A bit ago, someone gave me cause to write a brief thing about Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and particularly the way in which his character is handled after the moment he sexually assaults Buffy towards the end of Season Six
Here, for me, is the interesting thing about Spike. And I don’t think this is quite the reading that Whedon intended for Spike, but I think it’s close, and makes Spike an astonishing metaphor for rape culture and what it does. And, actually, the sort of approach to rape culture that could only really be pioneered by a feminist man, which interests me on several levels.
I mean, let’s be unambiguous here. Rape culture, as an idea and a critique, needed to be developed by women. Men are a support class in feminism, and this is as it should be. That’s the point. But equally, there are perspectives within the discussion that are both male and relevant. And I think the depiction of Spike is one of them.
The key thing, to me, about the bathroom rape scene is what Spike does next, which is to go on an extended quest for his soul. Because this ties into an important thematic narrative about vampires in Buffy, which is that they are true monsters. There are clearly shells of people wrapped up in them, but they’re explicitly irredeemable. Angel, somewhere or other, describes the demonic aspect of vampires as taking everything you are and twisting it, and fine, but let’s dig deeper here and note that the overall sense is that vampires are slaves to some external narrative about what vampires do.
Because it’s not just hunger in Buffy. It’s not just that vampires feed on innocents and have to. It’s not just temptation. These are the usual themes of vampire fiction, but Buffy mostly avoids them. Vampires in Buffy are visibly compelled into a larger narrative of evil deeds. They seem unable to resist becoming servants of powerful overlords with schemes for, at best, world domination, and at worst, things like the complete destruction of the planet. The state of soullessness means enslavement to a particular cultural narrative.
This is the recurring narrative for Spike. Even when he starts to redeem himself in Season Four, he’s redeemed by external force: by a chip in his brain that keeps him from indulging in the worst aspects of the narrative that his demon prescribes for him. It makes him less bad, but only in an instrumental way, in the same way that criminalizing rape sometimes locks predators up before they harm a second or third or fifth or twelfth person, but does fuck all to actually stop them from their first rape.
But somewhere in the course of his story, in looking in horror at what he’s done to Buffy, he changes. He rejects the narrative prescribed for him and seeks the power to write his own narrative. With Angel, the soul becomes a binary switch. Have one and you’re good, don’t have one and you’re not. But Spike, after getting his soul, barely actually changes. There’s not the Angel/Angelus dichotomy – there’s still one person. Just someone who, after the end of Season Six, has decided that he’s going to have agency beyond the mindless execution of culturally prescribed narratives.
In other words, that’s the moment when Spike decides that he is going to reject rape culture and be someone else. And here’s an ugly truth: if you are a man, you do not have another option. You are not going to be raised without the cultural narrative of rape culture controlling you. You are not going to come out of childhood and being a teenager as a good person.
You’re never going to be, actually. That’s what your privilege means. That there’s a wealth of cultural weapons that you have to continually and actively disarm yourself of. Ones that, every time you put them down, jump back into your hand of their own free will. If you live your life on autopilot as a male, you will become a rapist and an abuser. There is not another way this plays out. Because you live in a culture that will let you be a rapist, and will tell you it’s OK. No matter how many other narratives you add, you cannot actually erase that one. And that narrative is loud and pernicious and has to be consciously, willfully, deliberately fought against every fucking day.
I’d compare it to addiction, but it actually gets to why I’ve always been uncomfortable with the standard twelve step model for addiction. Because you don’t get a higher power to protect you here. You get you. You get the option to live your life as a struggle against the violence implicit in who you are. You don’t get to be powerless in the face of it. You have to find a way to be stronger than it. You have to make a sense of self that’s bigger than the role carved out for you.
And that, for me, is what makes Spike interesting. Because he seeks real redemption. He seeks the ability to fight against his ingrained cultural narrative. And spends the rest of the Buffyverse narrative doing that, and deciding who he wants to be if not the rapist that he is if he just submits to the powers that be around him.
And he’s never allowed forgiveness. He’s never allowed the “oh, you’re better, congratulations, you are now an official Good Man” badge. He remains problematic and ugly and trying to be better than the monster that is always and always will be his starting point.
There is an entire rhetoric pushed by the idiotic MRA movement that suggests that this is wrong and emasculating and a form of cultural violence against men. That the idea that you have to constantly struggle to disarm yourself of privilege’s weapons is somehow an edict that makes men weak. And I categorically reject it, and I’ll point to Spike as the obvious counter-example. Spike is a monster and a hero at the same time. He’s a character who exists to disprove the idea that the two categories are mutually exclusive. He even suggests that, perhaps, at the end of the day, one is necessary for the other. That it is only monstrosity that gives us something to be heroes against. Not in some bullshit “evil and good each require the other to exist” way either. Evil exists. It doesn’t need good to exist. It does just fine on its own. Until you accept that evil is a completely pre-existing condition in your life and identity, you don’t even get to start developing a concept of good.
And that’s what Spike demonstrates in his late-career switch to being “one of the good guys.” That a hero is just a monster who’s decided to tell a different story. And if that is upsetting – and I agree that Spike is an upsetting and problematic character – then there’s an obvious reason for it. Being upset is a reasonable – indeed, the only reasonable – response to living in a world defined by rape culture.