By: Emily Gibson
Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered on the WB network on March 10, 1997. A dark comedy about a young girl struggling to live with some sort of normalcy while accepting her role as the “one girl in all the world” who can slay underworld creatures, Buffy was a subversion of the idea that a blonde, beautiful teenager can’t also be a total badass. Buffy and her friends’ physical and emotional capability was questioned in various degrees until the show ended in 2003, but their trials throughout the series frequently involve or reference sexual violence.
Twenty years later, gratuitous sexual assault is still the norm in many writers rooms. It’s as if sexual violence is the only tactic writers can think of to throw at their women characters. Women are forced into strength through violation. In the aftermath of these assaults, they are stoic, passionate and fiery, they walk a line between fragility and strength that later defines them. But – is it necessary to prove a woman’s strength by first violating her?
Six episodes into the first season, one of Buffy’s best friends Xander Harris, possessed by an animal, pins her against a vending machine and attempts to assault her – he claims to forget his actions after he is freed from possession, and the invasion is entirely forgotten. The next season, a group of frat brothers drugs Buffy and “mean girl” Cordelia Chase, and one of them attempts to assault the Slayer while she lays in a bed upstairs (he’s stopped by one of his brothers, but only because Buffy’s “purpose” to the boys is to be fed to a giant phallic monster they keep in their basement, which is honestly a whole other story). There are moments like these sprinkled throughout Buffy, increasing in severity as the show continues. In later seasons, an antagonist literally turns his ex-girlfriend into his sex slave, and then kills her when she calls him a rapist. And Spike, the vampire-rebel-turned-good who is famed as Buffy’s Best Boyfriend, tries to rape her in her bathroom in a disturbing and drawn-out sequence that is forgiven in the context of their complicated relationship.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a breakthrough show in so many ways: it was the first series to show a complex and involved lesbian relationship on screen; it featured a strong female lead; it explored death and love in a tangible way. It was the first television show I ever really loved, and the only television show I’ve watched in its entirety multiple times. But for a show that has been lauded for its feminism, it is disturbing to see sexual violence so often used as a tactic against its title character and her friends. It is also concerning that the violence goes mostly unquestioned in the mainstream’s appreciation of the show as a whole.
Women are forced into strength through violation.
It isn’t altogether shocking that a 20-year-old show had glaring issues with its treatment of sexual assault, but it is disappointing that in its wake, writers rooms have only made representation worse. Somehow, writers rooms got obsessed with the idea that rape equals drama, and women’s narratives and agency come second to the sensation of being risqué. The incorrect and popular assertion that an assaulted woman is “damaged goods” makes her violation not only distressing in the now, but something that will continue to inform her throughout the series. Sometimes a woman’s assault is later used as an explanation for her personality – if a woman isn’t bubbly and warm, there must be a reason why.
It is important to examine why writers decide to assault their women characters. More often than not, it is because writers can’t think of another way to give a woman depth or trauma. In a media landscape that is overwhelmingly centered on women’s bodies from the start, traumatic sexual experiences are an obvious plot point. Since women are reduced to their bodies anyway, women’s suffering is reduced to the violation of them. In a Variety piece titled “The Progress and Pitfalls of Television’s Treatment of Rape,” a female writer who remained anonymous says, “for male show runners, sexual assault is always the go-to when looking for ‘traumatic backstory’ for a female character. You can be sure it will be brought up immediately, like it’s the obvious place to go when fleshing out a female character.”
Somehow, writers rooms got obsessed with the idea that rape equals drama, and women’s narratives and agency come second to the sensation of being risqué.
A few months ago I started watching the SyFy series The Magicians, which is adapted from Lev Grossman’s novel series. The show begins with Julia and Quentin, two best friends who not only believe in magic, but believe they are magicians. They are, in fact, magic, and there’s a special magical college for them to attend. The only issue – Quentin gets accepted, and Julia doesn’t. She is left alone in New York City to try and figure out magic herself, without a support group. In the first season finale, Julia is graphically raped. In the fallout of the assault, she betrays her friends and leaves them to die.
It felt like a betrayal – Quentin and Julia’s stories are parallel, but while Quentin gets the comfort and security of a special school and a friend group, Julia gets left alone and later brutally attacked. And the handling of her attack made her into a monster, someone who would betray everyone she knows to indulge her own self interest. Julia’s story focused intensely on the assault itself, and her healing afterwards fell by the wayside. I stopped watching the show post-assault, but as far as I know Julia is being afforded some sort of redemption arc. The concept of a woman needing to be redeemed post-assault is disappointing as well.
Too often when sexual violence is used as a plot point, the main focus of the trauma is on the physical act, and we are presented with 1-2 minute long assault scenes that are exploitative and gratuitous. In the aftermath of her assault, there is little time devoted to the character’s healing, or little time devoted to her at all.
HBO’s Game of Thrones isn’t a stranger to assault, yet a particularly jarring example of it occurred in the spousal rape of Sansa Stark during the show’s fifth season.
The show’s writers have long used “it happens in the books” as an excuse for their endless punishment of female characters. But their comfort in changing major plot points (Ramsay and Sansa weren’t married in the books, and though the assault did occur against Ramsay’s wife, Sansa was not the survivor) makes that a weak excuse. And the filming of the scene focused on onlooker Theon Greyjoy’s pain. As Sansa’s practical brother and another one of Ramsay’s captives, he watches the attack, and the narrative is focused on his coping with it. There was little focus on Sansa beyond the attack being a motive for her to seek revenge on Ramsay – but seeing as he had already killed her family, the attack itself was almost entirely unnecessary. She already had plenty of ammunition for her anger. It seems that the GoT writers feel that a woman can’t be motivated by loss of anything other than her sexual agency.
The idea that an assault should be treated as only one part of a woman’s life instead of letting it consume her is a necessary framework for writing assault stories, and something that has been historically overlooked.
On-screen sexual assault isn’t always completely negative – sometimes, it is handled delicately and in a way that explores the survivor’s pain and growth without becoming exploitative or pressuring her to seek revenge. Netflix’s Jessica Jones, for example, doesn’t ever show a flashback to Jones’ multiple assaults by a mind-controlling madman, which occurred before the series begins. Though Jones shares scenes with her abuser, the focus doesn’t ever shift to the physical acts, but remains on Jones’ healing and subsequent PTSD.
The Jessica Jones writers also successfully avoid the wormhole of trying to dictate how sex should be after assault. Often in the media, assault survivors either shirk away from any form of intimacy, or they experience a sudden and overwhelming urge to sleep with everyone. These depictions of how someone should act after assault are not only too simple, but they are ridiculous. And Jones is refreshingly afforded sexual agency and choice in the aftermath of her attacks. She has sex because she wants to, and it isn’t because she’s been abused. The idea that human urges still exist after trauma is crucial and often ignored.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be so refreshing to see a woman acting like a person after an assault, but it feels that way. The idea that an assault should be treated as only one part of a woman’s life instead of letting it consume her is a necessary framework for writing assault stories, and something that has been historically overlooked. Assault in television portrayed as a complex and nuanced issue is not inherently negative, but too often it becomes exploitative, lazy and jarring to watch.
It’s hard to think of a television show that features a strong female character without having any sort of reference to, threat of or outright sexual violence. This isn’t a simple issue and it isn’t exclusive to female characters: sexual violence against males is still treated almost entirely as a joke. But while on-screen assaults against men are a rarity, assaults against women are overwhelmingly common. Assault scenes are often long, brutal and angry, with no purpose other than to be “daring,” and to give a woman more depth. And in the wake of these assaults, the shows are celebrated as feminist media for their “honest” portrayal of a survivor. But if violating a female character is the only thing a writers room can think of to make her interesting, something is dangerously wrong. Women have more stories to tell.