In appreciation of Whedon’s refusal to sensationalise abuse
By Zoë Hoffman
Though European folklore traditionally depicted the vampire as a hideous, bloated monstrosity, its entry into English literature (via John Polidori’s The Vampyre) was as the seductive aristocrat, Lord Ruthven. While Ruthven remains irredeemably evil, his flirtatious allure initiated the literary snowball towards the sparkling sex machine we now know as the modern vampire.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer is yet another contemporary show portraying vampires as attractive, tall, dark, handsome, primarily white men—but these vampires also have demon faces that reveal their true monstrous natures. BTVS vampires thus remain true to what their predecessor, Ruthven, symbolised: the seduction behind predatory men (occasionally women too) and abusive relationships.
BTVS is careful in how it models the all-too-charming and oh-so-risky vampire boyfriend, refusing to romanticise either of the slayer’s two vampire relationships—Angel (in ship Bangel) and Spike (in ship Spuffy)—which both focus heavily on the emotional impacts of being vulnerable to a monster.
Admittedly, Buffy’s first vampire boyfriend, Angel, may appear romanticised to the casual observer, but it’s purposely camp—satirical, even. Bangel is a tortured mockery of the epic forbidden love. A centuries-old vampire cursed to keep his soul and feel the guilt of past misdeeds. A mysterious suitor who makes 16-year-old Buffy want to die with every kiss—and who literally loses his soul after sex with her, immediately turning into a cruel antagonist, one of the show’s many palpable metaphors. Ultimately, I admire the way this problematic love affair was not forced into a happily ever after.
The same goes for Buffy’s second vampire boyfriend, the begrudgingly reformed Spike. After being forced by popular demand into giving the charismatic villain a redemption arc, showrunner Joss Whedon still approached the Spuffy relationship with gritty realism. Though it had passion and occasional sincerity, it was seen for what it was; toxic.
BTVS delves into a rich discussion of morality around Spike, which never excuses his abuse or separates his character from his actions—soul or no soul. Even though Spike thinks he can redeem himself (by retrieving his soul) for attempting to rape Buffy at the end of their fling, he learns (once re-souled) that there is no atonement for what he did.
As much as Spuffy was sexualised fanservice, the affair’s consequence was a realistic series of blows to Buffy’s self-esteem. Spuffy imploded in shame and disgust before settling into growth and understanding, ending with Spike’s acceptance that she never loved him. Though Buffy appreciated his growth, the truth was she only got involved with him because she hated herself and her life at the time.
It’s hard not to compare Spike and Angel to the sensationalised antiheroes of other modern vampire flicks. The Vampire Diaries, for example, positions viewers to forgive sadistic serial killers on account of their magnetic sex appeal. Elena repeatedly forgives Damon’s egregious transgressions (such as threatening to kill her little brother, killing one of her friends, raping others), because she just loves him that much. By painting Elena’s character degradation as a romantic by-product of love, TVD sensationalises Damon’s abuses against her.
BTVS, however, insists Buffy respect her own boundaries—and instances where she does compromise are framed as destructive moments steeped in self-hatred. Don’t get me wrong; I’m the first to call Whedon’s brand of feminism male-gazey. The showrunner is intent on punishing Buffy for having sex, and his self-insert character Xander can also be grossly possessive and Nice-Guy-ish. I also don’t forget the allegations made against Whedon of predatory behaviour on set. However, I must concede that Whedon was considerate and unwavering in his representations of villainy. He fought to keep vampires as the symbol of evil in BTVS, much like Polidori’s original smooth-talking rogue—with a nod to traditional folklore in the form of an ugly-faced twist.
Even though BTVS did graduate from a world of black-and-white to something a bit more greyed, it managed to explore problematic loves without rationalising their abuses. Yes, there is some debate among characters over whether a vampire should be forgiven for his actions whilst soulless, but the crossing of certain lines like sexual assault and murder are never forgotten, regardless. We love to see that—especially in a genre that often reflects our levels of willingness to tolerate abuse in relationships.
Zoë Hoffman is a Melbourne and Perth based writer, editor and artist. You can find her work on the farrago website.
[Feature Image: “Do Not be Seduced by the Vampire”. Created by Zoë Hoffman. Used with permission.]