Musings: Xander and Gender Reversal
"I get in trouble and Buffy saves me," Xander in The Replacement.
There's something special about the show that starts with a mischievous badboy and a frightened blonde girl breaking into an empty high school in a dark night; you'd think the boy is going to kill/harm/rape the girl, only to gasp with shock when the blonde girl turns around and her face is hideously scary and bites the boy to death.
Gender reversal has always been an important aspect of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Joss wants to change the Hollywood cliché of a blonde girl being trapped in an alley and getting killed to the blonde girl who kicks ass and saves the day. It's not only the hero, but also the supporting cast. We see Buffy and Willow growing stronger with each new season while Xander and Giles remain the same powerwise. We see Buffy taking the lead and everybody else, men and women, follow her without questions or objections. That's what makes BtVS powerful, the fact that Buffy slips easily into the role of a leader with everybody's bless. "When I created Buffy, I wanted to create a female icon, but I also wanted to be very careful to surround her with men that not only have no problem with the idea of a female leader, but were in fact engaged and even attracted to the idea," Joss Whedon.
Of course, in every superhero story, the hero needs a heroine; someone that depends on the hero and cheers the hero on to the end. Buffy is the hero of the story, and her heroine is Xander. Buffy inhibits a role usually given to the male lead. Xander inhabits a role traditionally reserved for the woman.
The heroine is the second important character after the hero, physically attractive, usually defined by her relationship to the hero and inferior to him, supportive and loyal to the hero, and more often than not needs to be saved by the hero.
Xander fulfills the role of the heroine more than any other male character. He gets second billing in the credits, physically attractive, witty and clever, very loyal to Buffy, the emotional support to her and the rest of the team, and a male damsel in distress. He's the character we see rushing to hide behind the hero when danger occurs (See Buffy Vs. Dracula) as Anya notes, "When things get rough, he just hides behind his Buffy."
Xander's role as a traditional heroine increases in Season Eight. Here we see Buffy literally carrying Xander in her arms. It happens in the Twilight arc which is loaded with comic book references and Buffy is compared to Superman. Here Xander takes the traditional position of Lois Lane whilst Buffy holds him in her arms like Superman. Check the quotes.
As the heroine, Xander is Buffy's biggest cheerleader; he gets more excited about her defeating evil and getting new powers than the rest of the gang. In the past, he used to worship Buffy to the point of getting massively disappointed and upset with her when she doesn't live up to his standards. After the events of Season Six, where Buffy had failed him badly, Xander becomes more mellowed and understanding to her decisions. By Season Eight, he's too accepting and ready to approve of every decision she makes, even immoral ones.
Here Buffy holds a weeping Xander and lets him sob in her arms.
Damsel in Distress
In Wikipedia, it's said that the figure of the damsel in distress is a feature of certain established fetishes within the field of BDSM. In particular, actresses playing damsels in distress in mainstream movies and television shows are often shown bound or restrained, resulting in images that appeal to some bondage fetishists.
In Teacher's Pet, a giant praying mantis captures young, virgin boys and mates with them. We see Xander restrained about to lose his virginity to a monster, scared, shivering and yelling for help. The petite blonde girl (the hero) knocks the door open and saves the dark-haired handsome boy (the heroine) from the mass murdering rapist.
We also see Xander tied to the wheel in the high school's basement by a demon woman who kidnaps him in First Date.
Xander occasionally needs to be saved from time to time by Buffy; she saves him from bullies like Larry, rapists like his teacher, demons like Lisa, and the last time she has to save him is from Dracula who holds him captive in his castle and under his thrall. It can be seen as somewhat a fairy tale; Xander the prince locked in a castle and forced to play Dracula's manservant against his will, awaits Buffy the princess to march in and save him.
It's so rare to see or read about a woman forcing a man to bed against his will. It's probably because men are physically stronger than women, and unless the woman drugs the man, he can easily push her aside. Here, Faith with the help of her Slayer powers and frequent training is able to do whatever she wants with Xander, and he can do nothing about it except for useless objections and struggles. The scene is so disturbing to watch; how she shoves him to bed and jumps on top of him, how she licks his face all over, her bone-cutting words. The way Xander jerks away from her and says, "No."
Xander's naivety in the scene also reflects the stereotypical girl who believes that this guy slept with her because they have a connection. The guy laughs in her face, and then he either ignores her or assaults her again. Personally, I find the show's neglect of the aftermath very disappointing as this incident is quite interesting to explore seeing the switch of gender roles.
Role of emotional support:
That's Xander's main role in the show, giving the hero and others' emotional support and validation. He's the one who sees his friends when they're let down and reach out to them, always manages to make them feel better by giving them a confidence boost. Especially the hero. Xander's pep talks to Buffy probably outnumber his to the other characters; we've seen her seeking emotional support from Xander on different occasions, notably, "The Freshmen", "I Was Made to Love You", "A Beautiful Sunset", and "Twilight Part 2". Second, we have the hero's sister Dawn; he reaches out to her in "Potential", "Anywhere but Here", and "Time of Your Life Part 1". And last but not least, Willow in his most heroic moment, "Grave".
Here's Xander offering emotional support to Buffy in "A Beautiful Sunset".
Here's Xander offering emotional support to Dawn in "Anywhere But Here"
Object of desire:
Here's an example of Xander being objectified for Buffy's benefit.
Here's an example of Buffy having sexy dreams about Xander. In the dream Buffy is the aggressor and Xander worries about whether it would be a good idea, presumably because of their friendship.
In ancient tales, warriors have fought each other to death to win the princess. Two men fighting over a beautiful woman is a well known trope in storytelling. The object of desire has to be attractive and spunky. Xander has always been witty and as noted, we see him training in S8, getting in shape, and becoming more of an eyecandy. Xander steps into this role in Season Eight as he's represented as the object of desire in two triangles:
The first is between Dracula and Renee, both getting in each other's throat fighting over Xander, calling each other names, trying to get Xander to see how unworthy the other is.
The second is between Dawn and Buffy; which reminds me of the Gunn/Fred/Wesley triangle. Xander as Fred, Dawn as Gunn, and Buffy as Wesley what with Xander growing attached to Dawn and unaware of Buffy's developing feelings. When Buffy finds the courage to reveal her feelings for Xander, she's too late, he's already kissing Dawn.
Renee kind of takes on the traditional role of the man here whilst Xander fits the role of the woman. Usually you'd see two men fighting over a woman like this.
Dawn doesn't look pleased to see Buffy and Xander's warm, tight hug.
Who wears the pants in the relationship:
In his relationship with Cordelia, they seem to be on equal grounds. They both want the same from each other at first, they both hold their own in their snark match, and they both manage to save one another from time to time.
Xander's first sexual experience is with Faith. As a stereotypical girl, he thinks that sex should be meaningful and special, thinks that they only engaged in the act because they have something special. Faith as a stereotypical man thinks it's just physical, just skin, just a fun ride. She wants nothing to do with Xander after she's done with him. (Seems very similar to Buffy/Parker, only with role reversal.)
Anya is a little similar to Faith at first. As a stereotypical male, she's so focused on sex, she gets upset when they don't have it, and she expects it every night.
When she appears in Xander's basement for the first time, she strips naked and demands sex; thinking that sexual intercourse is the answer to her dilemma. She can't stop thinking about Xander and it scares her, so maybe if they have sex, she can put him behind her. Figuratively. On the other hand, Xander isn't on the same boat with her, he still thinks that sex should be special, still thinks there are steps to take before they reach to the sex part. He's thinking like a stereotypical female, and he admits it.
Xander : It's just we hardly know each other. I mean I like you. And you have a certain directness that I admire. But sexual interc-- What you're talking about, well--and I'm actually turning into a woman as I say this--but it's about expressing something. And accepting consequences.
Later in "Where the Wild Things Are", Anya complains about the lack of sex (she associates lack of sex with breaking up), and Xander mistakenly tells her that their relationship is more than just sex, it's what he used to believe before he realizes that, no, their relationship is mostly about sex. He argues that their relationship should be more than just sex.
ANYA: You don't find me attractive any more.
XANDER: What are you talking about? I think you're gorgeous.
ANYA: Oh, really? Well then, why didn't we have sex last night?
XANDER: Is that what this is about? We've gone other nights without sex.
ANYA: (angry) I know. Twice! I can't believe we're breaking up.
XANDER: Breaking- We're not! Are we?
ANYA: Of course we are. You, you've obviously grown tired of me. I mean, I've seen it happen to thousands of women over the centuries, I just never thought it would happen to me.
XANDER: Anya, there's a lot more to you and me than the sex. (Anya rolls her eyes) Well, there should be! I mean, a relationship is something that you work at. Work through. Together.
Then we have Xander/Renee, a girl under his charge, but confident enough to be in charge when necessary. She gets in Dracula's face whenever it appears that he's controlling Xander, she's not threatened by his name, as her main concern is protecting Xander from slipping under Dracula's thrall.
Here's an interesting essay on this subject that I read recently The Importance of Being the Zeppo: Xander, Gender Identity and Hybridity in Buffy the Vampire Slayer by Marc Camron.
Damsels tend to be the least interesting characters in fiction. Their only purpose is to get captured. They're usually innocent, completely helpless, and can't do a thing for themselves. They rarely have depth and their most notable characteristic is their extreme fascination with the hero.
With the wake of Feminism, an interesting change occurs in the damsel's role in the story. Damsels are trying to change, to be more capable and less helpless. In the second Scooby Do movie, long-time damsel Daphne is sick of being captured a rescued and decides to do something about it. She's trained in martial arts during Mystery Inc.'s year-long departure in the first film and becomes and more useful member to the gang.
Feminism is about equality between both genders, women fighting for their rights and against oppression. A woman must go out there and prove herself in a male dominated world, and Xander does the same. He knows he's the weakest, everybody else knows it, but that doesn't stop him from standing shoulder to shoulder with people more powerful than him and claiming to be their equal.
A metaphor for a struggling woman"¦
For years women have struggled and fought for their rights, to be equal to men and be treated with respect. In BtVS, we have a team of super powered fighters; every single one of them has a specialty, every single one of them is suited to stand in the front lines and fight the forces of evil and among them we find Xander, the one without the powers, the woman without the advantages of male muscles, height and built.
Xander used to consider himself a vital part of the team, until Cordelia points out that he's the least important one. It's then when he realizes he isn't really his friends' equal, especially when he's pushed away by all his friends so he won't get "hurt". The Zeppo is a turning point for Xander, while he does regain confidence and pride in himself in the end, it opens up a can of issues, and from then on Xander's insecurity about his place in the gang increases to levels he's never had before. They're all getting stronger and way out of his league; they're all "way ahead of him". He tries to prove himself and match up to their level, when he trips, he gets up, he never stops trying; his trials slowly vanish because the goal is too impossible.
Xander comes to a point where he accepts that he's "less" and that's in S7. As he tells Dawn, he watches his friends growing stronger and more powerful, and he's the guy who fixes the windows. The men go out and fetch for the money to feed and clothe their family, and the women are stuck fixing dinner. "But dinner needs to be cooked," is similar to Dawn's, "And the windows really did need fixing." Xander settles for the housewife role in S7, keeping the house together, making sure they have all the weapons they need, giving a few pointers here and there, and then when he gets maimed, he becomes even more useless, a burden, someone that needs to stay away to be safe.
But Xander's journey doesn't stop there. The fire and tries to match up to his friends' importance return back in Season Eight. Xander finally finds his place, finally becomes equal to his super powered friends, right now he's in charge of a big number of Slayers, he's their leader, their guide, and despite his objections, their watcher. Xander starts spending time in the training room, becomes better shaped and a competent fighter, he spars with Slayers now, and stands in the head of the army when they march to take down the vampires in Tokyo.
He's fought a long way, overcome so many obstacles to get there. All that without any super power and a one eye. He can be considered a better role model for ordinary women than Buffy (For the same reasons as Dawn and Cordelia do.) Because he manages to fight without the advantages his friends have, manages to stay on top without their leverages, and he becomes as respected and important as Buffy and Willow, the strongest members in the group. That's admirable.