'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.