Last week marked the 20th anniversary of one of the defining shows of my childhood: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Broadcast on Thursday evenings on BBC2 in the UK, the show became an integral part of my life in the late 90s and early 00s as I thrilled at Joss Whedon’s wit, intelligence, and delight in subverting cliches.
Buffy herself was key to subverting those cliches, but here I want to write a little on another character: one of the male characters. Yes, I know: writing about a male character in a show as progressive and feminist as Buffy is hardly the smartest idea. But many others have written with much more eloquence than I could about how Buffy made them feel strong or Willow and Tara’s relationship made them feel at ease with themselves. I couldn’t hope to touch on those subjects in the same way, so I’m not going to try.
Instead, I want to write about Xander, because he was critical to my life growing up and I don’t think he’s given the credit he deserves. In Xander, Buffy gave us a male lead who wasn’t at all heroic in the ways we normally see male leads. He wasn’t a muscle-bound action star; in fact, he was pathetically inept when it comes to fighting. And he rarely solved the problems, choosing instead to be the comic relief – the funnyman whose barbs would normally distract from solving the problems.
But what he did have was a good heart: an unwavering sense of morality. We see this in plenty of male heroes, of course, but the likes of Captain America and Superman back up their inherent goodness with their fists; Xander rarely did. He was strong, but strong of mind. He was intelligent, but emotionally intelligent. He saw the goodness in Cordelia and Anya. He brought Willow back from the edge at the end of Season 6. He becomes the most responsible member of the team in Season 7. He was the show’s moral core.
I was never a sporty kid and I was certainly never very strong. I was the good kid, the nice guy, the dependable one. When you’re like that in high school, you’re pretty much wallpaper. But Xander made me realise that maybe that’s ok. Just because you’re ‘the Zeppo’ doesn’t mean you’re without purpose or value. It just means that, like most of the characters Buffy portrayed, you have a value that cliche and stereotype can’t possibly hope to comprehend.