By Isaac Butler
The Hooded Utilitarian has an interesting essay up about Xander's role in the Buffyverse and how this challenges the idea of Buffy The Vampire Slayer as a feminist show. It's an interesting piece that raises some good points (like the rest of this post it's filled with spoilers and thus hard to excerpt).
I've found Buffy's claims towards feminism to be a lot more complex than it's more die-hard fans will cop to. (I've also only watched the series once, and it was a year and a half ago.) Certainly, it falls within the general canon of "Male Feminist Entertainments" where the way a woman is empowered is to be physically a bad ass. But unlike other projects that adopt the Female Badass solution and leave it there, trudging on unquestioningly through the writer's male gaze (see Molly Million in Neuromancer as a good example) Buffy tried regularly to probe deeper within these issues. Rather than simply make a powerful female character by making Buffy Summers talk and act like a man, Buffy struggled with the tension between the traditional feminity she aspired to and the badass destiny she couldn't escape*. The problems she faced were also particular to her being a young woman and she seemed convincingly a woman, rather than a male character in drag.
That said... the show was not without its more problematic moments, particularly as related to Faith, who often felt like a thinly drawn bad girl slut, designed for men to both get off on and disapprove of. And in particular the way the show treated Xander, and the way that treatment changed over time got increasingly problematic.
When Xander first shows up in the Buffyverse, he's harmless and abusrd. Yes, his constant hitting on Buffy is annoying and tiresome, but the show treats it as annoying and tiresome (or, occasionally, endearingly pathetic). But, particularly in his long-terms relationships, Xander is the proto-typical Nice Guy Asshol; rather than critique this, the show grows progressively more fond towards him as a character as it goes along. It also becomes harder to stomache Xander's behavior as he moves out of high school.
The HU post highlights what for me is a major turning point on these issues: When Riley issues Buffy an absurd ultimatum that she is correct for turning down (I'll just leave it at that) and the show uses Xander as a voice of wisdom chastizing her for doing it. My guess in this case is that the story's need to have Buffy be tormented trumped writerly concern for Buffy's empowerment, but it's still an awful moment.
The show also loses some of the complexity w/r/t its point of view on Xander as it goes along, and this tracks with (although I think it's just a correlative relationship not a causal one as the HU post seems to indicate) a number of other problematic elements, like Faith, or the powerful-woman-goes-mad-with-power-and-must-be-stopped plot line with Willow or everything having to do with the female half of the brother-sister God duo that comes to Sunnydale to find the Key.
My point here is not to knock Buffy for being insufficiently feminist, but simply to point out that this shit is hard to do, particularly when you're playing with genre tropes that have sexism hard wired within them. Joss Whedon, for example, is one of the few male screenwriters who is clearly thinking about these issue at great depth and with seriousness, and his record on this issue-- one in which he's increasingly identified from project to project-- is still mixed and complex, even in a show with a powerful woman at its core and a slate of female writers.
*(I'm not suggesting that for a female character to be convincing, she must be feminine. The four friends in Sex & The City are plenty feminine, but for the first couple seasons, they are written as stand-ins for gay men (the writer's have discussed this overtly over the years) and do not actually behave or talk like any woman I've ever met, even on the Upper West Side. I simply mean that the tension between traditional male power-- like being great at killing people in hand to hand combat-- and traditional female gender roles is not a problem that men have to navigate).