Girl on Girl Politics: Willow/Tara and New Approaches to Media Fandom

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Title: Girl on Girl Politics: Willow/Tara and New Approaches to Media Fandom
Creator: Judith L. Tabron
Date(s): Dec. 2003
Medium: online
Fandom: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Topic: Willow/Tara
External Links: Girl on Girl Politics: Willow/Tara and New Approaches to Media Fandom,
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Girl on Girl Politics: Willow/Tara and New Approaches to Media Fandom is an essay by Judith L. Tabron.

Some Topics Discussed

Excerpts

(1) In case you didn't already know, television's first long-standing lesbian relationship came to an end on May 7, 2002. Willow, the powerful witch and best friend of Buffy on the popular television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, had just reconciled with Tara, her girlfriend of over two years, from whom she had been separated for several months. Near the end of season 6, in an episode called "Seeing Red", the next episode after their reconciliation, Tara was hit by a stray bullet shot by a misogynist maniac trying to kill Buffy. The character died. Willow, driven to near-madness by grief, then attempts to destroy the world. (Tune in to see the world saved; season 6 now available on DVD.)

(2) If you didn't know, then you might be an occasional watcher of the show but you certainly couldn't be called a fan in either the casual or the academic sense. When I say "fan", I mean fan in the academic sense first recognized over ten years ago in two ground-breaking books, Henry Jenkins' Textual Poachers and Camille Bacon-Smith's Enterprising Women. Bacon-Smith's work was an ethnographic study of the widespread community of fans revealing a huge subculture of enthusiastic media consumers with their own customs and history. Jenkins' book studied the ways in which those fans repurposed and recycled the materials they consumed for their own cultural purposes, demonstrating that they were about as far from mindless in their consumption of media materials as they could possibly be. Along with the work of Constance Penley, these studies form the basis of academic understanding of fandom, which has not been pursued as vigorously as the topic perhaps deserves. Matt Hills' new book Fan Cultures is perhaps the only extensive new book to look at fandom itself, and Hills shows his experience with media studies in a way that previous work, based either on anthropology or on literary studies, does not. Hills' approach keeps the door open on fan studies, and the Internet is changing the subject of both media studies and fan studies at lightning speed. The instant communication between fans and between fans and creators through the technology of the Internet, and fan culture's reception to, examination of, and even anger toward the popular culture that it consumes requires an equally nimble analysis.

(3) Tara's death, for instance, resulted in one of the great fan outcries of recent memory, ranking up there with the defection of Michael Shanks from Stargate SG-1 and the premature cancellation of Farscape.[1] Several web boards and thousands of fans mounted an organized protest (many fans also protested individually); the creators of the television show responded through several venues; and the debate was covered or at least mentioned in many non-fan news venues such as Salon.com and National Public Radio.
(10) Willow/Tara fandom has some other peculiar aspects. While slash fandom regarding male characters is predominantly made up of straight women (see Bacon-Smith and any other article on slash fandom,) a lot of the established Willow/Tara fan groups are just jam-packed with people who are themselves happy lesbians or people who support happy lesbians, one of the largest being the Kittenboard, a web board that is demonstrably supportive of and interested in lesbian romance in general as well as Willow/Tara in specific. These webboards were the source of much of the organized fan outcry against Tara's death in "Seeing Red." Since much of the delight of Willow/Tara fandom lies in seeing a relationship previously verboten by television actually brought to life on the screen for the first time, and because Whedon and Buffy producer Marti Noxon had had extensive contact with the fan community for years and worked very hard to bring this openly lesbian relationship to television, one can imagine that the fan protest was very much along the lines of "Hey, you took our happy lesbians away." How could it have been otherwise, given this peculiar and unprecedented situation? It was the first time, perhaps, that an otherwise fringe group of fans got exactly what they wanted on the screen. They not only saw the love story they imagined, the producers assured them that it was real, that they were doing it on purpose. In these circumstances, it's not hard to sympathize with the pain and anger of fans who've just lost what was for many of them the most important thing media producers had ever given them.

(11) However, at the same time, fan protest also did contain large pieces of "Oy, mate, taking away our happy lesbians seems a bit anti-lesbian to us." Because of the peculiar situation given to these fans, where subtext became text, the destruction of the characters - the cessation of the text - was interpreted by some fans as a rather nuclear strike against the text and subtext, against Willow/Tara itself. Perhaps the best summary of this facet of the fan protest can be found in Robert Black's online essay "It's Not Homophobia, But That Doesn't Make It Right."[3] It might not be homophobia to kill a lesbian character off, Black argues, but to depict a lesbian's death by violence as taking place in the bedroom where she had just been making love to her lover - in, incidentally, the first lesbian love scene permitted by the network - ain't cricket. This image, Black argues, can be homophobic, even if the storyline, or even the intent, is not. Tara lying dead, and Willow thus being inspired to run amok and try to destroy the world, are images that reinforce rather than subvert or escape the dead/evil lesbian clichés that have run rampant throughout popular media (and at least, I would add, since the publication of the horrifyingly influential novel The Well of Loneliness in 1928). Black's essay appeared at a number of locations online, including the Kittenboard, where it was part of an extensive discussion of the death of Tara and a concerted protest to both Joss Whedon, the show's creator and executive producer, and to his company Mutant Enemy.

(12) In other words, along with the kneejerk reactions there was a politically motivated and literarily sophisticated discussion which gave rise to nuanced essays like Black's as well as an organized campaign of protest.
(67) Meanwhile, nothing written or said by any of the producers actually addresses the primary complaint of the organized politicized protest: that the death of Tara represented yet another example of the tired dead/crazed lesbian cliché. In fact, in hindsight, one of the producers has even admitted that, looking back on it, the specific representation of Tara's death - killed by a stray bullet, her blood graphically spattered onto her lover just before she dies in Willow's arms, inches from the bed where they had very recently been making love, thus causing Willow to go almost instantly insane and pursue a plot of immediate revenge and ultimately to destroy the world (the connection between the revenge and the world-destruction is tenuous at best) - the similarity between this plot and the repeated clichés is unfortunate. Even the producers may admit this, glancingly, and very much in retrospect. Espenson said in her May 22, 2002 Succubus Club interview, "It is very possible that we did a bad thing. And I don't want to completely exonerate us . . . it is possible." And producer David Fury's quote, also from the Succubus Club (interview May 15, 2002) is preserved at www.dykesvision.com.

(69) Not about killing Tara, but pushing Willow over the edge. In retrospect, I can see the cliché. That was not our intent, we wanted to show them together and happy. We dramatized them being back together, it created the impression in a lot of people's minds that the event of her death was linked to them having sex. I do understand it, I say, oh yeah. It was not intended, we make mistakes.

(70) Even the producers, in other words, recognize that while the death of a major character may have been required, while even Tara's death may have been required, for both business and artistic reasons, this particular implementation of it, dramatically presented, was unfortunately in line with the "evil/dead lesbian cliché" fans complained about. Again, I don't wish to recap Black's essay here, but his points have validity, and when connected through the larger realm of twentieth-century representations of lesbianism - like The Well of Loneliness or Djuna Barnes' Nightwood - they simply gain in strength. It isn't a math equation where Whedon and company's commitment to the positive portrayal of a lesbian relationship on television is cancelled out or overshadowed by the lapse of that portrayal into negative clichés at its conclusion. It is a more complex relationship but one that deserves attention. As Robert Black so aptly put it, "It's not homophobia, but that doesn't make it right."

(79) What is sad is that these truly new developments have been largely ignored by the press, both popular and academic. A too-ready reaction to any fan activism as silly, or worse, fascist, destroys our opportunity to investigate the really new relationships between producers, fans, and consumers that await us. If Tara had to die, surely her death is worth serious attention.