In this series, I’ll deconstruct the representation of “bad boys” in pop culture and compare them to the people presented (in the same show) as “good men.” This is to highlight how, rather than being bad (or only attractive because bad) these boys are actually bad at being boys — they tend to reject ideal masculinity and are portrayed as having (culturally unacceptable) feminine coded traits. This “bad boys” trope is thus set not on a morality scale, but a masculinity scale.
Today, I’m deconstructing Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel (both available on Netflix streaming). Beware spoilers.
Angel is a Good Man
Angel is 400 some odd years old, and he’s dating a Sophomore in High school. You all feel me, on this one, and we all know it isn’t the difference in age, it the age of the youngest participant that crosses certain creepy lines. It also sets the stage for what comes across as a paternalistic relationship. Angel has all the “masculine” qualities in spades. He plays his cards close to his chest, he’s broody and stoic and high minded. He’s protective and strong and brave. He knows what’s best for Buffy and doesn’t let her whims sway him from his goals. I’m meant to like him.
When he was human, he was a lay-about-good-for-nothing-son that disappointed his father (sexually harassed the servants and spent his time drinking, whoring and getting into fights). After being “cursed” with a soul, he wallowed in self-pity for literally centuries before getting a hair cut and a tailor and taking it upon himself to protect the slayer. He doesn’t tell her he’s a vampire until his own lack of self-control betrays him, he hides things from her, goes behind her back to negotiate things with her “father” (Giles), and given the chance to be a human again and be able to live out his life with Buffy, he gives it back because it means he’s no longer as strong as she is and he can’t handle it.
Angel requires a soul to love someone. This is made explicitly clear when he loses it (once on Buffy, once on Angel). As a vampire, he thought nothing of betraying Darla (she felt the same about him), thought of Dru as nothing but a canvas upon which to create his own form of art, and the friends and loves he had vanish the second his soul does. He sets about destroying them, methodically and thoroughly. He is a vampire trapped by a soul, weighed down by guilt and self-pity. He requires these shackles to hang on to the smallest shred of humanity. Angel and Angelus are even considered by most of the characters (and writers) as two completely separate and distinct beings, right down to their taste in music (Angel likes Barry Manilow, Angelus … does not).
Riley is a Good Man
“Well, you know the difference between a freshman girl and a toilet seat… toilet seat doesn’t follow you around after you use it –” That’s what Parker says about Buffy, when Riley decides he has a crush on her and hits him. After this scene, Riley’s friends ask him about it, mentioning specifically that he’s said worse things, and Riley counters that he didn’t like it being said about Buffy. This is how we’re introduced to the Riley/Buffy relationship — that it’s cool to be a misogynist, but this one girl is somehow special and deserves better.
Yes, Riley is wooden and maybe boring, but those are not his worst traits. Like Angel, Riley is not okay with Buffy being stronger than he is. He says that he likes her strength, and claims he doesn’t want her to hold back, but his actions speak very differently. He “likes” her strength like some men “like” girls without makeup on — They want her to naturally have perfect skin, long dark lashes, and pink lips. Riley would obviously prefer that her “not holding back” be the ego-saving pretense she was using.
Buffy gets stuck in this conundrum a lot. She’s constantly covering for, being embarrassed about, or trying to down play her strength, skill, or experience, because Riley wants desperately to be the man. Riley is an incredibly needy individual. He needs Buffy to be a girl — to break down, to cry on his shoulder, to come to him with every problem so he can fix them. This is not being dependable, this is a demand to be dependent. He gets angry if he can’t do anything for her, he leaves if she’s not willing to lean on him. He does stupid, dangerous things just to prove to himself that he’s still a “man.” Or at least, some representation of what he thinks a man should be.
Spike is the Bad Boy
Spike is “love’s bitch” — self styled. He is “impotent” He spends the entire series going through a very public castration. As a human, he was sensitive, he wrote poetry, he wanted nothing more than to be loved by his one chosen woman — and his mommy. He spent the entirety of his unlife until Sunnydale in a mad love affair with Dru — even watching her sleep with Angel. The exterior facade of masculinity is just that — a thin and crumbling facade.
Spike, rather than being a completely separate person from ensouled Spike, never actually lost these “beta” traits. He was still ultra sensitive and capable of loving madly. Though he tries desperately to be the Big Bad, to be evil, to cover that tiny, naked pink creature hiding beneath his breast; the horrible, horrible truth about him is that his heart lived on his sleeve, and towards the end even Dawn had more street cred. In direct opposition to the other two manly-good-guys, Spike, the beta-bad-boy actually loved Buffy’s strength and skill. When he commissioned the Buffybot, her power and her slaying ability were at the top of this list — even over getting Giles’ name right. He also trusted her in a fight. He threw her a weapon rather than try to use it himself, he could save or be saved with equal grace. When he saw the Scoobies show up after his escape from Glory, he crumpled to the ground, and trusted — entirely and completely, that Buffy (Or Willow, or someone) would swoop in and save him.
He was never more than the skin of paint away from being completely and apologetically himself. He was gross, twisted, occasionally cruel, petty, fragile, crazed, arguably evil (pre-soul), but he was never truly deceitful. He let it all hang out, he’d spill his entrails all over the kitchen table at the merest hint of an invitation — Buffy’s mother got several earfuls, and was never in any danger, even before he got his soul back, or even his chip. He genuinely liked the woman and spent several evenings curled up at her kitchen table with a mug of cocoa.
Riley was presented as dependable — a masculine coded trait. Dependable, all American Iowa Farm Boy. Rock solid. But his dependability, as mentioned, required Buffy to be dependent. Contrast to Spike, who was always happy to simply exist beside Buffy. Spike never required, nor asked, nor expected, nor got angry if she didn’t fall into his arms (he probably would have been right turned off if she did). He got all of Buffy’s secrets because he was there. He was a passive participant in the inner secret sharing. Spike listened, a feminine coded trait.
Angel was stoic — masculine. Spike was a complete mess. He lived with mad, passionate abandon. He loved until it consumed him, he fought until it destroyed him, he drowned in blood and viscera and asked for more. He went crazy and pleaded, weeping, for help. He was emotional (hyper emotional, even) — feminine.
Riley was a leader — masculine. Spike, in trope terms, varied between dragon and lancer. While he never took orders, per-se, he never gave any, either. He was the fiercely loyal blood knight of his one chosen leader, occasional foil, occasional bodyguard, occasional truth-speaker, occasional fool, but he chose someone to follow, and followed them even unto hell — feminine.
Angel and Riley were both disciplined and controlled — masculine. Spike was irrational, flighty, unpredictable, impatient, he made grand plans and then “got bored” — feminine.
Spike wore nail polish, and even make up, in his punk stage. Imagine either of the other two doing that.
Good Man vs. Bad Boy
I want to discuss the contrast in how they are presented, specifically in regards to Angel and Spike who are the most comparable (ensouled vampires). Angel is presented as a good man and Spike as a bad boy. This seems to be the standard answer as to why many women are “team Spike” — he’s the bad boy and women love bad boys.
I reject the premise. If we accept that any killing done while pure vampire was without-soul and therefore written off (as we do when discussing Angel), what we are left with is their actions taken while on the show and after getting their soul back. I’m actually going to start Spike earlier than that. Because I think it makes an interesting comparison.
Spike got chipped. Now, the chip was not a substitute soul — he was still soulless, but he was incapable of physically hurting humans. I mention this because as he mentions himself, the fact that he can’t pull the trigger in no way stops him from pointing loose cannons at the scoobies. He was still perfectly capable of killing someone through indirect action or inaction than any other soulless vampire. But he didn’t. For the most part, he wanted to disappear quietly into his crypt and watch his Passions (day time soaps — feminine), and his ability to point loose cannons only came up when the scoobies dropped in and asked for help, or someone promised to un-chip him.
And the second he figured out he loved Buffy (a sick, twisted, soulless sort of love, but you get the point), he actually changed. He went out of his way to protect people — he got tortured and refused to identify Dawn, he went up the tower to protect Dawn, and the entire time Buffy was dead, Spike was the official Dawn Babysitter. Buffy is dead, he has no soul, demons are invading, and he takes it upon himself to risk life and limb to protect the little bit, because he told Buffy he would — the chip had nothing to do with those decisions, he made those on his own. He began his character development towards team-good-guy *pre soul*. Now, Spike pre-soul was still twisted, a little lacking in morals, and the attempted rape of Buffy was just the steaming pile of gravy on top of the shit-cake that was their entire, co-dependent, mutually-abusive sexual relationship, but he did not require a soul to love, to protect, to be compassionate, to be kind (Spike with the brain-sucked Tara, for example, or Buffy’s mother and/or sister when they needed to hide).
Angel, as mentioned above, absolutely did require the soul. The second the soul goes, so goes all compassion, all kindness, all bonds of friendship, love, or loyalty. And I put it to you — why is Angel considered the Good Man and Spike the Bad Boy? I submit it has more to do with fashion sense and acceptable masculinity than actually being the badder of the two boys. Spike’s leather jacket was longer, he liked punk music and drinking. Angel liked Barry Manilow and dead French Novelists, but those are not moral choices. Angel was more socially acceptable than Spike.
I submit, for your consideration, that team Spike (and team Damon, for that matter) has more to do with (incredibly sexy) men *rejecting* the masculine ideal, than being, in some way, more “bad” than the other option. They are “bad boys.” They are bad at being boys.