After the recent discussion of homosexuality on Game of Thrones, it seemed fitting to look back at previous positive portrayals in past genre shows, primarily the lesbian relationship between Willow and Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Buffy is widely remembered as one of the strongest television shows of the nineties, and its influence is still felt across the medium today. Critics and fans who know the show will go to great lengths to sing its praises. Despite its silly name and concept, Buffy was always more than a standard genre show, with complex developed characters and fantastic use of metaphor. It was a show that pushed television boundaries and was always trying to do something new. The relationship between Willow and Tara, one of the first homosexual relationships on mainstream television, still stands as a mature and fascinating portrayal of sexuality, and is worth looking at in more depth. This article will contain spoilers.
Willow (Alyson Hannigan) isn’t gay at the start of the show – she’s fixated on her best friend Xander and dates Oz for most of the second and third seasons. Joss Whedon has stated in past interviews that he always intended for one of Buffy’s Scooby Gang to come out, and there are little clues as to Willow’s orientation throughout earlier episodes; Willow’s vampire counterpart in season three for example is described as ‘a little gay.’ It’s not until the college years of season four, with the introduction of Tara (Amber Benson) that Willow begins to come out, though the change is alluded to subtly.
Buffy is renowned for its use of metaphor to explore wider life issues – Buffy’s boyfriend turns evil after she sleeps with him, an exaggeration of the boy who loses interest after sex, and the first few years of the show are built on the literal idea of high school being hell – and the Willow case is no different. Whedon uses magic to explore Willow’s sexual experimentation – her and Tara lock themselves away in their dorm rooms, doing spells, some of which contain orgasmic allusions – a subtle idea which works, brought on by the network’s denial of same-sex relationships on television. Whedon couldn’t implicitly show Willow as gay at this point, and the clever way he works around this makes the scenes stronger. Unlike other television shows exploring similar issues, there’s nothing broad or in-your-face about Willow’s sexuality; it feels natural and understated.
Willow initially falls for Tara as a person and the move fits in with her character. It’s also interesting how she becomes a much stronger, more confident woman as she accepts her own sexuality. The coming out scene to best friend Buffy is surprisingly realistic, and Buffy’s acceptance charming, the tone very in line with the show’s accepting atmosphere. Whedon has stated that Buffy was a vehicle to give underdogs and misfit characters the chance to relate, and having Willow – a well loved character within the show – come out must have been wonderful for gay and lesbian teens at the time.
Willow is smart, confident and integral to the group, and it’s great that a show like Buffy could provide such a balanced and positive portrayal of homosexuality, especially considering the show’s late 90s timeline. The 90s were generally misguided when it came to homosexuality – there was often a need to include gay characters to be seen as progressive, but these portrayals tended to be about as subtle as South Park‘s Big Gay Al – extremely in-your-face, over the top, and ultimately, unrelatable. Buffy was one of the first television shows to show gays as real people.
Willow and Tara’s relationship lasts for the next couple of seasons and whilst it does, is the strongest relationship on the show. Whedon was initially not allowed to show any kind of sexual interaction between the two – extremely hypocritical when Buffy’s sex life with Riley is so explicit – and so came up with further means of subverting the networks. The first on-screen kiss comes within ‘The Body,’ a powerhouse episode dealing with the loss of a relative, in which Tara kisses Willow, passionately, to try and calm her down. This moment stands as a remarkable television cheat – by slipping the kiss into an emotionally heavy, devastating episode there’s no focus on it. The kiss occurs naturally between the characters and feels utterly fitting within the scene.
Crucially, after the coming-out in season four, none of the other characters ever question the relationship, at least not in a negative way. The situation is completely accepted – Willow is gay and lives with Tara – and again, it’s this lack of focus which makes the two work. Their sexuality stems from their characters and feels natural, never forced, and their fights and arguments are treated no differently than Buffy and her boyfriend’s or Xander and his girlfriend’s. The two remain together longer than any other pair on the show and only come apart when Tara is killed.
Gore Vidal once said (paraphrasing) that it would be shocking to see a pair of gay characters live happily ever after, the idea being that gays in literature, film and TV always suffer. Some would argue that Whedon’s killing of Tara taps into this idea – things always end up badly for the gays. That’s not the case with Buffy though. Yes, Tara dies, but Buffy is renowned for killing off its key characters and Tara isn’t the first in the show to die. The death has nothing to do with sexuality but with drama – Willow needs a catalyst to push her over the edge and Tara’s death is the plot device to do this. There’s no motive beyond the plot, and if Willow had had a boyfriend instead, it would have been him who caught the bullet.
The relationship between Willow and Tara is one of the strongest homosexual relationships on television and often tops lists. It’s fantastic and subtle, and one which must have been a great benefit to sexually-alienated teens at the time. The sexuality is handled well and comes from the characters, whose relationship becomes the focus, standing as one of TV’s most mature and realistic portrayals.