Social Justice and Joss Whedon: So Close, Yet So Far: Buffy/Spike

Content note: This post discusses BDSM and rape.

One of the more complex, troublesome, and ultimately frustrating relationships on Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the Buffy/Spike relationship. Spike, originally introduced as a bit character, wormed his way into being a central character on the series, and with good reason. He’s complex, he’s dynamic, he’s interesting, and a lot of viewers really like him. The way the creators decided to handle their relationship was extremely irritating to me just on general principles, and also because of some of the dangerous messages I think it sent about relationships.

Here’s the thing about Buffy and Spike: They are hot together. They have chemistry. And a lot of that chemistry comes from the extremely rough physical nature of their relationship; it comes from sparring together, from wrestling, from the episode where they literally tear a house apart with the force of their physicality. Now, I realise that relationships like this are not to everyone’s tastes. I, however, really respond to their relationship (well, except for the sexual aspect). I like sparring with people. I like interacting with people on a rough, physical level. I like cutting loose with people. I like…a lot of things that I will not get into here. Suffice it to say that I loved seeing their relationship on television because it looked a lot like relationships I enjoy, even if it wasn’t perfect.

Spike gets Buffy on a level that other characters do not, because the characters have so many shared experiences. They are both outsiders in their own communities. The season six opener, where Buffy crawls her way out of the grave, was so striking, because you had all her friends not really getting, at all, what she had just gone through, while Spike is just quietly there. It is Spike who tenderly cleans and bandages her hands, who knows on a very personal level what it is like to dig your way out of your own grave. It is Spike who is willing to wait, to let Buffy talk when she wants to, to mourn with her for what she has lost, while her selfish friends crowd around and continue to demand things from her.

Their relationship is hidden and secret. I see a lot of people criticising that, and I can understand that. Buffy is a strong, self-determined woman, and some people think the relationship is hidden out of shame, that the entire thing is rooted in shame and self hatred, and her character is sometimes written and played that way, unfortunately. But that’s not how I read it, as a viewer. I read the decision to hide the relationship as a practical one, rooted in the idea that people will not understand the connection between Buffy and Spike. People are used to a specific version of Spike, a particular kind of Buffy, and their relationship transcends and busts right out of that. It is uncomfortable. It takes people out of the setting where people want them to be. Buffy’s friends are not exactly known for their tolerance.

Their relationship builds and contorts in interesting, fascinating ways. Until the show decided to throw it in the garbage with the horrific rape scene, which they then use to spin off a redemption storyline for Spike. That scene turned my stomach and made me quiver with rage. It was such a rejection of all the great things about the relationship, and it carried some distinct implications about BDSM and violence in relationships. Rough contact, it seemed to imply, to me, leads to rape, because eventually people will cross boundaries because the lines have been blurred. Rough play inevitably causes violence because people do not know when to stop.

I don’t know why they chose to do this. I have heard that they got uncomfortable with the relationship and wanted to find a way to wrap it up. I have also heard that they planned to do this all along. Or that they specifically wanted a redemption storyline for Spike and decided this was how to do it, despite the fact that the whole series is, on one level, about Spike’s redemption, and they could have found so many better, more appropriate ways to go there. They could have preserved the integrity of the relationship and both characters.

The rape scene was a violation on so many levels; of Buffy, of their relationship, of Spike, to some extent, because it was so not true to his character. Joss Whedon identifies as feminist and talks about feminism, and you could read the rape scene as ‘even superheroes can experience rape, and we should talk about that’ but what I read it as was punishment for Buffy, who lies helpless and torn on the floor of the bathroom, powerless to defend herself, stripped of all autonomy. I read it as punishment not just for her hidden relationship, but also for the specific physical context of that relationship, for a relationship where sexuality and sparring are tangled together.

Spike doesn’t have a soul, so we are supposed to take the scene as the expression of that, reminded of Angelus and his darkness. Except that Spike, throughout the series, clearly does have ethics and morals, which apparently just abruptly vanish. Where have I heard this before? Oh, yes, when I hear that men who rape simply couldn’t control themselves because of some extenuating factor, you know, like the fact that she was wearing a bathrobe or he had been drinking. The show sets us up to excuse the rape, sets up the other characters to do the same, because, you know. Spike wasn’t himself.

This is not a feminist message; the layers of context happening within their relationship, and in that scene, are in fact very strongly antifeminist, when you have a woman punished for her sexuality that way, when both she and the man are stripped of agency, because being denied responsibility for your actions is a form of denial of agency. And a reminder that, yet again, there will always be excuses for rape, even on a ‘feminist’ television show.