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Buffy The Vampire Slayer

The Strange And Incredible Saga Of Willow and Tara On "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" - Part 1

Erick R. Voshel

Wednesday 23 August 2006, by Webmaster

An Editorial by Erick R. Voshel - Part 1/4

“The most provocative thing that any piece of fiction could do is show two gay people living together happily ever after.”---- Gore Vidal

Being different is never easy in today’s world. I know that better than anyone being a 25 year-old man with cerebral Palsy. I know how it feels to be an outsider. To feel like no one understands. Even though I myself am not a homosexual I can see why the gay community feels so underrepresented when it comes to how it is portrayed in the media. It is hard to find positive role models today. Especially ones that you can relate too. I personally believe that no minority group should be discriminated against no matter who they are . That’s why it disturbs me how certain minorities are portrayed in one specific way on television or in the movies. The present fact is that Gays and lesbians are usually depicted on both television and in the movies as either villains or victims. it is a trend that I find not only disturbing, but upsetting as well.

Let me give you several examples of what I mean. Let’s examine movies first, because we all know the world is not perfect, if it was, we would all be enjoying ourselves in a Dominican Republic all inclusive hotel package or better yet, enjoying the beach somewhere in Cancun resorts. In the classic film The Children’s Hour made in 1961, starring Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn the movie featured a plot that had Shirley MacLaine’s character pining over Hepburn, MacLaine’s character commits suicide after confessing her love for Hepburn by hanging herself. Another movie, The Fox. starring Sandy Dennis in 1968 has a plotline in which a tree falls on a lesbian crushing her to death in the process shortly after making love to another woman. Even the teen classic Rebel Without A Cause, starring James Dean (1955), had a subplot where the best friend played by Sal mineo has a crush on James Dean’s character, but at the end of the film a policeman shoots him in the back. More recently there was the movie, Basic instinct (1992) , starring Sharon Stone in the role that defined her career, in which she plays a bi-sexual serial killer who stabs her victims with an ice pick during sex. Stone’s character has a girlfriend who is both crazy and jealous. What ends up happening at one point in the film, is that the girlfriend tries to run Michael Douglas’s character down with her car in a jealous fit of rage and eventually winds up dead. The independent Film lost and Delirious (2001), features the story of two girls who develop a lesbian relationship at an all girls boarding school. The films ends with one of the main characters denying that she loves the other girl because she gives in to peer pressure . The other girl, feeling utterly rejected goes crazy and winds up taking her own life. In the 1994 film, Heavenly Creatures, starring a then unknown actress by the name of Kate Winslet (Later of ‘Titanic’ Fame ), two girls murder one of their mothers in cold blood after forming a powerfully sexual intimate relationship with each other. The 1998 independent film, High Art, starring Alley Sheedy (Breakfast Club) centers on a lesbian who is a heroin addict. And her lover just happens to be the one who gets her addicted to drugs in the first place. David lynch’s surreal drama, Mulholland Drive, features a plot that has a lesbian killing her ex-girlfriend after she leaves her for another man and then takes her own life by turning the gun on herself at the end of the film. Notice a pattern here? I can only draw one conclusion. All these films have one thing in common: All the Gay and Lesbian characters featured in these Movies either die horrible deaths, end up insane, are serial Killers, or sometimes all three. The overall message that these films seem to be sending is that homosexuality is perverse, dangerous, destructive, addictive, and even deadly.

Television hasn’t been too kind in the way it depicts gays and lesbians either. The examples of how this hurtful cliché against gays and lesbians has been used on TV are numerous. Popular shows such as NYPD Blue, The Practice, ER, Smallville, and Law & Order, to name a few, have perpetuated this Socially harmful cliché . Here are a few examples. On an episode of the courtroom drama Law & Order, a lesbian named Julie decides to “come out” after she is brutally raped by a gang of boys. her girlfriend Alicia, who is “in the closet” ends up killing Julie by bashing her head against a washing machine. The reason? Alicia is afraid of being exposed as Julie’s lover. Meanwhile, the boys that raped Julie are let off the hook NYPD Blue had an episode where a female cop named Abby gets pregnant and is looking to start a family with her female lover Kathy. Kathy is killed, while Abby gets shot by an intruder. It appears at first that they are the victims of a robbery, but it’s later revealed that Abby has a jealous ex-Girlfriend who set up the entire thing, so that she could get Abby to love her again. Abby is left utterly devastated by Kathy’s death.

On Smallville there was an episode in Season 2 called “Visage” involving a plot centered on a shape-shifting psychopathic Supergirl named Tina Grier who stalks Lana Lang. Tina has the ability to “morph” into other people. Tina wants to “Be with Lana because she loves her and will do anything to be with her.” She takes on the appearance of Lana’s boyfriend Whitney in order to be with her. In the end however, Tina ends up getting impaled to death on a piece of wood after fighting a huge battle with Clark Kent. It is also noteworthy to point out that Tina is referred to constantly throughout the episode as a “freak” and that she is “obsessed” with Lana. at the very end of the episode Tina then “ Morphs” into Clark in order to trick Lana into believing that Clark is finally confessing his “love” for her.

An early episode of ER has a lesbian brutally stabbing her straight roommate to death when she discovers that her friend wants to move away from her after deciding that she was “weird”. On the legal drama, the practice, there was a reoccurring gay male character named Joey Heric who just happens to be a crazed serial killer. He appears in several episodes and always manages to get acquitted of murder. And the list goes on.

The debate over how gays and lesbians are portrayed in the media was recently brought out into the spotlight by a storyline that played itself out in seasons 4,5, and 6 on the popular hit TV series Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The plot centered on a budding lesbian relationship between Buffy’s loyal sidekick, witch and best friend Willow Rosenberg (played by Alyson Hannigan) and another fellow Witch named Tara Maclay (played by Amber Benson). Tara made her first appearance in the Emmy Award-nominated episode “Hush” in December of 1999 during Buffy’s fourth season. Both Tara and Willow meet at an on-campus Wicca group and start an intense friendship that quickly becomes a full—blown romance. The storyline received a great deal of attention in the press and sparked a controversy that divided the show’s most loyal fan base. In fact, Amber Benson who played Tara experienced first hand just how nasty the fans could get. She would visit the Buffy posting boards on the web on a regular basis and discover that negative comments were not only being made about the Willow/Tara relationship in general, but that the fans were targeting both the character of Tara as well as Amber Benson herself. “It was just so surreal to have people using my name and Tara’s name interchangeably and saying nasty things about both,” she said in the October 2000 issue of the English Science Fiction/horror magazine Dreamwatch. Benson also went on to say in the interview that ” it hurt for people to make nasty comments about Willow and Tara’s relationship and about my weight and what I looked like as a whole. Whether someone says that your ugly to your face or on a posting board, it still hurts horribly. I mean, you wouldn’t just go over to Joe Blow and say, ‘I think you’re a fat, ugly sexual pervert.” Almost immediately websites showing their support for Benson began popping up all over the web . “I have gotten so many supportive letters from fans,” Benson said. They have been so kind, she said. “they make me feel better about everything , especially when they share their experiences. They make me realize that I am not alone. We are all beautiful no matter what we look like on the outside.”

Alyson Hannigan who played Willow also had something to say on the matter as well when commenting on the tasteful handling of the relationship in the same October, 2000 issue of Dreamwatch. “It’s never been pushed to the fore. Joss (Whedon) has handled it just the same way any relationship would be handled--- maybe a little more delicately because it’s two women. But it’s all about the love they have for each other. It’s not ‘oooooh, phwoar, two girls!’ which just isn’t Joss’s style!” Hannigan also went on to talk in the interview about how the WB network would not allow an onscreen kiss between the two actresses ” In America we’ve not been allowed to have the kiss on screen. As actors, we sometimes get the squished down version of reactions, so it could be that The Powers That Be are freaking, but to us it doesn’t seem like a big deal. The show goes out at 8:00 p.m., the first hour of prime time. If it went out at 9:00 p.m., we could probably show a kiss, but why bother? I don’t think we need to see it. It’s just the annoying fact that we see Buffy and Riley having full--- on sex all day and all night (in Where The Wild Things Are.), but these two girls can’t even kiss?”

Meanwhile, Buffy writer Doug Petrie had this to say about Willow and Tara’s future as a couple on the show in an interview with Sci-fi Universe on February 21, 2000: “Willow and Tara are going to have a good, happy, satisfying relationship. That’s something we’re more acutely aware of and we definitely don’t want to touch on ‘Being a lesbian is bad’ We’ve all seen shows where if you have any kind of gay tendencies , you must be killed or made to suffer for no other reason than other you’re gay. We’re hyper aware of that, so we’re more predisposed to have things work out for Willow and Tara. In fact, if Tara were a guy, I would predict a near 100% chance of a breakup for Willow. The fact that Tara is not a guy may make things work out better, because we can avoid what we feel is this old cliché.”

As a result of all the media attention, interest in the Willow/Tara relationship only started to grow larger. It also continued to spark controversy as Buffy’s writers and producers received hate mail condemning the Willow/Tara relationship as well as letters from gay youth testifying how that because of the positive way Willow and Tara were being depicted as a couple on Buffy, they were being encouraged to “come out of the closet” and to be more open about their sexuality. Websites devoted to the couple started to appear all over the internet. Both gay and straight people alike openly discussed how the Willow/Tara storyline had changed their lives. The response was so overwhelming that Buffy creator Joss Whedon made a remark on the Bronze Beta posting board on May 24, 2000 that, “One post from a gay or questioning teen is worth six hundred hate letters. Here’s the word: Tara’s not gonna disappear. She’s part of the show, part of Willow’s life.” Next, consider what Whedon had said to a fan calling herself “Riley’s Girl” on the Bronze Beta in April of that same year (2000): “Actually I’m really glad you like the show. I’m against intolerance of any kind, but if I made a show for people with the exact same opinions as me, I’d have a pretty teeny audience. So welcome. The whole point of Buffy is to be inclusive to those who feel excluded like gay teens and right now, like Riley’s Girl.” (But no Nazis. I’m serious about that.) A year later it was revealed that behind the scenes Joss Whedon was actively butting heads with the WB network over whether there would be an on screen kiss between the two girls or not. During the show’s fifth year on the air, we see Willow and Tara finally share their first on-screen kiss together in the episode “The Body.” There were reports that the WB fought hard to have the kiss removed from the episode. However, Whedon would prevail in managing to keep the kiss in the episode but only after threatening to walk out on the network if the kiss ended up on the cutting-room floor.

Joss Whedon also appeared to be enjoying all the attention the couple was getting on the show. In fact, Whedon initially was giving the impression that he was pleased with the fact that he had created such a big impact on the gay and lesbian community by creating such good, positive role models . Willow and Tara both represented real hope that things would change for the better in the entertainment industry for gay and lesbian characters. In May of 2001 Joss Whedon gave a statement to Entertainment Weekly regarding Amber Benson’s future on the show. “I have no plans to send Tara anywhere. Amber (Benson) and Alyson (Hannigan) have good chemistry ; they’re so great together, and they’re very romantic together. We have terrible, terrible things to do to them because they’re on my show, so needless to say, horrible things will happen----but as a couple I think they work really well. As for Amber, even if she weren’t going out with Willow. I think she’s become a big part of the heart of the show.”

Joss Whedon had also given a statement in the August, 2001 issue of Out magazine, a leading publication in the gay community with what appeared to be confirmation of what he had already been telling several other media outlets: that he was very proud of the fact that he had changed lives with Willow and Tara. Whedon also indicated to Out Magazine that the relationship between Willow and Tara would continue on Buffy. But Whedon would also go on to make a comment in the very same interview that would later become a focal point for serious debate and intense scrutiny later on down the road, as I will soon demonstrate in this report. Meanwhile, this is what Joss went on to say in the interview about just what kind of message he wanted to send as well as what kind of message he didn’t want to send with the storyline in general. “Next year shit’s gonna go down. We’re going to see more strength in Willow, than we have before ,“ he said. Her relationship with Tara will continue but the course of true love is never easy. We do have a bunch of people saying we’ve changed their lives,” Whedon said. I always want to put out good role models. But I wasn’t there saying, ‘I want to help gay teenagers be comfortable with themselves.’ We talked about the idea of college or online college as being a place where people expand their sexuality and discover their sexuality. Then Seth Green decided he didn’t want to do the show anymore. That’s when Willow’s sexuality blossomed into full womanhood. To get these responses was wonderfully overwhelming. It turned out to be one of the most important things we’ve done on the show.” Alyson Hannigan was once asked by a fan on E! Online about what kind of response she was getting since Willow realized that she was gay. “All the mail and stuff I’ve received has been really positive, Hannigan said, and if somebody comes up to me on the street or something, they’re always very nice. Occasionally, in the very beginning people would be like, “What’s up with you and that girl?” But basically, it’s been wonderful.” Meanwhile, Amber Benson had this to say when asked what it was like being a role model for young girls exploring their sexuality during a Q&A at Madame Tussauds in the UK on December 10, 2002: “I’ve gotten the most amazing letters from young women who have come out because of the relationship that Willow and Tara had,” Benson said. If you make an impact on society in a positive way, it’s the most amazing experience.” Amber also went on to say in the same Q&A that, “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.” So, here we have two testimonials from both of the two actresses who played Willow and Tara about how they personally felt about being positive role models for gay and questioning youth.

It is also important to note that while the Willow/Tara relationship was unfolding on screen, organizations that honored ways in which the gay, lesbian, and transgender community were being portrayed positively in the media, organizations such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation were praising the show for having the courage to portray this type of relationship with such honesty, integrity, and real affection. These groups were even nominating Buffy for all sorts of awards and even telling the fans that they should contact Joss Whedon to personally thank him for making a difference. (Buffy was nominated in the category for Outstanding Drama Series) . Joss Whedon, himself seemed to be gratified that Buffy was receiving all these award nominations. Whedon also seemed to be pleased with the fact that people were even sending him gifts to show their appreciation for what he was doing. On August1, 2000 joss commented on an engraved “lesbian toaster” that the fans had given him when Tara and Willow officially became a couple by saying, “No one I know has an engraved toaster,” he said. Plus, coolness aside, the fact that you cared that much about what we’ve been doing with Willow and Tara...sniff, sniff, something in my eye.” Whedon would also go on record saying how having this “Lesbian Toaster” would mean more to him than winning an Emmy award. Whedon would also experience first hand just how much the Willow/Tara relationship meant to people . A few days later on August 6, Joss commented on an experience that he had at a fan convention . This is what he had to say about it. “At the con, a woman came up to me after the panel to say ‘Thank you for Tara.’ But I was being herded away and I didn’t get to respond, I shouted, “Your Welcome.” but I don’t know if she heard, anyway it was a big deal for me that she came up to say that and I hope she knows it. Amber and I chat on occasion about the greatness of helping people with this role.”

There were even times when Joss Whedon and his writing staff at Mutant Enemy (Joss Whedon’s production company) would compare the way in which Buffy was handling same—sex relationships with how other TV shows had handled the same issue in the past. For example, Whedon would conduct an interview with The Onion in September of 200i in which he would defend the way Buffy was depicting the Willow/Tara relationship with what could actually be shown on screen in terms of physical intimacy between the two women. Whedon would openly criticize the series Thirtysomething by saying, “If it’s not sexy, then it’s not worth it. Like those two guys in Thirtysomething sitting in bed together, looking like they were individually wrapped in plastic. They did a scene with two guys in bed, and it was like a big deal on Thirtysomething, and it was the most antiseptic thing I’ve ever seen in my life. They were sitting ramrod—straight, far away from each other, and not even looking at each other. I was like, ’Ahhh, sexy!” Whedon was also asked in the same interview about how he felt about dealing with any extra pressure from his fanbase. “You don’t want to let them down,” he said. The people who feel the most strongly about something will turn on you the most vociferously if they feel like you’ve let them down. Sometimes you roll your eyes and you want to say. “Back off,” but you don’t get the big praise without getting the big criticism. Because people care. So Much. And you always know that’s lurking there. It does make a difference.” Meanwhile, Veteran Buffy writer Marti Noxon was busy making statements to countless media outlets including Talk of the Nation National Public Radio about how Willow and Tara would soon have a “naked sex scene” together on a future episode during Buffy’s sixth season and how we would see them finally behave just like all the straight couples on the show did. Bear in mind that Willow and Tara were seen sleeping together in bed only a few times during the entire course of the Willow/Tara storyline, but they would always have their clothes on. For example, Willow would wear her pajamas, while Tara almost always wore a nightgown.

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