Saturday, August 20, 2011

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and lesbian love on TV

There has been some recent discussion in Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish blog about how same-sex (or same-gender) relationships do and don't, should and shouldn't, get portrayed in popular movies and TV shows. What touched it off were some remarks by "Star Trek" impresario J.J. Abrams that were interpreted, fairly or unfairly, as suggesting that he dismissed "gays as distracting sub-plots".

There are a lot of dedicated Trekkies out there, so perhaps it's not surprising that the discussion stayed focused exclusively on "Star Trek". Among other things, several correspondents pointed out that there had been some isolated incidents of same-sex (female-to-female) kissing in the "Star Trek" series as far back as the 1990s (part of a more general sub-genre of sporadic "lesbian kiss episodes" on TV during that decade).

But given the subject under discussion, I would have expected someone to mention a highly popular and genuinely fascinating TV series that ran from 1997-2003, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer". The relationship between Willow Rosenberg and Tara Maclay, which turned romantic in early 2000, was probably the first extensively portrayed long-term lesbian relationship on mainstream TV. The sexual aspect of the relationship was depicted a little less graphically than some of the heterosexual couplings in the series, but the fact that Willow and Tara were having sex, not just holding hands, was unambiguous.

And their relationship was definitely not a distracting and peripheral sub-plot. Willow was one of the central characters in the whole series, and this relationship was portrayed as a crucial part of her life. When Tara was accidentally killed, Willow flipped out and almost destroyed the world in a paroxysm of grief and rage (an entirely plausible and comprehensible adolescent fantasy). Furthermore, this lesbian love affair was not treated as something weird or salacious, but as something emotionally positive, natural, and 'normal'—at least, as normal as any of the other sexual and/or romantic relationships in the series. (It's true that Willow and Tara were both witches, but then everyone in the series was a little odd in their own way.) In fact, there have been complaints that their relationship was a little too vanilla, but you can't please everybody.

In an insightful piece that Garret Epps wrote about "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in 2002, he described Willow's "troubled romance with the vulnerable Tara" as "the most complex lesbian relationship a TV series has ever attempted." I'm sure that was correct, but my guess is that it may also have been the only complex portrayal of a lesbian relationship that any TV series had attempted up to that time.

(Or am I wrong about that? OK, there was a long-term, stable lesbian couple in the popular 1990s sitcom "Friends", and in one episode they even had a gay wedding. But my impression—which may or may not be fully accurate, since the small amount I know about "Friends" comes almost entirely from second-hand information—is that the relationship between Carol & Susan in "Friends" was less central to the series than the relationship between Willow & Tara in "Buffy", and was not explored in as much depth and complexity.)

The matter-of-fact way that the relationship between Willow and Tara was treated may help to explain something else that is pretty striking in retrospect: namely, how little fuss this unambiguous and sympathetic TV portrayal of a long-term lesbian relationship kicked up, all things considered. One might have expected it to provoke a major storm, complete with a lot of very noisy outrage, but it didn't. I can think of all sorts of reasons that might help explain this non-event—and I suspect, by the way, that the response might have been different if this had been a long-term homosexual relationship between two boys rather than two girls—but the point is that this was a pretty significant dog that didn't bark.

(A 2003 "farewell to 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'" by the Weekly Standard reviewer Jonathan Last, in which he described it as "the best show in the history of television," ignored the relationship between Willow and Tara. But it may be worth noting that he didn't say anything critical about it, either.)

I said earlier that the relationship between Willow and Tara was probably the first substantial & complex portrayal of a long-term lesbian relationship on mainstream TV. The only reason I included the word "probably" is that I almost never never watch TV myself, and I certainly can't claim expertise in that area, so it's possible that there may have been earlier examples I'm not aware of, and it's also possible that I've been too dismissive about the lesbian relationship between Carol & Susan in "Friends" and its public reception. Does anyone out there know of other previous examples? Even if they do exist, it seems clear that the the relationship between Willow and Tara was a bit of a milestone for American popular culture ... and one worth celebrating.

(Doing substantial and sympathetic portrayals of long-term romantic and sexual relationships between males on mainstream TV seems to be more tricky. At all events, my impression is that they came later—and it may be no accident that they were pioneered on HBO rather than on network TV. Or does anyone think I'm wrong about all that?)

—Jeff Weintraub