[Note: I’ve decided to begin a series about consent issues in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I will post a new entry in this series every other Tuesday – or perhaps on a weekly basis, if I have the time. In this series, I will look at an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that deals with rape, sexual assault, or consent issues as a main plot point or as a featured event of the episode. I will examine these episodes in chronological order. If, in my writing of this series, you feel that I have skipped an episode that should be a part of this series, feel free to submit a guest post, and I will consider publishing it.]
EPISODE: “The Pack”
INCIDENT: Attempted sexual assault
PERPETRATOR: Xander Harris
VICTIM: Buffy Summers
The specifics: Xander and four other Sunnydale High School students go to a blocked-off hyena exhibit at the local zoo on a school field trip and become possessed with the demonic hyena spirits. While the other four possessed students attack the school principal, Xander corners Buffy and attempts to sexually assault her, pinning her to a vending machine and kissing her neck. Off-screen, Buffy gets the upper hand and hits him with a desk, and in the next scene, she is shown dragging his unconscious body back to the school library.
The mind of the perpetrator: Obviously, Xander can’t be held accountable for his actions while he’s possessed by a demonic hyena. As much as early Buffy played upon the “high school is hell” metaphor, there’s no real-life equivalent of becoming suddenly possessed by a demon animal spirit. Xander had no idea what would happen to him when he sought out the hyena exhibit, so I can say without hesitation that his actions were beyond his control.
At the same time, I can’t ignore that some of what he says to Buffy when he’s under the hyena possession. He tells her:
“XANDER: We both know what you really want. You want danger, don’t you? You like your men dangerous. Dangerous and mean, like Angel, your mystery guy. Well, guess who just got mean.”
This isn’t the last time that Xander will allude to Buffy’s preference for dangerous men, and it isn’t the last time that he’ll judge her or be angry with her because of it.
At the end of the episode, Xander feigns amnesia about his entire hyena-possessed experience. Buffy and Willow believe him and let him off the hook, thinking he doesn’t remember attacking Buffy or saying hurtful things to Willow. Giles knows that Xander is lying about not remembering the experience, but promises to keep his secret. Xander replies, “Shoot me, stuff me, mount me,” and walks away hanging his head, looking completely embarrassed and defeated. He knows he’s made an ass of himself, and pretending not to remember is the only way he can hold onto a shred of dignity.
The victim’s perspective: Buffy’s not too shaken by the incident. When she drags Xander back to the library, she casually admits that she hit him with a desk, and then has this conversation with Willow:
“BUFFY: He tried his hand at felony sexual assault.
WILLOW: Oh, Buffy, the hyena in him didn’t…
BUFFY: No. No, but it’s safe to say that in his animal state his idea of wooing doesn’t involve a Yanni CD and a bottle of Chianti.”
This exchange is important, and not only because it shows that Buffy has terrible taste in music (though pretty decent taste in wine). She is aware of Xander’s attraction to her, and so is Willow. But they both know that Xander in his right state of mind would never have tried to assault Buffy. When Willow says, “The hyena in him didn’t…”, she’s referring to Xander’s attraction to Buffy, not to the attempted assault.
This is why, I think, Buffy is completely emotionally unaffected by Xander’s attempted assault of her, why she exchanges an amused look with Willow and tries to hide a smile when a newly freed Xander asks if he did anything else to embarrass himself while he was possessed. But I also think she wasn’t emotionally affected because she never perceived Xander, even a supernaturally-possessed and stronger Xander, as a physical threat to her. She didn’t need an apology because she was never afraid.
What does this episode say about misogyny and rape culture?
Xander isn’t accountable for what he said or did under the hyena possession. I think unintentional, accidental possession by demonic spirits is about an extenuating circumstance as you can get.
I also don’t fault him for pretending that he didn’t remember what happened. Considering that both Buffy and Willow were 100% angst-free after they realized Xander was possessed, and considering that both girls were treating it as a joke and laughing about the possession after it was over, a sincere, serious apology on his behalf would have been completely out of place.
Similarly, I also don’t fault Giles for keeping Xander’s secret, and I don’t see him winking at the attempted assault as a conspiratorial “boys will be boys” gesture as some other viewers do. Again – extenuating circumstances, and Xander is obviously so embarrassed and hang-dog about the whole incident that telling the girls would be the equivalent of kicking a guy when he’s down. It can be easy to forget that Xander was also a victim in this episode – not of sexual assault, but of involuntary demonic possession. Involuntary demonic possession that he experienced while trying to defend a nerdy kid from a gang of bullies, I might add.
I do, however, think that the attempted assault scene reveals something less than pleasant about Xander’s character. No, he would never attack Buffy when he was in his right mind, but he does believe that she’s attracted to dangerous men – that if he were dangerous and mean, she would be attracted to him. His accusation isn’t too different from what he says to her in “Prophecy Girl,” after he asks her to the dance:
“XANDER: I’m not him. I mean, I guess a guy’s gotta be undead to make time with you.”
He’s self-pitying and bitter, not confident and threatening, but the sentiment is the same. More importantly, he makes his “dangerous and mean” comment in the episode before they find out that Angel is a vampire. He’s leaping to conclusions about Buffy’s taste in men pretty early, especially since she spent “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date” pining after a sensitive, Emily Dickinson-reading poetry fan. In Xander’s mine, does “dangerous and mean” equal “any guy who isn’t me?” Future episodes show that he’s pretty quick and eager to paint any man Buffy’s interested in as “bad” – an urge that lessens and tapers off as he grows older, but is fairly present in the earliest part of their friendship.
As for Buffy, she seems quite chipper and matter-of-fact after her friend tried to assault her by a vending machine. Yes, part of this is because she knows Xander would never hurt her when he wasn’t possessed, but can you imagine her being this easygoing and chipper if, say, Angel, her brooding and attractive stranger, had been possessed and tried to attack her? Or worse, if Giles had been possessed and tried to attack her? She wouldn’t have been able to look Angel in the face for weeks, and Giles, maybe never again. It’s a purely academic question, of course, because Giles and Buffy have the father-daughter bond rather than a mutual or one-sided sexual attraction, but I think it’s telling that Buffy doesn’t even conceive of Xander being a threat to her.
Of course, this is partly because Buffy is the Slayer. She knows she could take him down without blinking, and she does. But in other episodes, she’s shown fear of other people she could take in a fight. No, to her, Xander is the ultimate nonthreatening male presence – nonthreatening because he’s not strong, and nonthreatening because she’s not attracted to him. He’s her funny, dorky, Xander-shaped friend, and those types don’t usually ping on the “potential rapist” radar.
“The Pack,” aside from being the first excellent episode the show produced, has a few interesting layers about consent, rape, and the assumptions we make about men and women, but I think one of the most important lessons about rape culture can be found in the fan reaction to the episode. Almost everyone I talk to about Buffy and “The Pack” agrees that hyena-possessed Xander is really damn foxy. Even a lot of people who don’t usually care for the funny, dorky, Xander-shaped friend think that he’s incredibly sexy when he develops the penetrating stare, the smirk, and the confident stance…and they think the scene with him and Buffy by the vending machine is strangely hot.
I read and write about consent issues and culture. I should know better. But I freely admit that I find Xander in “The Pack” damn sexy, and he gets even sexier the worse he behaves. That’s telling, and a little disturbing.