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

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.

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