So far, I have mixed feelings.
Now, just to get this out of the way: Season One of just about anything is usually shit. I get that. The directors and writers and actors are still trying to feel their way and figure out how much to advance the plot versus how much to do Monster Of The Week shows, and no one knows precisely which character is going to really take off with the audience and everything is all up in the air. I get that. I also get that It Gets Better and Joss Whedon and yada yada. This is not a post about GRR JOSS WHEDON because ye gods, I have not the spoons for that.
This is a post about a thing, and it's a thing that I saw tonight on a single, micro-contained, Monster Of The Week, Buffy episode. That is all that this post is.
Now that we've got that out of the way, I have mixed feelings. Partly because I keep wanting to check the listing to verify that this is in fact "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" and not "Xander Man, The Amazing Adventures Of". Because, dear dog, we're six episodes in, which is like HALF A SEASON and Xander has consistently gotten massive character growth and exposition in every episode so far while Buffy still feels like someone I can summarize in one sentence. ("Attractive cheerleader juggling high school alongside a vampire slaying destiny.") Who is the main character here again?
So obviously I wasn't super primed to like episode 6, "The Pack". I think my exact words were, "gosh, I'm glad we get another episode about Xander, because it's not like the last five episodes haven't focused heavily on his wants, needs, insecurities, and tendency to be targeted by supernatural predators." (And now you can all be grateful that you don't watch television with me. And you can feel sorry for Husband who has come to accept that television will forever more be overlaid with snarky commentary.)
But. Here is what happens in The Pack.
- Xander cheers Buffy up after she is cruelly taunted by Mean Kids.
- Xander goes to save the local high school nerd who has been targeted by the Mean Kids.
- Xander + Mean Kids are possessed by hyena spirits.
- Hyenas, as you all know, are matriarchal pack animals where the females have a "pseudo-penis" (which Wikipedia asserts makes rape very difficult) and sex positioning is very complex.
- Xander promptly tries to rape Buffy.
- Xander is rebuffed with difficulty as he is "almost as strong" as she, thanks to plot convenience.
- Xander is cured and saves Willow (since Buffy has been rendered helpless).
- Xander pretends to forget about his experiences and Giles supports his lie.
Neat! What a neat episode!
Here are the things I do not like about this episode. Remember that this isn't GRR XANDER or GRR GILES or GRR WHEDON, so much as it is GRR SHITTY WRITING IN MONSTER OF THE WEEK EPISODE. I'm perfectly comfortable calling this out as shit while still believing that everyone acts better in later, better written episodes. Hopefully as early as Season Two.
1. Giles' gender essentialist statements.
Buffy goes to Giles, the resident plot exposition person, in order to vent her suspicions in light of the fact that one of her friends is exhibiting radically different behavior and may be possessed, a body double, or otherwise in danger. Considering that they live at the mouth of hell and Xander has ALREADY been pseudo-possessed (via control-overriding pheromones), one would think Giles would take notice. For purposes of "humor", he does not. Because gender essentialism.
Giles: Xander's taken to teasing the less fortunate?
Giles: And, there's been a noticeable change in both clothing and demeanor?
Giles: And, well, otherwise all his spare time is spent lounging about with imbeciles.
Buffy: It's bad, isn't it.
Giles: It's devastating. He's turned into a sixteen-year-old boy. Course, you'll have to kill him.
Buffy: Giles, I'm serious.
Giles: So am I. Except for the part about killing him. Testosterone is a great equalizer. It turns all men into morons. He will, however, get over it.
Repeat after me. If you find yourself saying "all men" or "all women", then you are pretty much about to say something wrong-headed. Quite a few men handle themselves very well regardless of their hormonal levels. Blaming behavior on biology just sets up rape culture all the more firmly because "boys will be boys!" and therefore cannot help their bullying, harassing, and sexist behavior. Fuck to the no.
Also: ableism. Many people who are considered mentally astute absolutely engage in bullying, harassing, and sexist behavior. Many people who are not, do not engage in such behavior. There is not a correlation between the two, and maintaining that there is a correlation leads to victim blaming and Not My Nigeling. (My Nigel couldn't have bullied you! He's too intelligent! You must be mistaken, wrong, or lying!)
2. The sexual assault in light of the "I am anxious about our power differential" characterization.
The sexual assault scene turns my stomach because, frankly, it reads as really realistic.
Xander has been repeatedly established as both attracted to Buffy and yet seriously anxious about their power differential. She's the one who is physically strong, and this clearly bothers him. I'm fairly confident saying that a Point has been made out of this at least once per episode, and it was definitely made in this one: when Buffy tries to rescue the nerdy guy at the beginning of the episode, Xander stops her and says, "I'll handle it. This job doesn't require actual slaying." The tone is one of someone who is anxious about being repeatedly rendered superfluous by the hot, strong, competent gal on the team.
During possessed!Xander's sexual assault of Buffy, which lasts two full scenes, he repeatedly talks about wanting to be dangerous, scary, and stronger than Buffy. This, to me, is a genuine expression of "You are more powerful than me, so I must hurt you" rapeyness, and all the Nice Guy but-deep-down-inside-he-loves-her layers on top only make it more disturbing to me, not less.
Buffy: Look, Xander, I don't wanna hurt you...
He grabs her by the shoulders and pushes her against the vending machine.
Xander: Now do you wanna hurt me?
Buffy struggles, but the possessed Xander is too strong.
Xander: Come on, Slayer. I like it when you're scared.
She struggles a bit more.
Xander: The more I scare you, (sniffs her) the better you smell.
He moves in and kisses her roughly on the neck.
This, by the way, is a long scene. I've only quoted a small portion of it. It's a long scene in an episode that has something like three full minutes of slow-motion walking to establish that Xander and the Mean Kids are walking in slow-motion. Which makes it all the more interesting that we don't get to see Buffy resolve this situation, despite it probably making for a nice fight scene in addition to having that visceral I-am-a-girl-and-therefore-vulnerable-to-sexual-assault-but-fuck-you-Patriarchy-here-is-my-badass-fist feel. We don't get that.
We don't get to see Buffy subdue her attacker, probably because it would be too violent and disturbing to see the possessed Nice Guy being beaten back from committing a sexual assault. But him committing the sexual assault itself -- which is two scenes long, and written surprisingly realistically and therefore potentially triggering to a lot of people in the audience -- that's worth showing in detail. And the fact that the conversation during the sexual assault, which revolves around Xander's issues with Buffy being stronger than he is, actually meshes with his established characterization and isn't just Because Possessed or Because Hyena Nose Says You're In Heat or Because Jasper? Is fucking creepy.
3. The "I do not want to remember sexually assaulting you, so carry that silently for me" ending.
This is the conversation that Xander and Buffy and Willow have the day after his possession is cured:
Willow: You saved my life.
Xander: Hey! Nobody messes with my Willow. (gives her a hug)
Buffy looks on and smiles. Willow smiles, too.
Buffy: This is definitely the superior Xander. Accept no substitutes.
Xander: I didn't do anything else, did I, around you guys or anything embarrassing?
The girls smile, and Buffy considers what to tell him.
Buffy: (shakes her head) Nah!
Willow: Not at all.
Buffy: (to Willow) C'mon. We're gonna be late. (takes her hand and they go)
Willow: (to Xander) See you at lunch.
Xander does in fact remember the sexual assault. (That will be clarified in-episode thirty seconds from now in television time and several paragraphs from now in blog time.) But he's created the impression that he doesn't, and is using social pressure to keep Buffy and Willow from bringing it up and forcing him to deal with it.
Yes, Xander was acting under the influence of vaguely defined supernatural forces. No, I do not think he should be held responsible for his actions as though he was in full control of his faculties.
But goddamnit, he remembers. What's more, Buffy remembers. Buffy has to remember that every time she looks at him from now on. Now, she probably won't remember because in television-land, Monster Of The Week episodes are never spoken of ever again. But Real Buffy, assuming she existed which I would like to point out that she does not, would have to deal with this for a long long time.
Now it's possible that she would be more comfortable going along with this pretense. But, really, she's not being given much of a choice. She is being placed in a position where if she tells Xander, she thinks she is causing harm to her friend. After all, he doesn't remember. So what if she is hurting? So what if she needs to talk things through and heal and make certain that wasn't how he really sees her deep down inside? (Because, frankly, I'm not convinced of that at all, and I can't see why she wouldn't be worrying about that.) If Xander doesn't remember, then bringing up the incident won't give her closure and it will only hurt him. So it's better to suffer in silence.
You know what would have been so much better than that, to me? Xander taking her aside and saying, "I know what I did and I am so sorry. That wasn't me and that's not how I feel or who I am. If you want to talk about it, I'm here; if you want to pretend it never happened, I can do that too. Just let me know what you need, whenever you decide, and I'll make sure that it happens." Xander doesn't do that. I don't know why he doesn't do it and I don't care: selfish, cowardly, young, immature, uncertain, guilty, Bad Writing, whatever. Again, Xander isn't a real person. He says what the writers write for him to say. And the writers decided that having a young man effectively use strong social pressure to strip a young woman of the choice of whether or not to confront him about his assault of her was BETTER than him confronting his behavior head-on and dealing with it.
What. The. Fuck.
And I think I'm supposed to like this guy. I think I'm supposed to sympathize with his angst at being not liked in spite of his Nice Guyness. I think I'm supposed to have sadfeels about the power differential between him and Buffy. You know, the power differential that he uses as a reason to rape her? The power differential that only barely allows her to escape being raped? That one. I think I'm supposed to see him as a hero because he Saves The Day And Willow while Buffy is flat on the ground being preoccupied with hyenas. I think I'm supposed to see him as a good guy for hugging Willow while he uses strong social pressure to push them into bottling up their emotions about the bad behavior that has been inflicted on them.
4. The "bros before hos" ending with what-the-fuck Giles.
Xander starts to head the other way when he is met by Giles.
Giles: I've been reading up on my, uh, animal possession, and I cannot find anything anywhere about memory loss afterwards.
Xander: Did you tell them that?
Giles: (leans to Xander's ear) Your secret dies with me.
Xander: Shoot me, stuff me, mount me.
Giles pats him on the shoulder as he shakes his head and starts walking along the balcony. He leans on the railing and watches Xander go.
*sputters incoherently with rage*
The one good thing about this exchange is that it solidified in my head that this wasn't an I HATE XANDER rant. I don't like Xander; I've seen his character too many times to find him interesting and I'd much rather focus on the ostensible protagonist. I admit it. But I do like Giles. And I hate-hate-hate this exchange so much.
Because seriously I cannot read this as anything other than explicit approval. This isn't "I'm not going to tell them now because it would be awkward for them and I actually care about their feelings, unlike you." This isn't "You need to tell them because if you don't, I will." This isn't "I'm not going to get involved, but fuck you buddy." This is an honest-to-dog straight-up hooray-for-your-shit-behavior exchange, NOT because Giles likes Xander or has much of a connection with him (as far as I can tell, so far they don't) or because Giles thinks this is somehow for the best. No, this is Giles backing up Xander simply, purely, and totally because they are both men.
Because that's what men do. Or rather it's what the writers seem to sincerely hope men do. Men have a CODE, a PACT if you will, to back each other up with SILENCING TACTICS and SUPPRESSION TECHNIQUES if ever the other one does something he later regrets and doesn't want TEH WOMENS constantly busting his chops over it because otherwise it will be all GEEZ, YOU'RE NEVER GOING TO LET THAT GO, ARE YOU and that would obviously be TOTALLY UNFAIR.
This stuff doesn't happen in a vacuum. Just this week I read about a Real Man who commits sexual assault and all his Real Friends refuse to do anything about it because Sexual Assault Guy is a "great guy to hang out with". Well, okay, then! By all means -- and this is Rape Culture -- it's the job of the women to suppress all their little feelings and not deal with any of this head-on and instead just keep smiling and keep their mouth shut for the sake of the group.
And, again, yes, Xander was possessed and legitimately couldn't help himself during the sexual assault.
But he sure as hell had the ability to make his own decisions afterward. And Giles had full control of his faculties. And these characters were written to cover up sexual assault, to erase it from history, because it made them uncomfortable. I get that; I understand it. But it probably makes Buffy and Willow uncomfortable too. And instead of giving them the tools to make it better according to their needs, the male characters were written such that they applied social pressure to convince the girls to erase history and smile and pretend it never happened whether that was beneficial to them or not.
5. This whole episode is about Xander.
Seriously. The episode starts with Xander cheering Buffy up and saving the nerdy guy and being So Awesome. And it ends with Xander saving Willow's life while Buffy helplessly looks on and then he hugs Willow and he is So Awesome. And everything in between? Is about Xander and Xander only.
When Xander sexually assaults Buffy, the scene is about his wants, his needs, his feelings. As a general rule -- and I say this every year, sometimes multiple times, during ABNA -- if you are writing a rape scene and the focus is on how the rapist feels, you are almost certainly doing it wrong. As a rape victim, I don't give a shit about a rapist's wants and needs and feelings. No, not even if he's possessed. The only person whose wants and needs and feelings I care about in a rape scene is the victim. And if the victim's wants and needs and feelings are effectively eclipsed by those of the rapist's in that scene? You are writing the rape victim out of hir own rape and that is a OMGWTFBBQ moment for me.
And when Xander (and Giles!) cover up the sexual assault because, gosh, it's just so embarrassing, that whole scene is about Xander. I don't know how Buffy feels about what he did and what he said and about whether that was what he felt, deep down inside. I suspect I'll never know because Monster Of The Week Reset Button. I don't guess I'm supposed to care; it seems pretty clear that the writers didn't. Oh, they wrote her smiling and shit, but what else is she going to do? She hasn't been left with a lot of choices; anything other than smiling at this point would make her a Terrible Horrible Person because Rape Culture. Women routinely smile and are kind to their abusers in public, even when the abuser doesn't have a magical possession memory-wiping Monster Of The Week to blame it on.
This isn't a Buffy episode. It's a Xander episode. It's an episode about a young man who has previously expressed anxious attraction over a strong woman, who then becomes possessed and sexually assaults the woman he has anxious attraction over, before then being cured and lying about what he does and doesn't remember in order to make his life more comfortable. And at no point in the entire episode did I feel like I was being asked to consider how the WOMAN in this equation felt about all this. In fact, this episode told me more about Willow's feelings -- she loves Xander, because Xander is awesome -- than it did about Buffy's feelings.
Despite the fact that Buffy is the one who was nearly raped.
And that, to me, is pretty much the definition of doing wrong..
Thread Note: For the sake of my viewing pleasure, please attempt to keep off-topic Buffy spoilers out of this thread, since I have to read everything to moderate it properly. If the Hyena Sexual Assault thing comes up in Season 5, it's germane to the conversation and worth mentioning; if Xander grows up and stops being an asshole because X, Y, Z in Season 5, it's less topical and more spoilery so please try to exercise discretion. Thank you, and welcome to the nineties.