The first time I heard the word gay used in a non-derogatory way on television, I was watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer in my living room; I was 4, maybe 5, when Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) uttered “I think I’m kinda gay.” While her initial use of the word—describing a doppelgänger self she found in another universe—was a joke, it would turn out to be true. In the fifth season of Buffy, the title character’s quirky best friend, a practicing witch, falls in love with another witch, Tara Maclay (Amber Benson). Willow and Tara were one of the first depictions of a queer woman couple on television when their fictional relationship began 20 years ago, in 2001.
At the time, I was seriously questioning my own identity and wondering if it was “okay” that I liked girls instead of boys. Watching Willow and Tara’s relationship on Buffy—one between two women—was an entirely new experience. Their relationship builds slowly, clearly not for ratings or shock value. At first it’s so subtle you almost can’t tell it’s happening. As they get to know each other and spend more time together, they quickly become close. When a physical relationship finally blooms on-screen, it isn’t raunchy or overtly sexualized; it is full of raw affection and care. Before Willow and Tara even kiss, the show makes it clear that they share a powerful connection. In the Season 4 episode, “Hush,” they must hold hands and combine their shared magical abilities to perform a spell. Their intimacy grows out of those shared magic practices, and by the time we witness a romantic or sexual relationship between the two women, a whole world of shared feelings already exists based on mutual respect.
Willow and Tara’s first kiss in “The Body,” was one of only a few lesbian kisses that had appeared on mainstream television. It didn’t happen until Season 5, in 2001, and it didn’t happen under happy circumstances. The first evidence of physical affection we see between the two women is during a traumatic and jarring episode about the aftermath of the death of Buffy’s mom. Willow panics while trying to choose what to wear to meet Buffy at the hospital, and Tara gently comforts her. She holds Willow’s hand and pulls her close; she kisses Willow and tells her to be strong. In the context of the episode, which explores how everyone expresses grief differently, it feels especially beautiful and moving to see two queer women cope with grief through love. And because “The Body” doesn’t focus on the couple specifically or center their relationship, their first kiss is both extraordinarily simple and normalized, not at all sensational; however, it was no less important just because it wasn’t made into a spectacle.
After all, in 2001 it was still largely taboo to depict queer women together on-screen. Ellen DeGeneres came out publicly only five years before, and portraying queer women’s relationships was still considered scandalous. Tegan and Sara wouldn’t break into the mainstream scene as openly lesbian musicians for several more years. And while there had certainly been a number of queer and gay male pop culture icons who appeared on people’s TVs and blasted through their radios—David Bowie and Freddie Mercury—queer women and lesbians in pop culture were nearly nonexistent. Even though the ’90s gave us a few queer classics, like The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (1995) and But I’m a Cheerleader (1999), when Willow and Tara graced the screen like a comet of hope for queer women in media, it was suddenly the 21st century. This popular and highly regarded television show was making a strong statement that was impossible to ignore: Women can be queer; they can love each other; and they can kiss, touch, and have sex.
To see queer women’s sexuality represented on television was (and still is) thrilling, though the representation and the scope of stories we get, even 20 years later, continues to be sorely lacking. Queerness on television and in movies is still largely portrayed by thin, conventionally attractive white women—even recent hits like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which was widely released in 2020, fits that bill. However, despite all of this and also because of it, it still matters that Buffy offered queer women and femme-aligned people the opportunity to see ourselves loving and being loved by someone other than a cisgender man. (I’m nonbinary but was presenting as a girl when I first watched and for much of my life.)
While Joss Whedon, the creator of the series, has been credited with bringing this brand of feminism to the screen and challenging norms around sexuality and gender, it’s also worth noting he has been accused of abusing people and his power on various sets, including Buffy. These allegations recently resurfaced when some of the show’s stars, including Charisma Carpenter, who left Buffy suddenly for unknown reasons, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Michelle Trachtenberg, spoke out in solidarity with fellow survivors of Whedon’s manipulations. Regardless of the contributions he’s made to the media, no amount of queerness or onscreen feminism can excuse the harm he’s done—or the peace his abusive behavior has stolen from women in the name of bringing that representation to the screen. Yet, in spite of this, the show remains important to so many fans, myself included, who have been forever changed by the performances of actors like Hannigan and Benson.
Buffy’s exploration of queerness in different forms, and Willow and Tara’s relationship in particular, did something unique. Unlike previous TV depictions of women loving women that were either raunchy or rooted in sex, Willow and Tara’s relationship was always rooted in a mutual intellectual and emotional respect. Willow’s journey into love was always about more than sex—it was a deep self-exploration. As we watched Buffy fight off demons in the physical world, we watched Willow fight off her internal demons and learn to accept herself as a queer woman—a relatable process for many of us. I was obsessed with Willow and Tara, how soft and pretty they both were and how they were (initially) “allowed” to be happy together. In the Season 6 musical episode, “Once More, with Feeling,” which is still my favorite episode to date, there’s a gorgeous, intimate love song the two women sing to each other. During the episode, as they’re walking in a park, Willow mentions that guys are checking Tara out, much to Tara’s surprise. “What are they looking at?” Tara asks. “The hotness of you, doofus!” Willow responds, lovingly. “Those boys really thought I was hot? Oh my God, I’m cured!” Tara jokes as she pretends to rush toward the men. Willow pulls her back, and as they embrace, Tara explains that she’s just not used to “that.”
As they launch into singing “Under Your Spell,” they exchange passionate glances: “I lived my life in shadow/ Never the sun on my face/ It didn’t seem so sad, though/ I figured that was my place,” Tara begins singing. “Now I’m bathed in light/ Something just isn’t right/ I’m under your spell/ How else could it be/ Anyone would notice me?/ It’s magic, I can tell/ How you set me free/Brought me out so easily.” Aside from the double entendre and puns strewn throughout the song—references to being in the closet, being set free by love, and coming out and letting the world see who you truly are—I’ve always felt it was one of the most genuine love songs I’ve ever heard. It truly shows you, instead of just telling you, what it feels like to fall for someone who makes you feel like yourself. And the weight of such a passionate song, sung by two women, is felt—so much so that I will never forget the first time I watched it and listened to its lyrics intently. I ran my tongue over each word like it was a smooth stone, bringing me comfort and the possibility of a future with a woman who might use words like this about me. But, as a child who knew deep down they were queer, watching this scene was complicated.
My mother’s reaction while watching in the living room with me was to scoff in disgust, and my father looked away from the screen in a way he never did when watching love scenes between men and women. Willow and Tara’s love suddenly became dirty and dark to me—a woman loving another woman was something to look away from, to scoff at. Though their relationship was often tumultuous—full of fights about how Willow used her magic to try to control Tara and ending tragically with Tara’s death—their love was often happy and full of strong, positive emotions. Still, others’ reactions to queer women and the perpetuation of the Bury Your Gays trope signaled to me that queer women don’t get to be happy. I’m sure it communicated something similar to many people grappling with their queerness, no matter how old they were. Seeing the way their relationship and individual paths played out on Buffy ultimately played a huge part in my staying in the closet until I was 16.
While Whedon claimed to care about humanizing queer relationships, he ultimately killed off Tara to give Willow a more dramatic character arc.
Buffy was one of the first mainstream shows that provided audiences with a depiction of complex queer women who could be both soft and strong, good and bad. Yet while Whedon claimed to care about humanizing same-sex and queer relationships, he ultimately killed off Tara to give Willow a more dramatic character arc. Although it isn’t the only relationship that ended poorly or had its share of drama, it was the queer relationship of the show. The fact that these queer women—who started out joyful and in love—weren’t allowed sustained happiness sent the message that stability exists only in relationships between men and women. Fortunately, more examples of queer relationships cropped up in the early aughts. In 2004, we were gifted the infamous The L Word, a show full of gay women, albeit mostly thin and conventionally attractive (though less white and slightly more complex than the queer characters in Buffy).
We also got more mainstream television showing women loving people other than cis men in shows like Orange Is the New Black, One Day at a Time, Jane the Virgin, Riverdale, Dickinson, Gentleman Jack, Wynonna Earp, Killing Eve, Work in Progress, and more. But some things remain the same: In Killing Eve, the title character (Sandra Oh) and her serial killer-slash-stalker-slash-lover Villanelle (Jodie Comer) are obsessed and in love with each other, but, like Willow and Tara, their story never ends happily. In Work in Progress, the main character is a suicidal butch woman with life-threatening OCD who experiences tumultuous and upsetting relationships. Now there are dozens of mainstream stories about queer women, yet barely a handful of them end well or without immense pain. Of course, pieces of these narratives do reflect reality: I have certainly had tumultuous queer relationships, and I’m a butch goth who has life-threatening OCD. But don’t we deserve to see more queer joy and simple, wholesome entanglement without the trauma?
Now, nearly 10 years since I came out and started dating women and people other than cis men, I still think about Willow and Tara’s relationship. I analyze the ways it informed my own fears of intimacy and queerness. It made me scared to love the people I loved, for fear that it would kill us both—emotionally and literally. However, I consistently discover the ways it positively shaped my views of what love could and should look like at its best.
If I could go back and talk to my younger self, who stared at two queer women holding each other on the screen, I would say this: Willow and Tara’s relationship is only one example of what love can look like and how love might end. Queer relationships don’t always end miserably. Someday there will be characters and plotlines that won’t make us want to bury our queerness. Instead, we’ll wear it proudly, and show off our love like a flame that burns brightly enough to keep us warm without burning us. Twenty years on, it feels especially fitting that the anniversary of this kiss between queer women on television should be rooted in an episode about mortality—fitting given the hundreds of thousands of people who have died in the last year due to COVID-19. In the midst of tragedy and grief, what we need to be reminded of is a kind of love that holds us in the hard moments.