First Disclaimer: I’m not gay, nor a woman. I can pull out the “but I know or have known plenty of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people” card, but that’s frankly a load of bull, and we all know it. The best I can manage is that I hashed out some of these issues while Buffy the Vampire Slayer was still on the air with my very close friend (and quite often more than a friend) at the time, Diana, who’s bi herself. But, even then, I have no real standing to write any of this, but that has never stopped me from shoving my keyboard in my mouth in the past, so why stop now?
Second Disclaimer: I ship Willow/Xander in a pretty big way (it’s my favorite ‘ship in the franchise, and probably in the top five across all of my many fandoms), and so did Diana when I knew her (it’s been about a decade and a half since we’ve had any contact, so absolutely none of this is her fault). So, yes, there’s a bias in play. But, ironically, I ship Willow/Tara, too, because how can any person on Earth not think the world of Tara or her actress, Amber Benson? (Pretty much no one ships Willow/Kennedy, and with good reason.) But still, your mileage may vary greatly as to whether shipping Willow/Xander destroys the credibility of this rant.
I’m sure this how you think I view Willow and Tara at all times, but really, it’s not. I swear.
Third Disclaimer: No, this is not a part of the Star Trek Debriefed project.
Being a fan with delusions of writing creatively is not easy. There’s always the inkling to pick apart the writing process and the choices a writer makes. And being a fan with delusions of writing creatively while also reviewing cartoons and other TV shows is just plain insanity. The level of fan stupidity this situation inspires is difficult to properly fathom unless you’ve actually lived it (suffice to say, it’s pretty freaking stupid). And, pound for pound, the fandom I’ve lost the most brain cells to the supposition that “they’re doing it wrong” is for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff, Angel. (And I watched Heroes to the bitter end of its first run on television.) I had thought I was cured of my affliction, what with Buffy ending, Angel‘s fifth season being on the whole excellent, and my being satisfied with the Buffy and Angel comics (even if certain things like being jobless for close to two years have prevented me from reading anything but synopses of them recently).
But then, after more or less letting my Buffy and Angel DVDs sit on a shelf (and then, after the jobless thing reached its current utterly dire state, in a box in a storage unit along with 95% of my personal property) for years, I stumbled upon reruns of the first couple of seasons on Logo, and was inspired to search for a Buffy-related podcast, settling on Dusted, which has led to me falling down a rabbit hole of writing Buffy fanfiction for the first time in a decade, re-watching Veronica Mars, and even reading Jane Austen (and loving it!). So, yes, I’ve re-engaged with an old favorite in a way that I haven’t in a very long time. And part of this means re-examining Buffy and Angel with a critical eye while still maintaining my status as the fanatically dedicated Willow/Xander ‘shipper on the StoryWonk forums.
With that said, my Buffy origin story is also a bit odd. Unlike Robotech or Doctor Who, where I put off watching the shows for many years because I knew I wouldn’t be able to properly enjoy them when they first came to my attention, I generally dismissed Buffy the Vampire Slayer for most of its run before jumping in for no good reason whatsoever. A big part of this lies with the 1992 movie, or more accurately, its trailer, which was pretty incessantly spammed during whatever it was I was watching back then, and looked unbelievably stupid (which it is, by the way). So, when I first heard about the show, I believe during the controversy over episodes that were postponed after the Columbine massacre, I didn’t lift a finger to watch it. Nor did I when Willow and Tara’s relationship first made waves, or when the series jumped networks to UPN (which I loathed far less at the time than The WB). No, I first started watching Buffy because when the first season DVD set was released, I had just purchased my first DVD player a month prior, so I bought it on a whim, only to enjoy it for its humor and for how unbelievably adorable best friends (and potential love interests) Willow and Xander were.
I dare you to not consider this to be adorable.
Then, two days after purchasing the DVDs (a Thursday), I got to the season finale, “Prophecy Girl”, and everything changed:
What had seemed incredibly stupid in that decade-old trailer was now something far more powerful. And as a critical viewer, Sarah Michelle Gellar became one of my favorite actresses because she nailed it in that scene, and the rest of the cast did their damnedest to match this performance.
So, I leapt in head first, recording the twice-daily reruns of Buffy on FX (starting with “Killed By Death”, a late second-season episode) while watching both Buffy and Angel on their regular nights (the former started with a rerun of the season premiere, and the latter with “Provider”, the last happy episode of the year before things got amazingly dark). In addition to fansites and fanfic, I also started reading the Spoiler Slayer daily (the site is still up with all of its news archives), and walked into one of the great bits of fan speculation for that season: the Big Scooby Death.
Now, characters dying on Buffy and Angel wasn’t new, but this rumor took on a life of its own because a lot of people astutely pegged Willow’s girlfriend, the kind and shy witch Tara, as the character most likely to be killed near the end of the season. Willow and Tara, being the first open, regularly appearing lesbian couple on US TV, had attracted a devoted and quite frankly fanatical fanbase (even more so than the ‘shipper fanbase for Xena and Gabrielle on Xena: Warrior Princess, which remained strictly subtextual for the run of that show), largely centered on a message board known as the Kitten Board (which I was shocked to find still exists). These fans seemed, from my perspective, to be focused less on the show as a whole than on the one element that, while pretty awesome in its own right, was mostly relegated to the “B” plots of episodes. This was brewing about as I was furiously catching up on the show, and while some other controversial content (namely, the Buffy/Spike relationship, which became distressingly dark after a scene where Spike tried to rape Buffy) was airing.
With the 19th episode of the season, Tara was killed in the last scene (the episode title, “Seeing Red”, even refers to how Tara sees her own blood splattering on Willow’s white shirt before collapsing to the ground, dead).
It was, in true Joss Whedon fashion, spectacularly powerful and cruel (the most brutal blow being that Amber Benson, normally a recurring player credited as a Guest Star at the start of her episodes, was promoted to the opening credits for this episode,
It was even more messed up knowing that Tara was going to die, and that this was going to be in the episode.
something Whedon had wanted to do for years with a departing character), and also massively foreshadowed, dating back to at least the third season.
The members of the Kitten Board, however, took the news very poorly as it was first spoiled (and their board was a fairly reliable source of information, if myopically focused on Willow and Tara). To be brutally honest, they went absolutely nuts. And with Willow turning to the Dark Side in murderous fashion, there were two perceived stereotypes in play: the Dead Lesbian and the Evil Lesbian. And then after news hit (and relatively early, too, since the climactic scene of the season was shot on location) that Xander was the person to talk Willow down, it was claimed that Joss (who was present at the aforementioned location shoot, a known sign of a scene’s importance) was going to make Tara an “experiment” and pair her off with Xander.
Never mind that the scene was about the sort of unconditional love that only Xander, Willow’s oldest and best friend, could provide.
The thing is, to the long-term viewer (or intensely crazy first-time viewers binging on the show as fast as possible in the days before Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu), the events of Season 6 were pretty much inevitable. Willow took up magic towards the end of Season 2 in part to help restore Angel’s soul, and from that point on, her powers grow at an alarmingly fast rate. Worse still, Willow had a growing tendency to use (or try to use) her magic to weasel out of difficult personal situations.
Like a secret affair with Xander, for instance.
This grows to the point where Willow uses magic to partially wipe Tara’s memories in response to Tara’s concerns about Willow’s abuse of her powers. (And that’s not even where Willow bottoms out.) When Tara is killed, Willow has been trying hard to break her dependence on magic cold turkey to enough success that Tara has reconciled with her after a separation of at least 5 months. With Willow’s two previous outbursts in the face of extreme grief (a “Thy Will Be Done” spell in Season 4 that causes enough chaos to get her recruited to become a Vengeance Demon and an angry attack on the Hell God Glory in Season 5 that actually managed to hurt her before fizzling out) taken into account, Willow’s actions were completely expected.
This was always going to happen.
And as for Tara’s death, the series had previously killed off Jenny Calendar and Buffy’s mother Joyce and sent Angel to Hell at points of great happiness for them and the characters closest to them (and the audience). And with her reconciliation with Willow, Tara became the fourth such character on Buffy the Vampire Slayer to suffer such a gut-wrenching fate in the service of the series’ greater plot. In fact, Joss has stated multiple times that the death of Jenny Calendar in Season 2 was a notice to everyone that, yes, anyone on the show could die (though Whedon has also repeatedly declared he would never kill off Willow, no doubt because she, especially as performed by the great Alyson Hannigan, is an inherently likable and sympathetic character).
If there’s a list of things guaranteed to evoke an emotional response, the sight of Alyson Hannigan as Willow crying her eyes out has to be near the top.
In fact, excluding the 12 episode first season, each of the seasons to that point had hinged on the death of a supporting character: Jenny in Season 2, the Mayor’s Deputy, Allan Finch, in Season 3, Maggie Walsh of the Initiative in Season 4, and Joyce Summers in Season 5.
During the summer hiatus, the staff of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and especially Joss Whedon) received the very angry feedback, and by August of 2002, Whedon told The Advocate, “We do that now, and we will be burned alive. And possibly justifiably. We can’t have Willow say, ‘Oh, cured now, I can go back to cock!’ Willow is not going to be straddling that particular fence. She will just be gay.” (Somewhat ironically in the context of this website, the interview was conducted by Andy Mangels, a key figure in the Filmation library being released on DVD in a time-compressed state.) Furthermore, a new character was conceived to be Willow’s new girlfriend while Whedon openly toyed with the idea of resurrecting Tara (at the time, only series leads Buffy and Angel had come back from death). That character, named Kennedy (seemingly after the ’90s MTV VJ and current libertarian whackjob), turned out to not only be the anti-Tara in terms of demeanor, but one of the most unpopular characters ever conceived for the show.
It doesn’t hurt that her first line is a snarky bit of business directed at Buffy.
The Kitten Board was not placated in any way, and to this day still ignores every part of Buffy beginning with Tara getting shot.
Declaring that Willow would no longer “straddle the fence” was, however, not just an overreaction, but a reductive and, in a current context, where bisexuality is no longer as marginalized as it was in 2002 (at the time, bisexuals were considered to be “sluts” or delusional about their gay/straight orientation, if they were even acknowledged at all), horribly outmoded. It also severely limits Willow’s character growth, as discussions of her sexual identity had never quite moved past the binary: in “Triangle”, which centered on Xander’s love for girlfriend Anya and best friend Willow (and the fact that both women distrust each other greatly because each thinks the other will hurt Xander), Willow deflects Anya’s claims that she will “steal” Xander from her by replying famously, “Hello, gay now!” Later, in “Tough Love”, Willow and Tara have their first fight (ostensibly over Willow’s magic abuse), and the subject of Willow’s sexuality is broached, specifically in regards to whether or not Tara represents a “phase” for Willow. It’s the sort of horrible thing that happens when couples fight, but this falls right into the trap of bi erasure. Granted, this is in the context of an emotionally charged fight and we can forgive Tara for going there, but we never get another honest exploration of Willow’s clearly fluid sexual identity. There is a lot of room for Willow to be identified as bisexual, especially since Willow and Oz’s final parting never once makes their final breakup an issue of Willow’s sexuality. And with Willow’s dream in “Restless” being focused on her amazing personal growth over the course of the series (and her fears that she may be hiding her true self for fear of ridicule), this is an extremely fair avenue to pursue.
The core of the problem here (I write roughly 2,400 words into this blog post) is that Willow’s sexuality was never effectively planned out. In the early days of the series, Whedon began mooting the possibility that either Willow or Xander was gay. And based on the evidence through the second season, it was looking as if Xander was going to be that character. In “Halloween”, Willow’s eventual boyfriend, Oz (played by Seth Green), first appears, and first takes notice of Willow. However, the episode also marks the first appearance of Larry, a fairly stock bullying jock character, who harasses Xander through much of the episode. Later on that season, in “Phases” (which marks the formal start of the Willow/Oz relationship and of Oz being a werewolf), Larry comes out as gay to Xander, and ends up believing that Xander is also gay. This, in addition to Xander’s frequent lapses into gay panic (which were at least partially understandable for a teenage boy to have in the ’90s), provided some serious hints that Xander might be gay. However, all of this hard work would be thrown out in the closing days of the third season.
Allow me to digress a bit: Season 3 was a major period of transition for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Angel was openly in development, and would cost the parent show not only the title character, but perpetually blunt cheerleader (and occasional comedy mule) Cordelia Chase. Losing the series’ male romantic lead was bad enough, but for a show that thrives on snarky dialogue to lose its sharpest tongue was a big loss. However, when “The Wish”, an episode spent mostly in an alternate reality where Buffy never came to Sunnydale and Willow and Xander were turned into vampires became incredibly popular with fans (and with Joss Whedon, who had not been particularly involved with the production of the episode), the seeds for Cordelia’s replacement in the cast were sewn. The breakout character of the episode was Vampire Willow, who was sadistic, creepy as hell, and sexually bent. So, even though she dies in the episode (all of the show’s regular characters except for Oz and Giles die), Vampire Willow was brought back in “Dopplegangland”, where she proceeds to tear up the Sunnydale we’re familiar with, as well as hit on both Xander and Willow over the course of the episode. However, in order to do this, the demon responsible for the twisted alternate Sunnydale, Anyanka, returned. At the end of “The Wish”, Anyanka is left as the human girl Anya, who is ultimately even blunter in tone and demeanor than Cordelia ever was. And she, too, was popular, so Anya returned for two more episodes, this time finding herself interested in Xander (she even ends up as Xander’s date to the Senior Prom), and plans were made to have the character return on a recurring basis in Season 4, pretty much ending the idea of Buffy having a gay friend.
That is, until Seth Green left the series rather abruptly.
When he joined the series in the second season, Green had just scored his breakout performance as Scott Evil in the first Austin Powers movie. Oz became a big favorite with viewers and the writing staff, and was upgraded to regular status. But honestly, Oz was better served in a recurring role, and that was also how Green, who was now as well known as Sarah Michelle Gellar and Alyson Hannigan following the massive success of the second Austin Powers movie, felt. The problem is, Oz was actually going to have a season-long character arc where he was tempted by singer (and fellow werewolf) Veruca, before ultimately choosing Willow (with the ultimate plan being that Oz would die in the fifth season, sparking the Dark Willow arc we ultimately saw in Season 6). As a result, the Veruca arc was hastily concluded, and after a few episodes of Willow being hopelessly distraught over Oz’s departure from Sunnydale, Tara was introduced, and their relationship hatched after Amber Benson’s second appearance (and hinted at with a steadily increasing lack of subtlety until Oz’s return in “New Moon Rising”, which officially began Willow and Tara’s relationship).
Amber Benson was instantly awesome as Tara. Seriously.
And, the digression has now ended. The issue as to whether or not Joss Whedon should have stuck firmly to his plan is the ultimate Catch-22. J. Michael Straczynski rigidly followed his blueprint for Babylon 5 (and even went to far as to structure things such that characters could be replaced if actors left the series, which ended up happening), and that show is a classic. But Joss Whedon’s method for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel also paid off multiple times: besides the ground-breaking romance between Willow and Tara, the characters of Harmony, Amy, Spike, Faith, and Wesley were all greatly expanded from their original conception (in fact, all save Spike and Faith were intended to be one-shot characters) but retained due to their popularity with fans and the writing staff. (Wesley’s expanded role turned out to be particularly impactful, as Alexis Denisof and Alyson Hannigan ended up married with children after meeting while filming Buffy.) So, really, there is no right answer, as both approaches have resulted in some great television. However….
There’s also something to be said about making a change to your creative plans in response to viewer feedback. And both of my above examples, Babylon 5 and Buffy, were early pioneers in creators interacting with fans online. But in case of the outrage over Tara’s murder on Buffy, the complaints and the response have aged badly, bordering on being biphobic. Other than Terry Moore’s classic indie comic Strangers in Paradise and John Constantine, the lead character of DC’s Vertigo-imprinted comic Hellblazer, there were no bisexual characters in mainstream mass media (and an indie comic-even if it was critically lauded-and a comic published as part of a mature-audiences imprint stretch the definition of “mainstream”). And the number of out bisexuals in film, TV, politics, and the like was fairly small. A great deal of the issue was that gay and straight people alike denied the very existence of bisexuality, and when they did, being bi meant you were derided as being a nymphomaniac or unable to make up your mind. Declaring all of the pre-existing messy character development thrown Willow’s way to be null and void played right into these stereotypes, and the conception of Kennedy (whose actress, Iyari Limón, has rather ironically come out as bisexual in the years since Buffy ended) was sloppy and rushed.
Worse yet is the aforementioned issue of Willow’s character growth being limited. Before Tara gets shot, Willow is incredibly binary in her world view. She cuts off a great deal of her relationship with Xander in Season 3 after “Lovers Walk” because reconciling with Oz is “right” (never minding still extant feelings for Xander that don’t entirely fade until she learns he’s had sex with Faith), she flips pretty strongly against Faith once she learns that Xander had sex with her (following a chilling scene where Faith nearly rapes Xander), and there are also the incidents in “Triangle” and “Tough Love” mentioned previously. After Tara’s murder, Willow’s binary view of the world shatters: she has to reconcile her “Dark” period at the end of Season 6 with her “Light” periods in the other seasons (a process not fully realized until the Season 9 comics). Faith similarly is no longer someone to be purely hated, because Willow herself has killed and done some pretty vile things. But the binary periods of her romantic life (Xander and Oz on the one side, Tara and later Kennedy and Aluwyn on the other) are not fully reconciled, even though Oz appears during a substantial portion of the Season 8 comics (in addition to it being Xander, Willow’s first love, who stops her from destroying the world, as well as her implied attraction to Dracula in Season 5 and having to be reminded that she is gay in “Him” when pining over a magic-infused boy at Sunnydale High). Instead, Willow is thrust into a relationship with Kennedy (eventually cheating on her and then dumping her during the Season 8 comics), and then pursues a potentially self-destructive dalliance with female snake-demon Aluwyn (which ultimately plays out over a decade of continuity). Unless Joss is playing a sneaky-ass long game, this arc towards balance in Willow’s character evolution seems to be absent in one very defining area.
I must note, though, that as a fan, I had expected anything but a relationship for Willow in Season 7, or at least not until the last couple of episodes of the season, and in the most tentative of ways. To see an “anti-Tara” like Kennedy enter a full-fledged relationship with Willow in less than half the episodes it took for her to get with either Oz or Tara was and is extremely jarring. To have this all play out while striking an intense (and to my eternal regret, now lapsed) friendship and relationship with a mostly closeted bisexual woman who was a fan of the show (and a fellow Willow/Xander shipper) was downright maddening. Worse, Kennedy was the de facto face of the Potential Slayers that invaded the series en masse in its final year, meaning that an already difficult character represented two things that disrupted the dynamic between the show’s Core Five characters (Buffy, Willow, Xander, Giles, and Dawn).
The pigeonholing of Willow’s sexuality was compounded, however, when Joss Whedon revived Buffy and Angel in comics. Fairly early in Season 8, one of the newly activated Slayers, Satsu, falls in love with Buffy, and they ultimately spend the night together twice. The storyline made headlines in the comics world (and even Sarah Michelle Gellar herself reacted positively at the development), but the emphasis on why Buffy ultimately rejected Satsu was placed almost entirely on the notion that Buffy was absolutely straight, as opposed to the very good reasons she would have (namely, that Satsu was Buffy’s subordinate at the time, and the actually stated point that Buffy’s romances always end badly for the other person). Even more worrying was that Willow and Kennedy were just as enthusiastic in declaring Buffy straight without even the slightest consideration that she might be bi. Now, granted, as I currently write this, Satsu is finally slated to return (nearly a decade in continuity after we last saw her reacting poorly to Buffy and Angel doing it like bunnies during Twilight), but I for one hold no illusions that Buffy is going to dump Spike for Satsu.
This is ultimately my problem with limiting Willow’s sexuality to a binary state: it mutes the truly inspiring and wonderful message of Willow and Tara’s relationship, that love is about the person, and not their gender. Furthermore, it seems rather backwards in an era where the concept of fluidity of sexual and gender identities are being understood and encouraged, particularly in popular culture. Torchwood, which owes a lot to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, really excelled on this point, presenting a full spectrum of sexual orientations (most notably with Jack, who identifies as an “omnisexual” in-series), and now its parent show, Doctor Who, has rather explicitly revealed departing companion Clara Oswald (and author Jane Austen) to be bi. Even The Legend of Korra, in astounding even myself by becoming the first American cartoon series with a same-sex relationship, has seen the show’s creators state in no uncertain terms that Korra and Asami are both bi, which addresses fairly and honestly their previous relationships with Mako in a fictional context.
While it’s not shocking to see newer works surpass their inspirations, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an ongoing concern, and quite frankly, I expect better of it. I want to see the comic tackle bisexuality, and I also think that there are some potentially great and challenging ways to tackle transgender issues in the face of “Chosen”, and more importantly, I think that Joss and the other Buffy writers past and present can write such stories that are even better than my half-formed ideas. (They do get paid to write, after all, while I don’t.) I do hope, however, that one of my favorite TV shows (and comic books) gives me something to sing about once more.