Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Tara is dead. Few things have saddened me more on network television than the callous murder of the infinitely patient and caring Tara (Amber Benson) right in front of her lover’s eyes (Willow Rosenberg, played by Alyson Hannigan). It was a gruesome scene to be sure, and initiated the countdown to the sixth season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which aired Tuesday, 21 May 2002. Having only recently reunited, and having just finished a bout of reunion sex, the girls are dressing in the bedroom they share when a stray bullet fired by Super-Villain/Nerd Warren (Adam Busch) hits Tara in the back. A stunned Willow, splattered with blood, watches her girlfriend collapse and cradles her head as she dies.

Clearly, this was a tragic ending to one of prime-time television’s most engaging love stories. More disturbing, as well as more socially and politically troublesome, however, is that Tara’s death completes what has become a rather homophobic and pathological representation of lesbian desires and relationships over the course of the past season.

In the past, Willow and Tara’s relationship has been hailed by television critics, Buffy fans and casual viewers, as a groundbreaking representation of homosexuality and of queer youth in particular — even if, after six seasons, the “kids” on Buffy are in their early 20s. Compared to other gay and lesbian teens (or adults), like Jack McPhee (Kerr Smith), so dampened by his own soap-box oratories and closeting over on Dawson’s Creek, the love of Willow and Tara gave many of us hope that things might be changing for queers on network TV. Even better, this representation of lesbianism seems to have had direct influence out in the “real world.” In interviews, Amber Benson has repeatedly attested to the massive response she has gotten for her portrayal, much of it from gay and lesbian teens who found in her character inspiration and the strength to come out in their own lives.

The social and political import of Buffy has been the message that being queer is okay. Through Willow and Tara, “we” have been shown that gay folk of all sorts aren’t unnatural, sick, perverse, etc. And given the significant tween and teen audience of the show, this is a message that might have helped shape the perceptions of a generation.

Even so, I will admit that I have had one ongoing gripe about the Willow and Tara relationship, and that has been BVS‘s reluctance to show much intimacy between the two lovers. For the past few seasons, Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has been given free rein to express her sexual urges, first with Riley Finn (Marc Blucas) and this past season with the de-fanged vampire Spike (James Marsters). In the episode “Dead Things,” for instance, Buffy and Spike shag everywhere in various states of undress, including on the balcony of The Bronze, where Spike gives it to Buffy from behind while she watches her friends from above the dance floor. Willow and Tara, on the other hand, have appeared positively prudish.

But, perhaps showcasing Willow and Tara’s morality and commitment in place of spectacular erotics is not such a bad thing, especially in light of Vito Russo’s assertion, in The Celluloid Closet, that throughout film history, gay men and lesbians have been delimited by homophobic stereotypes of queer sexual excess and promiscuity. On the other hand, BVS creator and executive producer (and still more than occasional writer and director) Joss Whedon’s skittish-ness about being too explicit around Willow and Tara’s love life could easily be read as reflective of the continuing homophobia and intolerance of American culture generally.

Whedon’s answer to this conundrum — what and how much to show — has been to code lesbianism as witchcraft, and specifically, lesbian sex as spell-casting. Around the middle of season four, the episode “Who Are You?” established the parameters within which lesbian sex could be portrayed. In this episode, bad-girl slayer Faith (Eliza Dushku) wakes from a coma and with the aid of a magic charm, switches bodies with Buffy. (And the sexual tensions between the dueling Slayers become more obvious when played against the overt sexuality of Willow and Tara.) Tara is, “naturally,” the first to notice that “Buffy” seems different, and suggests to Willow that they try a spell that will reveal the truth. She cautions, however, that the spell is “really intense” and that she will need to serve as Willow’s “anchor” to the material realm. We then see the two practicing their craft, all dewy-eyed and sweaty-faced, moaning and panting. Overcome by the intensity and power of their bond, Willow falls backward, in slow motion, onto a bed of pillows in orgasmic joy.

This representational strategy for representing lesbian sex has been a relatively complicated gambit: viewers who might be anxious about overt representation of lesbian sexuality can relax, for the girls are, after all, only practicing witchcraft, while more savvy viewers can read the codes and find an empowered and loving lesbian couple with a healthy sex life. Nevertheless, in comparison to their heterosexual counterparts on the show the lovers’ sex life has been much more obscurely represented. Most often, the girls merely allude to “spells” that keep them “up all night.”

This changed during the past season, which took that relatively simple and progressive coding of lesbian desire and sex as witchery and turned it into addiction and pathology. Early on, trouble is brewing between Willow and Tara over Willow’s increasing reliance on her magical powers. In the episode titled “Tabula Rasa,” Tara issues Willow an ultimatum — either she get her witchcraft (sex) addiction under control or Tara will leave her. Willow resorts to magic to make Tara forget their troubles, things go awry, the spell is broken, and Tara, realizing she has been betrayed and violated, leaves Willow. Following this, Willow spins out of control, seeks solace with the black-magic pusher Rack (Jeff Kober), and which culminates in “Wrecked,” where we watch Willow’s descent into addiction and despair.

Once Willow realizes she “has a problem,” she spends the last half of the season struggling to stay clean and win Tara back. Here, Buffy came close to saving itself from its own internal logic of lesbianism as pathology through the possibility of Willow and Tara’s reunion. All Willow’s struggles (and the show’s) were in vain, however, as the girls’ rekindled love is brutally truncated in Tara’s senseless and untimely murder.

From here, Willow falls entirely off the wagon, maxes out on magic juice, hunts down Warren, flays him alive, and burns him to death. Throughout the double-episode season finale, Willow repeatedly refers to herself as a “junkie.” But to what is she addicted? The power of witchcraft or lesbian sex? Well, both, considering how BVS has gone to such lengths for the past three seasons to code Willow and Tara’s spell-casting as queer sexuality. And this has been a relatively new twist on an old stereotype; now, rather than a psychological “condition,” lesbianism is a physical addiction that can ruin your life, and threaten both addict and those she loves.

Unsurprisingly, the closure of Willow-Tara story arc in addiction and death has caused no small amount of outrage in the show’s fans. Much of the mainstream press (with some exceptions, like Salon) has been less vocal or critical about the regressive changes in what has been up until now such a positive portrayal. In many ways, this silence demonstrate just how easily “we” continue to accept the most prejudicial of homophobic stereotypes — apparently most journalistic sources haven’t found anything objectionable in Tara’s death and Willow’s rampage.

This has also been true of media watchdog groups that we might presume to be a bit more fine-tuned to the representational nuances of homophobia. For the past two years, among its many industry accolades and awards, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has been nominated by GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) for their media award in the category of Outstanding Drama Series. Perhaps GLAAD needs to reconsider, post-season finale, for how can this ending of Willow and Tara’s story be understood as anything but defamatory? This is not to say that groups like GLAAD should try to take awards back if their awardees don’t follow party line. What is surprising (at least to me) is that GLAAD again nominated Buffy this past year, considering the problematic implications of the Willow-Tara story as I have outlined them here.

While much of the mainstream press has been silent on the death of Tara, on-line fan venues have been abuzz with criticism. Apparently, Whedon was so assailed after the season finale aired that he quickly posted the following defense on the show’s official website chat room: “I killed Tara… Because stories, as I have so often said, are not about what we WANT. And I knew some people would be angry with me for destroying the only gay couple on the show, but the idea that I COULDN’T kill Tara because she was gay is as offensive to me as the idea that I DID kill her because she was gay. Willow’s story was not about being gay. It was about weakness, addiction, loss… the way life hits you in the gut right when you think you’re back on your feet.”

Whedon’s rationalization raises two problems. First, surely few people are angry because they feel Whedon shouldn’t have killed off Tara because she was gay. Instead what angers me (and perhaps others) is how Buffy has transformed one of the most empowering and progressive portrayals of lesbian desire, identity, and commitment on network television into an experience of degradation and addiction that leads to death.

Second, Willow’s story isn’t about being gay?! Despite the fact that over the past three seasons, her story has specifically been about her and the rest of the Scooby gang’s coming to grips with the fact? The story arc that started with Willow coming out as bisexual in Season 4 has become by this past season about her direct affirmation of her lesbian self.

How can Whedon not see the direct connections between Willow’s story of “weakness” and historical stereotypes of homosexuality as congenital and/or psychological defect, or how her “addiction” dovetails easily with prejudices against queer sexual pathologies and excess? We are not angry that Tara was killed off because she is gay and there are so few representations (good or bad) of gays and lesbians on prime-time television. Rather, we are angry that both Willow and Tara had to be so severely degraded and punished for falling in love with each other.