Domestic Abuse and Gender Role Reversal in Season 6:
Since this issue has come up again recently, I thought I'd share the letter I recently sent to Marti and Joss regarding different kinds of sexual abuse as portrayed this season. I'm aware that this might anger some people, and that's truly not my intention. I'll just say that, as a college student on a liberal campus, I've been exposed to a staggering wave of excused or ignored domestic abuse doled out by females that seems to increase with every semester. I'm hyper-sensitive to it, and that's the stance where I'm coming from with this.
I've been letting this letter stew for a while to see if my feelings changed. I knew this would be a long letter, addressing a touchy and uncomfortable issue. But it was one raised by the show throughout the season, and was one approached from increasingly unsettling ways. Thus, I felt compelled to write in the hopes that my viewpoint, even if it's not shared by anyone on the writing staff, might at least have its validity considered.
I read interviews done by the Mutant Enemy writers and have noticed a disturbing trend. To say that Buffy's treatment of Spike was not domestic abuse is disingenuous at best and dangerous and immoral at worst, and to see it excused the way it has been turns my stomach. The gender roles were so thoroughly reversed this season that the stereotypical "bad boyfriend" actions were nearly drowning me as they rolled off Buffy. Yet, we were constantly told that she was simply coming from a confused place, not a bad one, and that there was much angst from her resurrection that she was trying and failing to deal with.
While trying to explain this to a friend who had a hard time visualizing a female as an abuser, I used the following analogy. A man is in a bad place in his life, the points of which have arisen from his friends' actions. There is a woman, one with a dangerous past who is now of rapidly greying morality, who he knows to be deeply in love with him. After brushing her off when she attempts to talk seriously with him about their having kissed means, they get in a fight. It ends with him shoving her up against a wall and taking her, correctly assuming she would want to begin physical relations... but assuming. The morning after the sex he initiated, they get in a verbal fight which ends with the man telling the woman that if she tells anyone of their encounter, he'll kill her.
It was at about this point that my friend began to develop a furrowed brow over this new angle upon which the occurrences of the season could be viewed from. I went on past the man setting an "alarm system" to keep out the evil temptress who was obviously working her evil wiles on him. Now he again seeks to distract himself from his day to day problems. He goes over to the woman's house, storms in, throws her against the wall, and rips open her clothes before she even processes who's there. The moment she does so, she's thrown to the floor and he initiates sex once again.
Here's where it gets seriously dicey. The man is considerably stronger than the woman (she couldn't lift something--the Troll Hammer--that he was swinging around like a badminton racquet) and has pressed her into sex that the audience has seen she wanted. After he has fun humiliating her in front of an acquaintance, she realizes she's being used and tells him to leave. In short, the person who's never said no says it loud and clear. The man promptly ignores her clear wishes and initiates sexual contact. When she finally manages to shove him away, he isn't remorseful; he's annoyed and petulant that he didn't get his way.
In my world, overriding someone's clear and unquestioned revocation of sexual consent is rape. The gender of the attacker doesn't matter, nor does the gender of the victim. How upsetting was it, I thought as I watched this, that clear sexual assault was being presented as nothing more than a throwaway joke?
The same issue arose when Willow wiped Tara's memories of an argument in All The Way, only to engage in sexual relations with her in Once More, With Feeling. This was clearly a blatant and purposeful bending of someone's wishes in order to keep the target in line with their own desires. Later, Tara would say that her mind had been violated; no, it was more than her mind. She did the right thing and separated herself from her attacker, but then returned to her later in the season with a desire to get "right to the kissing." This was, to say the least, highly distressing.
I watched two women not only commit sexual assault this season, but have it excused either in the show or in writer interviews. Worse than that, it was never even acknowledged as anything akin to rape, it was just another vague "bad thing" they'd doled out that seemed to be beyond their control.
Now we come to the events in Seeing Red. Suddenly the audience is expected to forget everything they've been shown up until that point in the season. Ignoring clear revocation of sexual consent was a joke; now, a situation that develops out of that fact that there can no longer be clear communication of any sort is sold as rape, and the audience is expected to buy it. To say that, well, Buffy said "no" is coy and self-defeating... all it does is reinforce the fact that she was annoyed and showed no remorse when Spike had to physically prove to her that no did indeed mean no.
Going back to my earlier analogy, the man is obviously ashamed of his relationship with this morally questionable woman. He takes advantage of her being willing to take his abuse to work through issues created by others, and takes advantage of it frequently. A consistent and systematic pattern of abuse develops out of his treatment of her, where he not only physically beats her but also decries any and all attempts she makes at improving her moral lot in life as futile from the start. When she asks him to explain these questions of ethics, he hits her again.
Most distressing of all, he does not ever let her approach him for sex the way he feels free to do with her. When he feels like a go, the woman gets easily tossed around; when she wants it, she has to "overpower" the person who is much, much stronger than her. So convinced is the man that the woman he chose to initiate a relationship with is below his moral standards that he forces this person who loves him to "make" him have sex. After all, he would never willingly allow this "disgusting, evil thing" to touch him of his own volition. It's absurd to watch, knowing that he could throw her free at any moment. But so convinced is he of her utter lack of redeeming qualities beyond sexual prowess that he forces her into believing that the only communication he'll allow is through sex, and that if she wants to open up these lines of communication, she must "overpower" him.
It has been said that Spike and Buffy cannot be compared to a real life couple, being supernatural creatures, yet that seems to be exactly what the audience has been encouraged to do through the events of this season. The issues faced by them may have had their supernatural origins as catalysts, but are based in simple human emotions. We're seemingly invited to bring our own interpretations to the table for their interactions, and I have obviously done so above. By making two simple changes (gender and humanity), my friend suddenly changed his tune about whether or not Buffy had been a cold-hearted, remorseless abuser; now there seemed no question of it.
That this so easily changed in his head is what worries me about what the audience is expected to take from this season. Buffy knew Spike wanted to talk about what was going on and that he'd never said no; her overpowering him was presented as a joke. Spike attempts to stay away from Buffy after being dumped by her, is twice made to feel guilty for daring to direct his attentions towards another woman, tries to rip out his own emotions so he can stop hurting so much, and then attempts to "communicate" with the person who has denied him any other means of doing so, and we're expected to see rape.
Sorry. I don't buy it. I don't buy that Buffy directing abuse towards someone innocent of her resurrection was just a sign of her "wrongness" and nothing more to be concerned about. I don't buy that she didn't force Spike into actions and roles he didn't want to play. I don't buy that forcing someone weaker into patterns of behavior and communication carries no weight when it ultimately results in a terrible moment between the two.
If sexual assault had been presented in a consistent manner throughout the season, perhaps the scene would have been believable as what it's promptly labeled as... but this falls firmly in third place behind the sins perpetuated by Buffy and Willow in the same arena. More than that, Xander immediately assumes rape... why? As far as he knows, Spike can't hurt Buffy. All I can see is a sign of a mindset that men rape while women are victimized. And as Buffy was portrayed as the victim during it, all I could think yet again was that this was absurd. She's supposedly injured enough to compensate for her much greater strength, yet this incredible injury is gone by the time she goes to fight Warren in the next scene. The drama of the moment is emphasized by a complete lack of background music, yet Buffy ignoring his "no" was accompanied by a wacky score.
That fingers have been pointed at Spike while Buffy and Willow are excused has put me in a terribly uncomfortable place with people who have indeed bought into the idea of "men rapists, women victims." Looking at it from a gender neutral stance, I clearly see two successful sexual assaults this season and one violent encounter that developed out of the toxic communication patterns laid out by one partner. Yet, thanks to the stances assumed by Mutant Enemy in their interviews, I have people asking me how I can "excuse rape" and that I'm obviously attempting to "cloud the issue" by bringing up Buffy and Willow overriding their partner's clear wishes.
Everything I've seen from interviews says that Buffy will have to deal with her actions, but nothing that says she will ever be called on them by others. This selfish, abusive little girl, who was annoyed when the man she left for dead in a sun-exposed alley dared to bring up the beating, who acknowledged that she was using him and promptly turned it away from any effects to him with the statement that it was killing her, will get off scott-free. More than that, she's hailed as the conquering hero in the finale, climbing to the sunlight with her sister. Why? Why should someone who has shown no remorse for her sins to a man who loves her find joy and forgiveness?
Meanwhile, Spike is convinced he's committed a far worse crime than he did, and this soulless creature felt so much remorse than he sought to change his entire metaphysical structure to avoid a repeat. This is amazing: we've been told time and time again that vampires cannot feel guilt without a soul, that his shiny soul is how Angel realizes his crimes and seeks to make amends for them. Spike did so without one... this is epic stuff. He's far better than he should be, while Buffy is far worse. But he'll return to a group of people convinced that he did indeed victimize this "helpless" girl, in actuality a dangerous abusive user whose sins they know nothing about.
Some fans have raised the question of how these two could ever get back together with an attempted rape overhanging them; I have a different question. How can this dramatic work show a person changing themselves for the better for the sake of someone who abused and assaulted them without one moment of demonstrated remorse, and then return to them? It was distasteful when Tara did so with Willow, and would be just as much so if Spike does so with Buffy. I can only hope that these issues will indeed be addressed next season, that Buffy's staggering patterns of emotional and physical abuse will be addressed so the audience is not expected to root for a supposed hero who is in actuality morally bankrupt.
I know what I've seen presented to me in the show, and what I hope most of all is that we will not see abuse excused in interviews, that we will not be told abuse victims are "bad boyfriends." In short, I hope to see the true hero of the show that has emerged over this past year be given the respect that he deserves, and that the actions of the villain whose name the show bears are not brushed aside as nothing.