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Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: Willow and Tara 20 Years On

It’s been twenty years since Willow and Tara first kissed on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It happened during The Body – season five, episode sixteen. This episode was celebrated for its raw depiction of loss in the aftermath of Buffy losing her mother, but what stands out in my memory is Tara cupping Willow’s face and pressing a kiss against her lips to halt a grief-stricken monologue. It was a chaste kiss, more driven by comfort than passion. But no less significant for it. Although the witches had been together since season four – when Willow chose her new relationship with Tara over returning to Oz – this was the first time they were allowed to kiss on screen.

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That nearly a full season passed before Buffy’s first lesbian couple were granted this basic affection tells its own story. We saw Buffy having sex with Angel, which brought them both pure happiness. We saw Buffy having sex with Riley. Relentlessly. (Where the Wild Things Are remains my least favorite episode.) And we saw Buffy, during a particularly low point, having sex with Spike. They literally brought the house down. Various secondary characters also hooked up – Anya and Xander never stopped talking about sex.

But Buffy always stopped short of showing physical intimacy between Willow and Tara. Scenes of their shared spells, complete with candles and breathy sighing, acted as a substitute.

At the time it was difficult for me to criticise Buffy’s depiction of lesbian love. Partly because I was eight, and knew nothing about sex or the politics of representation. But also because lesbian representation – positive or negative – was still incredibly rare. Willow and Tara were the first lesbian couple I’d ever seen on screen. It captivated me, for reasons I was years away from understanding. But now, re-watching Buffy as an out adult, the problems are painfully clear.

Joss Whedon had to fight against the mainstream media’s homophobia to include a lesbian couple. But, unfortunately, his own prejudices damaged the arc of this relationship – and the show itself. Multiple actors in Buffy and spin-off Angel and have spoken out against their former boss.

Michelle Trachtenberg, who played Buffy’s kid sister Dawn, alleges that Whedon behaved inappropriately towards her. He wasn’t allowed to be alone in a room with her during shooting. Trachtenberg was 15 when she joined the cast of Buffy. And this wasn’t an isolated incident.

Charisma Carpenter recently disclosed that Whedon had abused his power over her while she played Cordelia on Buffy and Angel. Fans have long lamented that Cordy’s transformation from self-obsessed beauty queen to champion of light and good – perhaps the most compelling character arc in the Buffyverse – was obliterated by lazy writing. When Carpenter became pregnant, Cordelia was possessed by an evil entity known as Jasmine who took control of her body until Cordy could birth her into being. Cordy went into a coma during a gruelling labor. She died a season later – alone, off-screen, forgotten.

Whedon punished Carpenter for her pregnancy; not only with this inglorious ending, but by insisting on a gruelling work schedule when her doctor had recommended bed rest. Amber Benson, who played Tara, endorsed Carpenter’s statement:

Buffy was a toxic environment and it starts at the top. @AllCharisma is speaking truth and I support her 100%. There was a lot of damage done during that time and many of us are still processing it twenty plus years later.”

While Benson has not shared the specifics of her experiences with the show’s creator, Whedon’s influence limited the potential of both Tara and her romance with Willow.

Yes, Willow and Tara’s relationship starts out well. It’s a place of safety for both women, and they flourish. Tara gains a confidence that was entirely missing when we first met her – she stops hiding behind her hair and starts asserting herself. And Willow learns to explore her magical abilities – which can be read as a metaphor for her sexuality.

Willow’s sapphic side was first alluded to in season three, when her vampiric doppelgänger made an appearance. Willow was unimpressed by her alternate universe self, saying “I’m so evil and skanky… and I think I’m kinda gay.” In her eyes, the moral darkness and overt sexuality of AU Willow were inextricably linked. Which makes this step towards self-acceptance all the more powerful.

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But the good days are numbered. Willow and Tara fight about Willow’s growing reliance on magic. Before they can reconcile, Tara is tortured by Glory – a god looking for the key to her universe. Tara shows incredible strength in not giving up Dawn. But Glory breaks Tara’s mind, and for much of season five she is side-lined.

Willow restores Tara’s sanity during the Scooby gang’s showdown with Glory. And for a while it looks like things are improving for them. With Buffy dead, Willow and Tara move into her home and become Dawn’s guardians. They become a loving, stable family unit and even talk about leaving Sunnydale together to start anew.

But Willow brings Buffy back from the dead. Her use of dark magic and reliance on spells become a growing source of tension. And Willow crosses a line by using a spell to wipe their arguments about magic from Tara’s mind. They have sex while Tara’s memory is modified – sex that Tara, informed by her memories, would likely not have consented to. This ground-breaking lesbian romance becomes an abusive relationship that, arguably, culminates in rape.

Abuse can happen within lesbian relationships. But it doesn’t happen nearly as often as abuse within heterosexual relationships. The overwhelming majority of intimate partner violence is enacted by men against women. Therefore, it feels grossly unfair that Whedon chose to make the first lesbian couple on his show – the first lesbian couple countless viewers saw on screen – into an abusive relationship.

Although Tara leaves, Willow faces no real repercussions for her abusive behaviour. Her friends don’t shun her. Whereas everybody is rightly horrified that Spike tried to rape Buffy, nobody expresses that same disgust about Willow raping Tara. And Tara comes back, half a season later. This impunity is more a product of male fantasy, inspired by Whedon’s own ability to get away with mistreating women with less power than him, than an accurate reflection of how lesbians treat one another or are treated by our peers.

Willow and Tara’s reconciliation, however dubious, is short lived. Tara is shot by Warren the morning after, killed by a stray bullet. She became the first in a long line of lesbian characters to die a pointless, violent death. There was no resurrection for her, none of the deus ex machina moments that brought Buffy and Angel back from the afterlife. She was simply gone. And thus the Bury Your Gays trope was born.

Buffy was beloved by many. It changed the game in how women, particularly lesbians, are represented in film and television. But Buffy has a complicated legacy – not least because of the toxic work environment Whedon created. Though Willow ultimately saved the world with her magic, she never acknowledged her abuse of Tara. And that underlying darkness, never fully addressed by the person who caused it, perfectly mirrors the making of Buffy.

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