"Willow, Destroyer of Worlds"

By Stephanie Zacharek

Published May 30, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

[Read the story.]

I applaud Stephanie Zacharek for her wonderful review of the season finale of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," particularly her observations about creator Joss Whedon's effective use of tragedy.

Two of the most memorable tragic TV moments for this fan came from the series. The first was in the episode before the one that focused on Joyce's death. Buffy talked to her dead (as we later learn) mother as if nothing was amiss. Only when she realized something was wrong, at the very end of the episode, did she utter the line, "Mommy?"

The second, of course, was the death of Tara. The writers were able to highlight the absurdity of the tragedy with Tara's dying words, "your shirt," uttered to Willow as she observed her own blood sprayed across Willow's blouse.

I have long maintained that "Buffy" is one of the most cleverly written shows on television, probably in the history of TV. The season finale only supports my belief.

I am sorry to hear that some fans, many of whom started watching the show when a lesbian relationship was introduced, might now turn their back on Whedon's creation. Rather than accuse Whedon of being anti-gay, perhaps they should remember that while Buffy was dead, Willow and Tara assumed the role of young Dawn's parents. Whedon deserves credit for presenting this familial relationship as legitimate with neither criticism nor fanfare.

-- Mark Rupright

Stephanie Zacharek's analyses of this season's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" have been so insightful and spot-on. Her latest is easily the best article I've read all week about the breathtaking finale, as well as the best of her articles on the subject so far. Zacharek states firmly in her article what other true believers have always said: "Buffy" is art, and all good art prompts lengthy discussion. I will gladly welcome any of Ms. Zacharek's entries into that discussion. Thank you.

-- Bilal Dardai

Clearly, Stephanie Zacharek enjoyed this season of "Buffy" as much as I did. The only flaw I found in the season, and in Zacharek's article, was the use of the words "Wicca" or "Wiccan" instead of the traditional "witch" to describe Willow. Wicca is a contemporary neo-pagan religion that celebrates nature's seasonal cycles, and a Wiccan is someone who practices it. Unlike the character of Willow, Wiccans don't shoot beams of evil magical energy at people, summon balls of fire to incinerate their enemies, or rip apart police stations. The only characters on the show who have come close to representing real Wiccans were the women's spirituality group at U.C. Sunnydale from two seasons ago. Willow is clearly a witch, in the folkloric and literary sense of the word, and follows in the tradition of characters like the Wicked Witch of the West or Samantha from "Bewitched." The promo for the season finale, with its tagline "Hell hath no fury like a Wiccan scorned," was particularly egregious in its misuse of the word. Would the name of any other religion be used in such a degrading way?

-- Peter Muise

There is a pervasive cliché in popular culture -- writing, movies, television and more -- that, as one mother of a friend of mine said, "Lesbians are such unhappy people." That lesbians (and gay men, and anyone of alternative sexual persuasion) are unstable at best, secretly insane at worst. This cliché, which plays out again and again and again, usually involves the lesbian couple ending up dead, evil or both. The underlying cultural message is, "This is your punishment for being unnatural." (And this is only in the cases where one of them doesn't go off and discover that "she really wanted a man after all!" and "redeem" herself.)

The issue at the heart of the fans' disappointment is that Mr. Whedon and his staff have repeatedly indicated their recognition of said cliché and their intention to avoid it at all costs. And then going ahead and doing it anyway.

Mr. Whedon is not necessarily anti-gay or misogynist -- that's not what the majority are saying. He has simply lied, and that is the betrayal at the heart of the controversy of Tara's death.

-- Jude McLaughlin

Be nice to me -- my world has just been rocked. For me, nothing worth noting happens on this planet unless it's reported in Salon, but what I've just read has shaken my faith. Stephanie Zacharek's review of the latest "Star Wars" installment was one of the most vitriol-dripping indictments of anything I've ever read. But today, she goes on in agonizingly treacly detail about how "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is high art! Granted, "Star Wars" is not great cinema and "Buffy" is a good, perhaps great, TV show, but does Salon not employ editors?

Her opinions in these reviews are so obviously biased as to throw into question her professional viewpoint on anything. It's sort of amusing to compare both reviews, and funny, also, how much faith I've put in one news source. I guess, just like Buffy and Luke occasionally do in their respective fictional worlds, I've learned something about the "real" world today and, in the process, myself. Let's all hold hands and sing along with the credits ....

-- Dave Brackenbury

We are the authors, along with other members of The Kitten, The Witches, and the Bad Wardrobe (a popular Willow/Tara fan board), of an Internet FAQ titled "The Death of Tara, the Fall of Willow and the Dead/Evil Lesbian Cliché." We are therefore likely part of what Stephanie Zacharek referred to as the "weeks of buzzing on 'Buffy' online message boards" regarding Tara's death and subsequent events on the show.

Zacharek stated that "some fans in the lesbian community have asserted that by killing off one-half of the show's lesbian couple ... Whedon destroyed one of the few positive lesbian role models on television." This is indeed something that we, at least, have said. She then went on to say, however, that the boards have, as a result, been saying that both "Buffy" and Joss Whedon are "anti-gay" and additionally "misogynist and/or racist."

That is not something we ever argued, nor is it something we have seen said by the vast majority of those angry about Tara's death. In fact, we went to great lengths to say that we decidedly did not think that Tara was killed, or that Willow turned evil, for homophobic reasons on the part of Joss Whedon or anyone else.

Our primary objection was that these events, however they were intended, still fall into the cliché of television lesbians dying, turning evil, and never knowing true happiness. This cliché is so pervasive that happy lesbian couples on television are almost impossible to find, whereas dead ones can be found -- or rather, no longer found -- on scores of shows. This matters: Heterosexual couples can look at the media and see hundreds of representations of themselves, some happy, some sad, some good, some evil, some alive, some dead. Lesbian couples see an almost uniformly bleak message informing them that they are doomed to misery and pain.

We are particular angry at "Buffy" because at various times the show's writers have indicated that they were aware of the cliché and said that this was exactly the kind of thing they wouldn't do. Obviously, after seeing a two-year lesbian relationship on the show, we are aware that Joss Whedon and Co. didn't kill Tara because she was gay. We are aware that Willow was not made into a "cut-out angry lesbian," as Ms. Zacharek put it, nor did we ever accuse them of doing so. We are aware that no couples on "Buffy" have ever ended particularly happily. We are also aware that they are under no obligation to anyone and can do whatever they like with their show.

However, we are saddened and angry that Tara has, for whatever reason, been added to the heaping pile of dead TV lesbians.

The full text of "The Death of Tara, the Fall of Willow and The Dead/Evil Lesbian Cliché FAQ" can be found at the kitten board.

-- Amy Wilson and R. Herman

You don't get it. Fans are not upset simply because a gay character got killed on "Buffy," and we're not pleading for special treatment. What offends is the sudden descent to cliché. Two clichés in fact: First, whenever two lesbians are shown having physical sex (as opposed to soppy emotional hand-holding) one of them must die immediately afterward. And second, if one half of a lesbian couple dies, the other must immediately turn into an evil sociopath.

Now these are well-documented clichés -- there have been books written on them, doctoral treatises even -- and when "Buffy" introduced a lesbian relationship, the writers even commented about the existence of such clichés and promised they wouldn't stoop to using them.

But they did.

For the first time ever, Tara and Willow are shown naked in bed with conversation that implies they have just made love. (Bear in mind that in two and a half years they have previously had two on-screen kisses and some hand-holding.) Less than two minutes later Tara is dead by an "act of God." Punishment for her sins? Sure looks that way.

So what does loving, intelligent Willow do then. 911, CPR, break down and cry? Nope: a brief attempt at magical resurrection followed immediately by full-on sociopathic bitch-from-hell mode. Both clichés in under three minutes.

And then, to add insult to injury, the show treated the death lightly. Every other death of a character has been treated as significant. This time however, Tara (who has been on the show for two and a half years) dies, and yet no one apart from Willow has any grief. When Giles arrives he even comments on Buffy's new hairdo before casually mentioning that he's sorry about Tara.

And then, the hysterical Willow is saved by the one thing she really needs: a good man.

Now if this were any other show, people could shrug and go, "It's TV land. What do you expect?" But this is "Buffy" -- the home of some of the most intelligent writing on TV ever. We expect better, and we deserve better than this lame, sordid descent into banality.

-- Andy Brazil

I find your characterizations of Willow and Tara fans as angry or emotional lesbians to be insulting in the extreme.

I am a married heterosexual male, in my 30s, with children. I loved Willow and Tara, and Tara. I found her death to be reprehensible. I find Joss Whedon's and the [Mutant Enemy (M.E.)] staff's comments to the fans of Tara to be nothing less than hurtful and childish.

If you had been to boards as you claim, you would have easily realized that a full third of the fans of Tara and Willow are men. And we are not in it for the "girl on girl" action, as M.E. writer Steve DeKnight has put it. How could we be? Willow and Tara have been allowed to show on-screen intimacy once, and that was the episode in which she was murdered. I supposed there was that token kiss in "The Body." Yes, watching one lover comfort her grieving girlfriend really turned us on.

I stand by my group's claims. Joss did not just kill "a lesbian"; he killed Tara. There is a big difference. One is a label, something we never have used to encapsulate everything she was. Tara is a person to us. Many in my "lesbian" community are going through the stages of grief. Tara meant more to us than a mere lesbian, or one half of a wonderful relationship. To categorize us as such only confirms to me your level of ignorance. It is at such a level that in fact I question how you thought you could even write about this.

I also find the assertion that we are grieving for Tara because she was a lesbian to be reprehensible as well. Even if she wasn't, I would be enraged with M.E. Her character has never received equal or fair treatment. Amber Benson [the actress who played Tara] has appeared in the main credit once in her entire tenure at "Buffy"; every other significant other has appeared. You can blame contracts if you like, but the fact remains. Ms. Benson herself had expressed a desire to appear at the end of season four. This is a well-documented interview.

Every other significant other also got to walk away when their relationship was over: Oz, Riley (who is now happily married), Angel, Cordy, Anya, Parker, Faith, and Spike (who despite being a serial killer and attempted rapist gets redemption). The only one who is dead is Tara. Fair? Of course you will no doubt bring up Jenny Calendar. She was killed by Angel. OK, but she was in a heterosexual romance. Are there any other heterosexual couples on the show? Oh, yes, everyone else. And it is well known that Robia LaMorte wanted to leave the show. It is equally well known and well documented that Amber Benson did not want to leave. In fact, even after knowing her character's demise she still was out there plugging the show. She should have saved her time and looked for a better job. But, Ms. Benson has class above and beyond what anyone else at M.E. has.

I suggest you go back to those boards you claimed you looked at and actually read them this time.

-- Timothy S. Brannan, Ph.D.(ABD), MSEd.
University of Illinois at Chicago

I just wanted to compliment Ms. Zacharek for one of the most insightful reviews of any television show that I've had the pleasure of reading. While I'm a fan of "Buffy," I wasn't simply drawn to the review because of its positive bent. She responds to the show with thought, and while it seems clear that her emotional response is included, the analysis is in-depth and thorough, managing to cover what has become (in my opinion, at any rate) one of the most complicated shows on television to date. In what could have become a merely emotional review praising Joss Whedon, she makes a commitment to cerebral analysis, and a thorough one at that. My hat's off to you, Ms. Zacharek. You've given me things to think about when watching the show.

-- Matthew Chase

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