There are not many new things you can say about Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 2020. It’s a show that generated blogs and fandom Wikis and philosophical treatises; it owned the genre-TV landscape of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, and still does. Series creator Joss Whedon came to the table with one trick — taking a teen coming-of-age trope and filtering it through some kind of highly metaphorical monster — but that trick is irresistible, and a lot harder than it looks. There’s hardly a young-adult fantasy or horror series today that doesn’t try, and fail, to be Buffy.
But let’s assume you’ve never heard of it. For you, my ignorant friend, we will start here: Buffy the Vampire Slayer centers on a teenage girl, Buffy, who slays vampires. She’s played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, which makes things fun, and her combination of high-femme girliness and superpowered “strength” made her an icon of third-wave pop feminism. Buffy also told the stories of Buffy’s friends and co-superheroes: Occultist librarian Giles, witch Willow, werewolf Oz, revenge demon Anya, several ensouled vampire boyfriends, and, of course, everybody’s pal, Fucking Xander.
Fucking Xander!, as his name is commonly pronounced, was the team’s token non-superpowered, non-magical, non-interesting white, straight teenage boy. One’s first instinct is to assume that Fucking Xander is on the show solely because the network insisted on including a useless white man. (He is not. He is, reportedly, a self-portrait of series creator Joss Whedon.) Regardless of his reasons for being there (fucking Joss Whedon!) in a series full of iconic, groundbreaking, lovable characters, Fucking Xander reliably stands out for being exactly none of those things.
- Fucking Xander! Nurtures a creepy, over-possessive crush on the uninterested heroine, which he does not drop even after a hyena spell makes him try to rape her.
- Fucking Xander! Cheats on his girlfriend in such a way that she accidentally gets impaled by construction, and still sees himself as the victim.
- Fucking Xander! Leaves his fiancee at the altar because a demon gave him a dream where he acted like Archie Bunker.
- Fucking Xander! Has a nearly all-female friend group and never stops talking about how he’s masturbated to every last one of them.
- Fucking Xander! Greets his best friend Willow’s coming out with a substantial increase in the comments about masturbating.
- Fucking Xander! Gets his eye poked out and nobody feels bad.
“Fucking Xander! reclaims his masculinity by fighting zombies” sounds like a singularly unpleasant hour of television. Yet, somehow, it is an all-time great Buffy episode, one which uses Xander, and his worthlessness, to ask the fundamental Feminist Dude Question: If masculinity is defined by being in power and protecting women, and feminism has made it so that women have their own power and can take care of themselves, then what, exactly, are men supposed to do? When you level the playing field so that everyone is equally strong — or, God forbid, the women are stronger than you are — what do you have left of manhood? What purpose does masculinity serve, outside of bossing everybody around?
“The Zeppo” starts from a premise that will be instantly accepted by any long-time Buffy viewer: There is not a man on Earth more useless than Xander Harris, and he knows it. The episode opens in pitched battle against a symbolically apt “Sisterhood” of man-eating, female demons. Giles has analyzed the enemy and its weaknesses, Willow can defend the group with magic, Buffy can fight, Oz… is a werewolf, which makes him also pretty useless most of the time, but I promise you his werewolf gifts come into play. Then, there is Xander, “who, at a crucial moment, distracted the lead demon by allowing her to pummel him about the head.”
Xander is the member of the group who lifts right out — the titular Zeppo, the Marx brother no-one remembers. He’s been dumped by his more popular girlfriend, Cordelia, who taunts him at every opportunity. (Again, this is because he cheated on her and caused her to be impaled by construction, but he still thinks she’s overreacting.) His super-powered female friends sideline him from their quests. When he tries to play touch football with other dudes, they don’t even realize he’s on the field. The one person who does see him is the school bully, Jack, who correctly senses that Xander is the weakest of the herd and threatens to beat him senseless.
This is where the episode stops being standard Buffy-level charming (which is very, very charming) and becomes sublime. The Sisterhood turns out to be an apocalyptic threat, and the main cast of characters sets out to fight it, in scenes that are portentous and high-stakes and dramatic. Yet we only get bits and pieces of the apocalypse, because all of our time this week will be spent with Xander, as he tries and fails to avoid getting his ass kicked by bullies.
Xander tries to reclaim his tattered masculinity by well-worn and obnoxious means — he gets an Overcompensation Convertible, he hits on ladies in front of his ex-girlfriend, etc. — yet all that does is make him a douchebag. Worse, it entails hanging out with other douchebags: Xander winds up befriending Jack in an effort to avoid being mutilated, and gets roped into driving Jack’s various meatheaded, self-destructive, leaning-out-the-car-window-and-screaming-“BEEEEEER”-type bros around town. These bros, we learn sooner rather than later, are zombies. Dead men walking.
Xander doesn’t want to be a guy the way Jack is a guy. He doesn’t want to brag about his ride and pick up girls he doesn’t like. He doesn’t want to be trapped in a car with a bunch of varsity-jacket-wearing jackasses who love weapons and property damage and picking on people smaller than they are. The bonds of bro-ness do nothing for him, because on some level, even Xander knows these guys are walking corpses — shambling remnants of the traditional masculinity that feminism was supposed to have killed off, something that makes trouble because it doesn’t know it’s dead. I mean: Twenty-one years later, these kinds of guys still run the country, and the world. But we sure did think their time was up in 1999.
To defeat his metaphorical monsters, Xander has to embrace the kind of guy he is. He has to accept that it’s fine for Buffy to have power, or for women to have power; in fact, it’s desirable. (In one of the episode’s more Symbolic moments, Xander realizes he can rid himself of certain bullies by simply stepping aside and letting the man-eating lady demons eat some men.) Xander has to reclaim his masculinity, not to put women down, but to keep Jack from defining it. As long as Xander is scared of Jack, or of how Jack sees him, he is letting the bullies dictate the terms, putting his soul in hock and trying to buy it back with pointless frat-boy bullshit. Xander has to stop playing stupid games for stupid prizes; to accept that he, too, plays a part in defining what it is to be masculine.
It’s not that “The Zeppo” is a perfect feminist document. It’s old, and its thoughts on Strong Women are often weird. Faith, one of the more compelling and three-dimensional characters in Buffy history, pops into this episode to confer manhood on Xander by taking his virginity, then disappears. Yes, I know she’s the one who kicks him out of bed, but it’s still a cheap use of a great character, and it sends a fairly bro-ish and antiquated message that masculinity depends on bagging chicks.
At its best, though, Xander’s quest is more subtle and internal. It’s about not letting his insecurity control him. It’s about not being so fearful of other men’s violence that he ends up becoming their toady and enabling the harm they do. It’s about realizing that he has a place and a purpose and battles worth fighting. (If you really want to talk about gender politics and teen horror, look at Veronica’s final confrontation with J.D. in Heathers, and Xander’s final confrontation with Jack in “The Zeppo.” Specifically, how they are the exact same confrontation.) Ultimately, it’s about learning the one element of masculinity that Xander confesses, up front, is hardest for him: Stoicism. Self-containment. Not looking to anyone else for validation, but simply being certain of who you are and what you do.
Over and over, throughout “The Zeppo,” Xander screws up by talking his way through an important moment. He’s a guy who has to externalize every thought for an audience, babble to distract himself from how scared he is, tell stupid jokes to deflate the tension. Being a man, Xander learns, is about letting that tension exist when it needs to exist. It’s about facing things without being dominated by your own need for approval or understanding. Put bluntly: It’s about shutting the fuck up. And, honestly, isn’t shutting the fuck up what the average Buffy viewer has always wanted from Xander?
I didn’t know, when I first planned out this Halloween month, that I was going to transition. I knew that I had some odd, compulsive need to understand trans masculinity. I knew that I was reading about it and thinking about it and trying to get closer to the trans men and masculine people in my life. I knew that I was writing a story about a trans guy, and that this story had an urgency that scared me, that I fell into some kind of abyss when I had to stop working on it. I knew that the more I did for “research” — read about transition, stopped shaving, cut my hair off, bought a binder “just to see what it was like,” got a testosterone prescription “just in case” — the more certain incidents or feelings began to cohere into a clear picture. What was in that picture, I avoided seeing for a long time.
I’m not a man, I don’t think. But I’m not a woman, either, and I look much more like a man than I used to. Allowing myself that knowledge was scary because, throughout my life, my experience of masculinity has been monstrous. Most cis men have treated me with contempt at best and open violence at worst. They’ve sensed something off about me, something not quite female, and where women could sometimes convince themselves my difference was “strength,” a Buffy-ish reservoir of girl power, for cis men, I was just someone smaller and less muscular than they were who kept stepping on their turf. Maybe I would feel differently, in a different life, but for me, “man” was never something to aspire to. Individual men could be kind or intelligent or hot or gracious, but “men” were just the bullies I spent every day dealing with; “men” were Jack, and I was perpetually knocking their lunches over and trying to outrun them.
Yet somewhere in the middle of rewatching this episode, it hit me: I know what it is to be standing on that field and have none of guys there recognize you as part of the game. I know what it is to be the person who only hangs out with girls but is not a girl, who remains shut out of some crucial shared experience. I know what it’s like to look at the world and not know where you fit or what purpose you serve. And I know that, of the many revelations that may occur, over the course of a gender journey, the realization that you identify as Fucking Xander is by far the most humiliating one.
I’ve internalized a lot from Joss Whedon over the years, but the key lesson, which I heard in some interview a thousand years ago, is this: Everyone in your cast should have a moment to stand up and explain why they are the most important character. Even the guy you don’t care about. Especially the guy you don’t care about. Every person you meet has a reason to be there; they have innate dignity, and human worth, and a whole set of life experiences, and if you can’t answer the question of why each character matters, your story lacks empathy, which should bother you. If you can’t answer that question about yourself, then you are lost. What I love about “The Zeppo” is the moment where Xander looks Jack in the eye and suddenly realizes why it matters to be Xander; that he understands Jack better than he thought he did, that he’s not the only insecure man in the world, and that on some level, no matter how good they get at the guy thing, every man is talking to distract himself from being scared. We can’t all be Buffy, but even Buffy needs men who stand up to the harm men do.
Of course, Xander immediately uses his newfound insight to be mean to his ex-girlfriend. Yes, the one that got impaled on construction. After he cheated on her. What did you think he was going to do, become a better person? Fucking Xander!
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is streaming on Hulu.
This week, all proceeds from Apocalypse 1999 will be donated to the Transgender Assistance Program of Virginia, based out of Virginia Beach, an all-volunteer and trans-led organization “created to end homelessness within the transgender community in Virginia.” The organization was selected by sensitivity reader Nathaniel Glanzman.