[personal profile] thecarlysutra

I warned you. Thanks, as usual, to [livejournal.com profile] myhappyface's wonderful beta.

Othello in "Becoming II," or How Xander is Iago
Alternate title: Xander sucks, and I've had too much college.

Joss Whedon is a big fan of Bill Shakespeare; I mean, come on, he named one of his protagonists “Cordelia,” and he has a demon named “Illyria.” Plus all the other stuff.

I’m a fan of Shakespeare, too, and I just reread Othello. Othello is mentioned specifically in Buffy (“Earshot”), though the parallel is the third season binary of Buffy and Faith: how Faith, who betrays, and who enjoys doing bad things, is “the darkside of [Buffy herself],” her Iago. And that’s very interesting. But I find myself more interested in how Xander is Buffy’s Iago.

This essay will focus on Xander’s Iagoing of Buffy throughout the series, with special attention paid to the “handkerchief” events of season two’s “Becoming II.”

The Play

Let’s assume that not everyone has studied Othello, and that, among those of us who have, some of us were so busy daydreaming about Buffy that we missed a few things. So that we’re all on the same page, let’s begin with a brief overview of the play.

Othello is one of Shakespeare’s late tragedies. The story is of a Moor (a term which is early modern English for “unspecified dark-skinned guy”), general of the Venetian army, and of how his fledgling marriage is destroyed by a jealous officer, Iago. As the play opens, the Moor, Othello, has just done two things: promoted a new lieutenant, Cassio, and married a (younger, virginal) white woman, Desdemona. Iago is incensed at being passed over for Cassio’s promotion (and at gossip that both Othello and notorious ladies’ man Cassio have been shacking up with his wife); he doesn’t really care that a black man has married Desdemona, but the mixed marriage provides the perfect vehicle to get under Othello’s skin. Over the course of the play, “Honest Iago” sews lies and innuendos that lead Othello to believe irrefutably that his new bride is sleeping with his new lieutenant. Jealousy drives him mad, and he kills Desdemona, and then himself.

Othello is not really about race. Othello is about Othering: the process of distinguishing a minority (the person who is not “Us,” but “Other”) from the majority, usually paired with ranking that “Other” in a hierarchy of race/sex/religion/whatever. In Othello, Othello is both Othered by the Venetians, and by himself.

It is important also to note that Iago is not, until the very end, recognized by any character in the play as a villain. He is constantly called “honest,” and he is a trusted friend and advisor to Othello, Cassio, and several other characters. I’d like to repeat this, because it is what makes Iago’s betrayal so cutting: Othello trusts Iago implicitly. When Iago’s lies are revealed to him, Othello does not believe it, and seeks to discover whether his friend is the devil in disguise, so betrayed is he.

Everyone on the same page? Super. Now let’s talk about the Othello in Buffy.

Othering and Iagoing

Let’s start with Othering, and position our characters. In the play, Othello is an outsider to the community; it is made clear that he is only respected because of his prowess on the battlefield. Both Angel and Buffy, in this way, are put in Othello’s position; Angel is Other because he is a vampire, and Buffy because she is a woman. They are both uniquely gifted tacticians and warriors, and this secures them unusual position within the group. Though Angel’s relationship to Buffy buys him some benefit of the doubt – helping him, as a vampire in a group of demon hunters, not get killed, for example – his key function within the group is as muscle. He’s almost a secondary Buffy (placing him as Buffy’s second-in-command, the Cassio to her Othello); when Buffy is unavailable, the Scoobies have no qualms in turning to Angel to fulfill her role (“Earshot”).

Buffy’s case is more interesting; she is human, and the peer of Xander, Willow, Cordelia, and Oz, but her position within the group is based upon her place and abilities as Slayer. If Buffy were not the Slayer, how would the other members of the group – especially Xander and Giles – treat her? Would they treat her the way they do Cordelia? As it is, Buffy is the group’s leader; were she not the Slayer, would she be straggling at the rear, the butt of the occasional, “ha ha, you dress like a whore” joke?

So Buffy and Angel are Othered, and they will, at turns, play Othello. Angel will sometimes also find himself in Cassio’s place. Buffy and Angel both will also be, from time to time, Desdemona. The reasons for this are a lot less complicated than it seems: if Angel is Othello, and Buffy is his lover, then Buffy becomes Desdemona. Similarly, if Buffy is Othello, and Angel is her lover, then Angel becomes Desdemona. Of course, since Buffy can also be the virgin, and the innocent, and can be seen simply for her sex, and Angel cannot, Buffy will be Desdemona more ably than Angel.

And then there’s Xander. Xander is not Othered; Xander is, when you think about it, kind of the poster boy for the majority. He’s white, he’s male, he’s “normal;” he has no pesky supernatural powers to differentiate him from the pack. Xander Harris is the majority; he is what Buffy and Angel are Othered from.

But being in the majority is not enough to make Xander Iago. He also needs the implicit trust of the group, despite his ulterior, self-serving motives. And he has it; Xander is rarely questioned, and he is even designated as the “Heart” of the group (“Primeval”); he is Honest Xander, pure of thought and deed. Which brings us to how he’s not so honest or pure.

Xander Iagos Buffy. He lies and manipulates in order to get things he wants, things he feels, as the majority, he deserves. What is interesting about Xander’s Iagoing of Buffy is that it is made complicated because it is defined by her Otherness; Xander would not have the same aim were Buffy not a woman. Let’s look at Xander’s motives, and what he wants, the things he will deceive for. Xander is upset that Buffy chose Angel over him; he asked her out and she said no, because “a guy has to be dead” to get with her (“Prophecy Girl”). So Xander’s aim is not only to best Angel/Cassio, who Buffy/Othello chose instead, it is to “win” Buffy; Buffy herself is the prize that Xander hopes to redeem through his deception.

Revelations and Buffy’s Sex Life

In the play, Iago’s first act against Othello is to run to Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, and inform the man that “an old black ram is stupping your white ewe.” Brabantio was previously unaware of the relationship, and he goes apeshit, running off to the Senate to complain. Othello and Desdemona are both eventually brought in to plead their cases at what has essentially become an impromptu trial.

Which brings us away from “Becoming II,” which we haven’t actually gotten to yet, my bad, to “Revelations.” Xander happens upon Angel, recently back from the dead, locking lips with Buffy. What does Xander do? He convenes Giles, Willow, and Cordelia to sit trial on Buffy, an “intervention,” as she calls it. Without consulting her, he has told everyone not only that she has been “harboring a vicious killer” and lying to all of them, but that she and Angel were kissing, which, were his concern really, “Oh my God, that guy that killed a bunch of our friends is back!” should have been toward the bottom of the list of outrages. But Xander not only informs the group of Buffy’s romantic indiscretions, he uses her sexuality against her. “What [were you waiting for]? For Angel to go psycho again the next time you give him a happy?” Poor Buffy is just a woman; she cannot be trusted with her own sexuality. Especially when she does that with it.

As in Othello, the only person who seems to be interested in Buffy/Desdemona’s voice is her partner. In the trial scene in Othello, Desdemona is brought forth before the Senate, but it is Othello who asks the girl to tell her side of the story. Similarly, the only person who seems interested in Buffy’s thoughts and feelings when the subject is love is Angel, and even he doesn’t do that great a job some of the time, making decisions about their relationship for her (“The Prom”). Anytime the topic is broached with anyone else, their reaction is to tell Buffy that “when it comes to Angel, you can’t see straight,” and “we’re here to help you [make the correct decision]” (“Revelations”). Xander is the worst one with this, again and again, from his constant demonization of Angel to his telling Buffy that she is “acting like a crazy person” by “treating Riley like the rebound guy” (“Into the Woods”).

Majority Xander does not act as though Buffy’s sexuality belongs to her. Think of his yay, Angel is leaving forever! fantasy in “Surprise”: Xander gleefully imagines Buffy – who is a “Denny’s waitress by day, Slayer by night,” as though Xander doesn’t gift her with enough intelligence or agency to have an actual career – crying gratefully when rich and powerful Xander – “fly[ing] into town in [his] private jet;” apparently, Xander gives himself all the intelligence and agency he’ll need – sweeps her off her feet, and out of Angel’s arms. Why wouldn’t Buffy be grateful to be rescued from the life she’s made for herself? I mean, a poor woman, being rescued by Majority Man? A dream come true.

Becoming and Joss’s New Ending for Iago

As season two progresses, Buffy and Angel become more and more removed from the group. And they begin, as Othello does toward the end of the play, to Other themselves. Angelus takes pains to distinguish himself from any scrap of humanity. “Your boyfriend is dead” (“Innocence”). Buffy often finds herself separate from her friends, who all have happy, normal lives with happy, normal relationships, and in the end, she chooses her duties as a Slayer over her family, her normal life. During the events of the “Becoming” episodes, the final ties are broken: Buffy is kicked out of her home and her school, thus eliminating her last ties to a “normal,” majority life; Angelus discovers that it is his blood alone that can unleash the supreme evil of Acathla and send the world to hell (“Becoming II”).

Fully Othered, there’s only Iago to contend with.

In “Becoming II,” as Xander leaves to assist Buffy in her storming of Angel’s mansion, Willow tells him to let Buffy know that she and Oz will be attempting to restore Angel’s soul. When Xander arrives, however, he instead tells Buffy that Willow says to, “kick [Angel’s] ass.”

The question of course is, had Buffy known what was going on, would she still have had to kill Angel? Certainly her attitude might have been different; she might have done more toward stalling the release of Acathla, and less toward killing Angelus. There’s no way to know. However, we can guess the answer to a more interesting question: the question of intent. What was Xander’s intent in omitting Willow’s true message, and instead submitting his own agenda? An argument can be made that he was afraid, if Buffy had hope that Angel could be saved, she would immediately become a weak and helpless girl in love instead of the warrior she really needed to be. However. To me it seems much more likely that Xander’s motives are, as usual, purely selfish: Xander does not want Angel to make it out alive. He does not want Buffy and Angel back together; even though he is, at the moment, in a relationship of his own with Cordelia, he is still not happy about the thought of Buffy with another man, especially Angel, his challenger. His Cassio. Iago’s aim in Othello, remember, is not only to rise to Cassio’s rank; in the process, he wants to punish Cassio, who has taken his place, and Othello, who passed him over. And he does both.

Since Buffy is both the goal of Xander’s deception, and the object/originator (read: Othello) of it, Xander’s desire to punish Buffy is at constant odds with his desire to own her, which accounts for Xander’s mercurial moods toward her. At one turn, he is joking and flirting with her; the next, he is puffed up full of righteous indignation, putting the blood of all Angelus’s victims on her hands (“Revelations”) or telling her that he’ll kill her (“When She Was Bad”).

So what is the outcome of Xander/Iago’s deception? As it is in the book: Xander’s lie results in Buffy/Othello killing her lover, and then, in her grief, removing herself from the city. Now in the play, Othello doesn’t hop a Greyhound as Buffy does; he kills himself, too. Perhaps it is Buffy’s survival that changes Xander/Iago’s fate. In the play, Iago is found out (too late, but much sooner than Xander is), and then dragged off to be tortured and, presumably, killed for treason. His last line is a vow to never speak again. But Xander is never punished for his deceptions. Even when his lie is revealed (five seasons later, in “Selfless”), it goes completely unnoticed. Xander is never punished for his deception, and he never gives up his speech, so he is free to continue deceiving. Which begs the question: do the writers of Buffy sympathize with Iago? Do they condone Xander’s manipulation of his friends? Why else would he continue on, uncensored and unpunished, unless Joss was trying to tell us something?

Let’s think about early modern England, Shakespeare’s time, for a minute. During Shakespeare’s time, women were very Other. They were considered to be physiologically and psychologically inferior to men; they couldn’t own property, or have a legal say, without a man. A man who murdered his wife was tried for murder; a woman who murdered her husband was tried for murder and treason, because she had acted against her king and god, and in those days the country was the same as the king was the same as God. What’s the relevance to Xander’s lack of punishment? Perhaps Xander gets away scot-free because he’s the majority. The only crime he committed was against an Other, and that’s only the natural order of things, that the majority should control the world, including the world of the Other, and if they need to get Machiavellian about it, so be it. And, to follow up on the king and god bit, Xander is a character-insertion of the show’s creator, Joss Whedon, who is white, middle-class, and a man. He represents the same majority Xander does. And in this universe, he is God. It’s only fitting that God’s will be done.

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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February 2010


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