Willow and Tara – Why It Mattered
Willow and Tara's development and coming out wasn't made into a big OMG LOOK LESBIANS moment. This normalization and acceptance were very important, especially at a time when there weren't very many lesbian characters in TV aimed at adolescents.
When the cute and geeky Willow met the shy and compassionate Tara on Buffy sparks flew at once. After her breakup with Oz, Willow found first solace with her newfound magical friend, and then a whole new aspect to life and love.
The Willow-Tara romance played a pivotal role in encouraging normalization of lesbian relationships on mainstream TV. This took time though. To begin with the network shied away from any overt lesbian scenes, even banning kissing. So Whedon was forced to be creative, using magical spells to imply physical closeness, and even orgasms.
Many viewers were encouraged by seeing two women portrayed in a loving relationship, and the way that Whedon steered clear from sensationalizing it. Alyson Hannigan, Amber Benson and Joss Whedon have all spoken about how they didn’t want the development of the relationship to be something which was done for shock value. However, Whedon said there was some criticism from some quarters saying that the characters weren’t ‘gay enough.’
To add to this criticism was the issue that despite BTVS being the first show which portrayed a sex scene between two women on a major network, it was in the same episode where Tara met her untimely death. This led to some people saying that it gave the message lesbian = death. It’s clear a tricky line had to be walked by Whedon.
Despite these critiques, many people felt the show dealt with Willow and Tara’s relationship in a sensitive and empowering way. Amber Benson has spoken about getting letters from people who are gay saying the show prevented them killing themselves. Added to this was the way that Willow’s coming out to the other Scoobies was blended into the narrative in a way which gave it respect but didn’t fall into the trap of a ‘shock-horror’ reaction. Buffy’s momentary fluster when Willow tells her of her and Tara’s romance in ‘New Moon Rising’ is endearing, leading to an atmosphere which acknowledges surprise and a little discomfort, but no horror or worry. Whedon continued to blend issues of coming out and entering your first gay relationship in a skillfully understated way throughout the show.
The Willow-Tara romance had a hugely positive impact on those who were gay or thinking of coming out. But this isn’t the only reason it was so positive.
The couple have been described by Amber Benson as having had “the healthiest relationship…they treated each other with compassion and respect.” Tara in particular modeled healthy relationship choices, even leaving Willow because of her growing addiction to magic and attempts to control her girlfriend. She quietly encouraged Willow to seek help and remained supportive, whilst also giving her strong boundaries.
Other relationships such as the Spike-Buffy or Buffy-Angel relationships had strong elements of doomed love and destructive sex as core components. Although the consequences were shown for Buffy, she never really had a relationship which showed such a depth of emotional maturity as the Willow-Tara one did.
What Whedon managed to do with these two characters and their intertwined story was not only help to empower people who are of a sexuality that’s not strictly heterosexual; he also showed how to have a healthy, loving and spiritually nourishing relationship.