to enjoy talking with Spike until he calls attention to the fact that she’s enjoying talking with him. She doesn’t like being called an animal, and says that she sometimes likes Spike, but doesn’t trust him and never will.
Interaction #2: Spike comes up behind Buffy in the Bronze as she’s looking down on her friends dancing together on the main floor. He points out that she’s always walking away from her friends, and says she doesn’t belong with them: “You belong in the dark, with me.” He runs his hand up her leg. She tells him to stop, and he says, “Stop me,” and soon he’s fucking her from behind (sorry, there’s really no other way to put that). He tells her that she clearly loves getting away with banging him in front of her friends, right under their noses.
Spike’s perspective: Spike wants Buffy for himself. If that means banging her while she’s depressed, away from the friends she’s no longer able to relate to, so be it.
Buffy’s perspective: Buffy looks pretty unhappy during this whole exchange and I don’t think she’s enjoying herself much. She doesn’t stop Spike, even though she’s physically capable of doing so, because she believes that he’s right – she is a creature of the dark, there is something broken in her. However, maybe there is a part of her that really does get off on being dangerous and naughty like this.
Interaction #3: Buffy approaches Spike’s crypt at night and touches the door. He senses her presence and touches the door on the inside of the crypt. Their hands seem to connect in the same spot, the door between them, but when Spike walks outside, Buffy’s gone. She is distracted by the time-shifting demons surrounding her and gets into a fight. She discovers Katrina’s dead body and believes that she killed Katrina. Spike orders Buffy to go home and tells her that he’ll take care of this. Buffy has a dream: Spike crawls into her bed, kissing her, and then they’re having sex with her on top and with him in handcuffs. She imagines trying to stake Spike and killing Katrina instead.
Spike’s perspective: He wants sex and a connection with Buffy. When she thinks she’s killed Katrina, though, he wants to help her so that she’s not connected to the death.
Buffy’s perspective: She’s caught in a vicious cycle in her relationship with Spike. She views being with him as both a source of comfort and a source of depression. She dreams of him being tender with her, but also dreams of staking him.
Interaction #4: Buffy has decided to turn herself into the cops for killing Katrina. Spike stops her and admits to getting rid of the body. Buffy wants to confess anyway, and Spike doesn’t want her to. Buffy knocks Spike down and beats his face bloody, shouting that she could never be his “girl.” Spike insists that “you always hurt the one you love.” Buffy runs off.
Spike’s perspective: Spike doesn’t want Buffy to turn herself in because he wants to be with her. There’s a part of him, though, that seems to be capable of loving her unselfishly – he also doesn’t want her to go to jail because he wants her to be okay. Of course, he uses exactly the wrong tactic to convince her, claiming that Katrina’s death doesn’t count because Buffy’s saved so many people’s lives – not the argument you want to use with a woman whose mission is to protect ALL human life.
Buffy’s perspective: Buffy is hellbent on punishing herself and resents Spike for trying to stop her. When she beats him up, she shouts, “There is nothing good or clean in you. You are dead inside! You can’t feel anything real!” Spike is the one she’s physically attacking, but she’s really beating herself up. These are all things she’s saying to herself.
Interaction #5: This is a conversation Buffy has with Tara ABOUT Spike, but I’m including it anyway. Buffy is horrified to hear that she didn’t come back “wrong” at all. She was hoping for there to be something seriously wrong with her, something incomplete about the resurrection. She wants to hear that she’s damaged in some way. She feels guilty for using Spike, for letting him in, for sleeping with someone who she’s supposed to hate, and collapses into Tara’s lap, sobbing.
What does this episode say about misogyny and rape culture?
To put it very simply, Buffy and Spike’s relationship in the sixth season is an abusive one. BUT, describing the relationship in ONLY those terms doesn’t do justice to the complexities of the relationship, AND it’s not always clear who the abusive partner is.
It’s easy to say that Spike is taking advantage of a woman who is clinically depressed, that while the scene on the balcony is not technically rape, he’s taking advantage of her insecurities and pushing her buttons. He doesn’t care how unhappy she is, as long as she ends up with him. That’s gross, and that’s textbook abusive behavior.
On the other hand, I also feel like Buffy has been looking for an excuse to be with Spike since she came back from the dead, because being with him is, as she says, the only act that makes her feel anything at all. The “you came back wrong” assertion is tormenting her, but it’s also strangely comforting and justifying. If she came back “wrong,” she can do what she wants. It’s okay for her to sleep with a soulless vampire if she wants to, because something physical and supernatural about her is technically broken.
And even though Spike is completely selfish in many aspects of his relationship with Buffy, he’s not wrong to want to stop her from going to the police. There, his instincts are correct, even if his actions are not. He knows that Buffy’s not going to the cops because she’s trying to do the responsible thing; she’s doing an act of self-destruction. A Buffy in her right mind wouldn’t run to the police after what happened with Katrina. A Buffy in her right mind would have thought, “Hey, wait a minute – there was this weird time-shifty thing when I was fighting, and I had issues with time-shifty things messing up my life a few weeks ago…it must have been the nerds!” And I think that here, he wants to help Buffy for Buffy’s sake.
Then Buffy is beating Spike’s face bloody, taking out her self-hatred on another person, and is also exhibiting textbook abusive behavior – not the behavior of a narcissistic, sadistic abuser, but an abuser who vents insecurities on another person.
Then there’s the classic, “You always hurt the one you love.” A phrase that is SO problematic out of context, but oddly works for this relationship. Spike has never been in a healthy relationship, and as a soulless vampire, associates beatings and torture and violence with the two women (Drusilla and Buffy) he’s loved. As for Buffy, I take this statement – and her silence when Tara asks her if she loves Spike – as a tacit admission that she does love him, and an acknowledgment of the way Spike hurts her.
Basically, these two have a messed-up relationship and both use and abuse each other, yet there are also many times where they find comfort in one another, and understand each other better than anyone else can. What implications does this have in our culture? What does it mean to have this narrative play on our screens – a narrative where both parties can be described as abusive at different points in the relationship – when few real-life instances of domestic violence can be described as “mutually abusive?” Is this an irresponsible way to portray an abusive relationship, or does this dynamic make sense for Buffy and Spike as characters – and can the answer to both of those questions be “yes” at the same time?
I’ll leave it up to you. Discuss in comments.
Next up in January: “Seeing Red.” Oy vey.