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.
(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.