Willow Rosenberg wasn’t always into chicks.
Throughout season one of Buffy, our lovable hacker pined for her best friend, Xander. Her feelings weren’t reciprocated (Xander was too busy mooning over Buffy), but even so, she carried a torch for him well into season two.
That’s when she met Oz, an adorable guitarist who made no secret of his interest in her. The two began a tentative flirtation, rendering Willow appropriately smitten. Eventually, she managed to ask him out on a date. So began the cutest romance ever.
Xander, upon being rejected by Buffy, eventually struck up a dalliance with a cheerleader named Cordelia. After a bit of a rocky start, they settled into being boyfriend and girlfriend.
Things were going great for everyone until a few days before Homecoming. Willow and Xander decided to try on clothes for the dance together. Nothing was amiss until Willow emerged from behind the privacy screen and they saw each other, fully and fancily dressed.
They stared, awestruck. Xander told Willow she was gorgeous. Awkward breathing and shifty gazes inevitably gave way to kissing. When they (finally) parted, both felt guilty but still drawn to each other.
The two struggled with their palpable attraction over the next few episodes, playing secret footsies in the science lab, giving ill-advised temple massages in the library, fighting a losing battle. Oblivious to their hormone-fueled angst, villain Spike chose precisely then to kidnap them and lock them in an abandoned factory.
As Cordelia can tell you, life and death situations are “always all sexy and stuff” (Doppelgangland). Alone and more or less waiting for death, Willow and Xander gave into their urges and started making out. It made for quite the tableau when Oz and Cordelia showed up to rescue them.
Cordelia and Xander never recovered as a couple. Willow and Oz spent several episodes broken up, but eventually reconciled. Their relationship deepened over time, and on the cusp of graduation day (and another life and death scenario), they had sex for the first time.
Willow felt happy afterwards, describing it as “the best night of [her] life” (Graduation Day, Part 2). The two enjoyed a healthy sexual relationship up until early season four, when Oz cheated on Willow and then left town (which is a long story for another time).
Willow was gutted by Oz’s departure, but in time, she was able to let go. She started seeing a woman named Tara that she had met at her university Wicca group. The progression was natural. Neither their relationship, nor Willow’s attraction to women in general, felt out of left field, or like a betrayal of Willow’s past.
As she muddled through her own confusion and surprise at having feelings for a woman, Willow never assigned herself a label. She told Buffy “there’s something between us,” (New Moon Rising) and described Tara as her girlfriend (The Yoko Factor), but she left it at that. Her hesitance to embrace a fixed identity struck me as pretty standard behaviour for a new queer (especially in the year 2000).
Still, it seemed obvious to me that Willow was bisexual. She had been interested in guys, and now she was interested in women. What else would you call that? Well, if you’re season five of Buffy, you call it gay gay gay!
It started in the episode “Triangle.” Xander’s girlfriend, Anya, was worried that Willow might try to steal him away from her, like she’d stolen him from Cordelia.
“That was a long time ago!” Willow argued. “Do you think I’d do that again?”
“Why not?” asked Anya.
“Well, hello, gay now!”
Gay now? What does that mean? Does it mean a switch has been flipped and she’s going to be gay from now on (but wasn’t always)? Or does it mean she’s gay for the time being, because she defines herself based on who she’s with? If she were to dump Tara and start dating a dude, would she become “straight now”? Can an orientation really be temporary?
Tara and Willow had a bad argument in season five. Tara expressed fear that Willow’s interest in her (and women in general) might be fleeting. Offended by the implication, Willow sarcastically stated that their whole relationship was just an experiment before her inevitable return to “Boys Town” (Tough Love).
“I’m really sorry that I didn’t establish my lesbo street cred before I got into this relationship,” Willow snarked. “You’re the only woman I’ve ever fallen in love with, so how on earth could you ever take me seriously?”
Bisexual women deal with this crap all the time. This conversation could have shone a light on a bias that, sadly, persists in the lesbian community. Willow could have explained that having an attraction to more than one gender isn’t the same as being disloyal or untrustworthy. She could have called Tara out for clinging to such a damaging stereotype. Instead, she got offended that she wasn’t being taken seriously as a lesbian.
By the seventh (and final) season, the show’s desire to paint Willow as strictly a lesbian was pushed to ridiculous extremes. The episode “Him” centered on a high school athlete named R.J. whose magical letterman jacket caused women to want him. Willow was not immune to this magic; her first look at R.J. left her hot and bothered. Her obvious attraction to him confused her friends.
“This isn’t about his physical presence,” explained Willow. “It’s about his heart.”
“His physical presence has a penis!” declared Anya.
“I can work around it!” insisted Willow.
Willow’s (ultimately unsuccessful) “workaround” was a spell that would change R.J. into a woman. Wow! Three short years prior, Willow was having regular sex with a bepenised individual and loving it. Where did her disgust for the male body come from, and how did it get so bad that she’d sooner perform involuntary gender reassignment surgery on a dude than have sex with him as is?
I don’t believe the writers of Gay Gay Willow intended to offend anyone. I’m a lesbian, and I appreciate the years they spent depicting same sex relationships in a positive light, especially considering how few shows were willing to take the risk back then. I only wish they had allowed Willow to call herself “bisexual” instead of “gay.” Taken as a whole, her storyline depicts a bisexual woman who is afraid to label herself as such. Her declarations of gayhood are so frequent and loud, you wonder whom she’s trying to convince.
If Willow was truly gay all along, the writers should have planted seeds. We should have seen at least a crack or two in her sexual relationship with Oz and her ongoing lust for Xander. We should have observed her feeling unsure, confused, or conflicted. We saw none of that in the first three seasons; just a woman expressing intense attraction to two male characters. Her feelings for Xander were a key plot point in season one, and her relationship with Oz was one of the sweetest and healthiest depicted on the show. It’s hard to accept that her feelings for these boys were less real than her feelings for Tara (partly because those early relationships were more compelling).
The earliest hint we’re given at Willow’s attraction to women comes in the season three episode, “Doppelgangland” (one of my all-time favourites). An evil vampire version of Willow shows up in Sunnydale to wreak havoc. Upon encountering her human self, Vamp Willow expresses a desire to cozy up. “I kind of like the idea of the two of us,” she confides. Willow looks skeeved out by the suggestion, especially after Vamp Willow licks her neck and starts growling.
Recalling the situation to her friends later, Willow expresses how uncomfortable it was to gaze into that unholy mirror.
“It’s horrible! That’s me as a vampire? I’m so evil, and skanky. And I think I’m kinda gay!”
What is she basing this diagnosis on? The fact that her vampire double expressed interest in her? Would that make Vamp Willow gay, or just narcissistic? Even if it belies a sexual interest in women, why assume a lack of interest in men?
Vamp Willow isn’t gay. She’s bi. In the alternate universe where she resides, she’s hot and heavy with Vamp Xander. They do a lot of gross tongue-kissing and it’s obvious that theirs is a sexual relationship. Vamp Willow also enjoys straddling bare-chested Angel, and torturing him with matches while Xander watches. It’s pretty much foreplay.
Vamp Willow’s sexual interest in men is undeniable. Her interest in women doesn’t diminish or erase that.
She’s not gay. And in my opinion, neither is Willow.
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