Buffy the Vampire Slayer and domestic violence #2
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 – 2003) was a groundbreaking tv show in many ways. Attempting to challenge stereotypes of women and invite us to explore life, relationships and inner demons through metaphors (some veiled, some not so much), it allowed us to reconsider what we know of teen horror. Joss Whedon, writer, creator and executive producer developed the show with the intention of subverting our expectations of the female character – what would happen if the typical blonde teenage girl wasn’t so typical? Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed things, and its cult following is not a surprise. Throughout its seven TV seasons (season 8 in your comic book stores now!) it explored issues of relationships, bullying, conflict with parents, internet stalking, sexual assault, popularity, sex, mental illness, addiction, suicide, murder, child abuse, obsession, abuse of power and domestic violence. In the second in our series on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we look at how Buffy and her friends deal with controlling and violent relationships.
Beauty and the Beasts Season 3 Episode 4
The episode Beauty and the Beasts is interesting as it compares 3 men who are in some way a ‘beast’. We have:
- Oz, who is a werewolf but takes responsibility for that and locks himself in a cage 3 nights a month
- Angel, who is a vampire with a soul who contains the beast by following a path of redemption and never allowing himself ‘true happiness’ (which would rob him of his soul), and
- Pete, who chooses to be a monster and blames it on his victims, namely his girlfriend Debbie.
The episode unfolds and Pete and Debbie present as a loving couple. However, there are signs that things may not be entirely ok: Debbie mentions her guidance counselor whom she has been mandated to visit, and Pete shoots her a ‘look’. Then a little later he wants to go into the janitors closet to make out but Debbie says ‘no’. He coxes her in and when something makes him angry, and he begins to yell.
The blame game
Debbie is scared – he blames her for his anger and transforms into an angry-veiny-macho-violent guy. Pete accuses her of ‘whoring’ around with other guys, asks if that’s something her shrink taught her:
to share, communicate, piss me off?
He assaults her, then returns to his normal face, expressing regret (but blaming her) and says,
You shouldn’t make me mad - you know what happens when you make me mad.
Debbie holds him and whispers,
It’s ok, it’s ok.
Later, when Pete begins killing off all the men in Debbie’s life, Buffy & Co set out to stop him. They approach Debbie, who is in the toilet applying make up to a bruise on her face. Buffy offers advice,
You know what works? Don’t get hit.
to which Debbie responds,
It’s not his fault, it’s me, I make him crazy, he just does what he does cos he loves me so much.
Because Pete has manipulated Debbie, she takes on the responsibility for his violence.
Debbie feels cornered and claims that she never asked for anyone’s help - to which Willow says:
When were you going to? When Pete kills you it’ll pretty much be too late.
Willow’s astute assessment of the situation tells us what we already know: women in violent relationships are unsafe and are at risk of being killed. And, yes, Pete does kill Debbie.
Does this episode get it right?
In some ways, yes. Violent men blame the victim because it means that they don’t have to take responsibility for their own violence. And in some ways, no. The representation of the victim as weak and passive, codependent and colluding with Pete is far from true and profoundly simplistic. We know that many women attempt to leave many times, but the barriers they face can often make leaving impossible. But let’s not confuse staying with culpability. Buffy’s comment, ‘Don’t get hit’ is an example of societal ignorances of the dynamics of abusive relationships. This comment places the responsibility on Debbie and somehow communicates to her that she could have avoided being assaulted. This comment is the close cousin of
Why doesn’t she just leave?
It undermines the complexities that within an abusive relationship there are many levels of manipulation, social isolation, financial abuse and significant threat to safety. This episode does well in portraying the abusive man, but sells women short. Women who are experiencing abuse are not passive – they are surviving under significantly dangerous circumstances. It is likely they are planning, at all times, their escape, biding their time knowing that they must hide their intentions from their abuser. Women are most at risk when planning to leave, and indeed their risk increases once they have left.