Every smart, dorky, nerdy, awkward or otherwise "different" girl these days has great role models to look up to whenever she turns on the television or scrolls through Netflix. But long before Jane the Virgin made being smart cool or New Girl's Jess made being awkward adorable, I was a teen who had no true role models to look up to.
That all changed when I discovered Buffy the Vampire Slayer at age 16. Instantly, I felt a connection to smart-girl-turned-badass-witch Willow Rosenberg—and it was through this character that I was finally able to embrace my true self and come out as bisexual.
When the show first premiered 20 years ago today, Willow was a nobody. Or at least that's what our title heroine, Buffy, was told by queen bee Cordelia as soon as she arrived at Sunnydale High. That "nobody" was a nerd who loved to read, did well in school, and had even mastered computers long before the rest of us caught up. She was a classic teacher's pet, and the kind of character that most television shows would relegate to the sidelines, constantly the butt of smarty pants jokes. But not Willow.
Willow quickly became a key member of the Scooby Gang—what the slayer and her friends nicknamed themselves—and it wasn't long before her character began to grow and develop in new ways. By the end of high school, she had a solid boyfriend (to whom she lost her virginity) and a growing talent for witchcraft. In fact, if it wasn't for Willow, Angel the vampire (and Buffy's on-again-off-again lover) would have never gotten his soul back at the end of season two.
Even as Willow lay in a hospital bed due to an injury she sustained while Angelus' (Angel's evil half) team kidnapped Giles, she never lost confidence in herself and in her abilities to help her friends—especially being able to restore Angel's soul at this critical moment in "Becoming: Part 2". Although it seemed like a small moment at the time, this confidence very much affected the way I saw not only this character but also how I saw myself.
When I first began to see myself in Willow, it was for the same reasons that "popular" people like Cordelia made fun of her. I was also smart but awkward, loved school but didn't have many friends, and, most of all, I painfully wanted to fit in with the Cordelias in my own life. But ultimately, and importantly, Willow didn't have a desire to fit in at all.
As I saw Willow thrive in her life, I wanted to thrive in mine. And then Willow came out.
It happened so slowly at first that I (as well as much of the audience) didn't realize it. In college, Willow continued to pursue her interest in Wicca. Joining a Wicca group at U.C. Sunnydale seemed natural and I was excited to see her branching out from her old friends and embracing new storylines. I longed to find that kind of freedom in college too—to find like-minded people who would embrace me for all that I am, even if I was still figuring it out.
But it wasn't just Willow coming into her own as a smart girl that made me love her even more, it was her embracing her newfound sexuality—and love for Tara, a friend and eventually girlfriend—that finally gave me the courage to embrace my own coming-of-age story.
Being in high school myself as I watched Willow's sexuality blossom in college, I wondered if I would have to wait until then to become my true self too. I realized somewhere around age 15 that I was a little different than my friends—that I noticed attractive girls around me as much as we all noticed the boys. It wasn't a long and grueling battle, just something that struck me one day when I saw the word "bisexuality" written in an online forum discussing the show. "Oh," I thought, "so that's what I am." Suddenly it all made sense to me. So when Tara first told Willow that she was "hers," my heart jumped. I hoped that a friend of mine, who was also my first female crush, would someday say the same. In Willow's budding relationship, I saw hope.
Shortly after, when Willow came out to her friends, I was scared for her. When Buffy momentarily freaked, I was terrified. When Spike used Willow's insecurities about her new relationship to tear the friends apart, I was mortified. But then things slowly got better for her.
Her friends eventually came to terms with her coming out. And her first on-screen kiss with her girlfriend Tara, during season five's "The Body," was the first time I had seen two women kiss on television. Slowly but surely, seeing their displays of affection—intimate touches, romantic declarations, and even the slightly dirty ending of the musical episode's "Under Your Spell"—helped me to embrace my own sexuality and come out to friends as bisexual at the age of 17. It was much sooner than I ever thought I'd be able to be honest about myself, but my friends embraced me just as fiercely as Buffy and Xander embraced Willow.
Soon enough, I knew other LGBT teens who were out and I had formed a community of my own, with the constant support of the friends who were there for me since day one. We had an inclusive group connected by many things, including a shared love of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It's a show that I know still connects us and the many other bisexual, lesbian, and queer women who also embraced Willow as one of our own.
Seeing people that I could actually relate to on television helped me to find myself and to accept the things that made me different. It would be many years before I would see a character who, like me, was Latina and not a stereotype, or a character who had some of my awkward quirks and interests—such as my love of planning everything to the last detail or wearing bright-colored dresses with funny-looking prints. Willow Rosenberg was the first character who helped me see who I truly was—nerdy, bisexual and (eventually) proud of it all.
It's no surprise that her character has remained with me through all these years, as I know she remains with many others. Her anger at the world when losing a loved one helped me to come to terms with death when it hit close to home. And, most of all, her persevering despite everything helped me to understand the role of solid friendships and inner strength in my own life. You could even say that Willow's red hair has influenced my own love for dying my dark brown hair a vibrant shade of copper just as she had through all seven seasons of BTVS.
Whatever the reason, there's one thing I know for sure: No other character or person has meant more to me than Willow Rosenberg.
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