When Buffy the Vampire Slayer first aired in the late ’90s and early ’00s, it was lauded for its queer characters. At the time, queer representation in popular media was mostly relegated to tired stereotypes, limited to paradoxically normative queer experiences.
But queerness has inevitably evolved in the years since Buffy’s writing, and lately I’ve found myself wondering: does my favorite show’s idea of queerness hold up by today’s standards?
Buffy’s first few seasons are not very queer. Sure, the characters’ lifestyles aren’t normativethey fight vampires and demonsbut the protagonists identify as straight. The first visibly gay character doesn’t make his entrance until the middle of the second season, and it’s only to play out the gay-basher-is-actually-gay stereotype. It’s a story we’ve heard a thousand times, and the only real reason for its existence is as a red herring for a broader, more supernatural story-arch.
And then, in the show’s fourth season, Willow meets Tara, and the show’s queerness skyrockets. Tara begins teaching Willow about magic, and their lessons are wonderfully sensual. Despite not sharing an on-screen kiss for nearly a season and a half, it’s easy to tell that Tara and Willow are falling in love. It’s glorious to watch their body language gradually becoming more intimate (even on the second or third rewatch).
When the show’s last two seasons aired, there was an uproar from the LGBTQ community about Tara’s death. Buffy had killed off major characters before, but Tara’s death felt different: her presence on the show allowed the show to breathe in new and excitingly queer ways.
Willow and Tara fans were understandably upset about this narrative turn. Tara quickly went from being an integral part of the show’s charm to being just another plot catalyst. Joss Whedon argued that Tara’s death was the only way he could think to push Willow over the edge, allowing her to spiral into the emotionally taxing season finale. But, in the process, an essential part of the show’s second half was transformed into a mere plot point.
Queerness is almost completely lost in the show’s last season. Willow does begin a romantic relationship with another woman, but there aren’t many sparks. Her new girlfriend does not have much depth, either: one of the only points of her character is that she is attracted to Willow. It feels like more of an afterthought than anything else. To make matters worse, the final season makes Andrew, newly upgraded to a main character, queer as wellbut only in hints and fragments. Andrew’s queerness is canon, but only in a tertiary manner. Once again, queerness is manufactured and then thrown aside to gather dust.
As much as I love Buffy (and I don’t have enough space here to collect my words on that matter), I have to admit that the show’s last two seasons end up dismantling so much of the powerful queer work done in early seasons. We as viewers are afforded the pleasure of watching queerness buildWillow is notable not only in her allowance of on-screen gay sensuality but also in that the show keeps her sexuality fluid, never denouncing her attraction to men when she begins to date womenbut we are then forced to watch the collapse of this queerness.
Today is the anniversary of Tara’s death, and it is more than 20 years since the show’s pilot premiered, and so much of the show is still relevant and important, both to pop culture and as a standalone work of art. But the idea of queerness has become so much more than it was in the early 2000s, and while showing lesbian sensuality on TV was noteworthy, it isn’t enough to make the show as a whole the right kinds of queer for 2018. Queer representation still has a long way to go, even now, but much progress has been made, and Buffy, for the most part, doesn’t stand a chance.
I would love for Buffy’s queerness to hold up by today’s standards, but it does not. In fact, I would argue that it doesn’t even hold up by the show’s own standards. From its low-budget beginnings, Buffy was always about fighting to protect that which is important to usthe show was always about the sort of hope to be found hiding in the shadows, a hope that can only exist if we force it into the light. In comparison to so much of the rest of the show, its queer aspects appear as deflated, leftover things.
There’s been talk of a Buffy reboot in recent months, and, while I am very skeptical of the idea, my hope is that queerness does not get lost in the multitude of conversations that will be had about the show’s future. If a reboot does come to fruition, I hope it takes account for its origins, taking responsibility for both the good and the bad parts of its past. In order for Buffy to thrive in the future, it must take its intersectionality to heart.
I want to be so critical of Buffy for the same reason I want to sing its praises to everyone I know: because I love it so much. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Buffy and her friends have become like family to me since I first watched the show. It’s important to question the things we hold dearand to hope for the best for them in the future.