On Monsters and Redemption

I am an insatiable fan of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series. I own every season, “The Making of a Slayer” companion book sits proudly on display in my house. Hell I’m even an active member of the BTVS fan group on facebook. Among fans there is one debate that shrouds all other coversations about our beloved Slayer: Bangel or Spuffy?

To the uninitiated, Buffy has two main love interests in the show: Angel and Spike, and fans will forever be locked in an argument over who is the better pairing. Personally I come down on the side of Spike. What can I say, there’s something about a British bad boy with cheekbones that could cut diamonds while he does a Billy Idol impression that is just incredibly apealing to me and scores of other fans.

As much as we love watching Spike and Buffy get together, there is a giant uncomfortable elephant in the room that needs to be addressed. In season 5 Spike attempts to rape Buffy, and while the attempt is unsuccessful it leaves the audience shocked and disgusted, as a character we have watched and identified with (perhaps even started to consider one of the heroes) suddenly tries to force a monstrous act on our heroine.

Of all the monsters that Buffy has had to face, this one has always been the most frightning to me. Perhaps because it’s real.

Here is a man she’s grown to trust and depend on, who has suddenly turned monster, confirming her worst fears and accusations. As a survivor, I often wonder how it is that I can reconcile what happens and my enduring love for the character. Short answer: He owns his actions.
The person most disgusted by Spikes attempted rape, is Spike himeslf. He is so distraught with his actions that he actually leaves Sunnydale in search of a soul, because even as a demon he finds what he did reprehensible.

It would have been easy for the writers to use Spike’s soul as his redemption, after all that’s essentially how they played it when Angel, got, then lost, then regained his own soul. All of Angel’s actions while a demon were instantly forgiven because his soul essentially made him an entirely different person, (well vampire person?). What’s interesting is that Spike doesn’t use this as an excuse or a justification. In fact, he never even tries to seek forgiveness for his actions.

Hollywood should take note.

We are in the middle of a revolution.  People who have abused their positions of power are finally being held accountable.  Victims are standing up and speaking out, and more importantly, they are being believed.

While there have been some people accused of sexual harrasment and assault who have come forward and admitted wrong doing, we have yet to see any of them take ownership of their actions in a way that can be considered redeeming. Any apologies that have been issued have felt lacking, and seem more intent on and in line with trying to win public sympathy and approval, rather than trying to change the culture (I’m looking at you Kevin Spacey and you too Mario Batali).

Spike doesn’t ask for forgiveness, not because he doesn’t think it will be granted, but rather because he realizes it isn’t owed to him. With or without his soul, Spike has done something that he knows he cannot take back or change. What he can do, is commit to doing better. He goes out to try and become the person that the Scoobies (Buffy and her pals) need. He leaves them to process their anger and hurt without trying to illicit sympathy. In the final season during the episode ‘From Beneath You’ he says “I’m not asking for forgiveness for what happened last year, because what I did was inexcusable […] I want to be a better man, and what’s more, I want to prove to you that I CAN be a better man.”

I think we often forget that forgiveness isn’t something that is owed.  Saying sorry doesn’t fix past mistakes.  More importantly, Not being forgiven doesn’t make you a monster forever.  With actions and effort you can find something arguably better than forgiveness, you can find redemption.

Spike later backs up his words about wanting to be better.  His actions from that point on are directed at helping the cause.  When he is granted a moment of emotional intimacy with Buffy, he does only what she asks. He never pushes for more.  He realizes that he is in some ways Buffy’s first line of defense, not physically, but emotionally, because he has seen how deeply she can be hurt and dedicates himself to prevent it from ever happening again.  He works to give her a reason to trust him, but never expects it.

This is more or less what needs to happen. People in positions of power and noteriety need to use their platform to say, “I did this thing, this terrible thing, and I’m going to do better to make sure that I help prevent anyone else from doing this terrible thing.” People need to not just own up to what they do, but make an actual effort to help change the culture, because otherwise we’re all just shrugging our shoulders and hoping that it never happens again.

The audience can come back to Spike because his repentance doesn’t come from a desire to be forgiven, it comes from a desire to never be the monster who does monstrous things again. At it’s core it is noble and gives the audience an avenue to reconnect with him over their pride for his effort to improve and protect those around him. I think if life can immitate art and more people are willing to use their follies as a way to start discourse and help change the overarching cultural quagmire that we seem to have stumbled into, their might be hope for the future yet.

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