overthinking the idiot box

April 18th, 2005

A column tackling gay issues, gay themes, and just general gayness in television

Sex, Girls, and the Artificial Binary:
The anatomy of a teenage television lesbian

by Whitney Cox

The general response to my last column's calling Buffy's Willow a LUG (Lesbian Until Graduation, for those of you who missed it) was a resounding: "Why do you say that? Because I agree 100% with what you're saying, I've just never been able to put my finger on it." Well, that's why people pay me the big money. To put my finger on things.


Once upon a time, I heard it said that Joss knew by season three that either Xander or Willow was going to come out at some point. Putting aside the fact that Willow was the only possible choice — Xander's being gay would have added two extra men to the cast in the form of his and Willow's eventual boyfriends, and that would have upset the show's femme-power balance — third season was just too late. Not too late, of course, for a later exploration of bisexuality, or a same-sex fling that had nothing to do with sexual orientation. But too late for a 180-degree turnaround.

Genuine all-natural 100% lesbians (accept no imitations), those lovely ladies who clock in at a full six on Ye Olde Kinsey Scale, don't spontaneously germinate upon exposure to higher education. They've been there the whole time. Most have at least some inkling, and even those that don't can usually look back and think, 'Gosh, I bet that time Faith was wearing that really tight shirt and I stared at her boobies for a full hour wasn't just the fear that she was going to kill me!' Those who date men tend to find their (often very loving) relationships awkward and a bit perfunctory, and sex doubly so. Scarce is a woman who comes out as a big girl-likin' lesbian able to look back on her life and say (in a GIR voice), 'I had no idea!'

Meanwhile, back at the Sunnydale ranch, Willow liked boys. She liked boys a lot. She crushed on boys, she had this big long thing for Xander that sort of defied all conventions of reason and good taste,and then she and Oz had a beautiful relationship.1 She had sex with boys and thought it was great and went back voluntarily for more. Boys and Willow got along swimmingly.

Which is not to say that to smooch Tara, Willow needed to forsake boys entirely, nor that her past history with men discounts her from future relationships with women. Oh, no, dear readers, I am the last person on the planet who would insist so firmly on sexuality as gay or straight with no in-betweens. And for a while, the show seemed unfettered by that artificial binary. Willow didn't say, 'I'm a lesbian!' she said, 'Tara's my girlfriend' — a lovely and truthful sentiment that places no labels on Willow's sexuality (or Tara's, for that matter). She was spared the indignity of a tearful coming-out moment, where her friends wrapped their arms around her and told her they'd still love her anyway. Joss, at least, had the grace not to give Willow the A Very Special Episode treatment, and he gets many love points for that. I mean, who has time to sit around and ponder the ins and outs of in-and-out when you're trying to take down a secret government experiment with a fascinating cornucopia of body parts?

Where it started to fall down was when the show got into its head that Willow Liked Girls (And Not Boys). She was now to be The Lesbian. She was to do lesbian things and be the source of lesbian humour(complete with semi-regular outing jokes, which got tiresome quickly2). And, most importantly, no matter what she might have said or done in the past, she was now to like the girls. Multi-season relationships with men forgotten, Willow was thrust boldly forward into a heretofore largely unmanifested sexual identity.3

This transformation was aided somewhat by her having a single object of interest — who was, as we all remember, a lady-type person — which made this 180-degree change a little more of a moot point. It didn't matter so much if Willow was heterosexual or homosexual; she was Tara-sexual for all practical intents and purposes, and all was well with the world. And when you're a straight girl who falls for a lesbian, it's easy to hitch your wagon to a rainbow, since — take it from someone who knows — telling people 'I'm gay' wastes a lot less breath than the full story of how the person with whom you've fallen in love has no real bearing on your sexual identity as a whole. The label is also compelling as a point of self-definition, to the degree that many persons who fall for other, same-gendered persons assume that they're never allowed to date anyone of the opposite gender again (this fallacious reasoning brought to you by the same kind of sexuality-as-binary thought that fueled Willow's radical transformation). So I wouldn't have been so uncomfortable if it had been only Willow who had bought into the 'I like a girl, so I must be gay!' misperception. But the show bought it right along with her.

The episode that convinced me, really, was 'Tabula Rasa' (6x08, right after the musical) — oh, the wacky amnesia fun time! And as the gang rattled around, trying to figure out who they were before Willow's drug magic addiction took their memories away, Tara did so with huge doe-eyes trained on her newfound red-headed crush, while Willow was not only mostly oblivious but somewhat wigged out by this mousy girl who seemed to have a thing for her. Without her wonderful personality as a compelling point of attraction, Tara was just another girl, and the amnesiac Willow seemed a little suspicious of said girl's attention. By the time they got their memories back, I was staring at the TV sadly, imagining the two of them five years from that point, when Willow had to confess to a tearful Tara that though it'd been fun, she really wanted the normal family life and kids that come with being with a man.

It never got to those five years, though, because Tara caught a bad case of stray-bullet-through-the-chest, rendering post-freakout Willow partnerless — which is not a way the show likes to leave anyone for too long (unless, of course, you're over thirty). Here, the show had three options. It could have had Willow accept her singleness graciously, recognizing that the kind of grief that provokes apocalyptic tendencies isn't here one season and gone the next. It could have had Willow assess her sexuality honestly, realise that she'd loved both men and women in the past, and conclude that her future partner(s) could conceivably be of either gender. Or it could have made her into some ˘ber-dyke, full of love reserved exclusively for the fairer sex, a subtle-like-a-brick response to the undoubted legions of sapphic slayer fans who grew teeth and wrinkly foreheads of their own at the realization that their favourite feminist TV show might suddenly again be lesbian-free.

Had they taken options one or two, this column would hardly have been necessary. But Willow's trip to the far end of the sexual spectrum was apparently a one-way one: The Lesbian she had become, and The Lesbian she would remain, as loudly and proudly as the show could make her — hoping, perhaps, that volume would cover their multitude of transitional sins.

1Arguably preparing her for the dyke life, where relationships have to work around both partners' 'that time of the month,' but that's neither here nor there.

2I mean, really. The first few rounds of, 'You think I'm straight, but actually I'm gay!' were funny, sure. But after a while, they just got offensive. In the real world, constantly having to correct inaccurate assumptions about one's sexuality is not so much a recurring opportunity for a humourous reveal as a wearying task.

3I say 'largely' because, if you watch Willow and Faith interact, you can see that a lot of what makes Willow uncomfortable about Faith is that she thinks Faith's seriously hot. But who doesn't?

NEXT TIME, ON OUT-TAKES: You shore do have a purdy mouth; or, POOFS! IN! SPAAAAAACE!

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Return to Vol. 1, Episode 2.