Hexing the Hegemonic: Willow as Watcher
Guest Post: Ash of Horror Vanguard
Giles gets off easy from the greater BtVS fandom. His lovable, “sexy fuddy-duddy” nature eclipses his complicity in some greater villainies. No, I’m not talking about Ripper—who is good and pure and our precious boy—I’m talking about the Watchers. I’ve argued elsewhere that, at best, the Watchers, and by extension Giles, function only as “heroes” to the extent that they have made themselves necessary by means of misogynist, magical rent-seeking. They “watch” over a Slayer they created for the express purpose of making sure women were kept in check. Rather than leave this patriarchal hierarchy unchecked, the show does offer a vision of an alternative. It’s someone who is canonically overpowered and also afraid of Snoopy on Ice.
Willow Rosenberg represents this alternative. Willow’s character arcs are complicated and there are many conversations that need to be amplified—particularly Willow as the erasure of Bi or other fluid sexualities—but I want to focus on a more positive aspect of the shyest Scooby. In the first three seasons, Willow’s character tends to be written off until episodes like “Halloween” and “Graduation Day: Part 1” where Willow’s sexuality becomes the focus of the discourse. This approach to Willow is reductive. She’s far more than just a shy girl coming to terms with the complicated world of sexual desire. Willow serves as a parallel structure to the patriarchal force of the Watchers.
In the second episode of BtVS, “The Harvest,” Willow learns the secret truth that vampires stalk the Earth and Buffy exists to stop them. Unlike Xander, who demands a specific role in the fight, Willow offers to help anyway she can. Willow’s function in the Scoobies mirrors that of Giles. She serves as both a researcher finding tips on how to fight the undead and as a place of emotional support for the Slayer. The key difference being that Giles does this from a point of privilege and domination and Willow does this out of comradeship and true compassion. Willow starts off this journey by being something of a helper for Giles, using her hacking and computer skills to make up for Giles’ relative technophobia. However, as the series continues she grows parallel to Giles’ authority.
While Willow’s first act as an official Scooby is to hack the Sunnydale city hall computers to find the plans for the city’s sewer system, her assistance to the group becomes more occult—more like a Watcher—from there. As Giles is established as being deeply entrenched in the dogmatic and oppressive systems rigged up by the Watcher’s Council, Willow emerges as a parallel force. Giles represents the old power structure; the male dominated, hierarchal system that has entrenched itself in BtVS’s society. Willow, represents a counter force to this. A laterally organized, peer group of Slayage, the Watcher of the Scoobys.
The best way to understand this is to contrast their roles in two different episodes. “Helpless,” episode 12 of season 3, and “Reptile Boy,” episode 5 of season 2. In these episodes, Giles and Willow have their position in Buffy’s life challenged. In “Helpless,” Giles shows that his relationship to the Watcher’s is largely more important than his has been with Buffy. It’s only the near death of Buffy and several other people that moves Giles to distance himself from the Watchers. “Reptile Boy,” on the other hand, shows Willow growing in her role as an advocate for Buffy. Towards the end of the episode she calls out both Giles and Angel for not respecting Buffy’s autonomy and needs. Giles spends much of the rest of the show trying to negotiate his relationship to the Slayer. Willow becomes increasingly informed on the occult and joins Buffy’s side in the fight against vampires as her witchcraft becomes more powerful. In effect, as Buffy becomes more independent and Willow more agential, Giles—as proxy fo the Watchers—is replaced.
Instead of collapsing Willow into an overly simplified discourse of who she does and does not represent, we see Willow realized as she actually is—a queer witch who successfully dismantled a ruling body of the patriarchy. That is her final act in the last episode of the show “Chosen;” to break the Watcher’s spell and free the power of the Slayer. Willow, having built the power and relationships needed to accomplish the task, replaces the necessity of and then removes the hierarchal, oppressive system erected by the Watchers. Importantly, Willow doesn’t topple the use of the Watcher’s just to have herself sit atop a newly vacant throne. She liberates this power and gives it freely back to those from whom it was denied. Willow goes beyond Watcher. Willow is a Liberator.