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