Depictions of Women in STEM: Willow Rosenberg

July 20, 2018

Written by: Alicen Ricard

Spoilers for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics.
Spoilers for Agents of SHIELD, Batman comics, Supernatural, Person of Interest, and Sense8.

Pride month is coming up here in Vancouver and to celebrate, we’re doing another special pride edition of the Depictions of Women in STEM series. This month we’re profiling the teenage hacker turned powerful witch from the cult classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow Rosenberg. Willow (portrayed by Alyson Hannigan) inspired LGBT youth and “nerdy girls” everywhere with her intelligence, awkward charm, and realistic love stories.

Source: Pajiba

Willow starts out as a meek, shy nerd who wasn’t comfortable in her own skin. As she becomes best friends with a vampire slayer, she starts to feel inadequate and tries to help out in the best way she knows how: with her intelligence. In an age when computers and the internet were just gaining popularity, the show tried to show how “hip” it was by having Willow be a computer hacker even if it was mainly used as a way to get information across. 

During the “monster-of-the-week” episode “I Robot, You Jane” we get a blast from the Internet past when the plot of the episode was the early days of chat rooms. Willow starts talking to what she thinks is a boy on the Internet. Turns out, it was actually a demon. In what was one of the shows weaker more outdated episodes, this episode gives us the introduction of a new character and woman in STEM, Sunnydale High’s computer programming teacher: Jenny Calendar. Techno-pagan Jenny Calendar is the school’s only computer teacher, and is also a woman.

In season two when the students of Sunnydale High all had to take career aptitude tests, Willow didn’t get a result. She was worried until her and another student, Oz (who she later dated), were called to a secret meeting, where it was revealed that neither one of them got results because they were being recruited for a software company. Though they never went anywhere with that storyline, seeming to forget it once the episode was over, it was still cool to see Willow be acknowledged for her computer skills. Jenny always encouraged Willow’s computer skills and saw Willow as smart and talented enough to sub for her class from time to time. After Jenny was murdered, Willow takes over teaching her classes, despite only being a teenager herself.

In addition to cultivating her interest in computer programming, Jenny also inspired Willow to study magicks and become a witch. After Jenny is killed and cannot perform the spell to give Angelus (the bad guy of the season) his soul back Willow takes on the challenge and proves she has the skills to be a techno-pagan like Jenny. However, with Willow finding more and more power within herself over the years, the show also seems to forget about her “geek-infested-roots”. As soon as she started becoming a witch on the show at the end of season two, they seemed to forget that she has computer programming and hacking skills and would only remember them when it was convenient to the plot.

Source: Buffyverse Wiki

In fact Willow is not alone in this experience; there's a pattern of women hackers not being taken seriously. Many of them are also used as plot devices, or get powers and suddenly seem to “lose their hacking skills". Mac from Veronica Mars only seemed to have hacking skills when Veronica needed them. Felicity from Arrow, who we already covered, wasn’t always taken seriously as a hacker. Skye from Agents of SHIELD was a crazy smart hacker who managed to hack into SHIELD’s databases until she gained powers, and a new name, Daisy Johnson, to go with them, and the show suddenly forgot she had technical skills. Similarly, in Batman comics, after Batgirl, Barbara Gordon is paralyzed she becomes the hacker Oracle, and then when they magically fixed her they forgot about her technical skills as well. Both Root from Person of Interest and Charlie from Supernatural were queer women who were hackers, but both were killed off on their respective shows adding to the list of queer women who have been killed on tv. It was in crime shows that we see some examples of hackers that actually used their skills and were taken seriously like: Chloe O’Brian from 24 and Penelope from Criminal Minds. Another hacker worth mentioning as she was taken seriously (and as an added bonus for the pride edition, is a transgender lesbian) is Nomi from Sense8. Her computer skills were never used as a plot device and she was actually taken seriously despite the fact that she wasn’t employed in a technical field.

Source: PopSugar

Before they turned Willow’s magic into a metaphor for drug use, it was a metaphor for her sexuality. After Buffy and Willow go off to college, Willow joins a Wicca group, and meets a fellow witch named Tara. Unlike everyone else in the group, Tara actually has witch powers and Willow is drawn to her instantly. The season explored Willow’s sexuality using the metaphor of her becoming a witch. By the next season they dropped the metaphor and Willow and Tara became a strong couple, until Tara’s murder.

There has been criticism about the fact that there are lots of lesbian jokes and comments made about Willow later on in the series even though she was in love with two boys in the early seasons of the show. While it was nice that Willow settled into a relationship with Tara without her having her friends make a big deal about it, there has been criticism about the bi-erasure of Willow’s character. Despite this criticism, it was really progressive at the time to show this relationship on network tv. 

As mentioned, once Willow starts becoming a witch, she uses her computer skills less and less. However, in season six, once she develops a magic addiction, she tries to use computers again to find out information they need to beat the “baddie of the week”, but due to her abusing magic, she finds it difficult and resorts to using magic on the computer to find out this information instead. Once she starts using magic less in the final season of the show they make hints at her past with computers but she doesn’t do a whole lot with them.  After the show ended, they continued it on in comic book format, and in season nine Willow works as a software developer and in season ten she works as a contractor for the military, creating magically enhanced software for them. It would have been nice to see Willow do more hacker and computer programming later on, as we need to see more women in these fields on tv.

Does Buffy the Vampire Slayer meet the goals set out by the White House for better representation of women in STEM fields?

The former Obama Administration's White House fact sheet lists 3 goals for fictional representation of women in STEM. We are noticing a trend in the movies and television shows we have reviewed - they meet some of the following goals better than others.

1.  Include diverse STEM role models (past and present): The show doesn’t really feature many people in STEM. Other than Willow and Jenny the other two characters who are in STEM that are in more than just a one-off episode are villains (Maggie Walsh from season 4 and Warren from season 6). It is great to see that almost all the people in STEM are women, however they are all white.

2. Highlight the breadth of STEM careers and social impacts: The show had a hacker, a computer programming teacher, an (evil) psychology professor, and someone (also evil) in robotics. It did show the importance of computers in an age when they were just gaining popularity so the show somewhat meets this goal.

3.  Debunk STEM stigmas and misconceptions: Willow used her hacking powers for good, but she saw herself as nerdy and uninteresting when she was a hacker, and so she tried to change that part of her. So, no, the show doesn’t meet this goal.

Let us know if anyone in a teen show like Buffy inspired you to go into STEM on Facebook or Twitter.