It's 2002 and I am eleven year old. I am watching an old re-run of Buffy The Vampire Slayer with my nine-year-old sister. It's a now infamous episode from Season 5; 'The Body.' In hindsight, it was probably not the most suitable episode to be watching given our respective ages, and we likely didn't really understand the emotional and artistic significance of the episode at the time. As the episode went on, we got to a scene where two of the female characters — Tara (Amber Benson) and Willow (Alyson Hannigan) — are searching for Willow's blue sweater. Willow is upset, trying to figure out how she should present herself to a bereaved Buffy — and Tara kisses her.
I remember looking at my sister, she didn't seem to have noticed anything was out of place — but I was confused. I had never seen two women kiss on #TV before. I had never seen two women comfort each other in such an intimate way. There was nothing sexual about it, it just was. At the time I had no idea about my own sexuality, or anyone else's for that matter. It's not my parents fault for not educating me, I guess they just thought I was too young to understand — but it was the summer before my first crush, and it's only years later that I can really reflect on how much this episode of television meant to me, and thousands like me.
The cultural impact of Tara and Willow's relationship cannot be understated; and not just to baby gays like me. Season 4 aired into 1999, but the show had always existed ahead of its time — Buffy's feminist characterization through the subversion of the "damsel in distress" narrative is a classic example of this. The relationship between the two wiccans throughout the season was another. It's pretty frustrating to watch today, as the relationship was alluded to heavily through metaphor, in an attempt to defy the censors that were ready to jump in with edits if there was too much female intimacy. What seemed like the organic growth of a non-offensive lesbian relationship by today's standards was heavily monitored behind-the-scenes, culminating the watershed moment I caught in 2002, and the more explicit development of the relationship thereafter.
Still, in spite of pressure from censors and networks, this kiss happened — and the landscape of LGBT representation hasn't been the same since.
From 'Ellen' To 'Will & Grace': The State of Play for LGBT Representation In the '90s
To understand how much of a watershed moment the kiss was, we need to look back at where queer representation was at in the 1990s. While queer cinema was experiencing a renaissance of sorts with the release of cult classics like Bound (1996), Philadelphia (1993), Better Than Chocolate (1999) and But I'm A Cheerleader (1999), they were wholly unaccessible to a vast majority of questioning youth. Well-rounded #LGBT television regulars were simply non-existent towards the end of the decade, despite Ellen Degeneres' ground-breaking coming-out in 1997 — which ultimately ruined her career for almost twenty years. While movies could be made without the fear of hard-lined execs shutting down production, TV had to contend with advertisers and networks that would pull funding over a gay kiss, character, or storyline — as they threatened to do during a 1991 episode of L.A. Law.
Having said this, Will & Grace broke ground in 1998, putting gay men front-and-centre. Luckily, its unthreatening, one-dimensional depiction of homosexuality was enough to please the censors; but naturally, it left many queer people feel like their only representation existed in sexless cartoon characters.
Tara, Willow & The TV Revolution
However, with the new millennium came a new wave of queer media. A U.S. remake of Queer As Folk aired on Showtime; Bianca came out as a lesbian on All My Children; Once & Again featured a young Evan Rachel Wood and Misha Barton exploring their feelings for each other; and Jennifer Aniston's Rachel kissed Wynona Ryder's Melissa on Friends. The ground was moving for queer representation, but it was the burgeoning relationship between Buffy's best friend Willow and her college friend Tara in Season 4 of Buffy The Vampire Slayer that finally answered the prayers of queer women the world over.
The decision to make Willow gay in Season 4 was not taken lightly by showrunner #JossWhedon, who decided to explore the idea, partly because Seth Green — who played Oz, Willow's boyfriend, through Seasons 1-3 — wanted to leave the show, and partly to push the boundaries of his already innovative TV show. In an interview with NPR's Fresh Radio in 2000, Whedon explained how he got away with pitching the relationship to The WB:
"We had thought about the idea of someone exploring their sexuality, expanding it a little bit, in college because that's something that might happen in college. Since we tend to work inside metaphor, for most of the show, we talked about Willow and her being a witch because it's a very strong female community and it gives her a very physical relationship with someone that isn't necessarily sexual."
Tara first appeared in the Emmy-nominated episode 'Hush', and became a regular as her relationship with Willow deepened. Because of censors — who had a big issue with the thought of Tara and Willow engaging in a physical relationship — their season-long courtship was very metaphorical. The ladies used dreams, hand-holding and magic to express longing, but it was easy enough to read between the lines if you were looking. Whedon continued:
The network obviously has issues. They don't want any kissing -- that's one thing that they've stipulated -- and they're a little nervous about it. They haven't interfered at all with what we've tried to do and yet they've raised a caution about it. And at the same time you have people, the moment Tara appeared on the scene, saying, 'Why aren't they gay enough? They're not gay enough! You need to make them more gay.' They want to make a statement, they want to turn it into an issue right away. So you have forces buffeting you and you're trying to come up with both what is emotionally correct as a progression and what is mythically significant with the greater arc, so you know, you're trying to wield all these things and week to week, make these things progress.
In a way, the deliberately timid development of the relationship was what made it so successful. Never before had there been a well-developed, gradual and accurate portrayal of two women questioning their sexuality and falling for each other. Having said this (to anyone who has ever seen Fried Green Tomatoes), metaphor and loved-up glances can only go so far. During Season 5, Episode 16, Tara and Willow shared their first on-screen kiss — the one I caught in 2002. There were reports that The WB fought Whedon hard to remove the kiss from the episode, but Whedon threatened to walk if it was removed.
Despite network reservations, the relationship was positively received — remember, this was the first relationship of its kind, so there was really no way to tell how it would have been welcomed. Alyson Hannigan and Amber Benson spoke openly about the positive reaction, and in a 2002 Q&A at Madame Tussauds in the UK, Benson talked about the letters she's received from other young women, and the overall significance of the role:
“I’ve gotten the most amazing letters from young women who have come out because of the relationship that Willow and Tara had. If you make an impact on society in a positive way, it’s the most amazing experience. People became embroiled in the relationship and it made people realize that it was okay to be what they were. It doesn’t matter who you sleep with, it’s how you treat other people in this world.”
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Seeing Red & Bury Your Gays
Of course, nothing good can last, and Tara tragically became the first victim of the heavily-criticized 'Bury Your Gays' trope that has dogged lesbian TV representation right up until this point in time. Season 6 was turbulent for Tara and Willow's relationship; they broke up after Willow began to abuse magic, but reconciled in Episode 19, 'Seeing Red'. In an emotional episode which also dealt with sexual assault, Tara is accidentally shot by Warren through the heart, with a bullet meant for Buffy.
While the scene was ultimately heartbreaking for the cast and Buffy fans, it was necessary for the creation of one of Buffy's fiercest villains; Dark Willow, Season 6's 'Big Bad.' While "necessity to plot" is an argument regularly used by showrunners when killing off their lesbian characters — lookin' at you Jason Rothenberg — for Buffy's sixth season it felt valid, despite being a painful blow to LGBT fans who only had this relationship to hold onto. Many argued that it was a throwback to old, anti-gay cliches, and that is still up in the air, depending on who you talk to. Whedon also controversially put Benson in the title sequence for 'Seeing Red' which further exacerbated criticisms of using Tara's death for shock value. Having said this, Dark Willow was one of Buffy's most compelling and emotionally raw storylines, and I don't know how powerful her transition would have been without Tara's death.
In a statement following Tara's death Whedon said that he dealt with the character the same way as any of the others on the show:
“Willow’s story was not about being gay. It was about addiction and loss. The way life hits you in the gut right when you think you’re back on your feet. I love Amber [Benson] and she knows it. Eventually, this story will end for all of them. Hers ended sooner. Or did it ? Yeah it did.”
It's important to note that Willow stayed queer into the seventh and final season of Buffy, engaging in a relationship with Kennedy, one of the potential slayers that Buffy takes under her wing. Even though the relationship was very unpopular given the short amount of time Willow was seemingly given to grieve, she never forgets how important Tara was to her. Their relationship lasted far beyond 'Seeing Red.'
20 Years On: Tara And Willow's Legacy
The way Willow and Tara's relationship was received showed other networks that long-lasting lesbian relationships on TV was not a kiss of death. Buffy The Vampire Slayer ended in 2003, and in 2004 Showtime — working off the critical success of Queer As Folk — launched their iconic lesbian-centric TV series The L Word. Obviously more adult and explicit than anything Joss Whedon had done with Tara and Willow, The L Word (while yes, very problematic now) had a profound impact on the generation of queer women who had grown up watching Buffy and were looking for further representation & validation within television.
In the 20 years since Buffy The Vampire Slayer first aired, the television landscape has changed significantly. Buffy was one of the first significant female characters, and the show's contribution impacted popular culture from language to feminism. Of course, Buffy (nor The L Word) introduced nearly an inch of the diversity needed to be representative of the vastness of the LGBT community, but Willow and Tara's relationship is regularly cited as one of the most impactful and accurate representations of lesbian relationship, both on-screen and off.
While we still have a long way to go when it comes to how we treat our beloved queer characters, it all began with Buffy daring to push the envelope and building those tentative first steps towards characters like The 100's Lexa and Supergirl's Alex. Progress takes time, but I fully credit Willow and Tara's relationship to helping me figure who I was and what I wanted all the way back in 2002, and helping pave the way to becoming the bonafide, grown-up queer fangirl I am today.
What did Buffy The Vampire Slayer mean to you? Let us know in the comments.