Our Willow, Ourselves

I’m not really into the standard “there are two types of people in the world” dichotomies. Human beings are varied and thrilling and obviously there are millions of types of people in the world; whether you prefer, say, dogs or cats, or coffee or tea, does not define you as a person. That said, there are certain issues that do reveal aspects of your character based on where you stand on them. One of those issues – perhaps the most important of our lives – is the pressing and oft-discussed question of Willow Rosenberg, television’s most computer-literate magical lesbian.

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Or is she a lesbian? Therein lies the rift. Some back story for the uninitiated: Willow dated dudes for the first three seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; she had a longtime unrequited crush on her best friend Xander, then dated the scruffy and adorably taciturn guitar player Oz. Xander began to return her affections while she was still with Oz, resulting in a torrid PG-13 affair and a short-lived Willow/Oz breakup, but she and Oz then reunited and were really (as even the biggest Tara fan has to admit, and I know because I am the biggest Tara fan) extraordinarily sweet together until midway through season four. Then Oz, who did I mention was also a werewolf, cheated on Willow with another werewolf, and left to pursue his movie career I mean meditate on the implications of his lycanthropy in Tibet or something. I don’t know, 1999 was a weird year for everyone.

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With Oz out of the picture, Willow’s burgeoning friendship with Tara developed into love – a love fraught with questionable wardrobe choices (why would anyone wear an ankle-length jean skirt?), musical numbers, and witchcraft used as a metaphor for everything from cunnilingus to drug addiction, yet still one of the most poignant and heart-wrenching loves I’ve ever seen on television. Willow’s coming out was tied to her relationship with Tara, but even after Tara’s death, Willow never seemed to consider going back to men. She continued gaying it up, and even had the first lesbian sex scene on prime time television, though my heart will always ache that it was with Kennedy instead of with Tara.

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In the later seasons of Buffy, Willow never identified as anything other than one hundred percent totally super lesbo. At one point, when Xander’s ex-demon girlfriend Anya (if nothing else, I hope these character descriptions are convincing any holdouts to go watch Buffy already) expressed concern about the possibility that Willow would steal Xander away from her – since, you know, she’d done it before – Willow’s response was an indignant “Hello?! Gay now!” She also described her relationship with Tara as “best friends. Girlfriends. Lovers. Lesbian, gay-type lovers.” Willow is never described, by herself or anyone else, as bisexual, despite her history of dating and loving men.

So here’s the question: Is Willow a total failure of bi visibility – a character who could have been written as bisexual, but whose hetero past was simply ignored by the writers when they decided to “make” her gay? Is her insistence on identifying as gay, not bi, a biphobic or bi-erasing gesture? Or is she actually something separate, something more progressive and interesting than bi erasure – a strong, dynamic character whose sexual orientation is genuinely fluid? I believe that the way you answer this question reveals a great deal about you, your values and your beliefs about queerness.

People who identify as bisexual tend to find Willow extremely disappointing. That makes sense. She had the opportunity to be prime time television’s first out and proud bi chick, and she passed it by. To many people, especially in the bisexual community, a woman who identifies as “straight” when dating men and “gay” when dating women sets off some alarm bells about internalized biphobia. And insisting, as Joss Whedon did, that Willow is unequivocally gay, and “it just takes some people a while to realize it,” can’t help but seem disingenous, an attempt to justify away her obviously real feelings for men in order to make the narrative of her queerness as simple and palatable as possible.

“She likes men and women!” I remember my college roommate fuming, when Willow described herself as gay for the eleventeenth time. “She had an emotional crisis over whether she should make out with Oz or Xander! She was torn between two men! She’s bisexual! ” She had a point – and, as a bisexual girl who had experienced her fair share of “just pick a side already, God,” plenty of reason to feel infuriated. Rewriting Willow’s early loves as insignificant or produced by self-delusion is the exact same kind of revision that bisexual people are often urged to practice on their own histories to avoid making other people – gay or straight – uncomfortable, and watching a dynamic that has hurt you play out in your favorite TV show is a great way to end up feeling really shitty.

But I think there’s another way to read Willow – a Willow less taken, if you will, and not one that involves covering Oz and Xander with white-out and going about your exclusively homosexual business. If you look at her from a certain angle and kind of squint, Willow, like a Magic Eye picture, springs into startling resolution as one of the most empowering depictions of fluid sexuality that has ever graced the small screen.

The thing is, I see a lot of myself in Willow. I, too, dated nothing but dudes in my high school and early college years. Unlike Willow, I described myself as bisexual at that time, and was aware of occasional attractions to women, but I seldom acted on them. Dating women seemed complicated and intimidating, and I was just as interested in men – more so, even – so why not save myself the trouble?

Then I had some bad experiences with guys. Nothing traumatic, just a series of annoyances and minor heartaches that made me wonder whether I would ever feel completely myself, completely seen and understood, in a partnership with a man. At that point, I started to explore what I thought of as my bisexuality in earnest, and I discovered something wild: I really, really liked girls. Like really. Like a lot. Like more than I ever expected I would. And once I’d had a few great times with women, I felt the compass of my libido begin to swing. More and more, I noticed attractive girls on the street. More and more, my celebrity crushes were female instead of male. More and more, when I thought about what kind of person I might like to end up with in some far-off settled-down future, I pictured a woman. It wasn’t until I met the person to whom I am now married that I really became comfortable calling myself a lesbian, but long before then it was clear that, though I’ll never be completely monosexual, something had shifted. I wanted to be with women. Women were the San Juan Capistrano toward which the swallow of my vagina must eternally wing.

This is how I see Willow when she meets Tara. She’s aching and desperate after her breakup with Oz, and she finds this woman who understands her better than shy, nerdy Willow ever expected to be understood. Their connection, their love, comes from the very thing that makes Willow unique, the very thing that makes her strong, and suddenly Willow feels seen in an entirely new way. In Tara’s eyes, Willow is finally the person she’s always wanted to be – both powerful and cherished, both protector and protected. I don’t buy that Willow never loved anyone before Tara, but I absolutely buy that she never loved anyone the way she loved Tara. And I find it totally plausible that discovering that kind of love would make her reluctant to return to the kind she’d had before.

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I know it’s popular to depict sexual orientation as something inherent and immutable – you’re born gay, or straight, or bisexual, and that’s what you’re stuck with forever – but I don’t think it’s that simple, at least not for everyone. Sometimes you meet the right person and suddenly everything is different. Sometimes you have choices, a multitude of paths you might explore, a plethora of relationships you might nurture or neglect. To say “Willow must have been bisexual all along” is to deny that love can change you, can climb inside your head and heart and rearrange all the furniture, can spin you around and around until you’re pointed in a completely different direction than you ever imagined you would go. I don’t deny that there’s something comforting in the notion that we are born with the person we will become already curled up inside us waiting to burst forth, that we have a constant internal identity that does not alter, but I think for many people it’s not always that simple, and I like the possibility of Willow being one of them.

Now, for the sake of clarity, I want to point out that I absolutely don’t think either of these readings were intentional on the part of the writers. I think the entire story arc of Willow’s relationship with Tara and her sexual orientation was written sloppily, by people who have never actually lived through what Willow has lived through. I don’t believe they thought out the implications of this storyline beyond “let’s make her gay, that’s progressive of us; let’s say she’s always been gay, that’s less complicated.” Any reading of the coming-out narrative other than “poorly handled” is entirely at the discretion of the viewer, and there is no right or wrong answer here.

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But given the choice between a Willow with deeply internalize biphobia and a Willow with a fluid sexuality – a Willow who falls in love with Tara, then becomes the person she needs to be in order to live up to that love – I’m always gonna choose the latter. Does Willow contradict herself? Very well then, she contradicts herself. She is large. She contains multitudes. She’s complex and multifaceted and okay, sometimes extremely fucked up, but she follows her heart wherever it leads her. I like that in a woman. I think that’s something we could stand to see a whole lot more of, both in television and in real life.

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Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme tattooed fat chick who does not have an indoor voice. She received her MFA in Writing and Poetics from Naropa University, writes for The Hairpin, Cosmopolitan, The Toast, and elsewhere, and teaches composition. She lives in Denver with her partner, a huge but still insufficient collection of books, and a very spoiled cat.

Lindsay has written 2 articles for us.

103 Comments

  1. Thumb up 17

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    as someone who has A LOT of feelings about Willow and Tara, I love this analysis. I have always read Willow as genuinely sexually fluid.

    oh and “Their connection, their love, comes from the very thing that makes Willow unique, the very thing that makes her strong, and suddenly Willow feels seen in an entirely new way. In Tara’s eyes, Willow is finally the person she’s always wanted to be – both powerful and cherished, both protector and protected.”
    …BRB just going to go cry all of the tears.

  2. Thumb up 9

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    Love this analysis, and I think it’s accurate. We change all the time, why do we think sexuality is set in stone? Maybe for some, but for others it changes as we change, it grows as we grow. There is not one version of us, there are many.

  3. Thumb up 10

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    Love can change you, and experiences can change the way you love too.

    Also, I had an ankle-length jean skirt with side slits circa 2003 that went really well with my striped knee-high socks. It was about as feminine as I got then.

  4. Thumb up 18

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    As someone who came out as bisexual in high school, lesbian in college, and very recently as queer (based on all kinds of different experiences) I am so in love with everything that says your identity is 100% valid when you say it is, regardless of past/future experiences.

  5. Thumb up 13

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    Great piece. I wasn’t a viewer of the show (I know, sacrilege) but this discussion hits close to home. I myself had relationships with men that certainly mattered to me, and I don’t think that now knowing I’m all-the-way-gay should de-legitimize those relationships. They were real, as were the feelings I had then, but then something came along that was just… more. And answered all my questions about what had been missing before. And now I don’t even remember what it felt like to think I was into men. This might mean it just took me forever to realize my true self, or maybe it does mean that such things can evolve, I have no idea. I just know I’m not confused anymore.

    That said, I can definitely understand why folks would get frustrated when the option is out there to have real representation of a bisexual character and the writers don’t choose to take it. It sounds like where they went with her didn’t ring untrue, but may not have been the best choice in terms of visibility. (My hope is that eventually there will be enough representation of all kinds of people that a writer’s choice regarding just one of them won’t have so many larger hopes pinned on it and will just be representative of reality. That we are large and contain multitudes, as you wisely put it.)

  6. Thumb up 15

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    did this have to be so cissexist though
    like, can we have a conversation about non-monosexuality (on screen or otherwise) without constantly framing it in terms of a male/female binary or certain genitalia being associated with a gender

    • Thumb up 15

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      hey kayla, you’re right! this was my fault — i was so focused on making sure that the ideas presented were respectful to both bisexual and sexually fluid people that i didn’t focus as much as i should have on cissexist stuff while editing. thank you for pointing this out, the line mentioning genitalia has been corrected!

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      In the context of Buffy all the characters as shown to be cis binaries so it would be hard in this instance to discuss Willow’s other potential sexalities. But if you believe this can be bi-erasure then by all means you may also believe it to be pan/poly/queer erasure.

  7. Thumb up 27

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    I love this! As I’ve written about before w/r/t my own sexuality, I related to Willow so hard in the exact same way that you did — that narrative of dating guys for most of my formative years and being pretty okay with that, eventually sort of identifying as bisexual but never being serious about girls, and I had a series of shitty experiences with men, and then I fell in love with a girl and then I never wanted to go back… seriously every word of this essay starting with “the thing is, I see a lot of myself in Willow” is more or less also my exact story. Thank you for telling it.

  8. Thumb up 9

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    I will admit, I have never met ANYONE who tried to argue Willow was bisexual. I’ve never heard that! And maybe because I also see so much of myself in Willow that I’ve always assumed that, like me, she is a lesbian who dated and slept with men in high school.

    She never loved Xander, not really, that was a crush, a fling, a very, very bad idea. Oz is more complicated, mostly because I freaking LOVE Oz, he’s easily one of my favourite characters on the show, and I loved them together, and I do believe she loved him. But as you said, people change, and while Willow may have loved Oz, when she met Tara, she changed. I love Willow’s speech to Kennedy about how she realized she was gay – “It was wasn’t women, it was woman. One woman.” Probably because that’s how it worked for me too. I fell in love with one woman, and sort of extrapolated from there.

    So I think you’re right that we see Willow through the prisms of our own experiences, we claim her as our own, whatever we may be. But I don’t think it’s possible to deny that the SHOW saw her as a lesbian after she met Tara. All the quotes you mentioned up there make that pretty clear. I don’t see this as bisexual erasure, I see this as a woman changing her sexuality after meeting someone who changes her life, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It happens all the time. It happened to me. And saying that it is impossible for someone to do that negates the experiences of those of us who did that.

    (Oh and hey, PS, for those of you who haven’t read the season 8 comics, Willow and Oz have a nice reunion.)

    So really, whether Willow is one of the first lesbians on television, or one of the first bisexual women on television, what does it matter, really? She’s an incredible female character, one of the few “strong female characters” who doesn’t have to physically kick ass in order to be totally kickass.

  9. Thumb up 10

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    Absolutely! I completely agree with this whole article!

    I personally never felt that this was bi-erasure, mostly down to the fact that I take my cue from how people *self* identify (or are written as self identifying) and so it’s AS BIG a no no to say “no you’re bi, but you just have issues with saying you are” to someone who identifies as gay, as it is to say “no you’re gay, but you just have issues with saying you are” to someone who identifies as bi.

    Also, Willow…… *swoon*

    Aaaannnnd – this sentence “Women were the San Juan Capistrano toward which the swallow of my vagina must eternally wing.” <<– WINS

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      My issue with self-identification in this context is that Willow is not a real person. So while a real person will know best how to identify themselves, a fictional character’s identity is often constructed according to the prejudices of the writers. It’s wrong to correct someone who is a real person and who is identifying themselves, but to me, very different to talk about how writers might be portraying, writing, and expressing the experience of a fictional character – and what forces might be shaping that expression.

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        Fair point, but there are comments here that are purely about the writing of the character, and there are other comments saying “she did such-and-such / she seems gay/bi to me” which is talking *as if* she were a real person.

        I guess it’s all in the phrasing and what point people are trying to make :)

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        Yes this is exactly what I was thinking as well. In real life, you should 10000000% defer to what someone identifies as. You can’t tell someone what their gender or sexuality really is. And within a fictional world, characters should respect each other’s identities. But as a real person watching a fictional character, you are totally entitled to feel that an opportunity was wasted. I think that’s how people feel about stuff like Pitch Perfect or Rizzoli & Isles–the characters easily could have been gay and it would have made sense in the story, but the writers/directors were too scared or profit-focused to do it. And considering bisexuality gets hardly any positive or accurate representation in contemporary media, I think it is okay to feel let down by the writers’ decision and to say “but the character just wasn’t bisexual” is to give them an excuse to keep writing the same straight, white, cis, middle class characters they have for a bazillion years.

  10. Thumb up 10

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    I love this so much! Especially this:

    “Sometimes you have choices, a multitude of paths you might explore, a plethora of relationships you might nurture or neglect. To say ‘Willow must have been bisexual all along’ is to deny that love can change you, can climb inside your head and heart and rearrange all the furniture, can spin you around and around until you’re pointed in a completely different direction than you ever imagined you would go.”

    A million times yes.

  11. Thumb up 2

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    Willow never seem satisfied by her straight relationships. She pined after Xander and then Xander and oz. she started dating oz but still liked Xander and then dated both and still wasnt happy. Even after she got back with oz after the affair she still had a crush on Xander (crying in the bathroom bc he slept with faith). This tells me that she was never really truly happy in those relationships. But when she gets with Tara she doesn’t feel like something is missing that another person can fill. Definitely lesbian to me.

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      I don´t see how this is unique to lesbians, though. A bi woman can be torn between two crushes, but then fall head over heals for a third person who makes her world complete, too. Gender constellation being exactly the same and all. By which I am not arguing that Willow is not gay (word of god says she is, so she is), just saying that experiences similar to Willow´s do not necessarily contradict with bisexuality.

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        I’m just saying that I don’t think her feelings for Xander and oz prove she is really bi bc I don’t think those feelings were portrayed as deep as her feelings for Tara. We have limited info bc she’s a fictional character who only has so many relationships and whose mind we can’t look inside.

  12. Thumb up 5

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    Wow, this was a really fantastic read.

    Yeah, I always had this nagging feeling about Willow’s past relationships. I mean,Cordelia actually got shanked by a rebar after seeing Xander and Willow smootch, so it always seemed like a moment that was supposed to be significant.

    I doubt that someone would experiment with a guy while in such a perilous situation- I feel like she had genuine romances with men that weren’t really treated seriously later in the show.

    However, since this show aired while I was in high school, I feel like my coming-out lesbian brain was all too happy to see Willow as *just* gay. In watching it now, her identity seems far more complex.

    Freaking awesome analysis. Also welcome to Autostraddle!

  13. Thumb up 11

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    You know, it is true that the people who wrote the evolution of Willow’s sexuality did a pretty sloppy job. But I can’t think of a TV relationship that affected me more as a teen. I was watching the Willow-Tara scenes when I was a junior in high school and *spoiler alert* (is there a need for Buffy spoiler alerts on autostraddle??) when Glory sucks Tara’s brain energy out, my first girlfriend had just broken up with me. I sobbed watching that scene like I was dying, thinking about how much it must hurt Willow to lose Tara. (Don’t worry guys, we’re married now. Everything works out.) Even though the WB wouldn’t let them kiss on screen for a long time, the fact of Willow and Tara’s relationship was so, so important to me and, I’m sure, to other little queers watching the Buffster.

    I think a lot about bisexuality as it relates to me, because like Willow I did have a couple of important relationships with boys when I was in high school/early college. I don’t ever want to demean them or ignore the importance of these relationships, but as soon as I so much as kissed a girl I was like, “whoa.” Sometimes I feel like it’s disingenuous to refer to myself exclusively as gay because it’s like I’m denying that past and those people. But when I am being honest with myself, I have close to zero actual attraction towards men, so why carry a label just to remember my teenage sexual past?

    Also, let it be said again how great this piece is. Buffy4ever.

  14. Thumb up 7

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    This: “love can change you, can climb inside your head and heart and rearrange all the furniture, can spin you around and around until you’re pointed in a completely different direction than you ever imagined you would go.”

  15. Thumb up 9

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    “it’s popular to depict sexual orientation as something inherent and immutable – you’re born gay, or straight, or bisexual, and that’s what you’re stuck with forever – but I don’t think it’s that simple, at least not for everyone. Sometimes you meet the right person and suddenly everything is different. Sometimes you have choices, a multitude of paths you might explore, a plethora of relationships you might nurture or neglect.” THIS.

  16. Thumb up 16

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    This article is everything I could ever want. Yes, I think the writing was biphobic. I think they made Willow gay because it never even occurred to them that there was any other option. But that doesn’t mean that people like Willow don’t exist, and that her experiences aren’t valid. Throughout my childhood, I had constant, intense crushes on guys. It wasn’t until high school that I found myself falling in love with my best friend, and even then it was only her I was attracted to. Four years later, when I emerged from the haze of that relationship, I realized I was no longer attracted to guys. It’s popular to re-write your past to have it all line up to your inevitable present, but that’s just not how it was for me, and I appreciate Willow for that, while also being irritated that she never even considered whether she was bi.

  17. Thumb up 0

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    This article really could not have more perfect timing, I’m in the middle of rewatching the series for the umpteenth time (thank you netflixs!), and have been mulling over Willow. I admit I fell on the ‘writing by people who have no idea what they’re talking about’ side, but I MUCH prefer your reading, and it is now headcanon.

    • Thumb up 3

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      “and it is now headcanon.”

      I feel like I have so many headcanons about Buffy after reading analyses and, yes, fanfiction about the show.

      Is that a thing that non-queer people do? Construct their own headcannons about shows they love? Or is it pretty much exclusively a queer thing to constantly be reading into the subtext of shows to create their own preferred narratives(e.g. Swan Queen)?

  18. Thumb up 2

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    Omg omg I haven’t even read this yet but LKM wrote a thing for AS and it’s about Buffy and I just needed to talk about how excited I am right now! Willow’s storyline def played a role in helping me figure out that I was queer so I have a lot a lot of feelings about this!

  19. Thumb up 10

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    “it’s popular to depict sexual orientation as something inherent and immutable – you’re born gay, or straight, or bisexual, and that’s what you’re stuck with forever – but I don’t think it’s that simple, at least not for everyone.”

    I believe we are finally speaking about and coming to terms with our sexual orientations being innate and immutable, but yet far more complicated and broader in scope than the human penchant for simple dichotomous boxes to stick us in is eager to embrace.

    I’ve been reading a lot of articles lately about people who saw themselves as mono-sexual straight/gay/lesbian, who were now exploring an awakening of a wider personal experience and were fearful of embracing any new ways of identifying and leaving the comfort of their old labels.

    Indeed the fear and distrust within our own LGBT community of anything which may be seen as upsetting the innate apple cart of our sexual orientations is rampant. Largely due to fears that any “rocking the boat” or widening the conversation will drain energy and support from current priorities.

    How does a person who discovers their personal sexual orientation is much more diverse and not exactly the same as it was at an earlier stage of life, harm the innate theory? The fact that something within us is innate, does not mean we are aware of the entirety of it’s essence all at once. The fact that we find ourselves open to new expressions of sexual and romantic attraction does not mean we are “choosing” our orientation. It simply means that we have discovered that our orientation is much more than we previously were aware was possible.

    I can love ice cream and always order vanilla. One day someone offers me fried ice cream, or strawberry and that changes everything forever. It doesn’t change the fact that I love ice cream. It also should not matter how I personally identify.

    We shouldn’t have to change our personal identity label if we feel comfortable where we are. On the other hand, we should not fear changing how we identify if we feel it better expresses the way we have come to be.

    To me being fluid does not have to mean we aren’t innately hard-wired for it.

  20. Thumb up 6

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    I was discussing this article with my partner as I was reading it, and it was funny because before we reached the end, they were talking about how they could never see giving the writers and Joss Whedon that much credit, so I’m glad you brought up how absolutely sloppy the handling of her sexuality was.

    This made me so happy, though, because I think it gives a character who morphed beyond what the writers and creator intended a better chance to own and turn around that shitty storyline.

  21. Thumb up 0

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    I totally agree! Thanks for writing this. I always loved that she came to the realization that she was gay, because I was just really happy she was gay on TV and it was better than nothing. But this interpretation is so much better.

  22. Thumb up 3

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    I relate to Willow so much as well. Dating men because I just hadn’t dated women… Then I fell in love with a girl, and that was it. I’m a lesbian now and I don’t want to go back… But that doesn’t make my past relationships any less important. Things change, experiences make us grow and evolve. I think Willow was fluid, she fell in love with a girl. I think it’s as simple as that.

  23. Thumb up 2

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    What a fantastic article. So well-written and thought out. You really make a lot of valid points here.

    It does bring up/leave me with some questions, though, the main one being something I’ve often wondered about. What would you (the author as well as anyone else who’d like to weigh in) find appropriate to call a woman who had always had relationships with men until she met this one girl and everything shifted – much like Willow? Upon beginning a relationship with this girl, the woman in question realized/decided that she could never go back to being with men, because she felt that, in previously doing so, she was never quite fulfilled. She says that, while she can still appreciate attractive human beings, regardless of sex, she doesn’t personally feel that she could ever be sexual/romantic/intimate/etc. with a male again. So how would you categorize her?

    I’d like to say that I [personally] don’t necessarily think that everything has to be strictly labeled in life, but that I do often find that people as a majority sort of demand labels. I believe that sexuality is a continuum, with people falling at various points along it. I myself identify as what you might call “Kinsey 6 gay,” meaning there’s never been a doubt or inkling in my mind that I could ever be anything other than completely homosexual. But I’m curious to hear how you all would view the woman I mentioned, because I know several women who have experienced this situation in their lives, and while they do recognize that they now exclusively prefer women, some call themselves lesbians and some still identify as bisexual.

    I’d also like to add that I’m not intending any offense to anyone, wherever you fall on the scale, I’m just genuinely interested and curious to hear what you all have to say.

    • Thumb up 15

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      I think the woman in question is the only one who gets to “categorize” herself. I’m sure there are many people who have had that experience that might label themselves a million different things, and that’s totally okay.

  24. Thumb up 7

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    I LOVE THIS!

    Does anyone else like to also read Spike and Faith as sexually fluid characters? I feel like there are specific lines and moments where both of those characters seem to be not heterosexual, even thought it was not overt like with Willow.

    • Thumb up 11

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      in the second to last episode of Angel, Spike says “Angel and I were never intimate, apart from that one time.”

      and Joss says the following in a commentary for an earlier episode:

      “They were hanging out for years and years and years and years. They were all kinds of deviant, they were vampires. Are we thinking they never…? Come on people, I’m just saying. I’m just saying. They’re open minded guys. They may be evil, but they’re not bigoted or close-minded.”

      my personal favorite is when Angel states that he doesn’t have a problem spanking men. Ha.

  25. Thumb up 16

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    I just wanna say, thanks for correcting the cissexist language in the first published draft of the article. The humility and dedication that Autostraddle’s contributors display constantly impresses me and makes me feel welcome. :)

  26. Thumb up 0

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    Interesting article about an interesting topic–thanks for writing it. Willow’s journey from considering herself straight to gay is definitely one of the unexplored topics of Buffy–we never really got to know what she was thinking about her sexuality, just that she’d changed how she identified. Interesting to hear lots of people weigh in with their opinion. I identify as bisexual but didn’t have any particular objection to the depiction of Willow when I was watching Buffy–I guess I just assumed Willow had changed how she thought about herself after falling in love with Tara.

    I recall the rumor back when the show was on the air was that the original plan was to have Xander come out as gay, but the network didn’t like the idea and it was switched to the apparently more acceptable gayness of Willow. I have no idea if this is true, but it would explain at least from a plot-writing and network-appeasing perspective how the show started with Willow pining over a guy then wound up with a totally gay Willow.

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    So was this planned with Alyson Hannigan’s birthday?

    Unrelated to the actual discussion but i’ve been rewatching Caprica, which has James Marsters in it, and there’s another character called Clarice Willow and at one point he says “Hello, Willow” and I squeed.

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    This was great!

    I have to say that I was someone who was kind of disappointed that they didn’t write Willow as bisexual since there’s a real lack of bi characters out there (and an even bigger lack of bi characters who are written with respect/tact) and it just would’ve been really empowering to see that in Willow, who was such a beloved character on such an influential show. However, I really like your reading of her as sexually fluid, and that’s extremely powerful too.

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    Since this is a fictional character, I’m not sure there is a “right” answer. It seems there was definite biphobia in the TV show’s writing, but it’s also true that fluidity exists. I loved the writing in this article, and it’s important to point out that fluidity exists – and can be even more complex than the “I dated guys and cared about them and then ended up finding out I was gay” (to put it crudely) narrative that Willow outlines. I would have felt more comfortable with the TV show had the idea of bisexuality at least come up – for example, with Willow considering this idea and grappling with what this means, and ultimately drawing the conclusion that labels are ill-fitting and ultimately may only speak to you at a certain time and place, and then you may end up choosing another label (or none at all) at another time and place. I think Buffy did a lot of good things as a show, but it seems that the idea that it’s normal to ultimately ‘choose a side’ harmed bi viewers, even if it may have affirmed those with other experiences. Maybe the solution isn’t to force the few queer characters into speaking for everyone, but having enough queer characters to represent a multivocal and diverse community’s experience.

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    I, too, have been reading Autostraddle for years and just now registered to comment that I love love love this article and hope to see more from Lindsay. My story is so similar – though I did have relationships with women in addition to men, and was in a long-term relationship with a man (during which I was extremely unsatisfied and had difficulty facing the reasons *why* I was so unsatisfied) and it took falling in love with a particular woman to bring me to the point I’m at now. Which is gay, gay, every day, all the time. So I totally agree that sexuality is fluid for many people, and that experiences can change you. What you did in your past doesn’t matter. What matters is who you are *now.*

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    for everyone that keeps saying they wish Willow was presented as bisexual because of the lack of bisexual characters, of course, but season four of Buffy premiered in late 1999 and tv wasn’t exactly booming with lesbians at the time either.

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      Yeah, I’m thinking that maybe it was more bi-ignorance than conscious biphobia (as in, “Ew, bisexuals!”) Like, we weren’t having these discussions in these types of forums then as we do now, and seeing as the majority of the Buffy writers were straight — though generally gay positive — it just didn’t occur to them? It’s not an excuse, I’m just trying to think in terms of 1999.

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      Exactly. The world isn’t exactly booming with Lesbian characters now either.

      I also find it interesting that people talk about bi-erasure when practically every girl-girl in storyline in mainstream media will include one of the women sleeping with a dude. Willow was particularly notable as a character because she went gay and then never looked back.

      I don’t understand how Willow could ever be claimed as bisexual. she identified herself as gay. To call her bisexual would be to question the identity of every lesbian who had experiences with men in their youth. And I call that: Identity Policing.

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    Maybe I’m just in a nasty mood because the past few days have been pretty shitty for bisexuals in the media, but this article made me furious the first time I read it. I think you present a really great perspective, but the way you addressed the (complicated) feelings of bisexuals about the character was very upsetting. Start with the “I believe that the way you answer this question reveals a great deal about you” line, because frankly, it really sucks to feel condescended to and judged because you’re unwilling to forget about the fact that, yet again, your identity is being written out of the story.
    And then when you added, “To say ‘Willow must have been bisexual all along’ is to deny that love can change you,” I was just about ready to kick in my computer screen. Because that’s not necessarily even what’s being said. See, your story and her story are my story too, in a lot of ways. I don’t look back at the time when I identified as straight and assure myself, “oh, I was bisexual all along.” I fell in love with a woman, and it DID change me. Love climbed in and rearranged and spun me around, and my identity might be very different if I hadn’t met her. So it really hurts to have that experience denied, to be told that by asking to be seen and heard I’m not “progressive” enough.
    What it comes down to, for me, is that sexual fluidity and bisexuality are not mutually exclusive options. Unfortunately, that is the implication (whether intended or not) of this article, and I hate feeling as though I have to choose between the two. My bisexuality has never been “immutable,” or required that I always felt the same amount or type of attraction towards all genders all the time. In fact, my recognition and embrace of sexual fluidity are a large part of why I choose to identify as bisexual.
    My answer to the question of whether Willow could be “a strong, dynamic character whose sexual orientation is genuinely fluid” is absolutely yes. But is she simultaneously another painful example of bisexual erasure? Without question. The two don’t cancel each other out. Look back at your paragraphs on why bisexuals were disappointed. All of those things still apply. I’m truly glad you and many others found this interpretation empowering, but please don’t tell me it’s my fault if I can’t.

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      “My answer to the question of whether Willow could be “a strong, dynamic character whose sexual orientation is genuinely fluid” is absolutely yes. But is she simultaneously another painful example of bisexual erasure? Without question. The two don’t cancel each other out.”

      Thank you.
      I appreciate this take on Willow’s sexuality, it’s actually how I’ve always chosen to interpret her, just because it makes her narrative less painful to watch and because I identify with it. But just because there is a reading of her character that is nuanced and interesting doesn’t mean that it’s not an example of monosexism. The writers certainly didn’t intend her to be read that way and the vast majority of people watching certainly didn’t see it that way. I mean, didn’t we JUST have this conversation about the L Word and depictions of bisexuality? Creator intent matters. So does being part of a long list of movies and tv shows featuring similar bi-erasing plot lines.

      Also, can we just never use the phrase “going back to men” as it’s almost always used to disparage bi/pan/other multisexuals and is pretty heteronormative?

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      Thanks for putting my feelings into words. Although this interpetation is how I’ve seen Willow-as-a-character for a long time, I really don’t think that invalidated the argument that Willow-as-the-writers-intentions is problematic in terms of no erasure.

      And just to be the one nerd who says ‘well, actually…’ Willow did consider getting back together with Oz when he briefly reappeared. Though, yeah, I hate the phrase ‘going back to men’ for reasons articulated above.

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      Wow I had actually somehow forgotten that those moments offended me, but you reminded me how disappointing it felt to be thrown into this “other category of person” because you care about bi visibility and/or id as bisexual while also relating to Willow and her relationships and sexual history.

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    I appreciated this analysis, and this makes me want to go back and watch Buffy again. I’m tripping out because this was totally my favorite show when I was a kid, but I think I was too young to understand depictions of relationships or magical illusions to sex- I seriously don’t think I knew that Willow and Tara were more than friends, though I remember both characters. But I do know I admired Buffy (and Faith, for that matter) as a strong badass heroine, and that can’t have been a bad thing.

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    Ok, like everyone else I have a lot of feelings.
    While yes, I think the writers deciding for Willow that she was a lesbian was incredibly problematic and negated the love between she and Oz – and let’s be real people, she DID love Oz – he is not somehow inherently less important than her relationship with Tara. And to state that this love is less important is incredibly sexist…against men.
    Can we please not fulfill the trope of man hating lesbians?
    The big issue that I have with attributing an orientation to homegirl is her connection with Kennedy in Season 7. Rather than allowing Willow the space to be a strong female lead, not dependent on a romantic partner, male or female, they align her with someone she wouldn’t be interested in otherwise. Someone boring. We see her grow and become more confident as a woman in the first 2-3 seasons before her pairing with Oz. She does not need a woman OR a man to define her bad-ass ness. She can do it all on her own.

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      I’m not sure I understand what you mean. For many lesbians who have dated men, the relationships with men subjectively felt empty or lacking, and then relationships with women later felt more important, deeper, and more moving. That’s why a lesbian will choose relationships with women over relationships with men. This certainly isn’t “sexist against men”, and pulling out the tired trope of the “man hating lesbian” seems to miss the point. Finding relationships with men less important or fulfilling isn’t sexist, and by that definition, then being a lesbian is inherently man-hating.

      The writers always have to “decide for Willow”, because she is a fictional character unable to make her own decisions, being written by the writers. Whether or not she “did” love Oz or not will always be up for debate, because Willow is not a real person, and all we have is the script written by writers and the way that the script was acted. Some people think Willow’s dissatisfaction with Oz meant that she was unfulfilled with him, others don’t. It is up for debate. The real issue is that the writers were obviously shaped by their own prejudices in creating her character, and this surely contributed to the bi erasure demonstrated by the show. Obviously, Willow’s experience could be lesbian, or could be bi, and no one can answer that question – the interesting thing is how the way that the writing was done reveals so much about the prejudices that shape media.

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    Do I wish Willow were a bi character? – For myself? Yes. Maybe I would have felt less lost and alone in my tiny town and my tiny school with absolutely no connection to anything queer ever. Maybe it wouldn’t have taken me so flipping long to find myself and a place where I belong.

    But I also understand that Willow was super important and special for many lesbian teenage girls. For them she was hope and validation and everything that I wanted Willow to be for myself.

    So while I agree that monosexism is definitely at work, I am mostly angry about Willow being just another example of how very little representation queer women have and how poorly even those tiny bits are handled. In comparison, the show was okay with Buffy dwelling in sadness and loneliness for bazillion episodes in a row but never gave any time to explore Willow´s sexual identity. She basically went from “Oz, my one true love, why you left” to “oh, hi Tara, I´m in gay with you” in 3-5 episodes. Hit the switch. Boom. Done. Next.

    But I love Willow & Tara regardless.
    Still starving for representation, I guess.

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    I love Buffy, I love Willow, and I also see her as a sexually fluid character. But I’m not willing to let the writers off the hook for their poor handling of this issue.

    While I am bisexual myself, I have no problem with Willow coming to identify as gay nor do I feel that a lesbian identity is incompatible with having loved men in the past. If you identify as gay, you’re gay – no matter what happened in the past or may happen in the future. Sexuality is complex and can definitely shift is response to falling in love. The problem is not with Willow’s identity, but with the fact that her feelings about her sexuality are not explored at all. The fact that the writers just had her go from straight to gay without her even wondering if she was bi or dealing with her feelings about the shift doesn’t feel realistic.

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    So much pain is caused in the world because people feel the need to decide what boxes others belong in, label them and try to jam them into those neat little boxes to make themselves feel more comfortable about themselves and the world they live in.

    Willow is gay because Willow says she’s gay (over and over actually) and this is backed up by statements from the show’s creator. Enough said. I think making a game out of defining her sexuality for our own interests is just as inappropriate as labeling and defining real people we meet in life. Doing this in an article, while entertaining, only propagates the view that labeling others is appropriate behavior.

    People have the right to define their OWN orientation (and gender) and have that be the undisputed answer. The second half of “You Do You” is actually “And I’ll Do Me”. As LGBTQ woman we don’t get a free pass on the second half.

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      First, the author never suggests that Willow’s sexual orientation is anything other than what she says it is. Her analysis respects Willow’s lesbian identity while also acknowledging the legitimacy of her past relationships with men.

      Second, there is nothing wrong with critiquing the way a character is written, nor is this comparable to labeling someone’s sexuality. Writers make the choices they do for any number of reasons – personal bias, pressure from the network, etc. – many of which are problematic. Exploring the potential biases involved in the way characters are presented is not only legitimate, but important.

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      I said this elsewhere, but my issue with self-identification in this context is that Willow is not a real person. So while a real person will know best how to identify themselves, a fictional character’s identity is often constructed according to the prejudices of the writers. It’s wrong to correct someone who is a real person and who is identifying themselves, but to me, very different to talk about how writers might be portraying, writing, and expressing the experience of a fictional character – and what forces might be shaping that expression.

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    This made me really want to watch Buffy now. I’ve never seen it.
    Why? BECAUSE ALLYSON HANNIGAN.

    And all I could think about while reading this was that, like Willow, Hannigan’s character (Lily) on How I Met Your Mother has been hinted at as being bisexual.

    I’ve never watched Buffy so I can’t compare the two. But I wish the writers of How I Met Your Mother had chosen to acknowledge her attraction to women in a less creepy/biphobic way.

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    Inspiring article, looking forward to reading more from you.

    Everyone seems to be coming down hard on Whedon/Espenson and the writers on Buffy – while I agree that network TV at the time (or, even, right now) doesn’t have much room for a wide spectrum of sexualities and identities (anything beyond the gay/straight, man/woman binaries anyway), it’s important to remember that developing a personal identity is a very internalised process. It took me 10+ years to thrash out and get comfortable with the term I’m happy to use when referring to my sexuality/gender (‘human’). That process happened mostly in my head, over time, and was constantly changing. It would be impossible to translate this process realistically into a 42-minute weekly drama, even if Willow was the only character.

    Willow, the wonderful character she is, chose to idenitify as gay, around the end of season 4 and continued to do so in season 9 (current comics). Whether she slept with/dated men before or since is irrelevant – identity is a personal choice and one that should be respected without question. She says she is gay, a lesbian even – then that’s what she is.

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    The other thing about BTVS, was that it was part of a wave of shows (that arguably still isn’t totally over) that had all heterosexually identified characters at the beginning and then decided to queer certain main characters, sometimes for sweeps week, and sometimes out of a genuine effort at representation (Grey’s Anatomy did this too). Having queer characters from the get-go might be deemed too transgressive by the network etc so you had to wait for your show to be well established before queering a main character, or it suddenly occurred to you to be more inclusive. Seeing that Whedon had to fight to even let Willow and Tara kiss, I think it’s obvious he wouldn’t have had the option of making her or Xander gay from the beginning.
    I had a straight coworker comment to me not long ago that she was surprised that there was so much biphobia in the gay community because ‘there are more bisexuals than gays on TV’. She has a point in that many, many queer characters started out straight (and then of course, we’ve got all the lesbians who have affairs with men, which is another issue). That trend of queering ‘straight’ characters has definitely meant that a significant number, perhaps to a disproportionate degree, of queer women on television are either bisexual or have sexual histories with men, which contributes to the kind of confusion described so well in this article.
    I would argue that in cases where a character’s bisexuality (I would say pansexuality or queerness but TV can barely manage GLB) is declared from the get-go, like Lost Girl, there’s less of a chance for confusion/erasure because they aren’t simply taking a long route to making characters gay. Hopefully things will improve as shows have an easier time/make more of an effort to be inclusive from the very beginning.

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    As someone who struggles with a lot of feelings of internalized biphobia, reading this:

    “Dating women seemed complicated and intimidating, and I was just as interested in men – more so, even – so why not save myself the trouble?

    Then I had some bad experiences with guys. Nothing traumatic, just a series of annoyances and minor heartaches that made me wonder whether I would ever feel completely myself, completely seen and understood, in a partnership with a man. At that point, I started to explore what I thought of as my bisexuality in earnest, and I discovered something wild: I really, really liked girls. Like really. Like a lot. Like more than I ever expected I would.”

    is so fucking fantastically healing. THANK YOU!

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    This is a great article – loved it! I feel like if Willow’s development was sloppy, it’s about as messy as all of our stories and lives. Also, she gets immunity from those fashion choices by virtue of timeless awesomeness.

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    This is a terrible analysis. Writing lesbian characters is a good thing! We need more lesbian characters! The problem is not that Whedon had a character come out as gay, but that he didn’t include any bisexual characters. Like, why did everyone else have to be straight? THAT is the problem, NOT that Willow was gay and not bi. What does it even mean to say that writing a lesbian character is biphobic? Is this a zero-sum game? Is it lesbians vs bi women, only one can win?

    You’re using this “Gold Star” logic that says that if Willow was with men before then it ‘doesn’t make sense’ that she could be a lesbian. Like ??? Pretty sure that many lesbians are in relationships with guys before they figure out that they only really want to be with women. And isn’t this also using that logic we all hate, that the gender of your partners determines your sexual orientation? That’s so ridiculous. I don’t know why you’re even trying to make that argument.

    Also, like, I think it’s kinda shitty to push sexual fluidity onto lesbian characters?? Don’t lesbians have their identities – as women ONLY attracted to women – questioned enough within heteropatriarchal society? Sexuality being fluid for some people does not mean that it is fluid for all people or that this is a ‘truer’ understanding of sexuality. While specific desires have changed over time, I look back and see an incredible amount of stability and continuity in my sexuality (and I’m also bi). My UNDERSTANDING of my sexuality certainly has changed immensely, but each time I update my view of it and the language I use to describe it, I feel like I can look back and see clear indicators of it in the past. If that’s not your experience, that’s wonderful. Should have more characters that have other sexualities. But trying to make a lesbian character an example of bisexuality or sexual fluidity seems to me to be ignoring (and erasing) the fact that, like, lesbians with stable sexualities exist.

    Considering that there are still few good representations of lesbians on TV (and there especially weren’t at the time), I just feel like it’s really shitty to try to take away this example of lesbian representation and argue that she’s not ~really a lesbian, even though she IDs as gay. Especially because she IDs as gay!

    I don’t think we need to be fighting over the few images of queer women we have on TV and saying oh she was ~really on our side (despite her saying she was gay) – we should be demanding more of ALL kinds of LGBPQ ladies (trans & cis).

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    I love this analysis. I would love to write a long and thoughtful response, but really I would just end up rewording the entire thing. I will say this, however: I can very much relate to Willow liking guys in the past and then meeting a girl and suddenly everything changes. That’s basically what happened to me. I had crushes on guys and never imagined I wouldn’t, and then a girl waltzed into my life (in dance class, ironically) and I felt something for her that I have never felt for anyone else. And now, like you mentioned, I don’t think I could go back to the way I was before. I like girls an awful lot. So I really like the idea of a Willow whose sexuality is fluid, though of course seeing her arch as bi erasure is completely valid.

    Also your “Song of Myself” reference was beautiful.

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