Thursday, 21 September 2017

“He wears cool leather coats and stuff”; The Origin of Spike’s Duster

Carrying on our Buffy Blog Series, which this week is exploring Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Five, we have Steph Mullholland's exploration of Spike and the Origins of his leather Duster. Check out our previous post on Spike by Holly Dann discussing his cockney accent in Season Two (which you can find here) and our other Season Five posts by Adam Smith who discusses whether or not Xander is a monster (for part- one click here, and part-two click here). And, as always, if you want to share your thoughts on this or any of our posts, use the hashtag #BuffySlays20. 

*Apologies in advance for any puns. Couldn’t resist. 

Spike’s duster coat has been part of ‘the look’ since Season Two, so you may ask why this blog focuses upon the fifth season. Origins. We are introduced to Dawn, we learn more about the First Slayer’s cryptic warnings, and ultimately, we are left in Season Five with the most sobering of truths: “the hardest thing in this world is to live in it” and in the midst of all these beginnings, we end with Buffy’s death (again). However, one look that will never die is Spike’s duster and it is also in the fifth season that we are shown their bloody origins.

(Spike and his trademark leather coat)
Originally, duster coats were an item of protection at the turn of the twentieth century, its intention was to ensure mobility when riding horses or motorcars whilst protecting the wearer from the elements along the journey. It seems juxtaposed upon Spike as a vampire who brings death to be entrenched in an item of clothing whose function it is to maintain the boundaries of the body, to shield against wounds or marks. Spike’s role as “Big Bad” is also at odds with the hero figure in Western cinema who was the traditional wearer of the duster coat. The coat was also a unisex item of clothing, and true to this, Spike does not hesitate to take the coat from Slayer, Nikki, demonstrating the fluid nature of the garment. Spike’s wearing of the duster then takes on many ambiguous allusions, it does not “fit” his character as villainous vampire and yet to think of Spike without his coat seems impossible. After all, he confesses: "It's my second skin. It's who I am" (Angel, 5:20) - and fans would likely agree. Indeed, the aim of the blog is to show how the duster uncovers much more about Spike than just his (excellent) fashion sense.

(Spike taking the leather coat from Nikki)
We learn in Season Five, specifically the episode “Fool for Love” (5:7), exactly how Spike killed his second slayer on a subway train in New York in 1977 and took the coat from her dead body, but the sequence in which we learn this information shows yet more ambiguity in Spike’s character. Whilst we see Nikki’s death in flashback we also flash between the present with Buffy and Spike re-enacting the same fight so Buffy can learn how to avoid Nikki’s fate. At this point we have two very different Spikes; in the past he killed a slayer, in the present he moves in to kiss her. Drusilla even tells Spike in another flashback during this episode: “You’re all covered with her, I look at you and all I see is the slayer” (5:7). She is right, he wears the ‘skin’ of the dead slayer, just not the slayer she is referring to. Death may be on the Slayer’s heels, but Spike wears it upon his back.

If Buffy’s “ties to the world” are the people she loves then Spike’s tie in many senses becomes the duster. It becomes a part of him through which we access his inner feelings and his truths, some good and some bad. Tellingly, he does not wear the coat in the immediate episodes after regaining his Soul in Season Seven, it’s a reminder of his bloody past and the monster he was/is. In the absence of his duster during parts of the final season, we see Spike lose himself.


A telling reveal comes via Buffy-Bot after she exclaims “Spike, it’s Spike, and he’s wearing the coat!” (5:18). She is of course alluding to his attractiveness in the coat but this is only because presumably Spike has instructed this to be part of her programming, he wants - or at least thinks, that Buffy finds the duster (and by extension, him) attractive. In his duster, Spike imagines his chance to be happy with Buffy, despite his evils. In linking attraction to the coat in this way Spike cedes to its ambiguous quality; when he tells Riley “the girl [Buffy] needs some monster in her man” (5:10) revealing that he feels he is capable of being a man worthy of Buffy, and a monster.

(Buffy and Spike)
The coat is what Spike feels he needs to be ‘Spike’, which is interesting because he only got the duster relatively recently (in vampire age) – indeed, he coined the name ‘Spike’ long before the coat. Therefore, the coat is the part of him he needed in our present. Contrary to his own perception of himself as “always bad”, he is a little bit of both; good and bad. If the continued proliferation of ‘sympathetic’ vampires after the millennium are anything to go by, maybe he was the Spike we needed.

Certainly, the pairing of the duster and vampire swept us off our feet.

Steph Mullholland is a PhD student at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her research interests involve skin within the Post-Millennial Gothic, self-fashioning (and fashionable!) monsters, and Gothic film and television. Like the best Buffy fans, Steph is Team Spike, and while she hasn’t murdered for a coat (that we know of), she does have her own folder of Spike gifs.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Xander Harris: Portrait of a Monster? (Part Two)

This is the second part of Adam Smith's exploration of Xander Harris in Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Five, where he concludes his dissusion of Xander as a monster. Make sure you check out part one here, and if you want to if you want to share your thoughts on whether on not you think Xander is a monster, or if you want to share this or any of our previous posts, use the hashtag #BuffySlays20.

This post isn’t intended as a defence of Xander Harris, but seeing as we’re here... Whenever Xander gets what he claims to want he is distinctly uncomfortable. In the Season Two episode ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,’ when Xander attempts to put a love spell on Cordelia but instead accidentally casts a love spell on every woman in town except Cordelia (standard Xander), he finds himself on the receiving end of a steamy seduction conducted by his first crush: Buffy herself. Much of Xander’s posturing in Season One comes from his frustration that Buffy won’t just fall in love with him, which is exactly what happens in this scene. Xander fights her off and explains that he doesn’t want this, horrified by the vision of a woman robbed of her autonomy the way he so often fantasises about.

(Faith and Xander in 'The Zeppo')
Famously, there’s also ‘The Zeppo,’ a remarkable piece of television that follows a typical Buffy adventure from Xander’s perspective, revealing how he thinks and behaves in isolation, away from an audience (which is always when he is most interesting). Xander is a fool, in the medieval sense. He is a performer. He offers social cohesion by providing a laughter track for both the characters in the show and at times the audience of the show. As he himself jokes in the show’s third episode: ‘I laugh in the face of danger, and then I hide until it goes away.’ His true value to the group is his ability to keep the group entertaining, even in the darkest of situations. A consequence of this is that when he stops joking, you know it’s bad.

Another weirdly affecting moment comes in the episode ‘Halloween,’ when Xander is rescued by Buffy at the school soda machine from a beat down by Larry the school bully. Rather than being grateful, he snaps at Buffy, chiding her that ‘a black eye heals, but cowardice has an unlimited shelf life.’ He resents Buffy, because being rescued by a girl has made him look weak. Intriguingly, though, he seems aware of how stupid this is, the subtext being that he too is a prisoner in the patriarchal reproduction of toxic masculine standards (standards which Xander later finds significantly complicated, albeit somewhat crudely, when in the next season Larry the bully is outed as gay).

(Comando Xander protecting Buffy in 'Halloween')
These two facets can explain (but let me stress, not justify) much of Xander’s behaviour: his need to constantly perform and his obsession with hyper-masculine gender standards. As a result, he tries and fails to perform these constructed standards of masculinity and becomes hostile to anything that foregrounds what he perceives as inadequacy. In his worst moments, he resents not having access to that which he feels entitled too, a frustration he internalises as the result of his failure as a man but is most often the consequence of the reality that women are sentient and discerning life forms and not disposable sex objects. 

This volatile cocktail is treated most overtly in one of my favourite Buffy stories, the Season Five episode ‘The Replacement.’ Here, Xander takes a mystical hit from the demon Toth that was intended for Buffy. He wakes up to discover that he has been replaced by a double, who upon further investigation appears to have not only stolen Xander’s life but to be doing a much better job of it. It later transpires that the other Xander is not a robot, a clone or a shapeshifter, but that Xander’s essence has been split into two (much like in the Star Trek episode ‘The Enemy Within,’ which is itself referenced by both Xanders). The exact nature of the split is left purposefully vague. At first, it seems there is a good Xander and an evil Xander (which is how it plays out in Star Trek). Later, they develop a theory that one is dominant and the other subordinate. However, when they are brought together they are almost indistinguishable, and each admits being jealous of the other. In the closing scene, when they stop ‘performing Xander’ - one stops playing the clown, the other stops acting the alpha – they merge, sharing the same dialogue before ultimately sharing the same body.

(Double Xander in 'The Replacement')
Xander Harris is thus revealed to be a man who admires, resents and despises himself, all of the time. He is fixated on his ability (or perceived inability) to perform what he understands to be manliness, even though, as we have seen, he is also aware that this ideal in unrealistic and absurd. He is a man tortured by his inability to accept who and what he is. In those fleeting moments when he is distracted from his misguided pursuit of attaining a typically masculine position in heteronormative patriarchy, he is funny, sensitive, brave and compassionate. In those moments, he is the ‘heart’ of the team.

It is tragic that such moments are few and are between.

Does this make Xander a monster? Well, perhaps, in a very important sense.

As most of this blog’s readers will be well aware, the word ‘monster’ is derived from the Latin ‘monere,’ which means ‘to show,’ or ‘to warn.’ The OED tells us that a monster is something ‘deviating in one or more parts from the normal type.’ Monsters aren’t scary because they’re wholly other, they inspire terror because part of them is recognisable. They embody a shocking and disturbing relatability.

(Xander and Angel: who's the real monster?)
A large source of discomfort that I felt re-encountering Xander came from a place of awkward recognition. When I was at school, though I don’t for a moment think I was as terrible as Xander I certainly did desperately want girls to like me. And I did obsess over my inability to be Angel. Fortunately, I realised much earlier than Xander that I could be myself and express my identity in different ways, and towards different ends.

And I wonder now, looking back, if one of the reasons I came to that revelation during my adolescence and ‘didn’t become a Xander’ is not at least in part because of Xander; because I was exposed to a show as thoughtful, provocative and interrogative as Buffy: The Vampire Slayer at such an influential part of my life. 

Dr. Adam James Smith is a lecturer in English Literature & Liberal Arts at York St John University, and he is also the Media Co-Editor for BSECS Criticks. Self-described 18th-Century Print Junkie, he is an avid fan of Giles and Anthony Stewart Head with whom he is definitely ‘good friends’ (ask him nicely and he might show you his treasured, autographed Giles photo!). You can also find him on twitter at @elementaladam.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Xander Harris: Portrait of a Monster? (Part One)

Kicking off our Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Five posts, we have Adam Smith with the first part of his exploration of Xander Harris. If you want to add your thoughts to the discussion on whether or not Xander is a monster, or if you want to share this or any of our previous posts, use the hashtag #BuffySlays20.

‘We need to talk about Xander.’ I’ve lost count of how many of my Buffy-watching friends have said this to me over the last year. It all started with a podcast called Buffering the Vampire Slayer [], in which Kristin Russo and Jenny Owen Youngs watch and discuss every episode of Buffy, in order, week by week. It is a very entertaining podcast, and it prompted a few of my friends and I to embark upon a Buffy re-watch ourselves. Perfect timing, given that it later transpired that this is the anniversary year.

(The original Scoobies, Season One)
 This is also the first time I’ve re-watched Buffy in a good long time, not because I fell out of love with it but rather the contrary. My adolescence was characterised so emphatically by an intense (and probably at times, unhealthy) love for this show that I was scared to go back. Watching Buffy, for me, is like hearing a song that you listened to a lot during a very specific moment in your past.

I didn’t just watch Buffy the first time around. I used to tape it on VHS and then spend the week re-watching each episode until the next one came out (often in 15 minute chunks before school or when I went to bed). I used to skip lunch so I could save my dinner money to buy tie-in novels. For a period, I’d spend break-times with my friend Mitch, pouring over his copy of The Watcher’s Guide, which I highly coveted. Later, during the final years of the show, I collected Buffy Magazine, and I’d read each issue cover-to-cover two or three times on the bus to and from school. I bought both albums, and listened to them constantly. I even went through a phase of trying to dress like Angel. It wasn’t pretty.

Re-watching Buffy was an experience I embarked upon with not a little trepidation. I’m pleased to report that not only does it hold up, but it turned out to be far more complex and provocative than I’d realised. 

(Xander Harris)
Two of the biggest revelations arising from this re-watch pertain to the character of Xander Harris (portrayed by Nicholas Brendon). The first thing I never noticed about Xander is that he is absolutely interchangeable with Chandler Bing from Friends. They have the same dialogue, the same characterisation and even the same mode of delivery. I’m not sure if there is a discernible chain of influence here, but Matthew Perry and Nicholas Brendon could be brothers. It’s uncanny.  If you have time, compare this compilation of Chandler’s ‘funniest one-liners’[] and then immediately watch this compilation of Xander’s ‘best moments’[].

The second thing that occurred to me is that Xander is much harder to like than I remember. And I’m not alone. As noted above, many of my friends have been struck by this, Jenny and Christen discuss it at length on Buffering, and so far, the anniversary year has been characterised by online condemnations of the character, such as Sara Ghaleb’s compelling article ‘The Uncomfortable Legacy of Xander Harris’[].

When I first watched Buffy I always liked Xander, though even then I was anxious about what this sympathy meant. As a teenager, I’d watch Buffy wishing I could be like Angel but fearing I was like Xander. As it happens, as an adult I would later be mistaken for a Giles Cosplayer when in fact I was just on my way to work. And watching Buffy again now, I realise Giles was the best male role-model all along. 

(Xander and Ampata in 'Inca Mummy Girl)
What I didn’t pick up on at the time was how often Xander is quite terrible to his friends. I remembered that he was the funny one. What I didn’t remember was his apparent racism (see every line in the admittedly already problematic ‘Inca Mummy Girl’) or his uncomfortable attitudes to women. So often in the first season he is seen trying to mine gags from his perception that either Cordelia or Buffy are sexually promiscuous, effectively ‘slut-shaming’ his school peers. Indeed, watching now I see that Xander’s most defining characteristic, especially in those early seasons, is a disgruntled entitlement which manifests itself in needlessly cruel and pejorative comments too often passed off by the show.

Sometimes there are discernible attempts to flag Xander’s attitudes as troublesome, recasting them as the wounds of a damaged personality whilst mining sympathy from his clearly dysfunctional familial situation and his susceptibility to a particularly potent and specifically beta-male strain of toxic masculinity. This is, after all, a show which takes characters on extreme arcs all across the moral compass. The most obvious examples of this is Spike, who enters the show as a big bad nemesis out to kill Buffy, only to end the show sacrificing his life out of love for her. Is it not at least plausible that Xander was destined to take a similar, slightly more grounded, journey? And do we not see this? Over the show’s seven years it could be argued that Xander grows from being a generally funny boy who means well but has some profoundly unfortunate hang ups that manifest themselves in problematic comments and attitudes, to being a generally funny man who means well but has fractionally fewer unfortunate hang ups which manifest themselves in slightly less problematic comments and attitudes. 

(Spike and Xander)
Xander is a good guy. The show goes to great pains to signal this, perhaps most overtly in the Season 4 episode ‘Primeval’, during which each of the Scoobies form a magic circle and offer up their unique special powers in support of Buffy. Xander doesn’t have a power, but that’s ok, because he is identified as the ‘heart’ of the team. His compassion and his identity as a human are all that are required. Indeed, it is quite entertaining to track instances when the show tries to find reasons to commend or celebrate Xander. Right back in this Season 1 finale, ‘Prophecy Girl’, Xander is the true hero of the hour because unlike Angel, he has breath in his lungs which can be used to resuscitate Buffy, who has moments before been drowned by the Master. His super power here -  his contribution to the show -  is literally the fact that he can breathe. Bravo, Mr Harris. 

The show itself seems to forgive him a lot as well. His infidelity is soon forgotten. After Cordelia discovers that he’s cheating on her with Willow (in an affair which is presented very sympathetically), Cordelia runs off only to become impaled on a spike and scarred for life. Fortunately, Cordelia moves on quickly, which distracts attention from the fact that this sequence of events is barely ever mentioned again. At the end of ‘Once More with Feeling’ we discover that Xander cast the spell that turned Sunnydale into a musical because he thought it would cheer everyone up. Little is said about the fact that the same spell prompted numerous people to spontaneously combust and die. Oh, and let's not forget his terrifying treatment of Buffy that time he was possessed by a hyena spirit.

Let’s be fair, though. Xander does occasionally suffer for his actions. His lost eye can be read as divine retribution for leaving Anya at the alter (but Anya straight up dies, so even here he gets off relatively light). And, of course, his penis got diseases from a Chumash tribe. Incidentally, as a lasting consequence for his attitudes and actions, isn’t it fascinating that it is his male totem that gets compromised?

In times past, an easy defence of Xander was to invoke fan-lore that he is creator Joss Whedon’s analogue in the show, so he must ultimately be ok. I’m just going to leave that thought hanging…

[Tune in tomorrow for part two of Adam's blog on Xander, where he will dive into Season Five]

Dr. Adam James Smith is a lecturer in English Literature & Liberal Arts at York St John University, and he is also the Media Co-Editor for BSECS Criticks. Self-described 18th-Century Print Junkie, he is an avid fan of Giles and Anthony Stewart Head with whom he is definitely ‘good friends’ (ask him nicely and he might show you his treasured, autographed Giles photo!). You can also find him on twitter at @elementaladam.