Ta-ra Tara, hello homophobia?

After the producers of cult TV hit Buffy The Vampire Slayer killed off a recurring character who was also an out lesbian, this article examined the accusations of homophobia aimed at a show which was historically regarded as being gay-friendly. Written for Gay.com UK.

In the US (and, in a few weeks’ time, on Sky One here in the UK), Buffy: The Vampire Slayer will be hanging up the stakes and garlic for the last time, as the series reaches the end of its seven-year run. It’s generally perceived as going out on a high, with its final season garnering much critical acclaim. US site PlanetOut.com described it as “the gayest show on television”, and is picking out a fetching funeral outfit for the final episode later this month.

For UK terrestrial viewers, though, who are one year behind, the series is coming to the end of a much more difficult batch of episodes.

The sixth season of Buffy was a tortuous period in the series’ history. On screen, Buffy Summers was brought back from the dead by her friends, who later discovered they’d not rescued her from hell, but wrenched her from heaven. Rupert Giles gave up sunny California for his native rain-drenched West Country England. Xander and Anya bored everyone with their marriage plans for most of the season, before it all ended in tears at the altar with not a single vow exchanged. But most heinous of all, Tara Maclay – beautiful, shy, funny, bewitching, lesbian Tara – was killed.

It was that last action that many fans found hard to take. Amber Benson’s character, introduced a season and a half earlier, had become an instant favourite since her first appearance in the near-silent episode, _Hush_. Not initially conceived as a lesbian character, the chemistry between Benson and Alyson Hannigan as Willow was so electric from their very first scene together that the characters were soon an on-screen item. Willow’s growing discovery of her own sexuality, her coming out to both ex-boyfriend Oz and her larger group of friends, was handled deftly and sensitively in a manner that earned production company Mutant Enemy much praise.

As Willow and Tara’s relationship blossomed throughout the series’ fifth season, Amber and Alyson became the American darlings of the gay press. Any criticism of the series’ handling of the relationship was mild, and aimed at the sometimes comedic presentation of Willow’s coming out (in _Triangle_, she herself describes her orientation as “gay now”, while a robot replica of Buffy summarised the character’s sexuality in an on-screen caption as `GAY: 1999-PRESENT`). Generally, most people were simply happy that two regular characters in the same show could not only both be gay, but be shown having a loving, intimate and sexually charged relationship. In American television, Willow and Tara were unique.

Even in the troubled season six, the couple were still setting the screen alight, despite fractures in the relationship based on Willow’s over-reliance on magic. In the much-vaunted musical episode _Once More, With Feeling_ (available on [DVD](http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00008N6ZH/thislitheunoffig), (http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000070WPE/thislitheunoffig), [script book](http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0743467973/thislitheunoffig) and probably tea-towel by the time you read this), Tara sings the standout song of the episode, I’m Under Your Spell, about how bewitched she is by her girlfriend (ironically, unaware that she really _is_ bewitched, as Willow has cast a spell to ensure her girlfriend does not remember an argument they had the previous episode). The song ends with Tara floating over the couple’s double bed in what seems to be orgasmic delight. The top of Willow’s head can be seen doing something further down Tara’s body – it doesn’t take much to guess what.

As Willow’s deception is uncovered, the couple break up, and stay apart for the rest of the season. In the episode _Seeing Red_ (to be broadcast today, 8 May, on BBC2 at 6:45pm), the couple finally reconcile and spend pretty much all of the episode making up for lost time in bed. In the last few minutes, though, a stray bullet aimed at someone else fells Tara at her girlfriend’s feet.

That fans of the show, of the character and of the actress were upset at Tara’s death comes as no surprise. That the upset spilled over into anger and fury aimed at the show’s makers, though, took producers Mutant Enemy completely by surprise. But was it justified?

Tara’s death can certainly be justified dramatically. It propels Willow down a very dark path in her grief that shapes the concluding episodes of the season, and sends her character on an arc that continues until the series’ end a year later. In terms of character development, it can also be argued that Tara didn’t have anywhere else to go. Apart from one spell gone awry in season five, she was practically perfect in every way – acting as a surrogate mother not only for Buffy’s sister, Dawn, when she was left without anyone else to look after her, but also for the rest of the gang. And while that sort of emotional stability is something that most of us hope for in real life, in terms of television drama it becomes stale very easily.

While the series’ previous big death, that of Buffy’s mother Joyce, had been far more emotionally charged a year previously, the fact that Tara was gay threw the situation into a much more complex light. As author Keith Topping, writer of the critically acclaimed Slayer series of episode guides, noted, “the amount of Internet bandwidth used to discuss the possible subtexts surrounding Tara’s death… could have filled Wembley Stadium.”

In a series of blunt and frank essays, the first of which is entitled [It’s Not Homophobia, But That Doesn’t Make It Right](http://www.xtreme-gaming.com/theotherside/homophobia.html), former television writer Robert A Black argued that to kill off one of the only lesbian characters on television, only for the surviving partner to go on a homicidal rampage, conjured “images of the many dead and evil lesbian characters that have appeared on American TV and movie screens before. For Mutant Enemy to have placed these images on the screen and not expected viewers to hearken back to the homophobic stories of the past is as naïve as if they had placed a swastika on the screen and expected the viewers to think it signified good luck.”

Even critics such as Black acknowledge that the course of Tara and Willow’s relationship had, up until that point, been incredibly positive for the gay community as a whole. “Today, there are several gay and lesbian characters on American TV, but none of them are in a steady long-running relationship,” he wrote. “The fact that Willow and Tara were together was what made them unique. The relationship was greater than the two characters individually, because together they gave the gay community something it could find nowhere else.”

Topping agrees. “Willow and Tara, whether by accident or design, have been positive role models to gay people everywhere,” he writes in [Slayer: The Next Generation](http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0753507382/thislitheunoffig), which covers Season Six and the fallout over the character’s death in some detail. “They’ve shown that you don’t have to hide your sexuality or to be an outsider, that ridicule and homophobia are products of ignorance.”

But, as Black notes, when you can count regular gay or lesbian couples on television not on one hand but on one _finger_, killing one half of that relationship carries a far greater impact than any death of a straight character could ever do. “It can be difficult for the heterosexual community to understand how important it is to see one’s self reflected onscreen. It’s so common for heterosexuals that we take it for granted, often to the point where we don’t even think it matters at all. But to a marginalized segment of the population, where there is a constant feeling that one’s very existence is being denied, that onscreen reflection can be priceless.”

The most eloquent critics of the decision to kill Tara are at pains not to label the show’s producers as homophobic. “A group of homophobic writers and producers could never have given the world the Willow/Tara relationship in the first place, and there’s no reason to assume that they have all suddenly turned homophobic now,” says Black. “On the other hand, even if Mutant Enemy didn’t intend to tell a homophobic story, they were still capable of placing a homophobic image on the screen.”

The argument gains strength given the juxtaposition of Tara and Willow’s make-up shagging with the death straight afterwards. Buffy has always portrayed sex and death as being metaphors for one another: the ‘siring’ of a new vampire has always carried strong sexual overtones, and when Buffy herself lost her virginity to Angel (a vampire whose soul had been returned to him) he reverted to the ultra-evil serial killer he had been in centuries past. But in a series where death is generally no hindrance to continued appearance in the series, redemption has generally always been on offer — at least, as long as you’re straight.

The only other recurring gay character in the series at this point had been Larry, a high school student who was one of two killed during the climax to the series’ third season. The other victim, high school bitch princess Harmony, became a vampire herself and popped up on numerous occasions. For the gay characters to be the only ones denied any chance of redemption, it can be argued, sends a terrible message to the audience — a message that may be unintentional, but is no less damaging for it: sex is bad, but gay sex is worse. Producer David Fury admitted in an interview in May 2002 that “in retrospect, I can see the cliché. That was not our intent. We wanted to show them together and happy. It created the impression in a lot of people’s minds that [Tara’s] death was linked to them having sex.”

The show’s producers, especially series creator Joss Whedon, say that the negative reaction to the loss of Tara from the show took them by surprise. “It was an episode that was clearly about male violence and dominance,” Whedon told _E! Online_, “and suddenly I’m a gay basher.”

In America (and for satellite viewers in the UK), a year’s worth of episodes have gone by since the events of Seeing Red. Willow’s still gay — and making the faltering steps back into coupledom with new girlfriend Kennedy. While played almost completely played for laughs, Tom Lenk’s Andrew Wells brings the total of recurring gay characters by the series’ end to three — which is three more than most TV series have ever achieved.

Amber Benson will be missed from television screens both sides of the Atlantic. Not only because there’s one less positive gay character, but also because she’s of normal build, with a curvaceous beauty that is so rare in an industry where most actresses can only succeed if they’re genetically cross-bred with a stick insect. Still, her own career now has some great opportunities ahead. She has written and directed an acclaimed film, _Chance_, and is co-author (with Christopher Golden) of the remarkable animated series [The Ghosts of Albion](http://www.bbc.co.uk/cult/ghosts/) for BBCi’s website. And thanks to DVD and video, Tara and Willow can remain together for as long as we need them to be.

* Originally published on [Gay.com UK](http://uk.gay.com/) _(original article no longer available)_

Author: Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.

2 thoughts on “Ta-ra Tara, hello homophobia?”

  1. An interesting article that raises a few important points but I must disagree with some aspects of it.

    Firstly, the author states that the death of Tara can be justified dramatically. I disagree entirely with this. Leaving aside the implausible nature of the death itself (made all the more galling by the writers stating the intent was to show "real death" rather than a supernatural one) all it was was a rather lame re-hash of the previous season's "Tough Love" storyline of Tara getting hurt and Willow going psychotic. It also shows that Dark Magic Willow could be achieved without Tara actually dying.

    As for Joss and the writers, I do not believe them when they say they didn't see it coming. They were aware of the cliches, and how they were used, and yet when they write a storyline that not only comes close to the cliche, but all too often openly embraces the cliche, they don't see it? No, I refuse to believe that educated, intelligent people are incapable of seeing that what they placed on the screen was pretty much the definitive example of the cliche in action. So no, I do not accept Joss' attempts at a non-apology.

    Also, I have no sympathy for Joss in this. Given that I believe that he knew what he was doing, can he really be surprised at the reaction? My personal belief is that Joss started believe his own hype, and assumed his audience were willing masochists to his rather distasteful sadistic tendencies. I think he honestly believed that no matter what he did, the audience would go with it cos he was Joss. When he went too far, he blamed everyone else (including Amber Benson at one point) rather than admit to a mis-step.

    There is no part of that storyline or death scene or aftermath that makes logical or dramatic sense. Instead all we got was a very weak, very cliched, very badly written and drawn out homage to X-men's Dark Phoenix saga that neither did it or the viewers any justice.

    My only contentment has been that Joss and his team really haven't had a hit or a decent run on a show or film since. tara's curse has pretty much relegated them. Joss is now planning to direct the Avengers movie and my first thought was this: Who's getting killed off? That is Joss' legacy, and all the plusses he may make in his career cannot wipe away the negatives for cultivating then abusing a section of the audience who were sorely mislead and deceived.

  2. I'm going to have to disagree with you, Ronald. I think that this has been overthought excessively. Joss and David killed off a member of a couple that just happened to be gay. Joss has said himself, that "it had nothing to do with them being gay. If Willow had been with Oz at this point, then we would have killed off Oz."

    I can't say much about this topic that hasn't already been expressed in this first article, but to say that Joss has gone "too far" is, in my opinion, unjustified. The show has never shown any sort of discrimination towards the gay community, and has had many cliche's over the years. Although I understand your point of view, the vehemence and grudgingness with which you have expressed it is what has me replying with a need to defend the writers. I'm not blind to the faults of this plotline, but to speak about it as though the writers intentionally set out to hurt someone.

    "Willing masochists to his rather distasteful sadistic tendencies." See, I find that unfair. What you call sadism, I rather think of as realism. Well, as close to realism as a science-fiction show can possess. The show doesn't bend to happy endings and cliches. Keep in mind, also, that Joss asked Amber Benson to return to the show full-time (after she turned down the part in Conversations With Dead People), and that she was unavailable. This makes me disagree with the statement in the original article, too, "But in a series where death is generally no hindrance to continued appearance in the series, redemption has generally always been on offer — at least, as long as you’re straight."

    Yes, it's cliche. Yes, it could potentially be considered offensive, but I don't think that the writers of such a diverse show, writers of the first show to show a lesbian kiss on-screen and a lesbian "sex scene" deserve to be slandered for any sort of anti-gay attitude.