Joss Whedon’s Yardstick: Feminism, Humanism, and Xander

I originally posted this on my personal Tumblr, almost word-for-word, last night. Paul was aghast (rightfully so?) that I didn’t use it for the blog. So here we are.

During the Joss Whedon Reddit Q&A yesterday afternoon, one user asked, among other things,

I would love to know anything about your personal motivations for being such a strong feminist, as well as your other positions on atheism, etc. Has being vocal about these positions ever been professionally difficult for you or caused you to lose work?

Joss answered (emphasis mine),

As for my political bent, it comes from how I was raised — and my own very strong sense of being helpless and tiny and terrified (that goes away, right?). The only trouble it’s ever caused me is that once you take a stance as a person, people are always using that as a yardstick in your work, which can be kind of limiting.

I’ve been thinking a fair bit about this lately, especially in terms of Joss’ work, because who am I kidding, that’s all I ever think about. Joss is a known feminist, and since I started watching his shows at the tender young age of 11, his work opened my eyes to a lot of things. After you see the blonde cheerleader walk down the alley and fight back, it’s a lot harder to accept the weak-willed sex objects and victims that populate not just horror, not just genre fiction, but every type of fiction (not to mention advertising). Sexism became a lot easier to recognize, and much more difficult to tolerate, after I started watching Buffy.

As Joss alludes to, though, he is so well-known for his feminism that there are those who measure everything he does by it. I remember one essay in the great collection Finding Serenity which chided Joss for the supposed anti-feminist message of Firefly; I also remember being overjoyed when another essay rebuked it in the following collection, Serenity FoundFirefly was a profoundly humanistic show, one of its best qualities being that it found the strengths and weaknesses in every character, male or female.

Buffy was, by design, much more overtly feminist. Hell, I even wrote a paper in high school on the show’s feminist message, in which I included a really impressive line about being “freed from the shackles of patriarchy” or something. If you want to look at the show strictly through a feminist lens, then you’ll find a lot that’s encouraging, and even groundbreaking for television. By doing that, though, you’re also forgetting that it was a living, breathing, week-to-week TV show whose characters often made mistakes. Y’know, the whole drama part of being a drama series.

Case in point: Monika Bartyzel’s recent piece on Xander Harris. I’ve admired Bartyzel for a few years now, though I don’t always agree with her. This is one of those times. In her piece, Bartyzel calls Xander the “thorn destroying any so-called feminism in Sunnydale” and goes so far as to say that “it’s hard to link Buffy the Vampire Slayer to feminism” because of his presence. I ain’t gonna do any mincing of words: that is ridiculous.

Was Xander petty, jealous, and selfish? Yes. Was everyone on the show? Yes. Xander judged his friends, acted like a hypocrite, and was capable of breaking out a wicked insult. This seems pretty bad until you realize that the same could be said of every other character. I’m simplifying Bartyzel’s argument, but I don’t buy that because Xander called Cordelia a “hooker” or told Buffy to kick Angel’s ass that he was inherently anti-woman. It’s true that Xander was in lust with Buffy, failed to notice Willow’s attraction until it was too late, idolized strong women beyond reason, and ogled girls. Is it a surprise that this is how teenage boys act? I mean shit, that sounds like my high school days.

Viewing Buffy—or anything—through such a rigorous prism is reductive, at best. Xander was a deeply flawed human being. Like a real person, he made mistakes, sometimes extremely regrettable ones. Does anyone honestly think that we’re supposed to think that Xander leaving Anya at the altar was a rational, justifiable decision? Or that Xander’s black-and-white hatred of vampires was an admirable trait? I notice that Bartyzel fails to mention the fact that at one point, Xander saved the planet from ruin with his love. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, to mention one of the few bothersome moments where no one actually called him on his behavior, when he summoned Sweet in “Once More, With Feeling.”

You can’t look at just one aspect of a piece of work and expect to come away with the full picture. You have to take into account the whole. Xander could be a real dick sometimes. But he wasn’t a woman-hating monster, and certainly didn’t detract from Buffy’s strong feminist message. And getting back to my initial point, just because Joss Whedon sometimes writes characters who aren’t strong women, or who maybe don’t have feminist leanings, that doesn’t make his work any less valuable.

3 thoughts on “Joss Whedon’s Yardstick: Feminism, Humanism, and Xander

  1. Hey. I’m the editor of the site where Monika’s piece appeared.

    It’s not a surprise that Xander acted as he did; teenage boys are often sexist, as men are. Monika was pointing out that the show itself didn’t call him on his sexism, and in the end presented him as an ideal and an icon, even though over time he seemed to become more sexist, rather than less.

    And saving the planet from ruin with his love is a case in point. How does that fit with his selfishness and (not to mince words) his cruelty throughout the series? Why is he presented as an icon of love when he treats the women around him so poorly?

    Buffy certainly had a feminist vision. It also, I believe, had an anti-feminist vision in a lot of ways — a discomfort with strong women, a discomfort with women’s sexual choices, a glee in humiliating women. Like I said, this existed alongside a celebration of strong women and a celebration of women triumphing. In some ways it was complicated, in some ways it was just confused. But I don’t think it was ever as clearly or consistently feminist as is sometimes claimed for it. Nor do I think that’s a good thing; a feminist vision isn’t, and doesn’t have to be, limiting at all — unless you think that it’s limiting to see women as human beings.

    Anyway — thanks for your discussion!

    • Hi, Noah. Thanks for taking the time to read my little ramble, and for commenting on it.

      I think our fundamental disagreement lies in the fact that I don’t think Xander was being sexist. As I said, I think he made some very bad decisions and he could be quite mean. However, I don’t think that comes from a sexist place; the reason the show didn’t call him on sexism is because he didn’t suffer from it.

      I’ve watched each episode of the show a number of times–probably more than I’d like to admit–and I don’t understand how anyone could think the series exhibited a “glee in humiliating women.” Were some women humiliated on the show? Yes. There were times when that was motivated by sexism, and others when it wasn’t. I’d wager that all the sexism-derived humiliation was caused by characters who we clearly weren’t meant to sympathize with, either in the moment or just in general.

      I certainly don’t believe a feminist vision is limiting, either. What I think is limiting is viewing a piece of work solely through one set of ideals or tenets. By doing that, I think one runs the risk of missing the forest for the trees.

  2. I love BtVS beyond the telling of it. But …

    “I think our fundamental disagreement lies in the fact that I don’t think Xander was being sexist.”

    To use a just a few examples:

    Constantly objectifying your female friends is sexist (and, frankly, just plain gross).

    Insulting women by using slurs based on (real or perceived) sexual behavior is sexist.

    Judging the woman you left at the altar for her sexual choices is sexist (not to mention the huge double-standard he had regarding sleeping with vampires vs sleeping with a (former) vengeance demon who, by a conservative estimate, was most likely responsible for over a thousand deaths).

    Xander did all of these and more. How on earth you can say he wasn’t sexist is unbelievable. And “this is how teenage boys act” doesn’t make it less sexist by any means – it just contributes to a wider culture of … well, gee … sexist behavior and attitudes. But, boys will be boys, huh?

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