By 2001, the lesbian kiss episode was a well-worn trope. Every so often, a queer woman would pop into a TV show, allowing the writers to explore a salacious topic while the network raked in the views. But more often than not, the obliquely #LGBT characters were one-shot-wonders, disappearing after their sensationalized appearances. In the meantime, shows like Xena: Warrior Princess and Babylon 5 crammed in as much queer subtext as they possibly could, so restricted by censors that the characters were never allowed to explore the romances the writers intended for them.
And then came Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After Seth Green departed the show in Season 4, creator Joss Whedon decided to have Willow make the most of her time at college by getting herself a girlfriend — the fan-fave Tara Maclay. Their relationship would go on to be one of TV's most groundbreaking romances of all time, inspiring a generation and giving young LGBT fans everywhere one simple, crucial message: You are not alone.
Willow and Tara's budding romance was very subtly dealt with, with censors still far too nervous to allow the two to kiss. But in the 2001 episode "The Body" the couple shared an emotional kiss, and once #Buffy moved to the less-restrictive network UPN in Season 6, Willow and Tara finally got to be physically affectionate with each other every episode, breaking yet more ground by sharing a bed onscreen.
Giving Hope To LGBT Viewers
And yet, unlike the lesbian kiss episodes that many TV shows capitalized on for views, Willow and Tara were perhaps the first gay women to get a well written, long term relationship that developed over multiple seasons. This was hugely influential, and as Amber Benson (Tara) explains to Entertainment Weekly, by not fetishizing Willow and Tara the show sent a very powerful message.
"It was a beautiful relationship — it wasn't just about girls making out. It was about two people, who just happened to identify as female, who fall in love. They were good to each other, they treated each other well. A normal relationship. You normalize it and you make it okay because it is okay."
Alyson Hannigan, who played Willow, also pointed out the importance of their romance being "a non-issue" — the Scooby Gang quickly accepted Tara into the group without question, and it was this show of support that really made a difference with fans, as Benson told EW.
"We got a lot of young letters… there were a lot of young people who felt very isolated, and to see two characters on a television show be accepted by a group of peers changed the game. We're saying that if you find somebody to love, you're just lucky. It doesn't matter the gender, the sex, the whatever. If you find somebody who gets you and you get them then you are so lucky."
Hannigan expanded on this, arguing that it was really the longevity of Willow and Tara's relationship that made it so special.
"You got to see the journey, so that, I think, was very groundbreaking, and I’ve never had anything but a positive reaction. It’s just been such a profound thing for people who were going through the same thing or terrified of what they were going to have to go through and just to see somebody that they had been watching for so many years to get to not feel so alone... it’s such a gift to be able to be part of that."
Personally, I can attest that Willow and Tara really had an impact, allowing me to understand who I am. When you live in a conservative, heterosexual environment, growing up and realizing you're different is a very isolating, difficult experience — not to mention the potential ostracization you face if or when you choose to come out of the closet. Many people repress their feelings, and sometimes it can feel as though you don't even exist.
But then, to turn on the TV and see two women share a loving relationship, to see that it's okay and achingly romantic — and not oversexualized or spotlighted as strange — well that can mean everything to a young queer kid. Benson really puts it best:
"[LGBT viewers] already loved Willow, but to see her become somebody that they could identify with it made it okay for them to be who they were."
Willow and Tara really paved the way for other LGBT characters to be well presented in television. Though admittedly there's still a long way to go, Buffy the Vampire Slayer broke the mold and pushed for better representation — and I, for one, will always be grateful for that.
Who was your favorite of Willow's romantic partners?
[Poll image credit: Mutant Enemy Productions]