Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997): Yes, Willow Was Always a Lesbian
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (also known simply as "Buffy") is a 1997 supernatural drama surrounding the adventures of the titular character, Buffy.
Willow Rosenberg, played by Alyson Hannigan, was one of Buffy's sidekicks, a shy nerdy girl who stammered and was really smart, had low self-esteem, and was lonely.
When I was a kid, I looked at this show for Willow because I saw so much of myself in her. Little did I know that -- years later when I was an adult -- she would mirror my life so completely.
I am speaking, of course, about Willow's sexuality and her journey towards finally realizing and accepting it.
Fans have been arguing for years whether or not Willow is a lesbian or a bisexual. Many fans scream of bi-erasure because of Willow's past with men, while others insist that only Willow can decide who she is and how she feels.
To be perfectly honest, I have stood on the bisexual side of the argument in the past. I was completely convinced that Willow was a bisexual -- a woman sexually a*oused by both men and women -- and that Joss Whedon, the writer, just didn't know what a bisexual was.
Because let's be honest: Willow was originally written to be straight. It wasn't until much later that Whedon, for whatever reason (sigh . . . I highly doubt it was an innocent one) suddenly decided that Willow should be gay.
What he actually did was he wound up writing a character arc that is familiar to so many lesbians who have grown up in sexual confusion, brainwashed by their family and the entire world into thinking that they have to fit into a narrative of straightness in order to be worthy as human beings.
There's a term for this and it's called compulsive hetersexuality. And to save you a trip to wikipedia, I will define it for you:
Compulsive heterosexuality: the ideal that heterosexuality is assumed and enforced by a patriarchial and heteronormative society.
In other words, you grow up in a world that tells you to be straight and completely ignores the possibility that you might be gay. And children are highly susceptible and easily influenced, so many gay children grow up in confusion, wrestling with their feelings of attraction for the same sex while trying to force themselves to be heterosexual in order to fit a narrative they simply can not.
I know that we are discussing sexuality, but children do have crushes on other children and children do feel attraction toward other children, long before those feelings become sexual. My first girlfriend was at age nine, before I even knew the word ''lesbian," and while I was still too young to understand that my feelings were as valid as little boys chasing little girls.
Compulsive heterosexuality is why you will hear stories of lesbians who marry men and have children, ignoring their real feelings to follow society's script. They don't understand what their feelings mean because they don't have the resources or support that some lesbians do. Some lesbians, like me, grow up with homophobic parents who completely invalidate their feelings.
Basically, compulsive heterosexuality is something that happened to me, and is why I see myself in Willow more clearly now at thirty than I ever did at eleven when first watching this show as a closeted lesbian child.
So in other words, Willow's relationship with Oz was a stepping stone in allowing her to eventually realize her authentic self.
I'm convinced that originally Willow was meant to be straight, but if you look at the show from within the universe it developed and not through the eyes of the writer's intentions, it's clear that Willow was with Oz because she had low self-esteem and enjoyed the attention.
This is harsh but I feel it's very true. Trust me, this is coming from someone who loved the Willow and Oz "ship." I'm a big fan of werewolves, so when it turned out Oz was one, I was psyched.
I also thought their romance was cute. Oz would give Willow dorky little presents and they would cuddle together. But her accepting this affection didn't make her straight or capable of loving a man.
And if you love someone, you don't cheat on them as callously and carelessly as Willow cheated on Oz.
Willow and Oz both cheated on each other and their relationship fell apart because Willow was incapable falling in love with him -- because Willow was gay.
You're probably asking why she cheated with Xander, a man, and not a woman. I believe she cheated with Xander for the same reason she was with Oz to begin with: she had low self-esteem and craved attention and validation.
When we first meet Willow, she is a meek and shy girl who wants people to like her and hates herself. She is amazed when Buffy wants to be her friend.
Her low self-esteem was very obvious and continued to be obvious through her relationships and the way she used other people for validation and to feel normal, like she fit in instead of being an outcast.
It's sad but looking back now, it's so clear that Willow was codependent -- the nicer psychological term being "Self-Love Deficit" disorder or SLD.
In the very first episode of the series, she goes off with a vampire guy posing as a teenage boy -- not because she's attracted to him but because she's so excited to be getting the attention and validation from a man that she's been primed to value her entire life as a woman.
Later, she is deeply ashamed and scolds herself in a conversation with Buffy about it, though the pattern of love-craving so typical in a codependent continues with her flirtations with Oz and Xander in later seasons.
Oz eventually cheats on Willow because he knows deep-down that she is gay and incapable of loving him or even understanding what it's like for him to be a werewolf (thus he finds another werewolf).
You are probably wondering how Willow could enjoy sex with Oz or be so heartbroken by his departure if she's gay. As a lesbian who has slept with a man and was in a long term relationship with one, allow me to explain this to you.
First, when someone suffering from severe low self-esteem gets dumped, it's always going to be devastating. Always. My boyfriend left me (unlike Oz, he was a callous asshole and left for entirely sh*tty reasons) and it took me years to get over it -- not because I was sexually attracted to him or in love with him. I never was.
It took me years to get over the break up because being left that way made me feel terrible about myself. I had placed all my value in his desire for me, and when he didn't want me anymore, it was like proof that I was worthless and unlovable.
So yes. No one understood more than I when Willow cried after Oz left her. She likely viewed it as a measure of her worth when she wasn't good enough for him and he chose another werewolf.
As for the blissful s*x scenes, it is entirely possible to separate yourself from the person you're sleeping with and focus on sensations while thinking of someone else. Obviously, you will think of a woman if you're a lesbian. You'll get some pleasure out of the sensation and some hollow imitation of real intimacy, but you'll never be really happy or fulfilled by sleeping with someone you have to do mental gymnastics and/or shut a part of yourself off to be with.
People think that enjoying a sensation is sexuality and it's not. Sexuality is literally a biological reaction -- as in, whatever s*x arouses you when you look at them.
You can enjoy kissing girls, but if you've never looked at a woman and felt arousal for her, you are not gay. You are a straight woman who objectifies women. You're probably thinking of men while using that woman as an object to gain pleasure -- the same way Willow objectified Oz while using him to gain physical pleasure.
When you're a lesbian and you sleep with men, men become things you use. There is no real sexual attraction to them (instead, there is usually repulsion. I never kissed my ex-boyfriend because I was and am and always will be repulsed by men).
Because you do not have to be attracted to someone to sleep with them. Shocking, I know. But for someone who's confused and in denial about their sexuality thanks to an oppressive patriarchal society that wants all women to be sexually available to men . . . it's an incredibly easy trap to fall into.
Especially when it's beaten over your head your entire life that sleeping with men is what you're supposed to do and if you don't enjoy it or o*gasm, that's considered "normal."
So Oz leaves and Willow is left to face the truth: that she was never attracted to him, never in love with him, and possibly only loved him as a friend, the same way she loved Xander.
This is when Tara comes in.
At this point, Willow has been practicing witchcraft for years, but it isn't until she meets Tara and embraces her true authentic self that her powers really spike.
Willow and Tara Join Forces
The episode Hush demonstrates this pretty well.
The town is being attacked by some very terrifying floating corpse beings (been a while since I seen the episode) and Willow and Tara are trapped in a room together. They joins hands, and the second they do, they are able to move a cabinet in front of the door, barricading themselves in the room.
Tara helped Willow to blossom into her true self and embrace not only her power as a witch but her sexuality as a lesbian. Tara was responsible for awakening Willow from her lifelong denial and confusion and despair and bringing her happiness.
This is what is known as a soulmate.
Willow's sexual confusion, shame, and denial are further explored in the episode Restless, which -- like the episode Hush -- is one of the best episodes in the entire show. I frequently curse Buffy for getting Roswell canceled, but then we wouldn't have gotten these great episodes.
In Restless, Willow has a dream where she is a scared, shy, geek wearing what could be construed as "heteronormative" clothes again (not that gay people have to dress a certain way but the way Willow used to dress was clearly a disguise so she could pass as something she was not).
Willow is told by Dream Buffy to take off her costume because everyone knows about her anyway. Dream Buffy then rips Willow's geeky dress off with a casual air that shocks her.
To me, I always interpreted this as Willow's fear that she would be perceived as gay and her shock that everyone suspected her anyway.
In yet another episode, Tara gently and hesitantly asks Willow if she's sure she's gay, to which Willow gets offended and makes a sarcastic remark about lesbian street cred.
As someone who has had her sexuality questioned by other lesbians due to her past, this scene used to anger me, and it was the one time I didn't like sweet, gentle Tara.
Because your sexuality is not defined by who you've slept with. It's defined by who arouses you when you look at them or think of them. And it's so hard to make other lesbians that haven't been through this (aka "gold stars") understand that having slept with men does not mean you were ever actually attracted to them.
Now looking back, I can also sympathize with Tara and I find her concerns valid. So many lesbians are objectified by straight women who think making out with girls for drinks makes them "bi."
And there's a whole bisexual culture where the bisexual woman is always married to a man and always wants to dial up a gay woman on the phone like a bio s*x toy so she can have a "girlfriend" (aka a plaything) on the side. (Dating websites are crawling with these unfortunate people.)
Lesbians are used and abused and tossed aside. So to question a lesbian who's slept with men before can be offensive to that lesbian but it is also a valid question and a measure of self-worth for the lesbian who's asking.
Tara actually likes herself, has decent self-esteem, and doesn't want to be jerked around by Willow and get herself hurt. And Willow's behavior -- using men for validation, toying with Tara's memory, becoming addicted to magic, etc -- only makes Tara's caution all the more valid.
As a lesbian who traumatized herself by sleeping with men she could feel no sexual attraction to, I pity and empathize with Willow. But as a lesbian who's been toyed with by confused hetero women who called themselves "bisexual" and really just objectified women . . . I can also understand Tara wanting to guard her heart.
I always admired Tara for standing up to Willow, for having self-esteem, and for never taking her crap. And I think deep down, Willow always admired Tara for this as well. It's probably a huge reason why she loved her.
Because at the beginning of the show, we see how meek and self-loathing Willow is, to the point that she never stands up for herself against Cordelia, a stereotypical shallow cheerleader and bully.
You're probably waiting for me to acknowledge Alternate Universe Vampire Willow, who our Willow describes with approval as "a little gay."
Okay. Sure. Why not?
Yes, I do believe Vampire Willow was a lesbian, not bisexual. She clearly enjoyed straddling and toying with men, not because she was actually attracted to them, but because she enjoyed exerting her power over them as a vampire.
Willow is a person who feels inferior and worthless and craves power. It only follows that Willow as a powerful super-strong vampire would delight in exerting her power over others in order to feel superior.
Remember, sexual as*ault and sexual violence have nothing to do with desire and everything to do with dominance, hate, power, and control. Vampire Willow wasn't bisexual -- she was a r*pist. She was a cat who enjoyed playing with mice before eating them. Nothing she did with the male characters was from a place of actual lust.
And since Vampire Willow is a dark distortion of Willow, it makes perfect sense. As I have theorized in earlier paragraphs, our Willow enjoyed getting attention and validation from men because of her low self-esteem. It only follows that a distorted version of her would take this to an extreme and be confident and cruel enough to straddle men and force them to endure her.
Even in an alternate universe, Vampire Willow is using Vampire Xander to boost her self-confidence and validate herself. Meanwhile, Xander has a f*tish for powerful women, which is why he only starts to notice Willow when she starts practicing magic. So it makes perfect sense that Vampire Xander would worship strong, powerful Vampire Willow.
Now. I said in the beginning that Whedon likely intended to have Willow be straight. I believe Vampire Willow was the point that he started to change his mind and began writing Willow as a lesbian in denial with low self-esteem who merely used men to boost her confidence.
Because that is the exact character that she wound up being. The only difference between Vampire Willow and Dorky Willow is that Dorky Willow never intended to harm anyone and was just trying to soothe some internal wound of hers, while Vampire Willow was sadistic and just enjoyed abusing her power.
This is my analysis of the character. You are free to disagree with me, but please do so politely like an adult.
I realize that projecting my life experiences onto Willow is probably questionable, but I also feel that my experiences better equip me to understand what sort of character Whedon may have been attempting to write.
And after Tara's murder (f*ck you, Joss Whedon), Willows goes dark and goes into an angry, broken rant, finally telling the audience straight-up that she hates herself and that Tara was the only good thing she had going in her life.
She pretty much confirms what I've said in this article.
And as an aside, I said f*ck Joss Whedon because I'm sick and tired of lesbians always dying and never getting to be happy, like ever. It's such a homophobic trope. First Xena -- which I grew up watching -- and now this s*it???
Decades later and I'm still mad.
And what makes it even worse is knowing that Tara was killed by a misogynistic piece of shi*t who objectified women and even murdered them. It was satisfying that Willow flayed him alive but still infuriating that the only happy lesbian couple I had to observe as a teenager had just been ripped clean from me, and there I was, alone in a sea of straight media again.
Couldn't get into Willow with Whatsherface . . .er Kennedy. It was never the same. And I hated that Willow's arc had to be satisfied by literally fridging her girlfriend.
Deep breath. No. No, I'm totally not angry.
To conclude a long rant, Willow is gay and always was gay. Her character arc was a journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance, one where she learned to love herself and as a result, control her power.
Willow is not a bis*xual being erased. There's been a lot of concern about "bi-erasure" over the years, but ironically enough, lesbians are the ones actually being erased by bis*xuals, who insist that everyone is "fluid" like them..
Sexuality is a binary. Bisexual literally means "two."
So yes. Some people are 100% gay or 100% straight. Sexuality is not "fl*id." People grow up in confusion and denial because we live in a patriarchal homophobic society that enforces heteronormativity for the sake of making women s*xually available to men (because God forbid a tiny portion of women should be gay).
Before you argue or begin a crazy genderist spiel in the comments section, ask yourself why sexuality is only "fluid" when it belongs to women.
Your s*xuality is not defined by who you're currently sleeping with. It's defined by what happens in your pants when you look at other people. If you're dating a woman but still get turned on by men, stop calling yourself a lesbian.
And calling yourself a lesbian when you're not directly harms lesbians, as our repulsion and/or lack of attraction for men is never taken seriously because of this sh*t.
I recall Willow telling Oz that she was still attracted to men, even though she was now exclusively dating women. I can't remember if it was on the show or in the comics. I don't really consider the comics canon, but if Willow told Oz that on the show, then she is not a lesbian.
A lesbian is a woman exclusively attracted to women. There is no attraction to men. At all.
All that being said, we should keep in mind that Willow was created by straight men who have no realistic grasp on what it's actually like to grow up a lesbian or a bisexual woman in a homophobic and sexist society (it's impossible for them to ever fully grasp it. They're straight men).
In reality, Whedon and crew fumbled in the dark, trying to create an interesting character, and what they ultimately created was a woman whose experiences and s*xual confusion could be interpreted in any number of ways.
The good thing is that both lesbians and bis*xual women can easily project their experiences onto Willow and relate to her.
The bad thing is that both lesbians and bis*xual women will be arguing for ownership of this character to the end of time, accurate and inoffensive representation being so scarce and so rare for non-straight women.
At the end of the day, though I will always see Willow as a lesbian, I believe she can be whatever you imagine. She doesn't have to be defined because she's a fictional character. She isn't real.
Still, it would be nice to have actual lesbian characters. Because we deserve representation every bit as much as bis*xual women.