I want to talk about Willow and love, and how that factors into her identity. Willow's lack of core identity is discussed all over the place. It manifests itself in numerous ways throughout the series and can be analyzed in a number of lights. Restless is extremely popular in its analysis of Willow’s dream and is talked about in various metas as well as academic essays. But I want to focus on Jes Battis’ essay from the Slayage journal, “She’s Not All Grown Yet”. In it, Battis aims to deconstruct Willow and notes that “Willow, who has been overshadowed by Buffy… has also shadowed her, and at times, eclipsed her.” This idea comes up at later points in the article, but it’s an important one to start with.
So Battis starts with the fractured identity idea, that “Willow reflects all that her friends imagine her to be.” She’s Xander’s childhood friend, the awkward nerd, the novice magician, the computer whiz, the academic, Buffy’s best friend, one of Dawn’s surrogate moms, the powerful, dark-eyed witch, etc; But:
"Willow inhabits all of these subjectivities, and none of them make her as legible as the other characters in the show, because she can move so quickly and seamlessly between them. Willow—alone among the Scoobies—has the power to choose between redemptive and destructive behavior. She is not bound by prophecy (like Buffy), or mediocrity (like Xander) or logic and propriety (like Giles). She is free, and thus, completely dislocated, bewildered and confused. For no identity satisfies her, no power can ever truly embody her, and after losing herself in ‘dark’ magic, no amount of atonement can erase the memory of what she inflicted on others through word and deed. Her hybridity, her ability to choose, comes with the loss of any meaningful sense of belonging, intimacy or certainty. Like Buffy, she is faced with the knowledge that she doesn’t know "how to live in this world if these are the choices. If everything just gets stripped away. I just don’t see the point" (Buffy 5022). But, also like Buffy, she knows that the illusion of safety, of a morally-governed universe, of a destiny not eclipsed by suffering and most likely death, is her only comfort. And it is, after all, the maintenance and defense of any human certainty, however small, that drives these characters to avert apocalypse season after season…the continual realization that the world itself is worth saving, that causes them to fight, even against themselves.”
This is a powerful statement in that it places Buffy and Willow on equal footing in terms of power and choice (if not more, considering in the end, Willow has both more power and more choice than Buffy does). It also echoes Battis’ earlier point that Willow eclipses Buffy. She first does so in S5 as the only formidable power against Glory, and it’s continued through the end of the series in S7 as she alone has the ability to unlock the entire Slayer line, something without which, Buffy and the others would have surely been defeated by The First’s army. Destiny may not play into Willow’s identity, but after “Choices”, Willow is ruled by the same difficult decisions and responsibility that Buffy has. And after S6, her place amongst them is even in more flux as Willow is indeed the most powerful of them all.
The crux of Battis’ essay for me comes down to this part:
"Who is Willow? And, perhaps more accurately, why does she matter? As has been discussed, it is Willow’s ambiguity that makes her interesting as a character—her lack of positioning that makes her the object of theoretical debate. She is Buffy’s twilight sister and confidante, yet has the mystical power to destroy the Slayer. She is dismissive of Xander’s friendship and foibles, yet all of her rage, grief and desire for vengeance cannot withstand his brilliant, calm declaration of unconditional love. She is the academic equal—and mystical superior—to Giles, yet it is Giles who ‘teaches’ her to reaccess her lost humanity by reminding her that she is part of a vast, organic system. In short, Willow resents her surrogate family, yet is informed by them, and desperately needs to anchor her free-floating subject to what she assumes are their ‘solid’ identities."
It’s here I actually jump toward introducing a quote from Jackie Kessler’s essay “Going Dark”because its only by looking at two things against each other that my thoughts truly come together.
"Villains are like heroes in one major way: there must be some fatal weakness. Willow Rosenberg’s weakness is she needs to be loved. Not just any love would do, not for a fatal weakness. It has to be Fairy Tale Love, true love, the sort that makes you feel like anything is possible. Tara and Willow were the power couple of the series. They showed that no matter what, love conquered all. So of course, they had to be ripped apart. Fatal gunshot. No backsies fatal. Heroes have to suffer, remember? Willow’s love to Tara was the real deal - so much so, it defined Willow, shaped her and nearly destroyed her.
But just as love shattered Willow into Dark Willow, it was also love that brought Willow Rosenberg back to herself. Not romantic love, but a true love all the same: the love that Xander Harris has for his lifelong best friend. Xander’s love for Willow - this pure, unquestionable love - brings her back from the brink.
Willow Rosenberg needed to be loved. It’s her weakness….and, ultimately, her strength.”
Willow’s issues of identity are in conflated against with what drives her. But not, really, because in many ways they are the same. Battis’ point is that Willow’s many identities are a result of how her friends see her and how they impose roles upon her. Willow in turn needs them to define her. Most see this as a weakness, but I don’t necessarily think this is the case. Yes, she gets into a lot of trouble in how her identity matches up against her case of self-worth but again, those issues aren’t the same. How she measures her self-worth is in relation to her identity, to the context of how she relates to the people around her.
But here’s the secret that a lot of people ignore, I think: they all do. That’s the beautiful thing about the Scoobies! They derive love and worth, strength and stability from their relationships to each other- their places, their roles. And how they’re both limited and surpass these roles is what makes them all great.
For Giles, Buffy, and Xander, their roles might not be defined by each other but their senses of worth and love absolutely are. Buffy will always be the Slayer no matter where she is, Giles will always be a Watcher and teacher no matter who his Slayer is, and Xander will never have a superpower no matter how many superpeople he surrounds himself with. But Buffy’s one of the best and long-lived Slayers precisely because she’s in Sunnydale and she surrounded herself with friends and family. Because she doesn’t go at it alone. Giles doesn’t just do his duty as a Watcher, he becomes one of the best Watchers because of Buffy. Because of what she challenges him to do and how much he loves her and the rest of the Scoobies. They make him into Giles, not just a Watcher but their Watcher. Xander, a human with no powers either physical or magical nonetheless guides a group of the most powerful forces of good on earth. He saves the world with his heart and loyalty. He’s not super-powered, but through the Scoobies, becomes extraordinary. How well they all succeed and grow depends on each other. This is no different than how Willow operates. Her roles are just in a much greater state of flux.
I disagree with Battis’ idea that she resents her surrogate family for this. If anything, they ultimately provide the structure to become herself. To find herself. To discover what it means to “Just be Willow.” It’s only when all her options are laid bare, when she sees everything she was and can be –the good and bad of what she is capable of - that she is free to be able to truly decide who she wants to be.
Willow might have reflected identity, but she also craves the structure of what’s projected and expected of her. It’s how she learns to navigate (and arguably has her entire life, she craves rules because they’re clear and she can understand them). And this is where the Jackie Kessler quote becomes important, that love is Willow’s greatest weakness and biggest strength. Love is at the crux of who she is. It’s her love of her friends that she breaks boundaries - both good and bad. To help them. To protect them. To save them. To hurt them. She is defined by them most out of everyone, but also defined by their love. Love is Willow’s weakness. She reflects it and is reflected upon. She loves Buffy, Xander, Giles, Oz, Dawn, Tara, fiercely, open and unabashedly in everything she does. Does it get her into trouble? Absolutely. But it also saves not only their lives, but the entire world on numerous occasions. (It also almost caused her to end it, but isn’t that what makes this entire thing so juicy and fascinating?) It turn, it is their love in return she needs in order to survive.
The problem is that deep down, Willow doesn’t believe she’s truly lovable. It’s what makes her crave their love even more, why she clings to it, because without it she thinks she’s nothing. This is what Dark Willow is about. She’s about pain and breaking all the boundaries she was afraid to toe before, in fear that to do so would mean losing the love of her friends. It’s only in the face of blind love, where forgiveness doesn’t even matter, that Willow can be saved.
The tragic irony is that once Willow finally realizes she’s loved no matter what, she honestly, truly doesn’t believe she’s worthy of it. That once she realizes she’s had it the whole time, she doesn’t feel like she deserves it.
Willow is composed of extremes: selflessness and selfishness; adorable and dangerous; bright, shining optimism and a destructive, dark, deep meaningless emptiness.
All the more indicative, then, that they write her character becoming a witch.* It’s no coincidence that she becomes involved with magic. Magic “is all about emotional control” and Willow’s never been good when it comes to emotional extremes. Willow’s magics are intimately connected with her emotions and when she is at either extreme on the spectrum, it has powerful consequences. And it’s only by experiencing both extremes that Willow can find her way between them. There’s only two ways to gain wisdom, pain and time. And Willow always learns the most important lessons the hard way.
Love is who she is and what she does. For good and for bad, all her motivations, actions, and problems result from it. It is both beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time. It’s what she sacrifices herself for time and time again. It’s what destroyed her and ultimately, what saves her.
I recommend this essay and also anything else the author writes about Buffy. There’s also good discussion in the comments, so be sure to explore there, too.