Coming Out of the Broom Closet: Willow's Sexuality and Empowerment in 'Buffy'

Jessica Ford
Willow and Tara

Over the course of seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow Rosenberg goes from a nerdy computer geek filled with heterosexual longing to powerful witch and lesbian.

Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer locates lesbians and lesbianism in a place of power over others and within the magical. The character of Willow is empowered by her sexuality, as her journey of sexual discovery is paralleled by her increasing agency within the Scooby Gang.

Buffy is founded on the overarching metaphor that high school is hell; the horrors of life are made literal and take on various forms and guises throughout the series (Little 282; Chandler; Wilcox). An extension of this use of metaphor can be seen in the character development of Willow. Her sexual evolution is a metaphor for her sexual awakening and empowerment. Other representations of homosexual teenagers on television focus on disempowerment and social rejection, for example Jack from Dawson’s Creek, Kurt from Glee, and Anna from One Tree Hill. In contrast, Willow’s exploration of her sexuality coincides with her evolution from nerdy sidekick to powerful witch. Willow is simultaneously empowered by her evolving magical abilities and her sexuality. Through an examination of the facets that make up the character of Willow, in particular the Willow/Tara relationship, it is evident that Willow’s increasing sexual agency and magical abilities are constructed in order to empower her as a queer character.

While it is not ideal to define anyone, even fictional characters, by their relationships with others, the trajectory of Willow’s story is shaped by her burgeoning sexuality and the impact of her lovers on her development. Willow’s transformation from nerdy, impotent girl to the most powerful member of the Scooby Gang, reflects a different way of telling queer stories. The formative years of Willow’s development are spent yearning for the oblivious Xander, until she is pulled into the world of Oz, who is himself a supernatural being. After enduring the loss of Oz to the darkness of his inner werewolf, Willow develops an unexpected and sensual relationship with Tara, whose influence on Willow is undeniable and shapes her magical and sexual developments. Yet it is the loss of Tara that drives Willow to her darkest place and her powerful yet evil unleashing of magic at the end of Season Six. Finally it is Kennedy who restores Willow’s confidence sexually and magically and enables her to change the Buffyverse forever.

When the show first introduces her, Willow is a sweet but geeky girl who adores her best friend Xander, but her feelings are not reciprocated. She is a weak individual in a show dominated by characters with supernatural powers. Xander is Willow’s equal in terms of agency, because they both lack the ability to alter events around them. Throughout Season One and into Season Two Willow’s computer hacking skills develop and her role within the Scooby Gang becomes more important, as she surpasses her seemingly juvenile feelings for Xander.

Willow’s sexual development really starts in Season Two when she begins a relationship with Oz: guitarist and werewolf. Oz is powerful and cool, attributes that Willow does not see in herself. Yet Oz is drawn to Willow, such as in the episode “Inca Mummy Girl” (2.04) where Oz notices Willow dressed as an Eskimo, over other more scantily clad ladies. In the episode “Halloween” (2.06) Oz sees Willow walking past his van and asks “Who is that girl?” with intense fascination. During their relationship Willow discovers magic and Oz becomes a werewolf after being bit by an infant relative. As Willow learns about and accepts Oz’s darker, wolfish impulses she begins to explore her own relationship to magic. The end of Season Two sees the culmination of the confidence Oz has given Willow and her willingness to delve into the magical. In “Becoming, Part 2” (2.22) Willow attempts a spell well beyond her proficiency and experience with magic. What she doesn’t realize at the time is that she was successful in restoring Angel’s soul; however, this advance is minimal compared to abilities she acquires during her relationship with Tara.

In Season Three the audience realizes that there may be more deviance to Willow than what her baggy sweaters portray when Vampire-Willow pays Sunnydale a visit in the episode “Dopplegangland” (3.16). Vamp-Willow is empowered by her supernatural abilities; she is overtly sexualized to the point that Willow notes about her alter ego: “I think I’m kinda gay” (“Dopplegangland” 3.16). Edwina Bartlem looks at the character of Willow in her article “Coming Out on a Hellmouth” and she notes that “Vampire Willow is not simply Willow’s externalised other, rather she appears to be a reflection of a different aspect of Willow’s character…

Dear reader:

Joss Whedon’s importance in contemporary pop culture can hardly be overstated, but there has never been a book providing a comprehensive survey and analysis of his career as a whole -- until now. Published to coincide with Whedon’s blockbuster movie The Avengers, Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters (May 2012) covers every aspect of his work, through insightful essays and in-depth interviews with key figures in the ‘Whedonverse’. This article, along with previously unpublished material, can be read in its entirety in this book.

Place your order for Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters, published with Titan Books, here.






In Amy Seimetz's 'She Dies Tomorrow', Death Is Neither Delusion Nor Denial

Amy Seimetz's She Dies Tomorrow makes one wonder, is it possible for cinema to authentically convey a dream, or like death, is it something beyond our control?


The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.


John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.


Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.


Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.


Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.


Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.


Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.


Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.