Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Xander Harris: Portrait of a Monster? (Part Two)



This is the second part of Adam Smith's exploration of Xander Harris in Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Five, where he concludes his dissusion of Xander as a monster. Make sure you check out part one here, and if you want to if you want to share your thoughts on whether on not you think Xander is a monster, or if you want to share this or any of our previous posts, use the hashtag #BuffySlays20.


This post isn’t intended as a defence of Xander Harris, but seeing as we’re here... Whenever Xander gets what he claims to want he is distinctly uncomfortable. In the Season Two episode ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,’ when Xander attempts to put a love spell on Cordelia but instead accidentally casts a love spell on every woman in town except Cordelia (standard Xander), he finds himself on the receiving end of a steamy seduction conducted by his first crush: Buffy herself. Much of Xander’s posturing in Season One comes from his frustration that Buffy won’t just fall in love with him, which is exactly what happens in this scene. Xander fights her off and explains that he doesn’t want this, horrified by the vision of a woman robbed of her autonomy the way he so often fantasises about.

(Faith and Xander in 'The Zeppo')
Famously, there’s also ‘The Zeppo,’ a remarkable piece of television that follows a typical Buffy adventure from Xander’s perspective, revealing how he thinks and behaves in isolation, away from an audience (which is always when he is most interesting). Xander is a fool, in the medieval sense. He is a performer. He offers social cohesion by providing a laughter track for both the characters in the show and at times the audience of the show. As he himself jokes in the show’s third episode: ‘I laugh in the face of danger, and then I hide until it goes away.’ His true value to the group is his ability to keep the group entertaining, even in the darkest of situations. A consequence of this is that when he stops joking, you know it’s bad.

Another weirdly affecting moment comes in the episode ‘Halloween,’ when Xander is rescued by Buffy at the school soda machine from a beat down by Larry the school bully. Rather than being grateful, he snaps at Buffy, chiding her that ‘a black eye heals, but cowardice has an unlimited shelf life.’ He resents Buffy, because being rescued by a girl has made him look weak. Intriguingly, though, he seems aware of how stupid this is, the subtext being that he too is a prisoner in the patriarchal reproduction of toxic masculine standards (standards which Xander later finds significantly complicated, albeit somewhat crudely, when in the next season Larry the bully is outed as gay).

(Comando Xander protecting Buffy in 'Halloween')
These two facets can explain (but let me stress, not justify) much of Xander’s behaviour: his need to constantly perform and his obsession with hyper-masculine gender standards. As a result, he tries and fails to perform these constructed standards of masculinity and becomes hostile to anything that foregrounds what he perceives as inadequacy. In his worst moments, he resents not having access to that which he feels entitled too, a frustration he internalises as the result of his failure as a man but is most often the consequence of the reality that women are sentient and discerning life forms and not disposable sex objects. 

This volatile cocktail is treated most overtly in one of my favourite Buffy stories, the Season Five episode ‘The Replacement.’ Here, Xander takes a mystical hit from the demon Toth that was intended for Buffy. He wakes up to discover that he has been replaced by a double, who upon further investigation appears to have not only stolen Xander’s life but to be doing a much better job of it. It later transpires that the other Xander is not a robot, a clone or a shapeshifter, but that Xander’s essence has been split into two (much like in the Star Trek episode ‘The Enemy Within,’ which is itself referenced by both Xanders). The exact nature of the split is left purposefully vague. At first, it seems there is a good Xander and an evil Xander (which is how it plays out in Star Trek). Later, they develop a theory that one is dominant and the other subordinate. However, when they are brought together they are almost indistinguishable, and each admits being jealous of the other. In the closing scene, when they stop ‘performing Xander’ - one stops playing the clown, the other stops acting the alpha – they merge, sharing the same dialogue before ultimately sharing the same body.

(Double Xander in 'The Replacement')
Xander Harris is thus revealed to be a man who admires, resents and despises himself, all of the time. He is fixated on his ability (or perceived inability) to perform what he understands to be manliness, even though, as we have seen, he is also aware that this ideal in unrealistic and absurd. He is a man tortured by his inability to accept who and what he is. In those fleeting moments when he is distracted from his misguided pursuit of attaining a typically masculine position in heteronormative patriarchy, he is funny, sensitive, brave and compassionate. In those moments, he is the ‘heart’ of the team.

It is tragic that such moments are few and are between.

Does this make Xander a monster? Well, perhaps, in a very important sense.

As most of this blog’s readers will be well aware, the word ‘monster’ is derived from the Latin ‘monere,’ which means ‘to show,’ or ‘to warn.’ The OED tells us that a monster is something ‘deviating in one or more parts from the normal type.’ Monsters aren’t scary because they’re wholly other, they inspire terror because part of them is recognisable. They embody a shocking and disturbing relatability.

(Xander and Angel: who's the real monster?)
A large source of discomfort that I felt re-encountering Xander came from a place of awkward recognition. When I was at school, though I don’t for a moment think I was as terrible as Xander I certainly did desperately want girls to like me. And I did obsess over my inability to be Angel. Fortunately, I realised much earlier than Xander that I could be myself and express my identity in different ways, and towards different ends.

And I wonder now, looking back, if one of the reasons I came to that revelation during my adolescence and ‘didn’t become a Xander’ is not at least in part because of Xander; because I was exposed to a show as thoughtful, provocative and interrogative as Buffy: The Vampire Slayer at such an influential part of my life. 


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.

1 comment:

  1. this is so thoughtful and well written. thank you!

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