Credit: Jade Zhang/Xtra
People Like Me
5 min

Slaying heteronormativity with Buffy the Vampire Slayer

While Buffy took on vampires, I took down heteronormativity with Willow

It’s Episode 16, Season 4, of the popular TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Willow says to her close friend Tara, “I just kinda like having something that’s just, you know, mine.”

A few charged moments later, Tara responds, “I am you, know . . . yours.”

I was 17 when Buffy first aired, roughly the same age of the characters themselves, and I took to this weird show immediately. I longed to be able to legitimately carry a stake around in public, or to have a “Scooby Gang” united by their tendency to create their own language and kick evil’s ass everyday. Until that moment I didn’t know that, most of all, I longed to see myself in popular culture.

Buffy Summers may have slayed vampires in the popular TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but her sidekick Willow Rosenberg took on heteronormativity — a far more menacing demon.

Picture this:  a teenage witch with a wardrobe of fuzzy sweaters and a girlfriend, her red hair a subtle indication of the intensity beneath a shy exterior. This could describe either me or Willow at 19. We had some differences, of course. Willow can actually do magic, for one; I just danced around in long skirts and crescent moon jewelry.

I mainly dated women through high school and early university, only later adding men to my romantic interests, whereas Willow was the opposite. But for a young, queer Canadian girl with a social circle made of misfits, the show finally allowed me to see my sexual identity, whatever it was, as valid.

Willow was never the most obvious star of the show. She is quiet, quirky and crazy-smart in a Hermione Granger sort of way. After her heart is broken by Oz, the part-time werewolf, she falls hard for her friend Tara. It was as authentic and beautiful as any other romance on the show. It wasn’t a lesbian storyline. It was a love storyline.

I remember crying with gratitude at seeing it unfold on television. My feelings were normal, and more than that? They were beautiful. Who needs to carry a stake when you have killer self-confidence?

Like many others, my first romantic encounters with women emerged slowly from friendships. They were brought to life by looks that lingered a bit too long, the secret language beneath our words and sparks flying from fingertips touching not-so-accidentally.

When Tara and Willow begin doing magic spells together, Willow holds her friend’s hands and states, “we’ll start off slow.” In that moment, I knew that the magic she spoke of was not the spell, but their chemistry.

It is obvious to me and other cultural commentators that magic in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a stand-in for developing sexual identity. As Willow’s magical powers increase, the Scooby Gang becomes more sceptical, accusing Willow of being “trendy” and going through “a phase.”

Likewise, I came up against scorn from both strangers and friends as well as gay and straight communities. These same words devastated me as a teenager.

Yet, I actually felt relieved to see Buffy’s awkward, judgy reaction to Willow and Tara’s romance. I thought: if everybody’s favourite world-saving feminist could be thrown off by sexual diversity, maybe I could grant my friends some grace too.

Willow’s hard times didn’t make my own experiences any easier, but it was easier to accept myself while I was having them. The episode in which Tara and Willow’s relationship becomes inevitable begins with a university lecture on the difference between communication and language, “about the thoughts and experiences that we don’t have a word for.” Thus far in the series, there had been no explicit dialogue about Willow’s feelings for Tara — only innuendo, metaphor and gigantic, googly-eyed pauses.

Throughout this episode called “Hush,” the characters all lose their ability to speak. In the wordlessness, Willow and Tara are finally able to seal their relationship with a moment of astounding intimacy, bypassing language to something more profound.

My first relationship with a girl had been just like this: as if words lost their power, giving charge instead to the laden space between sounds. There is also something about this episode also speaks to the silence around queer identity, especially at that time.

The silence can be full of potential, but it can also be oppressive. There was a silence around my sexuality that I felt from my family, my teachers, and some of my friends. Like me, Willow struggles to put her identity into words and doesn’t label herself until Season 5, when she exclaims, “Hello? Gay now!” Before that, Willow’s exact sexual identity has been picked over by society, and here too I find parallels with my life. Is she a lesbian or bisexual? Why can’t she pick a side? And after she comes out, the questions shifted to: how can she just be gay all of a sudden?

I’ve gone through an alphabet soup of acronyms and labels, but I didn’t shift between sexual identities to trick anyone or to be trendy. I was honestly just getting to know myself, stumbling around in the dark, looking for something that felt familiar. Like Willow, I was led by the longing for someone to call home — the labels would come later. There were a few other kids in high school who were lesbian and gay, but those words never felt like they fit. I began referring to myself as bisexual in my mid-twenties, and still embrace that identity, but it was not until I heard the term “queer” that I felt truly comfortable in a label  Maybe if the writers of Buffy were a bit more language-savvy, Willow would have also have worn the word as her own.

One of the most amazing things about this show is that, as my mom and I often watched it together, it genuinely helped her accept my sexual identity as well. Although I ended up marrying a man, I like to think that some of the positive representations my mom saw on the show would have helped her embrace it if I ended up with a woman instead.

Eventually, after a lead-up that lasted a whole season, Willow came to describe Tara as her “always.” One of the most beautiful moments between them is also wrapped in silence. While slow-dancing, Willow tells Tara she loves her, and they begin levitating above the crowd in a quiet, peaceful scene. Seeing a same-sex relationship on television capable of providing otherworldly escape was powerful, freeing and magical: it allowed me see the possibility that I, too, might be able to have relationships unburdened by insecurity and others’ expectations.

Their relationship, unfortunately, was not destined to endure. By the time their love began to disintegrate in Season 6, I had just learned about the concept of the “Lesbian Death Trope” from one of my university’s sexual diversity studies classes, referring to the tendency to kill off queer women characters in the media. I was mad as hell that Buffy was just another piece of pop culture reinforcing the idea that same-sex relationships could never end well.

Ultimately, the show could have been more powerful for those of us looking to our televisions to see our reflections, but this just meant I needed to to speak my own truth into the silence. Buffy was instrumental to my journey to self-acceptance, as I navigated representations of lesbianism, bisexuality and queerness.

One of my favourite moments of the show comes from Episode 6, Season 5.

Tara: Even when I’m at my worst. . . you always make me feel special. How do you do that?

Willow: Magic.

And for the first time, I could see myself mirrored on prime time TV.

Magic.

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