Angel, a stalker?
No, Buff, just your love int'rest.
(He'll grow on you soon.)
"Teacher's Pet" is one of those episodes that you watch once, find delightfully goofy, and put back on the shelf in favor of other, more memorable episodes. In fact, my reaction at learning this was what I would be watching after the joy of "Witch" was something along the lines of "...oh." I didn't even have a haiku for this one! I skipped clear over it - the above selection is actually excised from Buffy's first interaction with Angel. (Okay, so I cheated. Shhhh.) But upon second look, "Teacher's Pet," despite its hokey premise, offers a few points of interest in the choices made for the main characters at play and the "Monster of the Week" they interact with.
"Teacher's Pet" is basically centered around Xander's experience as a teenage boy struggling with the expectations and assumptions people make about teenage boys. Of course, Xander's status as a teenage boy is made complicated by his friendship with - and crush on - Buffy, who is supernaturally powerful and therefore self-reliant. Her entire existence rejects the male fantasy of being the "knight in shining armor." So, in that Buffy, as a character, is a commentary on the damsel in distress, Xander's relationship with Buffy is meant to highlight that subversion. After all, you can't exactly subvert expectation without making it clear what that expectation is. So, early on, we see Xander's fantasy play out: he saves Buffy from vampires, in the narrative tradition of superheroes and cowboys, with Buffy playing the role of damsel in distress. Xander's smoldering and serious, the classic portrait of masculinity, with a hint of bad boy rockstar allure. Buffy swoons.
Of course, this is just a fantasy. In reality, this entire episode plays in contrast to Xander's fantasy, as Xander himself carries out the role of damsel: Buffy must come to his rescue. Ah, here's the subversion! And because this is Buffy, even the particulars of the "Monster of the Week" rest on a gender-swapped notion. Instead of a purity sacrifice in the form of female virgins, as most of Giles' listed examples indicates, the She-Mantis is in fact a female, preying on male virgins! What a twist. Of course, male virginity opens up a whole cultural can of worms. Female virginity is simple: if you are a female virgin, you are either cold and uptight, or wholesome and pure. If you are a female but not a virgin, you are a whore. Thanks for playing! Male virginity, however, makes an audience uncomfortable, because we have been trained to believe that men shouldn't be virgins, somehow. We feel badly for a guy who is a virgin, because society has taught us that all guys like sex and want sex and have sex, and they like it and want it and have it as soon as puberty hits. Male virginity implies a lack of masculinity, something most teenage boys struggle with, and Xander? Xander more than most.
This notion made itself apparent early in the episode, when Xander arrived to the Bronze and ran into Blaine, a football jock who questions his masculinity by asking Xander just how many girls Xander's been with. Xander awkwardly sidesteps the question, fibs, and uses Willow and Buffy to help him out of the situation. He receives the same question from Miss French, although she has the opposite stance on male virgins owing to the fact that she likes to, well, feast on them. Even when the issue comes up with Buffy, Willow, and Giles, Buffy immediately assumes Xander's had sex, for no real reason whatsoever. She just assumes, because... well, don't all teenage boys have sex? Willow knows the truth, though: Xander is prime mantis-bait. (But, it turns out, so is Blaine, the football jock who boasted about picking up chicks and tried to make Xander feel less than manly for his lack of sexual experience. Clearly, he really doesn't want you to know about it.)
Xander's behavior towards Angel is further evidence of him feeling threatened in his perceived place as "the man" in Buffy's life. Angel is the picture of masculinity, with his leather jacket, chiseled good looks, and tough guy mystery. Angel is the embodiment of what Xander fantasized for himself at episode's beginning, and Xander sees Buffy swoon for Angel the way he wished she'd swoon for him. (I mean. In as much as Buffy ever swoons.) Xander even lashes out at Buffy over her relationship with Angel, as well as her place as his "protector." Buffy tries to warn Xander about Miss French, but he bites back and accuses her of being jealous. He immediately acts as though the conversation they're having has something to do with romantic or sexual attraction. Yet again, Xander's trying to put Buffy, and his relationship with Buffy, into a fantasy that, unfortunately for Xander's ego, just doesn't align with reality.
What's really interesting about "Teacher's Pet," though, is that the episode doesn't attempt to pay off Xander's masculinity issues. They're definitely present in the construction of the episode, as a theme and a character point. But they have nothing to do with the emotional resolution of the hour. "Teacher's Pet" actually brings Xander to apology. He tells Buffy's he's acting like an idiot and thanks her for saving him. Most other television shows, with more basic storytelling, would take a plot arc about a character's deflated sense of masculinity and find some way to mollify that. Other TV shows would give Xander a leather jacket, and a chance to save the girl, and an outlet for potential rockstar image. But this is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That male fantasy isn't the world we're living in. Actually, the writers even twist that knife a bit. They give Xander some sense of masculinity in the form of Miss French's assumed attraction, but it comes with a twist: she's a preying mantis that's going to kill him. (Kind of a dealbreaker.) Then Buffy has to save him anyways. So the whole message amounts to, "Sorry, bub. We know this sucks, but you just have to get used to it." The writers did let him hack at a whole nest of eggs, though, so that was at least cathartic.
Instead, the emotional throughline of "Teacher's Pet" actually went to Buffy, and her brief but meaningful interaction with the doomed Dr. Gregory. In a continuation of Our Lady Hero being scripted as specifically compassionate towards the victims of Sunnydale's shenanigans, "Teacher's Pet" purposefully gives Buffy a connection to the ill-fated first casualty of the She-Mantis. Dr. Gregory is Buffy's teacher, and at this point, we've seen school to be kind of an nuisance to Buffy. She's the Slayer, with worldly duties, and pesky homework gets in the way. She has a permanent record marred with juvenile delinquency, and also that pesky incident where she burned down the gym. School is not Buffy's sphere, and Buffy knows it - what's worse, so do the members of the academic sphere.
But the writers created a lovely little emotional nuance for Buffy in "Teacher's Pet," which actually takes the episode's title seriously. After class, Dr. Gregory pulls Buffy aside to give her a talking-to. And no, not the kind of talking-to that she's gotten from Principal Flutie, or Joyce, or even Giles. Dr. Gregory encourages her. He actually believes in Buffy as a student, and he tells her as much. He knows she's smart, and he expects good things from her, even though everyone keeps fixating on her record. Don't listen to the negative opinions, he tells her, and in that moment, you realize this might be the first time that a teacher's reached out to Buffy academically. This might even be the first time an adult figure has said to Buffy, "You got this," and she's believed them, and wanted to prove them right. Obviously Giles and Joyce, as adults in Buffy's life, are supportive and encouraging of Buffy, but there's something about Dr. Gregory's attitude that sets him apart. The problem is not Buffy's lack of focus, or choice of peer group, or disregard for rules, or perceived delinquency. No, the problem is that Buffy simply doesn't try. Dr. Gregory tells Buffy that all she has to do is try. Just do the homework, and show everybody how great a student you are. That's it.
And, bless her, this makes Buffy want to try. Call me a nerd, but I can't help but love seeing Buffy try and do well at school, something that usually takes a serious backseat to her Slayer duties. There's a part of me as well that enjoys seeing Buffy, the reluctant hero, being encouraged to try at all, at anything. All you have to do is try, Buffy. You can do it. Of course, keeping up with her homework is a tall order with the weight of the world on her shoulders, so it's really in just this one episode that Buffy can foist the mantle of academia as well. But, bless the writers, they let her do so. Buffy insists on doing her homework, and uses the research to solve the mystery of the She-Mantis. She even calls upon her knowledge to come up with a solution: using bat sonar will destroy the mantis' nervous system.
This is all particularly touching when you consider that Dr. Gregory's last act was one of encouragement to Buffy, and in carrying out his wish for her, she's honoring his memory. There's even a cap to it, where Buffy lovingly places Dr. Gregory's forgotten glasses in the pocket of his lab coat. This whole concept is a lovely little conceit for the episode itself, and one that's unexpected for one in which Buffy is meant to play the role of Superheroine in contrast to Xander's masculinity issues. Again, this is noteworthy: wouldn't it be easier to make Buffy the clear brawn of the operation, to highlight that Xander isn't? But "Teacher's Pet" spends its time making Buffy the brains, too. You could argue that it's thematically dissonant, but I for one love the nuance given there.
In all, "Teacher's Pet" is actually worth a second look, in that it makes unexpected decisions with its themes of masculinity and heroism. Sure, there's silly horror-esque moments, and I still cringe at Miss French's seduction of male students, but there's some good content lurking in the shadows. It's a good sign of things to come for Buffy: even a "creature feature" episode will provide character insight and subverted expectations, and even a poignant moment here and there.