The Death of Tara and “The Dead/Evil Lesbian Cliché”
Throughout my participation in discussions of this topic, there are some points I’ve generally tried to leave to others to argue, because I consider them largely matters of opinion. Was season six a terrible season? Why did Joss Whedon and the writers of Buffy choose to tell the story they did in the way they did? Could Willow have been driven over the edge by something other than Tara’s death? I’ve tended to avoid them because I don’t think they can really be answered by argument. I, and many people I know, thought season six was a weak season, but I’m sure there are fans out there who liked it and I’m not going to tell them they’re wrong for doing so. Also, I don’t claim to know the minds of the writers, and I’ve never argued that they were acting out of homophobia, hubris, neurosis, or even simply the sincere belief that they were telling a good story — I don’t know, and I can’t see how it could possibly be determined by debate. And I personally believe that a story of Willow turning to dark magic, if it were told at all, could have been told in a different way (for example, in response to the argument that Tara’s mere injury would have not driven Willow to vengeance and dark magic, I could point out that that’s exactly what happened in the season five episode “Tough Love”, and so on) — but others disagree, and the point is pretty much moot; the story has already been told and we’re never going to see it play out a different way. In the end, what really matters, or at least what can be reasonably discussed, is what happened — not why it happened, or what could have happened, or should have happened, but what was actually seen on the show and its effect on people watching.
That having been said, I think discussions even on that topic often end up getting a bit sidetracked, and I believe that’s happened here. Issues that have gotten a lot of attention in our discussion have included — could anyone who follows the show be left with the impression that Tara and Willow were punished for being gay? (I argue they could; Julio argues they couldn’t.) Were Willow and Tara treated worse than other couples on the show? (Julio argues they weren’t; Ben argues they were.) These are important subjects to discuss — as are, indeed, the questions in the first paragraph — because they determine how far the show itself, taken by itself, did or did not descend into offensive stereotypes, harmful imagery, and poor writing. But I can’t consider that to be the main point.
Because the show isn’t really being taken by itself. It can’t be. I’d be the first to admit that, if there were a reasonable number of other lesbian couples on television, I’d be annoyed by the bad writing on Buffy this season and upset by the death of one of my favorite characters, but that’s all. Because there would be no cliché. But the show doesn’t exist in a “vacuum” — it exists in the context of a television landscape where lesbians always end up evil or dead, and in the context of a society where prejudice against lesbians is endemic (which is why I am not so quick to dismiss outside interview comments as Julio is; it’s part of the social context to the fans who have read them, and those people watch the show, too.) At any rate, as Ben aptly put it, “the death of Tara, whether by accident or design, adds another image to the slide carousel of gays and lesbians meeting bad ends in film and television.” And that’s not really an arguable point.
So the discussion of the actual homophobic imagery, if any, within show itself is, at best, a discussion of mitigating factors. In other words, given that on the show it’s pretty much inarguable that Tara died, and Willow turned evil, in a world where that’s a harmful media stereotype of lesbians, can we cut this particular show some slack because there was no homophobic intent, because they were a good couple for two years, because other characters have died, too, etc.? (It’s definitely a worthwhile topic — I’ve even already admitted, when I talked earlier about the manner of Tara’s death, that it’s possible that, given enough mitigating factors, I would have cut the show more slack — but I want to make sure this point is taken for what it is and not as the sole or even the main issue.)
To be honest, none of the arguments I have heard in favor of potential mitigating factors seem particularly strong. The fact that they were such a strong depiction of a lesbian couple actual makes matters worse to me — why on earth should I feel better that it was something important that got destroyed? That other characters die or break up on the show seems largely irrelevant to the issue; viewers can flip the channel and see a variety of heterosexual relationships, happy and unhappy both, but they can’t do that for a lesbian relationship. There just isn’t a “dead/evil heterosexual cliché,” so it’s not a fair comparison.
The notion that Tara’s death clearly had nothing to do with her sexual orientation holds a little more weight. But TV dead lesbians are so prevalent that the fact that her death was largely pointless except as a plot device hardly makes it all better, and so many aspects of the episode were handled so badly from the point of view of downplaying a connection between lesbians and death (it happened soon after sex, in their bedroom, etc.) that they came about as close as they could to making such a connection without actually trying to do so.
So, in the end, what I saw on TV was another evil lesbian, another dead lesbian, and another broken lesbian relationship in a TV landscape already littered with them. It affects people that those are the only images out there, I’m personally angry and tired of seeing those images, and Buffy, for all the merits which made me a fan in the first place, is no exception. If anything, those merits make the show’s current flaws all the more palpable. And, at the end of the day, without anything to make it less of a cliché, Tara’s still dead.
The great irony of all this discussion is that, at the outset, it would have seemed that Kyra’s and my positions were the furthest apart, yet with her final comments, I find myself in closer agreement with her statements than with Ben’s opening arguments.
While Ben opens the floor to a broad variety of issues, the fact of the matter is that most of them are irrelevant to a discussion of Tara’s death. It may be evident that I enjoyed the season and found it to be up to the usual high standards the show has set for itself over the last six years, while Ben thinks the show has past its prime, or “jumped the shark” (digression: that site is all about bashing television programs that viewers feel have passed their prime; it’s unlikely that Buffy fans that still like the show are spending much time there; it’s a place for people to air their grievances, not to celebrate what they enjoy, and citing it as evidence that the majority of the show’s fans think it’s past its prime seems a bit disingenuous). We can hash over reviews, ratings, and the like ’til we’re blue in the face (and I’ll point out that Buffy retained most of its audience despite jumping to a less popular network, despite facing perhaps the most competitive night on television, despite being separated from its spin-off, Angel, and despite an inarguably darker tone; it’s one of the UPN’s top three programs, behind only the Star Trek spin-off Enterprise, and, embarrassingly enough, WWE Smackdown). The fact of the matter is that, in the final analysis, as Kyra points out, they are “largely matters of opinion.” I mostly liked the season, Ben and Kyra largely didn’t. That’s the breakdown, and none of us are likely to change the opinion of the others.
But to play devil’s advocate one more time: why is it so hard to believe that there’s a larger plan at work here on the part of Whedon and the Mutant Enemy team? Time after time, they’ve provided unexpected twists and turns that at times angered viewers until they saw the eventual payoffs. Remember when Angel became evil, or when he was “killed” at the end of season two? Fans howled about these developments, but there was more to the story, and eventually, there was a payoff. This story isn’t over yet. There are sure to be many ramifications yet to be explored in the next season. And given Mutant Enemy’s track record, I’m inclined to believe they can pull it off; at the least, I’m willing to give them a shot at doing so before I dismiss the show as having “jumped the shark.” I know that at times I can come across as revering the ME team with an almost religious fervor — I’ve been known to use the phrase “Joss Has A Plan” (in a tongue-in-cheek fashion) to illustrate my faith in the ME team to provide quality entertainment — but the bottom line is, it’s not over yet.
Yet, even that is irrelevant when we discuss what has already come to pass. And that should be the primary issue at hand. So we go back to two issues raised by Kyra: “could anyone who follows the show be left with the impression that Tara and Willow were punished for being gay?” and “Were Willow and Tara treated worse than other couples on the show?”
To some extent, the answers to these questions are also a matter of opinion. I would argue that Angel and Buffy possibly suffered more — though I’ll grant, Angel is alive and could conceivably reconcile with Buffy were there not inter-network politics involved. As for a regular viewer being left with the impression that Tara and Willow were punished for being gay, I think it’s a stretch, but not inconceivable. To again raise the parallel of the Buffy/Angel relationship, Angel turned evil immediately after Buffy had sex with him, and the allusion was obvious that she was being punished for having premarital, teenaged sex. One could conceivably draw the same connection here, and I would agree that the scene could have been better played; for example, if Willow and Tara had reunited and had sex in one episode, and then Tara died in the next — outside the bedroom — thus softening the blow and making it less in line with the cliché.
I do think that the circumstances of Tara’s death directly related to Willow’s descent to evil. Passions and emotions were already running high, so things going so terribly wrong in such an emotionally-charged moment led directly to a heated unthinking response that might not have come in a cooler situation. Haven’t we all said or done things we regretted in the heat of the moment? A rational Willow surely would have realized that her reaction was not what Tara would have wanted, and thus, the story would have played out differently. But I don’t think Willow was in any kind of control over herself, and I think that — were circumstances different — she might have been able to rein it in. This is why I don’t buy the “make Willow believe with all her heart that Tara has been killed” argument that Ben makes; it’s one thing to believe you have lost the love of your life, but it’s quite another to see them gunned down in front of you. Don’t underestimate the differences in impact.
(And in answer to the question Ben poses, as to whether the depiction of lesbian sex “show should be lauded” of whether I “understand that the very fact that the clearest portrayal of physical love between a homosexual couple in the series was followed by their destruction is part of the point” is that, yes, I do understand that that was the point, but I believe it was meant to heighten the emotional impact, not to perpetuate the cliché. But then, as Kyra points out, we can’t really “know” this.)
Kyra also makes a valid point that “the show doesn’t exist in a ‘vacuum’ — it exists in the context of a television landscape where lesbians always end up evil or dead, and in the context of a society where prejudice against lesbians is endemic.” But I believe you run into a problem creatively here. Do the writers of the show have to become the standard-bearers for positive lesbian depiction at the expense of the story they wish to tell? Where did they sign up to be the spokespersons for a generation of lesbians? I think the fact that they’ve created a character and a relationship that was embraced as a role model is a wonderful thing, but should they be expected to martyr their story simply to continue to act as the standard-bearers? That’s a political decision, and not necessarily the right one to make creatively (again, a matter of opinion).
As Ben suggests, “the story is paramount; the story is all. And so it should be, really.” And while he argues that “numbers seem to be behind me when I say that the story he wanted to tell isn’t one that a lot of people felt they needed to watch,” that’s the risk any creator of popular entertainment runs; all one can true is act in service of one’s story and hope that the audience is willing to go along for the ride. If they’re not, you’re eventually out of work. Certainly, Buffy WILL lose some significant portion of its audience over the creative decisions made by the writers. Whether that is enough to spell the demise of the show can only be told with time; given that it’s been widely reported that the next season will likely be the last in the show’s current form (barring a sudden change of heart from Sarah Michelle Gellar, whose contract expires at the end of this season), it may not even be provable — though certainly the Nielsen ratings will give some indication.
I close with this tantalizing thought. It’s been announced that Amber Benson will appear on Buffy in the new season, though allegedly not as Tara. However, given the misdirection practiced by Mutant Enemy in the past, who’s to say that Tara isn’t returning? As I said, it’s not over yet. Here’s to looking forward to seeing where this goes, and to hoping my trust in Whedon and Mutant Enemy won’t prove unfounded.
The common defense of the Buffy writers and their defenders has been something along the lines of “We didn’t think we were sending a horrible message because we think of Tara as a person, not as a lesbian.” There’s something that bothers me about this answer, and I only recently put my finger on what it was: There’s something just a little bit off about proclaiming that you’re so un-homophobic you felt free to “kill” the homosexual. To restate the point that Kyra and I have already made, when we have a representative number (say, 10%) of homosexuals living their lives in different ways on different shows all around the dial, then writers and producers can pat themselves on the back for being so liberated. In this world, however, they were only kidding themselves.
To answer some questions:
If Tara’s death had come in a different manner, would I have cut the show more slack?
Well, maybe, though obviously my low opinion of the season stems from more than that. But Buffy has handled death in great ways before, and it’s likely that that a stronger story could have been told. It’s not just that Tara’s death was a bad idea — though I obviously think it was. It’s that the makers seem to have embarked on the storyline with blinders on their eyes that prevented them from seeing anything but how much Dark Willow was gonna “rock!”
Were Tara and Willow really treated all that differently from other couples on the show? Weren’t some couples treated worse, say, Angel and Buffy?
I don’t see what’s so hard about this. Angel: Alive. Buffy: Alive (not that you could tell from this season). Therefore, they were not treated worse than Tara and Willow. But even if Angel had not come back after being killed by Buffy, that comparison wouldn’t hold water. Why? Because Angel’s death was a dramatically plausible and emotionally satisfying resolution that did what the show used to do, take its characters down unanticipated but masterful paths. Tara’s death was bad drama, fell right in line with a clichè, and just plain mean.
How do we know that Tara’s story is really over?
“Eventually, this story will end for all of them. Hers ended sooner. Or did it…? Yeah, it did,”– Joss Whedon (UPN Bronze 05/22/02).
From Joss’s own hand have come the words that Tara’s story is, definitively, over. Oh, but that’s right, by Julio, “writers are liars” and therefore freed from any expectation of telling the truth (since I haven’t mentioned it, let me say that both as a Tara/Willow fan and as a writer I find that notion offensive). So maybe Whedon was just being puckish when he said that, and Tara’s story is not, in fact, over. But considering the punishment they’ve taken for believing his statements in the past, I have the impression most T/W fans now have an attitude of “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice…” when it comes to anything he has to say about their favorite couple.
Julio asks, “Do the writers of the show have to become the standard-bearers for positive lesbian depiction at the expense of the story they wish to tell? Where did they sign up to be the spokespersons for a generation of lesbians?”
To which the answer is that the writers were perfectly happy to accept praise for the show and that their depiction of Willow and Tara helped people. Well, then, they have to be equally willing to accept blame for turning that help into hurt.
Although Buffy did slide in the ratings, didn’t it maintain most of its audience despite moving to a less-popular network?
There is no such thing as a “popular” network. There are popular shows, and networks that run more of them than others, but the networks themselves are not popular. No one stopped watching Buffy because it changed networks, they stopped watching because they didn’t like the show anymore.
Wasn’t Tara’s death necessary to wind Willow up and watch her go?
As Kyra pointed out, but Julio seems to have overlooked (possibly because it’s one of the episodes he hasn’t seen), Willow rashly using dark magiks in reaction to Tara’s just being injured and not killed is precisely what happened in “Tough Love.” Julio may not buy it, but it does shore up the theory that Tara’s death was not absolutely necessary to this nasty little story. They could have had her hurt, even badly, but they didn’t have to kill her.
Why don’t those of us who object to the turns this story took simply accept that there is a larger plan at work?
Keeping with the Buffy metaphors… In the fifth season episode “The Gift,” Willow is taking care of Tara, who has had her mind evicted by Glory. At one point, Tara slaps Willow viciously across the face without seeming to realize what she is doing or how much she has hurt her. Finding pain in the very place you used to go for comfort, and having the source of that pain look at your protest uncomprehendingly. Willow and Tara fans, and especially lesbian ones, probably have a broad idea how that feels. Julio’s question makes me think of the show as an abusive partner with whom he thinks we should stay because deep down, we know they love us baby… How many times do we have to be slapped in the face before we end the relationship?
Were Tara and Willow punished for being gay?
No. It’s just that they have been punished more than any hetero couple in the series, which leaves an unpleasant conclusion to be drawn.
Isn’t it tantalizing to hear that Amber Benson may appear next season, “though allegedly not as Tara?”
No. The grave Whedon and Mutant Enemy dug for themselves this season goes deeper than a Band-Aid like that, appreciated though it may be, can fix.
Kyra wrote something that reminds me to expand on my comment that I think the writers didn’t look outside their windows last season. I meant that they seemed to forget that the show didn’t exist in that “vacuum,” that they had something lovely and rare that they were going to destroy. When I reached the “hubris” theory, it was because I am still flailing, with one eye open if not blindly, to reconcile the choices made for the show last season with those of the previous five. How did a show that prides itself on twisting clichès, which is in fact based on the notion of twisting the oldest horror clichè in the book, fall into such an unoriginal hole? But as Kyra says, the point is moot, the story has been told, and barring a Dallas “thank goodness it was only a dream!” start to next season, we’re not getting the good show back.
At a certain point, what was intended becomes irrelevant and only what was presented matters. And what was presented was another dead lesbian in a landscape littered with them. I think it’s significant that none of us, Kyra, Julio, or me, deny this. It’s just that Julio’s willing to forget about it while neither Kyra or I (for different but intersecting reasons) are. There’s a line in the second season where Xander says to Buffy, about Angel: “The way I see it is that you wanna forget all about Ms. Calendar’s murder so you can get your boyfriend back.” The way I see it, some people want to ignore the horrible execution of Tara’s death and the way it fits into a larger pattern so they don’t have to have their belief in Joss & Co. shaken.