Xander Harris: The Guy Who Fixes the Windows
At its heart, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a story about empowerment. It is a television show that turns horror movie tropes upside down and transforms the stereotypical scared, blonde cheerleader into someone to be feared. Joss Whedon has been quoted as saying: The first thing I ever thought of when I thought of Buffy, the movie, was the little, blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed, in every horror movie. The idea of Buffy was to subvert that idea, that image, and create someone who was a hero where she had always been a victim (Whedon, Welcome to the Hellmouth, DVD Commentary). Whedon accomplished that goal, and for seven seasons gave young women someone they could look up to and be inspired by. Even though not in Joss Whedons original mission statement, he also gave young men a character to look up to and relate with in Alexander Lavelle Harris. Surprisingly, in a show whose focus is mainly on the strong female characters, Xander stands out to remind men that being average or normal does not mean they cannot make a difference. The prophecy of the Slayer states: “Into every generation, there is a chosen one. One girl in all the world. She alone will wield the strength and skill to stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness; To stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their numbers. She is the Slayer.” Unlike all slayers who came before her, Buffy breaks this prophecy in many ways. Most importantly: She alone will wield the strength and skill. It is true that Buffy Summers is the only girl who possesses the strength of the slayer [until Kendra, Faith and potentials show up], but as proven by her friends, slayer power is not the only strength required to stand against the forces of darkness. Willow, though not a slayer, proves to be as powerful, if not more than Buffy, with her Wiccan magic; and Xander, possessing no supernatural powers or training whatsoever, relies on the strength of his heart, and the faith and trust of his friends. Despite this fact, he effectively contributes to the team and has saved his super powered companions on many occasions. By examining Xanders role in the series and looking at ways he uses his everyman characteristics, it is clear that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is truly a show about empowerment, not only for women but for men as well.
From the first moment the audience meets Xander, he is immediately seen as a character that is easily relatable to many young men. He is clumsy and is easily distracted by beautiful women, as shown when he bumps into Buffy in the first episode: Can I have you? … uhh, Can I help you? (Welcome to the Hell Mouth, 1.1). This Freudian slip will be the first of many as Xanders subconscious desires work against him. The awkwardness continues as Xander and Buffy part ways: Xander: Well, uh, maybe I’ll see you around. Maybe at school… since we…both… go there. Buffy: Great! It was nice to meet you. [leaves] Xander: We both go to school. Very suave. Very not pathetic. (1.1) His early awkwardness when he meets Buffy is an experience all male teenagers have gone through at some point. Xander has not had an easy life, but Joss does not focus on it, only revealing a few small details at a time throughout the series. The way in which Joss hides many of the details of Xanders home life and upbringing is reminiscent of how a teenage boy would hide aspects of his life of which he is embarrassed. Like a regular guy, Xander over time becomes more comfortable with Buffy, and eventually Anya, opening up more and letting a few more of his secrets out.
Xander has a very detailed backstory with which many men around his age can identify. Xander’s father was a depressed alcoholic while his mother was a battered mess; both parents were negligent and even abusive towards Xander, leaving him with various insecurities. Xander dated his best friend Willow when they were five, but broke up over a stolen Barbie. At his sixth birthday party, Xander’s parents hired a clown, who chased him, giving him a terrible fear of clowns and caused him to suffer from nightmares well into his twenties. When Xander did not get the toy fire truck he wanted for his seventh birthday, the house next door burned down and he believed that Willow had started the fire to let him see real fire trucks. All of these memories and insights into Xanders childhood help to realize him as a real person with real issues. It is in this reality that viewers draw parallels between their lives and that of Xander.
In the early seasons, while Xander does help out the Scooby gang with research or whatever Buffy may need that week, Xander usually has a side story, or moments within the larger story that are solely his. The viewers are let into his mind and see his thoughts in a way that the other characters do not. Whether its his thoughts about Buffy or other beautiful women in the school, or his reactions to the paranormal situations he finds himself in, Xander anchors the audience to the idea that he is a regular guy, in a regular school where crazy things are happening. It is easy to forget that the students of Sunnydale High are largely just regular people, living their lives unaware of the evil that surrounds them; Xander helps us to remind us of this. As Buffy and the others deal with demons and the end of the world, Xander deals with smaller more personal problems, once again helping to keep the series grounded in some sense of reality. In the fourth episode of the series, Teachers Pet, Xander develops an infatuation for his biology teacher Ms. French, not realizing she is actually a giant praying mantis. This is the first episode that takes the spotlight off Buffy and focuses on Xander. In this episode we learn about his anxieties about his own masculinity, and his wish to not be so dependent on Buffy for protection. The episode begins with a dream sequence in which Xander saves a helpless Buffy and then jumps up on stage at The Bronze to play lead guitar in a rock band. The scene is poignant in the fact that it shows how difficult it is for a male raised in a society where he is supposed to be the hero, to deal with constantly being the damsel in distress. This episode uses Xander and Miss Nathalie Frenchs relationship as a metaphor for what societys expectations do to young men; pressuring them into losing their virginity before they are ready and against their better judgment. Whedon proves with this early episode that the lessons taught in Buffy are not only for the young women, but for the men as well. Xanders teenage libido often gets him into trouble as once again, we see another example of Xanders subconscious working against him, when he says to Ms. French, It’s a beautiful chest…I mean dress(Teachers Pet, 1.4). The issues he experiences with girls and popularity teaches young men that even in a world where you need to know the plural of apocalypse, there are men having the real world issues just like them.
As the seasons progress so does Xanders role within the group. When critics and fans talk about character growth in Buffy, Xander is usually passed over in favor of the more obvious Buffy or Spike. Xanders understated role in the group makes his growth less obvious, but just as dramatic. In the second half of the series Xanders maturity and responsibility within the group grows along with the dangers that Buffy faces. Writer, Kyle Garret states in his essay, Failure of the Everyman: The Lost Character That Was Xander Harris that Xander has ostensibly reached the end of his journey, [in season four] but continues to appear in episodic stories for nearly three more seasons. This could not be further from the truth. While Xander does reach the end of one journey, he also begins a new one of adulthood. As the supernatural elements increase and reality diminishes, it would seem like the importance of a character like Xander would fade out, but instead Joss Whedon evolves the character from the audiences tie to reality, into an everyday hero. Building on the relationship male viewers have already built with the believability of the character, Whedon uses Xander to show them that regular, unexceptional men can still do spectacular things. This transformation begins in season three, with the episode The Zeppo. Xander is told by the other Scoobies to stay away from the fighting for his safety, and Cordelia tells him, Xander, you’re the ‘useless’ part of the group. You’re the Zeppo. ‘Cool.’ Look it up. It’s something that a sub-literate that’s repeated twelfth grade three times has, and you don’t(The Zeppo, 3.13). Feeling like a failure, he steps back from the group and finds himself on his own adventure. This episode acts as a behind the scenes look at Buffys adventures from the view of an outsider. The camera follows Xander as he occasionally crosses paths with the other characters and catches glimpses of what they are up to, but he keeps continuing with his own situation. Much like Tom Stoppards play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Xander moves in and out of the Scoobies action in the same way Hamlets childhood friends move in and out of the circumscribed play of Hamlet. Both are minor characters in their respective works and the audience is allowed to see what happens when they are not on stage. The reason for this episode is to highlight the fact that Xander is fully capable of solving problems in his own way, and to show he too can be the hero. As the episode concludes, Xander has saved the school from being blown up, and in the process has saved the lives of all his friends. Instead of telling everyone about it, Xander resumes his familiar place outside of the limelight. The rest of the Buffy clan remains completely oblivious to what transpired. This is the first time Xander has truly saved the day, but it will not be the last.
The finale of season six highlights Xanders shining moment in the series, and cements him as one of the most important characters of the series. At the end of every previous season, Buffy manages to overcome incredible odds and defeat the big bad or ancient evil that has tormented Sunnydale that year, but on this occasion, love and friendship triumphs over tactics and strength. When Willow becomes corrupted by dark magic and loses herself and all control, Buffy is helpless to stop her. Xander takes it upon himself to reach out to Dark Willow and remind her of their friendship as they share this exchange:
Xander: I know you’re in pain. I can’t imagine the pain you’re in. And I know you’re about to do something apocalyptically evil and stupid. And, hey, I still wanna hang! You’re Willow. Willow: [angrily] Don’t call me that! Xander: The first day of kindergarten, you cried because you broke the yellow crayon and you were too afraid to tell anyone. You’ve come pretty far. Ending the world – not a terrific notion… But the thing is… yeah, I love you. I love crayon-breaky Willow and I love scary, veiny Willow. So if I’m goin’ out, it’s here. If you wanna kill the world, well, then start with me. I’ve earned that. Willow: You think I won’t? Xander: It doesn’t matter. I’ll still love you (Grave, 6,22).
Throughout the series, Xander has always had trust in his friends and the bonds they have built together. He puts that trust to the ultimate test as his puts his life in Willows hands. Xander succeeds in saving Willow and the world, showing that there is more to being a hero than having strength and power.
Not having power is something Xander has struggled with for the entire show and midway through the final season, Xander has a moment with Dawn, where he finally expresses what has been so apparent for nearly seven years. He tells Dawn:
Seven years, Dawn. Working with the Slayer. Seeing my friends get more and more powerful. A witch. A demon. Hell, I could fit Oz in my shaving kit, but, come a full moon, he had a wolfy mojo not to be messed with. Powerful. All of them. And I’m the guy who fixes the windows. They’ll never know how tough it is, Dawnie, to be the one who isn’t chosen. To live so near to the spotlight and never step in it. But I know. I see more than anybody realizes because nobody’s watching me. I saw you last night. I see you working here today. You’re not special. You’re extraordinary (Potential, 7.12).
This soliloquy is a perfect summary of the character and shows the growth Xander has gone through. Once, he was always trying to prove himself to Buffy, now he has accepted his position outside of the glory and praise. Xander knows he will never be in the spotlight, but also he knows, that like Dawn, it is what he lacks that makes him truly exceptional. This is the ultimate lesson Xander teaches the audience and is the major reason he is such an empowering figure among young, male fans of Buffy.
Welcome to the Hellmouth. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Writ. Joss Whedon. Perf.
Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nicholas Brendon. UPN. March 10, 1997. Television.
Teachers Pet. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Writ. David Greenwalt. Perf. Sarah
Michelle Gellar, Nicholas Brendon. UPN. Mar. 24, 1997. Television.
The Zeppo. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Writ. Dan Vebber. Perf. Sarah Michelle
Gellar, Nicholas Brendon, Alyson Hannigan. UPN. Jan. 26, 1999. Television.
Grave. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Writ. David Fury. Perf. Sarah Michelle
Gellar, Nicholas Brendon, Alyson Hannigan. UPN. May. 21, 2001. Television.
Potential. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Writ. Rebecca Sinclair. Perf. Sarah Michelle
Gellar, Nicholas Brendon, Alyson Hannigan. UPN. Jan. 21, 2003. Television.