Before there was Team Edward and Team Jacob, it was Angel vs. Spike. A vital discourse that continues to this day, my answer has always been the leather jacketed, British, smoker and smoking hot Spike. He has better cheekbones, a more dynamic character and a proper crypt. However, there is an incredibly problematic element to rooting for Spike. He is an attempted rapist.
Much has been written about how tired the trope of sexual assault as a means of disempowering, ‘humanising’, or ‘complicating’ female characters has become. And this is by no means limited to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You may remember how the internet lost its shit over the Game of Thrones ‘Breaker of Chains’ episode. But wait, there’s more! In Downton Abbey Anna Bates is raped by a valet. Later seasons reveal that Mellie Grant of Scandal was raped by her stepfather, and House of Cards’ Claire Underwood was raped in college (both of these were revealed in flashbacks). Madison Montgomery in American Horror Story: Coven is gang-raped. Joan Holloway is raped by her husband in Mad Men. You get the idea. It happens a lot. There is debate about how this can open up a constructive discourse surrounding sexual assault, and further, the importance of media in helping people understand the consequences of rape. These are vital discussions, given its devastating, real life prevalence.
While it is correct to be critical of how, when, and why sexual assault and rape are written, there is another discussion deserving of breath. As well as demanding a nuanced portrayal of survivors, we need accurate portrayals of rapists. This has to happen in a sustained way, instead of tarring the perpetuator a monster and leaving it at that—or more disturbingly, making excuses for them. The reason for this is simple: rapists are real people, not plot devices. It matters how they’re constructed and how narratives deal with the trauma they inflict. In The OC, Trey blames his attempted rape of Marissa on cocaine and claims he was ‘out of his mind’. After a brief coma, Trey heals up and leaves town. To the show’s credit, it does deal with the trauma Marissa experiences during and after the event, as well as the conflict Ryan faced as he struggled to consolidate the brother he knew with Trey’s new status as a violent sexual assaulter. Gossip Girl takes a different approach, perpetually Othering (in an alluring, sensationalised way) Chuck Bass. The show positions his moral compass as lost since early childhood. It oscillates between using this to diminish his behaviour—including the attempted rape of Jenny Humphrey—or to garner audience sympathy for his poor, troubled soul.
Somewhat ironically, Spike technically is a soulless monster, in step with the regressive cultural narrative of rape. However, even considering this, he is much closer to an accurate portrayal of a rapist. Unlike Downton Abbey’s valet, Spike fits the brief; he is someone that Buffy knows, who her friends know, and who is a part of her life. Before the attack, by this point Spike has reluctantly aligned himself with the Scoobie gang. His move from Big Bad to do-gooder is kicked off by a chip implanted by a government initiative (creatively called The Initiative). This chip prevents Spike from harming humans. Buffy is exempt for complicated plot reasons, and the rape is attempted after she ends their mutually dysfunctional non-relationship. I would still argue that this attempted rape was unnecessary, lazy writing for a cast that generally subverts clichés instead of subscribing to them. However, Spike’s horror at his actions, and the continuation of his arc well beyond the event itself is something television rarely offers. We tend to get sad-puppy apologies that eventually morph into black-dog anger as social exclusion continues or charges are pressed. When it’s not diminishing the impact of their actions, media mirrors society, wanting to twist perpetuators into dehumanised villains. They package Trey as somehow tragic and Chuck Bass as a breed apart. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Rapists don’t disappear after the damage is done, and they don’t exist as a separate species. We need to recognise that male rapists are our brothers, fathers, boyfriends, husbands and friends. Statistically speaking, this is unavoidable. In Australia, one in five women will experience sexual assault during their lifetime.
Back in the Buffyverse, Spike only leaves the main plotline for a few episodes. Dismayed, he seeks restoration of his soul. The result is not what he anticipates; Spike goes insane with guilt over more than a hundred years of very bad behaviour. But he doesn’t cease to exist. His life isn’t neatly untangled from the Scoobies. This is significant because rape is predominately committed by someone the survivor knows. Someone who is a part of their life. Simply cutting the perpetuator out of the equation isn’t always an option. Buffy eventually learns to confront Spike, and in time, accepts him back as an ally. This is absolutely not the arc most men who’ve attempted sexual assault will have. It is also more than they deserve. Not because they’re monsters who are below our sympathy (though sympathy may be incredibly difficult to conjure). Instead, the priority of addressing their emotional needs will never again approximate those of the survivor. We don’t lose the capacity for forgiveness; instead perpetuators lose the right to it. This is what we call consequences.
It is often easier to recognise patterns in fictional universes than our own. To draw some parallels, we can think of Spike’s vampirism as rape culture. In this super icky framework, the personal responsibility of the rapist is lessened, due to their lack of soul. Or, for those of us playing at home, an ‘uncontrollable’ sex drive. This is what leads us to ask such ridiculous questions as ‘why was she walking around at night if she didn’t want to get bitten?’ The behaviour-modifying chip is popular culture. It cannot force Spike to do good, it merely prevents him from doing bad, like Alex in A Clockwork Orange. It moderates what actions are acceptable, and those that are not. In the real world it’s even more complicated: our definitions of good behaviour—as dictated by pop culture—are prone to so many double standards.
What sets Spike apart is that he does not blame the attempted rape on the monster he is by definition, but rather, the man he wants to be. He does not dissociate, as we must not dissociate sexual assault with humanity more familiar than we’d like to admit. Men—it is overwhelmingly men—who commit sexual violence are not entitled to our forgiveness. However, no matter how confronting it is, they remain our brothers, fathers, boyfriends, husbands and friends. While this is not a reality the small screen likes to explore very often, societally speaking it is something we need to recognise and respond to accordingly. Spike aside, rapists are not monsters. The reality is much more mundane—terrifyingly so.