Men, Rape, and the Whedonverse: Xander as a Survivor

When talking about rape in the Whedonverse (i.e. the worlds created by Joss Whedon), typically the most striking example that comes to mind is the Spike-Buffy 'incident' in series six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It broke the heart of many Spike fans, and was painful viewing for the survivors who identified with Buffy and dreamed of having her strength. Importantly, it showed that even strong, courageous, and powerful women could be victims of interpersonal violence (as well as disappointingly showing a women's pain as a plot device for a man to learn a lesson...).



What is interesting, however, is that the idea for the most controversial and harrowingly violent scene of the show came from the experience of one of the women writers:


"In the case of that scene, one of the female writers, in college, had been broken up with by her boyfriend, and decided that if she went over to his place, and if they made love one more time, everything would be fine. And so she tried to do that, and really kind of jumped the guy, and he had to push her off and say, “No, you have to leave now.” - James Marsters (aka Spike)


Did the show change the genders because it was a feminist show and they worried about centering the experience of a man survivor without considering the experiences of women? Did they think the experiences of men survivors were incompatible with feminism? Was it that they thought it wasn't 'really' sexual assault, or wouldn't have as much impact, if the perpetrator was a woman? Who knows...


What gets discussed less often, if ever, is the show's representation of many forms of sexual assault and coercion experienced by men. While media depictions predominantly show men as either perpetrators or the punchline of deeply problematic rape ‘jokes’, it rarely considers the experience of men survivors in complex or realistic ways (e.g. remember how ‘funny’ (i.e. horrifying) it was when Joey in Friends had to sleep with a casting director to get a part, that disgusted him so much he couldn’t wait to have a shower afterwards?).



I’m not saying that Buffy does either, I mean, one literally includes a giant insect, so it's hardly the example of real life trauma. That said, it shows a few interesting occurrences that could be helpful, not only in having discussions around men and rape, but also potentially validating for survivors to see their experiences represented in a way beyond humour - albeit disappointingly without much consideration of the trauma that could have resulted.


Let’s start with Faith. The feisty slayer with a dark side, who redeems herself in the final television series. A little butch and "typecast as a queer tough girl", which is why she was my favourite for a while, she was a romantic interest of Xander’s.



In series three, 'Consequences', Faith and Xander end up on Faith's motel bed. She tells him "I see, I want, I take" and "I can make you scream... I can make you die". This is after she has killed, not just plenty of vampires and demons, but a human. Xander knows that what she says is true.


What begins, then, as a potentially assertive sexual seduction, quickly turns violent and Faith begins to strangle Xander. What makes this representation interesting, is that Xander and Faith have a prior relationship - both platonic and sexual. They know each other well, have fought side by side, and Xander has his first experience of sexual intercourse with her (earlier in the series, 'The Zeppo').


So, the show gives an example where a man, who has romantic feelings for someone, has had a previous relationship with them, and may have wanted to have sex, but he did not consent to that. It’s also an interesting depiction of the necessity of consent in BDSM, that just because some people like being choked, it’s not for everyone. However you look at it, this was not a consensual role play. It shows the difference (and conflation by Faith) of consensual BDSM and violence - this connection is played on explicitly as Faith asks Xander if he likes "kinks or vanilla". Not to mention the show's slight obsession with leather and bondage - whether it's Oz being chained up in a cage in werewolf form, Faith being handcuffed to Buffy or chained to a wall by Angel, or Spike being chained up in Buffy's basement...


It also shows a physically stronger woman attacking a man - countering the representation of women as physically weak and men as physically superior that can be used to minimize or invalidate men’s experience of sexual abuse by women. Examples from a non sci-fi context (because not all women are destined for superhuman strength from the magic of demons or a fancy-looking scythe), would be when women use weapons to coerce a man into sexual activity, drug him, outnumber him, or all of the above. Another example would be an adult woman sexually abusing a boy.


The next Xander experience involved a teacher in series one, 'Teacher's Pet'. Again there is an interesting context where Xander is attracted to the woman (his teacher, who is actually a really big praying mantis), but ends up in a situation where it turns violent - where Xander is caged and almost forced to reproduce with a giant bug, but thankfully Buffy saves the day.



The episode includes a focus on insect pheromones, argued to be the reason for Xander’s strong attraction to the person/giant insect. This perhaps functions as a metaphor for rape that involves being coercively drugged first, to the point of being unable to consent. This is in addition to the age difference, making this an example of (attempted) statutory rape, as well as the power difference between teacher and student. The episode also shows examples of grooming, where the teacher creates a pretext to cross professional boundaries, such as asking Xander to help work on a school project at her home, but when he arrives she offers him alcohol that is spiked with a sedative, prior to her attempt to ‘mate with’ him.


In keeping with Xander's reputation as a 'demon magnet', he also develops a romantic relationship with a mummy in series one's 'Inca Mummy Girl'.



The episode, which is one example of the show's many problematic representations of race, again shows a relationship that starts out consensual and romantic turn violent, as the Inca mummy girl tries to kill Xander with a kiss. Arguably, the episide could also be an example of sexual assault by deception, as Xander consented to being in a relationship with a 16-year-old exchange student, not a thousand+ year-old homicidal mummy/zombie.


Finally, there is the fan-favourite (series two, 'Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered'), where Xander casts a love spell that backfires horribly, rather than Cordelia (his first girlfriend and rich socialite) loving him back (itself potentially a form of sexual assault had he been successful), everyone else does. While Xander attracts attention he has long wanted, such as being generally popular, and Buffy propositioning him, he runs from the attention that quickly becomes harassing, and then violent.



The (magically dosed) women ‘love’ or lust after Xander but refuse to respect his refusals. This replicates Anya's (Xander's serious demon-girlfriend/ex-demon-fiancé in later series) early pursuit of Xander, that despite his refusals and insistence that he doesn’t like her, she continues to confront him until eventually they become a couple. Also in the episode is the example of how many variations sexual refusals can take, such as Willow appearing in Xander’s bed - uninvited and much to his displeasure. His reaction (not one of joyful surprise) and his many excuses to avoid sex are an example of the well-documented ways that people refuse sex, and how sexual aggressors ignore them. Not to mention, Willow is a witch - if she wanted to turn you into a toad (or a rat) for saying no, she could.


As with any media representation, there can be many readings of a text. Xander can be considered an example of a man with multiple unrecognized experiences of sexual assault and coercion, and he can also be understood as a problematic misogynistic character, such as criticisms around his pursuit of Buffy and anger at her rejection, as well as his treatment of Anya and Cordelia. This is in addition to the domestic abuse that the actor has been charged with in real life, and Joss Whedon's fall from his feminist pedestal over issues such as the treatment of his wife, sexual relationships with young actresses on his shows that don’t look good in the #metoo era, his embarrassingly sexist leaked Wonder Woman script, and a decreasing feminist perspective in his work.


So, while Buffy gets the reboot treatment (which hopefully gives us a better representation of anti-racist, sex positive, gender equity), so too should we ‘reboot’ our perspective on rape to make sure we are including survivors of all genders.


Further Reading:


See also my paper "Madness in the Whedonverse: How Mental Illness is Portrayed in the Works of Joss Whedon"


Some local resources for survivors:


Men’s Trauma Centre on Vancouver Island - http://www.menstrauma.com/about-mtc/


BC Male Survivors - https://bc-malesurvivors.com/about-us/staff/


Men’s Trauma Centre is for anyone who "identifies as a man", but if you want somewhere that has more of a focus on trans and nonbinary people you might want to try:


Qmunity offers limited free counselling to LGBT+ people - https://qmunity.ca/get-support/counselling/


WAVAW offers counselling to cisgender and transgender women, nonbinary, and Two Spirit people, and they have a free helpline - http://www.wavaw.ca/counselling/

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