Freudian Friday: Xander Harris

Damaged Xander is serious.

Good old Alexander Harris: carpenter, Zeppo, sidekick, general, best friend, almost-husband, and heart of the Scoobies. Without him, the gang would fall apart. Without him, Buffy would have given in to her tendency to treat others like weapons. Without him, Willow would have destroyed the world.

But what do we know about the man himself? What makes Xander tick?

When we first meet him, he’s a nerdy, awkward guy who quickly falls head-over-heels for sexy new-kid Buffy and never realizes his cute pal Willow has the hots for him. He rolls with the punches, accepting the existence of vampires and the death of his friend Jesse with minimal angst.

Although he lacks a superpower and takes a lot of the hardest hits for the Scoobies (hyena-possession, syphilis-infection, eye-reduction), Xander keeps his irrepressible spirits up and continues to feel special just to be included in Buffy’s supernatural world. Throughout the show, he rarely gives in to his doubts—though the women in his life (Anya, Willow, Cordelia) tend to bear the brunt of his moments of weakness.

Xander’s relationship choices are probably his biggest flaw: he seems incapable of entering a relationship that is not doomed, dangerous, or taboo. His attraction to Cordelia sees to stem (at least at first) from a mutual dislike. He becomes involved with Willow only when they’re both in other relationship and it’s a risky, sexy game. And finally, he dates Anya only because she chooses him and then, at first, because it’s convenient. We also can’t forget the odd assortment of demons, bug-women, and evil-doers that he dates along the way.

Why is Xander so prone to falling for women who don’t really care for him? And, once they do care for him, why does he end up hurting them deeply?

Xander hurts Anya in the short-term so he won’t hurt her in the long-term?

Since it’s Freudian Friday, let’s look at some of the supposed root causes. We learn that Xander’s family is dysfunctional to Nth-degree, and we get to witness that horror secondhand through Xander’s tale of woe and firsthand at Xander and Anya’s catastrophic wedding. Xander’s parents are hateful to one another, and Xander fears he’ll end up in the same sort of semi-abusive relationship with Anya.

His father is an overbearing a$$hole who demeans his mother; perhaps we can assume that Xander picks women who walk all over him in a desire to not be like his father. That doesn’t really explain, though, why Xander ends up hurting all three women who care for him the most.

Is it insecurity? He’s the only one of his crowd without a magical power or supernatural ability, so he acts out by acting like a jerk? I don’t really think that’s quite the answer. He’s insecure, yes, but his choices have more to do with a lack long-term planning: perhaps his constant exposure to danger makes him act recklessly, choosing to seek pleasure in the now rather than looking toward long-term happiness. That’s a problem both Buffy and Willow deal with, as well.

What do you think, readers? What is it about Xander that dooms his relationships? Are all the Scoobies adrenaline junkies who are incapable of long-term, successful love?

Xander’s love for Willow saves the world.

Freudian Friday: A Good Villain

First order of business — to those of you who get email updates, I sincerely apologize for publishing earlier this morning my idea for a blog post: writing a good story without a villain. Call it a preview of coming attractions. (And also picture me smacking myself on the forehead repeatedly. Doh!)

Second order of business — I’m still looking for guest posts to run in mid-June when I’m away getting married and stuff. So, if you’re reading this, let me know if you’d like to see your own content here. I will owe you cookies and/or a future guest post.

On to Freudian Friday madness. I’ve noticed lately that I’ve been talking a lot about difficulty connecting with a show or a book if it lacks a good villain.

That’s not quite the oxymoron it seems—villains are people, too, you know. They had parents (usually), birthday parties, first loves… and a really intriguing villain gives the audience glimpses of that past and the personality it created.

So if you’re looking to raise—I mean, write—a good villain, keep the following traits in mind:

1. Humor
Part of what makes Joss Whedon’s work so great is his love for a comedic villain. We’re rooting for our hero, sure, but the villain is just so damned funny we can’t help but like him a little, too. Take Captain Hammer. He’s a smarmy, self-involved jerk, sure, and apparently frightened of geese, but he’s frickin’ hilarious.

Who could resist that insincere smile?

Even though we’re rooting for Doctor Horrible, it’s hard not to love Captain Hammer—his fists are not the hammer, he doesn’t need tiny cue cards, and he’s played by Nathan Fillion. How could we not join his groupies?

(Note that extreme good looks didn’t make this list… but they certainly don’t hurt.)

2. Vulnerability
While we’re on Doctor Horrible, let’s talk about the man himself. He “has a PhD in Horribleness,” so, even though he’s our hero, we know he’s looking to become a Big Bad. But his other name is Billy, he wears slouchy-hoodies, he’s too scared to talk to his crush, and he’s played by Neil Patrick Harris: he just screams sensitive soul.

What a crazy random happenstance!

We also know, though, that he keep stalker-photos of his crush and feels wildly inadequate compared to his aforementioned nemesis, Captain Hammer. The fact that he’s vulnerable makes him likable, easy to relate to—he really is a good villain. It’s the exploitation of that tragic flaw that pushes him into the Evil League of Evil.

3. Real Concern for Something or Someone
I’ve mentioned before that I think Mayor Wilkins is an awesome villain. He’s got the humor, and his concern for Faith makes him vulnerable: it’s what enables Buffy to kill him. The Mayor’s love for Faith shows that he’s more than just an evil dude looking for ascension and life as a big snake-demon. He’s also a man with fatherly impulses, someone who wants to sponsor and protect young people.

Sure, he’s evil–but he’s also a family man.

We occasionally get to see him through Faith’s eyes as the only person who ever truly believed in her. And that makes him far more interesting than a villain who only wishes to destroy everyone he touches.

4. A Little Bit of Crazy
One of my personal favorite Buffy villains is Glory, the exiled Hell-God who wants to kill Buffy’s sister Dawn and use her magical Key energy to open the doors back to home-hell. As a god, Glory operates on a completely different plane than the human characters, and Her Sparkling Luminescence is completely batshit crazy. One of her powers is draining humans of their sanity, turning them into some kind of sleeper-agent mindless zombies who eventually activate to do her bidding.

The Most Unstable One claims sanity from nice people like Tara.

Her madness makes her alien, and she’s more frightening because of it. Someone who neither understands nor cares about our “rules” and works completely outside of them is more difficult to beat—and more outrageous to watch.

5. Belief They Are Doing Right
Finally, a convincing, near-likable villain believes she is doing right. While I could talk about Marnie/Antonia from True Blood or the Lord Ruler from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, let’s stick with the Joss Whedon theme, and get Willow into the mix. No, she’s not a true villain, rather more of an antagonist (which nebulous difference I won’t get into), but she is a Big Bad at one point, with an endgame first of vengeance and then of destroying the world.

Big scary veins aren’t a good look for anyone.

Willow turns evil because she wants to avenge Tara’s murder, and she’s driven to destroy the world because she can’t stand the pain that fills it. Dark Willow has a point: the world is a terrible place, especially in the Buffyverse, and sometimes it does seem like a supervillain would be justified in destroying it all and starting over from scratch. We feel for Willow, even as we’re rooting for Xander to stop her. A goal we can understand makes a villain reasonable, and makes the hero’s triumph more difficult and more bittersweet.

What do you think makes a good villain, readers?

Freudian Friday: Girl Friends in Fantasy

Today’s post is the crux of two larger series I’d like to do for Freudian Fridays: friendship in fantasy and homosexuality in fantasy. And those two are not as disparate as perhaps they should be: it’s become a fairly common occurrence in fantasy for the line between friendship and attraction to blur and characters to throw their sexual preference out the window, despite evidence that they usually lean firmly the other way.

I’m talking about spontaneous bisexuality, the choice to engage in a homosexual relationship either because the character is lonely or because she likes a given person so much that she must escalate their relationship.

Okay, time for the required disclaimer: I’m aware that sexuality and gender are fluid, that Kinsey developed a Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale (I live near the Kinsey Institute, after all!), that it’s up to the individual, that none of these things are set in stone. I’m not trying to advocate for some sort of heteronormative caveman relationship standards in genre fiction. To the contrary, I’m pointing out something about the genre’s treatment of homosexual relationships that troubles me because it cheapens those relationships… it also damages the idea of strong female friendships. Disagree with me all you want, but let’s all stay civil to one another in our discussion.

I’ve been thinking about this topic for awhile and have resisted writing it because I’m afraid I’ll put my foot in my mouth and the internet will hate me. But the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 graphic novel I just read, Wolves at the Gate, finally gave me the nudge I needed to give up my reluctance and point out this little problem.

So what was it that pushed me over the hump, you ask? Well, spoiler alert: Buffy engages in a homosexual one-night stand that turns into two nights and maybe more.

Post-coital, pre-comical.

In and of itself, that’s fine, I guess. My trouble is that Buffy herself is pretty staunchly hetero: she never shows any Phoebe-on-Friends-like interest in her friends, is shocked when Willow reveals her sexual preference, never pays any sexual attention to attractive women, even says herself that she’s not gay “so you’d notice.”  No, she’s lonely, and so falls into bed with the first person to express a real interest in her. Of course, the scene devolves into a complete sexual farce, with Xander barging in, expressing a wish for Willow to appear, and then—poof—Willow appears. Willow later demands a description of Buffy’s behavior in bed from Satsu, suggesting that Willow herself wouldn’t mind the chance to hop in Buffy’s bed herself. The trouble is, Willow’s relationship with Tara is treated seriously and tenderly, while other bi-sexual choices and behavior are treated with levity—just look at Andrew, after all!

Their first onscreen kiss is part of a devastating, un-sexual episode.

TV-Tropes calls situations like this “But Not Too Bi“: Buffy’s and Andrew’s attraction to the same sex is something whimsical, while Willow’s relationship with Tara is something beautiful.

There are many variations to this, but key is to create some form of pecking order between the sexes, presumably in order to make the character more appealing to the audience depending on what gender and sexuality they are expected to have, while at the same time having the titillation, comedic material or diversity of ‘deviant’ sexual behaviour. Of course, the prevalence of the trope brings some Unfortunate Implications for real life bisexuals; that in the end it’s only one gender that matters to them and that their experiences with the other one are worthless.

Which brings me to the heart of the problem. Have you ever played The Sims? Individual Sims develop relationships based on a meter bar which ranges from negative-x to 100, with 100 being the closest, most caring a Sim relationship can be. In the early editions of the game, though, when Sims crossed about 65, they automatically had romantic feelings for one another—regardless of gender. Yes, I say “gender” and not “sex” because Sims have no gender-preference: they fall in love willy-nilly with no choice in sexual orientation. It flies in the face of the scientific evidence that says sexual orientation is a product of biology and is not a choice.

These two are actually pretty cute.

Real people are not Sims. I love my best girl friend very deeply, but I don’t have sexual feelings for her. (Sorry, dear.) But sometimes, in fantasy worlds, people tend to act like Sims. I personally wouldn’t say this, but I’ve heard it pointed out that Willow transforms into a lesbian just because she and Tara spend a lot of time together and have a lot in common. Willow falls in love with Tara out of convenience. Magical power could also be read as a metaphor for gayness: it’s an Othering of the character, the characters have to deal with the consequences of what makes them special, and they’re naturally attracted to someone similarly Other, i.e., Buffy and Satsu. I don’t agree with that analysis (we have no evidence that Witch-Amy is other than heterosexual, for example), but the fact remains that it could stand.

We’ve been picking on Buffy a lot, so let’s look at another example: Rachel Morgan and Ivy Tamwood in Kim Harrison’s The Hollows series. 

Ivy (vampire) and Rachel (witch) are business partners and (arguably) best friends. Ivy is bisexual, Rachel is heterosexual. Ivy is in love with Rachel. She also wants to drink Rachel’s blood, but, abused in her youth, can’t separate blood-lust from sexual-lust. Rachel wants to escalate their relationship, to know the intimacy that comes from sharing blood… but… “She’s totally not gay.” She insists on her hetero status, and yet she and Ivy share several sexual experiences with blood, and Rachel is left wondering how she can find a balance.

Rachel’s only romantic relationships are with men, but her relationship with Ivy is at the center of the series—and I frequently find myself wondering as I read if the two are really friends at all. Ivy set up their living situation in an effort to seduce Rachel, and it’s unclear what relationship she intended that seduction to create. Is Rachel teasing Ivy, torturing her by insisting that she’s straight but still engaging in what Ivy views as sexually-charged behavior? Is Ivy using Rachel, trying to “convert” her from what Rachel believes is her deeply-ingrained preference? Are they friends at all, or is this an abusive “romantic” relationship?

I’m not okay with the blurring of female friendships and abusive relationships. Maybe Rachel is using Ivy, and maybe Buffy is using Satsu: either way, it’s not a healthy friendship, and it’s setting up the bi-sexual or lesbian woman to get hurt. While there are examples in the fantasy genre of healthy female friendships and healthy lesbian relationships, we should’t accept the harmful relationships with question or, worse, with humor.

What do you think, readers? Agree, disagree? Do you hate me now? What are some other examples of healthy and harmful relationships? What do you make of Tara from True Blood, who I left out to save on length?

Freudian Friday: Faith Lehane, Part 2

Angel knows what it is to hate yourself more than anything in the world.

If you recall, when we left our dubious heroine last Friday, Faith had gone slightly round the twist and, hating herself, committed to a suicide-by-Angel assassination plot. In a touching moment, Angel offers her the forgiveness she needs (if not necessarily from him), and she agrees to turn herself over to the police. For the rest of the series, it seems Faith is seeking redemption, often coming close to throwing her life away in an effort to save others.

She returns to Sunnydale in the final (television) season of Buffy to join in the battle against the First. For the most part, she causes few problems, and most of them are “problems” only from Buffy’s point of view. Buffy, trying to prepare the Potential Slayers for the almost inevitable painful death that awaits them, treats the Slayers with a cold detachment, while Faith tries to help them keep their spirits up and embrace their potential.

When the Potentials vote Buffy out, Faith leads them into a trap. Although my instincts are constantly to side with Buffy (I mean, come on! She’s the true Slayer!), Faith never sought to replace Buffy or even to undermine her. Faith is who she is, and she and Buffy are two sides of the same coin: the “I fight because I can and must” Slayer and the “I fight because I can and want to” Slayer. And Faith nearly dies in the trap with the Potentials.

And as much as I will side with Buffy (I have a strongly ingrained sense of responsibility myself), she doesn’t always treat Faith fairly. After Faith kills a civilian, Buffy keeps it a secret until it starts eating away at Buffy herself, and it’s too late for Faith by then. Instead of helping Faith, Buffy rats her out. She also never fully trusts Faith again, even though Faith saves the love of Buffy’s life more than once. I have to look at it from Faith’s side: she admired Buffy, even envied her, and Faith gets to see firsthand the revulsion that do-gooder Buffy has for Faith. Faith feels that disgust and turns it against herself rather than her upbringing and actions. The low-points where, as Buffy, she beats herself up, and later tries to get Angel to kill her, are the climax of Faith’s education in hating herself.

We could argue that she’s just being selfish, trying to “buy” redemption with reckless attempts to make her life more worthwhile, but I don’t think that’s the case. After getting a taste of how it feels to have a life full of love and true worth to those around you, she realizes how much her devil-may-care attitude was hurting people she cares about–and herself.

Faith suffered abuse and horrible trauma in her past, and she watched people she cared about die. A girl she briefly called friend killed her father figure. She saw a Watcher she cared for die brutally at the hands of a monster, and felt she failed to protect that Watcher. By the time we meet her, she’s pushing people away and trying to control her life in the only way she knows how: by destroying it.


Angel’s treatment of her makes her realize that she can’t always drive people away. Sometimes others are willing to love us more than we love ourselves, and we have a responsibility to those people, to live up to that love and to protect it.

I could probably write a thesis about the Faith-Buffy relationship, but I won’t do that here. Instead, I’ll turn it over to you readers: How does Faith turn her rage into remorse? How does she decide to turn her life around? Will she ever forgive herself? Is she trustworthy? What’s your favorite aspect of this truly nuanced character?

Freudian Friday: Faith Lehane, Part 1

Today has to be Part 1 of 2, since a) a friend is picking me up shortly to go to a taxidermist in Podunk, Indiana to pick up some deer antlers (long story) and b) I’ve been wrangling with my doctor to get some pre-dentist-appointment antibiotics (longer story) and c) I’m leaving for St. Louis tonight. Tune in next Friday to see the rest!

So who is Faith, really? As Drew succinctly put it, “She’s a whole bundle of crazy.” Faith is arguably the most “broken” character on Buffy, the second Slayer called up after Kendra’s death in Season 2 and one of few the characters who moves fluidly from Buffy to Angel and back again. In Season 3, she shows up in Sunnydale after her Watcher dies, and inserts herself into Buffy’s life with a charm and aplomb that seduces first the Scoobies and then Buffy herself.

She rapidly shows herself to be unstable, beating vampires into a bloody pulp instead of just staking them, she lets her Slayer-power get to her head (“See, want, take.”), and eventually refuses to take responsibility for killing a civilian. She tries to blame Buffy for the death, and we’re eventually left wondering if Faith is crazy like a fox or just plain crazy.

After escaping the justice of the Watcher’s Council, she takes up with the villain of the season, Sunnydale’s Mayor Wilkins, who becomes a pseudo-father figure. Mayor Wilkins believes in her, spoils her, and gives her a chance: in their evil little world, he’s a nice guy and she’s the prodigal daughter come home. We don’t know much about Faith’s parents, other than she only talks about her mom’s death and she admits that Mayor Wilkins is more of a parent than she ever had. He’s the first person to love her unconditionally, even if that means encouraging her batsh*t crazy tendencies.

Faith dreams of a happier life.

Their little paradise doesn’t last long, though. Buffy beats Faith into a comatose pulp and kills the Mayor. Hooray?

It’s pretty obvious why Faith turns to the dark side. No one gives her a chance, and she’s never been taught that she can’t just take what she wants. When Mayor Wilkins waltzes in and loves her for herself and gives her everything she wants, it’s no surprise that she responds positively. If someone from the Watcher council had tried to accept her for what she is (a violent maniac?) and actually treated her with affection instead of judgment, she might have stayed good.

Faith as Buffy: "It's WRONG."

But that’s not the end of Faith’s tale. She wakes up from her coma in Season 4, and switches bodies with Buffy for two episodes. These episodes contain quite possibly the most disturbing parts of Faith’s character arc. Faith revels in living Buffy’s life, surrounding herself with friends, loved ones, and Buffy’s boyfriend: it is, presumably, the first time she’s ever really had a family. In her final battle with Buffy-Faith, she beats her own body to a pulp, saying, “You’re nothing! Disgusting! Murderous bitch! You’re nothing! You’re disgusting!”

Um… whoa. She disappears then, only to reappear on Angel with a convoluted plot to get him to kill her. I’m running out of time, though, so let’s just look at what we have so far.

Young, beautiful girl, abandoned by her parents, discovers she has a super power (so far, that’s a just a recipe for crazy), lets her power run amok, kills a guy, turns evil, is beaten almost to death by her foil, then takes over that foil’s life only to realize how much she hates her own.

We could just look at her as a foil for Buffy, who, at times, feels misunderstood and unappreciated by the people in her life, while Faith really has no one. But because Buffy is an awesome show, Faith is a fully realized character of her own, independent of Buffy and their character-juxtaposition.

Faith has to want something from Buffy other than revenge, though, if she stuck around to take over Buffy’s life. Forgiveness? Closure? Respect?

It’s hard to give feedback when we only have about three-quarters of her story here today, but what do you think, readers? Why is Faith so obsessed with Buffy? What is she really looking for in life?