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October 08 2014

#WhyBuffyStayed: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Riley, and the Cycle of Abuse. Samantha Field examines the connection between Buffy the Vampire Slayer, domestic abuse, and #WhyIStayed.

No need for a spoiler tag here.
I find this claim a little oversimplified. His teutonicness and jealousy were a bit toxic, but they were exacerbated by Buffy treating Riley like an accessory to her life. I don't agree that him grabbing her arm while she's trying to evade a conversation is "manhandling". I don't feel like anything he did was even close to emotional or physical abuse, though I have to concede that her strength of will might have kept her in control. Still, if this qualifies as abuse, doesn't Buffy's entire track record fit the bill? Angel watching from outside her window, Spike trying to force himself on her...Willow most definitely abused Tara, but in the Whedonverse, that doesn't negate the love between them or make the offender unworthy of redemption. It pales in comparison to Warren and Katrina, for instance. In the case of the aptly-named Biley, I just see two flawed people whose conflicting expectations made an unrequited love even messier.

[ edited by WhatsAStevedore on 2014-10-08 17:06 ]
Whatsastevadore - I agree.

Buffy's first boyfriend is a 200 year old predator who stalks her and then turns on her because men become monstrous when they love women (re-enforcing the common horror trope that the virgin is punished for having sex) - and BUFFY is the one blamed for it, if you remember, she even asks Jenny if it was her fault that he switched, and Jenny tells her it was. So if you love a guy too much, he can go evil. That somehow makes .... sense? Not at all.

And when he switches back, all is forgiven, we love him again because it wasn't his fault he was a jerk. Except wait, maybe it was.

Buffy's other main boyfriend is another older man and she can only be with him when they beat the hell out of each other - far beyond consensual BSDM, proper attempts on both sides to kill, and he eventually tries to rape her.

Out of all of Buffy's relationships, Riley was the least abusive - and that's ultimately why she left him, Spike even tells her that she cannot function with a normal, boring guy because she needs the hate that bad relationships give her.

But if you're looking for healthy non-abusive relationships in the Whedonverse that last past a shag or two, you're pretty much left with ZoŽ and Wash - and Wash is quite henpecked, so there can be debates as to how 'equal' the relationship is. But I think we can all agree that their relationship seemed rather stable and healthy - compared to, say, Buffy and Angel, Buffy and Spike, Willow and Tara, as WhatsaStevadore mentioned, Warren and Katrina, there are plenty of quite unhealthy relationships to chose from within the Whedonverse.

Willow mind-rapes Tara repeatedly, and yet that relationship is held up as romantic and loving. Relationships in the Whedonverse are not stable, they're almost all abusive, and that is held by fans as 'romantic'. What is romantic about that, precisely?

I'll just add to this, Riley and Buffy, at least to me, it was seemed she using him from the beginning - it was made clear early on that although she liked him very much, he was a place holder until something came along that was better. She could treat him terribly and that was fine because he was a good guy who would always be there. Does this make some of Riley's actions justified? No. But I'd argue she was actually a bit more abusive to him by using him and just expecting him to stick around when she wanted something and to go away when she didn't. I feel like Samantha Fields wants to see a 'cycle of abuse' here, and is nitpicking in one of the few relationships where there isn't really abuse to be found - except, as I said, on Buffy's side to Riley.

I think they really were trying to give Buffy a stable relationship with no abuse, that was the point of Riley. Angel and Buffy - that was a screwed up relationship by most psychological standards. If you went in and told a psychiatrist half the things Angel did, they'd really push you to distance yourself from that abuse. ('It's nice that he doesn't kill your father-figure's girlfriends anymore, but that doesn't make him a good man. I'm happy he's no longer leaving drawings of you and your mother sleeping or nailing puppies to things, but let's just consider how much better your life would be if you weren't worrying about whether he's going to snap and kill all of your friends?')

And then Whedon et all realised that the fans hated Riley because he was a good guy - because he was a decent guy who wouldn't hurt her and that made him boring. They wanted her with Spike. So they had to find a way to get rid of Riley, and that's what they came up with. I don't really get why she would go on about this particular relationship.

[ edited by stormy_daze on 2014-10-08 17:33 ]
Wash was henpecked? No, I don't think so.

But I do agree that Riley was probably her one (almost) healthy relationship. The reason it wasn't was simply that Buffy wasn't emotionally available or ready for anything more. I don't see it as her using him because I don't think that was her intent. She thought she could have a relationship. She was wrong. That is all.
I agree with the article that several of Riley's actions are abusive. But I also agree that Angel and Spike are rather worse: stalking, very violent (even excepting the rape attempt, which is just so horribly framed and written that it doesn't make sense in any real-world analogue), etc.

Probably the healthiest relationship Buffy ever had was with Spike after he got his soul. Because men can change -- but they have to do more than promise. And yes, I'm aware that that relationship may not have been at all sexual.

Gaaaaah. My partner is watching Season 6 for the first time and I just remembered we have to get through the rape scene. Blarrrrrrg...

[ edited by ManEnoughToAdmitIt on 2014-10-08 18:13 ]
I agree with the blog. Riley expects Buffy to be there for him exclusively - even though he admits he knows she doesn't love him. His ultimatum is atrocious, and Xander's reinforcement of it is one of the character's low points.

Buffy and Spike's relationship was mutually abusive, something they both recognised and moved beyond. In S7 there is a genuine loving partnership. Buffy and Angel's relationship is a touch disturbing initially - his watching her sleep is creepy, and the power is unequally distributed - but after Angel returns there is real depth there. Buffy's relationships with souled vampires are unsurprisingly much healthier than with unsouled vampires.

With Riley it's different. He is accustomed to being in charge, powerful, in the lead. He cannot cope with the loss of his added powers and very much cannot cope with Buffy's strength, her ability to make the decisions and take the lead, and the fact that her sick mother and sister are high priorities in her life. As far as he is concerned all these are her fault and reasons to punish her. Abusive.
NYPinTA - I think I chose the wrong word. I was trying to say that maybe ZoŽ was a little good domineering sometimes, but I think I chose the wrong word on that one. I also agree that, at first, Buffy wanted to be in a relationship and thought it could be, but once it became clear that she was not in love with him and that he was in love with her, I feel like she took advantage of that, knowing that it suited her. But I do agree, that's an important distinction. At first I think she wanted to be in the relationship and wanted to like this normal guy who didn't regularly beat the hell out of her, but I also think that once she realises she doesn't really care that much about Riley she did start taking advantage because she knew he'd always come running back.

ManEnough - Here's the problem I had with the way post-soul post-chip Spike was framed. Whedon shows tend to suggest that men can't really change, but that women can change them. So Spike tried to change the whole time he was chipped but not souled, he tried to prove that he could love and be good, and he did - until they realised that was too sweet so they made him try to rape her, to show that no, he can't change just because he wants to. So he goes and gets this thing done to him, the soul, not because he wanted to be better for himself, but because he wants to be the kind of man that Buffy could love - and only really manages it when she has feelings in return. So a man can change, but only if a woman believes he can. They did a similar thing with Angel - Angel's living in the sewers for 100 years, sees Buffy crying and decides that he will change to help her.

Don't get me wrong, loved post soul post chip Spike, I'm definitely a Spuffy girl when it comes to her boyfriends. Season 7 Spike was brilliant, and one of the highlights of the season. But I do get a bit weary how misandrist Buffy could be - all of the men are either completely useless comic relief or monsters ready to snap. Even Oz, the sweetest and most loyal guy on the show, ends up turning and can't seem to control himself. I get tired of the anti-male message that men are monstrous beasts who need to be tamed by women or they'll eat all your friends...
I didn't think Riley was the best boyfriend of all time but this reads more like an effort to shoehorn current events into criticism of a tv show. And it doesn't work.
Simon, it's not exactly a new observation. Amongst a lot of my BtVS friends it's almost a commonplace that the relationship was borderline abusive from almost the start. As a TA he took advantage of his position even asking her out. The power dynamics are subtler than with Buffy's vampire boyfriends but are still very much there; the attempt by both Riley and Xander to blame Buffy is abusive - and one of the early steps leading to her collapse into catatonia and depression.
I see a not terribly well written relationship which the writers couldn't get to work and with little if any fan feeling for it (negative or positive). One thing the show did incredibly well was to show abuse and the aftermath. But for whatever reason that didn't come across with Buffy/Riley. For me, it was just a crap relationship.
Riley is insecure. Buffy tends not to notice because she takes him for granted. The writing gets a bit messy near the end as a more concrete reason is needed for Riley to actually want to leave. The show is not taking any kind of moral stance; it's just depicting mistakes made on both sides of an inevitably incompatible relationship. If more people realized that not everything is a grand one-sided statement, they wouldn't spend so much time looking for "problems" in entertainment they enjoy. That's a bit harsh, I know. But I just find it hard to take seriously a comments section full of people basically declaring Joss Whedon to be the Feminist Antichrist.
Yeah, I would definitely describe it as an unhealthy relationship where both people were in denial about why things were not working. But not abusive.
I think pretty much the healthiest relationship that Buffy ever had was with The Immortal (played in my head by Peter Wingfield) because it didn't happen on screen where it could be analyzed overmuch.

For Angel, Buffy was redemption personified. For Spike she was the one that could punish him for being horrible. I don't see either being actually about love. For Buffy she saw Riley as a chance at normal. Finding out he wasn't probably made her step back but not want to admit that so they had a divide that they couldn't overcome. None good. But some definitely more not good than others.

Mostly I'm just commenting again to make Peter Wingfield other people's head canon too. ;P
While I would never condone abuse in a relationship, I do find it intriguing that with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, abuse is not treated as a single gender (read: male) thing and none of the original Scoobies are innocent of taking actions that are abusive toward one another and toward their significant others over the seven seasons.

Hell, I can think of a couple of themes or tropes in Buffy fanfic that revolve around Xander choosing to say "enough's enough" when it comes to how Buffy and Willow treated him by around the end of Season Three. Now, Xander's far from innocent, as I said, due to his own behaviour at times but it does show that Buffy fans can see the road goes more than one way when it comes to emotional abuse.
If I was going to write something about domestic abuse in Buffy, I'd write about Ted. Patriarchy as a killer robot.
All this is why I said that several of Riley's actions are abusive. The character himself might not be; we all make mistakes when we're really worked up, and I don't see the pattern that makes abuse. "Everyone makes mistakes" is something abusers say, I know -- but they don't really mean to change. Riley, confronted with his actions, might have improved. And when we see him with Samantha, he seems like he is indeed much improved. Hence, abusive actions, not abusive character.

But we also have to remember, as Simon says, that these characters are written, and sometimes they are written quite badly. Fiction doesn't always map to reality well.
I think pretty much the healthiest relationship that Buffy ever had was with The Immortal

What about Satsu. Buffy was upfront in saying what she wanted from that relationship before it progressed.
Well I think a lot of this touches over something: a lot of relationships - even healthy ones will suffer spats of things that can look abusive or look like something else verbally. Physically, there really aren't any takebacks. Verbally, I think actual meaning and intent come into play.

But verbally as people try to suss out what they feel and how they feel them often will do so in words in often ugly fashion.

Even one of the articles key points that Riley's ultimatum is abusive sidesteps one obvious facet - Riley is stating his terms for a relationship and leaves when they are not met. They are not manipulation, they are what he is asking/telling Buffy he needs. It's not pretty and it could be done better, but it is NOT an attempt to control Buffy. It's him controlling his participation in the relationship.

I couldn't disagree more with the comments on The Mary Sue and I get where they're trying to come from but I think it actively denies Riley any right to have feelings or behave less than perfectly. As someone mentioned upthread, I find the TA thing more out of line than a lot of the messy relationship stuff (like Simon, I don't necessarily find it healthy).

It is true some abusive relationships have this dynamic repeating, but we as an audience only see it once while we see that Riley has every right to ask for either more participation or he needs to get the hell out of dodge.

[ edited by azzers on 2014-10-09 02:13 ]
If Angel is to be held responsible for his actions as Angelus in season 2 (which the show clearly stressed, he was), then shouldn't Buffy be held responsible for her cheating on Riley with Dracula? And for drinking his blood? Didn't the show demonstrate time and again the extent to which one must take responsibility for their actions, even when those actions are manipulated in to occurring by outside forces?
"The show is not taking any kind of moral stance; it's just depicting mistakes made on both sides of an inevitably incompatible relationship. If more people realized that not everything is a grand one-sided statement, they wouldn't spend so much time looking for "problems" in entertainment they enjoy. That's a bit harsh, I know. But I just find it hard to take seriously a comments section full of people basically declaring Joss Whedon to be the Feminist Antichrist."

Completely agree. The comments on the Mary Sue website are so extreme and obsessed with making the show (and Joss) amoral that they lost all credibility to me, on top of making me angry.

One of the reasons I love these characters so much is for how incredibly flawed they can be, Xander in particular, and I've always liked Riley for the impact he had on Buffy, and Xander. And I love that speech at the end of "Into the Woods", not because Xander is absolutely right, I guess he isn't, but for how emotionally relevant the scene is. And it is in no way endorsing an abusive relationship. That article is trying so hard to connect the show with that particular issue that it completely lost focus of the characters and what the writers were doing. I agree that Riley was by far the least abusive of Buffy's relationships.

I love a good over-interpretation of Joss' work, there's usually something to take from it, but that kind of easy, biased, oversimplified interpretation really annoys me.

[ edited by Nico-Angel on 2014-10-09 05:34 ]
I should point out that one of our rules is that we don't comment on comments on other sites here. It saves pain in the long run.
I said it then, and I still maintain: Personally, I didn't find Riley boring because he was a "good guy"; I found Riley boring because he was boring...
I'm not sure I agree that Riley's actions were abusive ... however, I do think he treated Buffy horribly in Season 5. She was taking care of her possibly-dying mom and her teenage sister, and instead of being supportive, it was all about him and his hurt feelings. He was hurt that she tried to do everything on her own, and didn't call him when she needed to cry.

It never even occurred to him, apparently, that he could stop by the house to check on her, or offer to help out with household chores. That's what you do when someone's having a crisis: you offer help. You don't wait for them to ask. He wasn't there for her, probably because he was off cheating with vampires--which is *not* a healthy reaction to feeling like your relationship isn't working.

He wasn't Buffy's priority when her mom was dying. And that's okay. If he was so insecure that he couldn't deal with her focusing on her dying parent instead of his emotional needs (for, like, a couple of weeks), then he's kind of a terrible person and not at all what Buffy (or anyone) needs in a romantic partner.

Did Buffy handle their relationship perfectly? No. But her actions were not anywhere near the level of insecure, immature selfishness Riley displayed. I'm still mad at Xander for telling her everything was her fault, because it clearly wasn't. Worst Xander speech ever.

The funny thing is, I actually liked Riley a lot in Season 4. I think the writers decided to get rid of him in Season 5, but they could've done it better, IMO. He didn't have to turn into a gigantic douchebag. And if he was going to be a gigantic douchebag, they could've at least acknowledged that instead of having Xander tell Buffy she was a terrible person and shouldn't let Riley get away. I mean, whenever anyone else cheats on the show, it's a terrible thing. But when Riley goes to a sleazy vampire brothel because they "need" him and Buffy doesn't, he's the good guy you shouldn't let get away? Seriously?

I hate that episode so much.

[ edited by erendis on 2014-10-09 19:12 ]
The thing is... Buffy could have and DID on occasion throw Riley around like a rag doll. Emotionally, Riley felt more invested than he thought Buffy was in their relationship, which is ultimately why he left her when she couldn't/wouldn't convince him otherwise. If this stands as a case for being an abusive boyfriend... the world is definitely doomed.

Certainly any event that happened outside of Buffy's choice deserves scrutiny. But beyond this though, I think there's sometimes an overzealous desire to depict Buffy as the victim of her boyfriends, which belittles the character. I can't say I always liked her decisions - that they were always about truest love or wisest long term life choices, but I don't think Buffy was ever a dysfunctional/incapable partner or that she was in any way wrong for pursuing a relationship of her own choosing.
I think abusive is overstating it. (Especially given that Buffy is the stronger person physically ... that makes "manhandling" very different than it would be in real life, between two people of their relative sizes).

But I do think S5 Riley was a terrible boyfriend, and was more to blame for the problems than Buffy was. Yes, he thought that he cared more than she did, and left the relationship. That's fine, if he'd done it like an adult. But instead, he chose not to talk to Buffy about the problems with their relationship. He started letting vampires bite him (which in the show is a clear metaphor for sex, at least in this instance). So basically, he thought she didn't love him, did not tell her that, and instead cheated on her. A lot. With a lot of random people.

When Buffy found it, he told her it was all her fault--even though he'd never told her they had a problem. Then, again instead of talking about things like an adult, he gave her an ultimatum.

Does this make Buffy a victim? No. Does it make Riley terrible at relationships? Um, yes. Do I believe for a moment that this guy could show up a year later in a happy, functional marriage? Yeah, not so much.

He was also several years older than Buffy--he was a grad student, after all. If he'd been in high school, that might excuse some level of immaturity/stupidity. But he is, in fact, an adult. And this is just a horrible way to treat someone.
My take on the problem with the Buffy/Riley relationship was that the writers wanted to give Buffy a human boyfriend but there was zero on-screen chemistry between Sarah Michelle Geller and Marc Blucas. The writers tried to push a romance that wasn't there and it ended up coming out in the characters indifference to each other.

That said, I seem to remember an interview or commentary by I think Jane Espenson, something to the effect that the writers didn't realize until they rewatched the season how selfish they had made Riley's character, in that Buffy was going through the whole life-threatening illness of her mother, and Riley's entire response was to be annoyed that she wasn't paying more attention to him.

Mandhandling is always serious, because while yes, Buffy would win in a fight, that's not what it's about. She wouldn't mandhandle him back, and a part of that would be because she would think it would hurt his ego, he was weaker(something men who are violated by women experience), the others would disrespect her for "abusing" her strength.

It's not about the muscles, it's about the attitude. He felt he had the right to manhandle her. Women who manhandle men think I'm oppressed/He's a man/He can take it, but it's about insecurities and helplessness. It's about how women and men are told to not to ever be the agressor, to always rise above what is done to us. Turn the other cheek so to speak.
I never saw Riley as abusive or controlling, more over I saw Buffy as the one n control, & Riley was merely a boyfriend, to have, pass the time, etc, but, not someone she felt particularly super special about.
At least not on par to her other lovers.

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