Thursday, July 7, 2011

How to Rape Beloved Scifi/Fantasy/Horror Heroines and Still Be Adored.

I have two major bones to pick: Buffy Summers and Sookie Stackhouse and their respective lovers.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a cult TV show that will always be remembered for its intentional feminist overtones; Joss Whedon got sick of seeing the dumb blonde girl walk down the alley and be killed for her crimes of both being there and being female. He had a thought. What if she turned around and kick the living shit out of who or whatever was pursuing her? What then? Buffy was born. A silly blonde valley(ish) girl with shit for brains suddenly finds out she has this huge destiny and it involves lots and lots of violence. The movie version is also a cult phenom. Silly, satirical, and actually not representative of the show that would be subsequently spawned.

Buffy is a slayer. Because, as you might already well know, "into each generation a slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampiresdemons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their number. She is the Slayer." In a nutshell. Slayers are never dudes. This was pretty amazing. How could any young girl not go for this? I fell in love and followed loyally, if not somewhat fanatically, until the show's end.

"Buffy" is not without its feminist shortcomings, as I imagine few things are, but one thing that really surprised me when I went to the Buffy websites, message boards, fan sites, etc., were the polls. Lemme nutshell this, too: Buffy has two very significant romances. Her first is with the vampire Angel. He was once a terrible asshole vampire but one night, he killed a gypsy girl (a whole tribe, actually) and the surviving member - father of the dead girl - cursed him with a soul. He cursed Angel with a soul to torment him every day for the rest of his eternal life for the lives he's taken. If he ever experiences one moment of "true happiness" the soul will be lost, since its purpose is to torment him. So Buffy meets this brooding do-gooder vampire hanging out in the shadows (this was actually incredibly original back then) and falls madly in love with him. And him, her. When Angel experiences a moment of true happiness with Buffy, he loses his soul (creating an impressive teen virginity-loss, "he just turned into a completely different person after we did it" metaphor without being even remotely preachy) and he does a whole host of fucked up shit. He stalks Buffy, by doing sick fucking crap like watching her sleep and sketching it (in Twilight this was rebranded as "romance"), proving to Buffy he could easily get into her home by leaving the sketches on her bed, making friends with her mother, entering the homes (and killing the pets) of her friends, just creepy stuff to fuck with her head. Then when it turns out one of the members of the gang (i.e. the small group of people who know Buffy's identity as the slayer) is secretly a descendant of the gypsy tribe that cursed Angel originally and is making plans to "re-ensoul" him (a term I find completely awesome), he murders her then places her corpse in the bed of Giles (Buffy's watcher, trainer, father figure) and staged a romantic scene in his living room (since Giles and this character had had a romance that he thought they were on the track to rekindling) and he smiles, in love, at the rose petals, the wine, the opera music from "La Boheme".. He follows the petals upstairs, the music climaxes, she is dead, there's no doubt that Angel is responsible. Or Angelus! His name is Angelus when he's soulless and refers to himself using that name in the time before the soul was given to him. If you watch the episode where this happens with the DVD commentary on, Joss Whedon says it was very important to him that Angel be in "vamp face" when he killed this woman. Vamp face is the face vampires put on for feeding.

Angel's regular face.
Vamp face.

Joss said this was important because he felt that if viewers saw Angelus kill this beloved character with Angel's face, he thought the audience may never forgive Angel.

And not that that's a small infraction, but that was the worst of what Angel did when he lost his soul. And the damage was so severe that when Angel was then re-ensouled by Willow, he said he was going to stick around long enough to get rid of the "big bad" (i.e. the demon mayor of Sunnydale) but after that, he's leaving town forever. That was how Angel responded to his utter loss of control, to the powerlessness to which he knew he was and would always be vulnerable. Despite a deep love for Buffy, he would leave and never return.

Buffy's other romance was Spike. Spike is a vampire, too. Spike spent most of his time on Buffy with no soul, not wanting a soul, and no interest in doing any good or helping anyone. In fact, quite the opposite. And the only reason he didn't end up on the sharp end of Buffy's lady stake was that he was coincidentally "neutralized" by an experimental government program that took an interest in the supernatural. Without getting into it too much: They captured Spike (along with many other vampires and demons and creatures of the night) and implanted a chip in his head that would cause him debilitating pain any time he made a violent gesture toward anyone. As soon as he could begin a behavior that suggested, "I'm going to hurt this person," he suffered. Horribly. Eventually, he stopped even trying to hunt. And that's what saved him from Buffy. In fact, he became the comedic relief and a lot of people complained that he'd lost his edge. That he was just silly now. But eventually, the chip was removed due to malfunction. It would fire randomly and for no reason. Buffy felt this was cruel and arranged to have it removed. In the time he was unable to kill or maim, he developed a closeness to some of the characters, namely Dawn (Buffy's younger sister) and by extension, Buffy warmed up to him. Then the fucking began.

Without spoiling too much, Buffy had some major life traumas and ended up in Spike's bed to try to work them out. To try to "feel something". He looked good naked, that Spike. He worked hard to protect Buffy, despite her having no need and even punishing him for trying, and despite how misguided a lot of his efforts were! But it's clear he is infatuated with her. She can't stand him and actually feels worse about herself for sinking low enough to pathetically hop in the sack with the soulless vampire that she and all of her friends hate.

But he looked good naked. And that bad boy thing, huh?

He eventually gets fed up with Buffy's rejection and leaves town, gets a soul, comes back, is tormented for a few months by his evil deeds, then assists in saving the day in the series finale. Right.

So back to those polls! I was always so shocked when fired up the old world wide web and saw polls that said, "Who's better for Buffy? ANGEL or SPIKE?"

"Best romance: ANGEL or SPIKE."

"Your favorite? You an ANGEL or a SPIKE girl?"

I was offended to even be asked, but what was more shocking were the results. After I'd click "Angel", the polls would show Spike in a strong lead! I could NOT believe that! Why, you ask? OH, shit, I probably forgot to mention that part of season 6, episode 19, "Seeing Red", where Spike - a little frustrated and POed by Buffy's rebuffing of his advances and confessions of love - goes ahead and tries to rape her.

Spike tries to rape Buffy.

Spike, the winner of the best romance a girl could ask for poll, tried to rape Buffy.

He tried to rape her.


I guess I was the only one.

This scene was so horrifying to me. Buffy is a preternaturally strong woman. Just slightly stronger than a single vampire. However, before this attack, she'd received very painful blows to the ribs. So Spike attacks her, she actually falls back and hurts her ribs even more, and this gives him an advantage, and he starts to try to rape her. She eventually fights him off and says, "Ask me again why I could never love you." He says, "Buffy, I didn't.." She quickly responds, "Because I stopped you! Something I should've done a long time ago." Which implied she planned to kill him. He runs off angrily and goes looking for a way to get a soul. Not because he wants to be better, or because he realizes he's crossed a line, but to "show her". He says as he drives off on a motorcycle. "I'll show her."

I would like to add that during the attempted rape, Spike never went into vamp face. Never.

In that moment, any affection I'd felt for him as a character dissolved. Any sympathy, any well wishing, any hope for the advance of his character, any vaguely positive or neutral feelings went away. Because I didn't see him the way (clearly) so many other fans did; A love struck guy trying to figure out how to express himself to this woman despite having no soul and all of the other complications of being a supernatural thing. A guy who needed redemption. A guy who now needs us to forgive him in lieu of the good deeds he's about to do. I mean, he didn't actually rape her. He didn't do much more than make a fumbling idiotic attempt. It wasn't a rape, it was a sad, excusable.. rape gesture? I keep forgetting to make these distinctions. The fictitious girl I loved; the woman who could kick a door off its hinges; who could fall in love with someone without donating her identity to him or the romance; could feel hurt, sad, and scared as well as love, kindness, and humanity; the only real image I'd had of a very strong woman in an interesting fantasy universe (or really anywhere on the TV that parented me); that woman was Buffy Summers. The show took this situation with overwhelmingly this character:

And in a moment, she was reduced to this:

Then afterwards, we're expect to take Spike right back in. Because he got a soul. We shouldn't think too much about WHY he got it, or how someone who could do this could have any place in her life, or any such nonsense. Forgivesies, right?

Next on my quick list is Sookie Stackhouse. Despite this literary character existing well before the Twilight books came out, the Sookie books peaked in popularity around the time the Twilight books were up in it. People with low-to-normal feminist sensibilities were just absolutely appalled by the weak, dull, idiotic, pathetitude displayed by Bella Swan. People with exceptional feminist sensibilities had small strokes when reading her nonadventures. So when you read Bella Swan's "I am so completely in love with these guys who are always resisting the urge to murder me and who jerk me around like an insolent toddler and here's more boring descriptions about how I'm going to ignore Edward's obvious mental instability and funnel it through a filter of my own mental instability where I view his watching me sleep as a deeply loving and romantic gesture, then I'll faint because of my weak womanly constitution" and you follow it with a story about a girl who beats people half to death with chains in self-defense and actually possesses the ability to tell her vampire boyfriend to fuck off when he's crossed a line (and the fact that those lines existed in these stories) kind of makes you think she's a feminist goddess. That's Sookie Stackhouse.

This is a still from the book.
Now. The only problem is that once your brain has been thoroughly cleansed of the Twilight misogyny, by matter of time or by having never read it (if so, kudos), you realize that Ms. Stackhouse isn't exactly as demanding of egalitarian treatment as you would've liked. Her boyfriend Bill, or her protector since that's his main hobby, doesn't think she's much more than a fragile girl. Eric, a vampire with some authority in the local area and an acquaintance of Bill's, doesn't think she's much more than fuckable. On True Blood (and also the Dead Before Dark book series, or the Sookie Stackhouse series), biting is a metaphor for sex. The penetration, the exchange of fluids.. Yeah, not the craziest analogy. (But it's very important on this show, unlike on other vampire shows, namely Buffy, where biting is not meant to represent sex.) Biting, being bitten, drinking blood, or feeding someone your blood are directly sexual in nature. This is important to note because there are sexual assaults done to Sookie via tricking her into drinking blood, like Eric did.

And this was never discussed as a sexual violation. Never. Despite that not only the mere physical act of exchanging fluids like this is considered overtly sexual and that by drinking his blood, it would connect the two supernaturally and Eric could "know" Sookie better. Things about her past and present, where she was, how she was feeling. In this way, it's an even huger violation. But it's treated like a joke.

But let's say you don't care about that, since it's not rape-rape (something we as a nation learned about recently during the abortion funding debates in D.C.), the superior way to be raped.

Sookie is always being physically beaten, mauled, maimed, tortured, and so forth. This woman is constantly shown in utterly vulnerable situations, where Bill's over-protectiveness seems warranted. Images like these are not even the slightest bit unusual:

Gee, but it's way more feminist than Twilight.

(No, seriously.)

The most horrifying things happen to her and those she loves, including murder, all because of a boyfriend that she seems to love but shows no overwhelming loyalty to. By this, I mean she could just as easily leave him if the situation demanded it. She doesn't have some psychotic romance with him. Or that's the idea. I don't see how that's been pulled off when she persists despite the extreme violence done to her, almost like a gruesome exploitation film spread out over 13 episodes.

But it's rape we're here to flap the old jaw about.

Season 3 of True Blood, and the third book in the series, "Club Dead", are probably the height of equality between male and female characters. I'm not necessarily saying that means much, but I like that Sookie is out to rescue Bill and he's more subdued and helpless (as opposed to in control and calling all the shots in every tricky situation.) I like that Sookie tells him point blank that she doesn't want or need him to be protective anymore. That she realizes she could truly manage without him. The problem, then? Golly, this scene:

Bill has been tortured and starved for (weeks in the book, days on the show) and is out of his head with the need to feed: Both for sustenance and to heal his many horrible wounds.

Sookie rescues Bill and puts him in the back of a moving van style vehicle. She has Alcide and Tara ride in the cab while she rides in the back with Bill. He starts to come to and, a total animal to his instinct to feed for survival, he grabs Sookie, restrains her, feeds from her until she's nearly dead, and it is done very much in the style of a rape. Not to mention the biting/drinking = sex analogy that exists on this show. She screams for him to stop, he muffles her cries. He realizes what he's done and stumbles away (after being abandoned mid-daylight by Tara who is disgusted by him) and Sookie is rushed to a hospital. She wakes up and forgives Bill but is teetering on the issue of whether or not to be with him. She decides later to be with him. Then decides not to after that for completely other reasons. When Tara asks her how she can be with him after that, she says he didn't know what he was doing.

Sookie rescues Bill and, all alone, puts him in the trunk of a car. She drives to safety and gets out and opens the trunk to check on him. She is pushed into the trunk and it's closed by a mysterious person. Sookie is trapped in the trunk with Bill. He starts to rise. In starved, badly wounded stupor, he uncontrollably grabs Sookie and bites her. He drinks a significant amount from her. She's screaming for him to stop. He then lifts up her dress and begins to rape her. Yes, traditional rape. Rape-rape. He doesn't finish before waking up and realizing what's going on. He asks Sookie why they're having sex and she indicates it was not by her choice. He stops and feels embarrassed. The next few pages are of them trying to resolve other problems presented in the story, Sookie apologizing to Bill for taking so long to find him, and the only thing she's upset about is the suspicion that Bill may have cheated on her while they were separated. The rape is never called a rape and it's never mentioned again.

I feel there's an excellent reason the rape part didn't make it on the show. Seeing Bill bite Sookie and drink from her is bad enough and provokes some negative reactions within people, I'm certain. But when Sookie says, "He couldn't help it." You want to believe that. You want them to be together. You don't automatically see what he'd done to her as any kind of rape, since you just don't think about it too much. If Bill had been shown raping her in such plain terms, however, wanting them to get back together would be far from anyone's mind. There are some things viewers wouldn't forgive.

Or maybe they would, like in Spike's case.

Here's the problem: These rapes (or attempts) are done by a supernatural man in a state that can be changed by something greater. Bill had extremely diminished capacity, right? So forgive him. Spike had no soul and no way of knowing how to handle such confusing feelings, right? Just forgive him. They all "bettered" themselves soon after. Bill regained his strength and state of mind and protected Sookie's secrets. Spike went and got a soul, suffered for all of his misdeeds, then was a helpful member of the group. So these things should be written off, I suppose is the idea. It doesn't matter that Bill had been injured before, but never violated anyone in such a way. It doesn't matter that Spike has been soulless for a very long time and rape or trying to rape was never among his predilections. When writers sic these men on the heroine, especially one we are constantly told/shown are strong and powerful, then the characters stick around and are forgiven, it sends a pretty horrifying message to its viewers.

And separately, that rape can be excused. At all.

In scifi/fantasy/horror, rules are bendable. I mean, no man in the real world would rape a woman and say it was because he was in an altered state of mind due to hunger, thirst, or pain. Or try to excuse it with what seems like great deeds. But on a show with unusual creatures, why the fuck not? And why not let it go when it's clear the direction of the show is urging you to do so? I guess I'm incapable. Using the 'these aren't the normal rules' method of sneaking in a rape somehow doesn't jive with me. Show me a man who rapes a woman, then write that woman to forgive him and welcome him back into her inner circle of loved ones (if not as THE loved one) and you've lost me as a completely loyal viewer or reader.

My hugest problem is the "it's not his fault he raped you" attitude that is provoked in the viewer/reader. I think getting a viewer or reader to think that is a huge patriarchal victory. This a problem of the scifi/fantasy/horror genre since no other genre could manufacture any reason to impress that idea on people.

I still love the Dead Before Dark books and the True Blood TV show. I definitely still love Buffy. But I consume this media with knowledge, caution, and criticism.


  1. Nerd cred exposure. -5 charisma
    Compelling reading. +10 charisma

  2. GREAT great great kudos yes hoorah

  3. John, I failed to understand the first one but appreciate the second! Wait, were you saying my nerdiness detracted from my overall charisma?! Or that I'm not nerdy enough? My god, when I get confused, I go to strange places. And ruin people's humor.

    I guess Eric deleted his comment. Eff.

    Cyndil, THANKS, this has been my second most Googled post so I'm pretty jazzed about that. I'm hoping people either already felt this way and were then validated or learned a deeply valuable lesson. When I was finishing "Club Dead" and Bill started raping Sookie, I texted everyone I know with little emoticon rage tears.

  4. great analysis. i'm a fan of both buffy and sookie, but agree that they are not unproblematic feminist heroines. thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Why, thank you! I read your most recent blog about Ms. Stackhouse as well and I enjoyed that very much.