Bi Visibility Day 2017: ErasureSeptember 23, 2017
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.
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.