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bystander intervention


Buffy, Xander, and consent

buffy xander

So I’ve been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the first time, and I’ve made it most of the way through season two. Yesterday I got to “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” and I have thoughts.

Quick summary:

Xander wants revenge on his ex-girlfriend for dumping him at the Valentine’s Day dance, so he blackmails a witch into making a love potion so he can reject her. The love spell backfires, and every single woman on the show becomes completely obsessed with him to the point of violence, including Buffy. When Buffy comes on to him, Xander says this:

It’s not that I don’t want to. Sometimes the remote impossible possibility that you might like me was all that sustained me. But not now. Not like this. This isn’t real to you. You’re only here because of a spell. I mean, if I thought you had one clue what it would mean to me . . . But you don’t. So I can’t.

At the end of the episode, Buffy thanks Xander for not taking advantage of her, and the implication of the whole conversation is that Xander is a really, really great guy.

Ok, so . . . problems.

Marti Noxon– who has written for Mad Men, Prison Break, Grey’s Anatomy, and Glee— wrote an episode structured completely around the idea of consent. And while I appreciate what she was trying to do, I think the episode failed mostly because of this particular line of dialog. Xander ultimately rebuffs Buffy not because it’s the right thing to do because he knows she would never do this willingly and she’s incapable of giving consent, but because it’s not what he wants– because she “doesn’t know what it would mean to him.”

Essentially, the episode is one gigantic metaphor for drunk sex, and Marti is arguing not good, don’t do it. But the reason why she says it’s not a good idea isn’t because you’d be a rapist for using alcohol to overrule consent, but because don’t you want someone to want you for you?

Which, ok, that is a valid question. I’ve asked it here. It’s one of the ideas behind getting enthusiastic consent– the sex you should want is sex where they want you. But the reason why having “sex” with someone incapable of giving consent is wrong isn’t that oh, they’re not really into it, but because it’s rape. If Xander hadn’t said no, he wouldn’t have been “taking advantage” of her, he would have been raping her, and I don’t think the episode showed that– at all.

Marti, the directer, and Joss Whedon all had a fantastic opportunity with this episode. They could have brought in the idea of bystander intervention with Giles, they could have shown how rapists aren’t the mysterious monsters hiding in dark corners and that ordinary, likable people like Xander are capable of rape.

Instead, they spent the entire episode focusing on how all of this made Xander feel. It recenters a conversation that should have been about consent and rape back onto how does this make the man feel, when the focus should have been look, see, this is how you don’t rape people.

Update 7-13-14: I would like to add that my thoughts about this episode do not only stem from Xander’s comment in the quoted portion– as some have noted, that Xander is an immature jackass is not new territory for the show. What makes this episode so poorly handled (in my opinion) isn’t only Xander’s behavior, but the way the writers chose to have the other characters respond.

At the end of the episode, Cordelia is flattered that Xander wanted to overrule her consent– she thought it was sweet and romantic. One could argue that this is in character for Cordelia, and I would agree. However, simply because these behaviors are consistent with the way a character has been written does not mean they are not open to critique and analysis. That Cordelia’s character has been written in such a way to be flattered by an action that is, essentially, an act of violence and sexual aggression is part of a larger cultural narrative, and we see it in other places– Gale from The Hunger Games, Edward from Twilight, Noah from The Notebook, and Four from Divergent are all thought of as “sweet” and “romantic,” even though some (or many) of the actions they take are coercive or abusive. Women are told on a daily basis that aggressive, manipulative, consent-violating actions are to be interpreted as “sweet” instead of the gender-coded micro-aggressions that they are.

Also, Buffy’s reaction at the end of the episode is to thank Xander for not taking advantage of her– the implication of the entire exchange is that Xander is just an incredibly awesome gentleman, and he is so wonderful and deserves all of the cookies. The problem with this is that Xander does not deserve any cookies at all. He wanted to take away a woman’s ability to consent and remove her free will. He also does not get a cookie for not doing something illegal. He does not deserve to be rewarded– which, he ultimately is by “winning Cordelia”– for not raping Buffy. The fact that the writer structured the “thank you” this way implies that if Xander had, in fact, raped Buffy, it wouldn’t have been thought of, or portrayed, as rape. He just would have been “taking advantage” of her.