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Buffy The Vampire Slayer

"Learning about Intimate Relationships from Buffy Season Six" Essay by Angie Burns

Angie Burns

Sunday 13 August 2006, by Webmaster

Passion, Pain and ‘bad kissing decisions’: Learning about Intimate Relationships from Buffy Season Six

[...]Love and desire have been a driving force behind major plotlines in BtVS. In watching the first seasons, it seemed that Buffy and Angel’s mutual love, and whether it could ever transcend the problems they had, would be a key backdrop for Buffy. Who would have thought when Spike arrived in Sunnydale in “School Hard” that Buffy would ever be in an intimate sexual relationship with him without the intervention of a spell, as in “Something Blue”? Love stories are often our mundane tragedies and a happy relationship is not something we alone can bring into being, so for an engagement with the difficulties of relationships we might turn to BtVS. However, the writers warned us early on, in Season 1, that Buffy, Willow and Xander would struggle when it came to intimate relationships. But the struggle for happy intimate relationships is part of what makes romantic love stories romantic. BtVS is open to multiple readings. Buffy can be seen as a feminist. Identifying discursive themes in BtVS can point up some of the psychological identifications made available to viewers. This doesn’t mean they’ll take them up. As Alison Light has suggested, reading a Barbara Cartland novel might turn a reader towards feminism rather than romance at its most banal. We are bombarded with self-help books on intimate relationships. The knowledges about intimacy available in BtVS might cut through what is categorical, ponderous or didactic elsewhere to address important issues in ways which are funny, touching, serious and, ultimately, real. And one of the things which makes BtVS so entertaining and engaging is its clever, referential and surprising use of language and metalanguage. This is what really hooked me as a fan. [...]

Although I’m focusing on Season Six, it is difficult not to make links to other seasons. I try to do this only if it illuminates the analysis of Season Six. I’ve had to be very selective - as anyone else who is working with this material knows, there is just so much that could be done. Any analysis is ongoing and partial. I’ve focused more on heterosexual relationships than gay or lesbian, for brevity and to be more able to relate the analytic themes to previous research on the relationships between gender, power, love and romance. Also, unlike some other Buffy academics, I’m not attempting to differentiate between vampires and humans.

‘Bad kissing decisions’ - bad girls? For girls and women, sex should not be just sex but must ‘mean’ something Despite Joss Whedon’s creation of Buffy as a kick-ass heroine, in the narrativization of heterosexual relationships there is an underlying assumption that for girls and women, sex should not be just sex. Unless there is also some emotional or psychological connection to their lovers, we see women torturing themselves or being castigated. So, for Buffy, her sexual relationship with Spike (putting aside the obvious problems of his being a vampire with a chip that no longer keeps him from hurting her) is a problem. The alternative is that there are problems with her, something she tells Tara at the end of “Dead Things". The construction of Spike as the dominant lover in their sexual encounters is at odds with the physical sex acts we have seen or heard enacted or implied thus far in Season Six. As viewers (or analysts) we might understand this as Buffy projecting her bad feelings on to Spike. However Buffy, to Tara, positions herself as victim or addict. The first reason Tara offers is that Buffy might ‘love’ Spike, linking love and sex as is usual for women, good women that is. However, Tara is careful to dismiss this as necessary, offering an alternative to Buffy, that she has had a hard time and so is vulnerable. Having sex because you’re feeling bad is made understandable elsewhere in Season Six. Buffy tells Spike that her ‘bad kissing decisions’ (kissing Spike) happened because she was upset that Giles was leaving (“Smashed“). Anya explains to Xander (her ex) why she had sex with Spike in the Magic Shop (“Entropy“). And Buffy says to Xander, ‘She loves you. You know that. Anya was just ... She was hurting. She was ... hurting and, and she did this really stupid thing’ (“Seeing Red“). These examples, among others, suggest women need psychological motivations for sex. Buffy ends her relationship with Spike (‘It’s over’) in “As You Were”. What we read here is that it is not acceptable for Buffy to continue to have sex with Spike when she can’t love him or wants no more than sex with him. His response that he doesn’t mind evokes the stereotypic view that men are always up for sex. It’s Buffy who can’t cope with ‘using’ him. Nice girls don’t do this as their sexuality should be bound by romance. But if it’s not acceptable for women to use men, the reverse is much less clear.

‘I’m gonna make you (feel it)’. Forced sex is not okay (but heterosexual men may not realise this!) Season Six addresses attempted rape in different ways. Both excerpts I use here make clear that attempted rape is wrong and will produce pain and other bad effects for both victim and perpetrator (and this theme continues into Season 7). There is no sense that BtVS condones such actions. The attempted rape plots also demonstrate the potential for men to come to understand what they have done, but unfortunately this gives credence to the myth that they did not know what they were doing. It allows the denial of a problem with forcing sex on a woman and little recognition, or a distorted understanding, of her rights and ability to state what she wants and doesn’t want. Spike’s attempted rape of Buffy has been taken by some commentators as demonstrating his monstrousness. But as Symonds has pointed out, the attempted rape is not done with his vamp face, but with his human face. The rape scene can be seen to have its roots in traditional romantic love narratives which link violence and love. Male jealousy and his ‘going too far’, or being unable to control himself, may be taken to indicate the male protagonist’s strong desire and love for the heroine, either together with, or in the absence of, any declaration of it. In the absence of clear indications of his love, any of his behaviour may be interpreted to mean his (repressed) love and desire.[...] In “Seeing Red”, Spike has good reason to believe that Buffy was upset he had sex with Anya, as Dawn has told him so. What seems key, in the attempted rape, is Spike’s reiteration and insistence that Buffy feels something and that forcing sex on her will make her realise this. But he has this, and her, wrong. From his ‘Buffy, my god, I didn’t-‘and his ‘horrified’ facial expression (according to transcribers), we know he knows it. Buffy has clearly denied the link between love and forced sex, and Spike has to accept this. In “Dead Things”, Warren has abducted his ex-girlfriend, Katrina, so that he and his geek partners, Andrew and Jonathan, have a ‘sex slave’. The trio had devised a cerebral dampener to control a woman (any woman they find attractive enough!). This extract follows the influence of the dampener wearing off. Buffy allows viewers to question such behaviour, to see that attempts to control and force sex is a problem. It names rape. However, these depictions of attempted rape seem to also reinforce gender stereotypes around sex, desire and control.[...]

The themes I’ve suggested so far suggest that gender stereotypes around sex, desire and power, though questioned and sometimes made explicit, are still also reproduced. Thus Buffy inevitably fails to avoid partly reinforcing gender stereotypes around sex and control. This points up the pervasiveness and dominance of these stereotypes, and the difficulty of creating relationships which move beyond them in both fiction and real life. [...]