Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Xander Harris: Portrait of a Monster?

Kicking off our Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Five posts, we have Adam Smith with the first part of his exploration of Xander Harris. If you want to add your thoughts to the discussion on whether or not Xander is a monster, or if you want to share this or any of our previous posts, use the hashtag #BuffySlays20.

‘We need to talk about Xander.’ I’ve lost count of how many of my Buffy-watching friends have said this to me over the last year. It all started with a podcast called Buffering the Vampire Slayer [bufferingthevampireslayer.com], in which Kristin Russo and Jenny Owen Youngs watch and discuss every episode of Buffy, in order, week by week. It is a very entertaining podcast, and it prompted a few of my friends and I to embark upon a Buffy re-watch ourselves. Perfect timing, given that it later transpired that this is the anniversary year.

(The original Scoobies, Season One)
 This is also the first time I’ve re-watched Buffy in a good long time, not because I fell out of love with it but rather the contrary. My adolescence was characterised so emphatically by an intense (and probably at times, unhealthy) love for this show that I was scared to go back. Watching Buffy, for me, is like hearing a song that you listened to a lot during a very specific moment in your past.

I didn’t just watch Buffy the first time around. I used to tape it on VHS and then spend the week re-watching each episode until the next one came out (often in 15 minute chunks before school or when I went to bed). I used to skip lunch so I could save my dinner money to buy tie-in novels. For a period, I’d spend break-times with my friend Mitch, pouring over his copy of The Watcher’s Guide, which I highly coveted. Later, during the final years of the show, I collected Buffy Magazine, and I’d read each issue cover-to-cover two or three times on the bus to and from school. I bought both albums, and listened to them constantly. I even went through a phase of trying to dress like Angel. It wasn’t pretty.

Re-watching Buffy was an experience I embarked upon with not a little trepidation. I’m pleased to report that not only does it hold up, but it turned out to be far more complex and provocative than I’d realised. 

(Xander Harris)
Two of the biggest revelations arising from this re-watch pertain to the character of Xander Harris (portrayed by Nicholas Brendon). The first thing I never noticed about Xander is that he is absolutely interchangeable with Chandler Bing from Friends. They have the same dialogue, the same characterisation and even the same mode of delivery. I’m not sure if there is a discernible chain of influence here, but Matthew Perry and Nicholas Brendon could be brothers. It’s uncanny.  If you have time, compare this compilation of Chandler’s ‘funniest one-liners’[youtube.com/watch?v=n9hqFErP1Tk] and then immediately watch this compilation of Xander’s ‘best moments’[youtube.com/watch?v=57M4OhdsAFM].

The second thing that occurred to me is that Xander is much harder to like than I remember. And I’m not alone. As noted above, many of my friends have been struck by this, Jenny and Christen discuss it at length on Buffering, and so far, the anniversary year has been characterised by online condemnations of the character, such as Sara Ghaleb’s compelling article ‘The Uncomfortable Legacy of Xander Harris’[pastemagazine.com/articles/2017/03/the-uncomfortable-legacy-of-buffys-xander-harris.html].

When I first watched Buffy I always liked Xander, though even then I was anxious about what this sympathy meant. As a teenager, I’d watch Buffy wishing I could be like Angel but fearing I was like Xander. As it happens, as an adult I would later be mistaken for a Giles Cosplayer when in fact I was just on my way to work. And watching Buffy again now, I realise Giles was the best male role-model all along. 

(Xander and Ampata in 'Inca Mummy Girl)
What I didn’t pick up on at the time was how often Xander is quite terrible to his friends. I remembered that he was the funny one. What I didn’t remember was his apparent racism (see every line in the admittedly already problematic ‘Inca Mummy Girl’) or his uncomfortable attitudes to women. So often in the first season he is seen trying to mine gags from his perception that either Cordelia or Buffy are sexually promiscuous, effectively ‘slut-shaming’ his school peers. Indeed, watching now I see that Xander’s most defining characteristic, especially in those early seasons, is a disgruntled entitlement which manifests itself in needlessly cruel and pejorative comments too often passed off by the show.

Sometimes there are discernible attempts to flag Xander’s attitudes as troublesome, recasting them as the wounds of a damaged personality whilst mining sympathy from his clearly dysfunctional familial situation and his susceptibility to a particularly potent and specifically beta-male strain of toxic masculinity. This is, after all, a show which takes characters on extreme arcs all across the moral compass. The most obvious examples of this is Spike, who enters the show as a big bad nemesis out to kill Buffy, only to end the show sacrificing his life out of love for her. Is it not at least plausible that Xander was destined to take a similar, slightly more grounded, journey? And do we not see this? Over the show’s seven years it could be argued that Xander grows from being a generally funny boy who means well but has some profoundly unfortunate hang ups that manifest themselves in problematic comments and attitudes, to being a generally funny man who means well but has fractionally fewer unfortunate hang ups which manifest themselves in slightly less problematic comments and attitudes. 

(Spike and Xander)
Xander is a good guy. The show goes to great pains to signal this, perhaps most overtly in the Season 4 episode ‘Primeval’, during which each of the Scoobies form a magic circle and offer up their unique special powers in support of Buffy. Xander doesn’t have a power, but that’s ok, because he is identified as the ‘heart’ of the team. His compassion and his identity as a human are all that are required. Indeed, it is quite entertaining to track instances when the show tries to find reasons to commend or celebrate Xander. Right back in this Season 1 finale, ‘Prophecy Girl’, Xander is the true hero of the hour because unlike Angel, he has breath in his lungs which can be used to resuscitate Buffy, who has moments before been drowned by the Master. His super power here -  his contribution to the show -  is literally the fact that he can breathe. Bravo, Mr Harris. 

The show itself seems to forgive him a lot as well. His infidelity is soon forgotten. After Cordelia discovers that he’s cheating on her with Willow (in an affair which is presented very sympathetically), Cordelia runs off only to become impaled on a spike and scarred for life. Fortunately, Cordelia moves on quickly, which distracts attention from the fact that this sequence of events is barely ever mentioned again. At the end of ‘Once More with Feeling’ we discover that Xander cast the spell that turned Sunnydale into a musical because he thought it would cheer everyone up. Little is said about the fact that the same spell prompted numerous people to spontaneously combust and die. Oh, and let's not forget his terrifying treatment of Buffy that time he was possessed by a hyena spirit.

Let’s be fair, though. Xander does occasionally suffer for his actions. His lost eye can be read as divine retribution for leaving Anya at the alter (but Anya straight up dies, so even here he gets off relatively light). And, of course, his penis got diseases from a Chumash tribe. Incidentally, as a lasting consequence for his attitudes and actions, isn’t it fascinating that it is his male totem that gets compromised?

In times past, an easy defence of Xander was to invoke fan-lore that he is creator Joss Whedon’s analogue in the show, so he must ultimately be ok. I’m just going to leave that thought hanging…

[Tune in tomorrow for part two of Adam's blog on Xander, where he will dive into Season Five]

Dr. Adam James Smith is a lecturer in English Literature & Liberal Arts at York St John University, and he is also the Media Co-Editor for BSECS Criticks. Self-described 18th-Century Print Junkie, he is an avid fan of Giles and Anthony Stewart Head with whom he is definitely ‘good friends’ (ask him nicely and he might show you his treasured, autographed Giles photo!). You can also find him on twitter at @elementaladam.


Thursday, 14 September 2017

Adam; or Definitely Not the Modern Prometheus.

Carrying on this week's exploration of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Four in our Buffy Blog Series, we have Dana Alex's second post. Complimenting yesterday's blog by Jennifer De Ross - which discussed identity crises as the big bad of Season Four - Dana's post explores Adam in the context and through the lens of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Make sure you check out the posts so far, and if you want to get involved with the discussion or if you want to share posts, use the hashtag #BuffySlays20.

If somebody asked me to write down a list of my favourite Big Bads throughout the entire series, Adam would most probably become last. Within the Buffy community, there is the consensus that there are too many flaws in his character and, most probably, in Season Four as a whole that make him the least exciting Big Bad. Despite all this, there is one connection that is constantly drawn to Adam: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In the following blog post I would like to discuss whether I consider Adam to be a Frankensteinian monster.

(It's so annoying when a Slayer interrupts you whilst you're about to chop someone's head off)
In my previous post, I discussed the great variety of Gothic intertextuality in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, yes, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein also finds its place in the series. The first time Shelley’s text is used within the show is in the second episode of Season Two (‘Some Assembly Required’). This episode deals with Daryl who died in an accident and was then later brought back to life by his brother. Just like Frankenstein’s monster, Daryl clearly suffers from being an ugly and isolated creature, and thus wishes for a female friend that is just like him.

(Bride of Frankenstein, 1935)
The connection to Frankenstein can easily be drawn. The ugly monster is desperate to belong to society, is even willing to kill out of sheer anger with the world and is frustrated that he is destined to be alone. I further believe that even though this episode may not be essential for the entire series, it still demonstrates the possibilities within the Buffyverse, in terms of magic and resurrection, perfectly and is a great way of including essential Gothic texts into the show.

Many people have argued that apart from Daryl, another Frankensteinian monster can be found in the show: Adam. Up to a certain point, describing Adam as being a Frankensteinian monster is legitimate. Indeed, he is the result of a scientific experiment by scientists. Without a shadow of a doubt, he looks hideous as he consists of a great variety of body parts (from different species). Also, his strength is far superior compared to human strength. A quote from the original text could easily be used to describe Adam’s appearance: ‘I was not even of the same nature as man. I was more agile than they and could subsist upon coarser diet; I bore the extremes of heat and cold with less injury to my frame; my stature far exceeded theirs.’[i] Unarguably, the process of creating Adam in combination with his physical strength and repulsive outward appearance would suggest that he is a Frankensteinian monster.

Yet, there are aspects that make me question whether Adam should actually be described as such a monster. In general, the term Frankensteinian seems to be used almost arbitrarily and it is always defined rather loosely. Again, when considering Adam, it gets clear that in this context, Frankensteinian only means the way Adam was created and the way his outward appearance is reminiscent of Shelley’s monster. Apart from that, I would argue against the understanding of Adam as a monster that is a Frankensteinian one, as a great number of essential attributes of Frankenstein’s monster are absent in this narrative. 

(Adam in the institute: part-human, part-demon, part-cyborg?)
When we think back to the original text by Mary Shelley, the monster is depicted as someone, who from the day he came to life was constantly looking for acceptance amongst humans and wishes nothing more but to be part of their society. When he is clearly neglected not only by Victor but by everyone, he eventually asks his creator for someone like him. It is only every time when Victor either abandons him or cannot give him what he desires that forces him to murder out of sheer revenge.

There are dozens of essays and chapters on this aspect of Frankenstein discussing that Victor is very much to blame for all this and that the monster is not the only villain here. Botting, for instance, describes the story’s monster as follows: ‘Its villain is also the hero and victim, while diabolical agency has been replaced by human, natural and scientific powers.’[ii] I believe that this quote very accurately depicts the three elements that are not only essential for Frankenstein’s creature but, in fact, for every Frankensteinian monster in other works of fiction. A Frankensteinian monster is villain, hero and victim. It is so hard for me to acknowledge Adam as a Frankensteinian monster because he represents only one of these aspects, the villain. The other two, which I consider to be very important are completely ignored within all of Season Four.

For instance: immediately after Professor Walsh brings him to life, he murders her. Whereas Frankenstein’s monster at least has a motive that not justifies but explains his murders, Adam kills Maggie without any reason. And even further: ultimately, Frankenstein’s monster never intended to be evil and regrets every single crime he has committed, yet when Adam kills a young boy in the episode ‘Goodbye Iowa’, he does this without any hint of regret as this act was merely research to him and he does not even realise that killing is wrong. Adam’s behaviour is everything but human.

(Adam, just before he murders an innocent boy - for research!)
This inhuman behaviour is mainly caused by the fact that, unlike Frankenstein’s monster who only consists of human parts, Adam is made from human, demon and machine. Considering both humans and demons in the Buffyverse, I would argue that both are capable of having emotions, can differentiate between right and wrong and, theoretically, can have souls. I do not want to start a discussion on whether Frankenstein’s monster has a soul or not but it is perfectly apparent that there is only humanity in him.

The YouTuber Passion of the Nerd[iii] uploads Buffy and Angel episode guides more or less regularly and one sentence by Wesley from the Angel episode ‘To Shanshu in L.A.’ seems to be very important when attempting to answer the question of what being human really means: ‘It is our desires that make us human.’ I believe that this statement should be considered to be true even beyond the Buffyverse. The reason why we consider Frankenstein’s monster to be the hero of the story but also a victim is caused by the fact that we understand him as a human being that is suffering and desires nothing but acceptance by humanity. We can relate to these desires and we thus empathize with him. Adam, on the other hand, has no desires – he is programmed like a computer. In fact, Adam is nothing but a robot in a human/demon-flesh-shell. Empathy for Adam amongst the viewer is therefore an impossibility. Each of his actions are programmed (and theoretically not his fault) yet, the audience still cannot see him as a victim as he does not feel any pain, neither physically nor psychologically. Unlike Frankenstein’s monster, Adam seems to enjoy the way he was created and gets no sympathy from the audience.

To summarise: Adam can in many aspects be described as a monster that was inspired by the monster in Frankenstein. He is the result of a scientific experiment that did not go as planned and ultimately becomes a monster that goes on a killing spree. Yet, the monster in Frankenstein is much more than that, which is why I do not consider Adam as being a successful depiction of a Frankensteinian monster. The main reasons for that are the absence of motives for any of his actions, the impossibility of considering him as anything but the villain, and ultimately, the absence of other essential parts of Mary Shelley’s story that make Frankenstein’s monster one of the most misunderstood characters in Gothic fiction.

This is just my opinion, when I think of Adam and the idea of him being a Frankensteinian monster. And it is only caused by my definition and understanding of the term Frankensteinian. If you have any other definitions or want to discuss why you completely disagree or agree with me, you can use the hashtag #BuffySlays20 on Twitter – I would love to hear your opinions!


Dana Alex is a first-year PhD student at Kingston University, London. She is interested in madness and asylums – may it be in literature, film, television or video games. Other research interests include vampires, postmodern Gothic, and she is a bit too interested in critical and cultural theory (honestly, this cannot be healthy). Dana would like to emphasize that she was certainly not using this blog as an excuse to re-watch all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer again.

[i] Shelley, Mary Frankenstein (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2003), p. 123.
[ii] Botting, Fred Gothic 2nd edition (London: Routledge, 2014), p. 93.