‘Bollocks!’: Spike Fans and Reception of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Gwyn Symonds

Gwyn Symonds conceptualizes the ambiguity at the core of the representation of evil, violence and redemption in the Buffyverse through an analysis of fan perceptions of the vampire character Spike. These passionate and partisan perceptions of his heroic status are often in conflict with the content of the text and the views of him offered by some of the writers as to the meaning of that character’s dramatic struggle for redemption. It is argued that the nature of fan engagement that is activist in its dynamic response to the text, creates a volatile discourse between text, audience and authors that is emotionally charged and uniquely expands the text beyond the on-screen story. Fan reactions to Spike’s story, fate, and moral status challenge notions of textual determinism asserted by various writers of the Buffyverse canon. The richness of the character of Spike challenges the authorial and story canons of the Buffyverse itself.

I guess at this point I pretty much Love Spike. Angst over Spike.  Go with the flow as best I can where the rest of the show is concerned. (Lisa, Tabula Rasa)

I know, I know. I’m SUPPOSED to be watching for Buffy but — get real. (Lisa, Tabula Rasa)

 

“BYO subtext is now the watchword at Buffy ” Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer , has said to fans of his show (Whedon, 1998).  This  remark implies an openness to a range of  inferences from the text he offers his audience, an acceptance of the fact that there will be variant readings of the deeper meanings of his story.  It is significant that the comment was made at the Bronze VIP Posting Board, where the writers post and respond to the fans of the show.  While there are a range of often flippant responses given in that online interaction, it is clear in many writer responses that they see the posting board as a way of responding to fan views of the text they offer.  The comment by Whedon on subtext seems to allow for a dynamic between text and audience that is not wholly based on textual determinism, where the received meaning of the text, through viewer inferences about subtext, is not necessarily subject to writer intentions or to the textual representation itself.

Audience reception research, in both its theoretical and empirical findings,  has long established the fact that such a view of the way audiences interpret what they see is accurate.  We cannot assume anything about the impact or the interpretation of a media image simply through the subject position and structure of the text.  Research in this field has established that we absorb media messages through a range of filters.  We mediate through reference groups, we actively and selectively sift through media content, we are subjective as audience members and, as such, we are diverse in our readings of any given text.  (Nightingale 1996, Eldridge, Kitzinger, Williams, 1997).

The value of such discussion is that the nature of the audience’s engagement with both content and media is in play.  It firmly challenges “textual determinism” as Eldridge, Kitzinger and Williams note:”It discredits the assumption that the text alone determines audience response.  It demonstrates that viewers and listeners will not necessarily adopt the perspective intended by the film producers, script writers, or journalists: people do not automatically take on the subject position, or ideological meaning, inscribed in the text.  Audiences seize pleasure and meaning that may be quite different from that accessible by a formal content analysis of the text alone.  Empirical work with audiences throws up unexpected interpretations, unanticipated pleasures, and a complex interweaving of diverse audience appropriations and reactions.” (155)

There is dynamism in the phrase ” seize pleasure and meaning”.  There is vigor, intent, and appropriation in the act of being a member of an audience or viewer that calls into question notions of audience passivity and authorial manipulation. Nowhere is the view of homogeneous text interpretation more challenged than in the research on the mode of audience perception known as fan culture.  Essentially operating as a social community, fans discuss, create fan fiction and other creative works that transform the television narrative into other texts individually interpreted:

Fandom possesses particular forms of cultural production, aesthetic traditions and practices.  Fan artists, writers, videomakers, and musicians create works that.appropriate raw materials from the commercial culture but use them as the basis for  the creation of a contemporary folk culture.  Fandom generates its own genres and  develops alternative institutions of production, distribution, exhibition and consumption.  The aesthetic of fan art celebrates creative use of already circulating discourse and  images, an art of evoking and regulating the heteroglossia of television culture.  (Jenkins, 1992, 279)

This “poached culture”, as Jenkins calls it, is where popular narratives and their ideologies are re-worked to celebrate the narrative, to relate it to the fans own experiences, or to better suit whatever pleasures the fan may take from the television text. It is highlighted most clearly in the extraordinary range of fan fiction posted on the internet, and the fan sites, message boards, and discussion groups dedicated to individual television shows that form the focuses of fandom. The experience of one Buffyverse fan mirrors thousands of others:

Three years ago, I started watching the show, alone in my apartment, and didn’t tell friends about my viewing. I didn’t realize I was a BTVS addict until the next fall, when I found myself living in New Orleans without cable TV, begging a Tulane University faculty member who I’d heard was doing scholarly work on the show to lend me her tapes of the episodes I’d missed.Then came the cable subscription I couldn’t really afford on my salary. And then, a few months later, I was at Tower Records, scooping out the BTVS official fan magazine and the BTVS lunchboxes and memorabilia. Shortly thereafter, I got together with a college friend.She and her cohort introduced me to the world of spoilers and online discussion about the show. And she made me understand that what had seemed like crazy-obsessive fan behavior was really OK, because while it is obsessive, it’s also intellectually and socially engaging, and a whole lot of fun. (Kumbier, 2002)

Such an enthusiastic and passionate fan relationship with the text leads to questions about the degree to which that engagement depends on extraction of some core generic meaning from a text.   The concept of an assertive audience is balanced by findings that variant audience readings do not preclude the media capacity to influence and shape audience perceptions but assessing the degree to which this is so is not easy. The implication for analysis of mainstream media consumption is that while we will need to speak of the content as text alone “we can come to see the role of those texts as tools by which the readers and watchers engage in the ordinary social practices of life in their communities of practice”(Scollon  1998, 4).  Interpretation and personal experiences are not entirely media free so that textual analysis is unnecessary.  As Scollon reminds us elsewhere in his book,  the sender-receiver view of mediated discourse cannot be totally discounted but it “may well disguise other significant aspects of the social interactions going on in the same situations” (17).

The journey of the character of Spike in the Buffyverse, as he is perceived by fans of the character, is a particularly rich focus to explore such questions. As a Spike fan myself, I can testify to the accuracy of Kumbier’s remark that being a fan of the character is “obsessive. intellectually and socially engaging, and a whole lot of fun.”  The most dynamic aspect of online Spike fandom is, undoubtedly, sharing membership with an  internationally based forum of people happy to endlessly analyse his story.  I found myself assuming, along with other Spike fans,  the activist role of passionate advocate for the character’s redemption and happiness-a role that Spike fans recognise as angst-ridden given the onscreen lack of resolution as to the end of his journey.  At the time of writing, the show has just gone into hiatus after 9 episodes of season 7 have aired in the United States with the character, as per usual,  in moral and physical peril!  Fan angst comes from being emotionally invested in the defence of a character who, in the canon of the Buffyverse, is a metaphor for evil.

Membership of discussion lists devoted to fan analysis of the character and the story of his moral journey most often denotes a desire to see him redeemed and/or rewarded with finally winning Buffy’s love.  For Spike fans, belief in his redemption and acceptance of the canon of the onscreen text are often, to use a Buffyism,  “unmixy” things! Spike is a vampire who, until he won his soul in the last scene of season six, by Buffyverse canon  could not be redeemed.  Up until the point where Spike, horrified at his attempt to rape Buffy, goes on an underworld quest to Africa to win a soul, we are constantly reminded of the Scoobies’ view that he is evil and not to be trusted.  The Scoobies, the heroic, family core consisting of the Slayer Buffy and her friends, are the voice of canon in this matter:

Buffy: .And whatever you think you’re feeling, it’s not love.  You can’t love without a soul.  (‘Crush’)

Buffy :  You’re not a man. You’re a thing.. An evil, disgusting thing. (‘Smashed’)

Buffy :  You don’t.have a soul!  There is nothing good or clean in you.  You are dead inside!  You can’t feel anything real!  I could never.be your girl! (‘Dead Things’)

Buffy :  He’s everything I hate.  He’s everything that.I’m supposed to be against.  But the only time that I ever feel anything is when.Don’t tell anyone, please.The way they would look at me.I just couldn’t. (‘Dead Things’)

 

Xander, of all the Scoobies, is the most skeptical, unrelenting choric voice for Spike’s unredeemability and innate evilness. Spike receiving an aversive therapy chip in his head which prevents him from hurting humans, courtesy of a government covert operation known as the Initiative, does not enhance his moral status in Xander’s eyes: Xander: I’m not saying I haven’t made mistakes. But, the last time I checked slaughtering half of Europe wasn’t one of them.  He doesn’t have a soul, Buffy.  Just a leash they jammed in his head.  You think he’d still be all snuggles if that chip ever stopped working?  (‘Seeing Red’) Even Spike himself, at the seminal point of willing self-sacrifice in the finale of season five, as a member of the “band of buggered” battling the hell god Glory to save Dawn, sees himself as a “monster”: “I know you’ll never love me.  I know that I’m a monster. But you treat me like a man” (‘The Gift’).

There are commonly held perceptions about evil that the Buffyverse endorses in the characterization of Spike, particularly in seasons two to four.  They include the intentional harming of innocent and “good” victims, membership in the “out-group”(in his case vampires), association with  unchanging traditions of evil and egotism, and the enjoyment of evil for its own sake (Baumeister 1999). As an arch villain, it is Spike’s  “glee in all the wrong things” (Marsters, 2000), and his comic and cynical vitality that makes that portrayal of  “evil” undeniably enjoyable to watch.  We can safely applaud Spike’s near successes.  We know he will never defeat Buffy and  he is frequently close to being staked and always on the verge of paying for his evil actions.However, the definition of Spike as evil is complicated in the text by the changes in his character from season four to seven.  In another answer to a fan question about the status of the soul in the Buffyverse, at a convention in Britain, Joss Whedon placed Spike, without a soul, on a “continuum” of good versus evil:

Essentially, souls are by their nature amorphous but to me it’s really about what star you are guided by.  Most people, we hope, are guided by, ‘you should be good, you’re good, you feel good.’  And most demons are guided simply by the opposite star.  They believe in evil, they believe in causing it, they like it.  They believe it in the way people believe in good.  So they can love someone, they can attach to someone, they can actually want to do things that will make that person happy. an example is Spike obviously on Buffy, . getting more and  more completely conflicted.  But, basically, his natural bent is towards doing the wrong thing.  His court’s creating chaos where as in most humans, most humans, is the opposite, and that’s really how I see it.  I believe it’s kind of like a spectrum, but they are setting their course by opposite directions.  But they’re all sort of somewhere in the middle. (Whedon,2001)

Spike is categorised but given room to move morally, allowing dramatic conflict through human attachment.  He cannot be totally slotted into the more basic philosophical categories of evil in the Buffyverse. The predatory, the chaotic, the simply corrupt, the seekers of Armageddon, the sadistic, the sociopathic, the deceptive, the vengeful and the just plain morally weak all congregate on the Hellmouth (Masquerade the Philosopher, 2002).  Spike, of course,  has demonstrated aspects of chaos, deception and the murderous prior to emerging from his original role as the nemesis of Buffy in season two.  However, the implanting of the behaviour chip, while it prevents him harming humans, is not capable of causing him to do good. In season five he falls in love with Buffy, develops an affection for her sister Dawn and, after a long period of faithful but unrequited love, enters into a sexual relationship with Buffy in season six.  He  is willing to lay down his unlife for both Dawn and Buffy, and to assist the Slayer and the Scoobies in their fight against evil, including the destruction of his own kind. He is a character that greys up the black and white moral stand-off between humans as essentially “good” and demons as essentially “evil” on which the Buffyverse is predicated.

By placing Spike close to humans on the continuum between good and evil, Joss Whedon has brilliantly provoked endless speculation, amongst online fans in particular, about how far Spike is redeemed at any given point on his dramatic journey.  Is he moving any closer to Buffy morally on that continuum?  Is he heroic? Is he worthy of her love and will he ever earn it?  Is he no longer an “evil, soulless thing” even prior to getting his soul back? Is he returning to the “good man” he was prior to being sired?  (“I know I’m a bad poet but I’m a good man and all I ask is that… that you try to see me” – ‘Fool for Love’).  Does “somewhere in the middle”, as Joss Whedon has somewhat vaguely defined it, adequately describe the kind of moral geography in the drama that allows viewers to make sense of Spike’s movement to one side or the other of the spectrum? 

When defining what separates vampires from humans, humourously, as “very little”, Joss Whedon has laid the groundwork for a complex and partisan debate amongst fans over Spike’s moral status.  It is in that phrase “very little” that we can find a source for Spike fan resistance to aspects of the text of the Buffyverse and to more than one writer’s defence of its moral meaning. Shortly after Spike’s punk, leather draped, and sardonic entrance driving over the “Welcome to Sunnydale” sign in season two’s  episode ‘School Hard’, we see him romantically solicitous of his vampire lover Drusilla.  We have our first glimpse of the perversity of his nature.  He is both evil and an incurable romantic.

And we have our first uneasy moments as well, as our standard order of vampire lore and rule is disordered; if a vampire, like Spike, can be solicitous of his lover, then it means he still has some humanity within. While we may shrug and say “Nah, he’s evil” in a Slayeresque dismissal, the impression stays with us, that, though supposedly soulless, there’s something soulful in this character (Boyette, 2001, 7).

That ‘uneasiness’ at Spike’s soulfulness without a soul is a response to his humanity and to his character’s embodiment of   the conventions of the courtly lover (Spah 2001).

Spike wants to change when he falls in love with his nemesis, the heroic Slayer.  ” I’ve changed Buffy.Something’s happening to me.  I can’t stop thinking about you. And if that means turning my back on the whole evil thing.” (‘Crush’).  Despite loathing the Scoobies, for Buffy’s sake he helps them,  “I was always going above and beyond.  I saved the Scoobies how many times?  And I can’t stand the lot of you” (Entropy).  As one Spike fan has perceptively put it, we are “suckered” in by the paradox of a vampire without a soul doing good, and doing it against textual canon: 

I’ve always been a sucker for stories which explore the grey area between good and evil, and for characters who are pitted against themselves as much as against any external enemies. And boy, is Spike pitted against himself, far more than any human character in a similar situation could be. Drusilla made William a vampire; William remade himself into Spike. Throughout season five, in the face of considerable contempt and discouragement on the part of the Good Guys, Spike’s been remaking himself again into-what? We’re not entirely sure yet; the work is still in progress. From a storytelling standpoint, I think it would be a cardinal mistake for the writers to give him a soul. That story has already been told. We know what happens when a vampire gains a soul. The reason Spike’s story is so fascinating is that we are exploring just how far a being can go in the direction of good without one.  (Cummings, 2001).

Cumming’s comment, written prior to Spike winning his soul, captures how deeply Spike’s journey resonates with many Spike fans as, essentially, the heroic story of someone trying to be better than they are supposed to be. The attraction of the story is the inspirational possibility inherent in the fact that we do not have to be defined by how we start out or by how others see us. The fact that it is an uphill battle for the character, that he is   unsupported by any other character in his struggle to fight against the basic vampire bent of his nature (with the possible exception of Dawn in season five), accounts for partisanship on a part of the Buffyverse audience ranged against both the Scoobies and textual canon.

Spike fans are particularly aware of the  irony of an unsouled Spike’s catch 22 situation as the only vampire to want to do good without a soul.  He is canon’s underdog and fan partiality to the character and his fate, particularly when the storyline looks grim for him, leads to identification with his status.  “We risk a lot as Spike fans, because he doesn’t have the same safety net as the Scoobies.  He *could* go evil again.  He probably won’t, but the tension is always there.  He’s not ‘one of the heroes’ even if he is, in Joss’s words, on an Ulyssesian journey.  So I guess that’s part of our burden to bear as Spike fans.  He’s an underdog and we’re underdog fans.  It’s frustrating, but understandable..”  (Rowan, Tabula Rasa). This sense of engagement with the character’s fate reflects the dramatic tension implicit in the possibility that Spike could fail in his quest for redemption.  Fans such as Rowan respond to the fact that a man, however ostensibly monstrous,  is struggling to change against his nature and in conditions of adversity because no other significant character in the show sees his redemption as possible. 

This potential for change resonates deeply with many Spike fans because it says something about the capacity of all of us to change as well. It is harder, perhaps, to identify as closely with the more heroic characters, souled as they are, of whom Buffyverse canon is more easily forgiving and whose moral fate is less consistently uncertain. In the story, Xander has voiced the idea that Spike has no moral altruism, due to the implied self-interest that motivates him because he wants to win Buffy’s love.  This view has been rejected by some fans of the character:

So, to me, if Spike is doing good (like with the injured woman in the Bronze in the Olaf troll episode) basically to impress Buffy, it didn’t matter to the woman he was helping. Whatever, his reasons were, that woman still go the help she needed.  And if you remember, Spike didn’t just dump her back on the floor even though Buffy had already walked out.  He continued helping her.  That’s redemption in process, sneaking around the corner.  And, if this wasn’t a fantasy and all the saved characters in BtVS were real, they wouldn’t care if Spike was helping to off local nasties because of his feelings for Buffy or Dawn or whoever.  They would just be glad there were less nasties. 

I think doing good counts, even if all the motives aren’t clean.  It still matters to the world.  The Powers That Be may be dragging Spike (albeit kicking and screaming) to his higher purpose through his love for Buffy.  What greater irony or punishment can there be for a vampire who’s killed two slayers, than to find himself in love with a third, striving to help her in her work for the rest of his existence.And , as for her.she who has problems with being high and mighty and full of pride and prejudice, what could bring her down to earth better than to tie her in love to a vampire who’s working to change himself even though that change is *supposed* to be impossible. The Powers That Be obviously have a sense of humor. (Mary Anne, Tabula Rasa).

Spike’s actions, for this fan, count. It is not often in the text that we see Spike help others when Buffy is not around.   The incident mentioned in the above quote, the beating from Glory to save Dawn,  and the summer after Buffy’s death when  Spike continues to help the Scoobies with no hope of Buffy ever knowing  are three such occasions.  The lack of recognition of this altruism by other characters, and the assumption that it is not enough because he lacks a soul, is given a rare voice in the text in Dawn’s remark to Buffy in ‘Crush’: “Spike has a chip. Same diff”.

Dawn, with her teenage skepticism, is refreshingly dismissive of the importance of a soul and, for the poster above, it is Spike’s actions that count, not his motivation, when it comes to assessing his moral status. Despite the fact that Spike spends most of his screen time in season five and six helping the Scoobies and being heroic, it is not an unblemished record.  The attempt to bite a woman in the episode ‘Smashed’, when he thinks his chip is not working, is one lapse. However, there is a strongly held feeling among Spike fans that, if the writers want the audience to think Spike is evil, then it behoves them to show him doing evil more often.

The belief that Spike had gained redemption prior to getting a soul, that he had earned the respect of the Scoobies but did not receive it, resonated with many Spike fans to the point where plot developments were rejected.  Buffy was judged by how she treated Spike and spoilers (information about upcoming episodes not officially available), leaking plot outcomes that intimated perceived pain and suffering for Spike, led to passionate discussion of the degree to which this character was unfairly treated within the storyline.  As one fan perceptively  comments,  these sorts of reactions involve the Buffyverse being primarily viewed through a “Spike filter”:

I say that because I work in an office of people, most of whom don’t go on the Internet, who are completely unspoiled and have been all along.  What surprised me  is how much more positive about Help and Same Time Same Place they are than most of the people who are spoiled.  Why?  Because they aren’t evaluating Buffy from the standpoint of what she does about Spike. They’re looking at her *overall* behaviour, which is much improved over last year…Right now, Buffy’s a bitch if you’re only looking at her through the Spike filter.  But Spike’s not the only character on the show, and there’s a lot more going on than just him.  (Elsa, Tabula Rasa)

The idea that fans of a show may have a favourite character is not a new perception.   However, the ways in which that viewer favouritism may affect reception of the text may have more influence than the usual suspects of cultural ideologies that theorists hold to be paramount. In the case of many Spike fans, Buffy is judged by how she treats Spike. This leads to fan irritation with the text and the behaviour of the ostensible heroes, the Scoobies.

Following on from the soul revelation scene between Buffy and Spike in  the season seven episode, ‘Beneath You’, Spike fans found the lighthearted tone of the next episode, unsettling.  Spoilers describing a scene in which jokes were made about Spike’s insane state, a result of his horror at who and what he is after gaining the soul, led to fans questioning the position of the text:

Honestly, this scene is enough to make me want to skip tomorrow’s episode completely.  Why didn’t any  of the wildfeeds mention it? This seems fairly important and I’m surprised it was not even mentioned.  I was absolutely stunned (my S/B shipper heart was joyful) last week, but now I’m back in “why the hell do I care” modeL No matter how much I wanted them together, I just can’t justify Buffy’s behaviour after last week’s episode.  I-want-to love this character, but ME is making it impossible. (Marisa, BAPS)

My family and friends have both been touched by people with mental illness.  A human being shows compassion and a desire to help them.  If a person can’t manage to be that, then don’t use and insult them, especially when any “smell” is probably untreated burn wounds -not that our ‘brave’, ‘compassionate’, ‘heroine’ would know that since she apparently did the big scardy run-away.  Yeh, I really want to watch a show with a heroine with a heart the size of an atom.  (Lesley, Tabula Rasa)

Jokes cracked about Spike’s hygiene after he has been some weeks in a basement insane with guilt are not seen as humorous.   Spike, in the role of Scooby helper being made fun of, being used as a bloodhound to follow a trail of blood to the locate the monster of the week while jokes are made about his “smell” and mental state, leads to rejection of not just the Scooby behaviour, but of the text itself which posits the remarks as humourous.

Joss Whedon has commented this year that some fan dislike of season six was uniquely a response to the perceived darkness of Buffy’s journey in that season:

The fact of the matter is, you always had Buffy, and she was always your hero. But last year, she really wasn’t. She was in such a dark place, and I don’t think people were ready to go with her. Which meant that an episode that wasn’t hit out of the park, in your face and obviously fun, was going to turn people off. This year we’ve had a sort of return to the heart of the show. (McDaniel, 2002)

However, since the response above to Spike’s predicament in episode three, ‘Same Time Same Place’, is from season seven, it may be that Whedon is only partially right about the way many Spike fans, at least, are responding to his text.   The very scene being rejected may be, objectively, funny, a “return” to what he perceives as the “heart” of the show.   However, the comic expression of Scoobie bonding at the expense of Spike is perceived by some fans of the character as an extension of the season six abuse in ways that continue to make it difficult for them to feel affection for Buffy.  As one Spike fan’s dry response to Buffy’s slowness to help an insane, souled Spike in episode four, Help, of season 7 shows:

Okay, but would it kill the frigid little bitch to say “I can’t right now, I’m working, but I’ll come back after school” or “after I’ve saved Cassie” or whatever, instead of I’m-going-to justify-evading-my-responsibilities-here-because-I’m-a-pathetic-hypocritical-coward line it was she used?  Would it kill the heartless little user to let a sympathetic expression cross her face instead of the thin-lipped, exasperated, oh-hell-he’s-nuts-again-no-use-to-me-I’m-outta-here eyeroll/lip press?” (Klytaimnestra, Tabula Rasa)

There is a continuing expectation that the heroine will act with more compassion towards a character who has undergone pain and suffering to get a soul to earn her love and is now paying for it with his sanity.

In the context of unmet fan expectations, the two most controversial scenes in the history of the show for Spike fans have probably been the beating of Spike by Buffy in the episode ‘Dead Things’ and the attempted rape by Spike of Buffy in the episode ‘Seeing Red’, both in season six.  In the former, as Buffy brutally beats on a non-resisting Spike, who is trying to prevent her from giving herself up to the police for a murder she is under the illusion she committed, it is clear the text means the viewer to see that Buffy’s ostensible loathing of Spike is also about self-loathing. She begins beating him while he is in his Vampire face, but his human face returns during the beating and, as his face becomes progressively more bloodied and bruised, she suddenly pulls back, in horrified realization at what she is doing.  We are not meant to endorse this sort of physical abuse or use of Spike by Buffy to work out her own issues. 

Spike’s remark when she stops the beating, as he lays on the ground with her straddling him, “You always hurt the one you love, pet”, is less about whether Buffy loves him or not than it is about the fact that “hurt”, emotional pain,  is at the core of the way she has been treating him. Spike is a willing participant in the beating, “Come on, that’s it, put it on me”. However, the failure of the writers to overtly address this abuse with Buffy being called on it by another character outraged many Spike fans. The fact that Buffy left Spike beaten to a pulp in the ally, that he arrived at her birthday party still bruised in the following episode and no character commented on it, and that no apology was ever forthcoming to Spike from Buffy over this incident, have all led to the beating being an unresolved issue for many Spike fans. These feelings led many such fans to write to the production company, Mutant Enemy, in protest at the treatment of Spike (Smirnov, 2002).

In season six, it is Buffy that Spike fans saw as the “abuser” in a situation of domestic abuse that continued to affect fan respect for Buffy and a rejection of possible plot developments that may or may not yet occur, such as Buffy ultimately falling in love with Spike.

I don’t know what kind of metaphor ME has planned for Spike and Buffy resolution, but the story they showed so far is a classic story of bullying and abuse. that’s why I say no to fanwanking.  Maybe Buffy is on the brink of some great revelation, maybe she’s about to become the best thing since sliced bread.  But IMO, the story of an abused victim who waited devotedly and patiently, changed himself to his abuser’s liking, and finally after years of mockery, dismissal, and battery was REWARDED with his abuser’s love is irresponsible.  Much more irresponsible than “attempted rapist gets the girl.  (Drujan, BAPS)

Resistance to the text is not simply about what has already occurred on the screen but about the likelihood of what might occur based on past experience of the text.   Fan emotional investment in the character, and in the story they had hoped they were getting about Spike’s redemption and his  hoped-for winning of Buffy’s heart, is in conflict with aspects of the story that they are being told. Ultimately, in the case of this fan’s comment, the conflict involves questioning of the overtly feminist, female empowerment stance of the text itself.

The questioning of the feminist ideology of the Buffyverse is particularly notable amongst Spike fans in response to Spike’s attempted rape of Buffy. There is a common perception that Spike, up to that incident, was not capable of such an action, that it was a mistake to use the incident as an unwarranted “plot device”, that it was a form of “character rape”, an insult to fans who were emotionally invested in Spike’s character change, and that it was a reduction of the ostensibly feminist hero to “victim”:

They made Spike a rapist and Buffy a victim. The girl Joss once said was the antidote to all those little blonde girl victims in the alleys of horror movies is now… a victim. So hooray — now Spike isn’t just evil but interesting, wicked but wonderful, he’s simply repulsive and worthless, and Our Hero Buffy is no longer heroic. Way to go, guys.  I don’t know. I just… I keep wanting to be all open-minded and say, oh wow, I love the dramatic tension, and what are they going to do with Spike with a soul and he’ll have guilt and all, but the thing is… he was having an interesting enough time trying to deal with Buffy’s expectations of him and live his life to earn her affections, we didn’t need that forced on us.  (Rhys, 2002)

This kind of fan response characterises audience reception, if it is to be positive towards the story, as based on a trust that the story promised will be the story told, that expectations based on screen developments over time will be fulfilled, and that writers have a responsibility to the audience to bear in mind those text-aroused expectations as they write.   In the context of incidents that imperil the moral and emotional fate of their favourite character, many Spike fans feel viewers cannot “trust” in the story and the storyteller:

If I was able to trust the story that I was seeing on screen, and able to trust the storytellers behind it, I would have no trouble at least trying to go spoiler free.  Because I am unable to do either after last season of BTVS and the end of the season of AtS, I’m in the “need to be fully prepared and assume crash positions” mode.  It’s kind of ironic.I don’t WANT the spoilers, but I NEED them. (girlatlaw, BAPS)

Liking  the heroine, as another fan insightfully comments, is intimately linked with the fundamental enjoyment of being a fan of a show in the terms of the Kumbier quote mentioned above.  Social engagement with other fans and with the show is affected when it is not “a whole lot of fun”.  Whedon is right, having “fun” is dependent on ‘liking’ Buffy. She is, after all, the hero:

I want to like Buffy.  I want Spike to be rewarded for all the crap he’s endured.  I want Willow to ‘get’ that she killed someone, not that she’s worried about her friends acceptance.  I want Xander to grow up, stop with the lame high school doofus jokes, get of his high horse and look in the mirror for a few seconds.  But most of all I want to like Buffy.  I want to keep watching, and buy the DVDs, and read fanfic etc.  I’m starting to think that maybe ME doesn’t like Buffy. (Metaforgirl, Tabula Rasa)

But, as this heartfelt fan comment shows, the lack of “fun” is also about the loss of a sense of enjoyment of the overall fan experience itself that is affected by the way the story is told.  Engagement with the story is the basis for the broader experience of fandom . Watching, the extension of that interest into buying DVDs and reading fanfic, the social engagement as it is reflected in online participation, is linked to enjoyment of the text.  Resisting the text, dissatisfaction with the story being told, either with the quality of it or with the direction of it, is perceived as lessening the quality of the fan experience, even if watching continues.The existence of fan dissatisfaction of this kind did not go unnoticed by the writers of the show and was reflected in various interviews throughout and after season six.

At times the writers, particularly David Fury, seemed to encourage the controversy.  (Fury, 2003)  Fans, as the following parody of a writers’ meeting written by a Spike fan illustrates, perceived some of that as  “crusty minionism” or toeing the canon line and stirring up fan interest, particularly in Beta Bronze VIP chats:

Marti (Looks confused): Annnnnyway, let’s go over the “Crusty Minion list”. Number 1, Spike is?
All:   Evil, no soul!
Marti: Good. Number 2, Buffy and Spike relationship?
All:   Can’t be good because of Number 1!
Marti:  Perfect.  Number 3, Angel is “good” because he?
All:   Has a soul (giggles all round).
Marti (Clapping): Now you’re getting it! Keep it up, Jane you take over from here, continue on with the list.  I need to get over to that silly Wanda interview. (looks at Fury and DeKnight).  Come on Mustard Man, you’re with me and Stephen?  It’s Friday, shouldn’t you be causing trauma and adoration at the BetaBronze? (queller, Tabula Rasa)

The fan parody highlights fan awareness of the way online media is being used to reinforce textual determinism. It also comically points out the way writer interviews seem to reflect a belief in the determinism of the text that is at odds with the freedom to interpret implied in Whedon’s remark about subtext.  Joss Whedon’s stated point of view, is that it is not his job to tell the story the fan’s “want” but what they “need”, though he admits criticism “affects” him: “It always affects me. At the same time, I need to give them what they need, not what they want. They need to have their hearts broken. They need to see change. They hated Oz, and then they hated that he left. These things are inevitable. If people are freaking out, I’m good. If people are going, “Hmmm…well, that was fine,” I’m fucked.” (Whedon, 2002) At least one writer mirrored the fan unease at the attempted rape scene, concerned with the political correctness of bringing Spike back from that as Buffy’s lover or about implying that Buffy contributed to the rape:

He did a very, very bad thing.I was very worried about the attempted rape because that’s not something you play around with.  That’s not something .it’s very hard to come back from it.I think we have to be very careful that we’re not saying anything about humans.  When we say that Spike looked into his soul at that moment and saw the demon in him and that’s what made him want to go get a soul. (Espenson, 2002)

 

To many Spike fans , Spike had redeemed himself and was Buffy’s  “long haul guy” (to use Spike’s phrase for dismissing of Riley’s status as such in the episode ‘Into the Woods’). The introduction of the attempted rape scene was at odds with that belief.To Marti Noxon, the Executive Producer and a writer for season six, the belief that Spike was already worthy of Buffy was not the story they were telling in that season: “Ultimately down the line, what do we really want to say? To my mind, the relationship that she’s playing at now is something that you go through, but not the destination.” (Sibbald, 2001)In her view, the text had made a “case”, though she recognized that there was a “difference of opinion” between fans and writers over the text: “I understand why people feel the way they do about Spike”, Noxon says.

I understand why they feel that a couple of years of changed behavior is enough to warrant complete trust, but I don’t share that opinion. It’s OK that there’s a difference of opinion.”I don’t feel like it’s a failure to communicate. We’ve made our case. Certain people get it and understand it, and other people are going to be Spike-shippers (a term for those in favor of the Spike-Buffy relationship) no matter what. That’s in no small part due to the charisma of the actor. It’s hard to hate him, but I think I feel like we’ve made a pretty good case for the fact that they probably shouldn’t ride off into the sunset together, at least not the way things are now. (O’Hare, 2002)

Noxon’s recognition that the character is “hard to hate” recognises a source in the text and the skill of the actor for fan partisanship but, from a writer’s point of view, she asserts that fans could not see beyond the romantic hero or remember what Spike had been prior to falling in love with Buffy:

Sometimes, things don’t go the way we intend.  It seemed very obvious to us that the Buffy-Spike relationship couldn’t work in the long run, so now we need to reiterate why.  We need to get in there and show people the difference between loving someone who is good to be around and loving someone who is good.  I think people have forgotten the Spike of two season ago.  I mean, he tried t kill Willow!  Can you really see Spike and Buffy in a condo deciding what they should watch on TV that night?  That’s not our thesis.  What we want to show is an independent heroine who is not defined by her relationships. (O’Hare, 2002)

“It seemed obvious to us” is a telling comment that stands on one side of the divide between text and its reception.  Proving their “thesis”, as Noxon explains, led to the decision to have Spike attempt to rape Buffy in the episode Seeing Red, late in season six.  Her comment on the introduction of this plot development implies a relationship between fans, writers and the text that is almost instructional from her point of view, especially with her use of the terms “thesis” and “case”.  Meaning in the text has become something that seems to be more than a difference of “opinion”-the text has a point to make, and it may need to be driven home. Speaking from a decidedly sender/receiver view of the text, at odds with Whedon’s remark on subtext, Noxon asserts that the fans have mistakenly interpreted that Spike is less evil than he was intended to be. 

Viewer acceptance of the characters moral progress becomes the basis for the writers making the character do an “extreme” violent act.  Having laid the groundwork for viewer acceptance of Spike as morally grey in the text, that acceptance then had to be reversed:  “I have to be so careful because I get such hate mail, you wouldn’t believe,” Noxon says. “I mean, people are so angry when I say anything negative about Spike”. It was the viewers’ acceptance of Spike as one of the good guys on the show that inspired Noxon and Whedon to make him try to rape Buffy as an act of desperation to be close to her. “People kept saying, You know, Spike’s a really great guy, he’s so great,” Noxon explains. “I’m like, I know, he’s come a long way. But in his heart of hearts, he still doesn’t quite know the difference between right and wrong. We really wanted to show that … which is why we took it to such an extreme.” (Gottlieb, 2002)

Scollon’s book, mentioned above, encourages us to probe our metaphors about communication in a media event. The discourse during, and post, season six between audience and the writers over the text of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer demonstrates the need for a metaphor of some complexity.  The text on the screen in a developing series, where some writer response to passionate and assertive audience reception occurs, appears, in Noxon’s defence of authorial meaning, to be secure in its ideology.  But her need to defend that meaning outside of the story, is itself an acknowledgement of the fact that telling the story and receiving it are two very different ways of making meaning.  Her defence of the story struggles with that divide.  As Scollon opines, words like channel, in sender-receiver models, or context, or convention, or theatre of discourse, all of which are used to describe acts of reading and watching, seem to oversimplify the social event, and the mediated relationships within the audience event, that we use them to describe.We are not likely to escape from the use of such metaphors but they must be used with caution if we are to come closer to a useful  description of the watcher’s interaction with any form of mediated spectacle (Scollon, 1998). 

Many of these metaphors contend with one another in ways that make it difficult to formulate that larger metaphor that will hold in play more specifically some of what makes current theories of media and culture, and text and culture problematic. One overview of audience research cites audience/text interaction as occurring in a  “negotiated space” via the ‘determined active reader’. (Gray 1999, 29)   This is a definition that comes some way towards describing the Spike fan experience. Yet, as one Buffyverse fan has put it, a preferred meaning  that “actually exists” in the text or subtext may not be the only satisfaction which an audience requires of the story:

People search for deeper meaning because they want and need to, not because it’s “necessary” or “appropriate”. Whether the meaning actually exists is almost besides the point. BtVS is the common language we use to discuss whatever is important to us – justice, morality, sex, friendship, fate, God, whatever. This board lets us conduct conversations with like-minded people that range from the ridiculous to the sublime, and that is a wonderful thing – rare, and worth having. Where Buffy is shallow we spackle in the depth, and where it is deep, we plunge our minds into the heady intellectual maelstrom of discussion, argument and debate. Hamlet used a silly play to work on the conscience of his king – we use a tv show about a pretty vampire killer to examine ours. (Arethusa, 2002)

The Spike fan mantra that the show “Is.All.About.Spike.”, to quote the Tabula Rasa site credo, and the passion with which Spike fans discuss and care about the show and the character is in line with this view.  Audience reception theory may be underestimating the emotional flavour of the interaction between text and audience.  The term “negotiation” seems a pallid description. 

The character of Spike has run away with the text of Buffy the Vampire Slayer because, as Arethusa points out, there is not only one text. The onscreen text is a launching pad for multiple texts spun off from the original in fan analysis and interpretation.  Perhaps, the real attraction of spoilers to many Spike fans,  whether they prove false or accurate, is that whether a spoiler tantalises or horrifies there is *more* story.  Instead of having just the onscreen episode to talk and speculate about, fans have that and a multiplicity of possible versions of that one episode to talk, speculate and post about in advance of the ultimately aired version. Speculating on spoilers, resisting the text, digging into the subtext, or shoring it up through fanwanking (explaining away textual inconsistencies or offering preferred explanations for the plot), extends the Buffyverse beyond the text and subtext.  As meaning seekers, Spike fans do not simply receive the text, they haggle with it.

Perhaps, to analyse the story of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer only in terms of the “onscreen text” may be, in terms of audience reception, a contraction of the Buffyverse.  Spike fans are, more than “determined, active readers” of the Buffyverse text, they ardently wrestle with it.  Joss Whedon has talked of wanting interpretive passion from fans:

I designed the show to create that strong reaction. I designed Buffy to be an icon, to be an emotional experience, to be loved in a way that other shows can’t be loved. Because it’s about adolescence, which is the most important thing people go through in their development, becoming an adult. And it mythologizes it in such a way, such a romantic way-it basically says, “Everybody who made it through adolescence is a hero.” And I think that’s very personal, that people get something from that that’s very real. And I don’t think I could be more pompous. But I mean every word of it. I wanted her to be a cultural phenomenon. I wanted there to be dolls, Barbie with kung-fu grip. I wanted people to embrace it in a way that exists beyond, “Oh, that was a wonderful show about lawyers, let’s have dinner.” I wanted people to internalize it, and make up fantasies where they were in the story, to take it home with them, for it to exist beyond the TV show. And we’ve done exactly that.  (Robinson, 2001)

Whedon has succeeded in his endeavour to make the show an “emotional experience”, particularly for Spike fans.  In that context, it may not matter if he, ultimately, gives Spike fans what they want by redeeming the character and allowing Buffy and Spike happiness in their romantic relationship.  Spike fans, myself included, will take *that* preferred meaning anyway. “Doesn’t seem to me it matters very much how you start out” (Spike, talking of himself in Crush).  Whatever happens on screen, the meaning Spike fans will take away from the text is that redemption can be earned, even if you start out from the soulless side of Whedon’s continuum.  To quote the motto of the Bloody Awful Poet Society (BAPS) list, for fans of the character: “Spike will be redeemed, dammit!”

Bibliography

Baumeister, Roy. F.  (1999)  Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty   New York:  W.H. Freeman and Co.

Eldridge, John, Kitzinger, Jenny & Williams, Kevin (1997) The Mass Media and Power in Modern Britain .  Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press.

Gray, Ann.  (1997)  “Audience and Reception Research in Retrospect:  The Trouble with Audiences.”  In Rethinking the Media Audience: The New Agenda , edited by Pertto Alasuuatari,   London: Sage. 22-37.

Jenkins, Henry (1992)  Textual Poachers:  Television Fans and Participatory Culture .  New York: Routledge.

Nightingale, Virginia. (1996)  Studying Audiences: The Shock of the Real. London; New York: Routledge.

Scollon, Ronald (1998)   Mediated Discourse as Social Interaction:  A Study of News . London:  Longman.

Internet Sources:

Arethusa (2002) ‘”Existential Scoobies”, All Things Philosophical About Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, http://www.atpobtvs.com/existentialscoobies/ Accessed 17/11/02.

Boyette, Michele (2001), ‘The Comic Anti-Hero in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Silly Villain: Spike is for Kicks’.  Slayage, the Online Journal of Buffy Studies , 4, December 2001.  http://www.slayage.tv/essays/slayage4/boyette.html `Accessed 10/11/02.

Cummings, Barb. (2000) ‘Spike’s Redemption-Subverting or Supporting Canon’.  The Bloody Awful Poet’s Society. Essays.  http://bloodyawfulpoet.com/essays/Canon-Subverting.html Accessed 10/11/02.

Espenson, Jane (2002) ‘Succubus Club Interview’, http://www.thebuffyverse.net/ Accessed 17/11/02.

Fury, David (2003) ‘Q &A, David Fury.net’. http://www.davidfury.net/qanda2003.html

Gottlieb, Allie (2002)  ‘”Buffy’s Angels”  MetroActive Arts’,  http://www.metroactive.com/papers/metro/09/26/02/buffy1-0239.html Accessed 3/11/02.

Kumbier, Alana.  (2002)  PopPolitics.com   ‘Consumers and Creators’. AlterNet.org http://www.alternet.org/story.html?StoryID=13467 Accessed30/6/02.

Masquerade the Philosopher (2002), ‘Kinds of Evil in the Buffyverse.  All Things Philosophical on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel the Series’. 
http://www.atpobtvs.com/evil.html   Accessed 10/11/02.

Marsters, James (2000)  “Introducing Spike”. Featurette.  Disc Three Episodes 53-55 Mutant Enemy.  Twentieth Century Fox.

McDaniel, Mike (2002) ‘”TV’s Cult Hero”:  Joss Whedon on the Future of his Shows and Himself’.  Houston Chronicle.com  http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/ssistory.mpl/front/1652888 Accessed 12/11/02.

O’Hare, Kate  ‘Buffy’s Annus Horribilis’  20/5/02  Zap2it.com.  http://tv.zap2it.com/shows/features/features.html?25999 Accessed 22/5/02.

Rhys, Gwyneth  (2002)  ‘Why Spike as Rapist Feels Like Character Rape to Me, or Seeing Red over Seeing Red’.  Chez Gwyn, La Maison Fanfic ‘, http://www.drizzle.com/~gwyneth/morestuff/spike.html Accessed 25/6/02.

Robinson, Tasha (2001) “Joss Whedon” The Onion a.v.club Volume 37,  Issue 31. http://www.theonionavclub.com/avclub3731/avfeature_3731.html Accessed 17/11/01.

Sibbald, Vanessa (2001)”Buffy Sex Scene Had to be Trimmed” Zap2it.com, TV News. http://tv.zap2it.com/news/tvnewsdaily.html?2218 Accessed 12/12/01.

Smirnov, Kristen  (2002) “Domestic Abuse and Gender Role Reversal in Season 6: My Letter to Mutant Enemy.”   http://www.btvs-tabularasa.net/essays/DomesticAbuse.html Accessed 16/11/02.

Spah, Victoria (2001) “Ain’t Love Grand: Spike and Courtly Love”, The Buffy Database , Summer 2001. http://vrya.cstone.net/buffy_action-essay1.html Accessed 10/11/02.

Wanda (2002)  Watch with Wanda, 29/3/02 Interview with Marti Noxon  E!online http://www.eonline.com/Gossip/Wanda/Archive2002/020329b.html Accessed 30/3/02.

Whedon, Joss (1998) ‘Bronze VIP Archive for December 3rd, 1998’, http://www.cise.ufl.edu/cgi-bin/cgiwrap/hsiao/buffy/get-archive?date=19981203   Accessed 11/2/02.

(2001) ‘Transcript of Q&A at 18 th Annual William S. Paley Television Festival: Honors Angel the Series’.  http://www.cityofangel.com/behindTheScenes/bts/paley1.html Accessed 4/11/02.

(2002) Watch with Wanda, E! Online. http://www.eonline.com/Gossip/Wanda/Archive2002/020503d.html Accessed 17/11/02.

Fan Quotes used with permission from the authors who are members of the following Spike-centric, online discussion lists:

Bloody Awful Poets Society (BAPS) (2002) http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Bloody_Awful/

Official Site http://bloodyawfulpoet.com Motto: Spike will be Redeemed, dammit!

TabulaRasa (TabRas) (2002) http://groups.yahoo.com/ group/BTVS – TabulaRasa/ Motto:  Love.  Redemption. Spike

Homepage  http://www.btvs-tabularasa.net/

All episode quotes taken from transcripts of episodes at http://www.buffyworld.com/

Comments

  1. […] All this fuss about the death of a character brings to my mind Joss Whedon’s famous line about the writer’s duty to give the audience the story it needs, as opposed to the story it wants, or thinks it wants. Talking about how his fans’ reactions to his work affect him, Whedon said: It always affects me. At the same time, I need to give them what they need, not what they want. They need to have their hearts broken. They need to see change. They hated Oz, and then they hated that he left. These things are inevitable. If people are freaking out, I’m good. If people are going, “Hmmm…well, that was fine,” I’m fucked. (Source.) […]

  2. Sophie says:

    Amazing!