“Buffy” to Show First Lesbian Sex Scene on Broadcast TV

Willow and Tara's first kiss, Feb 2001 ("The Body") Next week, in the third-to-last episode of the series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer will become the first broadcast network television series to show a lesbian sex scene.

Over its seven-year run, Buffy has pushed the envelope in terms of of lesbian representation on television in many ways, but not on the physical-affection front. Although lesbian witch Willow (played by Alyson Hannigan) and her first girlfriend Tara (played by Amber Benson) were together for two and a half years, the sexual aspects of their relationship were subtextual rather than textual, especially in the beginning.

In a May 2000 post on The Bronze, Buffy creator Joss Whedon responded to criticism over this issue, writing “Are we forced to cut things between Willow and Tara? Well, there are things the network will not allow us to show. As for example kissing.” In an interview in this month’s Girlfriends Magazine, Amber Benson provides her perspective on the issue: “Alyson and I thought at times that we needed to be doing more kissing. Part of that was the WB wanting to take it slowly, but when we got to UPN they let us do whatever, and things began to change.”

Things didn’t change very much, though, and for most of their relationship, physical displays of affection between Willow and Tara were either muted or metaphorical, with magic frequently substituting for sex (most famously in the musical episode “Once More With Feeling”).

It wasn’t until the episode of Tara’s death in the sixth season that the two women were shown in bed together in a sexual situation the way the heterosexual couples on the show have routinely been shown (including Willow and her first boyfriend). But even this scene with Willow and Tara only showed the women post-sex, and was overshadowed by Tara’s subsequent murder at the end of the episode (which also inadvertently reinforced the “lesbian sex = death” cliche).

Several months later, in the middle of the seventh season, Buffy introduced Kennedy (played by Iyari Limon), a potential slayer who aggressively pursued Willow from day one. While their relationship has been a little more physically affectionate than Willow and Tara’s (showing them making out on the couch in “Storyteller,” for example), Willow and Kennedy’s first kiss (in “The Killer in Me”) was portrayed with the same coyness of previous seasons, in a bait-and-switch scene where Willow turned into a guy as soon as they kissed.

But on May 6th (“Touched”), Kennedy finally seduces Willow, in an episode in which almost everyone gets laid (including Wood and Faith, and Xander and Anya). The Willow-Kennedy scene goes something like this:

Willow enters her bedroom looking at a map. She starts to address the SITs she believes are in the room, “Okay guys, Giles said that Faith said that we should…” She looks up to see that the only one in the room is Kennedy, wearing a nightgown and laying seductively under the sheets in the candle lit room. Willow asks what happened to the girls. Kennedy looks at Willow from under her eyelashes. “They’re not here, are they?” “Nope.”

Willow closes the door. Willow goes to the bed and sits on the edge, then kisses Kennedy lightly on the lips. Kennedy kisses Willow back, taking the map from her and dropping it on the floor. “C’mere.” Willow, smiling, slides in under the sheets next to Kennedy.

They snuggle and kiss…but then Willow turns away. “Something not right?” asks Kennedy. Willow says she’s scared…scared of herself. That if they sleep together, she could lose control of herself…lose herself, literally. Kennedy assures her that she’s safe with her. “I’ll keep you safe. You can float around and I’ll tether you down.” “You’ll be, like, my kite string?” They start to kiss again, more passionately this time. Willow closes her eyes, and abandons herself to Kennedy.

[Later, as part of a montage of two other couples having sex] Kennedy licks Willows neck with her pierced tongue, then something happens under the sheets…it makes Willow’s eyes grow wide.

Assuming nothing gets left on the editing-room floor at the last minute, this scene will mark a big step forward for lesbian visibility on television, since although Queer as Folk‘s lesbian couple engaged in the first lesbian sex scene on premium/cable television a few years ago, there has never been such a scene on a network television show.

Willow and Kennedy's sex scene, May 2003 ("Touched")

Like Willow and Tara’s post-sex scene, ER’s current lesbian couple was shown in bed together post-sex in 2000 (but unlike Willow and Tara’s post-sex scene, Weaver and Lopez were clothed), and in an episode of Ellen in 1997, Ellen and her girlfriend discussed sex and actually walked into the bedroom together (both firsts at the time). But no series has yet shown two women having sex together in bed (or anywhere else).

This milestone is important because equal representation of physical affection and sexual interaction between women on television is critical to desensitizing lesbian sex and portraying lesbian relationships as healthy and multi-faceted. The upcoming Buffy episode does both by treating the Willow-Kennedy sex scene matter-of-factly and including it alongside the scenes of Buffy’s heterosexual couples having sex.

It is perhaps not coincidental that Buffy is showing this potentially controversial scene on its way out, when Whedon and company have little left to lose, but this does mean a larger audience will be exposed to it, since there are so few episodes left that hardcore and casual Buffy fans are tuning in in droves. It is too bad that we couldn’t have seen this aspect of Willow and Tara’s relationship on-screen, however, since theirs was a far more significant relationship to Willow and her character development than her current relationship with Kennedy, which is still in the early stages.

With this episode, however, Buffy once again proves itself to be at the forefront of improving lesbian visibility on television, even if it is just one more in a string of network television taboos that Buffy will have knocked down by series’ end.