In the countdown to the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xander (Nicholas Brendon) has one of his eyes gouged out. This while he accompanies our eponymous heroine (Sarah Michelle Gellar), in an early confrontation with the evil Preacher Caleb (Nathan Fillion). He singles Xander out as “the one who sees everything.” Though Scoobies and Slayerettes are wounded and killed, no survivor’s injuries are quite as gruesome as Xander’s gaping red hole (“Dirty Girls,” 7-18).
This symbolic castration has made me rethink the social and political import of Buffy. I have long loved the show for its dedication to representing girls’ sexuality and agency, and imagine a generation of viewers who have done some real growing up with Buffy, learning more than a thing or two about the roles of sex, desire, and independence in their lives. We’ve watched Buffy’s frustrations with Angel (David Boreanaz), her rebound with Riley Finn (Marc Blucas)—an amazing depiction of a liberated Buffy fully enjoying her sexuality—and her deeply vexed relationship with Spike (James Marsters).
Buffy wasn’t the only girl trying to figure all this out. Millennia-old vengeance demon Anya (Emma Caulfield) found herself struggling with the realities of being human when she was abruptly returned to mortality by a curse gone very wrong (“The Wish,” 3-9). After many years punishing wayward lovers, her faith in human constancy was pretty thin, yet she was still willing to give intimacy and love another chance as she fell in love with her “best friend” Xander, only to, once again, have her hopes dashed when he left her at the altar (“Hell’s Bells,” 6-16).
Also tricky, if less cataclysmic, Dawnie’s (Michelle Trachtenberg) coming into consciousness of her own desires and desirability has been handled deftly over the course of the past two seasons. In the episode “Him” (7-6), Dawn confronts her own sexuality, as well as her resentment at being overshadowed by sexy big sister and all-powerful Slayer Buffy. But when Dawn falls for the Sunnydale High School quarterback RJ (Thad Luckinbill), she’s not the only one. Every girl who meets RJ falls hopelessly in love with him, thanks to his magical letterman’s jacket. The spell is broken of course but the lesson is clear: Be careful, girls. Just because he’s popular and lavishes attention on you doesn’t mean he’s got your best interests at heart.
The most progressive social and political impact of Buffy emerged in the long coming out process of Willow (Allyson Hannigan). After her painful separation from high school sweetheart and werewolf Oz (Seth Green), she realized her queer desires when she met fellow witch Tara (Amber Benson). What began as a tentative admission of bisexuality wound up, some two seasons later, as an out and proud declaration of her gayness. Willow’s struggle to make sense of her own desires, her indecision about whom to tell, what to tell, and when, reflected the coming out stories of many queer people, and has had the potential to influence the way homosexuality is perceived by Buffy‘s audience.
I would feel remiss at this point if I didn’t at least mention the controversy over the ending of season six with the callous murder of Tara, which to many viewers implicitly repeated homophobic stereotypes of queer sexuality as pathology and excess. This scandal and the public uproar that ensued were testament to the many ways Buffy so often intersects with the “real” world, despite its fantasy stylings. With Tara’s death, and no matter the makers’ intentions, the show participated in the perpetuation of homophobia, as happens so often in our currently “tolerant” world (Rick Santorum comes to mind).
Here was one of Buffy‘s most important lessons: the safety and acceptance of sexual minorities are not, and perhaps never can be, finalized in a society so long based in sexism and homophobia. But perhaps the lack of young women’s safety is precisely the point. Sex, sexuality, and desire are messy and sometimes painful, as well as pleasurable and self-affirming. It’s an urgent message for young women in a contemporary environment where they are given injunctions to a “normal” sexual restraint, and pilloried in public paranoia over the increasingly young age at which girls are having sex.
It is because of all these voluble lessons that I have paid less attention to the boys on Buffy. And this brings me back to Xander’s figurative castration. As I think back on it, I realize that, not only has the show had an impact on girls’ maturation and understanding of sexual autonomy, but it has also revealed what it’s like to be a boy or a man. While the complications of boys’ sexual and social maturation are a common motif on recent teen-oriented tv, what is significantly different about Buffy is the girls have all the power and save the day. Patriarchal privilege is largely dismissed in the Buffy-verse; fathers are entirely absent and their surrogates are largely ineffectual, or at the very least less powerful than their “daughters” (Mayor Wilkins [Harry Groener] and Faith [Eliza Dushku], Giles [Anthony Stewart Head] and Buffy).
The boys on Buffy demonstrate repeatedly that male sexuality is always already compromised and masculinity is never easy. Despite Angel and Spike’s status as adult men, they are also ciphers for young men’s maturation. From the amoral infancy of vampirehood, the two moved into an uncertain adulthood; their relationships to Buffy challenged familiar masculine expectations. Angel, so loving and desirous of Buffy, was deeply concerned with consequences of their “inappropriate” relationship. The fact that Angel will lose his soul if he and Buffy have sex implies that sex can be dangerous for both boys and girls. Spike, initially sure of his role as sexy vampire stud and literal lady-killer, finds the realities of a committed relationship nearly impossible to negotiate. He tries to “be a man” and repeatedly fails, leading, in “Seeing Red” (6-19), to his near rape of Buffy.
Masculinity is even harder for Xander, as he doesn’t have any of that vampire allure or superpower to fall back on. In high school, Xander was that sweet, funny guy who always slipped under everyone’s radar (except Willow and Buffy’s, of course). Unfortunately, he set his sights a bit high, on the uber-popular Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), and was shot down repeatedly. But, god bless him, he just kept trying. Then, too, he suffered thorough affections for Buffy and Willow. Though he could very well have fallen in love with either, they could only ever love him as a friend. Rather than become bitter, though, Xander accepted his fate and their bonds became all the stronger.
In his relationship with Anya, Xander has remained unsure of his own desirability and her attraction to him, not to mention the fact that she is (way) older and, in all things, more experienced. In all of these relationships, Xander failed (or so he often believed) to live up to traditional masculine ideals, and his struggles with love, friendship, and his own identity have been ongoing and poignant.
My favorite Xander moments are those when the expectations and protocols of manhood are most difficult for him. Most of these occurred in the story arc that didn’t end with his marriage to Anya. In “Hell’s Bells” (6-16), Xander and Anya’s wedding is interrupted by a visitor who claims to be Future Xander (George D. Wallace). He shows Xander a vision of his and Anya’s marriage, where all of his fears have become realized and cataclysmic. The couple is straight out of a working class version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
It’s a ruse of course, enacted by Anya’s former demon boss to derail the marriage. Even so, shown this nightmare future, Xander decides it is all too possible. His indecision about their relationship, and his anxieties about they and their families being literally from two different worlds, lead directly to his abandonment of Anya at the altar. It was nothing short of heartbreaking, for Xander, for Anya, and for me.
In all of these episodes and storylines, in all of his varying successes and failures in life and love, Xander more clearly marks the complications of heterosexual masculinity than any other tv teen I can think of. We’ve all learned a lot about the politics of being young and being adult, about sexuality and gender roles, as well as about the difficulties of daily life from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but perhaps we’ve learned the most about all of this from Xander. And while I will certainly miss all of the Scoobies, I think I’ll miss him the most.