exactly that

Joss is tricky.

We really thought he had given us something completely fresh and new, and in many ways he had. He was used to that. He had written for Roseanne, which was ahead of its time, and in many ways, Buffy was also ahead of its time.

Buffy seemed to flip the narrative. Superhero girl takes on Big Bads. Two girls and a dude, which is a complete flip. If you don’t believe me, think of all the entertainment media geared at teens and young adults, and how the main cast of principal players is usually two guys and a girl. Off the top of my head I come up with Harry Potter (Harry, Ron, Hermione), Percy Jackson (Percy, Grover, Annabeth), Star Wars (Luke, Han, Leia), Scrubs (John, Turk, Elliott), Avatar – The Last Airbender (Aang, Sokka, Katara) all with this construction. There are more, but I don’t want to get monotonous. Buffy gave us the opposite construction, the first show of its kind and of its time. Buffy’s best friend, Xander Harris is even the guy who needs to be rescued from time to time. That is definitely against the narrative.

Except, Xander isn’t really comfy in that role, and he lashes out and pushes back against that frequently in what is affectionately know around The Sphere as Nice Guy™ behavior. He often gets it Buffy’s face about it, even when it was to his own benefit. When Buffy saves him from a bully, knocking the bully against the soda machine (“Ooh! Diet!), Xander flounces off angry because of his male pride (don’t take it out on me, this is his wording). Angry and raging, he prefers to be punched by other dudes than saved by the tiny girl.

When Buffy first moves to Sunnydale, Xander is quick to try to stake his claim by searching her our. Hot new girl is instantly something that Xander wants to know all about, and he even follows her around and is the first to uncover her secret. He opines about how much he wants to be with her to his friend, Willow, often complaining to about how “girls never want to be with” guys like him, all the time oblivious to the fact that Willow herself has feelings for Xander himself.

Xander often times acts as though being such a decent person entitles him to the type of attention from women that he desires, certainly from someone, if not from Buffy herself. It certainly should entitle him to dictate who is and isn’t good enough for Buffy to devote her attention to since it isn’t going to Xander. After all, who is this Angel guy? It isn’t Xander! How can he possibly be good enough for her? He couldn’t even save Buffy when she died! He does this repeatedly with both Buffy and Willow, criticizing both Angel and Oz, and often trying to go tete a tete with Angel over Buffy’s maidenhood… or something.

Xander continues to display his staggering Nice Guy™ personae even after he enters into his (at first secret kissy-face) relationship with Cordelia. When he isn’t attached to Cordy at the lips, he is talking incessantly about Buffy to her, or later, Willow, ignorant of the perfectly wonderful (admittedly flawed) person in front of him. Xander’s treatment of Cordelia is heartbreakingly cruel (and probably indicative of what is to come, because Joss, I have a major beef with you and your treatment of Cordy). After Cordelia stands up to her friends in order to keep her relationship with Xander, he repays her in kind by betraying her with a person he didn’t really want to be with until he couldn’t have her.

Xander later has a relationship with the ex-demon, Anya. While I haven’t really gotten to those seasons in our Summer viewing yet, the episode “Hells Bells” stands starkly in my mind. Xander and Anya have a curious relationship that has a lot to be examined, but the way that Xander leaves Anya, even if when confronted with what he fears he might turn into one day, is inexcusable. Xander makes this choice based on his own fears and desires, and uses that moment to walk away to absolve himself of any responsibility. He leaves Anya, alone and embarrassed in front of both of their families (with his family loudly abusing and blaming her for ruining everything), and without the chance to discuss the issues at a less emotional time for both of them. Though the future vision of himself turns out to be a falsehood, presented by a demon bent on vengeance, Xander is unable to set his feelings aside in order to consider what his actions are going to do to Anya. This has huge repercussions…

Xander Harris, while having many incredible qualities that shine through in the course of the series and being many things that make him valuable to Buffy and the rest of the “Scooby Gang”, has a lot of problematic issues written into him as an overarching character, including the way he views and treats women. He, in many ways epitomizes the definition of Nice Guy™. I wonder if Joss created Xander to be this intentional stereotype, as a foil for the That Girl that is so oft written into other shows and movies. That stereotypical young woman who has to be rescued and who nags on the guys with her and who embraces everything that everyone says is wrong with women today.

I wonder.

Yes, Joss may be tricky indeed.

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Comments on: "Xander Harris: Nice Guy (TM)" (12)

  1. I’ve always thought that Xander (the leading male character of the series) was written up to be a mixture the best and worst about men (although I think the worst shined through more often and burned brighter).

    If you look at all the characters he is the only one of the Scooby Gang that didn’t bring something very apparent to the table. (Compared to Buffy being the slayer, Willow with her computer and magic abilities, Tara with her magic abilities, Giles and Anya with their vast knowledge of the occult, and Spike/Angel being vampires as well as their knowledge.) Although I think one of his “uses” became apparent in season 7. When Andrew came along and because the goofy comic relief I couldn’t help but notice that Xander seemed to fade into the background a bit. But I think its the episode “Potential” that really spells out Xander’s value.

    • Yeah, I remember the bit about him being the one who “sees” everything (when Nathan Fillion’s character burns his eye out and everything). I don’t believe Xander to be without redeemable qualities. I liked him in many situations, but it was his approach to relationships, both platonic and otherwise, that lead me to hold him in a bit of ill regard.

      He did bring something: Human touch. It was apparent in the way he interacted with Dawn, the one young woman whom I don’t know that he was ever horrible to (though, I could be mistaken, I haven’t had a Buffy-a-thon in a while and haven’t gotten that far yet). He brings that smack of humanity back, and he notices Dawn, in the human way, not in an awkward way he shouldn’t or anything.

      He is a vital part of the team, but it isn’t obvious. Xander is just written, I believe, to be the opposite to the stereotype we are used to seeing.

  2. I also thought Xander was written to express typical male uncomfortableness with women in power, even as they claim to find them sexy and empowered. Many men enjoy the strong female until they realize she will be that way in regards to them as well. Of all the males in Buffy’s life (other than her father) Xander is the one that truly grew up in the “real world”. Giles has known the power and lore of the Slayer since he was young. Angel and Spike were in a world where the male and female vampires were equally vicious and both were mentored in their ways by women. Xander didn’t have that and I think many of his reactions were due to struggling to feel useful in a world where all the women has a special skill or were the default leaders. It went against much of what he saw. If you look at Riley you can see that he struggled with this dynamic, especially when they were no longer equals in strength. I think that’s why Xander saw what Riley was struggling with and tried to reach out to him/warn Buffy. They handled the stress in completely different ways of course.

  3. I think what makes examination of Xander tricky is that he seems to only shine brightly when he was at his worst. As you point out its easy to remember how he treated Buffy, Willow, Cordy, and Anya on the relationship front but its a bit harder to recall that despite not apparently bringing anything special to the table he is the one character that never faltered (in the main “beat the Big Bad” storylines mind you). But I guess it doesn’t help that even Xander centric episodes like “The Zeppo” still pretty much made fun of him.

    Sorry if I’m kinda pushy with my Xander defense. In watching reruns I find myself liking Xander more and more.

  4. I don’t give Whedon that much credit. Xander is way too much the idealised Nice Guy (we’ve got Warren for the Nice Guy Turned Bitter By Constant [And Largely Imagined] Rejection) for him to be a critique of the viewership. He was there because there has to be a dude about for dudes to identify with whilst it’s often unnecessary for there to be a lady about for ladies to identify with.

    And for fuck’s sake let’s look at what Xander is. He’s the normal unmodified human who keeps up with Slayers and witches and vampires and demons and cyborgs and whatall. (As a useful comparison, let us note that Principal Wood, another normal unmodified human, could not hack it and drops out of the fight. And um. The. Um. The. Racial. Component. There. Fuck, Joss, you keep fucking up with your black characters. [See also: Book’s hair is scary!] Maybe it’s not entirely a bad thing you just did the orientalist thing in Firefly and didn’t have actual characters who were Han or Manchu or Singaporean or Uyghur or whatever cos we only have to imagine how badly you’d have fucked that up. [Oops China isn’t a monoculture what?])

    Oh god the parentheses I’m really sorry. u____u;;

    Eeeegh. Anyway. Point is the Xander-has-no-super-powers in an environment where everyone else who matters does thing is kind of a shining example of Cursed With Awesome. That he’s an Author Avatar also … myeh. I dunno. He’s supposed to be read as too awesome for me to trust.

    (I am not going to actually make the links to tvtropes. It is a public service.)

    • @ mzbitca: I like your Riley/Xander comparison, it is profoundly apt, and probably since we are still on S2 of my re-watch and I am trying to recall things from memory, I didn’t think about it. They did indeed deal with “just being the normal guy” in incredibly different ways. Xander does also exhibit a difficulty in relating to powerful women even as he is drawn to them, and I think that is part of what made his ability to relate to Dawn so well good (bad sentence alert).

      @ Danny: Yeah, I see what you are saying, but I think the reason that it is, as you say, harder to recall those things in comparison to the way Xander treats the women in his life, is because it is an example of a very real thing that reflects my own life (without the Supernatural powers). This isn’t just an example that happens on television. There are Xander Harrises all about. I’ve known two or three myself, and I am sure I could point to a few of my ladyfriends who could say the same. I think what makes Xander such a cautionary tale of a character to me, is that I’ve known him, and it makes my stomach churn in a too close to home way to see the way he goes on. No, not every man I encounter is like this, I wouldn’t be partnered were that true, but he personifies someone real that many people have an easy time knowing. It is hardly a universal meme, for sure, and we surely see worse dudes behaving in worse ways towards the ladies which make Xander look like he is steadfast and pure.

      That may sound hypocritical given my insistence that he is a foil for the stereotypical woman written into most other shows we see, and I don’t mean for it to be, but there is a systemic issue that the world sees women in one light that doesn’t exist (at least not on the level they would have you believe) on that level while painting all men everywhere as heroes and women as mindless, wilting lilies who need rescuing (or, are devices to be raped, tortured, beaten or murdered, and outsmarted, to show how bad the Bad Guys are and how Good the Good Guys are which is in an upcoming post). Xander is a step outside of that, something different, a flip of that narrative for once. I also think he is possibly a nod to what kaninchenzero said here, about needing a dude on board or dudes won’t watch the show.

      @kaninchenzero: LOLTRUE! You mean China isn’t just one big place where everyone is he same? Crap!

      I think you have a point about Xander. I don’t know how many times I have heard one of my friends with sons only say something to the effect of “Oh, that’s a girl movie, my son wouldn’t like it”, when we were talking about a movie that happened to be about something that kids in general would enjoy, but happened to have a girl lead. I am going to go ahead and say that that mindset follows right into adulthood, when people won’t watch a show if they think it is a ladyshow about ladybusiness (bad example, but Grey’s Anatomy comes to mind, simply because the eponymous character is a lady doctor, I know dudes who wouldn’t even watch the pilot due to this point).

      I never thought of that, re: Xander having no super powers. Hell, he takes quite an ass punching left and right, and survives, and everyone else save Dawn manages to develop some survival strategy. Even Dawn develops her “Little Bit” relationship with Spike, which I think helps keep her alive. You have astounded me again with your insight.

      I award you one Internet Tradition for not linking to TV Tropes. You, ma’am are a peach.

      Now I am supposed to be off the internet. Stop being interesting, all of you!

  5. I AM SO EXCITED THAT SOMEONE BESIDES ME AND MY BEST FRIEND ARE AS IRRITATED WITH XANDER AS WE ARE. My thoughts on this, in greater detail, are at my Tumblr. GREAT post. :D!

  6. “Yeah, I see what you are saying, but I think the reason that it is, as you say, harder to recall those things in comparison to the way Xander treats the women in his life, is because it is an example of a very real thing that reflects my own life (without the Supernatural powers).”

    I can understand how the show may reflect your own life (and now that you mention your own life I can totally see how the fact that his negatives burn brighter could result from Joss’s own writing and from it being a reflection of your own life).

    “I also think he is possibly a nod to what kaninchenzero said here, about needing a dude on board or dudes won’t watch the show.”
    Mind you I’m only one dude of many but I think that Xander would be more of a turn off to dudes (in much the way that similar women/girl characters would be a turn off to girl/women fans). I mean if you go by the notion that guys want to see men at the center of attention and notice that Xander for the most part is only the center of attention when he is being made fun of, f’n something up, or is catching a beatdown (and I honestly think that holds true almost all the way to season 7 when Andrew became the comic relief which I think freed up Xander to do more than get clowned, f things up, and get beat on) that just doesn’t make sense.

    • No, I think you are missing the point, that usually, boys and men are socially taught that they can’t view media unless there is a man or boy on board for them to at least watch and relate to, and irrespective of all the lesser characters you keep bringing up (who I think just made him look better), Xander fits that bill. It’s the reflection of having a single woman on most other shows, who portray the worst characteristics available in women, and it was nice to have one show in all the world that did that differently.

      You really are all about the Xander love! Which is great and all, but it surely doesn’t erase the poor qualities that were seemingly intentionally written into him.

      I only used my own life, above, as an example. I am certain that I am hardly alone. Xander exhibits very common behavior, unfortunately, of things that we find socially programmed into young men. Ideas that they are entitled to women, that they are supposed to be stronger, that they get a say in who those closest to share their affections with, just to name a few. It isn’t that they “burn brighter” just for me, it is that these are cues of social programming that I see as being intentionally written into Xander as flaws of his personality.

      • “No, I think you are missing the point, that usually, boys and men are socially taught that they can’t view media unless there is a man or boy on board for them to at least watch and relate to,”
        Maybe this is where I diverge from the usual social teaching but Xander just doesn’t seem to fit that because while guys are often taught to find a guy for them to relate to in fiction the social teaching says that said guy can’t be a “whimp” (at immediate face value) like he was.

        “You really are all about the Xander love! Which is great and all, but it surely doesn’t erase the poor qualities that were seemingly intentionally written into him.”
        Of course not. No character is perfect and his flaws along with his good points all roll up into an interesting character. Take out one thing and you ruin the mix.

        “It isn’t that they “burn brighter” just for me, it is that these are cues of social programming that I see as being intentionally written into Xander as flaws of his personality.”
        Sorry I didn’t mean that burn brighter in a manner of trying to erase your own life. I was just trying to say that in addition to his behavior being a reflection of behavior that your yourself have experience there is also the matter that Xander only got the spotlight when he was engaging in those behaviors. (I’ll put it like this. Unlike you I myself don’t act like Xander nor do I have personal experience with a lot Xander like behavior but even I notice how those behaviors you point out seem to be front and center most of the time.)

  7. Oh man, I have so many problems with Xander. Let’s see if I can count them all:

    -His treatment of Buffy from the get go. He acts like she’s a fire hydrant to be peed upon instead of a human being, and is REALLY HURT when she doesn’t automatically reciprocate his feelings. He was NICE to her! Why wouldn’t she want to date him?! How dare she exercise autonomy with her dating life! Not to mention the constant criticisms of Angel and often being very cruel to Buffy about Angel, because he does not like Angel, because Angel is with Buffy. Instead of him.

    -His treatment of Willow. When Willow is interested in him and single, he totally ignores her. When she starts dating someone else though! Oh no! It’s time for White Knight Xander (complete with chivalry action) to ride in and make sure that this guy is appropriate for His Woman. And that’s not even touching the whole “Oh Willow, let’s make out!” thing.

    -The love spell fiasco. He thinks it would be appropriate to cast a love spell on Cordelia (which is violating her in a pretty nasty way), but then it backfires and everyone else wants Xander! Including Buffy, who he doesn’t sleep with – and she then thanks him like that was soo super nice of him to do.

    -That crap at the end of season 2 with not telling her about the spell. TOTAL SHIT. And he never shows *any* kind of remorse for that.

    -His whole relationship with Anya – I think they intended this to be problematic, because I thought I remembered something about one of the writers making a comment about how Anya only ever identified herself by who she was with (including that cut musical song, “Mrs. Harris”). But I think his treatment of her is pretty inexcusable – IIRC, he pretty much treats her like a sex-dispenser at first, and then he leaves her at the altar, and then is somewhat baffled when she doesn’t want to go back to dating.

    -That guilt trip with Buffy about Riley! AHH. Okay, sorry, Riley is a douchebag (you probably already gathered how I feel about Riley from Tumblr) and giving Buffy an ultimatum like that because she wasn’t emotionally available enough after all of the crap she had been through (and the stunts he pulled) was an asshole move. And guilt tripping Buffy about it? Also asshole-y.

    I really don’t hate Xander as much as it sounds like I do, at least while watching the show. I think part of the reason he frustrates me so much is because he *is* the everyman and I’m sure every “progressive” (nyah I hate that word but I can’t think of a better one) has experienced what he pretty much exemplifies – you have this friend that you think is cool, and is pretty nice, and then they say or do something totally nonsensical and/or bigoted in some way. And you’re just like “Wait. What? No. WHAT?! This is NOT ACCEPTABLE, dammit!”.

  8. I don’t think the issue is really being too hard vs. not hard enough on Xander. I think it boils down to—is Xander’s fail written intentionally, as a way of illustrating how dudes in everyday life fail? Or is Xander’s fail the product of being written by dudes in everyday life who maybe think his actions are kiiiiind of questionable but ultimately reasonable, given what he’s dealing with?

    What I think I failed to articulate is that I believe pretty strongly that it’s the latter. Xander doesn’t face any real repercussions from his continuing fail. The women in his life seem to view him as an eminently decent and forthright individual, and though there are times that he falters (the love spell thing, the period immediately after graduation) they keep him around and he eventually gets his shit together. His moments of fail are seen as forgivable lapses given his experiences, rather than symptoms of a greater issue (HOLY SHIT, INTERNALIZED MISOGYNY). (Full response at my Tumblr.)

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