Lesbian sex = death? Was killing Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer—right after she’d had hot sex with Willow—a throwback to old antigay cliches? Or is the acclaimed series too smart for such accusations?

Lesbian sex = death? Was killing Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer—right after she’d had hot sex with Willow—a throwback to old antigay cliches? Or is the acclaimed series too smart for such accusations? – television

Andy Mangels

In more than five years on TV, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has endured more than a few bloody scrapes. Even as the series dealt with changing networks and Emmy snubs, the characters in Sunnydale faced death every night. In a series in which the lead character has died and returned twice, perhaps the biggest stake through the heart came in May’s controversial finale to the sixth season.

In it, powerful witch Willow and her female lover, Tara, who was often the show’s most responsible and mature character, finally got to have glorious, sweaty lesbian sex on-camera. And then, moments later, Tara (Amber Benson) was killed by a stray bullet to the heart, launching Willow (Alyson Hannigan) on a descent into black magic vengeance that not only turned her into a killer but imperiled her friends, her sanity, and eventually the world itself. The resulting public backlash against the series’s events has ignited newspaper columns and Internet Web sites.

But to what end? According to many fans, the season finale reversed anything good that was accomplished by this all-too-rare TV lesbian relationship. Fan E.M. Colson notes that “whether viewers are conscious of the juxtaposition of not, murdering a lesbian just minutes after she has sex suggests a causality between lesbian sex and death.”

Buffy creator Joss Whedon notes that he grew up with a gay godfather and that his mother provided “a liberal upbringing.” Marti Noxon, Buffy’s executive producer, was raised by two mothers. Both Whedon and Noxon wanted to do a Willow-Tara relationship “that felt respectful and fully fleshed out,” says Noxon.

Willow’s character didn’t start out gay, but two seasons ago she fell in love with Tara. According to Amy Wilson, coauthor of the online “The Death of Tara, the Fall of Willow, and the Dead-Evil Lesbian Cliche FAQ,” the show was successful in its lesbian portrayal: “Up until the finale of season 6, [Willow and Tara] were treated with remarkable sensitivity and realism, even if their onscreen sex life was mostly nonexistent. Because Willow was an established, beloved character before she carne out, the Willow-Tara story line forced many Buffy viewers to confront their homophobic attitudes, whether latent or overt.”

Toil and trouble

Wilson complains that “Joss Whedon and [his] staff writers gained trust [about Tara’s future on the show] under false pretenses, then leveled viewers with a bloody, cliched story line.” And then there’s the question of whether Willow’s turning to the dark side in her rage equates to the “murderous lesbian” stereotype fostered by such films as Basic Instinct and TV shows like Law & Order and Quantum Leap.

Producer Noxon says, “We never thought about the fact that these characters were gay when we were deciding what their fate was going to be. They’ve been happy and together for longer than almost any couple on our show. In some ways I think it’s kind of insulting to the gay community to suggest that we can’t do to the gay characters on the show what we would do to anybody else.” As for the sex scene, both agree that it was some time in coming, and Whedon adds, “We also felt a little bit that this is the last chance we’re going to have to do this–and let’s push that envelope a little bit.”

So what was Whedon’s reason for killing Tara? “I killed her because I wanted to explore the dark side of Willow, and I needed to justify that,” he says. “It may be fine on another show for people just to break up, but we’re dealing with heavier, more iconic, scarier storybook stuff. The downside of that is, when you kill a character like Tara, statistically speaking, [lesbians] are underrepresented, and so people have a legitimate reason to say, `It’s not the same.'”

Noxon says the negative reaction has “been hard. It’s the first time that we’ve gotten public outcry where I really can’t even read some of the letters, they hurt so much. It’s very indicative of how underrepresented gay people feel in the culture. Because the kinds of letters we’ve gotten have been so emotional and so personal and so deeply felt, you realize that every single instance of a positive portrayal of gay love on television means so much to people.”

Noxon and Whedon are adamant that Willow won’t suddenly turn bisexual. “Marti and I have had discussions where we’re like, `We do that now, and we will be burned alive.’ And possibly justifiably,” says Whedon. “We can’t have Willow say, `Oh, cured now, I can go back to cock!’ Willow is not going to be straddling that particular fence. She will just be gay.”

Noxon’s lesbian mothers were “bummed out that this relationship was over” but “have been calling pretty frequently, asking if Tara’s coming back, magically.” The answer to that question, for a show whose very rifle includes undead characters in it, is nebulous. “Tara will not be back, but [actor] Amber Benson will [assuming she’s available],” says Whedon. “Everybody works on my show way more after they die.”

Mangels is the coauthor of the gay-inclusive Star Trek: The Next Generation novel Section 31: Rogue.

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