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Buffy Vs. The Beige Demon: Good Riddance to Riley Finn

I recently started watching Buffy The Vampire Slayer because I was all out of episodes of Doctor Who and I was giving myself permission to take a break from trying to solve the problems of the world and abstain from everything that was causing me anxiety. Before this month my only exposure to the show had been the pilot, which I didn’t like, so I resolved to give it a fair shake, having learned over the years that abysmal pilots sometimes yielded phenomenal shows. Fast forward to two nights ago, when I watched the finales of the remaining two seasons to keep myself from simply powering through them, as I had done with the previous five.

I’ve been lightly blogging my way through, occasionally providing commentary when the spirit moved me. Someone on the Internet wanted to know why I hated Riley Finn so much, Buffy Summers’ boyfriend in seasons four and five, so I thought I’d delve into it while the topic is still fresh on my mind.

This started when I posted a screenshot of Riley telling Dawn that “Summers women are tough” with the following message of distaste for the character:

Riley, I don’t yet know how you exit the picture, but I am going to savor your eventual departure like a fat piece of saltwater taffy or a lewd book one finds under someone else’s bed.

I hate you so much Riley. You are like a beige demon, forged in the fires of Mount Unremarkable. I hate you more than Angel.*

That line about the Summers women is from the episode “Shadow,” part of a reassuring pep talk Riley gives to Dawn at a carousel as she recounts implanted memories about her family moving to Sunnydale. These memories remind the viewer that she’s a new part of the family but also show that she has some stock in the mythology of the Summers women, that she is one, that she belongs. Partly, this scene is really beautiful because it stitches you closer to the character, the way the episode “Family” did for Tara, making her a part of the show and a part of the Scoobies.

But the ugly part of this scene is Riley making promises he cannot deliver. Even if it was exactly the right thing to say at that moment and he cannot possibly be reproached for leading with solace rather than with hard reality, what Riley is doing isn’t for her, it is for him. His conception of himself as the one that can save everyone and be the hero is much different than Buffy’s, because she’s paid a higher price for it and she’s had to do it alone. Riley shows up to every fight with a lie in his blood, the lie that if he ever found himself against the ropes he’d still be a hero. For all of their bluster The Initiative engages evil at a distance, with cages and darts and volts, which allows them to imagine they can study these creatures without ever seeing them. They refuse to understand the logic of the prisoners that they wield as weapons. For this reason it is sort of beautiful that the thing that destroys them is bred from within, made from a refusal to understand the forces they are seeking to tame and at least 17% Boy Scouts by volume.

They die because they think they know everything there is to know and Riley only survives because he hitches his star to Buffy, who doesn’t know what she’s doing and acknowledges it. The season five finale “The Gift” starts with a really simple gesture, a single slaying of a single vampire to protect one random dude. As happened a lot in the early seasons, the dude provides a way for Joss Whedon to display his Feminist bona fides by  being an NPC mouthpiece, by acting as the voice of SEXISM which allows Buffy to jump through the hoops and prove she’s a righteous badass warrior chick who doesn’t need his gender bullshit, which is an important thing to do but represents a sort of diminished victory.

I was telling Jessica a few weeks ago when we were talking about an episode of Star Trek that seeing a professional woman being taken as an unquestioned authority was odd for me. The episode in question was the pilot episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Sally Kellerman guest stars as psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Dehner who, along with one of the crew members, is given godlike powers (which include ESP and Palpatine-esque electricity bolts.) Perhaps the most amazing part about the episode is the fact that no one questions her professional authority. She’s subject to sexism, yes, when the aforementioned crewman calls her a “refrigerator” for having a comeback for him and there is a squirm-inducing scene where she remarks that “Professional women do tend to overcompensate,” meaning they tend to stand up for themselves in order to be taken seriously. But at the climax of the episode Captain Kirk appeals to her, not as a woman (saving us the old “look inside your purse and see if there’s any compassion in there” routine) but as a professional. He tells her she’s seen the evil that is in men’s hearts, that she knows what people are capable of, and she saves his life.

Most modern television shows display their enlightenment by unleashing paper sexists at their heroine and allowing us to take the clobbering of these shadows as a triumph over sexism. Which, in the unscripted world, is too often not a douchebag saying “You can’t cuz you’re a girl” but is instead someone internalizing that belief and using their power to punish you for it. This scenario creates a false image in the culture of “What Sexism Looks Like” which men use to calibrate their understanding of misogyny. Which means anything less blatant than THAT is just the moaning of people who can’t compete AND once the show has labeled itself NOT SEXIST, it is free to deal in subtler, more insidious forms of sexism.

But Whedon shows us yet another dude who, faced with having been saved by a woman, tells her “You’re just a girl.” And instead of flexing the muscles we know she has, or taking him apart, she smiles and says “That’s what I keep saying.” She shrugs him off and turns it into a private joke, something he’ll always be denied the privilege of understanding. She’ll save you from the night terribles but she’s not going to stick around to justify or explain herself. But we know what she means, or at least we can guess at part of what she’s getting at.

Buffy is consistently called upon to do more than she can imagine possible, without running away or leaving anyone behind. But she does it while reminding you that she’s not prepared, that she doesn’t know she’ll win, but that she’s going to try anyway. The Initiative is completely different. They stack the odds in their favor, they have strength in numbers, none of them have to make any harder choices than anyone else because they work as a unit. In a thousand different ways Buffy’s world is more difficult than theirs, where even her weakest ally has to withstand everything hell provides and trust that their protector is coming for them. Zapping humanoids with electricity, capping the vampires’ teeth with behavior modification chips, keeping the knockout gun at hand — all of these things doom them because they forget something Buffy is NEVER allowed to forget, that sometimes it’s just you and someone you love and the worse thing you’ve ever faced and if you aren’t prepared for that you aren’t prepared for the sanitized version. Because if you get comfortable you won’t survive it.

The thing that I cannot stand about Riley is that he doesn’t understand his place in the Slayer’s life, and refuses to accept that he’s not the center of it. The story has to be about Riley Finn’s triumph, guest-starring Buffy Summers as the one who does the wetwork. He cannot handle an auxiliary role. To quote myself:

Riley could have looked at the situation and said “You know what? I’m going to sit down and be The Book Guy, the guy who reads about demons for my girlfriend so she’s got all the information she needs.” Or “Hey, it sucks my power was unsustainable, but I’m going to learn how to craft badass weapons, yeah! I’ll be The Weapons Guy” or even “Nobody ever vanquished the forces of evil with muscles spasms, I’m going to make sure my favorite lady stays hydrated. Just call me The Electrolytes Guy!”

But no. He decided his most valuable contribution to the Scoobies was to resent Buffy for his shortcomings and insecurities, consort with the undead, and then try to make her feel bad about herself instead of owning up to what he had done.

The loss of his unnaturally inflated power isn’t a tragedy, any more that it is a tragedy that her lieutenant, Willow, isn’t as physically strong as she is. He wants the power Buffy possesses without having paid the price for it, without considering the massive responsibility it entails. He wants the wide swath Willow cuts through people who hurt those she loves without the terrible things she must do and take into herself to earn them. He wants to show up and say “Hey. I’m a dude, my jaw’s pretty square, let’s save the world.” Every other character has dealt with the fact that they are not Buffy; he never does.

*To forestall questions: I hated Angel because his romantic tête-à-têtes with Buffy were boring. I can think of better, more complicated reasons, but that’s the one that tipped the scale of fictional character acrimony and made me wish that he’d fall down “the staircase of a thousand stakes.”

18 Comments

  1. Becca Stareyes wrote:

    What bugged me about Riley is that for once I wanted a kickass female character to have a mundane boyfriend who could be Book Guy or Weapon Guy or Medic Guy or whatever. Or even Contact Guy, who could get her things like crowd control or information.

    It always seems like in urban fantasy types where the female lead is a kickass hero, the boyfriend is some usually-supernatural other kickass guy. That any time a ‘normal’ guy shows up, he can’t accept that his girlfriend is physically stronger than he is, or it’s used to reinforce that she can’t have a normal life with normal people.

    Riley’s just another example of that trope.

    Tuesday, May 22, 2012 at 10:09 am | Permalink
  2. Knightgee wrote:

    The most frustrating thing about Riley’s story is how he exits: after betraying Buffy’s trust and cheating on her by willingly getting fed on by vampires, he runs off to join some government sponsored monster hunt in some country overseas, where he can be “useful” (read: where he can play the hero) and says that if Buffy wants to save the relationship, she’ll talk him out of it. Ya know, as if it wasn’t him that shot everything to hell by refusing to talk about his problems until he went and did something stupid. Suddenly it’s her job to save the relationship he’s sabotaging. Even in his romantic relationship he wanted to fix it without putting in any personal sacrifice or doing any work, running when it stopped being easy.

    You know, as detestable as Xander is a lot of the time, he got over not being the designated hero or the most powerful member. He comfortably moved into the supportive role, the guy who researches, buys food, brings supplies and is in the background. Why he and the others didn’t consider it a massive insult to their usefulness that Riley was leaving because he couldn’t stomach being like them is a mystery to me.

    Tuesday, May 22, 2012 at 11:41 am | Permalink
  3. Megan wrote:

    Well said! I also just hated Riley because he was BORING. His problems are silly and Buffy could do so much better!

    Tuesday, May 22, 2012 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  4. “forged in the fires of Mount Unremarkable” HA! So perfect. OMG I hate Riley.

    “Most modern television shows display their enlightenment by unleashing paper sexists at their heroine and allowing us to take the clobbering of these shadows as a triumph over sexism.” Agreed; it’s an easy feel-good triumph with no challenge to the viewer. I guess there’s nothing wrong with indulging in an easy victory-over-sexism fantasy once in a while but, as you said, it misleads the viewer into ignoring other sexism.

    The other thing that irks me about the “paper sexists” phenomenon is that the lady nearly always triumphs because she’s exceptional. Buffy only proves the sexists wrong because she’s got magical powers (not technically, but practically speaking she does). But in real life we don’t have magical powers, so… I guess the paper sexists were right? Or some dude in a spy movie will belittle a woman professionally, but little does he know she’s a superspy with all the Allied governments backing her up and she speaks nine languages and she’s got a hidden pistol in her bra, so there! But dudes have belittled me professionally and I’m just a normal lady, but those dudes are still wrong. I’d love to see unexceptional women (i.e. real women, realistic characters, average women without superpowers or supergenius or hidden weapons) overcome sexism on TV. That’d be cool.

    “look inside your purse and see if there’s any compassion in there” LOL.

    Tuesday, May 22, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Permalink
  5. Fede wrote:

    “I hate you so much Riley. You are like a beige demon, forged in the fires of Mount Unremarkable. I hate you more than Angel.”

    Would it make me a geek if I wore a T-shirt with this print? Or if I worked the word “beige” into every utterance about Riley Finn from now on?

    I fucken hated Riley and his cowardly emotional blackmail.

    By the way, I also hated that Riley could not chastise a nasty, yellow-bellied frat boy for comparing Buffy to a toilet seat without it being because Riley was into her! Because for guys like Riley, all women except from the one you fancy are ok to compare to toilet seats.
    What a beige waste of space.

    Plus, he’s just boring to the point where it almost makes him extraordinary. Almost. The Beige Bore!

    Tuesday, May 22, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Permalink
  6. Ev wrote:

    Thank God Marc Blucas is so much more likable over on Necessary Roughness now. I couldn’t stand him, either.

    Tuesday, May 22, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Permalink
  7. carovee wrote:

    I had seen a few episodes of the show and heard a lot from friends and my first reaction at meeting Riley was “Wha? Whose this guy? Wait, he’s in two seasons!?” I had literally never heard of Riley from ANY Buffy fan. So yeah, apparently pretty much everybody found him unremarkable. I kind of sympathize with Whedon though. Buffy already had Xander and Giles as the book guys (plus Willow and Tara) so that role was pretty much filled.

    Tuesday, May 22, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Permalink
  8. Kate wrote:

    In college, I got back into watching Buffy right during the Riley seasons. I remember asking my friends who is this guy and why is he around? The whole plot arc and him was such a waste because The Initiative felt it was pulled from a worse quality show and Riley felt like a poor quality superman rip off.

    You’ve put so well all the things I didn’t like that I couldn’t have explained at the time. I’ve dated guys like Riley and they really mess with your head.

    Tuesday, May 22, 2012 at 8:57 pm | Permalink
  9. Andy wrote:

    Forget “Book Guy” or “Weapon Guy,” he couldn’t be “Less Badass Than My Girlfriend, But Still Pretty Badass Guy.” When shit goes down Buffy empties the dugout, and at the time Riley left the next most badass person on the roster was Giles (Willow didn’t start shooting lightning and throwing knives until the end of the season.) The most despicable thing about his attitude was that she acknowledged and respected his capabilities, but he just couldn’t handle the fact that she was more powerful than him.

    Wednesday, May 23, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Permalink
  10. DM wrote:

    You know, I liked Riley simply because Buffy got to have happy and frequent sex with him and when things ended badly between them, sexual dysfunction wasn’t part of the problem, unlike the travesties that were her relationships with Spike and Angel. If he hadn’t been tangled up in that Initiative bulltwaddle and loaded with entitled manpain, he would have been a boring, but very healthy relationship for Buffy. God knows she could have sorely done with a normal guy to give her a kiss and a foot rub at the end of a long day of killing things without angsting about Their Love, It Is So Starcrossed (freaking Angel), but like Becca Stareyes said above, super-strong heroines rarely get the stay-at-home support lover in the same frequency as men do, only a badass equal or superior. God forbid a guy be no match whatsoever for his girlfriend’s power and purpose.

    Thursday, May 24, 2012 at 1:00 am | Permalink
  11. MmMarple wrote:

    :D I just got back into Buffy as well and I’m SO GLAD someone out there saw the same problems I had with Riley’s character. He didn’t fit in with the show AT ALL and it reaaally pissed me off when he pulled the ‘women are supposed to be weaker than me’ crap and left Buffy to deal with all the crap going on in her life alone. I would be very interested to see a post about the Spike/Buffy relationship which drove me up a wall as well. I really liked Spike’s character and I like (to a lesser extent) Buffy’s character but it just seems like the biggest mistake in the world to have them get together (rather, have Spike endlessly pine after her and have Buffy just kick him in the head over and over again while occasionally engaging in violent sex). it felt too much like a tv trope than an actual story plot. the terrible villian falls in love with the lovely heroine; can her love save his wicked self and turn away from evil? jeez, romance novel much? but I still like Spike and his snark.

    Thursday, May 24, 2012 at 9:13 pm | Permalink
  12. Foxessa wrote:

    All the hatred that non-scooby Riley Finn garners seems much like the hatred the outsider romantic interest tends to garner from the circle of besties since kindergarden, when one of them falls in love. Which falling in love with will be somebody from otuside the charmed circle, for that very reason — we all have known each other so long.

    Just sayin’. Blucas the actor wasn’t so great, but Riley the boyfriends wasn’t that bad either. Part of what happens is that Buffy will not let him in. This is Buffy’s ongoing flaw, which leads to trouble in every season: not sharing what’s going on with others because she thinks that way she protects them — the dark side of Buffy’s taking care of so many before she’s really ready to. That’s why the conclusion of the series, allowing all the potential slayers into slayage powers is so right — Buffy shared to the greatest degree possible. And saved the world again.

    I’ve watched these seasons several times and there are more angles and depths to him, and to his and Buffy’s relationship than you notice the first time or two around. Remember “The Gentlemen?”

    Saturday, May 26, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Permalink
  13. Ash wrote:

    I love this post! Always hated Riley but never had the time to articulate it. I am also a HUGE Buffy fan and can’t wait to read your other commentaries!

    Wednesday, May 30, 2012 at 7:56 am | Permalink
  14. Xeginy wrote:

    I had so much hope for Riley. After the melodrama of Angel, I was hoping that Buffy would get to have a calmer relationship that wasn’t always on the verge of exploding. There was a brief point there in season 4 when they seemed to achieve a nice balance, but as soon as season 5 rolled around, Riley turned into a douche, Buffy stopped confiding in him, and then…explosion.

    Though to be fair to Buffy, I think she had good reasons not to confide in him. Unlike Angel or Spike, Riley had very little understanding of how Buffy’s world actually ran. He had too much faith in the government and not enough in magical stuff (for lack of a better term.) It makes a lot of sense that Buffy would rather confide in Giles (who understands who shit works in their wacky universe) than the guy who used to work for the army and thinks that guns and grenades are the answer to everything.

    Wednesday, May 30, 2012 at 11:57 am | Permalink
  15. Buttered Lilies wrote:

    The only good thing about Riley is getting to hate him with pretty much the entire rest of the Buffy fandom.

    Thursday, May 31, 2012 at 4:06 am | Permalink
  16. readhead wrote:

    Thank you for this. I always hated Riley and you just articulated why very very well. His unwillingness to just accept Buffy’s awesomeness without seeing it as a challenge to his own identity is why I too hated him more than Angel. Wanting a love interest for Buffy who didn’t want her to compromise her strength is also why I will always be a Spike fan. I’m not sure I’m a “spuffy” fan, because to say their relationship was problematic is like saying Sunnydale had a little apocalypse problem. But Spike–way more than Riley and more than Angel (who just wants Buffy to be his guiding light and then when he finds a new guiding light has her memory wiped)–likes Buffy the way she is. His love for her is obviously masochistic (different post), but it’s grounded in a respect for her capabilities that neither Riley nor Angel ever had. He (at some points literally) gets off on her physical prowess and admires her relentless determination without seeing either one as diminishing his own big-badness.

    The only thing good about Riley, imo, is that his exit does seem to lead Buffy to a new kind of self acceptance. Yes, Xander still gives her that craptastic speech and I’m sure she felt guilty (Guilt is Buffy’s less visible super power). But after Riley vanishes into the night, Buffy never again laments that she’s not a “normal” girl. She knows she isn’t and she doesn’t seem interested in pretending otherwise anymore. Since BUFFY is one amazing metaphor for the journey to adulthood, I’ve always seen Riley as the stand-in for that “good on paper” relationship many of us experience that just doesn’t feel right. Joss gets a lot of flack for Riley–probably the most universally hated character in the series–but he fits so perfectly into that moment in early adulthood when you’re figuring out the difference between who you think you should be and who you actually are. Riley was a necessary (controlling, boring, insecure) pitstop on Buffy’s way to being a fully baked cookie. But that doesn’t make me hate him or his fragile ego any less.

    Friday, June 1, 2012 at 10:37 pm | Permalink
  17. kasey wrote:

    I think that Riley’s role in canon can be read two ways: yeah, he was a schmuck, but their relationship is a mirror for the real world relationships where the male can’t handle the woman’s greater “power.”

    Have to comment on this though, Foxessa says above That’s why the conclusion of the series, allowing all the potential slayers into slayage powers is so right — Buffy shared to the greatest degree possible. And saved the world again.

    Yet, for 7 years Buffy bitched about being the slayer & how it has ruined her life while simultaneously sometimes acting as if it made her better than the normals. In the final episode she, and Willow, condemn countless girls to the same fate in the name of saving the world. I don’t really consider that sharing, I consider it irony.

    Sunday, June 10, 2012 at 1:35 am | Permalink
  18. Aliza wrote:

    I agree with everything you said about Riley. It’s so distasteful to have a character think so much of himself in a show where he is so clearly beneath Buffy. I am curious as to your thoughts on Spike. Do you have any strong feeling about him also?

    Wednesday, June 13, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Permalink