It seems like a lot of the complaints about the Twilight arc begin with some variation on "I'm not a prude, but I didn't like the sex." Usually that sentiment is followed by some understandable reasons for it, but I can't help thinking about the disclaimer and what it might mean for one's attitude toward the comics. So here's a new angle for you: I am a prude, and I loved the sex.
I realize that by saying that I'm opening this up to a semantic debate about what the word 'prude' means, or even to the challenge that I'm directly contradicting myself, but since I'm not really interested in pursuing that kind of argument I'm going to ask you to use your own definition but accept that I'm not using the word to be ironic. I am extremely selective about the ways that sex comes into my life, not only as it concerns my own body but also in what I observe or absorb from the world around me. I've confused enough people to know that my standards are not quite standard.
Just for instance, porn disgusts me and I don’t want it to even exist. That’s a huge generalization, and involves definitions again. (Curses!) What I mean first of all is photographic or video porn: if it involves actors or models, it can’t be made without someone selling her body, and I don’t see a place in the world for that. Fortunately, we can leave #34 out of it. Remove the humans from the process and pornography is an entirely different animal, but there’s a lot of erotic artwork that I don’t think should exist, either — say, if it’s depicting something immoral without identifying it as such. Explicit written material has the same boundaries, and they’re very slippery ones (after all, any artist or writer can claim that his or her work wasn’t meant to be arousing). I won’t bother with examples. You’ve seen them.
But when no perversions are encouraged, from a moral standpoint, I can think of no reason that a comic book portraying sexual acts shouldn’t exist. Please note that I’m not saying that it should be available to anyone; this content is not for kids. We won’t dwell on that because I don’t think it’s anyone’s top concern — keeping adult material away from children is the same issue for Season 8 as it is for anything else, and it did bear the appropriate warnings. What’s happening here is adults writing and drawing a sex scene for adults. A fictional series about adult characters is the natural place for this to happen, and I for one welcome it.
The point is, I'm not anti-sex. The point is, nobody is anti-sex. Ask the most hardcore fundamentalist and he'll still tell you that a husband and wife should enjoy their lovemaking. Even someone with a personal aversion to intimacy doesn't apply it to anyone else. So maybe some of us have a lot of restrictions: they're not there because of a distaste for sexuality. They're there because we have our own ways of celebrating it, and if it's treated casually, that celebration loses some of its joy for us.
Speaking of treating it casually, you hear the word ‘gratuitous’ thrown around a lot in reference to #34. It’s an understandable way for one’s knee to jerk, because hoo boy is there a lot of gratuitous sex in the media, but here the term doesn’t apply. Sex for the sake of sex is gratuitous; if two characters spend a couple pages knocking boots without adding anything to the plot or to the development of their relationship, that’s shallow and insulting. Well, Buffy and Angel’s lovemaking was pretty damn crucial to both the plot and the characters, and it was given a proportional amount of coverage by the art. I thought that was a great choice, which got the point across much more than the trail-of-clothes-leading-to-the-bed approach would have. In my opinion it could have stood to be a little more graphic.
When volcanoes are erupting and oceans are churning as a direct result of two people having sex, I think it’s safe to say that the subject is not being treated casually.
So now we’ve reached the meta side of the discussion: even if the graphic nature of the material isn’t setting off my conservative-minded outrage, do I want to see it? It’s hot, sure, but it isn’t hot enough to merit the scene regardless of what it means for the characters. (Actually, nothing is. I sometimes read fanfics with all porn and no plot, but only for my favorite pairings. Adding visuals to the mix doesn’t change anything, even in canon. I hear this kind of view is not unusual for my gender.) This would be a much different kettle of fish if Dark Horse had released a one-shot pornographic comic book starring two original characters, but Season 8 #34 is a chapter in a series that many fans care about a whole hell of a lot, myself included. Buffy is important to us and we want her portrayal to remain respectful, and consistent, in all ways. Unfortunately, that won’t mean the same thing to all of us.
Buffy, the character, doesn't share my views on sex. This did not come as a surprise to me, as most of the people I admire and love in real life don't share them either. Nor does it bother me. Buffy's her own girl. If I had been the one writing her, she probably would have followed my formula for a perfect tragic romance and remained single and chaste after Angel departed, and I think all of us can breathe a sigh of relief that I was not in fact the one writing her.
Having a personal code of ethics doesn’t mean using it as a standard for judging others. If it did, I’d have to temper my enjoyment of all the characters with disappointment about the choices they’ve made. On the other hand, we have to hold them to some kind of standard, or their personal journeys don’t mean anything. So, what we want for Buffy is to stay true to what Buffy believes. A lot of fans are saying that she isn’t, because the Buffy we know would never sleep with Angel under these circumstances. Some are chalking it up to poor writing, some say it’s evidence that her free will is under a mystical influence.
(As an aside, I want to state that comments suggesting rape as an explanation for the events of the Twilight arc are not welcome in this discussion. The word is offensive when misused, and consent was very clearly portrayed for both characters.)
I’m backing a third option and it’s all about trust. Buffy has been in Joss’s hands all along, and he has always known what he’s doing with her. I trust the storyteller, so I trust the heroine. She is going to do the right thing. She is going to stay true to what she believes. We might not know what that is, but she does: this is her body, her heart, her choice. A detailed interrogation of Angel isn’t going to tell her anything that could be proven. Consulting with her friends is even more pointless. All she has is faith. To commit herself to this one staggeringly meaningful act of physicality, she needs absolute trust in herself and absolute trust in her lover. She has it.
I think that’s spectacular. I think that’s self-determination at its finest. I think that’s what sex itself was made for.
That Buffy did what she wanted to do, I have no doubt at all. Whether she did the right thing is still foggy. She had no way of knowing the cosmic consequences, of course, and I do think that she and Angel were experiencing some jacked-up destiny lust that prevented them from seeing what was happening to the world around them. But on a personal level — woman has relations with man — how do we know what the “right thing” is? Does Buffy have to answer for who she decides to shag?
Out of context, most of us would probably say no, since she’s an adult and we try not to use our personal code of ethics as a standard for judging others. But Buffy’s humiliation over her night with Parker and her deep-seated shame over her affair with Spike show that she feels differently. There was never any guilt or doubt over all the times she did it with Riley, isn’t that interesting? But then, they were an official couple. They were exclusive. They were joined by a mutual agreement and coexisted within it as equals. Huh. When it’s laid out like that, Buffy’s code of sexual ethics actually sounds a lot like marriage.
It also sounds a lot like your typical code of ethics for this day and age, but remember I’m representing the traditionalists here, so let’s look at the marriage angle. It differs from a Buffy/Riley relationship in that it involves a ritual and is intended to be permanent, and it’s considered legally binding, metaphysically binding, or both.
Now I’m wading into metaphor terrain, but: Buffy and Angel kind of had that. Once their relationship was formed and sealed, it never actually ended. The ritual part was a little less, but the metaphysical part was a lot more, and the relationships they had with others never had the same quality of permanence, due at least in part to the fact that they went into them belonging to someone else. If Buffy and Angel were already “married” at the time, these incidents show that they were either straying from each other, or opening up the relationship. Neither is desirable from the straight-up monogamist’s point of view, but both can be repaired by a conscious and final return to the original covenant and all it entails-- i.e., sex, not as an apology or a duty but as the transmission of a vow.
If my waxing romantic about marriage is bugging you, remember that I’m not trying to sway you over to my point of view, but to explain why monogamy-fetishists like myself are nonetheless okay with the sudden sexplosion between two characters who haven’t seen each other in years. You might see Buffy as having an especially irresponsible fling (I’m not gonna say “slut”, but somebody did); I see her as expressing her fidelity.
Obviously, this perspective doesn’t work if you weren’t already a Buffy/Angel shipper — but you knew that before I started talking, didn’t you? The spectrum of reactions to the Twilight arc corresponds awfully closely to the pre-existing shipping biases, although there have been a lot of attempts to separate them. I don’t feel any need to separate mine. Shipping is part of the watching/reading experience for me, as romance is part of the story being told. If the destiny sex had happened between any other two characters, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it and would not be able to come up with a defense of it, so I can see that this is a bit of a raw deal for readers whose shipping preferences oppose mine.
Fortunately for them, I can’t refute anyone else’s reading. I also can’t share my own reading with everyone else who enjoyed the issue, because for all I know, they enjoyed it for entirely different reasons. Therein lies the beauty of fiction, though, and as a woman who has very little in common with my hero Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I’m thrilled that I could find something so personally fulfilling in her story.
So there you have it: Season 8’s Twilight arc is porn for prudes. Anyone else who wants to release something in this genre, please, keep me notified!