I was working my Xander deconstruction series (Xander and the Fandom)* and a post about Super!Xanders. When looking at how this presents in YAHFs I got... a little distracted. Basically I took a step backward and looked at the episode totally separately from all fandom context. I just examined some key bugs I had in the arcs for each of the main trio.
Enjoy me complaining (for a change) (I'll write a positive (and detailed) post someday, I swear!)
Her relationship with Angel (and Cordelia):
Buffy is insecure in her relationship with Angel. She's prompted to that insecurity by Cordelia, but Cordelia is not really the problem in the relationship. The problem, as I see it, is that Buffy and Angel have not fully defined their relationship AND BUFFY IS NOT TALKING TO ANGEL. This is key. When Buffy feels insecure she doesn't talk to Angel. She steals books and then decides what Angel must like, based on the arbitrary idea that a woman around at the same time he was human is clearly ideal. Pushing aside the weirdness of that assumption, the problem is the not talking, Cordelia is merely a symptom. This'll become important later, once we get on to Xander.
Because of these relationship problems Buffy decides to dress as a noblewoman and thus loses her agency for the majority of the episode. That idea - a woman choosing to give up her own power for a man - is clearly a BAD IDEA. By the end of the episode we're supposed to see the whole thing as subverted. Angel likes powerful!Buffy! Yay!
As usual, it's more complicated. For one thing, it shows Buffy deciding to "be herself" BECAUSE ANGEL LIKES "HERSELF". If this trope were to be properly subverted the woman would have to own "being herself" INDEPENDENT of how that makes the man view her. For another thing we have Angel describing the "other women" being "simpering morons". Leaving aside this rather offensive historical inaccuracy, we're still left with the idea that a woman is to be valued BECAUSE she's different to other women. Most of those girls are awful, but Buffy's not a "girly-girl". She's a "man's girl", "an exception to the rule". This is a particularly harmful trope, because it can look, on the face of it, to be empowering.
It's disappointing to see it here because BtVS is usually so good about saying "a strong, independent woman can still be interested in typically "girly" things without it being some black mark on her record." I guess only if that girl is Buffy (just look how Cordelia gets treated over her prioritisation of fashion).
Willow's costuming is in many ways the opposites of Buffy's. I'm... kinda conflicted about that? Let's take a look. Willow wants to wear a not obviously sexy ghost costume. Buffy wants her to be "a dish". Willow ends up covering the "dishiness" with the sheet 'cause she's not comfortable with her Buffy's choice. I have mixed feelings.
On the one hand, Willow is asserting her right to not be decorative eye candy. Yay! Women have every right to chose clothing at their own comfort levels. But by the end of the episode it seems that we're supposed to think that she was just getting cold feet and she's really happier embracing her sexuality. Which... is a possible situation. But it just so happens that the "decision" Willow makes is the socially sanctioned one. She goes from saying "I'll wear what I want, even if my friends don't approve or ogle me" to "I will wear a skimpy costume on Halloween, like all women are told to do." It's not that the second choice is wrong. It's that the first one isn't either, but we're not seeing a lot of that around.
But I said earlier that it was the opposite of Buffy's. How? Buffy chooses her costume and has her agency removed. Willow's choice gets overrided (she has to go around in the outfit Buffy picked) and she... gains agency? (This is the only S2 episode where Willow has >20% of the lines) Is there a problem here? Yes and no. On the one hand, Willow making decisions, being an active member of the group (beyond giving info). But this is done by ignoring consent!?!?
One could argue, no, it's not. Her ghost costume is what's giving her power. And, I don't know. What would have happened if she wasn't wearing those clothes underneath? Naked willow!ghost? Generic sheet!ghost? But let's argue the sheet gives her power. It's also a depressing kind of empowerment, in many ways. The ghost outfit means she can no longer physically influence the world around her. Powerful!Willow is telling the guys what to do, but is unable to do anything her self.
YOU CAN SEE WHY I'M CONFUSED!!!
His relationship with Buffy (and Larry):
Xander is insecure in his relationship with Buffy. He's prompted to that insecurity by Larry, but Larry is not really the problem in the relationship. Does any one else hear that echo?
Yeah, I'm drawing a parallel to Buffy and Angel. Is that valid? Well, let's see where it takes us and decide. Xander seems, to me, to have very strong ideas on gender roles (very possibly influenced by his family). From the very first he was unhappy with the power inequality between him and Buffy (Xander: I'm inadequate. That's fine. I'm less than a man. - The Harvest, emphasis mine).
In this episode he is unhappy that Buffy rescued him because she (a girl) saved him (a boy). (Xander: ...when my rep for being a sissy man finally fades!). Now is this consistent with his characterisation? I would (under caveat) argue no. Despite often seeming to wish HE was the Big Tough Man, Xander does seem aware that Buffy is the strong one, and has made his peace with that. Certainly she rescues him a lot, without him offering complaint. I do have a caveat though, being that although is is generally out of character, it's no in this instance. That is, it's not OOC, in front of other people (who are not in on the secret).
So Xander fine with Buffy saving him as long as the rest of the school is unaware? That... seems hypocritical and kinda gross. It reminds me of a girl at my school who was in a class where I was arguing about domestic violence with a couple of jackwagons, in what was ostensibly a class discussion. She didn't say a thing at the time, but came up to me later and gushed about how marvelous I was. To which I feel like saying "It's great that you agree with me, but couldn't you have come to the bat when it actually counted?"
Xander "supports" Buffy being a strong fighter, stronger than a man, stronger than him. But only so long as no one knows about it. I've considered that perhaps he could expect more beatings now that Buffy has made him seem weak. But Larry, seems contemptuous more than anything when he sees Xander later. So what Xander seems to be afraid of is verbal harassment and bullying. Which is no small matter. But he doesn't seem to consider that by perpetuating the idea that women aren't (or shouldn't be) stronger than men, he's upholding a patriarchal structure which degrades women in much worse ways.
Like my classmate, he's happy enough for progress to occur (well, debatable, but that's a different discussion I won't get into here) but he's not going to be doing any of the hard yards.
This is a position the narrative seems to support (Xander: Beating up that pirate gave me a weird sense of closure). Although Willow and Buffy "grow" (in, arguably deeply problematic ways) Xander doesn't. Or if he does it's only in learning that being the Big Damn Hero and rescuing the damsel is so much more satisfying than reversing the situation and letting a girl be strong.
That's a very unhelpful message, BtVS. Although I can see glimmers of possibility in Willow's story line, you have long ways to go in order to redeem yourself! *Is stern*
Anyway, that's my take. Obviously there's other stuff going on here, but this is what stuck out to me . The way this episode is used by the fandom is another issue, and I'll get to it later in Xander and the Fandom.
Oh! BTW, another interesting thing about this episode is the Super Feminine Buffy v. Super Masculine Xander v. Super Masculine Larry. I don't know how I feel about this either, but it's interesting to note. Is this all totally unhelpful (Guys duke it out in a fight for possession of the chick) or kinda good (Buffy v. Larry shows harm in these gender "ideals") with a wonky metaphor (because of Xander). Is it something else all together? I don't know!
*Won't be working on this for the next two weeks due to exams. I'll try to get the next post out soon after that.