With some good progress being made in recent years towards positive portrayals of LGBT+ characters in television, it is perhaps worth looking back at one of the first lesbian relationships to be portrayed positively on TV – that of Willow and Tara from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Willow’s relationship with Tara was, at the time, revolutionary. In general, lesbian relationships on TV in the 90s were restricted to a sub-genre known as the ‘lesbian kiss episode’. Generally in these episodes, either two minor characters would be revealed as lesbians and never appear again, or a seemingly straight woman would kiss another woman and it would never be addressed again. The trope was widely used both for comic relief and as something to advertise for a ratings boost.
As such, Willow and Tara’s relationship was forced to remain subtle from the get go, with their affection for one another being expressed only through hints, words, and the occasional embrace. Their first on-screen kiss happened mid way through Season Five, by which point the two characters had been together for an entire season. The kiss itself almost didn’t happen. According to Joss Whedon, executives from WB were concerned at the number of gay characters appearing on the network in shows such as Dawson’s Creek and asked if the kiss was necessary. Whedon responded by threatening to leave the show if they refused to allow the kiss.
Importantly, Willow and Tara’s first kiss does not fall into the category of ‘lesbian kiss episode’. During the heartbreaking and critically acclaimed episode ‘The Body’, an episode dealing with grief over the death of a loved one, there is a moment where Willow breaks down after realising that she has nothing suitable to wear to the funeral. Tara rushes in and comforts her, and for the first time on screen, they kiss. It isn’t sexy or funny and it wasn’t simply shoved into the episode to attract viewers.
Rather, the kiss was a result of two people who deeply love each other taking comfort in one another during a time of mourning. It was treated how it should be: as the most natural thing in the world. There is nothing quite as simple or pure as two people in love, regardless of their gender.
Ultimately, what made this relationship so special and important was that Tara was more than just a plot device introduced to reveal Willow’s sexuality and to boost ratings; she was a fleshed out character with flaws, motivations, beliefs, and desires of her own. Their relationship, while at first kept in the realm of subtext, was allowed to grow naturally just as any other relationship would, and as a result it never once felt forced or cheap.
Image: Raven Underwood via Wikimedia Commons