The Non-Toxic Masculinity of Rupert Giles

My favorite stories are genre stories, which are full of orphans and kids who grow up to find out that dad is Darth Vader, or tragic waifs who know that Dad was a villain all along. The first time I spotted a good father in a genre series, it was Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Rupert Giles. 


Buffy has garnered a great deal of attention over the years for being an enduring piece of feminist (or at least girl-power) media. Innumerable theses and thinkpieces have poured from academia and pop culture alike on the subjects of queerness in Buffy, tough feminine power in Buffy, the sacrifice of women of color in the Slayer universe, etc. But there are a few wonderful lessons to be found in the character of the Watcher and de facto patriarch of the Scooby family. 


Giles is introduced in the series pilot as a stuffy English librarian and Watcher; a mystical trainer and guide to the Slayer. He and Buffy do not immediately join together as a family unit. He is aloof with her, she is avoidant with him. It’s more of a sudden stepfather arrangement than anything else. 


Slowly, we see their relationship evolve. He learns to tolerate her unorthodox practices: having friends, dating a vampire, refusing to study her mystical heritage. Despite her slacking, she learns from him, comes to regard him with respect, and accept his burgeoning protective attitude toward her. 


The father-daughter bond is tested multiple times. She learns that he was a teenage hellraiser and even has to fight the literal demons of his past for him, coming to that pivotal realization we all have the day we realize that our parents are imperfect people with histories of their own. He drugs her to rob her of her power at the behest of their governing body, to test her resilience and resourcefulness. They weather these trials, and grow stronger. 


They also build their bond through positive interactions. Giles is among the first to know that Buffy has had her inaugural sexual experience. She’s sheepish and regretful about this news, as it has unfortunate consequences to her duties. Giles accepts this fact with nurturing equanimity and comforts her. He assumes no posture of ownership over her body or her sexuality, as father figures often do in popular media. There are no “shotgun” jokes and Giles never presumes to question Angel (or any partner of Buffy’s) about his intentions. Giles defends her against magical enemies as well as hostile figures of authority; threatening the school principal on her behalf and putting a sword through the mayor’s chest when the latter makes a declaration that he will eat her.


In each of these instances, 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. In questions of strategy, he defers to Buffy almost every time, with an increase in frequency as she nears adulthood and learns to lead on her own. When his parent organization, the Watcher’s Council puts them both on trial, he allows Buffy to advocate for their interests without interruption. Even when he ostensibly abandons her in the penultimate season and after the death of her mother, it is with love that he leaves her on her own. He teaches her the final lessons of what it means to be an adult the only way a person can really learn them: by working without a net. 


Giles’ personal powers, in combat and in life, are quietly developed alongside these nurturing narratives. When he is pushed to his limits, we see him take up arms (a flaming baseball bat and a crossbow) against Angel, resist torture, wage magical warfare against the series’ most superpowered witch, and finally kill an injured man in cold blood. This last is the ultimate gesture of his fatherhood: he accepts a morally grey and very difficult task not because Buffy can’t do it herself, but so that commiting the act doesn’t affect who she is. Buffy is a hero; Giles is a father. He does what he must, for her. 


Despite all this power and and the intense intimacy between them, there is never a whisper of incest between Buffy and Giles. It would be simple in the extreme to paint them as Humbert and Lolita, or as Svengali and helpless young pupil. Taboo and tasteless, perhaps, but hardly untrod ground for father-daughter shaped relationships on television. Magic is invoked multiple times within the series to pair the unlikely; forcing on-screen awkwardness between enemies, friends, and near-strangers. Not once does it happen between Buffy and the only real father in her life. 


Their relationship is safe and sacrosanct in a way that almost no others are within the series… or in anyone’s real life. Giles is not just one of the guys, constantly signalling his overall willingness to cross the line if the women (or girls) in his life should feel so inclined. Giles has healthy boundaries. He has a sex life and never mentions it to the younger members of the team. He never inquires (pruriently or otherwise) about their relationships. He never asks them, explicitly or implicitly to validate his identity, sexually or otherwise. He deals gently with their burgeoning sexualities while also making it perfectly clear they are neither his business nor his interest. 


In the context of creator Joss Whedon, the characterization of Rupert Giles is of particular note. Whedon has said on several occasions that horndog dirtbag teenager Xander Harris is the analog in the series for his former self. I tend to believe this is true, as Xander consistently tries to punch above his weight class, dating or trying to date the most popular girl in his school, various Slayers, an ex-demon, and the most powerful witch of all time… while being absolutely mediocre in every way. Xander fails at consent multiple times throughout the series and generally performs to the lowest bar set for the decency of a male character in a woman’s story. However, given the late revelations about Joss’ character, I wonder if the worse half of his nature wasn’t communicated in Spike. Spike: the misanthropic attempted rapist who gets redeemed in the end by the selfless love of a forgiving woman. 


I think Joss wishes he was Giles. I think a lot of men want to grow up to be Giles. Rupert Giles, the grownup who can still kick some ass when it’s right for him to do so. Giles, the man who is secure in himself and has good boundaries with the women in his life. Giles, the man of his word who never fails to stand up for what is right. Giles, the best father there ever was in genre TV. 

This essay originally appeared on SyFy Fangrrls in 2019. The site is now defunct. 

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