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March 21, 2012

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Monika

Thanks for your comments.

I find it quite interesting to see just how varied the biggest, visceral, anti-Xander moment is for each person. For you, it's the ultimatum moment, for others it's the rape commentary, etc. There's no rallying moment, which I think speaks to his problematic characterization.

I'm not sure you can ignore the causal interplay when it comes to Xander. He's a figure who only has his commentary to offer (no other strength or smarts), and though almost always problematic, it's increasingly rewarded. As a viewer, I was a bit disappointed that they had to make him this being of "strength." There was something nice in the idea of the hero as the simple human who quite simply rebuilds the house every time it's bashed in, etc. (Reminds me of Julie Delpy's pencil commentary in Before Sunset.)

As for SatC, just have to say nice to meet you. :) I've not always talked or behaved as audaciously, but I have had countless conversations and moments that reflected the less feminine moments of the series, and known many other women who feel similarly. (That is, the non-fashion/shoes moments.)

Isaac

Hey Monika,

Thanks for the comment, and thanks for the post that got this ball rolling. I should say that I never liked Xander, and remember writing furious e-mails to erstwhile Parabasis writer Anne Moore about how frustrating I found his character. I think the show's POV on him changed from find a kind of condescending disapproval to the kind of approval you highlight. Which is weird. it should run in reverse. After all, the habits we might find tolerable or even endearingly pathetic in a teenager definitely aren't habits we end up celebrating as adults.

As for SatC, perhaps I'm overstating the case (and like Buffy, it's been awhile!). I certainly didn't mean to imply that women don't have really dirty frank conversations about sex! I'm also only really talking about the first season or two. I think the show kind of grew out of the male-characters-in-drag aspect (particularly w/r/t Kim Cattrall's character). I felt it was kind of a similar thing to Frasier, where Frasier and Niles are both gay characters with a heterosexual father... except they're all straight. (Frasier had, if I recall correctly, the highest number of openly gay writers on a sitcom while it was on air).

There was a way during that time period where gay male subjectivity couldn't be openly revealed, so it had to be displaced into straight people of either gender. Now we're in this strange position where there's a lot more gay characters (particularly gay male characters) on our TV screens, but some of these issues remain.

Monika

Xander is strange in this universe, and the more I think about him, the more I ask WHY the writers made the choices they did with his character. What were there intentions? They had to recognize what they were doing at least some of the time.

SatC - Actually, thinking about it now, I wonder if the reason I was especially drawn to the first few seasons was precisely because it wasn't written for a "woman," or TV's perception of a woman. I find that it ALWAYS becomes problematic.

Len Schiff

I think Whedon gets major feminist props for his critiques of masculinity. In Hush, The Gentlemen, clad as precisely the sorts C19 doctors who prescribed rest cures, impose silence on their victims and then cut out their hearts; they can only be dispelled by a female voice. In Ted, John Ritter's robot is programmed to perform 50’s-style suburban/bourgeois maleness-- the inevitable result is rigidity, authoritarianism and finally violence. And then there's Caleb, Nathan Fillion's conflictedly msogynist psycopath....

Joseph Jordan

I've been thinking about this, not so much as a matter of constructively criticizing the Xander character -- I'll cop to the fact that I'm pretty much an unreserved Buffy fanatic, meaning that there's a level on which I haven't engaged in that kind of thought about the show -- but as a matter of trying to understand where the choices come from:

1. Xander is, from the beginning, pretty obviously a Mary Sue-type character. He's a nerdy boy whose passions are exactly the kind of passions that eventually produce stories like Buffy: movies, comic books, jokes-as-self-defense, strong women. I think if you'd asked Whedon at the show's inception, he probably would have said, "Xander c'est moi."

2. As the show progresses, it's got a pretty big problem when it comes to Xander: he can't leave town, and it's unclear what he would *want*. I think it's telling that he in fact tries to leave town after the third season and fails. That's kind of a metaphor for the whole issue with the character post high school. (Kind of the issue with the whole show: it was really built with a three year expiration date, and then kept living for another four years.) The natural progression for the character is to *get the hell out of town*, and if he were a true Mary Sue, fanfiction style, he'd become a super awesome and wealthy TV producer, thus proving to the audience that nerds can win, etc etc etc. Instead, the pros get stuck, because they know they can't do that . . . until they kind of end up doing it.

3. I think the progression that's intended is one of maturation, which would be why the show ceases to condescend to the character. He never abandons his silliness, but the way they ended up solving the problem of Xander is to try to turn him into the show's only true adult. This feels paradoxical, because he's the show's most childish character at the start. I suspect that Whedon & co view this as a useful dramatic irony, but it doesn't necessarily play that way to the viewer: instead it feels like an endorsement of his POV.

4. He's funny, I don't care what anybody says.

Isaac

Joseph,

Thanks for bringing Mary-Sueism into this conversation. I agree with you on that score.

As to #2... I think this problem you highlight becomes the most pronounced after they switch to the UPN network and revive Buffy from the dead. At which point the show becomes suffused with this odd kind of self-and-audience hatred. Every plot line is about how it was a mistake to bring Buffy back and the Big Bad for the season is three Buffy The Vampire Slayer Superfans. I actually pretty much gave up on the show at this point because my thinking was "if you don't want me to watch it that badly, I won't watch, you don't have to tell me twice."

Of course, I think the other main influence in all of this that's being left out is Stan Lee era Marvel Comics, which are filled with a mixture of nerd celebration and nerd self-loathing. Lee constantly condescended to and mocked his audience (even while identifying as one of them) particularly in the front and end-matters of monthly issues. And of course that era of Marvel comics-- an era that's so hard wired into Whedon's writing DNA that he compares Buffy to Spider-Man within the show-- is rife with a specific brand of nerd woman-fear (and misogyny).

Thinking about this out loud for just another second... you have a bunch of different Marvel characters translated (or at least the archetypes they represent) translated into the show, at least at the beginning. Xander then would be basically Peter Parker minus his engineering intelligence. The wise cracks are very much like classic Spider-Man wise cracks. (Willow would be Kitty Pryde, of course, at least for the first few seasons. Giles as Professor X etc.

Anne

Sorry to be jumping into this conversation so late (and after an explicit shout-out, too!), but I wanted to weigh in on a few things. I really enjoyed the Hooded Utilitarian piece--and found it really interesting that the day after Isaac directed me to it, I received a FB post from the official Buffy fan group directing me to this blog post: http://hellogiggles.com/five-ways-buffy-the-vampire-slayer-ruined-my-life, essentially a list of the ways Buffy is awesome and empowering etc.

I love Buffy, don't get me wrong, but it is interesting to me how hesitant fans are to critique the show's politics. Part of this is because, as others have mentioned, Whedon is still an outlier for his willingness to engage with these issues in a sustained way at all. That being said, I too have liked Xander less and less the older I get. The stand-out moment for me is his behavior as early as season 2--his manipulation of Buffy and judgment of her sexual choices is always gross, but the moment when he convinces her to kill Angel is a deal breaker.

The show's treatment of race is the thing that gets me the most--and one of the best examples of this is Xander's season 2 dalliance with the Inca Mummy Girl. Buffy's racial politics as a whole are consistently upsetting, especially the way that Buffy's power is always defined by her comparison to a debased non-white (or less white, in the case of Faith) figure. (Kendra, the First slayer, etc.)

Still--I think the great thing about a show like Buffy is the way that Whedon's engagement with feminist issues encourages us to talk through these issues. I think we're meant to be grossed out by Xander, at least some of the time, and that willingness to be self-critical leaks into other parts of the show, especially when he exists alongside explicit critiques of heteronormative male power like Ted, the Gentlemen, and the other figures already mentioned.

Paula

Anne, some fans of the show on the internet are not particularly hesitant.

http://gabrielleabelle.dreamwidth.org/249400.html
http://eleusis-walks.livejournal.com/tag/meme%3A%2030%20days%20of%20buffy

What I find missing in most of this discussion, though, is a real engagement with what might be problematic within genre and fantasy fiction as a whole when the set up -- girl in horror film, girl with vampire -- already suggests misogyny. I can only speak to BtVS and not Whedon's other work, but I always thought that its point was taking a set-up that was nominally problematic for women and trying to work out a more complex, and, yes, empowered portrayal. But that doesn't mean that Whedon also claimed to do away with the inherent contradictions of such a project or present us with a new model for women in fantasy.

Admittedly, though, this is speaking as someone who is a Buffy fan but is not otherwise engaged in a lot of sci-fi/fantasy fiction. From my outside POV, it seems like a lot of it (save for the usual exceptions: Butler, LeGuin, Piercy) is rife with anti-feminist elements, unquestioned Othering, and/or a consistent ignorance of economic contexts. So I give a lot of it a pass if they even seem to be trying to get out of that stuff.

As for HU and The Mary Sue pieces on Buffy ...

Back in the day people used to write these kinds of pieces about how gangster rap was introducing young kids to violence and was partially responsible for the problems of kids of color in the inner city.

It gained a lot traction out of genuine concern about violence being done to youth, however condescending and racist that concern was. Now, gangster rap has been outstripped in popularity by a "pop" brand of rap music that emphasizes partying with a lot less actual violence.

Obviously, however, people still find this rap music problematic because attitudes about drugs and women have yet to change. For me, the limited amount of progression, tends to highlight the method of "if only artists/characters would do this rather than this" method of criticism to be a fool's errand if you're not actually grappling with the political and social economy of the institutions in which artists operate. The regression of the art form -- either rap or genre television -- are written into the structures that create and support it. And so unless you find a way to express something differently or away from those structures, a lot of product coming out of them is going to perpetuate the inherent conservative nature of those institutions (whether it's the recording industry or network TV). A more fruitful line of attack on anti-feminism in TV would probably be to examine in what context shows like BtVS get made -- which actors are hired, which writers are hired, etc.

http://www.overthinkingit.com/2009/12/23/joss-whedon-feminism/

Isaac

Paula,

Thanks for your thoughts. Just to be clear, I believe there's a real difference between probing the politics of a piece of work and asking that it serve a specific instrumental end. Ditto, there's a difference between talking about the portrayal of women within the Whedonverse and, for example, complaining that Gangata Rap has too much violence in its music. Every single person in this comment thread thus far is a self-identified fan of the show (Except for, maybe, me) and are trying to puzzle through the implications of what is actually on screen. Another way of puzzling through them is through a kind of institutional analysis you suggest.

Paula

Well, I was making that ref based on the arguments at HU and the linked The Mary Sue post therein, which are set up to make the implicit argument that [insert Whedon character here] is a setback for feminism on TV. I think HU calls Buffy explicitly "anti-feminist". This implies that they do, in fact, have specific character types or tropes that constitute "ideal" feminism on TV, and they are critiquing Whedon from the POV that he is not instrumental to that "end".

I don't believe *this* thread is posing the same kind of argument.

lee

I dont get all the hostility to Xander. He really is typical of a young man/boy in high school. The hormones are in overdrive, so of course it is played up. Hitting on Buffy makes him a dimwit? I give him cudos for at least trying. I dont think he overplayed it and certainly was able to move on when she back him off after the 3rd or 8th time something like that. Didnt the male commentors here go to high school? He is not absurd, not atypical, and is a key component of what makes Buffy work. Granted, after bringing Buffy back from the dead, it is obvious the writers are struggling to find a focus, but Xander's development is no less strained than Willow's, Giles, or even Buffy for that matter. The series was very good, maybe great at first and only good at the end, but Whedon provided solid entertainment as evidenced by the fact that we are taking the time to discuss a series that started 15 years ago and ended 8 years ago.

Brent

Great post! I am just starting out in community management/marketing media and trying to learn how to do it well

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