Dating Death: Essay: Love and Sex in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Romance writers tend to love Buffy the Vampire Slayer because it’s the only show on TV that gets the dynamics of falling in love right most of the time. Whedon and his writers seem to have an instinct for the messy part of romance, the off-the-wall, over-the-top, why-am-I-doing-this? insanity that makes love such a pain in the neck, whether somebody’s biting you there or not. The reasons for this are many and varied, and all the more telling when the people at Mutant Enemy get it wrong. Watching Buffy is an education in how to write romance.

A look at how Buffy Summers meets and mates gives the first part of the answer as to why Buffy makes the best love on TV. Buffy has had three loves in her seven-year fight against the Hellmouth, and three of these relationships followed the basic psychological progress–assumption, attraction, infatuation, and attachment–which is why they all felt true emotionally, even if some viewers were less than pleased with Buffy’s choices.

The first move in establishing a relationship is assumption, gauging, consciously or unconsciously, if this person is somebody desirable, somebody it is possible to love. Is the object of potential desire physically attractive? Smart? Strong? Funny? These are all clues that the object is genetically a catch, physically and mentally healthy; it’s DNA shrieking “Pick that one, I want to live forever!” Since Sunnydale is populated almost entirely by beautiful, verbal teenagers, this is not a difficult stage for the Scooby Gang, their angst notwithstanding. But Buffy as Mythic Heroine is going to need more than just a knee-jerk jock of the week, so Whedon ushers in Angel, the Heathcliff for the turn-of-the-millennium. He’s strong (he can hold his own with the Slayer), he’s smart (he knows the evil world she must learn in order to fight it), he has a mordant sense of humor (even more effective because Angel is not a happy man), and he’s physically attractive, or as Buffy puts it after she first meets him in “Welcome to the Hellmouth,” “Dark, gorgeous in an annoying kind of way” (Whedon 44).

Once assumption is made, the second stage or Attraction begins, finding out if this is somebody who should be loved. Friends and family play a huge role here, along with physical and emotional connections. Buffy’s peer group sees Angel as attractive (even Xander’s jealousy is backhanded approval since he rates Angel a threat), her mother less so, perversely making him even more desirable because he’s outside the bounds of parental control. Also in the mix are physical cues: he falls into step easily beside her, they fight beside one another in synchronization, and they share long, deep looks (known to the psych trade as copulatory gazes). And then there are the emotional cues: he’s the only one who understands the darkness in her, she’s the only human he’s connected to in two hundred years. Everything is in place for Angel and Buffy to believably fall in love.

But for attraction to turn to infatuation, there have to be physiological cues, joy or pain or both. Joy is physical pleasure or emotional connection, great kisses or moments when eyes meet across a room in perfect understanding. Pain is stress, danger, jealousy, the reason for war romances and office affairs. (There’s a reason there are so many love stories in Sunnydale; it’s Pain Central.) The more of these cues that are present, the faster the relationship will move into the giddiness of immature love. And both joy and pain cues are all over the place in the Buffy-and-Angel story, climaxing in their first kiss, a physical thrill so great it provokes his vampire side, the part of his story he’d forgotten to mention (Greenwalt, “Angel”). The revelation that he’s her destined enemy would be enough to kill infatuation. But something has happened before the reveal: Buffy has moved past immature love to a recognition of who Angel is besides the hottie who loves her. She has moved into mature love.

The question “Is this real love or just infatuation?” misses the point: it’s all infatuation in the beginning, infatuation (or immature love) is the stage everyone passes through on the way to mature love. Erich Fromm in The Art of Loving makes the distinction between the two, pointing out that infatuation is about the person doing the loving, the lover, but true love is about the person who is loved, the object. Infatuation is about conditional love: I love you because of what you do for me, because you’re funny, you’re loving, you’re sexy, you’re smart, you’re not a vampire, etc. But what happens when the object stops being funny and sexy? What happens when he turns into a vampire? “I love you because” is conditional love, based on what the object does for the lover; the “You complete me” statement that sounds good but is really a threat: “Complete me or lose me, it’s all about me.” Mature love, goes beyond that and says that it doesn’t matter whether the object is wonderful or not, the love is just there, like the air we breathe. So Angel vamps and Buffy screams and rejects him, but when she has the opportunity to kill him, fulfilling her destiny as a vampire slayer, she deliberately misses, and Angel saves her from the woman who made him a vampire, symbolically killing his old life to enter a new one with Buffy. Their love is unconditional, the season ends, the love story is finished. Unless, of course, it’s playing out in Sunnydale.

Buffy’s choice to spare Angel in the first season is not based on blindly unconditional love; she has plenty of clues in that story arc that he is on her side. The second season brings the real test: in one of Whedon’s blatant, powerful metaphors, Buffy loses her virginity to a loving, sexually skilled Angel and wakes up with the murderous beast, Angelus. It’s easy to love Angel, he meets all the conditions for it, he completes Buffy. Loving Angelus is the antithesis of that, nobody could rationally love a vicious demon who rapes and murders without compunction. In the same way, it’s easy to love Buffy-the-Savior if you’re Angel, impossible to love her if you’re Angelus.

And yet they still love each other, much to their mutual disgust and despair. Angelus is riddled with love for her, and because of that he is driven to destroy her; as he tells Spike in “Innocence”, “To kill this girl . . . you have to love her” (Whedon). Buffy is stuck, too: she cannot bring herself to kill Angelus until he gives her no choice by opening the portal to hell. But she kills him as a sacrifice to save the world, not as an execution to punish and reject him, something that Whedon makes clear by transforming Angelus into Angel before she strikes (Whedon, “Becoming Part II). When he comes back from hell, tortured for a century until he is only slightly above a beast, he still loves her and saves her instinctively, just as she loves and protects him even though his mind is gone (Noxon, “Beauty and the Beasts”). The power of their love is larger than life not because they’re larger-than-life characters, but because it is implacably and completely unconditional.

Their final act of love is their great sacrifice at the end of the third season. Angel leaves her to free her and Buffy lets him go: He’s protected her until she’s graduated into adulthood, she’s stood by him until he believes in himself again, and now unconditional love recognizes that they have to move on with only the hope of their promise at the end of the series that they’ll be together again some day. It’s brilliant storytelling that gives Whedon the opportunity to move the series to a different level, but it’s also brilliant romance writing, a love story of mythic proportions.

Following that love story was going to be tough in any case, so Whedon pulled his punch and introduced Parker, the embodiment of the dangers of infatuation. Buffy makes the Parker Mistake because she wants to fall in love with a everyday human being more than she wants Parker in the specific. Zipping through the assumption and attraction in a rush to get to normal and loved, Buffy misses the cues that would have told her he was a shallow, not very bright user and pays the price. Parker adds to Buffy’s experience with men, but mostly he serves as foil and foreshadowing for Buffy’s next big romance, Riley Finn.

The assumption phase for this romance is automatic: Riley and Buffy are both beautiful, blond, athletic college students. When they discover in “Hush” that they’re both super-human demon fighters, attraction goes wild, fueled by copulatory gazes over dead demons and hot hand-to-hand combat (Whedon). In fact, combat is the foreplay for their first sexual encounter, one that leads to frequent healthy, sweaty, well-lit intercourse. But a gulf opens between them when Riley discovers that his super-human strength comes from drugs that are killing him, which forces him to return to being just a strong human. If he truly loved Buffy unconditionally, Riley would accept their differences as fact and not as a comment on his inadequacy. Instead, he sees Buffy only in relationship to himself, a reproach to his own lost power, and punishes her by finding sexual solace with the enemy as a vampire addict, a tacit admission that all that safe, bouncy lovemaking is a sham. Buffy fails him just as badly by turning from him when she discovers his addiction, betrayed because he isn’t the hero she needs him to be. Real love is unconditional, and they don’t have it.

There’s also another factor at work: Buffy is no longer a wisecracking teenager by the time the fourth season ends. She’s an adult, increasingly aware that the line between good and evil is more of a smudge, and she knows Riley’s matter-of-fact, Manichean view of the universe is too simplistic. The fifth season codes this in the form of the two men vying for her: Riley the Impossibly Good and Spike the Unspeakably Evil, an ostensibly easy choice. But it slowly becomes evident that while the noble Riley’s love is selfish and conditional, the murderous Spike’s love is without qualification.

At first glance, assumption plays no part in Buffy and Spike’s relationship. They meet as mortal enemies, trying without hesitation to kill one another. But their first interactions are in fact strong cues for assumption, and although she dismisses him as just another vampire, and he sees her as the third notch on his slayer-killing belt, they both surprise each other. He’s much more powerful than she realizes, and she’s much more complex than he can fathom. Adding to the attraction is the fact that from the beginning, their conflict is sexual. In their first real physical confrontation in “School Hard,” he knocks her to the ground and straddles her, saying, “I’ll make it quick. It won’t hurt a bit;” she says, “Wrong. It’s gonna hurt a lot ,” foreshadowing the next five seasons of mutual violence (Whedon and Greenwalt, 50-51). It’s a coded erotic beginning to a complex hate/hate relationship that takes an abrupt turn when Spike is forced to choose between Angelus’s plan for the end of the world and his own enjoyment of life. Stuck between Angelus and Buffy, he chooses her, and starts irrevocably down a path that leads him to unconditional love, not only of Buffy but of life (Whedon, “Becoming, Part II”).

Caught in a dynamic so strong neither can break away, Spike and Buffy continue to ignore what viewers can see plainly: they’re meant for each other. But when Buffy is injured and forced to confront her own mortality, it’s Spike she goes to for answers in “Fool for Love.” When she asks him how he killed two slayers, he gives her the key she doesn’t want. “Every slayer,” he tells her, fixing her with a copulatory gaze, “has a death wish,” and then he rephrases it in sexual terms: “You know you want to dance” (Petrie). It’s in this scene that their erotic attraction becomes clear: They’re tied to each other in a heated, perverse symbiosis that fuses all the elements of attraction: they’re beautiful, strong, smart, funny, and forbidden, and they’re the only two people on the planet who can understand each other. They’re the ultimate aphrodisiac: they know each other to the core.

Swamped by emotion and lust, Spike moves into infatuation much more readily than Buffy because he’s the true romantic, the real fool for love. In that, he’s smarter than Buffy, who keeps trying to fall in love with Good instead of finding a partner who not only understands her but also values her for what she is. Spike might have gone on loving her hopelessly forever except for a major plot move: Buffy dies to save the world. If Spike’s love were immature and conditional, that would finish things, and he’d return to his old life. Instead, he stays in a life that doesn’t fit him, helping her friends and protecting her sister, knowing that he’ll never see her again and still loving her hopelessly. When she claws her way out of the grave, he’s the only one who understands what’s happened, and his calm handling of her crisis is one of the best demonstrations of real love ever filmed. When she asks, “How long was I gone?” and he says, “Hundred and forty-seven days yesterday . . . one forty-eight today,” he speaks volumes about how much he loves her (Espenson, “Afterlife”).

And Buffy knows it. He’s the only one she can trust with the truth about her “rescue,” the only one she can talk to without anger or guilt, the only one who accepts her absolutely. But her love isn’t based on those things; like Spike’s, it’s also unconditional. Although she finally ends their affair, she stands by him through stupid crimes (selling monster eggs?), attempted rape, and insanity, refusing to kill him again and again even though he crosses her moral line, rejecting his offer to leave when it appears that the First Evil plans to work through him, telling him “I’m not ready for you not to be here” (Espenson, “First Date”). Even throughout a very uneven sixth season that swings between brilliant episodes and stories that are appalling world and character violations, Spike and Buffy’s love story stays true because Spike, like Angel before him, loves Buffy unconditionally, sacrifices for her, endures torture for her, almost dies for her, finally does die for her, and much against her will, Buffy reciprocates, risking her life to save him, forgiving him the unforgivable, telling him at the end that she loves him because he’s earned it.

But there’s another dimension to Buffy’s love stories beyond the psychological accuracy, a dimension that makes them even deeper: the ever-present knowledge that while falling in love can be devastating, consummating that love can be lethal. A quick run-down of Love’s Greatest Hits on Buffy shows that love in this world really is a matter of life and death.

Buffy sleeps with Angel who turns into a demon and tries to kill her with a short time-out when they’re possessed by the spirits of a murder-suicide love match (“I Only Have Eyes For You”). When she tries to date within her species, she ends up with an ex-boyfriend to tries to feed her to vampires (“Lie to Me”), a nice guy with a death wish (“Never Kill A Boy on the First Date”), a groping loser who turns into The Creature from the Swim Team (“Go Fish”), and another nice guy whose best friend tries to kill her as Sunnydale’s Dr. Hyde (“Beauty and the Beasts”). After that, she falls for a man whose jealous mentor tries to send her to her death (“The I in Team”) and a vampire who’s tried to kill her so many times he’s practically the Wile E. Coyote of Sunnydale.

Buffy’s friends aren’t doing any better. Willow’s hopeless crush on Xander leads her to accept a stranger’s invitation to a nice walk in the dark and almost gets her killed in “Welcome to the Hellmouth.” After that she gets a crush on an internet pen pal who turns out to be a demon-infested robot (“I Robot, You Jane”), falls in love with a werewolf who tries to rip her apart (“Phases”); and finally finds a haven with Tara, who is shot to death as she’s standing in Willow’s bedroom, making a sexual advance. Or there’s Cordelia Chase, who almost gets vamped by her dance partner (“The Harvest”), dates a fraternity boy who tries to feed her to a giant lizard (“Reptile Boy”), is kidnapped by a Frankenstein football player who wants to cut off her head so they can be together forever, and falls in love with Xander who betrays her which results in her impalement on a rebar (“Lover’s Walk”). Buffy’s family doesn’t fare any better. Her mother has two boyfriends in the entire run of the show (not counting her candy-inspired interlude with Giles on the hood of the police car): a homicidal robot (“Ted”) and the nice guy who sends her flowers the morning she dies (“The Body.”) And Buffy’s little sister Dawn goes on her first date and gets her first kiss from a guy who turns into a vampire, pins her down in the missionary position, and offers to make her immortal, after which she stakes him.

But it’s not just Sunnydale’s women who are mauled by the metaphor. Whedon’s universe offers equal opportunity death to men. Angel is human until a pick-up date named Darla murders him in an alley and makes him a vampire. He manages to make it through the next two hundred years and then meets Buffy, his one true love, who runs a phallic sword through him and sends him to hell. Spike’s story is similar: He meets Drusilla when she finds him weeping in the street after rejection by the woman he loves; she comforts him by making him a vampire. He loves her for the next century until he falls for Buffy as someone even more lethal than Dru, dying spectacularly in the series finale to save her and defeat his kind. Giles, Buffy’s watcher, falls in love with a fellow teacher and then, on the night they plan to consummate their love, finds her dead in his bed (“Passion”). But the real champ in the Sex-Is-Death sweepstakes is Xander, who ignores non-lethal and therefore non-sexual Willow to lust after a substitute teacher who invites him to her house for a study date and turns into a praying mantis (“Teacher’s Pet”), an undead exchange student whose kiss causes death (“Inca Mummy Girl”), and Cordelia who wishes him into an alternate universe where he’s a vampire staked by Buffy (“The Wish”). When he tries to be proactive and use magic to make things work, hordes of women attack him, ready to love him to death (“Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”). He loses his virginity to deviant slayer Faith who tries to strangle him when he comes back for seconds, and proposes to Anya the vengeance demon who does her best to eviscerate him by proxy when he leaves her at the altar. Then his rebound date strings him up above an ancient symbol and penetrates his abdomen with a spear so that his blood will unleash the undead (“First Dates”).

Still, the most interesting sex-as-pain-and-death relationship in this series is Buffy and Spike. Their frequent physical fights grow more and more sexual, so that when Spike finally tells Buffy he loves her, and she tries to track back to where she went wrong, she decides it’s the pain: “I do beat him up a lot. For him, that’s like third base”   (Fury, “Crush” ). The foreplay for their first sexual encounter is a knock-down fight, during which Spike tells her, “I wasn’t planning to hurt you. Much,” right before she hits him and then kisses him and then hits him again (Greenberg, “Smashed). It’s important that Buffy doesn’t sleep with Spike until she knows the prophylactic chip in his head does not work for her because it means that in the heated proximity of the rough sex they become addicted to, they’re both easy to kill, each knowing that the little death of orgasm can, at any moment, change from symbol to reality, and the fact that the sex is violent simulates this. They’re miming death over and over again, practicing the moment they both assume they’re hurtling toward, the moment they fulfill their roles as vampire slayer and slayer assassin. That erotic risk coupled with their repeated demonstrations of unconditional love makes their twisted relationship one of the most powerful ever written, a fitting climax to a series in which “dying for a kiss” isn’t just a figure of speech, at least not for Spike.

But Whedon’s greatest love story doesn’t stop there. He takes it down another layer, to the metaphor that fuels the series and raises the romances of Buffy to the level of myth: Buffy as the slayer is unconditionally, inextricably, erotically tied to Death.

Angel’s transformation into a vampire after their first kiss in the first season is the only incident in the series in which sexual arousal is directly linked to becoming the monster, but it ties into the long tradition of oral eroticism that the vampire story has represented since Stoker’s Dracula. Buffy screams when confronted with the truth, but it’s a truth that she needs to face. She can’t remain an innocent and save the world, too, just as she can’t remain sexually innocent and become a mature woman. That metaphor is reinforced when she makes love with Angel for the first time and wakes up with Angelus, a move that at first glance seems only to symbolize “all men are beasts,” but comes to mean that all lovers are dangerous when Buffy proves to be just as lethal as Angelus. When Buffy refuses to destroy Angelus, she protects death; when she sacrifices Angel to save the world, she sacrifices love.

The power of this metaphor also explains Buffy’s failed relationship with Riley. Yes, their love is conditional, but what really undercuts their relationship is a much deeper failing: Riley is the wrong metaphor. As the corn-fed farm boy, Riley represents the Beautiful American, light and peace and wholesomeness, and Buffy wants to connect to him because she wants to be Good’s Girlfriend. But the relationship feels wrong: Riley wears a milk mustache while Buffy’s hands drip blood. His appreciation of her as the Slayer seems to stem from the fact that she’s really athletic and great at covert ops, just like one of the guys. He never seems to understand what Angel and Spike know instinctively, that Buffy has a heart of darkness. As Buffy comes to understand this herself, the series darkens but it also deepens, becoming much richer as each season adds more layers to the metaphor so that in the last three seasons, Whedon connects directly with this paradox at the core of Buffy, the complexity that made the series so irresistible from the beginning: Our savior is a murderess, and she’s infatuated with Death.

The clearest embodiment of that is her relationship with Spike. Everything in their interactions reeks of sex and death, from the moment in “Fool for Love” when Spike tells her that he’s waiting for her to get tired of the struggle and come to him to be taken. He looms over her, phallic pool cue in hand, whispering in her ear that all he needs to get her is “One. Good. Day,” and becomes the symbol that eroticizes Buffy’s dark side (Petrie). This makes it all the more perplexing that the Mutant Enemy writers see their relationship as one-sided and harmful. In what was evidently one of the great botched metaphors in the history of storytelling, Buffy and Spike consummate their relationship and demolish a derelict mansion in their throes. Houses are a common symbol for people in stories (think of Roderick Usher’s mansion in “The Fall of the House of Usher” or Emily’s decaying home in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”) and this one seems to clearly represent Buffy’s once rich but now derelict past life. She has died in one life and been resurrected into a new one, but she’s clinging to the past, living in the decaying shell of her former existence, an old life must be rejected before she can live fully in the new world. When she embraces Spike, she embraces the dark side of her destiny, an adult rejection of the simplistic good/evil universe of her childhood, freeing herself to move into the future and defeat the worst enemy of all, the First Evil. Their consummation takes them to their deepest levels, both symbolically and literally as they fall into the basement, and leaves Buffy standing in a shaft of light in the morning, reborn. As metaphoric scenes go, it’s one of the most powerful in the history of the series.

Except that’s evidently not what the writers had in mind, since they insisted in interviews that the wreck symbolized the relationship as a bad choice. If Spike and Buffy wreck her cheery little bungalow home, that’s bad. If they dismantle a church, that’s bad. If they demolish a deserted, derelict mansion, that’s urban renewal. The continued insistence throughout Season Six that this relationship is wrong, unhealthy, symbolic of something evil and immoral is not only inexplicable but annoying, which is probably why so many viewers are unhappy with the direction the series takes in the sixth season: they were reading a different metaphor than the writers intended.

But in the seventh season, Whedon brings the story back to its roots by taking it down one more metaphoric layer, to the beginning of his myth. In “Get It Done“, Buffy travels back to the beginning of the Slayers and discovers that the first Slayer was created when a council of men chained a helpless girl to be raped by a demon in order to imbue her with supernatural powers that would protect them. The concept of the slayer has always been a violation of free will, from very first episode in which Buffy is forced back to her role as Slayer against her wishes to the last season populated by bewildered and frightened Potentials who would rather just go home. In “Get It Done,” the image of a chained Buffy penetrated both orally and vaginally by the creeping black vapor of the demon, symbolizes this violation at the center of the myth, the rape of free will that every slayer represents. As defined by the council, the creation of the Slayer was a violent sexual sacrifice to death, a sacrifice that is destined to be repeated in every generation.

But the myth of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has never been the myth of the Slayer; it’s the myth of Buffy Summers, the Slayer who is different. Instead of obeying and dying like her predecessors, season after season, she has rejected the male power hierarchies that have tried to control her. She defies Giles in the first season and makes him treat her as a partner in decision making. She fires the council in season three, and when they come back for season five, she defeats them and forces them to work for her. In season seven, she goes back to the beginning and defies the original council, resetting the power structure at the heart of myth and taking back her story, and refusing the rape and its sexual-submission-as-power ploy, saying “You think I came all this way to get knocked up by some demon dust?” (Petrie, “Get It Done”). She is the Slayer who is different, the lover who embraces death on her own terms, the blonde who goes into the alley and comes back with patriarchy’s head, and she does it, not as a virginal, powerless Joan of Arc (even if she wistfully christens herself “Joan” in “Tabula Rasa), but as a fiercely sexual, passionate woman who knows exactly what she’s doing when she opens her arms to darkness.

In a world where any attempt to find connection results in pain and death, love is an act of unbelievable courage. That Buffy the Vampire Slayer explores that dangerous act in so many forms on so many levels through so many characters is the most compelling aspect of the series. But first among equals, it is Buffy in her passion and in her blazing, defiant sexuality that most defines the myth, Buffy the great feminist icon as warrior, lover, and finally mature woman. She’s our Ishtar who aced the SATs, our Morrigan with a snarky sense of humor, our Kali with a better fashion sense, and the complexity of her myth, the depth of her metaphor, and the truth of her love stories makes her a great romantic heroine and Buffy the Vampire Slayer one of the great romances of our time.

Works Cited

  • Espenson, Jane. “Afterlife.” “First Date.”
  • Fromm, Erich. The Art of Loving.NY: Harper, 1956.
  • Fury, David. “Crush.”
  • Greenberg, Drew. “Smashed.”
  • Greenwalt, David. “Angel.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season One, Volume Two: The Script Book. NY: Pocket, 1997, 2000.
  • Noxon, Marti. “Beauty and the Beasts.” “I Only Have Eyes For You.”
  • Petrie, Douglas. “Fool for Love.” “Get It Done.”
  • Whedon, Joss. “Becoming, Part II.” “Hush.” “Innocence.” “Welcome to the Hellmouth.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season One, Volume One: The Script Book. NY: Pocket, 1997, 2000.
  • Whedon, Joss and David Greenwalt. “School Hard.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Two, Volume One: The Script Book. NY: Pocket, 1997, 2001.

Written by Jennifer Crusie, this essay was originally published as “Dating Death.” Seven Seasons of Buffy: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Discuss Their Favorite Television Show. Ed. Glenn Yeffeth. BenBella Books, Sept 2003.

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