This is your Buffy the Vampire Spoiler Warning. Consider yourself warned. But seriously, it’s a 20-year old show; you already know what happens.
We here at The Geek Embassy love Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The seminal late-90’s horror/drama show was my introduction to dynamic and independent female characters. BTVS shaped my appreciation for the greater “sci-fi/fantasy” umbrella genre; for me, it is a timeless vehicle by which to explore complex motifs and themes. It is an important show for me personally, and for the greater all-encompassing “sci-fi” umbrella. Twenty years later, and I still get chills when I hear the words “Bored now.”
I unpacked all seven of my Buffy DVD box sets recently and began a rewatch of the series, my third overall and first in about 5 years. March 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of BTVS’ first season, and it’s great to rewatch shows on milestone years. However, my real inspiration for the rewatch is a podcast I discovered last month: Buffering the Vampire Slayer. Hosts Jenny Owen Youngs and Kristin Russo set out on a mission to cover Buffy from beginning to end, one episode per week. I’m currently marathonning to catch up, but I wanted to discuss a particular character that gets a lot of hate on the podcast: Xander Harris. I’m a big BTVS fan, and hearing the hosts rag on a character I enjoy felt fairly terrible. Except…are they wrong?
Let me start with saying that I like Xander. My biases/privileges are that I’m a straight, cisgender, Latino man in his early 30s. When I first watched the show, I was supposed to like Xander. In many ways, Xander is a Mary Sue or “everyman” character. However, in this case “everyman” means only straight, cisgender, young male nerds. Xander was the class punching bag, the butt of everyone’s joke. He dealt with rejection and his status as social pariah. That was me from the day I walked into kindergarten to the moment I graduated high school. I will always relate to that aspect of Xander. He is the archetype of the “normal guy”: he is no more and no less than an average Joe, and therefore is perfectly unexceptional. Xander is the zeppo of this series.
Throughout the series, he struggles to distinguish himself from his friends, all of whom have a unique characteristic while he sees none internally. I was that person in high school and college, and Xander resonated with my experiences. However, this is only one side of Xander. This is his ideal representation in an ideal archetype that should widely encompass all of us who once viewed ourselves as unremarkable freaks and geeks. Unfortunately, intention and execution are two entirely different beasts.
Xander is chauvinist. Like, straight up self-absorbed, judgmental, jealous, bitter, petty, and slightly mansplain-y. Yes, I like Xander, but he can be a total jackass. I cannot excuse the troublesome things he says, nor can I forget the unforgivable things he does. There are
several many instances where he makes off-color, “locker room” jokes that fall flat in this pro-feminism show. Xander refuses to take ownership of some problematic things he does or behaviors he exhibits; at one point he straight up feigns memory loss in an attempt to cover his guilt. I feel second-hand embarrassment from his body language, word choice, and choices he makes. I know there are a lot of Xander haters out there. You are all correct. He is an extremely problematic character, and he likely represents the very demon-lizard patriarchy that adversely influences your lives every day.
However, let’s chat about a different possibility. What if, and this is a big if, the presence of flaws does not bespeak the whole of Xander’s character? For examples, we will pull from within and without the Buffyverse.
- Cordelia Chase. She is a classic Mean Girl archetype. To me, she represents every person who ever called me Four Eyes, Nerd, Creep, and Loser from kindergarten through high school graduation. Seeing her will always trigger those feelings in my head. However, in “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” Cordelia admits that she hangs with the Cordettes because she feels lonely, and posits that it’s better to feel alone with company than to be alone by yourself. She has a sympathetic side.
- Spike. He’s a murderer, thief, manipulator, bully, and obsessive psychopath who commissioned a robot sex toy that looked like Buffy. Let’s not forget that he attempts to rape Buffy. Yeah, rape. That always confused me. People dump on Xander, but everyone loves the murderer-rapist. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ However, William the Bloody carries deep-seeded resentment of the bullies in his old social circles and the woman who scorned him, which prompted his fall to evil. That makes everything cool?
- Severus Snape. Also a murderer. (spoiler alert) He bullies Harry Potter from pretty much the moment they meet, and enters into borderline abuse territory when he trains Harry to repel mental assault. However, Snape earns forgiveness and absolution with one word: always.
- Bruce Wayne / Batman. Bruce is basically a professional brooder. He fully trusts no one, not even his own “family.” At one point or another, Bruce shuts out practically every major member of his supporting cast. And Batman has A LOT of supporting cast members. He blames himself for their pain and injuries, but does not show them warmth. Bruce clings emphatically to the memory of his parents’ death, and thereby inflicts emotional pain on those who care about him. But he also routinely saves the universe with bat-spray shark repellent, so there’s that.
There’s More Than What Appears
I approach Buffy with the knowledge of what will come to pass and who these characters will become. Xander makes a lot of mistakes, and says a lot of gross and terrible things. Unfortunately, Xander’s problematic traits manifest early in the series; he makes a terrible first impression. He isn’t like Batman where we see awesome superhero first and mopey loner later. I get it if you’re a hater. However, consider this. We find out gradually throughout the series that Xander is an emotionally abused child. Xander meets his first/only positive role model at age 16; it’s a miracle Xander is only mostly a complete trash bag, and not entirely one.
Xander reminds me a lot of myself when I was that age, before I got “woke,” so to speak. I do not hail from an abusive home, but I grew up influenced by societal patriarchy, just like Xander. When I attended college, friends and professors and life challenged how I perceived and interacted with the world. People I met as an adult continued to challenge my values, and I gained the tools I needed to see privilege, patriarchy, sexism, and racism. I am not a perfect person, nor am I a perfect ally, but I try my best. Time and experience frame my worldview, and allow me to learn from my past.
I think Xander evolves the same way. He is not a bad person, but he does not have those life experiences or role models to show him any other way. Xander employs sarcasm and self-deprecating jokes that come across terribly, but he is not aware of his perception. Over the course of the series, Xander grows, learns, adapts, and matures. His journey is not as epic as Buffy or Willow, but just as important to illustrate the everyday human’s potential to become better than they were.
Still A Problem
I don’t intend to gloss over Xander’s worst attributes and paint him as a unilaterally great character. This most recent rewatch of Buffy is painful because I can finally see what people told me for years. But I can’t quit liking him. Xander is a teenage boy who grows up, makes (big) mistakes, and keeps moving forward. Despite his many flaws, he is brave, loyal, and genuinely loves his friends. I once heard that people reveal their truest selves in crises. If that is true, then we need look no further than the season six finale. It’s not Buffy who saves the world; Xander does, armed with little more than bad jokes, love for his best friend, and a story about a yellow crayon.
That will always be the Xander I remember. Twenty years later, I have the privilege of watching these characters evolve. Buffy goes from reluctant hero to leader of an army. Willow goes from neurotic bookworm to a powerful sorceress. And Xander goes from member of the patriarchy to stalwart ally. He starts as a petulant boy and slowly overcomes his demons to become a respectable man. Epic? No, not particularly. But it shows that even the most problematic of characters can change for the better.