Problematic Faves: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

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May 12, 2017

I'm going to tell you a secret.

Everything you love -- every book, movie, TV show, and other media -- is a little bit problematic.

Every piece of media has an area where it falls down, even just a little, a spot where it fails to service a subsection of the population, a place where it insults or offends. A perfect piece of art does not exist.

Now, while that's sinking in, here's another secret: That's okay. The purpose of art isn't to be perfect. The purpose of art is to make you think and to spark conversation, to capture and express something, not all things.

We've already explored how my favorite show of all time, The X-Files, had sometimes huge issues with certain subjects (cough transphobia cough). Today, though, I want to explore another of my favorite shows: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

From the time it premiered in 1997 to when it went off the air in 2003, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a groundbreaking piece of American television. The entire purpose of the show was to upend stereotypes about teen girls in the horror genre by being about a teen girl who is the only one that can save the world from the supernatural horrors looking to do it harm. It also featured one of the first same-sex romances between two main characters ever depicted on American television when it put Willow and Tara together in the show's fourth season.

But just because it pushed boundaries doesn't mean it did so gracefully and without issue. In fact, the Willow/Tara relationship is where the show's major issues lie.

Let's start with Willow and her developing sexuality over the course of Season 4. Prior to meeting Tara in the episode "Hush," Willow always identified as straight -- her alternate-universe vampire doppelgänger notwithstanding. When we first meet Willow, she has a massive crush on her best friend, Xander, so much so that her feelings for Xander become a major element of her character development over the first two seasons. She is in love with him (her words) and those unrequited feelings become a major point of tension between the three of them (Buffy, Xander, Willow), which is revisited again and again.

In the second season, Willow meets Oz, a fellow high school student, frequent hair dyer and lead guitarist of Dingoes Ate My Baby, the hottest high school band in Sunnydale. Oz is immediately infatuated with Willow and the two eventually fall in love and spend nearly two full seasons killing monsters and being adorable. Their relationship is built on mutual affection, trust, and understanding, which is what made it so heartbreaking when it all fell apart at the beginning of Season 4.

Some episodes later and Willow meets and befriends Tara, a fellow witch. Tara is shy and sweet and completely into Willow and to the show's credit, they waste no time in putting the two of them together. Like her relationship with Oz, Willow's romance with Tara is built on a real foundation of emotions and trust (and a lot of very sexy magic). When Oz returns after having been gone for most of the fourth season, Willow even wrestles with her own real, but residual, feelings for him, pitting them against these brand new feelings for Tara, and, as was the hallmark of the Willow/Oz relationship, they settle their issues with a mature conversation about what they both need.

Here's where things went a little sideways. From the moment Willow accepts her new relationship with Tara as legitimate and romantic, she is capital G gay. She no longer makes comments about or expresses feelings for men. Despite the fact that Tara is the first woman she has ever fallen in love with, she doesn't for a second even conceive of the idea that she might be bisexual.

This, kids, is what we call "bi-erasure," a common practice in which a piece of media completely ignores the gray areas of human sexuality.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that this doesn't happen to actual gay kids. It isn't unheard of for a previously straight-identifying person to suddenly admit to themselves that they aren't straight at all. This is a familiar story to many. It also doesn't negate any of their previous relationships.

But here is the thing: media is allowed to tell more than one story. In fact, it is damn near imperative that they represent as many experiences as possible because media affects the way we see the world and ourselves. If all you saw - as many queer and questioning kids did - were stories like Willow's, stories of teenagers discovering after a heterosexual relationship that they were actually playing for the other team, then it would be easy to think that gay and straight were your only choices, and for kids who fall in the middle - both and neither - that can be extremely confusing and potentially damaging.

Further down the line of the Willow/Tara relationship, another dangerous trope arises. You probably already know where I'm going with this, but in case you've been living under a very dense rock, I'm talking about Bury Your Gays. This trope, in which gay characters die at alarming rates in various media, has existed since pulp novels of the 1930s and has been systematically wiping out gay characters - with a special emphasis on lesbians - ever since. It's safe to say that every show that has a gay character will eventually kill a gay character, and Buffy did not escape that trap.

In the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Tara was killed by a stray bullet, dying in Willow's arms in their bedroom. Her death sparked a turning point in the season and set off the chain of events that would lead to one of the best uses of Willow's character. But while many may laud the story on the whole, LGBTQ+ fans see it as just another in a long series of stories that tell them gay people are fated to die and homosexual relationships end in tragedy.

The question remains as to whether there was a way for the writers to bring Willow to her breaking point without having to put a bullet through her girlfriend's heart just after the two reconciled after nearly a full season apart. Could they have done something different? And what would Buffy and its fandom have looked like if Tara had survived? These are questions to which we will never know the answers, and the issue of driving a character's storyline without killing their same-sex significant other remains a huge problem for television writers 15 years later.

These aren't the only issues Buffy ever had - I'm sure we could spend a great deal of time deconstructing the concerning implications of one Xander Harris - and none of these issues negate the huge positive impact that Buffy had on pop culture and the landscape of television. As I said when we started this journey, all your faves are problematic. It doesn't mean you aren't allowed to love the thing for what it is, so long as you are able to take a step back, recognize the flaws and think critically about the media you consume.

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