Buffy at 20

It’s 20 years since Buffy the Vampire Slayer hit our television screens. In its day a proudly feminist show with far more queer representation – and inspiring far more queer fanfic and slashfic than the people making it could ever have imagined. As, indeed, we reflected in BCN back in 2003.

The show had one of TV’s most popular behaviourally bisexual characters – but one who never owned the “B” word. Willow Rosenberg’s plot arc as a character involved three seasons of fancying boys and then four of fancying girls, with a little advance signalling when we met her evil doppleganger from a parallel world who seemed more ostentatiously bisexual.

In an interview with Cult Times magazine in 2000, Alyson Hannigan – who played Willow – reflected on what was happening in the show with Willow’s first relationship with another woman appearing on screen:

“It’s just two girls who are in love. It’s no different than when Willow fell for Oz really.”

She went on,
“Right now, she is in love with Tara, who’s female, but I don’t know whether it means Willow’s gay. In fact – that’s what I want to know. I asked Joss [Whedon, the screenwriter behind Buffy] and he said ‘Well, she’s open to new experiences.’  But if it turns out that she is gay […] if Willow knows what she’s attracted to and didn’t act on it till college because she didn’t feel comfortable with it, who am I to go against that?”
Later in the show Willow meets again with one of her male exes, Oz, and there is still a strong sense of attraction there; the kind of attraction you might have with any ex, of wondering about the road not travelled. The declaration that she can’t kiss her other ex, Xander, because she’s “gay now” has almost as strong a signalling of confusion.  Yet for a great many young lesbians watching a strongly defended lesbian identity was a rare piece of representation too.
From everything Joss Whedon has said about that side of Buffy in public, making Willow a gay character and not addressing the “bi issue” – her history of being behaviourally and romantically bisexual across the seven seasons of the show – was a compromise with what could be acheived at the turn of the century.
It’s hard to see it now when representation of bi and indeed gay or lesbian TV characters is still far from perfect or fair, but back then Buffy pushed boundaries for what American teen television could get away with.  Willow’s switching teams might be frustrating to bi viewers who feel she could be batting for both, but she helped force open a closet door both for a lot of bi and lesbian teens, and for the gay and bi TV characters who would come after.
Thanks Willow, and the Scooby gang. Now pass the popcorn, there’s gonna be a lot of Buffy the next couple of weekends to celebrate 20 years since the show began.
Scooby gang pic from Buffy, season 3 episode 3: which airs on SyFy Sat 18 March 11am, following a Buffy weekend on the same station, 11th March.