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How BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER Depicted One Of TV’s First Lesbian Relationships

How BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER Depicted One Of TV’s First Lesbian Relationships

In March of 1997, the very first episode of Joss Whedon‘s horror-comedy Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired on the WB. Ostensibly, it was about a teenage girl who is chosen by supernatural means to fight the forces of darkness which, on more than one occasion, would manifest as a giant snake–in other words, it didn’t seem like a particularly serious show. But for seven seasons, Buffy would prove to be a poignant coming-of-age tale, and one of the best shows in TV history when it came to realistically depicting trauma, friendship, loyalty, love, and loss.

Of no small significance is also this fact: Buffy the Vampire Slayer was one of first TV shows to depict a naturally progressing relationship between two women that wasn’t for ratings and wasn’t a punchline. For many young viewers, this was the first time they had ever seen gay characters fall in love and find acceptance among their peers. Even 20 years later–in a world with shows like Sense8 and Orange is the New Black–the multi-season romance between Willow Rosenberg and Tara Maclay resonates.

I was a bit young for Buffy in 1997, but began watching out-of-order season 3 re-runs the summer before I entered 8th grade. I was hooked on the show’s campiness and couldn’t wait for season 4 to premiere come fall. At that point in time, I lived in an isolated, conservative Midwestern town with a population of 4,000, where I didn’t know a single out gay person.

Buffy cast

When we meet the eponymous Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), she’s both a Slayer and a student at Sunnydale High. Buffy soon befriends students Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon) and Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan). These three major characters appear in nearly all 144 episodes of the series, and together, save the world and each other time and time again.

Willow was introduced to me as shy, studious, and socially awkward teen who has fallen in love with Oz (Seth Green), a fellow student who is also, as it turns out, a werewolf. In season 4, the gang moves from Sunnydale High to UC Sunnydale. Six episodes in, Oz leaves Willow to deal with some inner werewolf turmoil. Show creator Joss Whedon has explained the breakup was not planned, but was written into the show because Green expressed a desire to pursue a film career instead.

Still reeling from Oz’s sudden departure, Willow attends a college Wicca group to further explore witchcraft in the tenth episode, “Hush.” Only one other student at the meeting, Tara Maclay (Amber Benson), is interested in actual magic. They meet again when hiding from the monster-of-the-week in a laundry room on campus together. Willow tries to use her powers to barricade the door with a heavy vending machine, but is unable to do so alone. Tara takes Willow’s hand and, by their powers combined, they fling the machine across the room. It’s a strikingly intimate moment, though not a romantic one.

Willow and Tara cast their first spell. (Photo via Warner Brothers)

Given their shared interest in magic, the pair begin hanging out a lot. Over the course of several episodes, while other characters engage in overtly sexual groping sessions, Willow and Tara regularly meet in Tara’s candelit dorm room to practice spells. In “Goodbye Iowa,” Willow tells Tara that she doesn’t come over just to do spells, but because she likes spending time with her. However, Tara admits, “I’ve been thinking about that last spell we did all day.”

In “Who Are You?”, the pair perform a difficult spell to conjure a mystical object. The spell’s energy knocks them both on the their backs, with much sweatiness and heavy breathing. In part, Whedon stated that the magic subbed for physical intimacy in their burgeoning romance due to the network’s reluctance to show the women kissing.

As viewers began to pick up on the subtext, Whedon promised that unlike other shows of the time, they would not “promote the hell out of a same-sex relationship for exploitation value that we take back by the end of the [episode].” It’s also worth noting that while Willow and Tara were always intended to be friends, they weren’t initially written to be lovers. Yet the chemistry between Hannigan and Benson, neither of whom identify as gay or bisexual in real life, was obvious from their earliest scenes.


In “New Moon Rising,” Oz returns to Sunnydale a changed man, forcing Willow to choose between the man she used to love and the woman she loves now. She ultimately tells Buffy about her feelings for Tara–which Buffy meets with acceptance–and chooses Tara.

Their relationship progresses, as they move in together and adopt a kitten. In a Tara-centric episode about her contentious family, Buffy and company declare Tara a part of their own family. When Willow and Tara kiss on-screen for the first time, it’s in “The Body,” a painful episode that deals with a character’s death. Tara kisses Willow to comfort her, and there’s nothing salacious about it. Willow and Tara later move into the Summers’ home and act as maternal figures to Buffy’s younger sister.

Living in a tiny town with dial-up Internet, network TV was often my only window to the outside world. I’m fairly certain that Willow and Tara (and perhaps my own confused feelings about Faith and Drusilla, if we’re being honest here) led me to realize that attraction and love had no predetermined gender. Then, the summer between seasons 4 and 5, one of my best friends told me she was a lesbian and had a girlfriend who went to another school. I, like Willow and Tara’s fictional friends, accepted my own friend without question.

Willow and Tara in "The Body" (Photo via Warner Brothers)

I, of course, wasn’t the only person tuning in. I put out a call for anyone else who had been impacted by Buffy. Writer/HIV activist Brenden Shucart told me, “I remember how excited their romance made me. How much I loved watching them flirt and be awkward. I remember realizing as they built it up over episodes that this was gonna be a ‘real thing.’ And I even though I was going out and getting in trouble by that point, I always tried to be home to watch it. Because it made me feel normal.”

Meanwhile, writer Amanda Grace told me, “Seeing the evolution from friendship to romantic relationship between Willow and Tara made me feel so much more comfortable with myself. At a time where I had limited exposure to lesbian relationships and was questioning my own sexuality, the relationship on Buffy made me feel so much more normal.”Willow and Tara in "Seeing Red" (Photo via Warner Brothers)

Now, Buffy was not a perfectly progressive show. It seriously lacked racial diversity, and few relationships ended happily. Tara and Willow ultimately break up over Willow’s abuse of magic. They reconcile, only for Tara to be fatally wounded by a stray bullet immediately after we see the pair nude in bed together, falling right into the much-criticized Dead/Evil Lesbian trope. After Willow recovers, she begins a relationship with Kennedy (Iyari Limon), an assertive potential Slayer, with whom she shares the first lesbian sex scene on broadcast television. While it shows that Willow’s sexuality wasn’t just a phase, some have criticized the show for displaying bi-erasure, as Willow never once contemplates she could be bisexual, despite having meaningful relationships with both men and women.

Yet, Buffy was a turn-of-the-century network show that illustrated to many young people that women could be heroes and that love was monumental, no matter who it was between. In a Reddit AMA, Benson wrote, “The most rewarding thing about playing Tara was that the relationship on Buffy between her and Willow helped kick open the door for more amazing LGBTQ characters on TV. We were so blessed to walk in their shoes and play those ladies. It’s one of the things I am most proud of in my life.” She also noted that in a perfect Buffyverse, Willow and Tara would go on to open an ice cream shop and live happily ever after.

What did Buffy mean to you? Sound off in the comments below.

Images: 20th Century Fox

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