On Friday afternoon, Gawker published a long profile of a Reddit moderator who went by Violentacrez. A Texas programmer in real life, Violentacrez has helped shape Reddit’s norms, mentoring and writing documentation for moderators, scrubbing the site for patently illegal content, but also helping establish some of its most distasteful subsections, some openly racist, and others devoted to posting and discussion of sexualized images of very young women taken or republished without their consent. It’s very, very ugly behavior, and Violentacrez, who became a Reddit star, represents the outer limit of speech Reddit will defend. Reddit subsections have responded to the profile by collectively banning links from Gawker sites. But whatever your opinion of publishing Violentacrez’s real identity, the profile and the conversation around it have furthered discussions about a range of misogynistic behaviors, from the belief that men are entitled to images of women, even those obtained invasively, to the idea that men have a more valid right to protection of their identities or to sexual gratification than women have to be free of harassment or to name harassing behavior for what it is.
In the midst of the discussion of the Gawker piece, New Yorker television critic and friend of this blog Emily Nussbaum tweeted “The whole Gawker/Reddit expose is reminding me how thoughtful & prescient Buffy Season 6 was about exactly this type of geek misogyny.” It’s a brilliant observation, and I’d take it a step further. The sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which the titular demon hunter and her friends find themselves harassed by three young men, Jonathan Levinson, Andrew Wells, and Warren Mears, who call themselves The Trio. These characters are each an important example of three different and damaging kinds of views men can have of women, and what toxic and tragic things can come to pass when those different worldviews are conflated and intermingled.
When we meet Jonathan Levinson, the member of the Trio who has the longest history with Buffy and her friends, he seems awfully like some of the men on Reddit and elsewhere who express profound yearning for emotional and sexual connection with women (in particular), but are afraid such connections are permanently beyond their grasp. His failed high school relationships, which take place on the periphery of Buffy’s adventures, read like a litany of stereotypical complaints about the true motivations of women. There’s the reincarnated Inca princess who wants him for his life-force rather than his person. Cordelia Chase, a popular and beautiful girl, uses him to get over her own feelings of rejection with little regard for Jonathan’s emotions. Later, he has a date to prom who apparently doesn’t last. Jonathan struggles with suicidal impulses that Buffy initially mistakes for murderousness, an indicator of his profound self-hatred. And while Jonathan recovers enough to want to live, to honor Buffy for protecting him and other students at prom, he remains profoundly alienated and insecure.In “Superstar,” the fourth-season episode that reintroduces Jonathan as a budding sorcerer, Jonathan doesn’t fantasize about dominance, or a world in which he receives the female attention a more entitled geek would think of as his due. Instead, the version of Sunnydale Jonathan conjures up is one in which he’s worthy of the things he wants. He’s a demon-hunter so effective that Buffy follows his lead. He has a breakthrough insight that helps the covert military program Initiative further the hunt for Adam, the hybrid demon the program created, who has since gone on the loose. He’s an accomplished enough musician that he takes over at a college dance, smooth and well-dressed enough that he attracts even former vengeance demon Anya’s prodigious and discerning libido. He even spends much of the episode helping Riley and Buffy reconcile after Riley slept with Faith, the rogue vampire slayer who briefly switched bodies with Buffy, even advising Riley to think sensitively about what Buffy must be feeling about his sexual expectations after Riley unknowing slept with a more experienced woman (Jonathan himself has hot twins waiting for him at home). These aren’t the obsessions of a misogynist — just of a boy who’s struggling with his ability to grow into a fulfilling manhood, who has always lacked the skills to connect socially in a way that seems to come easy for Buffy and her friends.
And his attempt to shortcut the process of learning to be an adult loses him everything: the illusion — which created a monster — is shattered. “People didn’t like being the little actors in your sockpuppet theater,” Buffy tells him. “You weren’t,” Jonathan insists, wanting to believe that his fantasy is rooted in something deeper and more genuine than ever really existed between him and Buffy. “You weren’t socks. You were friends.” But they aren’t, really, and Jonathan, for all his manipulation, knows that and feels guilt about it. That fundamental hole in Jonathan’s life leaves him vulnerable to the influence of Warren Mears.
It’s less clear why Andrew, who apparently went to high school with Buffy and Jonathan, falls under Warren’s influence. It seems Buffy and her friends don’t remember Andrew’s most notable prank, and an early use of his power to summon demons: an attack of flying monkeys on a production of Romeo and Juliet. Though we never see this prank, it seems like a classic example of trolling, an attempt to elicit a reaction through an attack on a sacred cow, or at least a sacred text of adolescent romance. Andrew doesn’t so much want a girlfriend — and Buffy creator Joss Whedon has confirmed that the character of Andrew, like Tom Lenk, the actor who plays him, is meant to be gay — but to have an impact as a substitute for a connection.
Warren is a decidedly nastier specimen than either Jonathan or Andrew, almost a living incarnation of the more provocative solutions to social insecurity and lack of success with women posited by lonely men online and elsewhere. When we meet Warren, he’s done the magical equivalent of one Reddit user’s suggestion that “one day they’ll bio-engineer a *live* fleshlight. and when it’s not in use, it can be kept in a cage and fed hamster food,” building a robot, April, he uses for sex rather than interacting with a real woman. When he starts dating Katrina, a human woman, he abandons April to run out of batteries, an act tantamount to murder, given that he endowed April with some basic sentience. Later, Warren creates a similar sex robot replica of Buffy that the vampire Spike uses to vent his desire for her — Spike later attempts to assault Buffy, an act of ugly violence that prompts him to reevaluate his life.
But the fact that he has succeeds in finding a girlfriend doesn’t help Warren grow beyond his social deficits, or relieve him of his sense that women owe him sex. After he and Katrina break up, he hypnotizes her and turns her into a sexually available zombie. When she recovers and names Warren’s manipulation of her for what it is, she also delivers a painful condemnation of the kind of mindset that treats a woman’s consent as less important than a man’s physical or emotional needs. “You bunch of little boys, playing at being men,” she tells Warren, Andrew, and Jonathan. “Well, this is not some fantasy, it’s not a game, you freaks! It’s rape!” The accusation is too much for Warren, who responds with violence again, and accidentally kills Katrina, then tries to frame Buffy for the crime. In Warren’s worldview, any ill he experiences, even a murder he committed, needs to be traced back to a woman. There’s a difference between this toxic, violent masculinity, Warren’s willingness to impose his will on other people and to take from them, and Jonathan’s fundamental wish to be a better, more appealing person, or even Andrew’s desire to annoy. And there’s something dreadfully sad about watching Jonathan, who might have turned out to be a decent person in different circumstances, or Andrew, who wanted to be noticed, fall under Warren’s influence because Warren happened to be the person who cared enough to keep them around and to give them a framework that assured them of their superiority, a shortcut that let them avoid making painful, incremental improvements to their lives.
The Trio’s attacks on Buffy are often manifestations of sexism or sexist desires. They turn her invisible in “Gone,” leaving her voiceless and with limited ability to affect the world around her. They work ugly magical gaslighting on Buffy in “Normal Again,” convincing her that her life and work as a Slayer, the things that make Buffy strong and special, are merely a delusion, a result of severe mental illness that’s left her incarcerated in an institution. And the climactic confrontation between them is sparked when Warren takes steps to address the thing that he hates most about Buffy: that she is more powerful than he is. When Warren fails to equal Buffy magically, he tries to kill her with a handgun, and ends up murdering another woman, Willow’s girlfriend Tara, instead.
Ultimately, the three members of the Trio end up the tools of a far more virulent form of misogyny: the First Evil, a primordial force that is Buffy’s primary enemy in the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The First manipulates Andrew, perhaps the weakest member of the Trio, into killing Jonathan, the one who had the most clearly-established potential for strong, respectful relationships with women before he gave up the possibility of having normal social interactions. Jonathan literally becomes a sacrifice to the misogyny he embraced when he stopped trying to be a good man, but his anemic blood isn’t a powerful enough offering to unleash the First Evil fully. He can’t fully usher a hatred of women into the world, but misogyny is ultimately the cause of Jonathan’s death. Warren, after he is skinned and burned by Willow, becomes an avatar of the First Evil, returning to haunt Buffy and her friends like the traumatic memory of an assault, insubstantial but still profoundly disruptive. Only Andrew survives to repent, and to become an ally and a friend to women, a kind of relationship that Warren, certainly, never really contemplated. The friend zone, rather than being a bad place women exile men to, can be a place of power, respect, and redemption.
I have no desire to group men who are grappling with how to interact with women in ways that are respectful and productive in the same category as dedicated, hardcore misogynists. It’s why I think writers like Dr. NerdLove, who regularly provides high-quality advice to men who want to improve their lives and relationships with women, are so critically valuable. The Jonathan Levinsons of the world deserve respectful engagement, not shame.
But the Warren Mears among us, whether they express their contempt for and entitlement to women in word or deed, need to be taken more seriously. “She’s a girl!” the First Evil says, speaking through Warren in Buffy’s seventh season. “With sugar, and spice, and everything… useless.” Unless, of course, she’s being of service to a man. Violentacrez and his ilk may not be sorcerers. But the powers available to them to shame and harass women, and to propagate dangerous ideas about women’s motivations and roles, are more significant and frightening than the demon another episode of Buffy, “I, Robot, You Jane,” imagined living in the internet all those years ago.