Coming Out on A Hell Mouth – Edwina Bartlem

Edwina Bartlem explores the representations of lesbianism and coming out in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Historically, lesbianism was almost invisible in mainstream cinema and television until recently. When it did appear, it was highly coded and the lesbian characters were often depicted as psychotic killers, vampires, satanists, witches and ball-breaking bitches. Alternative representations of lesbian characters fortunately began to appear more in popular culture during the 1990s – as is evident in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This article traces the transformation of Willow from a mild-mannered, geek-girl to a powerful, magic-addicted, dark-witch. It considers how Buffy the Vampire Slayer has, on the one hand, reworked representations of lesbians in the vampire genre, while, on the other hand, has perpetuated some stereotypical and stylistic tropes of lesbian vampire films.

Given that lesbian desire has often been associated with the monstrous in horror and vampire genres, and that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is seen as having reworked the conventions of these genres, it is worth considering how the narrative of lesbianism is dealt with in this series to contemplate if and how this desire has been resignified. This paper is concerned with critically analysing the overt representations of lesbian desire and identity as they are manifested through the Willow (played by Alyson Hannigan) and Tara (Amber Benson) characters in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the coming out narratives as they unfold in Season Four. It attempts to address several questions: How has Buffy the Vampire Slayer reworked the representation of lesbians in the vampire genre? How are the themes of lesbian desire and coming out as lesbian dealt with in the series? Finally, has the show challenged stereotypical representations of lesbianism, or merely perpetuated them? I start this paper with a sense of ambivalence about how the lesbian characters and lesbian desire are constructed in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because on the one hand I gain pleasure from watching these representations, but on the other hand I suspect that the series perpetuates some homophobic concepts about lesbianism. I am mindful that representations in horror and fantasy television programs and films are creative images and manifestations of ideas, mythologies and narratives. They are not perfect reflections of society, although the writers may attempt to deal with some social issues and identity politics within generic frameworks. However, fictional representations are still important sites where viewers negotiate personal and cultural concepts of sexuality and subjectivity.

This queer reading of Buffy the Vampire Slayer investigates the disguised homo-erotic tensions between the out lesbian characters in the series. It avoids an elaborate search for homoerotic and non-normative sexual couplings between other characters in the series. If I were to do such a queer reading, I would probably concentrate on the Willow and Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), or Faith (Eliza Dushku) and Buffy relationships as Farah Medlesohn has done in her essay, “Surpassing the Love of Vampires”(2002: 45-60). Alternatively, I might focus on the sadomasochistic relationship between Spike (James Marsters) and Buffy, or the bizarre love triangle between Andrew, Warren and Jonathan in Season Six. Instead, this paper is more concerned with analysing the blatant representations of lesbian desire and sexuality as they are constructed through characterisation, metaphors, narrative and stylistic devices in particular episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to consider how these themes have been integrated into a youth-orientated, television program. To perform this queer reading I am not so much ‘reading against the grain’ as reading across and through the text to explore some of the historical, cultural and fictional discourses that are being drawn upon and added to in the construction of lesbian desire and identity in the series.

Lesbians in the Vampire Genre

Themes of lesbianism, queer desire and coming out are hardly new to the vampire genre. A number of feminist, queer, gay and lesbian film theorists, including Sue-Ellen Case (1991), Barbara Creed (1993), Shameem Kabir (1998), Clare Whatling (1997) and Andrea Weiss (1991), have written about the polymorphous sexuality of the cinematic vampire and what this symbolises within mainstream discourses and to gay and lesbian identified viewers. Classic vampire films often encode vampires as lesbian, gay or queer through their choice of victims and companions of the same sex. Furthermore, their abilities to seduce their victims through hypnotic and supernatural techniques, symbolically aligns them with other sexual outlaws such as homosexuals who were seen as participating in unnatural and immoral acts of passion. A common narrative development in lesbian vampire films is that the female vampire becomes obsessed with a female human who she then attempts to seduce through supernatural and sexual means.

These narratives usually conclude with the human woman needing to be rescued from her own lesbian desires for the vampire seductress by a heterosexual male hero. This can be seen in films such as Dracula’s Daughter (Dir: Lambert Hillyer, 1936), Daughters of Darkness (Dir: Harry Kumel, 1970) and many of the Hammer Studio films such as The Vampire Lovers(Dir: Roy Ward Baker, 1970). This tradition was subverted in later films like The Hunger (Dir: Tony Scott, 1983), where Sarah saves herself from Miriam, the ancient vampire, to become the vampire queen. Queer vampires are corrupting agents in these narratives, attempting to pollute and transform so-called normal heterosexual humans into unnatural queer monsters through their infectious bite and hypnotic powers (Weiss 1993:84).

Classic vampire narratives symbolically associate homosexuality with contagion, reinforcing the notion that gay and lesbian people are predatory and are determined to recruit more members.[1] Andrea Weiss maintains in Vampires and Violets: Lesbians in Film (1993) that lesbianism was almost invisible in classic, mainstream cinema and television, detectable only through visual and narrative codes such as a female character’s androgynous attire; short or severe hair-styles; aggressive or reckless behaviour; high intellect; unmarried status and the unusual interest in befriending other women (3).

According to Weiss, when lesbianism did appear (as in vampire films) lesbian viewers often had to ‘read against the grain’ and to take their viewing pleasure from the transgressive powers of lesbian-coded femme fatales, psychotic killers and supernatural beings (1993:4). Considering this history, imagine the initial delight of some lesbian Buffy the Vampire Slayerfans when Willow, a likeable heroine in a mainstream American television series entered into a lesbian romantic relationship and came out to her friends. This heroine even rejected the wolfish charms of her cool ex-boy-beau, Oz (Seth Green), for the ethereal charms of her new wicca gal-pal, Tara. This in itself was an unusual narrative development.

Initially, Season Four of Buffy the Vampire Slayerseemed to challenge the stereotypical representation of lesbians as dangerous individuals in the vampire genre by coding two protagonists in the narrative, Willow and Tara, as lesbians. Both of these characters had an interest in magic and witchcraft, which was offered as a reason for why they met and bonded. The trope of the seductive lesbian vampire was replaced by the trope of the lesbian teen-witch. So the series inverted the vampire genre’s convention of constructing lesbians as evil characters by aligning them with the vampire slayer instead of the vampires. Lesbianism was symbolically relocated from the realm of evil to the realm of good, yet it was still associated with the supernatural through the association with magic. This relocation was a temporary one though, as Willow transformed into a powerful, evil character by the end of Season Six – a point that will be returned to later.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer challenges the cinematic vampire genre most obviously because it is a television series that has a serial format which allows for complex narratives to unfold more slowly and for the central characters to develop over time (over a season or across multiple seasons). A variety of narrative techniques are used in the series including episodic story and seasonal story arcs that rely on the changing relationships between the central characters of the show (Turnbull:2002). Arguably this is one of the reasons why the show is so popular – viewers tune in each week to discover what is happening with the regular characters, as they would with a melodrama soap-opera. By constructing the characters as being in a state of flux, the writers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer challenge the humanist notion of subjectivity as being unified and static (Brooks 1997:21). Instead, the series affirms a poststructural approach to subjectivity by implying that subjectivity (including sexuality) is “in-process” and never complete (Brooks 1997:21). This focus on character development and flux is an effective strategy for dealing with storylines to do with sexuality and coming of age because it allows for these narratives to unfold in complex, fragmented and sometimes contradictory ways.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer can be described as a ‘hybrid television program’ because it draws on elements of vampire, teen coming-of-age, horror, fantasy, science fiction, situational comedy and melodrama genres. This blending of generic elements allows the writers to deal with controversial themes such as teenage sex, coming out, depression and violence, in multiple ways. Sometimes these themes are dealt with overtly, at other times they may be addressed in more coded ways through the use of monstrous, bizarre, whimsical and supernatural narratives and metaphors – as is the case with lesbian sexuality which is dealt with through the metaphors of magic and witchcraft. Metaphors are a useful narrative method of avoiding censorship issues when dealing with controversial themes in a mainstream, youth-orientated, television program like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Queer Relationships

It is worth noting that there are actually a number of queer or non-normative sexual and romantic relationships presented in the series besides Willow & Tara’s relationship. In fact, Willow and Tara’s romance seems more positive and conventional than many of the other relationships because they are depicted as being a loving, caring and supportive (if only occasionally passionate) couple. A number of the other alliances are far stranger and more volatile, even though on the surface they could appear to be ‘normal’ due to the enforced normativity of heterosexism. he relationships between Willow & Oz (a witch & a werewolf); Buffy & Angel (a vampire slayer & a vampire with a soul); Buffy & Spike (a vampire slayer and an evil vampire turned semi-good vampire); and Xander & Anya (a human and an ex-vengeance demon) could all be described as queer or transgressive. Many of these characters are semi-monstrous and blur the boundaries between the human and inhuman.

Psychoanalytic feminist theorist, Julia Kristeva, would probably describe most of these characters and these relationships as ‘abject’ because they symbolically represent the crossing of borders between that which is upheld as ideal in our society and that which is viewed as perverse, immoral or strange (1982:4). Symbolically, these relationships present different forms of prevailing sexual taboos such as homosexuality, beastiality, necrophilia, paedophilia and sado-masochism. These couplings confuse the borders between what is considered to be normal and abnormal in terms of sexual desire and relationships and through this suggest versions of non-normative power relations. Interestingly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer often constructs these relationships as unconventional romances, rather than being totally horrific or disgusting. The impossibility of these relationships and the themes of unrequited and unrealisable love keep viewers hanging on for more, like day-time melodrama junkies hooked on delayed gratification. These couplings are nearly always accompanied by a narrative involving angst and uncertainty about revealing the existence of these taboo relationships to friends. Therefore, it is arguable that the theme of comng out – of disclosing a secret or personal information to do with one’s history, identity and sexuality – is a recurrent theme in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Another queer union in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the ‘Scooby-gang’ itself. This collection of misfit friends from various dysfunctional families and single adults that act as parent figures to the younger characters, such as Giles, Joyce and Spike (from Season Four), re-present a revisionist version of ‘the family’. This non-nuclear family is a model of postmodern and queer families where blood parents are often absent, peers care for one another, and unrelated adults sometimes take on parental roles for dispossessed adolescents. The idea of blood-ties is referenced ironically through the vampires in Buffy, who create family units with other vampires because of their dependence on blood. Vampires set up nests (homes or retreats) where they congregate and reside out of necessity and a desire to be with similar creatures. Like the Scooby-gang, the vampires bond out of a desire and need for inclusion in a new family unit, even though this new unit is often patriarchal and hierarchical in arrangement. Buffy the Vampire Slayer queers notions of the family by presenting friendship, trust, loyalty and support as the features of familial bonding instead of genealogy.

The Coming Out Narrative

The term, ‘coming out’, or ‘coming out of the closet’, refer to the process of making public something personal that has been keep secret because of shame, embarrassment or fear. These days it usually refers to the process of coming to terms with one’s homosexual, bisexual or queer desires. People usually come out to themselves first by acknowledging that they are attracted to a person or people of the opposite sex. Then hopefully when they have come to terms with this desire, they disclose this aspect of themselves to friends and family. The reason that this is such a big deal is that within our culture, homosexuality is still considered to be a taboo sexuality, although attitudes towards same-sex desires are changing. In contrast, heterosexuality is upheld not only as the norm but as the ideal. It is generally accepted that coming out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer or transgender is a continuous process in that there are always new situations where people have to negotiate their non-straight status. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer the narrative of Willow’s coming out is dealt with in several stages: Willow’s self awareness of her lesbian desire for Tara; the representation of lesbian sex as a form of magic, and Willow’s disclosure of her relationship with Tara to the rest of the Scooby-gang.

Stage One – Self Awareness.

Willow’s lesbianism is hinted at in Season Three when Willow comes face to face with her red-lipped, leather-clad, dominatrix, vampire-twin in "Dopplegängland" (Dir: Joss Whedon, 1999). Interestingly this double appears at a time when Willow is having a dilemma about being perceived as boring, ordinary and a pushover by others. Out of a morbid anxiety about her public persona and a magic experiment with Anya, arises an uncanny double that appears to represent a repressed aspect of Willow’s psyche (Freud 1934:394). This episode presents an example of lesbian narcissism at its queerest when the innocent and supposedly straight Willow is pinched, fondled and licked by her highly sexualised, vampy double.

Towards the end of “Dopplegängland” after Vampire-Willow has been captured, Regular-Willow faces her embodiment of double trouble and muses: “That’s me as a vampires? So evil. And Skanky…” Then in a whispered tone to Buffy, “And I think I’m kinda gay!” Buffy tries to comfort Willow by reassuring her that the vampire double’s personality has nothing to do with the Willow who exists in this dimension. Angel then interrupts, suggesting that this is not actually true. This verbal exchange indicates that the vampire double is not necessarily the complete opposite of Willow, but is merely a different version of the same character. Vampire-Willow is not simply Willow’s externalised other, rather she appears to be a reflection of a different aspect of Willow’s character. This episode hints at what is to come for Willow later in the series, implying that Willow has the potential to be queer, seductive, powerful and evil.

Willow’s self-awareness of her lesbian desire becomes more evident in “Hush”(Dir: Joss Whedon, 2000) in Season Four when she meets Tara at a wicca group meeting and they later have to defend themselves against the ghastly fairytale figures, the Gentlemen. At the end of “Hush” when Willow and Tara are attempting to escape the Gentlemen, Willow discovers the dynamic power of combining her psychic and magical energy with Tara’s energy. Willow strains to psychically move a drink dispenser against a door to keep the Gentlemen out. She obviously has some psychokinetic power but is unable to focus that energy to achieve her goal. It is through the gentle guidance of Tara and the combined energy of the girls, channelled by the clasping of hands (shown in close-up), that they are able to move the object. The synthesis of the girls’ energies creates an explosive surge of magical power.

Willow’s surprised look is met by Tara’s knowing gaze and the girls then exchange a meaningful look which suggests that this is the beginning of a powerful new alliance. The errie fairytale melody and visuals work together to enhance a sense of tension and mystery during this squence. The union between the girls emphasises the feminist theme of empowerment through collective action. It can be read as a metaphor for female alliances against the spectre of patriarchy. And for the purposes of this paper, it can also be interpreted as a signifier of lesbian desire and compatibility. The surge of magical energy in this scene can be read as a rush of sexual energy between the girls, with the exchange of looks implying an acknowledgment of the presence of desire.

So, Buffy the Vampire Slayer presents Willow’s initial self-awareness of her lesbian desire and identity as resulting from her use of magic and through her psychic connection with Tara. Consequently, lesbianism is aligned with the realm of the supernatural in this series. This narrative strategy may present lesbian desire as being a less frightening version of the supernatural than in classic vampire and horror films, however it does not symbolically relocate lesbianism from a supernatural realm into a ‘real’ realm. It simply shifts lesbian desire across into another ambiguous zone where it is coupled with witchcraft and magic.

Stage Two – Lesbian Sex Is Magic

Magic and witchcraft are metaphors for lesbian desire and sex in the absence of any candid sexual activity between the girls throughout Series Four of Buffy. This coupling between lesbianism and witchcraft is an interesting yet problematic narrative strategy. Historically, Judeo-Christian traditions have stigmatised lesbianism and witchcraft as deviant, immoral and evil due to the symbolic threat that they pose to patriarchal power. At times, lesbians have been accused of being witches and wicca women have been accused of being lesbians. Sexuality is a central issue in this coupling because both wiccas and lesbians celebrate active female sexualities that break with conservative, ideals of female sexuality as passive and oriented towards male-pleasure (Greenwood 2000:103). It is no coincidence that Willow’s interest in wicca and witchcraft increases around the same time as she enters into a relationship with Tara and comes out as a lesbian to her friends. Arguably, the Buffy writers and producers were relying on cultural and historical associations between witchcraft and lesbianism in developing this narrative pathway.

The use of magic to metaphorically represent lesbian desire and sex is quite overt in the stylistic presentation of magic rituals and the dialogue throughout Season Four. This sub-text is only vaguely disguised and is referenced playfully in the dialogue of particular episodes. During Willow’s dream sequence in "Restless " (Dir: Joss Whedon, 2000) for example, the use of magic as a metaphor for lesbian desire and sex is made obvious to the viewer through Xander’s amusing, if slightly sleazy, confession to Oz: “I like to imagine two girls doing spells, then I like to do a spell myself”. This dialogue self-consciously acknowledges how magic is being used as a metaphor for sex in the series. Xander’s confession about masturbatory fantasies featuring two girls doing spells, playfully alludes to hetero-male fascinations with watching, imagining and getting-off on lesbian sex in B-grade pornography. The success of this joke relies on the viewer’s cultural knowledge of this erotic fascination that young men have with lesbian sex and the existence of the porn industry that feeds this obsession. The fact that this conversation takes place in Willow’s dream sequence suggests that she is beginning to process the cultural and personal significance of identifying as a lesbian and witch. Willow is digesting her sense of difference and otherness.

Lesbian sex is not presented in the series using the conventions of filmic realism. Rather, it is presented using the conventions of fantasy. Lesbian desire and sex are signified though the rituals of spell casting and ceremonial magic. Music, lighting, setting and special effects work together to present lesbian sex as a mysterious event. The show seems to play with cultural notions of lesbian sex as an enigma by presenting it as a form of magic. Lesbian desire is analogous to the desire for spiritual synchronicity and unity between female characters, with lesbian sex being evoked through the metaphors of magic and otherworldliness.

This approach implies that lesbian sex is tantric – spiritual and cosmic as well as physical. Susan Greenwood maintains in her book, Magic, Witchcraft and the Otherworld(2000), that the belief in “sexuality as a sources of magical communication is explicit in witchcraft and probably has its roots in Tantra”(104). Greenwood argues that the essence of Tantra is the connection of “the human body to the wider cosmos through dedication to the female principle and sexuality” (104). Tantric cosmology views the whole universe as being made up and sustained by the two forces of Shiva and Shakti. Shiva represents the fundamental elements of the universe, while Shakti is the dynamic force that causes the elements to function. Shakti’s name means power and “she represents the primal energy underlying the cosmos”(105). This mythology of cosmic unity and magical sexuality is referenced through the construction of Willow and Tara’s sexuality in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In a magic scene from "A New Man " (Dir: Michael Gershman, 2000), Tara and Willow perform a “Synchronicity Spell” with a red rose which can be read as a scene of sexual seduction and experimentation between the girls. The dialogue and symbolism seem to have double meanings. The red rose can be interpreted as a sign of both passion and vaginal imagery. In describing what the spell is about, Willow claims that this spell is “a test of synchronicity” and that for the spell to work their “minds have to be perfectly attuned to work as a single delicate implement”. This spell aims to test their compatibility as magic and sexual partners. Set in Tara’s bedroom, the girls are surrounded by various cliché paraphernalia that people use to create a sensual setting for romantic seduction such as draped fabric, fairy lights and burning candles. As the girls begin to perform the spell an eerie wind blows across them and the ethereal music becomes louder and faster mimicking the quickening of their breathing. Music works in this scene to amplify the characters heightened state of ecstasy, and to reinforce the impression of otherworldliness surrounding this ritual. When the rose levitates and hovers between the two girls, they open their eyes to look blissfully at this mysterious event. A moment later, before they have a chance to pluck the petals from the flower, it shoots around the room and smashes to the ground in the centre of the square. This eventuation prompts Willow to ask, “What the Heck was that?” and for Tara to coyly respond, “I don’t know, but the petals are off.” In the context of reading this magical event as lesbian sex, the smashing of the rose is like a rapid orgasm that comes out of no where and surprises both parties.

Another example of lesbian sex as a form of magic in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is offered during the “Passage to the Netherrealm” ritual in the "Who Are You?" (Dir: Joss Whedon, 2000) episode. Both the title and the presentation of The Passage to the Netherrealm magic ritual have blatant erotic connotations. In this case it is Tara who suggests that they do the ritual to gain access to a realm that exists beyond the physical realm. In reading the metaphor of magic as lesbian sex, this claim implies that lesbian sex can exist beyond the physical or real world in another world. The ritual is described by Tara as being “very intense” and “like astral projection” – a kind of disembodied experience. Until this point in time, Tara appears to be a fairly insipid character, but this episode indicates that Tara is going to be a source of emotional strength, metaphysical knowledge and erotic pleasure for Willow.

The scene begins with the drawing of the curtains and Tara anointing Willow’s head, lips and chest with oil, suggesting that this ritual is a private form of initiation. During the ritual, the girls face each other while chanting. Their fingertips gently stroke the ground around them emulating the seductive caress of lovers. Both girls produce an energy that is represented as a circle of light that surrounds them. During the ritual their breathing becomes laboured and they appear to be perspiring. As they touch hands and look at each other in a state of ecstasy, a halo of light levitates off the floor and circles around them, reinforcing the impression that they are experiencing a tantric form of sex. The scene ends with Willow falling back upon a pillow, eyes closed, gasping for breath and back arched – obviously in a state of orgasmic pleasure. During this scene, ethereal music and subtle fading in and out of different shots of the girls, create a seductive audio-visual spectacle that implies an alternative state of being. Special effects are used in the magic scenes between Tara and Willow to both visualise magic and to evoke a sense of wonder and otherworldliness about the mystery that is lesbian sex. Music, editing and special effects are applied to emulate the states of euphoria and ecstasy that Willow and Tara are experiencing. Lesbian sex is depicted as a form of ritual magic, symbolically relocating it from the material world to an ethereal realm.

The depiction of lesbian sex as a form of magic, situates it as being beyond the material world, outside the physical body and beyond reality. It is constructed as disembodied, supernatural and spiritual – tantric if you like. This approach insinuates that lesbian desire and sexuality are anomalies that exist beyond the normal world, beyond representation on mainstream television and beyond the understanding of most viewers. It positions lesbian desire and sexuality as mysteries that can only be represented as magic and can only be truly understood by those who understand the secret language of lesbian sex. Although the metaphor of lesbian sex as magic is used in a tongue-in-cheek fashion in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it is problematic because it leaves a large space for reading this desire as being unnatural, frightening and potentially evil.

Heterosexual and lesbian sex are represented quite differently in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Although there is not much room to expand on this point here, the lesbian sex between Tara and Willow is presented as more disembodied and transcendental, than the heterosexual sex shown in the series. While lesbian sex is implied to be an act of mystical conjuring and convergence between two similar but different forces, Buffy’s heterosexual encounters are presented as being far more physical and volatile. Buffy’s sex scenes are sometimes inter-cut with battle scenes between demons and humans such as the sex scene with Riley in "The ‘I’ in Team"(Dir: James A. Contner, 2000). These power struggles embody the time-worn cliché of the battle between the sexes and the tension between primal and civilised forces. This impression that heterosexual sex is a struggle for balance and power between two conflicting forces can be witnessed in Buffy’s sexual relationships with Angel, Riley and Spike.

Stage Three – Willow Comes Out to Her Friends

Willow’s coming out as a wicca-lesbian in Buffy was dealt with using the conventions of drama and comedy, instead of simply using the conventions of fantasy and horror to deal with this theme. The pressures and anxieties of coming out to friends and family as gay were dealt with in a fairly empathetic way by the Buffy writers and producers. Interestingly, Season Four presents viewers with two distinct scenarios of coming out to friends in through the "Who Are You?" and "New Moon Rising" (Dir: James A. Contner, 2000) episodes.

In "Who Are You?", the episode where Faith takes over Buffy’s body, Faith (as Buffy) works out that Willow and Tara are a couple before anyone else. This is interesting because Faith is constructed as a sexually aggressive female character and as a dark reflection of Buffy’s slayer persona. Presumably, Faith’s street-wise knowledge of sexuality and her association with the dingy side of life, assists her in seeing what Buffy, Xander and Giles have failed to see – that Willow and Tara are romantically and sexually involved. Faith-as-Buffy responds to the realisation that the girls are romantically involved by being malicious and sarcastic to Tara behind Willow’s back. Faith taunts Tara about Willow’s previous relationship with Oz and makes fun of her shyness. This scene is an example of friends rejecting and ostracising a new lover, especially a gay lover. In this case, the body swapping narrative device allows the show to explore a worst-case scenario of coming out to friends.

An alternative scenario of coming out to friends is offered in "New Moon Rising" when Willow comes out to ‘the real’ Buffy. In this episode, Oz has returned from Tibet with a cure for his werewolf nature. This return creates emotional confusion for Willow who is on the brink of a romance with Tara. Buffy is totally oblivious to the Willow/Tara romance until this point in time. The dialogue and dramatic style of the scene deals with the awkwardness of coming out to friends and loved ones in a fairly amusing and sympathetic fashion. Buffy is obviously shocked by Willow’s confession but tries unsuccessfully to pretend that she is completely fine with the situation, which is how the humour is generated in the scene. The humour is offset by Willow’s obvious state of confusion and vulnerability about her personal disclosure. This scene ends with a touching moment when Buffy reassures Willow that she is glad that she has told her and that everything will work out.

The narrative of coming out as lesbian in Season Four of Buffy the Vampire Slayer asserts that this process may be difficult, but it does not have to result in psychosis, criminality, alienation or suicide, as it sometimes did in classic films dealing with these themes, such as The Children’s Hour (1961) or The Killing of Sister George (1968). Although Willow and Tara are depicted as experiencing confusion, personal angst and discrimination regarding their same-sex desires, on the up side they work through these dilemmas. They also gain acceptance and support from their close friends. On the whole, Season Four presents a positive and empathetic version of the coming out narrative.

The transformation into Evil-Willow

A problem with the connection between lesbian desire, witchcraft and magic within the Buffyverse, is that magic and witchcraft are fluid signifiers in this series. These metaphors have been used to deal with a variety of themes including female narcissism, jealousy, lesbian desire, drug addiction and revenge. Witchcraft and magic are therefore unstable signifiers that constantly change in the Buffy verse, but they nearly always represents signs of female deviance. By assertively associating the lesbian characters with magic and witchcraft, the show still aligns lesbianism with supernatural powers, moral deviance and unnatural desires.

In Season Six, magic was activated as a metaphor for addictive drugs and used as a powerful destructive weapon in the narrative. A symbolic connection was therefore made between lesbian desire and addictive substances through this resignification of magic as a drug and the transformation of Willow into a junkie. Lesbianism was once again implied to be dangerous and infectious – like the bite of a vampire. However, this was not the only negative connotation that magic was granted in Season Six. It also became a powerful weapon of vengeance in Willow’s hands after Tara was murdered by Warren at the end of the season. It was at this time that Evil-Willow emerged as a powerful new force in the narrative.

Although viewers were given insights into the personal devastation that Willow experienced as a result of the loss of her lover and magic partner, elucidating her desire for revenge, this character development reinstated the old stereotypes of lesbians as dangerous women and supernatural beings. In "Villains" (Dir: David Solomon, 2002), "Two To Go" (Dir: Bill L. Norton, 2002) and "Grave" (Dir: James A. Contner, 2002), Willow became the archetypal vengeful and destructive woman – the man-killing witch who could fly; channel dark-energy and destroy life psychically. Driven on by rage, she had the power to kick Buffy’s butt both magically and emotionally.

To to conclude, Buffy the Vampire Slayer seemed to positively rework representations of lesbians in the vampire genre by presenting the lesbian-coded characters as good-guys, rather than vampires and monsters in Season Four. However, the stereotypical trope of lesbians as supernatural beings was perpetuated through the association of lesbianism with witchcraft and by representing lesbian sex as magic. Season six’s activation of magic as a metaphor for addictive substances and Willows intoxication through its power, further complicated the possibility of reading Willow as an empowered and empowering lesbian character. Willow and Tara occupy ambiguous positions as dykons because of their construction as wicca-sisters, but more specifically because of their difficult relationship with magic which is a changing signifier in the Buffy verse. While the spectacle of lesbian sex as a form of magic is romantic, it is also problematic as it perpetuates the normative, homophobic notion that lesbian sex is not real, physical or visually presentable. At the very least, it implies that lesbian sex is not presentable on American or Australian mainstream television.

On the up side though, Buffy does present some empowered images of lesbians in the process of coming out, in long-term romantic relationships and as part of an alternative family unit. Willow and Tara’s relationship appears to be quite normal (if there is such a thing) in comparison to the other couples presented in Buffy. Finally, the serial format of the show fascilitates an effective arrangement for dealing with complex themes of sexuality, desire, coming out and identity. The central characters are not static – they are in a constant state of flux and development in relation to social and personal situations. Buffy the Vampire Slayer captures the sense that subjectivity and sexuality are interrelated but are also fluid and changeable.


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Kristeva, Julia 1982, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez, Columbia University Press, New York, 4.

Krzywinska, Tanya 2002, ‘Hubble-Bubble, Herbs and Grimoirs: Magic, Manichaeanism, and Witchcraft in Buffy’, in Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, eds. Rhonda V. Wilcox and David Lavery, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, Boulder, New York and Oxford.

Mendlesohn, Farah 2002, ‘Surpassing the Love of Vampires. Or, Why (and How) a Queer Reading of the Buffy/Willow Relationship Is Denied’,in Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, eds. Rhonda V. Wilcox and David Lavery, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, Boulder, New York and Oxford.

Turnbull, Sue, ‘Who am I? Who Are You?: On the Narrative Imperative of Not Knowing Who You Are in Buffy’, symposium paper at The Buffyverse, Cinema Studies Program, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 21 November 2002.

Whatling, Clare 1997, Screen Dreams: Fantasising Lesbians in Film, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York. Weiss,Andrea 1993, Vampires and Violets: Lesbians in Film, Penguin Books, New York.


The Children’s Hour [or The Loudest Whisper as released in the UK] (William Wyler, 1961), Mirisch, United States.

Countess Dracula (Peter Sasdy, 1971),

Daughters of Darkness (Harry Kumel, 1970) Showking Film, Belgium.

Dracula’s Daughter (Lambert Hillyer, 1936), Swank Films, United States.

The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983), Richard Shepherd, United States.

The Killing of Sister George (Robert Aldrich, 1968), Palomar, United States.

The Vampire Lovers (Roy Ward Baker, 1970), Hammer Studios, Great Britain.

Television Programs

‘Dopplegängland’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dir: Joss Whedon, 1999.

‘Grave’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dir: James A. Contner, 2002.

‘Hush’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dir: Joss Whedon, 2000.

‘The I in Team’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dir: James A. Contner, 2000

‘A New Man’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dir: Michael Gershman, 2000.

‘New Moon Rising’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dir: James A. Contner, 2000.

‘Restless’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dir: Joss Whedon, 2000.

‘Two To Go’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dir: Douglas Petrie, 2002.

‘Villains’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dir: David Solomon, 2002.

‘Who Are You?’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dir: Joss Whedon, 2000.


[1] Ellis Hanson’s essay ‘Undead’ (1991) in Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories takes this idea further by performing a queer reading of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and comparing the figure of the male vampire with the figure of the HIV positive homosexual man through themes of infection, non-procreative sex and the notion of being undead (neither alive nor dead).


  1. Sharon Cameron (nee Edward) says:

    Hi Edwina, I was just looking up your name and found this interesting and well researched articule. It constantly amazes me on how well some issues are either hidden or encoded, and how often we (as a society) only feel comfortable when these issues are presented this way. The question remains – what is normal and why do we feel the need to judge others? Any way I would love to hear from you. Til I read another of your articles, I shall think deeply on this issue of why do we think and need to judge others and their personal choices. Sharon