A Buffy The Vampire Slayer Guide: How Not To Be A Dick About Consent, Survivors and Mental Health

In 2018, it seems people STILL manage to be dicks (across genders) when talking about issues such as consent, domestic violence, mental health and life choices even though ALL THE INFO not to be a dick is basically on the Internet. So I’m asking the chosen one to help. Who is the chosen one? She’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Into every 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 vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their number. She is the Slayer. And she will help us not be dicks. 

Spoiler Alert + Disclaimer 

If you haven’t seen Buffy, first of all where have you been in these 20-odd years, and secondly, this post will be a giant spoiler. So you’ll have to choose whether you’d rather still be a dick, or if you want to spoil yourself what is the best show of all time. Yes, you read correctly. The best show. Of all time. I will not accept to be contradicted on this. 

I’m one of Buffy‘s most loyal fans. It was the first series I ever watched as a teen – so much I wouldn’t study or go out until after I watched it. It was before its time, discussing topics we are still coming to grips with through a set of entertaining, badly CGI’d special effects and supernatural plot lines. Plus, I may be a tad biased since Angel was the first guy I was ever interested in at the tender age of 11… and I have a tendency to re-watch Buffy when I’m having a hard time – kinda like right now. 

Why am I qualified to write this? As a criminology PhD student, a visiting lecturer, a writer, a pole dancer and an abusive relationship and sexual assault survivor, I’ve been at the receiving end of many comments by people who could only be defined by the word “dick”. Not only that – I’ve been a dick to myself. Repeatedly. I’ve blamed myself, guilt-tripped myself, doubted myself too often for what I’d gone through. Enough on that. I’m calling Buffy to the rescue. 

Also, FYI, for the purposes of this post: Buffy (italics) = the show; Buffy (no italics) = the character.

Abusive Relationships

Plot outline

In season two, Buffy’s boyfriend, Angel – a 200-something year old vampire with a soul – suddenly goes bad. After he and Buffy sleep together – in Buffy’s first time, now that‘s bad luck – he loses his soul because a curse set to punish him for all the people he killed meant he couldn’t have a moment of happiness, or he’d become his old self (Angelus) again. 

When Angel turns bad, he becomes the typical abusive partner: he stalks Buffy, playing hurtful mind games.

He puts her, her family and her friends in danger… with the additional fangs, a past as a homicidal maniac and a desire to destroy the world.

The Situation

I mean, just look at this Buffy person. What was she thinking, falling in love with a vampire? How dumb is that? Why would you fall for a vampire, of all people? What kind of slayer is she? Surely, she would know he was meant to kill some people at some point.

Except that Buffy refuses that narrative. Yes, vampires aren’t exactly the type of bfs you’d introduce to your mum. But Angel had fought for and with Buffy, and proven that he loved her in a bunch of heart-wrenching scenes.

As everyone on the show apart from the incredibly annoying Xander keeps reminding her, it’s not Buffy’s fault if Angel turned into a homicidal maniac. She didn’t know sex would trigger the crazy in him. She was not meant to know. Because love doesn’t work like that – it’s not always rational, it’s not always clean, it’s not always easy or safe. And she shouldn’t blame herself for that… although she does. A lot. Like many abuse victims do. 

Angel’s broody, tormented, loving attitude draws Buffy and the viewer in, and even though Angelus is a lot more fun, jokier, sexier than Angel, he is still a monster. It’s his actions that the show focuses on, not Buffy’s. 

Learning points

The main message here is that we should stop blaming women and people for the violence they’ve been victims of. We should give them support and respect, like Giles does.

When the time to make a decision comes, Buffy has to choose her wellbeing (and the world’s) over the man she loves. Many tears follow (on my part). 

Consent

Plot Outline

The other majorly heart-wrenching relationship on Buffy is her season six involvement with Spike. Buffy and Spike’s relationship is toxic, arising out of Buffy’s desire to feel alive after being resurrected and torn out of Heaven by her friends. Spike, who has been not-so-silently obsessing about her for a while now, becomes the outlet for her anger and frustration. This produces one of the best things out of the show, Spike’s Rest In Peace song from the excellent Once More With Feeling musical episode which is a fucking treat.

The Situation

As James Marsters (Spike) says in the Buffy Slays 20 anniversary interview:

“For Joss Whedon, evil is not cool. He doesn’t wanna sell evil as something you want in your life. Spike was evil – and we tried to remind the audience every once in a while. He’s fun to watch but he’s actually evil. And when Buffy gets together with him, it’s not a healthy relationship.”

I mean, the first time Buffy and Spike have sex they destroy a building. It’s a powerful scene, where Spike learns the chip that prevents him from hurting humans doesn’t work on Buffy. He shouts: “You came back wrong” repeatedly at her, playing on her self-loathing in a sly, malicious way, triggering the fight that turns into sex. Kinda shows you what to expect from their partnership.

The relationship turns sour and Buffy leaves Spike because she can’t live with her guilt. This results in what was apparently one of the most hated episodes on the show: Spike tries to get Buffy back, loses control and almost rapes her, reminding us that even the characters we know and love aren’t stainless.

Learning points

No matter how funny, hot, charming and sometimes nice Spike is, this doesn’t excuse his behaviour. Remember that when woke baes suddenly get accused of creepy shit. *this scene comes with a trigger warning*

Mental Health/ Depression

Plot Outline

In season six, Buffy is pretty much depressed. She feels out of place in the horrible world she’s gone back to after being in Heaven, and she’s withdrawn, absent even. This song – the other best song out of Once More With Feeling – is one of the best descriptions of depression I’ve ever read:

“I touch the fire and it freezes me
I look into it and it’s black
Why can’t I feel?
My skin should crack and peel
I want the fire back”

The Situation

As mentioned previously re: Buffy and Spike, it’s interesting to see someone you’ve put so much responsibility on – the fucking slayer – display such vulnerability.

Here, Buffy feels numb, and the easiest way to feel again is to find a connection with someone who seems as dark and wrong as she is feeling: Spike. And it’s Buffy’s continuous mix of strength and vulnerability that is one of the show’s USPs: the slayer is a normal woman, who has to deal with a lot of shit despite the fact she could break a table in two. 

Learning points

Mental health struggles suck enough by themselves without the stigma that’s associated with them. If we managed to see vulnerability and mental health trauma as something that doesn’t take away from our strength, we’d all be better off. 

Life Choices

The Situation

When Buffy’s mum FINALLY (hello?) figures out she’s the slayer, her first reaction is: “Can’t you just stop being the slayer?” This has been read as portraying “the experiences of LGBT youth who come out to their parents,” in that “the show demonstrates that Buffy’s slayer status is who she is, and she can’t nor won’t stop being a slayer just because her mom isn’t comfortable with it.” 

I’ll take this further and say it can be applied to sex workers, drag queens, outcasts and to pole dancers. “No, Susan, I can’t stop being a pole dancer. I need to educate the world to being sexually liberated. IT IS MY DESTINY!”

I should probably add this hasn’t resonated with my dad’s concerns about my butt-naked pictures, but hey, try it. Can’t hurt, can it.

Learning points 

Just let your children/friends/people fucking slay, will you?

Lesbian Relationships That Aren’t A Trick To Gain More Viewers

The Situation

As Juliet Bennet Rylah writes on Nerdist, Buffy was one of the first shows ever to portray a lesbian relationship, and it does so without being voyeuristic – something that we’re often yet to learn: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer was one of first TV shows to depict a naturally progressing relationship between two women that wasn’t for ratings and wasn’t a punchline.”

When Tara dies, Willow turns bad and her “addiction” to magic gets out of control – one more metaphorical turn in Buffy‘s many effective metaphors. 

Learning points

Lesbians exist. They have relationships. They love each other. Yes, they also have sex – but not to turn you and your bros on. I can’t believe we’re still talking about this.

Writing Bad Men (And The Women Who Love Them)

The Situation

As I hope the above sections on Angel and Spike have made clear, Joss Whedon wasn’t one to write simple, one-dimensional characters. So Buffy’s love interests have been tormented, charming and… pretty horrible most of the time. This matters because too often, the myth of the bad boy makes audiences think the boy in question will be a bit rough around the edges, but nice to you as his girlfriend. Newsflash: no. Angelus doesn’t just not call, and Spike doesn’t just tease. When they go bad, they go evil. 

It’s an important message, and it’s ever more important because despite her love, or despite how low she feels, Buffy is never a passive pawn in their hands. She has agency, she breaks up (or kills) when needed, when it becomes too much to handle. 

Learning Points

I’ve gone on and on about the implication of unrealistic portrayals of bad men – I’ve written a whole novel about them and won’t bore you further with them. But in Buffy, Joss Whedon shows characters need to be explored deeply in their flaws for us to understand them, and for us to stop taking shit IRL because of what we see on TV/in novels/entertainment. Enough of that 50 Shades bullshit. 

Misogyny 

Plot Outline

In season six, bored teenager Warren Meers hypnotises his ex girlfriend Katrina to be his sex slave, and kills her when she rebels. Warren leads Buffy‘s scariest set of villains: the Trio, three former Sunnydale High classmates sick of being their year’s losers. 

In their obsession to take down Buffy – who, in their head, must be symbol of female strength and of all the women who underestimated them – the Trio meet their end, and they die bloody. When Warren accidentally kills Tara mistaking her for Buffy, he ends up being flayed and incinerated by Willow.

The Situation

Buffy is a constant reminder that, however scary demons and vampires might be, human evil, and the anger and hurt coming out of love and rejection, are often way scarier. The Trio are the perfect example of that.  As AV Club writes: “They were men, not monsters, filled with a toxic brew of entitlement, misogyny, boredom, and low self-esteem. […]

“Deceptively cloaked as nerdy young men, they were tragic and terrible and often really funny. Whereas earlier Big Bads actually lacked souls, the members of the Trio simply let theirs get clouded by delusions of power and grandeur. If this sounds familiar, then you’re probably a woman.”

Learning Points

Built-up anger and humiliation brought by an unattainable ideal of masculinity and success is scarier than vampires. In 2019, we should begin to redefine what it means to be a man – I see you, Gillette ad – and that shouldn’t be to shag all the popular girls in high school, have big muscles and play football. 

Buffy Is The Best Series of All Time. Period

Buffy saved the world countless times, and I think she can really save public debate, the way we talk about sensitive topics and the perceptions we have of each other. Let’s all be more like Buffy (as a show and as a person). 

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