Bi Visibility Day 2017: Erasure

What time is it? It’s BiVisibilty Day time! I’ve spoken a little about my own experiences growing up in both my 2015 and 2016 post, so I’m not going to repeat myself too much here. As always, the focus is on raising awareness that bisexuality not only exists, but that there still remain issues surrounding it.

Now, not everything is bad in the world of bi representation. Hell, my Pride Month post about The Loud House and The Legend of Korra shows that representation is finally making its way into the world of TV, including kid’s shows. The thing is though, while the good stuff is on the rise, that doesn’t mean that bad stuff hasn’t happened. While I could talk about stereotyping, what I actually want to talk about today is Bi Erasure.

Bi Erasure basically applies to instances where bisexuality is ignored. In some case, it is even denied that bisexuality exists. The way I want to approach this is to talk about a subject that is a bit … well, contentious. This is something that has been debated heavily at different times, and as a subject, it can be divisive. That’s right, I’m going to talk a little about Willow.

Willow_Season_7

For those that missed it, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a supernatural TV series that ran for 7 seasons/144 episodes from 1997 to 2003. Willow Rosenberg, played by Alyson Hannigan, was one of the titular heroine’s best friends and featured not only in every episode of the show, but also appeared in several episodes of the spin-off series, Angel. So, how does this fit in with the theme?

Well, by the time that season four rolled around, Willow began a relationship with Oz (Seth Green), a local werewolf and musician. While she is dating said gent, she also briefly explores her attraction to her long-term friend Xander (Nicholas Brendon). So far, nothing unusual, right? Teen drama with a bit of supernatural spice shows teenage girl falling for teenage boy. It’s been done before, and it’s done well enough here. Eventually though, things sour between Willow and Oz and, after an incident with a female werewolf, Oz drives off into the sunset, leaving Willow heartbroken.

During this time, Willow begins to explore her magical abilities more deeply, and joins a campus Wicca group. Here, she meets Tara Maclay (Amber Benson). Subtext becomes more blatant, and the two women end up forming a sweet, loving relationship. Of course, Buffy being Buffy, Tara is eventually killed. By the end of the final series, Willow had met Kennedy (Lyari Limon), a slayer with a contrasting personality to Tara’s, and by the end of Season 5 of Angel, it is noted that the pair are living together in Brazil.

Now, this is where things get controversial. You see, when she starts dating Tara, Willow begins to describe herself as a lesbian. I place a lot of importance on self-identification, and so, this is not in itself an issue. If that’s what Willow says she is, then that’s what she is, and if she were a real person, then I would certainly hope that no one would argue the fact.

But, this point has been argued before. A lot, in fact. And, in truth, there were a few things in the show that maybe hint at Willow being bisexuality. For one, Willow’s relationship with Oz always felt genuine, so it’s not like this relationship can easily be put down to something like societal pressures of being expected to be heterosexual. On top of that, when Oz returns, Willow does still feel an attraction to him, even if she ultimately sticks with Tara. Then, come season six, there’s a scene where Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) performs a rendition of Behind Blue Eyes and Willow states, “Now I remember why I used to have such a crush on him.” Neither of these things are indicative of someone who is purely attracted to women, though that in itself is not really proof that Willow is actually bi rather than a lesbian. Even so, these points are used to this day as potential arguments to prove just that.

Here’s the thing though: Willow, as a lesbian, has done a lot of good. She gave a lot of people someone that they could relate to and draw strength from. I certainly do not want to in any way portray that as a bad thing; I’m glad that people could find strength in the character. On top of this, I am of course aware that a woman can sleep with a man, and ultimately come to the realisation that she is a lesbian. This is absolutely fine. Yes, our past experiences help shape us, but they don’t need to define us. Once again, it all comes down to that ever important realm of self-identification.

So, where does this become a case of bi erasure? Well, that’s all on show creator Joss Whedon’s shoulders. When asked about Willow having a relationship with a male after Tara’s death, he stated, “We do that now, and we will be burned alive. And possibly justifiably. We can’t have Willow say, ‘Oh, cured now, I can go back to cock!’ Willow is not going to be straddling that particular fence. She will just be gay.”

As a statement, I find that problematic. If Willow had grown an attraction to another male character, I fail to see why the idea of a ‘gay cure’ would have to feature in it. Not to mention the fact that being attracted to more than one gender is not simply a way of straddling a metaphorical fence, it’s a perfectly legitimate way to feel. Had Joss Whedon stated that he had considered having Willow come to the conclusion that she is bi, but felt that her remaining a lesbian was the best route for the character, that would have been fine. As it is though, his actual statement is really quite harmful. Bisexuality is often portrayed as a phase whereby people are expected to eventually ‘pick a side’. To equate the possibility of someone having a relationship with a woman and then a man as being related to a ‘gay cure’ or a ‘fence to straddle’ is at best tantamount to confirming the more common portrayals as accurate, and at worst, a blanket denial that bisexuality exists at all.

So, here’s my take: Willow as a character is in no way negative, and the sheer nature of self-identifiction means that she is not herself guilty of bi erasure. Like I said, her evolution over the course of the franchise did a lot of good. To this day, she remains a bright speck of hope for many who are coming to terms with their own sexuality, and rightfully so. However, whether intentionally or simply as a symptom of a lack of understanding, Joss Whedon’s quoted reasoning for WIllow’s identity is a form of bi erasure.

Of course, this has all been debated before though. Even now, years after the end of the tv series, there are supporters for both the idea that Willow is bi and that she is not. And when it comes down to it, however you feel about the argument of Willow’s sexual orientation, she was still an awesome character. But, that in itself really doesn’t matter. What matters is that, moving forward, creators realise that bisexuality is not only real, but something that their characters can be. My advice is this: accept that bisexuality is real, but don’t buy into the common portrayals of years gone by; research, gain an understanding, and if you think that it makes sense for one of your characters to love people of more than one gender, then go for it! Bi erasure is bad, but it’s not a hurdle that can’t be overcome.

Thanks for reading everyone. Let me know your thoughts below.

bi-visibility-day-2015

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13 comments

  1. Whatever I feel about it, Whedon’s point is definitely legit. People are incredibly odd when it comes to fictional romantic couples, and there’s absolutely no issue authors can run into bigger trouble with their audience then over this.

    I find his caution there perfectly understandable. He might have a stupid view on bisexuality – or he might just have stated in a poignant way how a part of the audience would undeniable take having her “back” into a heterosexual romance. Point is, fiction, especially commercial one, doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and sometimes what would make perfect sense real-life comes across as dubious in fiction. Because people most definitely would have accused the writers of concluding that it’s “better to be with a man” if Willow had ended up with one after her lesbian relationships, even if they just wanted to demonstrate her bisexuality or whatever.

    In real-life, that won’t matter, since there’s who-knows-how-many other bisexual people who don’t. There’s also plenty of space to discuss everything and see everything that happens: days have 24 hours. But a Buffy episode only 40 minutes. Who knows whom Willow ogles when she’s offscreen? In fiction there is often just this one single character, with a very limited time, that makes a statement (and maybe you aren’t even trying to make a statement in any way and nonetheless do).

    Fiction is always simplified. It’s overdrawn. It cherry-picks. It’s impossible to model the complexity that reality is on a novel or a TV series. It’ll never do everything perfect justice, because the audience always will only get a glimpse of the world you are writing.

    Also doesn’t mean it’s worth or not necessary to try.

    But: it’s complicated.

    Well, I just realized that all that yammering ended up basically not having any point. Oh well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can agree that caution was understandable, certainly. And again, you are spot on that time constraints in fiction are indeed inhibiting in terms of showing the whole picture at times. Regards though, I still think he should have worded his reasoning better, especially if he wasn’t trying to ignore bisexuality as a possibility.

      I wouldn’t say that you didn’t have a point though. Your post confirms your second to last paragraph: it is indeed a complicated issue. It’s through discussion like this that things can become less complicated moving forward though.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, tis much appreciated.

      Like

      • Yeah, but everything is complicated. I generally like to arrive at some sort of meaningful conclusion, if possible 😉

        But I really don’t think I have on here.

        I’m largely of the opinion that in fiction anything goes. If you want to write about a serial rapist and all that entails, be my guest. I probably won’t read it, but I won’t knock you for it. I like fiction to be challenging, daring, going against norms and taboos.

        Kencyrath features incest, not just once, but as a central part of its society. In Andrea Cort, a character volunteers to be some mind-manipulated sex slave for money and artificial happiness. In Sisterhood of Suns, women of humanity contemplate wiping out the last living males. Cass Russell kills boatloads of people because she can’t be bothered not to. In Daughter of the Empire the heroine owns slaves, and sees nothing wrong with it. Baru Cormorant commits all sorts of atrocities in her fight for LGBT rights and independence. And so on.

        It’s all good. I loved all those series.
        But I wouldn’t exactly take them as educational for real life values. They do make ethical points, of course, but they aren’t necessarily applicable to real-life in a 1:1 translation. It’s just entertainment, not a political manifesto. We know this. Just because Cass is a classic anti-heroine the reader wouldn’t assume that the author is trying to make a statement that it’s fine killing people and you don’t have to feel bad about it.

        But when it comes to current topics like sexuality or gender and some similar things (might be something political or religious or whatever), depending on how you do it, the reader (and I certainly include myself there!) will assume it’s got some connection to real-life.
        Casual killing is fine in fiction. Casual rape is not.

        There’s clearly some issue of perception here, and it’s troublesome, because there’s no guidelines. I still remember a The Edge of the Abyss review – a sequel to a pretty good YA scifi/fantasy thing with a lesbian heroine. That’s already rare, and fairly praiseworthy, but the review had two criticism (among other things):

        First, that the heroine was white, while the secondary characters weren’t. However, heroine is from society A while everyone else is from society B. So it makes sense that there’s some ethical barrier. Nonetheless they felt that it’s again a “white girl/guy comes to save the day” thing, and that this is problematic.
        I certainly think there’s a point there. But the point is not a problem of the individual novel: it’s a problem only because it’s done in too many novels. Obviously, any “you can’t have a white heroine” rule would be retarded. So we can’t really come to any conclusion here except for “consider this, maybe.”

        Second, the “bury your gays” trope. Your post fits there, too, because it’s something also debated with Buffy. But it has the same problem: obviously it’s stupid to say you can’t kill off any gay characters anymore. Nonetheless I’ve seen this novel featuring a cast of LGBT characters being criticized for killing a gay character, despite being a harsh, unforgiving setting where people presumably die all the time. And maybe it’s correct to criticize that, or maybe not, that’s not really the point here.

        It seems to me that there’s a problem with how LGBT characters aren’t “normalized” yet. All of them are seen as some sort of ambassador for LGBT-ness. They can’t be evil, they can’t fail, or be politically incorrect – or if any of that happens, it better be justified!

        In much the same way as Willow is an ambassador for lesbians or bisexuals. Which makes sense, but also restricts what can be done with such characters.

        So it can be discriminating to kill of every gay character, but I feel it’s equally discriminating to say you shouldn’t do it. Anything that goes for someone “normal” should go for anyone, else, too, and that’s the real conundrum.

        But there’s no definite solution to this, accept that no matter what you do some people won’t like it, and keep going. It’s easy to double- and triple-guess yourself into some corner where creativity is squashed in favor of trying to please everyone. Well, sometimes you need to piss of an audience to make something good. Which isn’t the same as being willfully ignorant, of course.
        It’ll change with time, I have no doubt about that, but for now it’s what it is (namely complicated. Well, it’ll always be complicated, but maybe less so …).

        Phew, that was a long rant and it’s still not saying all that much 😉 Just something that apparently bugs me currently. ^^

        Liked by 1 person

      • Normalization … it’s a term that’s always had a mixed reaction from me. It’s an important process, of course, but I’ve always hated that the terms needs to be applied. Things like sexual orientation should already been as a normal part of a person.
        If my statement about ‘Buffy being Buffy’ came across as a saying that you shouldn’t kill off gay characters, I apologise. It was more a statement that Buffy had a high body count, and that it was fine with killing off or writing out characters as and when needed. Honestly, I agree that all characters should be treated equally in terms of what they can and can’t do within the realms of fiction. I’ve actually said in other posts that the best way to gain acceptance in fiction for characters, be they a different orientation or gender or anything else, is for them to be shown in the same light as everyone else. Yes, having difficult coming out stories for example, is important, but having LGBT characters shown in the same way as non-LGBT characters and in particular showing their orientation as just a small part of them without a need for making a big deal out of it is also important. It’s why I write LGBT characters that way in my own work; I want to show the characters the same as everyone else.
        Going back to an earlier point though, you are correct that fiction doesn’t easily translate 1:1 to reality in most cases. Many people do try to apply it this way anyway though, whether because they think it can translate or because they simply want a reason to justify their own already held beliefs. As you said yourself, there’s no real solution to this. No matter what is put out, different people will react in different ways. Over time, the prevailing reactions will change, but how long it will take in any given situation is anyone’s guess. As long as people can discuss their views in a reasonable manner though, people can gain an understanding of each other.
        Again, thanks for commenting. I’m always happy to see discussions stemming from postings, here and elsewhere.

        Like

  2. Yes, I’m not happy about the term either – in the first place, what’s “normal” anyway? But it gets the point across, I think, and sometimes that’s all one can hope for.

    And I ultimately I do think that it’s at the core of the problem. Weber’s Honorverse for example makes it clear that sexuality and gender is really nothing that their society thinks about. There’s never any suggestion that the heroine is less capable because she’s a woman (well, aside from that “primitive” society they encounter). It’s far in the future, and people have sorted out that sort of silliness. Therefore, if one wanted to argue about it, it could be said that it’s not implausible no character ever talks about it – but this leads to hundreds of characters with no confirmed homosexuals (… apparently there is 1 in a side-story). Of course, it’s also not confirmed that more than a handful of them are heterosexual (or they could be bi).

    But the assumption would nonetheless be that all the others are heterosexual, too, isn’t it? For a heterosexual character, nothing further needs to be said. For anything else, it needs to be explicitly stated or demonstrated.

    So even in such a small way “non-normal” characters can’t be treated the same as “normal” characters, or the reader, by and large, will just assume they are “normal”.

    And, no, I just meant that there’s also a debate about deaths of LGBT character and Buffy is occasionally used as an example there, not that you said that 😉

    Frankly, this “bury your gay” tropes is one I always was fairly skeptical about. Given the tragic nature of many stories featuring LGBT characters and how few such characters there are around, I’m not sure that’s any “real” trope or just something people read into stories.

    But admittedly I have encountered a few instances where I was kinda “huh, is this done deliberately?!” series. Aeon17 for example is military scifi, but only has a handful of deaths. There are two lesbian-bi couples, and both times the lesbian dies is and is replaced with a male love interest. Now is that supposed to tell me something or did it just happen during writing for some reason? Am I oversensitive when it comes to such issues or should the author have considered that it’d look weird, especially coupled with a few other things in the series?

    No idea. If it were “normal”, I wouldn’t have thought about it. But it’s not, therefore I do.

    I also absolutely agree that there needs to be a healthy mix of stories featuring LGBT characters. Frankly, that’s one of the things that’s most bugging me about the “genre” – there’s especially so many dystopias in scifi/fantasy featuring queer characters there’s barely anything to read if you’re not in a doom&gloom mood. And it’s got nothing to do with who is writing the story either, if anything, LGBT-authors seem to be more inclined to put their hero/ines through horrible trials to ultimately have them die in despair.

    And that’s occasionally fine, but frankly sometimes I want to have some decent escapism in my fiction, and I shouldn’t need to have to pick something featuring “normal” people just to get that 😉

    Well – anyway. Keep up the good work 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Aeon17 example is a strange one. If the circumstances described had happened to one couple but not the other, that would sit easier with me. With it happening to both though, it does make you wonder whether it was intentional or not.
      Ah, good. I’m glad that I didn’t accidentally put myself across the wrong way there.
      Still though, thank you kindly. The comments are much appreciated.

      Like

  3. Willow has always been a fascinating character. I know the first time they hinted at her possible bicurious nature was with evil vampire Willow in the alternate timeline. Then they would further explore her sexuality with relationships like Tara. While she clearly identifies with a homosexual alignment from this point forward, I do think now, where we are in modern society that line is a lot more blurred with how complex we define sexuality now. I know where Whedon is coming from for sure, but I do think his words were a bit careless as well. I’d argue that perhaps she isn’t bisexual, but maybe pansexual. This requires a deep connection with someone to be attracted to them, and sex ends up be irrelevant. It’s like bisexual but a little different. Either way, whatever Willow may really be, she is a fantastically influential character, and this write-up was a fun read. I like people trying to support all sides of the LGBT movement. We focus on gays and trans so much, that I think we forget about the other important group that is right there staring us in the face.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aye, I know pansexuality well. My usual response to questions around my sexuality is that i’m either Bi or Pan depending on your definition (I’ve seen Bi described as an attraction to male and female, and as an attractio nto same and differing gender. The second fits me better, and I don’t view gender as being exclusively binary, so pan fits well if your definition of bi is male/female).
      Thank you kindly. I had such an odd time of it growing up that it alwyas felt important to try to give some more exposure to topics when I can.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh so that is why you wanted to write more about that sort of stuff! Yeah I have many friends who are pan and trans so I’m used to being a plain hetero who explains it to people who don’t understand it fully. I use their words most times so it comes across the way they would want it to.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Always a good way to do it. It can all get a bit complicated when trying to explain things sometimes, but I think people are getting to understand things a bit better now. The world certainly seems more open than it did when I was a teen.

        Like

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