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Sympathetic or not - reactions to rejection and unrequited love

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  • Sympathetic or not - reactions to rejection and unrequited love

    Having seen quite a few reactors get very quickly irritated with Xander's interest in Buffy but seem very sympathetic to Willow's interest in Xander, it started to make me think about the different times we see characters being rejected and how sympathetic we are or aren't towards them. How much do social prompts lead us to sympathise with one and judge the other? Or is it just that the writing in the character's actions/behaviour generates the differing responses because of how they handle their romantic interests?

    Willow is generally more lovelorn and Xander does have more open jealous responses to Buffy's interest in others. His jealousy over Angel especially is a clear running element through the first two seasons. Although his jealousy is often played for humour (the side comments and looks in NKABOTFD for example), so I think that we are intended to feel sympathy for him in the same way we're led to when Willow is pining for Xander to Buffy. It's a really relatable plot line of course. Who hasn't been fixated on someone in their teenage years that they got nowhere with.

    But then there is The Pack when Xander is cruel to Willow and tries to assault Buffy. Although that obviously isn't him behaving as he would under his own control, it is still something that is witnessed and we can see there is certainly some link to Xander's actual character while he is possessed too. Taken very negatively it could be read as a darker way he could choose to behave. Personally, I just look at it the same as soullessness in vampires. There's a loss of barriers and, importantly, also a demonic drive to lash out and behave differently. The combination does create a meaningful distinction to how the person would choose to behave that very much matters. Later in Prophecy Girl Xander doesn't respond well to Buffy's rejection and Willow refuses to be his second choice. These are quite different occasions, with the possession involved in the first, but they build together perhaps to reduce sympathy for one character while the sympathy for the other remains/builds.

    I actually have come to feel a lot more sympathy for Xander and see the awkwardness in how he handles things. He's supposed to be young after all and I think he is genuinely looking to be Buffy's friend and help, romantic interest aside. And Willow does tend to keep her feelings for Xander under wraps as she isn't expecting anything, so it is easier to feel sorry for her when she isn't being openly jealous. It may also just be that Xander's behaviour is looked on as more problematic these days than it was at the time. Still, I feel like there is also a general social tendency to be more sympathetic to a woman who is rejected than a man. It reminds me of one of JM's comment about why he wasn't happy with the AR as this desperate attempt to physically reconnect with someone after breaking up that was supposed to have been inspired by (I think) an experience Marti had had herself. He said something along the lines of it being different if it is a guy doing it and I don't feel that should be true. It doesn't mean that it isn't though.

    Then there's also Wes' jealousy over Gunn and Fred that is a huge part of AtS. It is certainly not a storyline that I love, but the antagonism between Gunn and Wes can feel like Fred is being treated as a prize one of them is entitled to win. Their behaviour is presented as far less sympathetic than Lilah's attempts to draw Wes away from Fred and her obvious jealousy there. The idea of a woman's emotional investment and reaction to being rejected seems to be played more kindly against the jealous/aggressive ways it is often portrayed with men.

    So how do you see the different responses to unrequited love in the characters and in fandom towards different characters? Do you think that it reflects society or just perpetuates gender stereotyping? Of course the show was written in different times. But does that play a meaningful part in it and if so in what ways? How do you see these things presented differently in modern shows?

  • #2
    I rarely have sympathy for a fictional character (unless it has four legs). If I have sympathy it's fleeting (the exception I make is for Buffy over Joyce). What do I think it's a reflection of? Unconscious fantasies, wishes and desires. I think that in general...but specifically in BtVS - I think it's cleverly designed/structured that way. Ultimately, I think all love in BtVS is/will be unrequited because desire is based on a lack of being (it's why it's temporarily sated by consumer goods - probably why Dawn shoplifts - she's still looking for the Real Me). IDK - I did my PhD on Love, Desire and Subjectivity and I'm still not sure what love is.

    Funnily enough (and without spoilers), for all its flaws Lucifer's better equipped to transcend desire than BtVS but that's because it has an actual therapist and slightly more freedom with Heaven and Hell (they're not just metaphors) than fathers/mothers are actual Gods/Goddesses. Otherwise, they're not in the same ballpark. I thought S12 might have made an effort to do something similar - I don't think it did.
    Last edited by TriBel; 12-10-21, 01:17 PM.


    • #3
      Originally posted by Stoney View Post
      So how do you see the different responses to unrequited love in the characters and in fandom towards different characters? Do you think that it reflects society or just perpetuates gender stereotyping? Of course the show was written in different times. But does that play a meaningful part in it and if so in what ways? How do you see these things presented differently in modern shows?
      I suspect the main thing that turns people off is when a character starts bothering or even hurting other characters. When a character (or person) suffers in silence, it's much easier to feel sorry for them than when they are lashing out or are pushy. I'm not sure if this changed a lot in the previous years. I wasn't participating in online discussions in the early days, but as long as I remember there is a significant part of the fandom who dislikes Xander exactly because of his behaviour in the early seasons. He wasn't called a "Nice Boy" yet, but the behaviour has been criticized for a long time. Same with the boys who fight over a girl like she is a trophy (TGIQ by example). That is not something new nor did it disappear in the last few years. We still have love triangles with men fighting over a woman.

      About your second question: If you look at Willow's crush on Xander in s1, the lack of appalling behaviour can easily be explained by the reason they included that storyline. Her crush on Xander wasn't there to cause conflict or to set up a certain journey, it was there to learn the audience something about young Willow. While Xander's crush was all about conflict and to make us question if Angel is boyfriend material. So it's much more prominent. Same with Wesley's love for Fred since it was part of his arc and mental breakdown. If Willow's crush was more important, she would be less meak as well. Since we're talking about a storyline that was never written, it's hard to say if it would be a case of gender stereotyping. I can imagine them writing a Wesley-like storyline for Willow. Perhaps not in s1 since it wouldn't fit early BtVS, but in the last few seasons it could happen IMO.

      Xander's behaviour in s1/2 and Angel & Spike in TGIQ are clear cases of gender stereotyping though. I can't imagine the writers doing something similar with jealous female characters. It's probably a blend of reflecting society (big chance it wasn't done on purpose though) and the rather typical Buffyverse humor which leans on stereotypes, rudeness and stupidity.


      • #4
        TriBel While I agree that love seems to always ultimately end up unrequited in BtVS, or if not somehow thwarted (death, curses etc), I think that idea of unsatisfied desire is just because the writers find that easier to write. It is far more straightforward to have the drama of people longing for others or losing them than it is covering the ups and downs that happen within a relationship or just having the relationship as a more stable factor alongside work or friendship troubles etc. The lack of successful longterm relationships always struck me as a weakness of the show. But there are often ones that have the suggestion they may have another shot down the line and I think that's their go to instead. But in terms of our sympathies, I think we are supposed to relate or often want success for characters.
        Nina I love your point about the narrative use of the crush dictating how much presence it has in a disruptive/challenging way.


        • #5
          All said regarding writers, producers, actors, directors, viewers, readers, etc. are what I remember, my opinions, etc.

          What’s said in this post/comment is what I remember, my opinions, etc.

          AtS = Angel.

          A&F = Angel & Faith

          AtF = After the Fall

          Xander and Willow used to date. It makes sense that Willow would be hurt that Xander would prefer someone like Cordelia to her. "It just means you'd rather be with someone you hate than be with me."

          It makes some sense that Xander should feel negatively about Buffy's being so into Angel and Spike. Xander doesn't get as much flack for his being so anti-Buffy/Angel because things like Uncursed Angel happened and even in "Angel" (B 1.07), we learn that Angel is only 'good' because he was Cursed. Xander's being so anti-Buffy/Spike isn't given much sympathy because Xander was being a massive hypocrite given Xander/Anya. And Xander in BtVS S7 eventually is relatively very supportive of Buffy/Spike and remains so in Season 8-12.

          NO ONE can get anyone. Rejection is a part of life.

          In a TV show or movie, the storytelling and on-screen chemistry and acting is what is important. Spike/Drusilla is so popular because of the looks, acting ability, and on-screen chemistry of the actors involved. Buffy/Angel is so popular because of the storytelling, looks, and on-screen chemistry. Buffy/Spike has the storytelling, looks, on-screen chemistry, and acting.

          Xander/Cordelia has some popularity because Nicholas Brendan and Charisma Carpenter actually have good on-screen chemistry and both are good-looking.

          Buffy/Riley is hated so much because of the lack of on-screen chemistry between the actors, the storytelling doesn't really work, and even the looks don't match. We get "Pangs" (B 4.08), then "I Will Remember You" (A 1.08), then "Something Blue" (B 4.09), then "Hush" (B 4.10). Faith-Buffy's flirting with Spike in "Who Are You?" (B 4.16) manages to be the hottest scene of BtVS S4.

          Acting ability and storytelling is why Drusilla is sympathetic in the "Fool For Love" (B 5.07) 1998 C.E. South America flashback. She's 'cheating' on Spike but doing so because Spike is always thinking about Buffy and Spike tastes like ashes to Dru and Dru has to "find [her] pleasure" elsewhere. And Dru is sympathetic in "Crush" (B 5.14) because it seems Dru was willing to let Spike sire Buffy. But Spike literally tosses Drusilla aside to the ground for a slight chance at Buffy/Spike. Spike almost certainly had sex with Dru in "Crush", but he still wants to be with Buffy.

          But, yeah, Buffy doesn't want to be with Xander. So what. Xander only gets some sympathy because Buffy was with Riley Finn instead of Xander in BtVS S4. Xander loses the Halloween knowledge and skills. Xander was rocking Anya's world and Buffy was with Captain Cardboard. But it's not as if the audience would have wanted Buffy/Xander to happen in BtVS S7 if Spike was back.

          And with BtVS S7, Robin Wood gets no sympathy for Buffy's never kissing Robin much less actually dating Robin. Robin was conning his way into Buffy's life and into her inner circle. He was working for the First Evil. He's lucky he wasn't killed off.

          If Buffy never wanted to be with Spike, that's fine. Spike is a vampire. Buffy is the Vampire Slayer. She could have killed Angel, Spike, Drusilla, Harmony, Dracula, etc. whenever she wanted other than when they were presently saving the world.


          • #6
            I think the difference between our feelings about requited crushes regarding men and women on the show is affected by the ways in which we perceive power differences in our society. I know that Buffy is a supernatural show with women who are often much more powerful than men, but it's hard to shake RL representations of power.

            Men are perceived as much stronger and with a much more powerful sex drive. So paradoxically, it's both far more socially acceptable for any kind of predatory behavior to be dismissed as 'boys will be boys' (so men tend to go a lot farther than women in trying to make someone love them) and for any kind of crush to be perceived as aggressive because men in RL would most likely win in any physical battle with a woman. So the specter of constant reminders of a man's crush are more readily received as harassment and things like stalking and forcible rape become real issues.

            We perceive Xander and Spike as more aggressive because they are men and because they are socially conditioned to believe that the object of their affections might wake up and smell the coffee if they only act in more aggressive and stereotypical ways to win that person. Whereas we perceive Willow and Buffy as less aggressive because of their social conditioning that women need to sit and wait despite having a crush and win a man through stereotypical 'feminine wiles' like downplaying one's strength and smarts.

            To give examples in which this kind of negative gender conditioning harms men on the show, one need only look at Faith's behavior towards Xander when he loses his virginity and the total lack of followup when Faith then tries to choke him. Imagine if it had been Willow as Xander and Warren as Faith and she had lost her virginity that way and then Warren had tried to choke her. It would have been handled very differently.

            The same goes for the scene when Anya walks into Xander's basement and drops her clothes. Imagine what the response would be if Oz had wandered into Willow's bedroom and done the same. Yet, we're apparently supposed to accept that men are so hot for sex all the time that it doesn't really bother Xander. But it surely would freak Willow out to an unimaginable degree.

            Another example - it's hilarious when Cordelia tries to steal Angel away from Buffy, but gross when Xander does it with Buffy. It's supposedly a laugh riot when Buffy mocks Jonathan's height and looks in Earshot but terrible when Xander mocks Willow in The Pack.

            I think so much of this has to do with the general power imbalance between men and women in RL. Cordelia's actions aren't threatening from an emotional or physical standpoint, even when she says, "Hello, salty goodness!' on seeing Angel. But Xander's are viewed as part of a larger part of a world in which women are treated like prizes.

            In reality, both genders suffer from toxic gender roles and I think Buffy exposes a lot of that for what it is. Not always, but most of the time.


            • Skippcomet
              Skippcomet commented
              Editing a comment
              I was a teen in the 80's, and any time a male didn't immediately "nail" a woman in any media whenever the opportunity was presented, he'd automatically have his sexual orientation questioned, either in-story or by the audience.