Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed the world – a lot.
We could talk about how the show pioneered genre television, how it empowered women and transformed silver screen entertainment into art.
But as it began 20 years ago today, we have to talk about Willow Rosenberg. Spoilers for the show to follow.
Before Willow, a kiss between two women on TV were seen as a way to boost ratings on an ‘adult’ show. Look at Ally McBeal and the kiss between Calista Flockhart and Lucy Liu.
And while the sitcom Ellen may have seen both real life actress and character finally come out of the closet in 1997 – ratings decimated after this.
But then you had a red-haired, bookish, quiet Willow supporting her superhero friend Buffy and while harboring a crush on wisecracking Xander.
Audiences adored Willow, and Alyson Hannigan’s performance.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon had a plan to make one of the Scooby Gang gay.
The first hints of Willow’s sexuality came with the introduction of Vampire Willow, in season 3. Interestingly enough, the leather-clad sadistic demon version was in a relationship with Vampire Xander – but was also very much interested in women.
If you’ve not watched Buffy before, the conceit was the demons you face in high school, college and early adult life are made flesh. When you sleep with your boyfriend, and he turns bad, this was literally shown as Buffy had sex with the vampire hero Angel, he lost his soul, and he became evil and murderous.
For Willow, the demon was the sexuality that she was longing to keep hidden away. Coming face-to-face with an openly bisexual (although the word bisexual is never said – we’ll come back to that later) version of herself, she calls it ‘evil and skanky’.
College came in season 4, and Willow was becoming far more interested in magic.
Magic was a metaphor for exploring sexuality. We met the witch Tara, someone shyer than Willow but also stronger in many other ways, and she is the person that allows Willow to find herself.
With spells as sometimes a very clear substitution for sex (something Joss was still not allowed to show), Willow and Tara got closer and formed one of the longest running relationships on the show.
Despite having previously been in relationships with men, Willow comes out to her friends who are eventually incredibly supportive and she becomes more confident in her identity.
It was only in season 5 episode, The Body, when Willow and Tara kissed for the first time. An episode played at extreme emotional heights, Tara kisses Willow to calm her down. Joss knew by putting the kiss at this moment, it was a way of humanizing same-sex relationships on television.
With Tara, magic seems incredible. Beautiful. Life-affirming. But magic also increasingly became a metaphor for addiction and drugs. This led to Willow manipulating Tara, wiping her memories of arguments, and this ultimately led to the end of the relationship.
When Willow is ‘sober’, they get back together. But Tara is killed by a stray bullet, and Willow is subsumed by black magic, her hair goes dark, and goes on a bender to destroy the world.
The depiction of the first and foremost LGBTI characters on screen in Buffy the Vampire Slayer could arguably be responsible for many of the negative tropes that came afterwards. Bury Your Gays is a cliché that has led to many, many (way too many) lesbian characters being killed off on TV since then. Bisexual erasure is also a problem.
But Joss killed off Tara for drama, and for the evolution of Willow’s character. No relationship in Buffy the Vampire Slayer stayed happy, and none of them could ever be allowed to be content.
Both metaphors for Willow’s magic came together at the finale of season 6. Willow is about to destroy the world when she is talked off the edge by Xander. It is only through love and acceptance of her friends that she can finally seek help, and it is only through recognizing what she’s lost through her magic (drugs) that she can find her humanity again.
Season 7, and after Willow had gone through ‘magic rehab’, she began a relationship with potential slayer Kennedy. Joss was becoming more confident with pushing the TV network censors and started showing them in bed.
Willow learned how her magic in connected to the world, how her sexuality is ‘natural’, and how it could be used with consent and power. Willow creates a spell that saves the world in the series finale. She has the power of a goddess, her hair turns white, and is able to release slayer magic into the world. She becomes totally in tune with herself, with nature, and her story arc is complete.
It is, at its basest form, a coming out story.
While the evolution of Willow’s sexuality can sometimes be frustrating for a modern-day viewer, but it should not be underestimated the power of what Joss Whedon was trying to do with the character 20 years ago.
This was truly the first time we saw a nuanced, complicated, strong portrayal of a female LGBTI character on television, in a way we have very rarely seen since. And not only that, both Tara and Kennedy were fully realised characters of their own.
Watching Buffy as a gay teen, constantly bullied for my sexuality at school, these characters saved me. I saw a future, a hope, and possibilities.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer didn’t just save the world a lot, the show changed it for the better.