Why Riley Left

One of the big risks of facebook and even G+ is that they are potentially echo chambers where everyone is basically in agreement because that’s how we got to be in the chamber. According to a quick vote-tally of my facebook friends, the Green party in NZ won the last election with a suspicious 90% of the vote. I don’t spend a lot of time in these venues partially for that reason, but occasionally something genuinely interesting and challenging slips through accidentally. For example, my feed has been filled with supportive comments about #FeministFrequency and associates for a long time and that support was amplified by #Gamergate. It was through this vector that I saw a very interesting piece entitled #WhyBuffyStayed: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Riley, and the Cycle of Abuse.

I think it’s worth prefacing any kind of response to this piece by pointing out how durable Buffy’s cultural capital has been. Buffy remains the touchstone of modern urban fantasy and feminist empowerment, having triumphed over numerous contenders for the title –  people still ask Joss Whedon why he writes strong female characters. I wondered whether this article would have worked just as well, if not better, if it were about Scully in X-Files, or Nikita from La Femme Nikita. True, there is less of a sexual aspect to their experiences, but the basic pattern of behaviour from the powers that bind them into the narratives are equally strong and equally worrying if you want to worry about such things. Yet these basically iconic feminist characters are… if not forgotten, then certainly not the cultural power-house that Buffy is. I’m not sure I would have predicted that 20 years ago when these characters all emerged into the Western cultural scene.

What struck me most forcefully about the arguments of the article itself was a really strong sense of cognitive dissonance. At the time and subsequently, I experienced the Buffy/Riley relationship in precisely the opposite way to this writer. Is that a function of my deeply ingrained cultural perspective on abusive relationships or a function of an unwavering devotion to Buffy the cultural icon? Probably both. Almost certainly a combination of both. For me, Riley is always the also-ran of Buffy’s various love interests, because I think we all completely understood at the time that he was, at best, a temporary visitor in her life.

I think we need to look at the context for Buffy when she decided to accept Riley’s overtures – it was after “Something Blue”, where we see a horrible foreshadowing of Season 6, Buffy in a relationship with Spike. She admits quite openly that she’s thought conflict was where love emerged but the experience with Spike had instilled in her the desire for something easy and simple. It could be construed that she started a relationship with Riley not because of any intrinsic interest in him, but because he was safe and reliable: the easy option, in fact. The way I read season 5 in particular, is that Riley suffers from lacking drama or interest, both to Buffy and to the audience. He is an remains “corn fed Iowa boy” and I read his various acting-out not as abuse as such but simply a cry for attention. There are numerous disturbing aspects to this, but I find it hard to reconcile the general shape of Riley’s arc with him as abuser. Buffy has all of the power in their relationship, as she does in almost all of her relationships.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is littered with disastrous relationships, partially because that is the nature of “drama” as such. Few media products really make a stable and happy relationship dramatically interesting. I think we could parse any pairing through Field’s generalised arguments and plausibly support them. How can we characterise Drusilla and Spike’s fairytale romance as anything other than a controlling/dominating one? As soon as Drusilla rather than Spike assumes the dominant power position, the relationship fractures as Spike is unable to accept the situation of being disempowered the way Drusilla did. Then again, even when sick, Drusilla was the key decision-maker and Spike was something of a willing slave. Whether this is quite “abusive” is open to debate, but I don’t think there will be too many arguments that it’s healthy.

I think that Field represents this debate implicitly in gendered terms. My counter-reading of the power dynamics may equally be gender-biased. I think there is a far better candidate relationship for her article is the most serious abuser, Willow. She found it necessary and expedient to actually erase the memories of her transgressions to prolong her relationship and ensure that Amber played her desired role of cheer-leader and supporter. Amber was, in my reading of the show, far more straightforwardly a victim. Riley’s acting-out and stereotypically male responses to challenges do seriously cloud the issue.

It seems to me that while Field offers a useful way of reading the relationships in the show, and in particular puts an interesting and compelling counter-narrative together for why Riley didn’t last in Buffy’s life, there is a risk here of being reductive. I’d feel better about Field’s argument if it directly addressed the origin of the behaviours she dislikes in Riley. At the moment, it reads as if Riley is straightforwardly a controlling abuser, ignoring the context in which their relationship formed, the genre pressures that might have influenced his behaviours, the necessity on a pragmatic level of drama. Most seriously, where is the investigation of Buffy’s other relationships, which form the wider context of her relationship with Riley. In the same season 4, we are treated to a half-dozen episodes of Buffy moping over her abandonment by Parker, a completely incidental character. Willow, on the other hand, gets essentially two episodes to “get over” an on-screen relationship with a major cast member that everyone has been invested in for two seasons. Viewing her as Riley’s powerless victim in the light of her obvious story power, in her structural centrality to the narrative, seems almost wilfully blinkered.

As my title suggests, I think that in some ways, a more interesting question is why Riley remains in the relationship for as long as he does. He is clearly aware of her semi-indifference. Having sacrificed his role in The Initiative, essentially his whole life, as part of wooing her, he finds himself adrift and purposeless. Buffy’s directive to kill Vampires is hard-wired and inherent, requiring no external agency. Buffy could make use of the Watcher organisation, but prefers to act alone whenever possible. Riley, as a warrior and basically a team-player, finds there is no space for him on Team Buffy. This is the central problem that drives the ill-judged Season 7 and is resolved by her decision to relinquish her importance as The Slayer. I note that in Season 7 Buffy believes that The First Evil will kill her last, but in fact the slayer activation has passed to Faith, who would be the last slayer if the First’s plans succeeded. Riley, used to a controlled, disciplined, and integrated bureaucratic organisation, needs structure that is antithetical to Buffy’s modus operandi. I think he stays because he hopes to latch on to her destiny and become Buffy’s plus-one in the fight against evil. I think that by the time Riley emerges on the scene, we’ve seen Buffy categorically reject two other more suitable candidates in Kendra and Faith; we can have no hope for Riley. As Riley begins to realise this, he is completely adrift. When we see him in the future, he has rejoined an organization and his wife is integral to that larger-scale sense of purpose.

If Field’s intention was to provoke thought, then she has succeeded admirably. If her intention was to invert my understanding of the Riley-Buffy relationship, then she was less successful. Going forward, I think I will be far more aware of the specific behaviours she cites, even if in this instance I don’t agree on the holistic scenario she sketches.

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