Domestic Abuse and Gender Role Reversal in Season 6: My Letter to Mutant Enemy by Kristen Smirnov
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
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
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.