20 Years Later, It Turns Out Giles Was the Real Star of Buffy
Perhaps you were too young to appreciate a real man back when the show aired. I suggest taking another look.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is more than 20 years old — it premiered in 1997, and aired its final episode 16 years ago on May 20, 2003 — which means I have spent more than 20 years quietly listening to people debate whether Spike or Angel is the more desirable character. Finally, it is time for me to speak my truth: Spike (James Marsters) and Angel (David Boreanaz) are both terrible. They are awful people. Their only notable difference is that one is an undead murderer, and the other is an undead murderer who is also an attempted rapist. You want someone who is great in bed, handsome, smart, kind, clever, literate, feminist, and — I can’t stress this enough — not an undead murderer?
Giles was there the whole time.
Played by Anthony Stewart Head, he’s probably the only character on Buffy who doesn’t seem dated in 2019. That’s true even of the men who weren’t undead murderers. Xander’s habit of telling Anya, a thousand-year-old demon, how to behave feels so mansplain-y (again, she is a thousand. She has seen how people behave). Riley’s attempts to cavort with vampires because Buffy did feels like a whole new level of fragile masculinity. Oz doesn’t exactly have his more bestial impulses under control.
Clem seems pretty cool, but Clem is also a demon who eats cats.
But the qualities they lack, Giles makes up for in abundance. You can be forgiven for overlooking them, given that he was mostly just seen as Buffy’s surrogate father figure. And it is wonderful to watch his respect for Buffy and her autonomy grow from skepticism at her teenage antics in the first season to certainty that she can thrive without him in the sixth.
One of the more delightful scenes – and one of the more surprising given that the show took place two decades ago — comes from his certainty that Buffy should be able to make decisions about what to do with her body. When Buffy comes to Giles after having sex with Angel, who subsequently loses his soul, she asks Giles if she made a mistake. His response? "If it's guilt you're looking for, Buffy, I'm not your man. All you will get from me is my support. And my respect.” Which is all anyone really wants from any paternal figure in their lives.
And while there’s no question that Giles can kick ass and wield a chainsaw (and he does), for the most part, Giles is a man who is comfortable letting a woman be the hero in their shared story. That is still a rarity, even 20 years after the finale of Buffy declared that women could be heroic.
As Meg Ellison wrote in “The Non-Toxic Masculinity of Rupert Giles” on SyFy, “Giles does not act because his masculinity is threatened. He has little to no interest in power of his own. He cedes power always to Buffy.”
Perhaps because of that, his friendship with women is sincere. He’s in no way using them for his own ends. There’s certainly never any question of his being “friend zoned.” He neither needs nor wants physical approval from a bunch of women 20 years younger than he is.
Indeed, in “Hush” (season 4, episode 10), when Anya refers to his “orgasm friend” (a weirdly backstory-free woman named Olivia who appears in season four seemingly to have sex with Giles, wear his shirt around his apartment, and then disappear to some place without monsters, all of which makes her, for my money, the smartest person on this show), rather than looking pleased that he has been noticed as a sexual being, Giles remarks, “that’s exactly the most appalling thing you could have said.”
Some older characters, on the other hand, were very eager for teenagers to notice them sexually. For instance, Giles’ fellow watcher Wesle, who spends much of the third season lusting after high-school aged Cordelia. But Wesley’s ongoing flirtation with Cordelia would have been unthinkable between Giles and any of his protégées. Perhaps his indifference to what teenagers think of him is because Giles already knows he’s sexy. In the episode “Band Candy” (season 3, episode 6) when people become their teenage selves, he’s shown to be incredibly cool, sexually active, and with impeccable music taste. Compare that to Spike whose backstory hinges, incel-like, upon his becoming a vampire because a girl didn’t like the poem he wrote. Giles didn’t need approval from cool teens as an adult. He was a cool teen. Over the years, he just evolved to be cool in a nice jacket and glasses.
Willow’s initial crush on him probably resonated with many of us who loved both reading and watching television. His almost sensual love of the library (here was a man who loved the very smell of books) brought forward a sexy librarian that people attracted to men could be into. He has left, I suspect, an almost Pavlovian attraction to men in tweed jackets and glasses in some of our hearts.
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The fact that Giles never wanted to sleep with, or blurred any lines with, his Scooby mentees may be admirable. But it does not mean that you shouldn’t want to sleep with him. Obviously, you should. My God, the episode where he plays guitar alone.
And he was, canonically, great in bed. In the episode “Band Candy,” he and Buffy’s mom have sex on the roof of a car. Twice. When Buffy had psychic powers, she heard her mother think that he was like a stevedore in bed, which seems to speak to a lot of stamina. His “orgasm friend,” Olivia, also makes it clear in “Hush” that she has no interest in small talk with Giles, and wants to have sex immediately. If she’s turning down conversation with the one man on this show who seems worth talking to, it must be for an excellent reason.
After 20-plus years, I hope we’ve all grown up enough to see how attractive men like Giles can be.