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Spike/Xander: A Casual User's Guide

by Wiseacress.

 

Disclaimer one: I am not a professional Buffy fan. I have a limited knowledge of the program; my take on things is restricted to what I know, which is not much, and to what I dream up to supplement, complement, and rationalize my own stories. You are welcome to disagree, agree, elucidate, confront, confound, deliver yourself of philippics, fondle, abuse, or neglect. Just email me. Or in the case of neglect, don’t.

Disclaimer two: As usual, no research has sullied the purity of my opinions. Caveat lector.


So. Spike/Xander.

I’m going to climb down from the 10-meter platform we like to call “Slash—the hell?” and just tackle the 5-meter dive today, into the murky waters of S/X. It seems to me that there’s some conversation to be had about this pairing, even if we agree at the outset that slash is a legitimate kind of fanfic. (And if you want to gnaw on any aspect of that, send me an email and we’ll book a table for two.)

Why ponder S/X? Because it’s a pairing that intrigues and baffles a lot of people, myself included. Because there are so many good, reasonable objections to it, such as:

    1. Spike/Xander is not canon. Unlike Spike/Angelus, which can be fiddled on the basis of Vampires = Hyperbolically Bisexual and Biting = Network TV Sex, and unlike Wesley’s hound dog hero-worshipping crush on Angel in the HoYay! heyday of AtS, which requires no fiddling at all, there’s no canon basis for Spike/Xander. I’m not counting the amorphous “vibe” that some people claim to get off Xander, because I don’t see it and even if I did I couldn’t work it into the logic of the show. There’s already a gay Scooby, thanks. No need to go cherry-picking.

    2. Spike and Xander dislike each other. A lot. Xander hates vampires; it’s one of his defining traits. Back in season one, Jesse was sacrificed that the characteristic might take firm root in fertile soil. These days, Xander has particular reason to hate Spike, on account of the [S6 spoiler] S6 Spanya pay-per-view incident.[/spoiler] And Spike has every reason to dislike Xander, who regularly mocks and threatens him.

    3. Xander and Spike are straight. This is a rephrasing of “S/X isn’t canon,” and it is of course the central objection to all of this meddling. It’s not homophobic to point this out, it’s just sensible. It reminds us of the essential absurdity of slash, and that’s worth doing, because anyone who doesn’t bear that in mind is going to lose track of the parent story and the characters themselves. On the other hand, anyone who writes slash and can’t forget the ridiculousness of it at some level is going to be severely handicapped.

    4. Xander and Spike are straight. Well, yeah. Point taken. And I refer you back to the above points: “S/X isn’t canon,” and “Slash—the hell?” Because it all really boils down to the same thing, which is whether the writer can construct a workable system of levers and pulleys to hoist your disbelief into midair, and keep it there.

So, S/X is swimming upstream against these and other objections (“Spike and Xander don’t look right together.” “Spike would never go for a schlub like Xander.” “Xander would never go for a preening psychopath like Spike.” etc.) And that makes for a pairing that can be disastrous or very interesting, depending on how it’s handled.


Given the reasonable objections, why match the boys at all? Good question. And it might be worthwhile to start the answer with a quick rundown of what’s appealing about each of the boys in his own right. Or if not worthwhile, at least fun.

The Appeal of Xander
Ah, Xander. Well, at least, ah, Xander-up-to-about-S6. As I’ve said, I’m no faithful viewer, but I do have a sense of the difference between Early Modern Xander (seasons 1 through mid-5, or so) and Late Decadent Xander (through the end of S6; he seems to be redeeming himself in S7.) My praise of Xander should be understood to mean Early Modern Xander, may he rise again, and soon.

Early Modern Xander is my favourite Scooby. He’s the one I identify most with, the one I would be happiest to hang out with, drink a beer with, banter with, watch MST3K with, and possibly have an ill-advised late-night snog on the couch with, before falling asleep with in a nest of taco chip crumbs and licked Oreos. Xander makes me laugh. He’s real and funny and dumb and snarky and in my little mental concordance he’s much smarter than he’s allowed to be on the show, where he’s constantly being played as someone’s stooge. He jokes when he’s nervous, when he’s pissed off, when he’s bored. He is, as has been pointed out a million times before, extremely loyal to his friends. He complains about the little stuff (classes, work, tiffs with Anya), but he doesn’t talk about the big stuff (family, Hellmouth, the-facing-of-death.) That, he represses. He does the best he can with what he’s got, which often isn’t much. He works for a living. He sucks up the indignity that working for a living entails. He doesn’t complain about that. Not really. He is self-effacing to the point of masochism: most of his glibness boils down to self-deprecation. If not poked with sharp sticks, he seems disposed to be good-natured and easy-going. Of course, life on the Hellmouth amounts to series of jabs with sticks, so as time has gone on he’s turned a little prickly, bitchy and/or fisty. He is alternately tongue-tied and motormouthed around attractive women. He looks worried a lot.

The Appeal of Spike
Hm. I know there are a lot of people licking their pencils and starting to scribble furiously—abs, shoulders, pubic arch, right forearm, left forearm, eyebrow… Well, yeah. There’s that. Spike’s the best-preserved dead guy since Lenin. And in some ways it seems a little redundant to point out The Appeal of Spike, since so much of the show now is implicitly predicated upon just that. Or at least, there is a high and growing percentage of scenes involving Spike without his shirt, and one assumes the Nielsen ratings have something to do with it.

The physical aside, what’s Spike’s draw? Well, he’s snarky. He stirs shit up. He lies to serve his own purposes, but he has also been the resident Department of Home Truths ever since Cordelia left the show. He knows himself and is frank about what he knows (love’s bitch); at the same time he has enormous blind spots that make him vulnerable (big bad.) He’s good for occasional slapstick and physical humour. He’s cynical about anyone’s chances for happiness, while clearly and perversely enjoying whatever marrow (fighting, fucking, cigarettes, snark) he can suck out of life. He’s a faux nihilist, a more genuine hedonist. In his own way, a humanist. He needs to love and be loved, more nakedly and urgently than anyone else in the room, and he knows it, and he’s going to live forever, knowing it. Abs aside, it sucks to be Spike.

So, viewed from a distance and with a slight squint, Spike and Xander start to look a little bit similar. As Anna S.’s Sidelines so brilliantly shows, both of them are…well, sidelined. Both snarky, both compensating. Both looking for something or someone good, to make the trip a little more bearable. Both apparently condemned to choose the wrong door, drop the parcel marked ‘fragile,’ step backward into the tulip bed. Neither Xander nor Spike gets to enjoy much of anything for long. Well, nobody on Buffy does. (Everyone who thought the ending of Modus was too dark? Talk to Mr. Whedon, why don’t you?)

Maybe S/X is an underdog thing. There’s definitely a lot of hurt/comfort and angst in the stories, and maybe that’s a direct response to the sadness in both guys’ lives. Neither one really has it together, or seems likely to get it together in the near future. Pair them, and you can either dial the angstometer up to eleven or start making them happy, whichever strikes your fancy. Either way, you get to do something about them, and given the royal mess they’re both making of their lives, there’s a certain satisfaction in just getting a hand in.


As has been pointed out, Xander and Spike are both straight or pretty-straight guys, and most of the time they’re both toting ten pounds of lonely in a five-pound bag. This creates a kind of forcing house climate in which angst, yearning, uncertainty, and second-guessing can flourish and thrive. Because these are keyed-up straight guys we’re talking about, the slightest glance or touch can be seriously transgressive, upsetting, exciting, and generally catalytic. I like to think of it as a high cost-benefit intimacy ratio.

In this sense, the very improbability of the pairing works in its favour. There’s the frisson of overcoming the obstacles of straightness, mutual dislike, et cetera, and of making essentially straight guys fall for each other in some way: emotionally, psychologically, or sexually. It’s the fun of playing with the homosocial continuum (TM my vague memories of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.) It’s the fun of ducking the rules of our dumb, stifling, frustrating society, and taking a mattock to the big brick wall of the heterosexual male self-image. It’s also the fun of making them suck each other’s tongues, which is not to be underestimated on a rainy Thursday evening with nothing else on.

Of course, once you’ve got them to the tongue-sucking, there’s a whole new issue to negotiate, which is: can either one of these guys still work for the Boy Scouts?

Or more precisely, can Xander? Xander inevitably bears the brunt of the sexual confusion, both ours and his. Some stories just flat out make him gay or bisexual, either pre-emptively or post-coitally. Others have him consider his sexuality briefly, as part of his perpetual-motion inner monologue, only to discard the question as less important in the short term than getting Spike’s tongue back in his mouth. Or wherever.

No one ever seems to feel the need to make Spike gay, which I find interesting. If Spike fucks guys, we don’t see him as a gay or bisexual man, as someone who needs to define himself as queer and claim a queer identity and wrestle with what that means. The thought of Spike doing those things is sort of amusing, because it’s both irrelevant and redundant. Spike doesn’t have to do laundry or hold down a job or call himself gay just because he likes a little manhandling now and then. He’s sanguine about every kind of sex, and I’m not sure whether it’s because he’s a vampire and therefore impervious to norms, or because he’s just so goddamned sexy, so in his element, that these kinds of concerns long ago melted into the ether for him.

Anyway, at some point in the proceedings, Xander’s sexuality comes under scrutiny. After the glances and the hesitation and the final panicked lurch into tongue-sucking, Xander is a different guy. He’s a guy who’s kissed a guy, and liked it. (Spike, on the other hand, is just the same as he always was. Only more so.) If the story is AU, and Xander is gay to start with, then there’s no real shock of the new at this point. The only possible novelty is that this is Spike he’s kissing, which may be nice for him, but which is no particular thrill for those of us in the peanut gallery. This is another reason why I don’t buy the gay-Xander vibe that some people get from the show. I don’t want to buy it. I want him straight, thanks, so that when tongues are sucked, there’s implosion and fracturing and chunks of that fucking heterosexual male self-image whizzing past like heated cannon shot.

If Xander’s gay and all right with that, then we lose the dangerous tropical climate of repressed attraction, and we’re left with a fairly straightforward romance. Spike loses the upper hand, Xander loses some of his most appealing characteristics (self-doubt, self-criticism, intense exploitability and vulnerability), and failing expert bolstering by the author, we lose most of the point of the story. Occasionally someone manages to make the boys happy together in an interesting, readable way (*cough*JuliatheYounger*cough*Anna S.*cough*), but it’s rare. Hacks like me lean heavy on the heterosexual angst, and thank God for it.

So: the appeal of Spike/Xander is, for me at least, pretty much a restatement of the objections to Spike/Xander. They’re straight guys who dislike each other. In no sane, rational world would they lend each other money, much less press the flesh. But the thing about BtVS is that it positively encourages us to step outside the sane, rational world; it’s one of the darkest, gayest, smartest, funniest, gravest shows on television. We’re practically duty-bound to slash it. And these two guys in particular make a pleasure of a duty, because they’re so mistrustful of each other, so tightly wound and angry and on edge, and so funny at the same time. They’re irresistible. S/X is negative space; you itch to fill it in.

Plus, the tongue-sucking? Is hot.

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