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Demons in the Internet: Buffy and the Timelessness of Abuse

Identifying with Willow for all the worst reasons.

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Content Warning: This article contains frank discussion of emotional abuse.

When I was in high school and thought iTunes was the center of the known universe, I bought the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My iPod Touch could only hold two episodes at a time, but I slowly made my way through the first two seasons. I watched until the drama got too uncomfortable for me—I’m the best at experiencing second-hand embarrassment. I dropped it, and figured I’d watch it again at some nebulous future point.

Eight years later, I did come back to it. My boyfriend pitched it as a good show to watch while we exercise. He would even hold my hands during the awkward parts. So I caved, and found myself reaching for his hand quicker than I expected.

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“I, Robot…You, Jane” is the most infamous episode in Buffy’s first season. It is, in short, about a demon named Moloch (Mark Deakins) that Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) mistakenly scans into a computer, and thus into the Internet, because of course that’s how it works. Moloch is a demon who feeds on love and loyalty, so he messages Willow, pretending to be a student in another town named Malcolm, and quickly becomes her Internet boyfriend. He also manipulates/brainwashes a number of other students and important scientists into doing his bidding. He gets a robot body, tries to take over the world, Buffy saves the world, et cetera, et cetera. Most people remember this episode for the line “there’s a demon in the Internet” and introducing computer teacher Ms. Calendar (Robia LaMorte), who gets important later on. Most critics give it an F or worse; even people who like the episode call it cheesy. Criticallytouched.com calls it “an episode that was outdated before it was outdated.”

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I barely remember the last time I watched this episode, but this time it struck me like a thunderbolt. It’s easy to identify with Willow when you’re a nerdy teenage girl, but it’s something different when she perfectly recreates the relationship you had with The Ex.

The Ex was kind and sweet, most of the time, and it helped that most of our relationship was conducted over Facebook Messenger. Our relationship was full of the kind of things that, when you’re in the middle of, seem so small, so unimportant in the face of “true love,” but which become a lot more horrifying once you walk away. He would say terrible things to me, then tell me it was a friend who took over his computer or a social experiment he was conducting for a class. He insisted I couldn’t watch certain things or listen to certain music because he thought it was trashy. He would insist that certain friends weren’t good for me. He hated it when I wore anything that flattered my figure, and when he went out with me he wore his best clothes, making me feel ugly and small.

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Willow thinks the boy she’s met on the internet, Malcolm, is perfect for her. He likes everything she likes. He does sweet things like e-mail her saying he’s “thinking of you” (Buffy is unimpressed by this). Buffy and Xander bring up the obvious mid-90s concerns that he might be a circus freak or a Dutch grandmother, and Willow retorts that Malcolm said they wouldn’t understand. Moloch/Malcolm makes another student stalk Buffy because she starts asking questions, while doing everything he can to sway Willow by reflecting her own desires back on her to convince the inexperienced girl that she’s cared for. Buffy and Xander are right to question how genuine he is; while most abusers aren’t secretly demons, they very often aren’t who they claim to be, especially if the Internet gives them enough distance that they can completely invent a new face for themselves. When her friends get involved, Moloch makes excuses and tries to drive them apart; later on, he tries to get his minions to kill Buffy, although one refuses and is killed in turn.

Willow, meanwhile, remains entranced. While the narrative makes it completely clear that Moloch is evil (apparently not satisfied with simply being hellspawn incarnate, he replaces a student’s paper with one about how the Nazis are the best, because demons I guess?), Willow’s motivation is left muddier. It comes down to a hazy combination of “he’s a demon and Willow’s not the Slayer, after all” and “Willow’s young and innocent and can’t pick up on some pretty obvious warning signs.” Real life exes may not be demons, but it is true that abusers tend to prey upon the innocent. When you feel grateful to be in a relationship at all, you cling to what you have, even when it becomes clear that “what you have” is fewer and fewer good things and more and more emotionally exhausting things.

Speaking as someone who argued with my ex about every yard he took and still let him take it, when you don’t think you’re beautiful, when you don’t think you have value, it’s very easy to give things up in exchange for being told you’re pretty and valued. Willow has spent the entire season leading up to this pining after Xander, who is too busy pining after Buffy to notice Willow in the way she wants. The fact that she’s unpopular and doesn’t have any other dating prospects only highlights Willow’s belief that she’s just friend material. Willow latching onto Moloch is not so much a case of Moloch using any powers over her, but more of Willow being in the prime position to be abused, and happening to meet an abuser.

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My own abuser followed exactly these lines. While this episode is so “Talking About Current Issues” that it makes CSI look subtle, the fact is that they got abusive behavior exactly right, especially abusive behavior executed online. My abuser took advantage of the fact that I was young, that I was willing to go along with his fantasies with starry eyes because no one else had ever been interested in me. He could predict what others might say about our relationship, and it made him seem wise, even when he was screaming at me for liking Sherlock. He was desperate for me to love him, to gain my absolute love and trust and keep it that way, the same way Moloch needs it to fuel his demonic mojo. My ex demanded a loyalty so complete that I wasn’t allowed to look at half-naked Chris Evans pictures, and I knew to keep my bisexuality to myself.

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In “I, Robot…You, Jane,” it’s clear that meeting someone on the Internet is a new idea to Buffy, but for anyone reading this, it’s pretty everyday. Online dating sites, the total lack of anonymity on Facebook and the general everywhere-ness of the Internet means a lot of us have made and/or conduct exclusively digital relationships. We use our real names and get helpful notifications about every little thing our friends have said & how they feel—or at least, how they present themselves. A lot of people have talked about how, on the Internet, you can be anyone; see Xander’s Dutch grandmother metaphor. Almost twenty years after that episode aired, things are a little more complex, but it’s still pretty easy to just completely lie about yourself, or tell smaller lies to look better.

Everyone on the Internet has the power to hurt other people, and they only get more powerful as the Web sneaks into our pockets and our glasses and our relationships. If Buffy were set in the present day, Moloch would of course command a giant group of troll-zombies who could just attack Willow and eat her alive, because that’s how we conceive of Internet abuse these days. And that’s real and awful, of course. But what’s relevant to my own life and those of many other people is the episode as it is now: a demon who lives on love, who reels in a girl simply because she doesn’t have the tools to catch him in his lies.

My abuser is engaged right now, to a woman in another country. I know I can never speak to her, simply because it would tear me apart emotionally, and I know I wouldn’t have listened if someone had done that for me. But I think about her a lot, how she must have a relationship with him similar to what I had. Part of me hopes she finds Willow Greenberg before I did, and maybe, hopefully, she sees what’s going on, and she can walk away intact. But Willow’s the one that’s got Buffy at her back, and in the real world, these battles aren’t the kind others can fight for us. We fight our own demons. And I hope to God she wins.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article identified Willow by the last name “Greenberg,” when her surname is in fact “Rosenberg.” The Mary Sue apologizes for the error. Those responsible have been staked.

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Cindy Harre can frequently be found crying over comic books. When she’s not doing that, she runs Drift Compatible Reviews, a Pacific Rim-themed review blog.

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