Television owes so much to Buffy Summers. A game changer in both the horror and high school genres, she taught a generation of girls to stand up even when life feels like literal hell. This Friday, March 10, is the 20th anniversary of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s premiere, and since then the series has inspired countless shows with strong, complex women. (Read our ranking of every Buffy episode ever here.)
But we need to talk about the legacy of Xander Harris.
If there is a woman who fights the forces of evil, then right behind her will always be a nerdy everyman trying to get out of the friendzone. Maybe it’s Jake from Crazyhead, using a puppet to offer to eat Amy’s pussy while they are at work. Maybe it’s Winn from Supergirl, suggesting Kara hasn’t gone out with him because she’s a lesbian. Maybe it’s Boyle not taking Rosa’s no for an answer on Brooklyn Nine Nine. Whoever he is, he owes it all to Xander.
Let’s call this archetype “The Xander.” The Xander is more than the funny kid with a crush. He is the boy without powers who follows around a powerful woman, specifically in the hopes of wearing her down into dating him. He might not be able to help in any way, and he may only be heroic in the hopes of getting sex, but at least he is… on screen a lot.
I’m not suggesting Xander is a villain, but he’s not an amazing friend. In the episode “Surprise,” Xander (Nicholas Brendon) shows exactly what he thinks of Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) during the height of his crush on her, when he and Willow (Alyson Hannigan) discuss Buffy’s boyfriend, Angel, possibly leaving:
Willow: Poor Buffy, on her birthday and everything.
Xander: Hmm, it’s sad, granted. But let’s look at the upside for a moment. I mean, what kind of a future would she have really had with him? She’s got two jobs—Denny’s waitress by day, Slayer by night—and Angel’s always in front of the TV with a big blood belly, and he’s dreaming of the glory days when Buffy still thought this whole “Creature of the Night” routine was a big turn-on.
Willow: You’ve thought way too much about this.
Xander: No, no. That’s just the beginning. Have I told you the part where I fly into town in my private jet and take Buffy out for prime rib?
Willow: [sees Buffy come in] Xander…
Xander: And she cries!
That is a detailed revenge fantasy about a woman he claims to care about. Yet our strong female role model views this treatment as normal friendship. “The Xander” undermines “The Buffy” in her own narrative. A show creates a character without powers to be the audience’s point of view, and then we watch the hero repeatedly reject him. It distances the viewer from her. Furthermore, it either gives her an emotional burden to bear or makes her look unfeeling.
An excellent example of the uncomfortable emotional burden that comes with supposed heroic sacrifice can be found in Brooklyn Nine Nine’s “The Bet.” Charles Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio) has a rather pushy crush on his co-worker, Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz), that she can usually shut down. After he’s shot saving her life, Rosa, a take-no-shit hard-ass, resorts to hiding from him. She can’t bear rejecting someone she owes her life to. Boyle has to directly tell her that when/if they go out, it shouldn’t be because he did what any good cop would do. Even though Rosa has made her feelings clear, it still weighs heavily on her how far Boyle might be willing to go for her. It’s a hard-to-watch scene in a comedy, and it is even harder to watch in horror shows—to the detriment of the hero.
It’s disturbing to see literal superheroes ignore a civilian throwing himself into the path of death only to impress them. I can give Buffy a pass for not stopping Xander from getting himself killed for her because she was a teenager and everyone in Sunnydale is in danger at all times. Kara Danvers (Melissa Benoist), on the other hand, admits in the Supergirl pilot that she involves Winn Schott (Jeremy Jordan) in her super capers only because she wants someone to be happy for her. Winn immediately breaks some major laws—hacking into a police scanner, getting involved in vigilantism—to help her, which is the same behavior she gives him shit about when he does it for the hero Guardian. In Crazyhead, Jake (Lewis Reeves) only gets involved in thwarting the apocalypse because Amy (Cara Theobold) needs someone “extremely gullible” with a car to give her a ride and they happened to run into demons on the way. At one point, Jake offers his life up to save Amy from some demons, removing any ambiguity that his feelings for her put his life at risk. Amy feels uncomfortable about it for a while, but keeps involving him.
When the supposedly kind and brave hero of a show allows this dangerous behavior to continue because she pretends not to see the signs, does not want to have a direct confrontation, or simply does not question the ego boost it gives her, it makes her look dumb, cowardly, or cruel in a way that diminishes the entire show. If this storyline is intended to show how deserving of love the nerd is, or how lovable the female hero is, it ends up making the opposite point.
It’s no coincidence that The Xander is always a white guy. There is an unspoken assumption that an audience will most relate to an awkward white man, even if the main characters are women. Even if the black man on the show happens to be Jimmy Olsen (Mehcad Brooks), an iconic everyman. (In Supergirl season two Olsen is so out of place as a hapless sidekick he takes on the superhero mantle of Guardian.) On Crazyhead Jake even calls Amy’s black boyfriend, Tyler (Arinzé Kene), “Coldplay” because he’s boring, as if there is anything more “Coldplay” than a mediocre white guy who is just sort of around all the time. This clearly indicates that The Xander isn’t about showing a real underdog; it’s about catering to a specific presumed audience.
It’s also no coincidence that if the badass woman’s loyal companion is a man of color, suddenly the crush element will be gone. Wallace from Veronica Mars, Ravi from iZombie, Malcolm from Marvel’s Jessica Jones, and Harris from Sweet/Vicious are all great examples of why unrequited love isn’t necessary for these dynamics to work. Television thinks only white (straight) men need an incentive to be friends with a woman. The double standard of what white men can get away with can’t be ignored, either: If Malcolm (Eka Darville) gave Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) a speech about how she’s his hero that ended with “Sometimes when it’s dark and I’m all alone, I think, ‘What is [Jessica] wearing?’” he would get punched, not thanked. So why would it be cute if the guy saying it looks likes Nicholas Brendon?
There are parts of this archetype that work if a show can learn to step away from the entitlement and obsession. The Xander is always a better character post-crush anyway. Winn has been nothing but delightful since getting over Kara. He’s been a more supportive friend to everyone in his life. He’s having his own adventures while still contributing to the missions. In the recent Valentine’s Day episode, he went on a date with another strong alien girl and made a point to be direct with her about his feelings and seeing her as a person.
I don’t know what Crazyhead will do with Jake down the line, but I suggest they model him more after the Buffy the Vampire Slayer character who, like him, only got roped into saving the world because she owned a car: Cordelia Chase. Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) started as a comic foil who occasionally dropped a necessary truth bomb, much like Jake now. As Amy and Raquel get further into the world of the supernatural, they could probably benefit more from an abrasive voice of reason than a try-hard sidekick.
So, in the iconic words of Cordelia Chase, Xander? Stay away from me.
Sara Ghaleb is a writer and comedian living in Los Angeles. She takes pop culture much too seriously. You can see her sketch team The Burbs perform at The Nerdist School Stage. Follow her at @saraghaleb.