Sexual Violence on BTVS – Did Whedon go too far?
Sexual violence is a subject which BTVS tackled at various points throughout its TV run, but none more than in Season 6.
During the season themes such as sexual abuse, rape-culture, and relationship violence were all tackled, including an attempted rape in ‘Seeing Red.’ During the climatic episodes of the season a villain who developed into a sexual predator – Warren – was given arguably the most violent and shocking deaths of any human character throughout the TV show.
How did Whedon handle these themes, and did he succeed in tackling such triggering concepts with sensitivity? Was Season 6 a triumph in addressing themes such as misuse of power in a sexual context, or did the storylines go too far, not only for fans but for the cast themselves?
One of the most controversial storylines of Season 6 was the sexual relationship which developed between Buffy and Spike. One reason for this was the nature of the sexual interactions which had violence, power struggles and implied BDSM as part of them. In some scenes, Buffy is seen refusing Spike who holds out handcuffs to her, before rubbing marks on her wrists later; in others, the couple are seen having sex on the balcony in The Bronze while Spike tells Buffy she “belongs in the dark.”
Buffy is portrayed as being confused and disturbed by her attraction to Spike. There are no scenes of the couple having sex without physical violence playing a part, and this culminates in a distressing scene where Buffy badly beats Spike whilst calling him names. Interestingly this occurs in the same episode – ‘Dead Things,’ where other themes of sexual violence are present.
During ‘Dead Things,’ Warren uses a magical object to control the mind of his ex-girlfriend, Katrina. The episode begins lightheartedly, with Andrew and Jonathan behaving in their typically bumbling manner as the three discuss using their ‘Cerebral Dampener’ to get any girl to be their ‘sex slave.’
It’s clear that neither Andrew or Jonathan have thought through the implications of this, and its only Warren who appears to show a darker side. This is further developed when Warren uses the dampener on Katrina, brings her back to the Trio’s ‘lair,’ and begins to order Katrina - who is by now dressed in a maid’s uniform - to kiss him. He then orders her to “get on her knees,” clearly referencing that he intends to make her perform a sex act on him.
As Katrina wakes up and realizes what’s happening she is angry and disgusted. It’s only then that the full realization of what they are doing appears to hit Jonathan and Andrew, as she berates them and tells them what they are doing isn’t a game, but rape.
Further themes of sexual violence and rape are developed in a later episode – “Seeing Red.” During this episode, there is an intense and disturbing scene where Spike attempts to first coerce and then force Buffy into having sex with him. During a struggle, she is initially unable to escape from him due to an injury she had suffered earlier. Although she does manage to stop Spike she is clearly traumatized by the attempted rape.
This scene, added to the generally objectifying nature of many of the sex scenes between Spike and Buffy, has led some to question how the actors felt about those themes. Although SMG appeared to remain for the most part tight-lipped she did express that she felt the season saw Buffy behaving in ways which were not in keeping with the character, and there have been some reports that she said she felt degraded as an actor during the filming of many of the scenes.
For his part, Marsters has talked extensively about being distressed with the attempted rape scene and not wanting to go ahead with it. Unsubstantiated reports have claimed that he spoke with the producers to express his dismay and was told if he didn’t do the scene he would be sued for breach of contract.
Although it’s difficult to tell exactly what happened behind the scenes for both actors, it does appear that both had problems with the nature and level of sexual violence their characters portrayed during season 6.
Given the highly disturbing nature of many of the above scenes which saw rape culture, violence and misogyny playing key roles, is it possible Whedon allowed Season 6 to become too dark and distressing? Is it even possible that the scenes became gratuitous, as for example the sex scene in The Bronze during “Dead Things?”
Whedon says that his aim with the Buffy-Spike relationship was wanting to “...talk about an unhealthy relationship. It was borderline abusive until it actually became abusive. It was on both sides. It wasn’t just that she was with someone dark—she found the darkness within herself. This has to do with the consequences of power.”
There were certainly aspects of abuse from both sides when it came to the relationship between Buffy and Spike. They were both physically violent to one another as well as emotionally abusive.
How well does Buffy submitting to a violently unhealthy sexual interaction fit with themes of her being a powerful woman?
It could be argued that many abusive relationships develop when one party is attracted to the strength of another. Spike was portrayed throughout BTVS as being obsessed with Buffy and his inability to conquer her when it came to their fights. Is it possible that in many ways he chose to attempt to ‘conquer’ her sexually with a prime motivation being her strength?
I feel that although Buffy is portrayed as being depressed and having moments of darkness which contributed to her decision to become sexually involved with Spike, the aspects of power struggle regarding a strong female heroine and a possible urge to destroy and ‘tame’ that were not made explicit enough.
Consequences were shown for characters who were the antagonists when it came to sexual violence, and none more so than with Warren and his fate at the hands of Dark Willow. Although her initial rage comes from her devastation at Tara’s death, the scene in the woods where she confronts Warren also involves the ghost of Katrina. During this scene, Willow realizes that Warren is a sexual predator, in addition to being a murderer.
His lack of remorse and misogyny even the face of almost certain death directly precedes Willow flaying him alive. It’s a shocking moment and one of the most violent and gory deaths of a human character in BTVS.
It could be argued that this was Whedon’s way of showing the most serious possible consequence of sexual violence, but crucially it also relates to a lack of remorse. Spike does not meet the same fate. Initially he appears self-pitying and is left to leave Sunnydale with vague threats of things being ‘different.’ Later he is shown to desperately battle to retrieve his soul, to redeem himself.
Perhaps what can be seen here is a storyline of mercy for someone who regrets their actions and is willing to learn, but none for someone who unapologetically embodies rape culture and misogyny. In this way Whedon sends out different messages regarding the consequences of violence against women and abuse in general.
BTVS has never shied away from tackling difficult and dark themes. From losing parents to abusive partners, to death and betrayal. During Season 6 this was taken to another level and the dark tone of the whole series did not resonate with many fans. However, in tackling themes of sexual violence in such an uncompromising way, I believe Whedon succeeded in addressing many prominent issues.
There were times when certain scenes strayed significantly from the metaphorical nature of the ‘big’ issues which were tackled in earlier seasons. Perhaps this is a result of the maturation of the characters, as they delved into adult life. It could be argued that some scenes, such as the ‘sex slave’ scene were unnecessarily emotionally graphic, however the corresponding consequences for Warren were equally graphic.
On balance, Season 6 addresses difficult and distressing themes with sensitivity and respect for the complex nature of these themes. While certain scenes could be said to have gone ‘too far’ for the actors, as well as the nature of the characters, overall it provided a thoughtful and powerful discussion on sexual violence.