In August 2012, a high school girl in Steubenville, Ohio went out to a party and got drunker than she intended. In the hours that followed, a succession of popular boys took sexual advantage of her, and two raped her. The case went big after it appeared the town was rallying behind the boys instead of their victim. It marked a turning point in global discussion around sexual abuse and consent, particularly in the context of young intoxicated people.
This case, and many others like it before and since, cast a long shadow over this episode of Buffy. The episode was deliberately aiming at a known target: powerful young men luring young women into trusting them, and then feeding them drinks or drugging them, and raping them while they are insensible.
It happens a lot, and it’s been happening for a long time. The focus for some years has been on campus, particularly college fraternities, where this kind of abuse is rife (as researchers were at pains to point out after one story of frat brother abuse turned out to be unreliable).
This is heady stuff for a TV show about cheerleaders fighting vampires. It takes the ostensible structure of the show, monsters as metaphors, and slams it hard against the unavoidable emergent theme of rape culture. Vampires are metaphorical rapists, sure, but episode writer (and show veteran) David Greenwalt takes the idea much further – the metaphor here becomes almost literal, and the intention unmistakeable.
The episode is about a fraternity at Sunnydale’s elite school Crestwood College. (The fraternity is portrayed much like a Skull and Bones-style secret society, but it’s definitely part of the Greek system – this means Greenwalt gets to incriminate both types of boy’s club at once.) The frat boys have an unpleasant habit of luring high school girls into their clubhouse, then drugging them and feeding them to their (phallus-shaped) demon. The demon, in return, delivers wealth and power to their families.
There’s no metaphor at all to the first part of that, the luring and the drugging. The show makes this explicit by having one frat boy correct another who is about to follow through the real world script by raping the unconscious Buffy: “I was just having a little fun.” “Well, she’s not here for your fun, you pervert. She’s here for the pleasure of the one we serve.” The show applies the monster-metaphor as late as possible to make its real-world target crystal clear.
The effect of this is interesting. In the text of the show, literal rape is about pleasure and satisfaction, whereas metaphorical rape is about consolidating social and economic power. Or put another way: being a good business executive is morally equivalent to rape.
This is a politics I can get behind – linking the show’s in-built feminist angle to a left-wing criticism of capitalist power structures. But it is, as stated, heady stuff for this show. Aren’t we meant to be focusing on the horrors of high school? What are all these frat boys doing here?
The episode glosses this link by examining the age difference between Angel and Buffy, and having the frat boys use their age and “maturity” to lure in younger girls. (There’s no particular reason the frat boys target younger women when they have access to a campus full of co-eds.) It’s a pretty weak link, and the two halves of the episode never really illuminate each other. For what it’s worth, the resolution to the age difference conflict is “Buffy doesn’t care about it, and Angel eventually accepts this and gets over his own anxieties about it”, which is about the only way you can play it. Age differences are really about power differences, and if Angel doesn’t fret about that, then the dynamic gets very problematic very fast.
Throughout her relationship with Angel, Buffy never really commits to a perception of Angel as an older man. Instead he’s almost a wish-fulfilment teenage projection of what an older man boyfriend would be like. (Later, when he gets his own show, we see Angel outside the filter of Buffy’s perspective, and he’s kind of goofy and uncool.)
Anyway, with that conflict disposed of, the show is finally able to take the step it’s been teasing since episode one: Buffy and Angel becoming a couple. He asks her out – and she says maybe. In an episode in which we saw so many awful men with so much awful power, this is a nice way to go out – with all the power in Buffy’s hands.
* The Buffy/Willow/Xander threesome is portrayed as so close in this episode it almost gets weird – Buffy and Xander together braid Willow’s hair.
* I’m not sure if the costuming here was a deliberate nod to the “what were you wearing?” victim-blaming around rape culture, but Buffy wears two separate outfits where her bra is visible through her top.
* Buffy lying to Giles is a big moment for her. As discussed a couple episodes ago, she doesn’t often do the wrong thing. This is a pretty clear instance of after-school special mistake-making. The show goes out of its way to make sure we buy this act of rebellion, not by really giving Sarah Michelle Gellar a convincing emotional journey to sell (she still almost pulls it off), but by having Willow berate Giles and Angel for not understanding it. Who could resist that?
* As wild frat parties go, this ones looks pretty sedate – close dancing and chill-out music and only one drunk person!
* Jonathan is back and he gets his name!