TW: Sexual Assault, Rape
*Spoilers for Buffy The Vampire Slayer*
Rape: unlawful sexual activity carried out forcibly or under threat of injury against a person’s will or with a person who is beneath a certain age or incapable of valid consent because of mental illness, mental deficiency, intoxication, unconsciousness, or deception.
Rape is often used as a common plotline through all forms of fiction, particularly television. It can be found in almost all of your favorite movies or shows. Whether they be Pulp Fiction, Evil Dead, Atonement, etc. Rape appears in those movies whether you think they were handled well or not is up to you. I’m personally only looking to decipher how rape is treated in one of my favorite shows, Buffy The Vampire Slayer. To do this, I will be looking at just two instances of rape and sexual assault in Buffy. I want to be able to understand how the show itself treats it’s two different instances of sexual assault and the two differentiating reactions to it by the fans.
There are several different assaults in Buffy that I could have chosen to examine, but I chose the most well known case and one that I think often gets swept under the rug. I am of course talking about Spike’s attempted rape of Buffy in season 6, episode 19 “Seeing Red” and Faith’s rape of Buffy and Riley in season 4, episode 16 “Who Are You?”.
(4×16) Who Are You?
Let’s set the scene of this episode and storyline in case you have never seen Buffy (what are you waiting for?). At the end of season three, Buffy stabs fellow, but evil slayer Faith and sends her into a coma. In season 4, episode 15 “This Year’s Girl”, Faith awakes and is out for revenge against Buffy. By the end of the episode she uses a gadget and switches bodies with Buffy, chaos ensues. This is where we are in “Who Are You?”, Faith in Buffy’s body attempts to wreak havoc in Buffy’s life. She causes trouble with Buffy’s friends, foes, but worst of all her boyfriend, Riley. Riley sleeps with Faith, thinking she’s Buffy. This is clearly rape. Obviously the show sees it as rape too, right? Right?
The answer would be no. At the end of the episode when everything is resolved, Riley doesn’t respond with disgust with what happened to him, but angry with having been deceived by Faith. The worst reaction though is Buffy’s own, she doesn’t have any sort of response to Faith stealing her body. And her reaction to Riley being raped by Faith is very much akin to a person who has just found out their spouse has cheated on them. This reaction is even made clearer in the next episode where there is an obvious lack of trust from Buffy’s side. They do eventually work things out by the end of the episode, but that’s not what I care about. Buffy and Riley’s respective reactions make it clear to me the show doesn’t see what Faith did as rape. This is troublesome, to say the least.
I do want to make it clear, “Who Are You?” aired in the early 00s. Society has changed so much on the way we think and how we depict rape. It may be unfair to critique the show about their lack of response to an episode about rape that aired over 20 years ago, but Buffy was very much a revolutionary show and has inspired so many other movies, shows, books, etc since it premiered in 1997 that I think it does need to be talked about how it’s shortcomings. And, there being no outrage from the characters about two of their own being assaulted is definitely a shortcoming. I think the show doesn’t take what Faith did to Riley (and to a certain degree Buffy) plays into this idea that women can’t rape. It’s an idea that has been around forever. I will say in recent years we have gotten better about talking about it, but that’s not saying much.
In Buffy, we don’t get to see any reaction from Riley about how he feels about what happens to him, other than his intention anger at by tricked by Faith. I think the show never addressing Riley’s feelings on the situation is a huge detriment on the show’s behalf. It unintentionally causes harm by playing into the long running belief that a woman can’t rape a man. A belief that is not true, a woman can rape a man and vice versa. It feels like a horrible oversight by the show. And like I stated Buffy never has a clear response about how she feels about Faith stealing and using her body to her own liking. The closest we get to a response is in Buffy’s spinoff show Angel where Buffy confronts Faith and states, “I’ve lost battles before. But, nobody else has ever made me a victim.”. But even this doesn’t feel like a true response because this statement of Buffy’s could apply to any of the things Faith has done to her, not exclusively stealing and toying with Buffy’s body. All around, Faith’s assault of Riley and Buffy is swept under the rug when it’s clear more should have been done to address it.
Buffy was usually a subversive feminist show, that’s what makes the show ignoring a crime of one it’s female characters commits unnerving, to say the least. In 2014 (10 years after Buffy went off the air) the Buffy Dark Horse’s comics spinoff Angel & Faith releases an issue “Lost and Found, Part One” where Faith tracks down Riley and apologizes to him about what she did to him. Like many others, I haven’t read the Buffy comics and I don’t plan on reading any of them. But, it was nice to read that Faith and the writers realize their mistake of sweeping the assault under the rug and talked about it in the comics. I didn’t read the issue so I can’t speak on how satisfying it was or wasn’t, but I appreciate the effort nonetheless. It just is really unfortunate that the show didn’t have a proper reaction to the storyline while it was still on the air. Though, the show’s first major outing in portraying rape wasn’t handled as many would have hoped that doesn’t mean the show didn’t try again. In fact, the show depicts another sexual assault two years later.
(6×19) Seeing Red
Throughout the entirety of season 6, Buffy and her former arch nemesis to reluctant ally Spike enter into a toxic relationship that comes to ahead in Seeing Red. After Buffy ended their relationship, Spike attempts to get Buffy back. He finds her in the bathroom drawing herself a bath after being injured while out slaying some vampires. Spike tries to convince Buffy that she loves him, Buffy protests. Spike tries to force himself on Buffy so she can feel love for him again. Buffy finally manages to get Spike off of her, stopping him from raping her. It’s a scene that I have only seen once despite watching the show many times. I feel physically ill just thinking about it, it’s not a scene I don’t want to ever watch again. And there is no reason to watch it because it’s forever burned into my brain. I remember Buffy’s pain and sadness like it was something I watched yesterday. I remember Spike’s frustration and his immediate guilt. It’s something that has stuck with me forever which is why I wanted to talk about it and how Buffy deals with sexual assault as a whole.
Unlike with Faith, Buffy the show and the character treats what Spike does to Buffy like the crime it was. He attempted to rape her to get her to love him again, Buffy knows that, the viewers know that, and this time the show knows that. Spike himself knows that, that’s why he goes on a journey to find a soul. Oh, did I not mention that Spike is a vampire without a soul and therefore he is without a conscious? Well, he is. So after his attempted rape of Buffy, Spike leaves town to go a journey that will reward him with a soul and he is indeed rewarded one. But even after he is given a soul, Spike is treated as a monster by everyone rightfully deserved. Conscious or no conscious, attempted rape is unforgivable. Expect Spike is forgiven, at least by Buffy and as an extension her friends.
It’s a complex plotline that many weren’t fans of. I know I wasn’t, it nearly ruined a fan favorite character in Spike for me and a relationship many fans (myself included) rooted for. But how can you root for a relationship between Spike and Buffy after that? I sometimes like to imagine Seeing Red never happened. But no matter how much I would like to, I can’t ignore the heinous crime Spike commits and it’s huge effect on the rest of the show for me. I could never fully forgive Spike or root for him and Buffy despite all the writers did to get me to. It was an important to story to tell, but one with significant ramifications for the rest of the show as a whole.
I don’t even know if I can even judge if the sexual assault is depicted well or not because of the very real bias I have against the plotline. I think it undid years worth of character development and was an unnecessary mean spirited thing to do these well beloved characters. But even putting my bias aside, I still don’t believe the idea of Buffy forgiving Spike so quickly and him becoming a potential suitor to her again was the correct way of going about the storyline. I wouldn’t judge a victim of sexual assault if that were the choice they decided to make, but in Buffy, it feels like the writers wanted to portray Spike as this monster, but also be able to redeem him the next season. I saw it as the writers wanting to have their cake and eat it too.
The two fan reactions to the portrayals of sexual assault are very much akin to how the show reacts to them. I have seen countless articles, social media posts, etc examine Spike’s attempted rape of Buffy and it’s long lasting impact in media and yet almost nothing about Faith’s rape of Riley. Much like the show, Faith’s crime is gone unnoticed and Spike is called out for what he tried to do to Buffy. It’s all in how Buffy depicts these crimes that provoke these reactions by the fans. Faith’s rape of Riley is gone unpunished and the fan response to it is very little/not enough in my opinion. I wished it was examined and talked about by fans just as much as Spike’s assault on Buffy because I believe it should have been taken just as seriously. But then again there are even more examples of assault on Buffy that were never followed through on like Xander’s rape-y behavior with Buffy in season 1 “The Pack”, Willow using magic on her loved ones without their consent multiple times, Buffy using Spike for sex while she’s invisible before he can figure out who she is and he tells her to leave in season 6 “Gone”. Buffy is one of the most influential shows of all time, whether it be Buffy’s witty dialogue, strong female characters, or musical episodes, it’s influence can be seen in shows like Doctor Who, Veronica Mars, Being Human. But I think it’s safe to say, it’s history with sexual assault is murky at best and harmful at the very worst.
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One response to “How Buffy The Vampire Slayer Treats Rape”
It can probably be argued that Faith committed sexual assault against Xander in Season 3’s Consequences. It’s been a while since I watched that episode, but if I’m remembering right, she very easily could have killed him in the process if Angel hadn’t shown up when he did.
I agree with you. The events of Who Are You are swept under the rug and treated as if Riley unwittingly cheated on his girlfriend. Seeing Red is incredibly difficult to watch, especially when you know what’s coming. For me, that entire season was problematic, but you’re definitely right in that Spike is not someone you want to root for moving forward as a love interest for Buffy.
As much as I love Back to the Future (officially my favorite movie of all time), I still have a hard time with Biff being close to the McFly family in the altered 1985 at the end of the movie. This guy tried to rape Lorraine in high school and we’re all okay with him waxing our cars and hanging out near our kids 30 years later? I don’t think so…
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