It’s not kosher to quote BuzzFeed as an authoritative source. However, in ‘117 Buffyverse Characters, Ranked from Worst to Best’ the ambitious Adam B Vary determined Willow Rosenberg as number one. Vary was correct. Or, if you’d prefer a Joss Whedon academic’s view, Jes Battis in his essay ‘She’s Not All Grown Yet’ describes Willow as ‘a hybrid site upon which several of the show’s most resounding ambivalences converge, overlap and shadow each other’. Battis is also correct.
There are many reasons to adore Buffy’s best witch. Willow is a collection of contradictory traits. She’s a flurry of nerves and competence, creating both complexity and a relatable coming-of-age tale. Additionally, she’s the only Scoobie to both almost destroy the world and repeatedly help to save it. That’s range for you. Her affections also refuse to be restricted to the straight and narrow. In college, Willow falls in love with fellow witch, Tara. Their relationship was one of the first fully realised lesbian couplings on television. It was an instance of progressive and positive representation, both within the context of the show, and for its viewers. And I may have cried both happy and sad tears for them, more than for real life relationships of my own. The emotional investment in their relationship runs deep, as is true for many queer fangirls.
However, Willow’s character arc is also a classic example of erasing bisexuality or queerness as a legitimate orientation. This flies in the face of sexual fluidity, as well as a whole heap of textual evidence. That whole ‘Hello, gay now,’ (‘Triangle’, S05E11) line could potentially go either way. Ideally, it can be read as an assertion of Willow’s current sexual standing (‘Hello, gay now,’) – recognition that all is not set in stone. But, considering the rest of the context, it certainly signifies an undermining of Willow’s heterosexual relationships and, along with it, the possibility of sustained queerness: ‘Hello, gay now.’
This is not something that can be shrugged off. Even now, we queerfolk often end up evil, crazy or dead – which is far from ideal. Sadly, Buffy is no exception. While Willow and Tara’s relationship has been widely acclaimed, it also didn’t sit right with the entire fanbase. This is not because these fans are huge homophobes. Instead, trading in one absolute sexual orientation for another needlessly undermines Willow’s first love: the stoic, musical and male Oz. To a lesser extent, it also undermines the feelings our witch harboured for Xander: her best friend, as well as her first and enduring crush. In the face of so much textual evidence of resilient queerness, Willow is relegated to the binary of totally straight/totally gay. The implicit message is that Willow’s homosexuality can only be legitimate so long as it is complete(ly free of lusty emotions for the opposite sex). This particular oversimplification of non-heterosexual identity persists in the media even as we are granted more gay characters.
It’s of utmost importance that everyone retains the agency to choose how they identify. There is nothing contradictory in Willow having significant hetero relationships, then coming to identify as gay. However, there is also something distinctly monstrous about bisexuality in the Whedonverse. This makes the binary even more problematic. Many allusions to sexual flexibility are made among the primary vampire cast and these are often fleshed out in the less awesome spin-off Angel. In her essay ‘I Think I’m Kinda Gay’ Em McAvan notes that there is certainly a ‘very definite homoeroticism to Drusilla and Darla’s relationship’. She also notes this undercurrent runs in Spike’s comment that ‘Angel and me were never that close…except that one time’ (Angel, ‘Power Play’, S05E21). Back in Sunnydale, this had been established by alternative-universe Vamp Willow (our book nerd’s vampire doppelganger in ‘The Wish’). Vamp Willow is coupled with Vamp Xander, but also confidently propositions a girl at The Bronze, and licks regular Willow’s neck. This is about as masturbatory as the show ever gets. As McAvan notes, while these actions ‘could easily be read as indicators of Willow’s “true” sexuality…it would be highly reductive to read Vamp Willow as straight or gay.’ Instead they suggest a more nuanced bisexual reading. Considering Willow gets to appear in 145 more episodes than Vamp Willow, you’d think the writers would enjoy the opportunity to extend the same nuance to her non-vampire incarnation. Instead, this nuance is reserved solely for the evildoers.
The disassociation runs deep. Within fan discourse there is talk of Willow, Dark Willow (referring to the grief-stricken, divergent path her character takes after Tara is murdered) and Vamp Willow, as though these are separate entities. In a gender-swap scenario such behavioural mess is called being an ‘anti-hero’ or ‘conflicted antagonist’ or, perhaps, Don Draper. But for no other reasons beside her gender and sexuality, it seems that we have to split Willow to deal with these different facets of her personality. Indeed, Vamp Willow’s otherness is the only thing that allows her to break free of the binary; her vampirism refuses to be restricted to conventional norms.
Throughout both Angel and Buffy, bisexuality is coded as excessive, transgressive and implicitly dangerous. Characters who exhibit this behaviour tend to die at least once. Allowing Willow to maintain a non-binary sexuality would have been a powerful moment of bisexuality acceptance. It would not have detracted from the authenticity of her relationship with Tara. And there are existing moments within the show that do push against such strict definitions. Upon meeting her doppelganger, Willow comments, ‘I think I’m kinda gay’ (‘Doppelgangland’, S03E16). In this case ‘kinda’ could easily be interpreted as ‘not entirely’ – it would also be consistent with what we already know about Vamp Willow. The same qualifier is raised in ‘Tabula Rasa’ (S06E08), in which one of Willow’s spells goes wrong and all of the Scoobies (plus Spike) lose their memories. While Tara’s attraction to Willow is immediately clear, the latter assumes she’s Xander’s girlfriend because they woke up ‘all cuddly-wuddly’. It takes her most of the episode to recognise her feelings for Tara. This points to an enduring sexual fluidity in Willow’s attractions – that they are based on the person involved, rather than gender exclusively.
It’s worth acknowledging that none of this is simple territory; attraction is a very messy business. But to downplay the importance of Willow and Oz’s connection you’ve got to look past a huge chunk of the Buffy canon. For many fans, Oz is the dream high school to college boyfriend – devoted, intelligent, a musician. The couple’s characters both compliment and challenge each other. In ‘Lover’s Walk’ (S03E08) Spike states, ‘Love isn’t brains, children; it’s blood…blood screaming inside you to work its will.’ While this is in reference to Buffy and Angel, the same applies to Willow and Oz (a much more functional couple, even if you do prefer vampires over werewolves). In one of the more regressive episodes, the minimal-syllabic guitarist returns after breaking Willow’s heart. He has spent months training to guard against the dominance of lunar cycles in his life. However, after getting a sniff of Willow off Tara, his violent condition is triggered. This development is a bit of a bummer because it ham-fistedly feeds into the myth that guys can’t control themselves. Previously Oz had fought against this cliché. In the calm after the storm, it is clear that Willow still has deep romantic feelings for Oz and hasn’t ruled out the possibility of a future relationship with him. It can be argued that she chose Tara, and she may well have. But Oz was leaving anyway, so we never really had the chance to see that conflict extend beyond the blindingly symbolic.
Considering all this, it’s tricky to argue that Willow lost her attraction to the Y chromosome as soon as she hit the Wicca. Yes, the college-level magic functioned as a not-so-subtle symbol of self-exploration and was strongly linked to her relationship with Tara. It is clear, however, that her desires were still informed by the individuals themselves. While it’s rad she continues to date women after Tara, there’s no need to do this in a way that shores up binaries. This is one of the reasons ‘Him’ (S07E06) is so ridiculous. In this episode each female character vies for the love of teenage RJ, while under the spell of his charmed letter jacket. When Willow is affected by this spell – though the straight male characters are not – her homosexuality has to be pointed out by Anya. The text scoots around this by deciding that Willow will attempt to use magic to alter RJ’s gender. Not only is this creepy as fuck, but this sidestep is also entirely unnecessary. She had already pined after Xander for seasons, had been in love with Oz for seasons, yet they couldn’t let Willow be magically attracted to a dude for half an episode further down the track? This clumsy approach feeds directly into the myths that a) homosexual attraction is only authentic when absolute and b) that bisexuality is amoral. That Willow is willing to alter RJ’s identity to serve her own ends is perverse – and unfortunately reasserts non-binary sexual expression as monstrous.
One definite strength of Willow’s coming-out story is – werewolves aside – the decided lack of drama it creates. Willow’s scared as to whether the Scoobies will accept her. While Buffy initially fumbles for the right words, the actual shift in orientation isn’t traumatic. Having said that, beyond anxieties of being the ‘only girl in school without a boyfriend’ there is nothing performative about Oz and Willow’s relationship. There is also nothing GUG (gay-until-graduation) about her relationship with Tara. So why can’t we have both? Instead, as viewers we are served the troubling binaries which Xander so aptly terms as ‘crayon-breaky Willow’ and ‘scary-veiny Willow?’ Unfortunately, the innocent, vanilla version of Willow is coded as belonging to either hetero- or homosexuality, while Vamp and Dark Willow are fluid. As McAvan explains, ‘Bisexuality calls into question unified essentialist narratives of past, present and future’ – the expressions of Willow’s character would sit especially comfortably in this defiance of essentialism. But for some reason the writers of Buffy actively sought to avoid this. We are still trapped in a two-way street when it comes to representation in the media. Generally speaking, characters in popular culture are either gay or straight, male or female with no room to move in between. Unless they’re evil. In which case, have all the fluidity you want. This has the potential to encourage internalised homophobia or bi-phobia as people are positioned to choose one desire over the other. Buffy had an opportunity to combat this misrepresentation. All it would’ve needed were a few conversations. And the writers were more than capable. This was the same crew that gave us Anya’s heart-wrenching speech about the absurdity of mortality in ‘The Body’ (S05E16). Willow didn’t have to date a stream of men and women to remind us that she’s bisexual. The evidence is already in the text. Because of this it feels like the writers of Buffy were in a denial all of their own. ‘Willow is the magic… There is no real demarcation between “crayon-breaky Willow” and “scary-veiny Willow”, because both are reflections of a continually evolving source’. She is never static. Sexuality is more complicated than that – or it should be allowed to be. Inconsistencies stack up, until they create their own closet: an uncomfortable box built of binaries no one should be forced into.