Buffy Rewatch: Seeing Red

Posted: June 17, 2013 in Critical Hit
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Trigger warning: in-depth discussion of attempted rape.

Despite my personal love of season 6, Seeing Red isn’t an episode I’ve watched often, for obvious reasons that are, I suspect, shared by pretty much everyone who’s either a fan of Spike and/or his relationship with Buffy. The bathroom scene is fucking difficult to watch, not only because it’s so starkly realistic, but because it pushes their already broken relationship over a seriously damning line. Attempted rape lands squarely and undeniably in the category of Things For Which No Partner Should Be Forgiven Under Any Circumstances – and in real life, that’s not a rule I’m ever going to bend, because there’s literally no excuse for it. No. Excuse. At. All. But in the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey land of SFFnal narratives, where characters can be soulless or possessed or otherwise have their terrible actions contextualised and explained (if not necessarily excused) by Magical Forces At Work – and, more to the point, where our years-long investment in a particular relationship makes us unwilling to surrender the attachment on moral grounds when we could just as easily say the writers screwed up and superimpose our preferred headcanon in order to get around it – things aren’t quite so clear-cut*.

And so, the rape scene.

You guys. I don’t know what to think.

The thing is, I’d forgotten it. Forgotten, since my last proper rewatch, the pattern of the relationship that preceded it, selectively remembering only what suited me. I’ve seen commentary to the effect that, in order for Spike to have the mental break-slash-epiphany that leads to him getting his soul back, it would’ve been enough if he’d tried to kill Buffy, drain her, or turn her – anything but an attempted rape. And on one level, I agree with that wholly. Such an alternate scene might well have lacked the horrific, oh-god-no, no factor the existing one inspires, but that’s kind of the point: did we really need to go there? Narratively, there were other options available that would’ve got the job done, and which wouldn’t have left such a deeply problematic stain on their relationship. However we might define Spike’s actions in terms of his character and personal history within the show, there’s no way to separate that narrative from a wider cultural context, and as such, we have to view his subsequent redemption accordingly. By forgiving Spike, whatever the supernatural reasons and specificities involved, we are ultimately saying either that his attack didn’t fit with our preconceptions of his character, and therefore we can ignore it, or that attempted rape is something we can pardon under the right conditions, and while there might well be some people out there who have, for reasons of their own, gone down such a route in their own lives and made it work, as a general theme to impart to your audience, it’s not a great one.

Thus: the problem with the rape scene isn’t that it’s inherently unrealistic, but that it’s portrayed as something that Spike can recover from – and when you present your audience with a choice between pardoning the unpardonable Because Magic or completely severing all emotional allegiance to something they love, the majority will probably choose the former; not because they’re bad people or because they’re trying to trivialise an extremely serious issue, but because the unreality of fiction absolves them from making the harder choice that, morally, they’d hopefully want to make in real life. By which I mean: if it turned out someone you actually knew, someone you’d joked with and liked and hung out with on a regular basis for five years suddenly tried to rape their ex, then the fallout in your social circle, however clear-cut the facts of the case, would be epic. And as a result, I think that most people in that situation who acknowledged the truth of it would wish, however fleetingly, that the rape attempt had never happened at all,  not only because that would just be better, period, but because it would make things easier for them to deal with: the emotional dilemma of having to reconcile your friendly memories of someone with their hated identity as an attempted rapist would cease to exist in an instant – and that, that very understandably human but nonetheless deeply problematic temptation right there, is the reason why I dislike the presence of rape in this narrative: because no matter what arguments we make about shitty writing and sticking to headcanon, every time we duck the issue, we’re engaging in an emotional dry-run for wanting to handwave identical problems in real life. This is not a good thing; and in that sense, it would’ve been far better if the scene had never happened.


As a piece of storytelling connected to and derived from established characterisation and plot?

It makes an awful kind of sense.


(Oh, god.)


(And oh, how my inner shipper wishes I hadn’t noticed this, because it makes everything so much harder now; queue a bout of the mental moral gymnastics detailed above, plus buckets of self-flagellation. But.)

There are serious fucking consent issues in Buffy and Spike’s relationship, and the rape scene is a deliberate callback to each and every one.

Because Buffy, thanks to a combination of self-hatred and fear of judgement, is deeply ashamed of her feelings for Spike. At the start of Tabula Rasa, when he confronts her about their kiss at the end of Once More, With Feeling, she tells him it was a one-off. But then, of course, it happens again – right at the end of the episode. As before, he confronts her at the start of Smashed; she tells him she’s disgusted with herself, and that it’s over. They argue; Buffy hits him; and when Spike hits back, he discovers his chip doesn’t work on her any more. “You came back wrong,” he tells her, and though we later find out this isn’t true in any meaningful sense, at the time, Buffy seizes on it as a justification for all her new, dark feelings:  if her lust and pain and rage are all explicable by some sort of demonic influence – if she’s not really human any more – then giving full rein to her desires is not only understandable, but arguably something she’s incapable of preventing. When Spike attacks her again, she grabs him, shoves him to the wall, and kisses him – and then they keep on, quite literally, fuck-fighting. The next morning, at the start of Wrecked, Buffy regains her sense of shame and tries once more to put Spike off. “Last night was a mistake,” she says, to which he shoots back, “Bollocks. It was a bloody revelation.” And then he pulls her into his lap. She tells him to stop. She tells him no. She even hits him a couple of times – and then she kisses him again. And then she pulls away from him. And then they fight. And then she leaves.

And this sort of thing keeps happening. Not every time, but most of the time, if consent is initially refused by one, the other ignores it – and this is invariably shown to be the “correct” decision in terms of what the other person, usually Buffy, “really wants”. In Gone, when Spike comes to Buffy’s house in the morning, he feels her up despite the fact that she tells him no; but minutes later, he repeats the action (albeit while reclaiming his lighter) and her enjoyment of it is visible. But later in the same episode, the scales are reversed: Spike throws Buffy out of his crypt, but it’s strongly implied that before going, she ignores his request and goes down on him, even though he’s told her to get out. Their relationship is physically, sexually violent: both of them frequently bruise, cut and otherwise damage each other during sex that’s heavily implied to have BDSM and sub/dom qualities. In S7, for instance, Spike tells Buffy that “I’ve done things with you I can’t spell”, while earlier in S6’s Dead Things, he praises her for “the way you make it hurt in all the wrong places”. In the same scene, Spike holds up a pair of handcuffs and asks if Buffy trusts him, strongly suggesting that she’s been the one tied down, for all that she later dreams of using them on Spike – a theory supported by the fact that, when she confesses the relationship to Tara, she asks herself aloud “Why do I let Spike do those things to me?” Yet though her answer to Spike’s trust question is “Never”, it’s spoken in a tone that suggests she might be lying, if only to herself. And on three other occasions, we see Spike talk Buffy into having sex with him despite her initial reticence – once outside the Doublemeat Palace, once at the Bronze, and once in her front garden.

In S3’s Consequences, when Faith goes to Angel for moral support after accidentally killing a human, she tells him, with angry defiance, that “Safe words are for wimps.” The line is both obvious bravado and a clear symptom of her self-destructive impulses: Faith is on the precipice of making some very dark choices, and in this moment, her youth and vulnerability contrast starkly with her aggression and rage. Three seasons later, the same line could very well be repurposed as the motto of Spike and Buffy’s sexual (though not their emotional) relationship. Contextualised by the presence of a safe word and an established set of rules, their repeated decision to ignore red flags over consent while causing physical harm to each other would be a totally different ballgame. Instead, they’re doing something that’s not only fucked up, but which is materially relevant to Spike’s actions in Seeing Red. Because – and this is broken on a whole new level – not only have their sexual encounters always involved violence, but they have never established a benchmark for consent that doesn’t hinge on ignoring ‘no’ and ‘stop’. So when Spike corners Buffy in her bathroom and tries to kiss her – when she pushes him away and says no – she’s effectively doing the exact same thing that has, in all their previous encounters, been interpreted as yes. Which means that he doesn’t start out trying to rape her – not in the sense of his motivation, anyway. I mean, that’s still what he’s actually doing, because Buffy is clearly withholding consent; but from Spike’s perspective, there’s a clear, demarcating moment when his actions actively turn to assault: when he realises the “usual” approach of grabbing and kissing isn’t enough, and says, aggressively, “I’m going to make you feel it”.

But when Buffy kicks him away and stands, a look of horror crosses his face – and he stops. He says, “I didn’t mean-“ but doesn’t finish the sentence. He realises what he’s done; and as he admits in S7’s Beneath You, it’s not something for which he can just apologise or ask forgiveness. It’s too big a betrayal. But in that moment in the bathroom, their whole relationship becomes a cautionary tale about the very important distinction between acknowledged, mutually agreed-upon BDSM pairings and just flat-out, fucked up, violent sex, and the absolutely vital importance of obtaining informed, enthusiastic consent on all occassions. Spike’s failure to have done so isn’t Buffy’s fault in any way, shape or form. But the fact that his assault is ultimately one big callback to their earlier lack of consent is absurdly problematic, in that it implies that his actions – at least initially – might be somewhat understandable; and that is profoundly fucking worrying, both as a thematic element and as a sign of writerly fail.

So, yeah. Regardless of whether you’re examining it in terms of action, implication, canon, context or narrative, this entire plotpoint is deeply – I’d even say irrevocably – borked. So instead of trying to pick a side, I’m just going to do what Buffy does: take things an episode at a time, and try to fight the evil where I see it.


*And that’s not necessarily a good thing, given its potential to influence our reactions to actual problematic behaviours in the real world by subconsciously priming us to forgive the people we’re predisposed to love, like, care about and/or feel invested in regardless of what they’ve done. I wrestle with this issue more or less constantly when it comes to my love of fictional characters whose actions are morally repugnant, but whose narratives continue to treat them as sympathetic figures after the fact. Which is bothersome on a different level: I acknowledge the existence of moral grey areas, I don’t insist on squeaky-clean heroes, and while I personally hold some specific crimes and criminals to be wholly irredeemable IRL, narratively speaking, redemption arcs are not only fascinating, but have the potential to ask some really interesting questions about the nature of heroism, anti-heroism, morality and forgiveness. So, yeah. It’s a bit of a mess. An interesting mess, to be sure! But a mess nonetheless, and in the absence of a hard answer, I tend to try and work things out on a case-by-case basis while regularly checking my subconscious assumptions by poking at them, always keeping in mind that because YMMV, my answers are not necessarily your answers. So, there’s that.

  1. T.L. Bodine says:

    Here’s something I don’t understand. Why is it that the threat of sexual violence is more unforgivable than the threat of murder? Considering all of the times Spike has literally attempted to kill everybody in the show, and we take that in stride, why should the actions of Seeing Red be held to a different standard?

    Also, you hit the nail on the head in terms of the relationship dynamic being built on a rapey foundation. Not only do Spike and Buffy routinely trample all over consent, but Spike has also never had a healthy relationship. Drusilla pretty much raped *him* when she turned him into a vampire. That being sans-soul turned out to be something he enjoyed, and that he ended up in a long monogamous relationship with her at all, is beside the point. Spike was, in a sense, pretty much created *by* an act of sexual violence.

    • fozmeadows says:

      An excellent explanation of why rape is worse than murder can be found here: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/jimquisition/5972-Rape-vs-Murder

      • I can’t check that video at the moment, but to back it up (and forgive me if this is already said in the video), I would say that part of the problem is that society already condemns murder, whereas rape has yet to be universally reviled in many cultures.

        You don’t hear people telling “murder jokes” or suggesting that a murder was the victim’s fault for not fighting back or that it was justified because the victim got drunk, or that it was done to “fix” some problem with them.

        Because of the problem of victim-blaming, rape as a crime has a range of societal and emotional consequences that don’t generally occur with murder, attempted or otherwise.

        Imagine if Spike had successfully killed Buffy. The rest of the gang would team together and make sure he was destroyed.

        But if he’d raped her? Would they have done the same? Would they have looked at their destructive relationship and said “well she should have known better”? Even when faced with the revelation of Spike and Buffy having (not quite) consensual sex, Buffy’s friends, all but Tara, were horrified and briefly ostracized her.

        I think it’s less a debate over whether it’s worse for someone to try and kill you or try to rape you (and I really hope I’m never asked to weigh in on that, because that’s an argument no-one wins), and more that one crime sees the victim treated with care and sympathy, while the other very often sees the victim’s own behavior and morals called into question.

        • Paul THANK YOU for this! If you don’t mind I may end up linking to or quoting your reply because I come up against this in btvs fandom on LJ all the time and this sums up the problem (re: rape vs murder) precisely.

    • //”Spike has also never had a healthy relationship.Drusilla pretty much raped *him* when she turned him into a vampire. That being sans-soul turned out to be something he enjoyed, and that he ended up in a long monogamous relationship with her at all, is beside the point. Spike was, in a sense, pretty much created *by* an act of sexual violence.”//

      Really excellent points. (A lot of people in fandom adore that he’s so “attentive” to Dru and make it sound like a perfect relationship with him as the ideal lover, but that relationship is really fucked up.)

      And Dru was herself tortured and metaphorically raped when she was turned just as you say. Except for Ford in Lie to Me I can’t think of a single instance in which someone gave clear informed consent to be turned. (Even if someone said “Yes” can they possibly understand what they are signing up for, in reality?)

  2. Ann says:

    I’d like to ask some questions about this line: “But the fact that his assault is ultimately one big callback to their earlier lack of consent is absurdly problematic, in that it implies that his actions – at least initially – might be somewhat understandable; and that is profoundly fucking worrying, both as a thematic element and as a sign of writerly fail.”

    Mainly, is it possible to understand where Spike is coming from without that being worrying or a writing fail? I understood why Spike initially did what he did, because he and Buffy had never established a way to truly revoke consent, since they had both repeatedly ignored “no” and/or “stop.” But rather than making me forgive Spike or give him any leniency, that made it all the clearer how important explicit consent is, and how deeply their sexual relationship was disturbed and broken. It showed how important that consent is to a healthy relationship. It showed the danger in believing one knows what their partner wants better than they do,

    Where I do think the assault becomes as problematic a thematic element as you suggest is when it’s paired with the idea that it is the woman’s responsibility to stop unwanted sexual advances. If you believe that, then the assault does become Buffy’s fault for not staying firm on her previous refusals, instead of placing blame on Spike for ever having continued past that initial no. Which is where blame needs to lie. Yes, Spike and Buffy had formed a sexual relationship where the words “no” and “stop” had little meaning, but the relationship wouldn’t have gotten there if Spike had stopped the very first time Buffy told him to.

  3. Wow, that’s a mind-blowing analysis. And yet when I read this, it all seems obvious. Buffy and Spike’s relationship never sat well with me, and I think I now know why. It was wrong, purely and utterly wrong, right from the start.

    I did a post last week on Unintended Implications:


    I should’ve listed more than just the final episode of Buffy in there. This is basically suggesting that a man can be forgiven, or at least understood, for trying (or succeeding) to rape someone simply if they didn’t realise that’s what they were doing.

    There’s another worrying way the matter is treated, as it comes across in Season 8. By the end of the series, Buffy says she loves Spike. So this whole thing plays right back into the “Rape is Love” trope, where the victim falls in love with her attacker.

    • fozmeadows says:

      Bearing in mind, I say all this as someone who’s still a Spike/Buffy fan (I blogged about the positive aspects of their relationship here.) But as I said, it’s been a while since I’ve seen Seeing Red, and I was really taken aback by it. Loving something problematic means confronting the problematic elements head on, and that’s what I’ve tried to do here.

  4. Dela Smith says:

    I always thought SEEING RED had qualities in common with the earlier episode (I think it’s SMASHED), where Spike discovers he can hit Buffy and he mistakenly thinks this means he’s uncaged again and can hurt people. The first thing he does is go stalk a woman in an alley, menace her, and try to kill her.

    Since viewers had become quite fond of Spike by then, I remember fans being very disturbed by that scene. Some were enraged and angry at the character (and/or at Whedon). Others did quite a spin on it to feel comfortable with their attraction to Spike by saying he didn’t “really mean” it, he “wouldn’t really have done it,” etc.

    I thought Spike clearly had every intention of killing the victim, and I also thought that attempted murder was the logically predictable choice, the choice that this character was most likely to make in those circumstances. But I was interested in the conflicted reaction among fans as they energetically condemned, denied, excused, or mitigated very bad behavior in a character whom they like, are drawn to, find attractive, etc.

    Whereas I always thought was was so compelling about the character were precisely those inconsistencies. He was full of extreme contrasts, equally capable of admirable behavior and utterly appalling behavior. Spike was heroic =and= evil; neither quality canceled out or triumphed over the other. And any inclination to see Spike as a decent person or someone capable of becoming a better man was bound to be disappointed and betrayed by the character’s established limitations; although complex, his characterization always remained true to Whedon’s story premise that a vampire is a predator who’s inherently incapable of conscience or remorse.

    Whedon presented getting a soul as creating remorse and conscience in his vampire characters, but a soul was a condition of seeking redemption, not redemption itself. I don’t think it was addressed much with Spike in BUFFY, but it was addressed often in ANGEL that a character like Angel (or Spike) can’t ever balance the scales or bring the dead back to life. So redemption is a journey not a result. Spike’s not forgiven (or necessarily forgivable) for attempted rape after he gets a soul; rather, he’s deliberately chosen a very different (and thorny) path than the one that led him to sexual assault.

  5. Please start watching anime. Specifically Valvrave the Liberator.

    Ah, but don’t research it, because you’ll get spoiled.

  6. Rio says:

    I don’t believe that rape should be entertainment of any sort, the link to escapistmagazine was right on the money with the reasons. The fact that people hurt each other with sex and that unhealthy sexual relationships are in many cases addictive and overwhelming to self control does not excuse the actions of violence people commit against each other.
    The self loathing that is experienced when free of the influence of this type relationship, and I am talking about rape within an unhealthy sexual relationship, is something that has to be portrayed if it is going to be a subject within a story. I think Josh W did an admirable job with a difficult subject.
    I would also like to point out that I am the only person who ever played Grand Theft Auto without ever killing anyone. I never got very far. I think I should have gotten some sort reward however, like mileage points or something. Why can video games include a secret bonus re-incarnation for not killing anyone?

  7. Excellent post! I’m also a fan of Buffy&Spike S7 as long as I keep it framed within a fictional context of two superpowered human beings, soulless creatures etc – at the same time I realize that it’s problematic as hell (and wonder if I’m betraying my “feminist values”.) This is certainly something I would consider unforgiveable IRL so it’s unfortunate that they chose to go there.

    “Seeing Red isn’t an episode I’ve watched often, for obvious reasons that are, I suspect, shared by pretty much everyone who’s either a fan of Spike and/or his relationship with Buffy.”

    That sentence also needs to be reversed: “everyone who’s either a fan of Buffy and/or her relationship with Spike.” (Yes, we do exist.)

    The notion that ultimately Buffy is to blame or it can be handwaved away because of the context of the relationship is terribly pervasive in fandom. There’s an irony there – portions of fandom are terribly eager to excuse Spike and somehow blame Buffy even implicitly, and yet the character himself does neither. He takes responsibility for his own actions. So there’s an additional layer of irony, that the event reveals how deeply ingrained rape culture is in general, and how readily we prioritize the (usually) male perpetrator’s actions over the victims.

    Oddly enough, the same doesn’t happen to Willow, whose mindwipe of Tara in the same season is also called out as a violation; the response I’ve seen in fandom is generally that of rage for her actions. It’s not handwaved away I suppose because women and lesbians “don’t” abuse their partners? Also there’s the fact that Spike fans feel that Willow isn’t sufficiently punished in the same way that he is, and they may have a point. It’s a mess all around the more I think about it, and there’s no good or right answer I can come up with.

    • Lexi says:

      //There’s an irony there – portions of fandom are terribly eager to excuse Spike and somehow blame Buffy even implicitly, and yet the character himself does neither. He takes responsibility for his own actions//

      This is why I love Spike more than Angel: He knows what he did was wrong. He takes responsibility for it instead of blaming it on some soulless alter ego and hand-waving it away. I think there’s a point in season 6 where you can ship Spike/Buffy without feeling the icky problematic parts of the relationship – I count the end of “Tabula Rasa” as the point where things change, and ironically it’s when they begin to jump into their sexual relationship that I become turned off (even as hot as they are together, you can’t escape the yucky feeling that something’s wrong with the picture).

      I like my fanfic to take place before that point and move them slowly into a romantic/sexual relationship after dealing with their issues, or after he’s souled in season 7, when he acknowledges that it was him, not some evasive “Spikelus” Mr. Hyde who crossed the line, and begins to work out how to atone. I still have a wish list of things I would have liked the narrative to explore more – mostly I wanted Spike to confront his actions against people other than Buffy and repair his relationship with Dawn (I HAVE SO MUCH LOVE FOR THE SPIKE/DAWN DYNAMIC!), but I can find reasons to ship within the context of the soul after the beginning of season 7.

      That being said, my philosophy on “Seeing Red” is that as smart as these writers were, couldn’t they have come up with something less rapey? Yeah, Spike is guilty, but he deals with his actions. He doesn’t blame Buffy for something he did. In any of the other scenarios that could have driven him to get a soul, he would still have had to acknowledge his monstrous actions in order for me to hop on the ship again. “Seeing Red” is gross and problematic, but I still believe there’s hope and atonement available in season 7 – Spike does right by Buffy, at least.

  8. […] Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the rape culture in the way it’s portrayed, which are analyzed here (cw: if you have rape-related triggers and are determined to read this post anyway, don’t […]

  9. I think this nicely parallels some of the “conversations” that people had after the “Game of Thrones” episode where Cersei and Jamie had sex next to the body of their dead son. There was a huge uproar about the “rape” scene, whether it had been present in the original novel or whether the GOT writers took the scene further and made it rape. I think your analysis that Spike’s rape attempt made sense in terms of his and Buffy’s already messed-up relationship applies just as well to the relationship between Cersei and Jamie (except for that pesky incestuous angle). When a couple routinely sends mixed signals and ignores consent issues, it definitely has an impact on whether a sex act becomes consensual or rape.

    • red_satin_doll says:

      […] When a couple routinely sends mixed signals and ignores consent issues, it definitely has an impact on whether a sex act becomes consensual or rape.[…]

      In terms of what was onscreen there was NO consent in this instance. Buffy and Spike had not been in a sexual relationship since she’d broken off. She said “NO” over and over again in that bathroom in the clearest way possible.

      That is a different issue to whether or not the writers realized what they were communicating (apparently not) or how people choose to interpret what they see. And that’s a dangerous message – the same message that goes along with the old notion that a wife (or husband) has no right to refuse sex at any one time because of the marriage vow.

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