Towards the tail end of the twentieth century, representations of gay individuals across the media landscape experienced a newfound popularity that, while progressive in some sense, often left a lot to be desired in terms of character development and avoidance of stereotypes. One show that succeeded in showcasing a gay character who was not relegated to the sidelines was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. On Buffy, the main character of Willow Rosenberg came out as a lesbian in the show’s fourth season, a landmark statement when the nature of queer representation in the media at the time is taken into context. Unlike other shows that relied on a prolonged coming out narrative or did little to elevate their gay characters out of the shadows, Willow’s coming out developed naturally and organically, and her queerness would remain an ongoing narrative throughout the course of the show. Willow’s burgeoning sexuality is important because it was never approached as some intense internal struggle or random experimentation and simultaneously allowed for the creation of a queer family structure surrounding Willow, and her girlfriend Tara, in the form of her close friends. Buffy showcased Willow simply falling in love with someone of the same sex without alienating or desexualizing her character, an important feat in an age where queer characters, regardless of their increased visibility, were still relegated to the outskirts of television narratives.
Much of Buffy’s success can be tied to its central theme; the use of the supernatural as a metaphor for the horrors and hardships of everyday life. On Buffy, the character of Willow was often portrayed as the lovable, nerdy sidekick, shy and meek in the early years of the show. Although her confidence was initially shaky at best, her interest in the occult and witchcraft added a new dimension to her character and led to the eventual discovery of her sexuality. Willow became more involved in witchcraft during the show’s fourth season upon entering college and breaking up with her high school boyfriend, simultaneously meeting a fellow witch named Tara who would be a key factor in the development of her power and her sexuality. Willow and Tara’s relationship emerged slowly, allowing the viewers to come to an understanding of the true nature of the relationship at the same pace as the two characters involved in it. This particular representative aspect of the couple is important because it set up a scenario in which Willow’s sexuality was not something that was played for shock value. As oblique as it was initially portrayed, it would be difficult not to note the direction in which Willow was heading in with Tara, especially among queer viewers.
In contrast to other representations of queer characters in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Willow and Tara were never made to exist outside of social norms primarily because the entire show existed outside of any sense of traditional normalcy. By tying Willow’s relationship inextricably to witchcraft and magic, the exploration of the coupling never felt awkward or forced, it simply was another occurrence in the already strange universe of Buffy. This is not to say that there was not some shock to Willow’s newfound sexuality among her core group of friends, but the way in which Buffy handled this issue was also pretty profound for its time. Instead of showcasing a scenario in which Willow and Tara were rejected by family and friends because of their relationship, the built in family structure of the “Scooby Gang,” as the demon fighting group of protagonists were referred to, created a uniquely comforting safe-hold for the two characters. Even though there was some surprise at Willow’s sexuality, she was never made to feel excluded by her friends.
The idea of a queer family structure is of chief importance throughout Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and can be adequately viewed through the season five episode “Family.” At this point in the show, Willow’s sexuality and relationship with Tara had been firmly established, although her friends still felt some sense of disconnect with the character of Tara who, while assisting often in demon fighting, still felt more like Willow’s witchy girlfriend than an actual member of the group. This changes when Tara’s family arrives in town to remove her from school in anticipation of her upcoming birthday by claiming that she has a demon in her lineage that only affects women and will soon show itself to her friends. In an attempt to hide this, Tara casts a spell that makes the scoobies, including Willow, unable to see demons. The spell backfires when a group of demons attack Buffy and her friends and they are unable to identify the assailants, leading Tara to lift the spell and explain her actions. When her family uses Tara’s behavior to highlight why she needs to come back with them, the scoobies do not allow them to take her away, arguing that they are more of a family to her than her blood kin will ever be. It is an extremely heartwarming and important episode in the canon of the show. For the first time Tara is truly integrated into the core group not just because she is Willow’s girlfriend, but because she plays just as important a role in the group as the other characters.
As previously stated, the successful depiction of Willow’s sexuality and the queer family structure that surrounds it is largely due to the fact that Buffy itself can be considered a show full of outsiders. Although the main protagonist Buffy is a straight, white female, her inescapable destiny as a “vampire slayer” means that her character can never truly belong to a mainstream version of society with the rest of the main characters following suit by pledging their lives to helping her fight evil. In his book “Up From Invisibility: Lesbian, Gay Men, and the Media in America,” Larry Gross writes, “like other social groups defined by forbidden thoughts or deeds, we are rarely born into minority communities in which parents or siblings share our minority status…sexual and political minorities constitute a presumed threat to the “natural” (sexual and/or political) order of things, and thus we are always seen as controversial by mass media” (Gross 13). The characters belonging to the “Buffyverse” can all be categorized as a threatening minority, but it is through this very classification that the gang, and especially Willow and Tara, find a comforting safe haven outside of a traditional family structure.
Another important representative aspect of Willow’s queer sexuality has to do with the physical nature of her relationship with Tara. Although Buffy would later become the first show on a major television network to depict a lesbian sex scene, involving Willow and a later girlfriend, it is interesting to note the ways in which Willow’s sexual relationship with Tara was depicted, especially in the episodes prior to an overt explanation from Willow concerning the exact nature of their union. In an age where television shows with major gay characters, such as Will and Grace and Dawson’s Creek, often shied away from depicting anything alluding to actual queer sex, Buffy found a way to symbolize the sexual tension between Willow and Tara, most notably in the form of witchcraft. Gross writes, “…the most effective form of resistance to the hegemony of the mainstream is to speak for oneself, to create narratives and images that counter the accepted, oppressive or inaccurate ones” (Gross 19). Using witchcraft to aid the development of their relationship, Buffy was able to build a uniquely queer narrative, one that did not simply compare queer couples to traditional media representations of heterosexuals. Recalling the ways in which major Hollywood productions operated prior to the acceptance of homosexuality, Buffy relied on codes to build a solid sexual narrative between the two characters. The most obvious motif of queer sexual practices on Buffy can be observed when Willow and Tara cast spells together, often leaving the two breathless and overwhelmed. It is interesting to note that in later seasons, once the relationship has become a cemented storyline, the sexual content between Willow and Tara becomes more explicit, a change that can be attributed to a more progressive stance in television representations or, more likely, Buffy’s unique ability to broadcast storylines that were true to its characters and not to hetero-normative expectations of society at large.
Although Buffy has been off the air for almost twelve years, the depiction of Willow’s sexuality and her relationship with Tara still seem current and relevant. Buffy’s eschewal of stereotypical portrayals of queer figures in conjunction with the fact that Willow’s sexuality was explored through a unique space in which the abnormal was always considered normal, allowed for the show to push the boundaries of televised queer sexuality without alienating its core group of viewers.
Gross, Larry. “The Mediated Society.” Up From Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.