Dead Lesbian Cliché?
In spring 2002, the Internet was all aflutter with the rumor that Amber Benson’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer character, Tara Maclay, was to be killed off on the series.
Now, for those of you who don’t follow the trials and tribulations of Sunnydale’s resident Slayer, you were mostly likely unaware of the hullabaloo. And even if you had stumbled across it, your reaction was probably one of confusion.
What’s the big? Television characters get killed off all the time.
Yes, they do. In Sunnydale especially. Except that in this case, the character slated to die was gay.
The rumors about Tara’s demise proved true and the character was killed off at the end of Episode 20, “Seeing Red.” The resulting frenzy on certain internet message boards left a bad taste in my mouth. I heard the phrase “dead lesbian cliché” thrown around quite a bit. Certain members of the BtVS writing staff were vilified and accused of homophobia. There was talk of campaigns to have Tara resurrected. Letter-writing campaigns. Ads in trade publications. Billboards outside the Mutant Enemy offices.
I have to say, I just didn’t get it.
The “dead lesbian cliché” is an extension of the way that many minorities, including homosexuals, have been portrayed in film and on television in the past. For many years, such characters were either villains or cannon fodder. They were the sexual predators, the serial killers, the severely deranged bad guys and girls. If one of these minority characters happened to be a good guy… well, they were most likely dead by the end of the movie. Usually in some gruesome manner.
In the case of Tara Maclay, the cliché does not fit. Tara was not a villain. In fact, she was so morally upstanding and sweet that she was almost a cardboard cutout of goodness and light. Tara was also not cannon fodder. She appeared on the show for two and a half seasons before being killed. Her death was not gruesome nor was it meaningless. Tara was an innocent bystander caught in the line of fire. Her death was tragic.
The writers of BtVS took the public stance that Tara’s death was storyline driven. They needed a catalyst to send Willow, Tara’s girlfriend, spiraling into darkness. What better motivation than the death of the woman she loved? They insisted that it had nothing to do with gender or sexuality. Whomever the unlucky soul was to be involved romantically with Willow come Episode 20, they would have gotten the ax.
And that’s how it should be. In the real world, people die tragically every day. And sometimes, those people are minorities.
There were many reasons why the kerfluffle raised my hackles.
First, the way that the terms “homophobia” and “hate crime” were thrown around. These are serious, weighty words that should never be trivialized. In my opinion, using these terms in reference to Tara’s death was a slap in the face to every gay man or woman who has ever been victimized by ignorance and bigotry.
The personal slurs against the writing staff turned my stomach. These people created a beautiful and moving story about two people falling in love, regardless of gender. And they took heat for it. Both from the network, who hadn’t wanted a “gay” storyline, and from segments of their own audience who were infuriated that Willow was a “dyke” now. To accuse these same people of rampant homophobia was simply ridiculous.
Criticize the shoddy writing. Call them to task on sloppy plotting. Don’t accuse them of being bigots. And please don’t wish for their deaths. (No, I’m not kidding.)
But, honestly, one of the aspects that bothered me the most was the campaigning to resurrect Tara. I have always been a staunch supporter of letting the storyteller tell their story. I don’t have to like the story they’re telling but I don’t have the right to dictate how it should be told.
Why not? Because I am one person and my opinions on how the story should be told are just that. My opinions. They are personal and subjective and should not hold any more weight than the opinions of any one of the other 4.4 million BtVS viewers.
Personally, I was very unhappy and disappointed when they decided to make Willow GAY. It would have been a beautiful thing to make Willow all about loving a person regardless of gender. And, yes, it would be nice to see a bisexual portrayed as a normal, caring, monogamous person. Instead of A) someone who is really gay and refuses to admit it; B) someone who’s just being trendy or experimenting; or C) a slut with no self-worth who’ll screw anything that moves and only wants to steal your boyfriend or girlfriend.
But that was my issue and I knew it. Just because I would have liked to have seen it happen and was disappointed when it didn’t doesn’t mean that Whedon and Co. are a bunch of bisexual-hating bastards. It simply means that I was projecting my personal agenda and was let down.
The show’s producers have the right to tell the tale they want to tell. I have the right to choose whether or not I watch.
But we’ll come back to that.
In the beginning, I loved the Willow/Tara storyline. To me, this was a tale of two people falling in love, regardless of gender. It was subtle and lovely and, when the subtext finally became realized as text, I was thrilled.
But over the course of time, I began to take issue with the pairing. First, there were Willow’s constant announcements that she was, in fact, gay. While the first few were humorous and well done, they soon became tiresome and annoying. It got to the point where Willow’s sexuality was a punchline in every single episode.
Next, there was the trivialization of Willow’s past with men. During the first three and a half seasons of the show, Willow had two great loves, Xander and Oz. As a viewer, I believed in those loves.
I believed the angst of Willow’s unrequited feelings for the clueless Xander. I cheered for her when she finally found a boy who recognized her worth. And, when Xander finally woke up and realized what an incredible person he’d had right under his nose all these years, I was as torn as Willow about whom she should choose. When Oz left Sunnydale, Willow was devastated. Her misery was real and palpable and painful to watch.
So to have Willow’s past heterosexual leanings dismissed as a fluke bothered me.
Because they didn’t make me believe it. They made me believe in vampires and demons and things that go bump in the night. They made me believe that there was one girl in all the world who could kick undead ass. They made me believe in the doomed, star-crossed love of a vampire with a soul and a slayer. They made me believe that Willow could fall in love with a woman.
They haven’t made me believe that Willow is gay.
Yes, in the real world, people can spend 10, 20, 30 years, even their entire lifetimes, in denial about their own sexuality. Gay people can have meaningful relationships, complete with marriages and children and mortgage payments, with members of the opposite sex. You hear stories every day about someone coming out, much to the shock of their family and friends.
So that’s not to say it doesn’t happen. It’s entirely possible that Willow could have loved Xander and loved Oz and then, one day, met a girl named Tara and realized that what she had felt in the past was nothing compared to what she was feeling for another woman. And after much soul-searching and consideration, Willow could very well have come to the conclusion that she was, in fact, gay.
But if you want me to buy that, you’re going to have work a little harder for it. A few dozen punchlines and a handful of love scenes aren’t going to erase the memory of Willow’s past relationships.
I can only recall one brief interlude where the show attempted to deal with this issue. In the Season Five episode, “Tough Love,” Tara expressed her fears to Willow about how quickly she was changing as a person. Willow immediately jumped on Tara’s words and accused her of referring not to her burgeoning powers in witchcraft, but, rather, to her sexuality.
It was a small scene that illustrated not only Tara’s doubts, but also Willow’s own insecurities. Tara wasn’t sure whether or not their relationship was just a phase for Willow. Willow, perhaps, was still unsure herself. At the very least, Willow was obviously having difficulties trying to cope with life as a no-longer completely heterosexual woman.
Unfortunately, Tara was attacked later in the episode and this issue was never dealt with again.
Because the show has never dealt with the issue in any meaningful way, the question lingers: Is Willow gay or is she bisexual?
Less Than Gay
One of the things that I always loved about Buffy the Vampire Slayer was that it didn’t take the easy way out. There were always tough choices to be made and the options were never simply black and white.
No, the Buffyverse was a world cloaked in variations of gray. They killed popular characters. They busted up beloved couples. And they never apologized for it or kowtowed to any one group within the fandom.
“The only thing that Marti and I admitted is that we debated about whether or not Willow was bisexual, experimenting, going back and forth, and we thought, after Tara, we think it really would be disingenuous of us to have her be anything less than gay. So we decided that’s pretty much final–that’s who she is now. To backtrack on that would make it appear as if Tara’s death was something other than it was. Had we not killed Tara, had she just gone off, like Riley did, or something like that, then it would have been a different situation. We could have played a gray area in terms of sexuality. But now we don’t feel that that was the right thing to do. We’re gonna be more definite about it. Whether or not she finds any romance next season is still in question.” 1
For the sake of this article, I’m going to give Joss the benefit of the doubt and chalk up his phrasing as an unfortunate choice of words. I’m going to believe that he was not casting aspersions on bisexuality by lumping it in with “experimenting” and that he meant to say “anything other than gay” rather than “anything less than gay.”
With that said, there are so many other things about his statement that concern me. The company line over at Mutant Enemy regarding Tara’s death has been that it was gender neutral. Shortly after Tara’s televised demise, Stephen DeKnight, the man who penned the controversial “Seeing Red” episode, stated emphatically that, “[Willow and Tara] being gay was not the issue. It was the relationship was the issue,” and that, “if Willow were still dating Oz, he would be dead right now.” 2
If that’s the case, why should Tara’s death impact Willow’s sexual identification one way or the other? Why the double standard? Whedon states that if Tara had walked out of Sunnydale on her own two feet, things could have been “different.” Perhaps it might have been acceptable for Willow to explore her own sexual boundaries further. Which makes me wonder, if Tara had not been killed, would we have seen a meaningful depiction of bisexuality?
We’ll never know for sure. Whedon’s most recent statement implies that the people behind the show are running scared. They made an unpopular decision and are now working damage control. Rather than allowing the tale to speak for itself and standing behind that message, they are unequivocally stating that Willow is gay in an attempt to pacify a small but vocal contingent of their fan base. A portion of their fan base that admits that the Willow/Tara storyline was the only reason it tuned in.
Unfortunately, in making this sweeping declaration, Whedon has alienated countless others. The majority of those fans are long-time BtVS viewers who staunchly supported the show for years. These are people who, like me, believed that Willow loved Xander and Oz and Tara. They were there from the beginning and they knew these characters inside and out and they could accept that love is love and sometimes it comes in unexpected packages.
There was a time when BtVS was hailed by critics as the best show on television. It was witty and smart and never talked down to its audience. Instead, it challenged its viewers to think and feel and interpret. The show thrived on subtlety, ambiguity and an effective use of metaphor.
This was never really a show about vampires and demons and things that go bump in the night. Sunnydale was a complex world, populated by multidimensional characters, where there were no absolutes and nothing was as it seemed. Everything had a deeper meaning. Everyone had a hidden agenda.
It would seem that, now, Willow is absolutely gay and the agenda is not so hidden.
Whedon’s unequivocal pronouncement is a far cry from his previous statement, “I didn’t want to make it a big issue. As soon as you start to hammer out a definition, it becomes kinda icky. It stops being just about these two people.”3
Clearly, the days of letting the show stand on its own merits have long since passed. Interviews with BtVS writers tend to contain more storyline exposition than an entire season of episodes. They also clock a lot of interview hours chastising fans for being impatient and telling them that they’ve missed the point.
Perhaps I have missed the point. But I do believe that Whedon has also missed the point. It’s a basic principle of writing: Show, don’t tell.
There’s a tacit agreement between a storyteller and his audience. The audience willingly suspends their disbelief long enough for the storyteller to make them believe. If the teller never makes good on his promise to convince us, he’s failed. In breaking his promise, he loses his audience.
For me, that agreement has been broken. The promise has not been fulfilled. I am not convinced and my disbelief refuses to be suspended any longer.
Not to mention my doubts about the motivation for this about-face.
But, in the end, the show’s producers have the right to tell the tale they want to tell. I have the right to choose whether or not I watch.
And I choose not to.
1 Joss Whedon to E! Online’s Wanda
2 Stephen S. DeKnight’s interview on The Succubus Club
3 Entertainment Weekly, “Willow Gay?”, February 3, 2000