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.

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, an awesome baby and two very spoiled cats

Lindsay has written 4 articles for us.

106 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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).

  6. 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.

  7. Such an awesome article. Willow and Tara have always been my favorite TV couple – I have a poster of them in my bedroom. I was in high school and had always though of myself as attracted to someone’s personality. But I was jealous of the ease of going to a Wicca meeting (I am Wiccan as well) and meeting an adorable, supportive beautiful girl! I did kind of date a girl in high school but she never stopped dating guys as well and it just bummed me out. Willow and Tara’s relationship always gave me hope, and it still does.

  8. “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.”

    Yes. Just so. I feel this way about gender, sometimes, too. We build ourselves out of our lives, and we move forward in ways that make sense, or don’t.
    Thank you for this.

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