Subversive Masculinity–How to Learn to Respect Female Strength (Xander Harris)

I initiated this series back in August, (see intro here) but the real world got in the way of my ability to continue it. The comments were packed with good examples of this kind of character, many from shows I haven’t watched, and which actually included very few of the ones I was going to highlight.

I both love Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and fully admit that the show had serious shortcomings from a feminist perspective. While it was far from perfect, it certainly represented a huge step away from standard constructions of heroism and of gender roles, and Xander was a locus for playing out how those shifts affect young men.

Xander is a 17 year old, reasonably conventional, straight white dude from California when Buffy shows up in his life and turns everything he has ever known upside down. Buffy uses demons and vampires as a thinly veiled metaphor for the ‘demons’ of adolescence and young adulthood, and the slayer is a point of hope in all of that. In the pilot episode, Xander is forced to accept the existence of supernatural beings and slayers–radically reconstituting the way he sees the entire world in the process–and at the same time, he is forced in one fell swoop to consider the kind of female power that Buffy represents. When Willow starts to demonstrate power, he becomes aware that he’s actually the weakest member of the Scooby Gang. He becomes “The Zeppo”. Suddenly, he’s gone from assuming that, by default, his gender will make him the strong and socially valued one, to having to consider not just the possibility but the reality that he is weaker and less relevant than his friends.

Xander’s subversiveness comes from his acceptance of this flipping of roles with a reasonable amount of grace (in contrast with some real world manifestations of “post-feminist” resistance to the very suggestion of female equality/strength and the accompanying fear of loss of elements of male privileged). First of all, he fairly quickly accepts that it’s true, rather than joining the ever-growing Sunnydale denialist club and buying into any of the contorted but comforting explanations for what they all see. He doesn’t always accept it completely, and he struggles with loss of status that has always been his birthright. At the end of the first season, he gets absorbed in the idea of protecting and saving Buffy, because reasserting the way things are supposed to be is extremely comforting. His initial crush on Buffy shows some of the complicated male reactions to female strength–he’s intrigued by it, attracted to it, and at the same time he wants to prove himself to be above it, in Xander’s case by rescuing her and thereby demonstrating that she needs him. Except that Buffy doesn’t, really–she’s not there to be saved. And as a result of realizing he’s not going to succeed in that way, he gets over it. He doesn’t try to figure out what’s wrong with Buffy, he chooses to reevaluate himself, what he wants in a relationship, and how he fits in to the big fight.

Throughout all this, Xander occasionally feels a little bit weak or not quite “manly” enough, and other people sometimes lob that criticism back at him, but he never really believes that at his core. Instead of trying to put on traditional masculine trappings (like Larry, who later comes out as gay, does as a defense mechanism), he’s always looking for the ways that appearance doesn’t match up to reality, the ways his strength and his value comes from less conventional, less apparent sources. The episode “The Zeppo” is a huge step forward for him in this regard, and not coincidentally, it’s the one in which he loses his virginity and “becomes a man”.

Xander’s journey to being a genuinely subversive image of masculinity takes the entire series, he stumbles in it and he’s never perfect. But when faced with female strength–when confronted with the feminist reality that women are at least equal to him, and that some are his superiors in some areas–he doesn’t try to dominate it, he doesn’t try to deny it, and he doesn’t try to ignore it. He adapts, and he gains a depth of friendship, love and self-awareness that goes way beyond that which is allowed to strong men in conventional pop culture.

Posts in this Series

  1. Subversive Masculinity–Introduction
  2. Subversive Masculinity–How to Learn to Respect Female Strength (Xander Harris)


  1. Jennifer Kesler says

    Thanks for articulating why Xander rocked.

    He actually annoyed me for two seasons. Then he disappeared briefly at (I think) the start of S3, when Buffy and Willow went off to college. When he returned from his “road trip”, he was more secure, mature and relaxed about who and what he was, and I loved him.

    I also think Xander’s journey was one of a young man who realizes the patriarchy will never be satisfied with him – it’ll just keep pushing for him to be tougher, richer, screw more people over… and all for what? “He who dies with the most toys wins?” Eventually, Xander rejects this shit, gets into a career he likes and excels at (construction), accepts that he may never be #1 at anything but being himself.

    The patriarchy has unrealistic and pointless expectations of both genders (mostly designed to keep the bottom 95% on the economic pyramid fighting amongst themselves while the top 5% enjoy the feast). Feminism offers both men and women the opportunity to replace those expectations with healthier ones – ones that might actually improve the world for the bottom 95%.

  2. Purtek says

    Yeah, I could certainly see plenty to hate about Xander in individual elements/situations etc, and it’s his journey as a whole that’s so interesting.
    And ultimately I *like* that it takes him several seasons to grow into it, because that’s how people work–it would be unfair to say that someone can throw off the assumptions of privilege easily and immediately in response to the existence of, say, feminism. Xander’s journey allows that it doesn’t come automatically (for men or women, really), but that ultimately, the rewards are worth it.

  3. SunlessNick says

    Plus he is the only male character I can think of who says anything like this to a female character:

    “I’ve seen a lot of scary things… And every time I do, I think ‘What would Buffy do?’ You’re my hero.”

  4. Janna says

    Well, I agree. But Xander’s sexual jealousy does get the better of him. He takes away both Buffy’s and Anya’s agency. With Buffy, he purposely doesn’t tell her about Willow performing the spell to return Angel’s soul because he wants to date Buffy and get Angel out of the picture (he also tells Riley about Buffy’s sexual relationship with Angel), and he leaves Anya at the altar. I want to like Xander and call him a good feminist, but it’s things like the ones I just mentioned that stop me from doing so.

  5. Ruth says

    The problem I have with Xander is that he still tries to be the protective male and has major double standards. Hot female demons can’t be evil, and when they are, he is understandable for not realizing this. Hot male demons are always evil. Even when they turn good, they are still evil.

    His double standards in his reactions to Angel and Spike vs. Anya frustrated me to no end. Angel and Anya pretty much had the same journey with their change being forced on them. Spike even chose to be good. Then again, pretty much everyone treated Spike badly. Of all the three of them, Anya actually probably killed the most people.

    I guess to me, Xander always struck me as a guy who was trying but who could never quite get past his preconcieved notions of protecting women. In pretty much all other ways, he was awesome, but there were many times when I wanted to slap him. I feel like he could have come farther. I would have liked to see him realize his actions and apologize to Buffy.

  6. Mari says

    I find Xander pretty despicable. He picks on people when and where they are weak. He is self righteous. He hurts people with an uncanny casualness of a true bully. He has the least healthy relationship of any human or unhuman in the show both with Chordy and with Anya. Oh and a very unhealthy lay with Faith that doesn’t stop him from being disgusted by Buffy’s attraction for Spike? His stupid angry at the world jokes actually ruin the show at times. He was less about protecting and more about controlling. The only good thing about Xander is that he isn’t real.

  7. Fraser says

    I’d hardly count his having sex with Faith as “unhealthy.”

    And if he’d told Buffy about the possibility of Angel restoring himself—which wasn’t a slam-dunk—she might not have the will to go for the kill, even if it had been necessary. I find both views plausible–this was something my Buffy mailing list debated a lot at the time.

  8. Sosa Lola says

    I agree with your thoughts. Xander is my favorite character and I consider him a good feminist character regardless of his flaws, which made him real.

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