Witch love spells death
Was the killing of Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer a bold plot move or just another dead lesbian on TV?
When the sixth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer played out its final story arc last month, the death of sweet, shy witch, Tara Maclay, left viewers shocked and grieving. For almost three seasons Tara, played by Amber Benson, was half of the most believable long-term lesbian couple on television. When she was senselessly killed by a stray bullet, throwing witchy lover, Willow (Alyson Hannigan), into a descending spiral of dark magic, grief and madness, many of us in the show’s gay fanbase were left feeling angry and betrayed by a show that once held the most promise of anything on network TV.
For six years Buffy The Vampire Slayer has used metaphors of the supernatural to explore human emotions and conflicts. What elevates this series above the majority of sci-fi/horror shows is how its creators consistently spin conventional storylines and old clichés into original tales of intelligent self-empowerment. The title character, Buffy (Sarah Michelle Geller), is the kind, smart-mouthed, blond fashion plate that ends up dead in the first 10 minutes of any horror film. Instead, she kicks ass and saves the world from evil on a weekly basis. None of the characters are ever played as straight-up stereotypes, as series creator Joss Whedon takes care to make sure that all the characters are multidimensional and sympathetic. Along with the continual mix of comedy, drama and horror, this is what made the show a cult hit.
Buffy’s main sidekick, the hacker/witch Willow, is just as popular with fans as is Buffy. And when the character of Tara, introduced in season four, evolved into Willow’s love interest, many gay fans were elated. As the couple progressed, we felt like we were witnessing a miracle—a lesbian relationship on network television that lasted longer than a three-episode arc, which had real depth of emotion and was a sweet portrayal of true love. It was unapologetic, treated the same as any other relationship on the show and never hyped for ratings. The creators even worked around the network censorship of physical intimacy by giving us much subtext, lingering looks, off-screen allusions and spell casting as sex metaphor. The chemistry between the two actresses carried through the scripting to create a portrayal of love that was almost palpable. The half-smiles from across the table, the constant hand touching, the spells and finally the passionate kisses and “morning after moments” all made this relationship the most believable representation of lesbian love on TV.
This depiction was something that had never happened before, something we gay fans wished for in our “if I ran Hollywood” fantasies but never really expected to happen, because historically all lesbian relationships in Hollywood end up doomed—any lesbian relationship will always come to a tragic end, most often with one partner dying, usually right after sex, after which the other partner goes insane and kills herself and/or others. So ingrained is this negative portrayal that it has been well documented by film historians as the “dead/evil lesbian cliché,” most notably in The Celluloid Closet by Vito Russo.
So imagine our elation when the Willow/Tara relationship was portrayed as a real relationship with real love, real problems and genuine affection. Now imagine our feelings of shock, horror and betrayal when the character of Tara is suddenly killed right after having sex and Willow goes insane with grief, turning into a murderer bent on world destruction. The cliché plays out as if scripted by a ’50s pulp writer with a “no happy endings” edict. Unlike other clichés on the show that are turned on end and spun into something powerful, this story became a doomed lesbian relationship that fits squarely with the portrayal of every other doomed lesbian relationship. Willow isn’t the only one wanting explanations, apologies and vengeance. Disenchanted fans have reacted with talks of boycotts, tuneouts and merchandise shredding.
Joss Whedon and his writers maintain that the decision to kill Tara had nothing to do with her sexuality, and was simply a plot device to make Willow evil. From his point of view, it’s true. Buffy has not been afraid to kill key characters (Jenny Calendar, Buffy’s mom, even Buffy herself) and there seem to be no happy endings for any relationship. Every one of them has ended with broken hearts, death or tragedy. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Willow and Tara lasted as long as they did.
However, because the show treated the two lesbians the same as everyone else, the relationship transcended the original story to become role models, icons and a powerful representation of all that can be normal, good, loving and reassuring about gay relationships. Hannigan, Benson and other creators have all publicly stated they get fan mail from girls thanking them for Willow and Tara, because it lets them know it’s OK to be gay, safe to feel different, and that happiness is an option. Any psychologist can tell you that having aspects of your own life accurately reflected to you is a very powerful thing. Apparently Whedon didn’t appreciate how powerful.
Nevertheless, anyone who followed Buffy for more than a year could see the dark plot development around Willow coming. It was foreshadowed nicely in season three with the appearance of Vampire Willow. Hannigan turned in such an inspiring portrayal of Willow’s dark side that many fans wanted more. So when the “dark magic” storyline began in season five, it was a logical conclusion that she would go too far and end up as an evil sorceress. Willow was playing with magic when she should have been respecting it; she ended up with an abuse/dependency problem that caused Tara to leave her. So after a heartwarming, sex-filled reunion when Tara’s heart is blown out by a stray bullet, it’s no surprise she breaks down emotionally and goes straight for the dark arts in search of some vengeance.
Objectively, the story is compelling, fraught with high emotion, lots of action, and tragic loss. If Willow were a man, this would be a classic tale of the lonely hero who steps outside the law to avenge the senseless murder of his one true love at the hands of a spineless villain, endangering innocents along the way, who is ultimately faced with the choice of redemption vs. vengeance, often finding a way to balance the two.
If there is a cliché that is being spun here, it’s this one. There is definite power in portraying the death of a same-sex partner as true tragedy. Often, it is seen somehow less emotionally taxing, because the relationship was not sanctioned by God, law and society at large. For Willow (and many viewers), Tara’s death is heart wrenching. Vengeance Willow is a raw, wild, creature from the id that expresses the raging grief of losing a loved one, and the absolute emptiness that follows. This is the Willow that has been boiling under the surface for the past six years waiting to come out and kick some Scooby Gang ass. The killing of Tara was an easy catalyst to make it happen. Too easy—with far-reaching consequences that extend beyond the show’s mythology into the very real world of everyday gays and lesbians begging for honest portrayals, only to be handed a message of misery and unhappiness.
Ultimately, the story rules all. Every character is subject to plot device and is manipulated accordingly. Tara is used to build Willow up, then killed to tear Willow down. Good writers find a balance of originality and conventional storylines coupled with social awareness and great storytelling to create something truly original. Whedon managed, largely, to do that, but after many public assurances that Tara was going nowhere and that he would avoid the dead lesbian cliché, the lure of an easy plot device won out, and extra effort for originality was put on the back burner along with the regard of many fans desperate for an accurate portrayal of their lives. If there were as numerous and varied representations of the gay community in the media as there are of straight white men, many of us would not have a problem with the death-of-Tara storyline. But there were other ways to make Willow evil that would not have fallen into this dreaded cliché.
So where does this leave us? The magic that was Willow and Tara is gone forever. Despite my feelings of anger, betrayal and sadness, I am grateful for almost three years of an honest, beautiful lesbian relationship. I respect Whedon for staying true to his own vision even if I don’t agree with it. I respect him more for pushing the envelope with the networks to open the way for better portrayals of gay love. I even applaud aspects of this story for sheer audacity and ability to make my jaw drop at each turn. Part of me is sad that I can’t see this story the way Whedon must have intended it, where all the characters really are treated the same in death and in life.
Because I don’t live in Joss Whedon’s world. I live in a world where every day I have to adapt and interpret representations of love and happiness, because true portrayals are few and far between. A world where the only place I could get a fairly accurate reflection of my life has now been blown apart by bullets, death, dark magic, despair and a sadness that will not leave me. I miss Tara, I grieve for Willow and every other person, gay or not, who lost a friend and a role model to a cheap plot device. I can only hope that the opening Whedon has created will be used by others to portray a wide variety of gay life until bad lesbian clichés become a thing of the past.