'Buffy the Vampire Slayer': Willow & Tara

I hope that the following statement is obvious: Joss Whedon & Co. would have taken crap about having lesbian characters on Buffy no matter what. Inevitably when anyone is portraying characters from non-dominant social groups, someone somewhere will complain about the authenticity/fairness of representation/appeal/hairstyle of that character. That said, I have adverse emotions toward the Willow/Tara relationship. Mostly I come down on the side of “Not great, but thanks for trying.”

Willow’s a Lesbian?
As I mentioned in my previous post about Buffy, the character of Willow really drew me to the show. As many people more eloquent than I have commented, despite Willow’s “sidekick” status the average viewer relates to the sweet, awkward outcast with a long unrequited crush on her best friend more readily than the petite, pretty blonde with superpowers. When a love interest for Willow, besides Xander, was finally trotted out, he was burdened with having to be pretty fantastic to be good enough for our Willow. And Oz was, in fact, probably the most perfect boyfriend ever. The chemistry between Alyson Hannigan and Seth Green was not based so much on sexual tension but caring, respect, and genuine affection — a factor not often present in most TV teen romances.

Then came Tara. I know people disagree with me, but I thought that Willow and Tara had chemistry, and more of the sexual tension variety, from the beginning. From their first conversation, I thought that they had a strange energy that I couldn’t quite define. As their implied romantic relationship became more explicit, I realized, “Oh! Homoerotism. That’s what that is.” But when Willow and Tara finally outed themselves in "New Moon Rising," I was initially resistant. I think that I would have resisted Willow being with anyone who wasn't Oz, and perhaps I would have resisted a male love interest more than a female one. I also resisted Tara because the writers failed to give her much of a personality when she first appeared. She was Willow: Reloaded, but lacking most of season-one Willow's quirky charm.

Willow’s transition from heterosexual to homosexual relationships was handled roughly. I enjoyed the scene in which Willow outs herself to Buffy in “New Moon Rising,” saying that her relationship with Tara was not something that she was looking for but that it was powerful. Perhaps due to my own experience, I appreciate the presentation of Willow’s sexuality as fluid — she is attracted to whom she is attracted. In season five though, the writers enter black-and-white territory and Willow describes herself as just “Gay now” in "Triangle," and in "Intervention" Buffybot’s read-out screen says about Willow “Gay (1999-present).”** But season five does offer an interesting scene that explores their relationship with more depth. In the appropriately titled "Tough Love," Willow and Tara argue when Tara implies she worries Willow will decide to date men again. In that argument, Willow essentially says that she is committed to Tara and doesn’t think of their relationship as some experiment. But that conversation feels unfinished to me because Glory sucks Tara’s mind soon after, and we never see them reconciling that particular argument. I wish that we could have seen more scenes like that for the two of them, because I feel like the intricacies of relationships are revealed in disagreements (that do not lead to break-ups) and compromises. In season seven, Willow expresses her sexuality as less of an orientation switch than previously suggested. Much as she articulates to Tara in "Tough Love," Willow specifies to Kennedy in "The Killer in Me" that she didn't realize she was interested in women plural but a woman.

** Side note: Those two incidents also suggest that the show does not take a strictly biological approach to homosexuality, because both imply that there was a time in Willow's life when she was not gay. Maybe those silly jokes even imply that Willow chose to be gay when she started a relationship with Tara. If that assertion has any validity whatsoever then Willow is probably the best television portrayal of someone who is queer by choice. But maybe the jokes are simply evidence of the writers' conflation of gay identity and being in a gay relationship.

I both appreciate that Willow’s change in sexual preference did not cause a fuss and recognize that not making any fuss does a disservice to the characters and their friendships. While Buffy’s initial reaction of surprise and then support was nicely played, I think that it would have been appropriate for some follow-up weirdness or at least some questions. As an audience member, I struggled with what Willow and Tara’s relationship meant in regards to her previous relationship with Oz and her long-held crush on Xander. A scene in which Xander and Willow discuss those very issues, or even an extension of a scene in "Family" with Buffy and Xander talking about Tara, would have served everyone. And I think that they could have had such a conversation without making Willow's friends sound like jerks.

Unfortunately for both Tara and the Willow/Tara relationship, they were created at a time when the show's writing began to deteriorate. Season four featured one-note storylines for both Xander and Giles and the inclusion of a one-note character (Anya) as a cast member. Tara did not fare much better. In fact, Tara really didn't receive much character development until season six when Willow and Tara split up. One of the writers commented to the effect that the break-up really allowed Tara to come into her own as a character. ...Right. Because you want to wait two years to develop a recurring character. (The hell?) Willow and Tara's scenes also seemed to become the repository of clunky dialogue that attempted subtext (e.g. "I've been thinking about that last spell we did all day") and of the treacly sentimentality that suddenly appeared in season five (e.g. the final scene of "Family").

Some people have commented to the effect that they could never buy Willow and Tara as a gay couple, rather they seemed like two straight women just playing at being gay. Again, I think that Alyson and Amber managed to generate some real sexual chemistry at times, but I do think that they struggled to generate sexual tension when (see above) bad writing and treacly sentimentality were involved. Even the greatest actors playing a straight couple would have difficulty generating heat rather than barely concealed eye-rolls with some of the dialogue Willow and Tara were given.

Early in the relationship there also existed a mismatch of sorts between Willow and Tara concerning how much sexual attraction they conveyed. Amber really makes with the smoldering looks in episodes like "Who Are You?" and "Out of My Mind," but Alyson responds with the looks of fondness. I actually find these discrepancies fitting with the characters. Tara always seemed very certain in her attraction for women, while Willow had just ended a serious, two-year relationship with a man. And Alyson never really plays Willow as a very sensual/sexual being. Not to say that Alyson isn't sexy or can't bring the sexy. She very much brings the sexy-sexy in "The Wish" and "Doppelgangland" as Vamp Willow. Willow becomes sexier as the series progresses and she gains confidence, but sex is not an intrinsic part of Willow's character, as it is for characters like Faith and Spike. Scenes in "Restless," like the one in which Willow is painting her "homework" on Tara's back, fully establish Tara's sensuality, despite the wardrobe department's sincerest efforts to hide it with ill-fitting clothing.

Of course, discrepancies exist between the amount of heterosexual sexuality and homosexual sexuality portrayed within the show. Buffy and Riley go at it for an entire episode in season four ("Where the Wild Things Are") while Willow and Tara don't even kiss on-screen. Their first on-screen kiss doesn't happen until almost a year after their relationship begins. While I like that Joss did not want their first kiss to be a romantic-music-swelling, featured-in-promos bit of exploitation — and I consider their kiss in "The Body" to be one of the best same-sex kisses in TV and film — I think that a year was a bit too long to wait. However, I cannot determine how much of these discrepancies are the result of The WB and UPN's Standards & Practices or the result of Joss's choices. What I can determine is the crappy direction of the few sex scenes between Willow and Tara. The two explicit ones that I can recall ("Once More, With Feeling" and "Seeing Red") had a "lie back and think of England" quality to them. Even in the first naked-in-bed scene in "Seeing Red," Tara is all legs-splayed, glowing, and sexed-up while Willow is practically in a fetal position off to the side. Though I must say that none of the sex scenes in season six were particularly convincing, with some seeming anatomically impossible.

Seemingly, because they couldn’t show any actual affection between Willow and Tara — or, you know, show them within three feet of each other — the writers compromised by having Willow say the word “gay” a lot in supposedly humorous contexts. My favorite “Willow is gay” references are much more subtle: a hopped up on magic Willow causing a pencil to become “flaccid” in “Doublemeat Palace”; Willow commiserating with Xander about finding Dawn attractive in “Him”; Willow professing her disinterest in “tool talk” in “Never Leave Me.”

Tara’s Death/Dark Willow
Joss' transformation of the season four and five metaphor of magic as lesbian sex to the season six metaphor of magic as drug addiction also proved troubling for many viewers. First of all, I dislike the magic addiction/Dark Willow subplot in its entirety — the storyline proved a ham-fisted and boring exercise in pointless character assassination. No pun intended. And in this context shifting the meaning of the magic metaphor can easily be interpreted as homophobic. It also causes viewers to scrutinize Willow and Tara's relationship, giving new and possibly more disturbing connotations to previous encounters. For example, in probably what one could describe as their first "sexual" encounter, Willow and Tara link fingers and combine their magic to move a soda machine to block a doorway. In that moment, Willow particularly is excited by the power that she and Tara have when they combine their magic, which could suggest that Tara actually gave Willow her first taste of magic the drug. I thought her recognition of that power in season four seemed more, "Oh, my connection with my partner really empowers me" rather than Willow's "I can use my power to manipulate my partner" attitude in season six, and I want my interpretation to stay that way.

Do I think that Joss & Co. intended to demonize lesbianism in season six? No, but I cannot fault that interpretation. However, I do think that the writers attempted to distinguish the loving, gay sex white magic from the destructive, addictive dark magic, which is often characterized by masculine or heterosexual images. For example, the spell that Willow uses in "Bargaining" to revive Buffy at the beginning of season six definitely sets a disturbing tone for Willow's magic use of the season. That spell involves a couple of very phallic/masculine images, namely the stabbing (dagger = phallus) of the fawn and Willow vomiting up a snake. The snake coupled with the very yonic urn also give the spell a distinct implication of heterosexuality as well.

Dark Willow ultimately attempts to destroy the world by raising a Satanic temple from beneath the ground. Only the steeple of the temple — featuring a statue of Medusa (an “evil” woman who embraces a phallic symbol) no less — emerges from the ground making her tool of destruction distinctly phallic. Simultaneously, Dark Willow traps Buffy in the yonic symbol of the underground cave to prevent Buffy from stopping her. In her most destructive use of magic, Dark Willow both utilizes the phallus and dismisses the yonic, transforming the yonic into a hindrance, a prison.

Willow's use of dark magic also masculinizes her. When Dark Willow attacks Jonathan and Andrew in the Magic Box she says, "I'm just getting a wood for the violence." The Forget spell that causes Tara to break up with Willow is described as "violating" Tara's mind and is characterized by the masculine concept of invasion. Another moment that defines the different types of magic and perhaps foreshadows how magic will divide Willow and Tara occurs in “After Life.” Willow becomes impatient with the spell that she and Tara are performing together and dips into dark magic to perform the spell alone. Instead of embracing the more feminine tendency of cooperation, Willow isolates herself.

The primary figures that enable Willow's "addiction" to dark magic are Amy and Rack, both heterosexuals. Rack, in particular, has a couple of very sexually charged scenes with Willow in which he "takes a tour" of Willow magically and then she drains his magic. Rack even says that she "tastes like strawberries," a reference to the slang term "strawberry" or a person who has sex in exchange for drugs.

Examining the sexual relationships of season six, Willow and Tara's actually emerges as the healthiest, despite its problems. The episode "Entropy" comes to mind as an excellent illustration of the differences between homosexual and heterosexual relationships during that season and, in fact, the series. In that episode, Spike is sulking because of a recent break-up with Buffy, and Anya and Xander are hurting because Xander left Anya at the altar. Spike and Anya sleep together and Buffy and Xander accidentally catch them via a hidden camera. This story ends badly, of course, and the intertwining of those two subplots suggests that heterosexual relationships are ultimately only avenues for sex that will result in alienation and pain. However, the episode ends with Tara and Willow reuniting, with homosexual love enduring, offering caring and support. Indeed, their relationship ends when Warren, a misogynistic man who previously attempted to rape an ex-girlfriend and who exploits Andrew's obvious homosexual attraction to him, shoots Tara.

But really, Joss? You had to embrace both the dead lesbian and evil lesbian clich├ęs?

I do think that Tara's memory was tarnished by the events of season seven, and by that I mean that which dare not speak its name. OK, I will speak its name: Kennedy. Why would Willow date such a pushy, charmless brat? And she dates a pushy, charmless brat, like, five minutes after Tara dies. Where is the mourning? Where is the remorse for her Dark Willow actions? Again, five minutes and then nothing. Lots of nothing in general. Did season seven have a plot? Anyway, Willow and Tara's relationship was one of the first lesbian relationships on primetime TV, and good or bad it was an important piece of increasing the presence of LGBT characters on network television.

'Buffy the Vampire Slayer': Season Four

Though I call myself a Buffy fan, I admit that my viewing habits of the show were spotty. I missed watching seasons one and two on their first TV run. I watched reruns and a friend’s taped episodes of season two before season three, which I did watch regularly. Season three, which in my opinion is the best season of the show, caused me to anticipate season four. I remember watching the season four premiere and thinking, “Well, that was weird.” The show gained some momentum, but after Oz left to find his inner wolf or whatever I remember that my interest slowly began to wane. Re-watching season four for the first time since I viewed the episodes seven years ago has clarified aspects of the season that did not gel for me and has revealed some bits that I really like.

Aspects of the Season That Did Not Gel

  • Pacing – I realized what felt so weird when I first viewed the season four premiere was the pacing, in that it slowed dramatically. In comparison, season four feels as though the cast and crew suddenly started drinking tea after three years of nothing but coffee. While the first three seasons absolutely have poignant, dramatic moments, on the whole the show is quick and quippy. Habitually, the show’s tender or heavier moments are undercut with humor so that it addresses serious matters but does not become encumbered by weightiness or sentimentality. I think that Joss Whedon and the writers wanted to mature the show a bit when Buffy went to college, but mature does not mean boring. The writing definitely weakened with several episodes featuring long, rather unfocused scenes during the third and fourth acts when the episode should speed up. Perhaps editing is to blame as well as the writing.
  • Riley – Oh my god. Oh. My. God. Speaking of boring, could they have found a love interest for Buffy who was more bland? And could Marc Blucas have any less chemistry with Sarah Michelle Gellar? I mean, Angel isn’t exactly as deep as the Grand Canyon and the chemistry between Sarah and Boreanaz isn’t astounding, but compared to Riley the Buffy/Angel relationship sets rooms on fire. The lack of chemistry is made so painfully apparent when Spike and Buffy smoulder in "Something Blue" and "Who Are You?"
  • Continuity with Characters – The male characters specifically have rocky character arcs. Giles begins the season as a sexy gentleman of leisure, but soon becomes this comical (though still sexy) middle-aged guy going through a mid-life crisis, which involves his becoming a demon for one episode. (Um, why?) While Giles began as something of a pratfall-inclined, laughable character, the writers created Wesley in season three to make Giles seem edgier, sexier, cooler, and I really liked that more confident Giles. His character backslid a bit in season four and not in an interesting way. At the end of both Buffy and Angel, I was ready to smack Spike, but I initially really liked him. I rank him as the second best Big Bad of the series, after, of course, The Mayor. I like Spike for his honesty, his willingness to say how things are and not sugarcoat them, and for his sense of humor. During season four, the writers started on the slippery slope of making Spike laughable instead of witty. Xander seems simply without direction throughout the season, going from job to job. The writers seem to have kept Xander on the show out of obligation rather than necessity. They liked him enough to keep him around but not enough to give him anything to do?
  • Heavy-Handed Storytelling – The episodes “Beer Bad” and “Pangs” come to mind when discussing this topic. Whedon & Co. obviously wanted to address issues that college freshmen might face like casual sex and drinking, but come on. Drink a beer, become a Neanderthal? Why must television constantly demonize alcohol and sex? TV shows always seem to portray those behaviors as all or nothing situations – you’re sober or drunk, you’re kissing or you’re having sex. “Pangs” is just confusing. White people should feel very, very badly about what their culture did to Indians, but look how violent and vengeful they are. So don’t feel too badly because violence just makes you kill people. No one’s fault!
  • Moping – I hate to mention this matter, but placing Buffy’s ordeal with Parker so close to Oz leaving Willow caused season four to feature a lot of Moping About a Guy. I do not want to dismiss either Buffy or Willow’s feelings, but after a few weeks the moping became tiresome. And poor Willow had the tail end of the moping, so everyone was giving her crap about grieving over Oz and, hello, Parker was a one-night stand while Oz was two years of Most Perfect Guy Ever. I think that Willow had the right to some crankiness.

Bits That I Really Like

  • Willow – Willow was always my favorite female character when I watched the show as a teenager, but during recent viewings of early episodes I have found her to be a little grating at times. Everything was always all about Buffy or Xander. While she definitely came into her own over the course of season three, during season four she became her own distinct entity. She becomes a bit more world-weary, but maintains her role as mother/mediator of the Scooby gang. Willow really benefited from that switch from coffee to tea. Oh, and Alyson Hannigan has great chemistry with everyone it seems like. I would have believed a relationship between Willow and Riley more than his relationship with Buffy. Hannigan really seemed to carry the emotional core of the show during season four.
  • Reappearance/Resurrection of Faith – Faith! OK, yes, I always enjoy watching Eliza Dushku run in leather pants, but that dynamic between her and Buffy is always fascinating and engaging.
  • “Hush,” “Fear Itself,” "Who Are You," “Superstar,” “Reckless” – Season four managed to churn out some kick-ass episodes.

Ryan Fleck's 'Half Nelson' (2006)

Due to Ryan Gosling's Oscar-nominated role as Dan Dunne, Half Nelson has garnered quite a bit of attention for the little indie film that it is. And while Gosling does some fine work (not unusual for Gosling, who has consistently delivered interesting performances even in boring movies like Murder by Numbers), it's Shareeka Epps playing Drey who captures the audience's attention. Half Nelson is very much both Drey and Dan's stories, but Dan does not have enough stuff going on with him to make him as interesting as Drey. I find no fault in Gosling's performance rather in the script.

Drey, as the cinematography suggests, is something of a stray cat looking for a home. While she has a loving mother, her mother is often at work. Her father is absent from her life and her brother is in juvenile detention for selling drugs. Drey is looking for someone with whom to connect, particularly a male figure, and she feels pulled between Dan and Frank. And what an interesting dichotomy they offer. Dan is an unstable coke addict, but he remains dedicated to his students and forms real relationships with them. His home environment is less than inviting and not very caring – he allows his cat, the one being with whom he connects, to die from ingesting coke. Frank is a good-looking, stable black man who has a steady relationship with a woman and whose home is warm and lived-in. However, he happens to be a drug dealer – the drug dealer who contributed to Drey’s brother being in juvey and who sells coke to her teacher. A coke-addicted teacher doesn’t really compare to all of that. And Shareeka Epps delivers the most effective breakout performance that I’ve seen since Michelle Rodriguez’s turn as Diana Guzman in Girlfight.

Dan spends most of the movie being isolated, attempting to connect with students, with women in bars and ultimately failing. While their common feeling of isolation draws together Drey and Dan, Fleck could have spent more time exploring why Dan is so isolated. I think that the dinner scene with his parents should have come much earlier in the film than it did. That interaction with his family fleshes out Dan’s worldview, explains why he teaches history the way that he does, why he rants about Bush supporters when he is high, why he has so many books about black people, communists, people who he is not. The short storyline with his ex-girlfriend Rachel seemed superfluous and a little incomplete. Could it have been replaced with some more enlightening background info? I also wasn’t in love with the “on this date” reports from the students – they felt like they were part of another movie.

I admire writers Fleck and Anna Boden’s impulse to respect the intelligence of the viewer. This film is not filled with a lot of exposition – Fleck and Boden allow the main characters to appear on the screen in their own time and trust that the audience will figure out what is happening. This film is not the best-looking movie that I have seen. In the commentary on the DVD, Fleck says that he wanted the actors to feel free to move about so the lighting is more broad than focused and the hand-held camerawork can become a little maddening. But the camerawork works for scenes with Dan in his drug-induced stupor.

Despite little lapses in writing and an unnecessarily obtuse title, Half Nelson is well worth a viewing for the interesting characters and strong performances.

Gregg Araki's 'Mysterious Skin' (2004)

Mysterious Skin offers a powerful and unique insight into the effects of child abuse. In his approach to the material, Araki does not demonize or judge any of the characters, even Coach. The script follows two narratives, those of Neil and Brian, portrayed by two fine young actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet respectively. While the acting is good all around, Brian's story is not nearly as compelling as Neil's.

The audience suspects Brian's big discovery about being molested by his baseball coach, therefore the meat of Brian's story is watching his struggles with personal relationships and recognizing the reality of his abuse. The plotline is effective and the scene in which Brian confronts and accepts what happened to him as a child is poignant, but as a character Neil is much more intriguing.

While Brian has blocked out the abuse and become practically catatonic, Neil remembers his relationship with Coach with a mixture of fondness and hatred. He delves into a life of prostitution, seeking a connection with older men, looking for the affection and approval that he found in his relationship with Coach. But he knows that he will never find that connection again, which makes him reckless and leads to a brutal rape and beating. Only after he experiences more inhumanity than he thought himself capable can he connect with Brian, of all people, to help him confront the experience that he has erased from his memory.

My only complaint about this film is that both Brian and Neil come from home environments in which the father is absent and the mother forms an unusually close relationship with the son. Especially in the case of Neil, his home life is one that is represented as stereotypically "causing young boys to become gay."