It's Not Homophobia, But That Doesn't Make It Right

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Title: It's Not Homophobia, But That Doesn't Make It Right
Creator: Robert A. Black
Date(s): 16 Feb 2003
Medium: online
Fandom: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Topic: Willow/Tara
External Links: It's Not Homophobia, But That Doesn't Make It Right, (Wayback Machine); (archive.is link)
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It's Not Homophobia, But That Doesn't Make It Right (subtitle: Creative Freedom, Responsibility and the Death of Tara) is an essay by Robert A. Black.

Some Topics Discussed

  • Willow/Tara
  • Homophobia and the image on the screen
  • Dead/Evil Lesbian Cliché
  • Creative Freedom and Responsibility
  • Responsibility for telling the story
  • Responsibility for the consequences of the story
  • Responsibility for conduct when interacting with the audience

Excerpts

Given the significance of the Willow/Tara relationship, why did Mutant Enemy choose to end it? A common perception to those who are only peripherally aware of the controversy is that fans are accusing Joss Whedon and his writers at Mutant Enemy of being homophobic because they killed a lesbian character. For their part, Mutant Enemy seems to be encouraging this perception by repeatedly insisting that Tara's death wasn't motivated by homophobia. But most Buffy fans who are angry with Mutant Enemy aren't accusing them of being homophobic at all. A group of homophobic writers and producers could never have given the world the Willow/Tara relationship in the first place, and there's no reason to assume that they have all suddenly turned homophobic now.

On the other hand, even if Mutant Enemy didn't intend to tell a homophobic story, they were still capable of placing a homophobic image on the screen. Images have cultural and historical significance that go beyond the confines of a story. The swastika, for example, is an ancient symbol of good luck, but in the 21st Century it's almost universally associated with Nazism and Adolf Hitler. Similarly, the images of Tara lying dead and Willow going on a destructive and murderous rampage conjure images of the many dead and evil lesbian characters that have appeared on American TV and movie screens before. For Mutant Enemy to have placed these images on the screen and not expected viewers to hearken back to the homophobic stories of the past is as naïve as if they had placed a swastika on the screen and expected the viewers to think it signified good luck.

When it comes to taking responsibility for the consequences of their story, Mutant Enemy again goes only as far as their self-interest takes them. When Mutant Enemy was interested in telling the story of Willow and Tara, Joss Whedon proudly proclaimed, "one post from a gay or questioning teen saying the show helped them is worth six hundred hate letters." In the wake of Tara's death, the Mutant Enemy response is reflected in the following excerpt from writer Steven DeKnight's May 8 interview at The Succubus Club:

"Q: The other day I heard a despondent gay teenage girl, in desperate pain to begin with, say that Willow and Tara are the only bright light in her world. They give her hope for herself and her life... So please answer this question for her: How do you think that she will feel after witnessing the end of 'Seeing Red?' ... What do you think we should tell her about the ending of your show? DeKnight: You can't really think about storylines in that way when you're trying to tell a big, grand, seasonal story. Anybody can die. Anybody can get it. Anybody can be destroyed or broken down, and it's whatever serves the story."

And so once again we see that Mutant Enemy gladly takes the credit for the good their story does in the world, but refuses to take the blame for the harm their story does in the world, choosing instead to duck behind the smoke screen they call "serving the story."
According to both Steven DeKnight and actress Amber Benson, who played Tara, Joss Whedon made the decision to kill Tara during the summer of 2001. This means that Mutant Enemy spent months giving interviews in which they took credit for a relationship that they knew they were going to destroy. Joss Whedon's Out interview, in which he called the Willow/Tara relationship, "one of the most important things we've done on the show," was most likely published after Joss had already decided to end the relationship. He may have even given the interview after he had decided to end the relationship. When Marti Noxon boasted about "pushing the frontiers" with a "naked sex scene," she was referring to "Seeing Red," the very episode in which Tara was killed. Again, we see that Mutant Enemy's self-interest came first, and that they had no problem with the hypocrisy of accepting praise for a storyline they knew they were about to undo.
And in the case of Willow and Tara, it's a way that could still have accomplished the stated goal of the seasonal story arc. If Joss had chosen to stay with his original story of Willow grappling with the temptations of power, Tara could have lived. And in fact, Tara could have been there to help Willow at the conclusion of the story, thus strengthening their relationship instead of destroying it. Joss could still have had the Dark Magic Willow storyline and the confrontation between Buffy and Willow while also doing the socially responsible thing by maintaining and building upon the relationship. Listening to the call of responsibility would therefore have cost Joss nothing - and yet he refused to listen.

Instead, what we see from Mutant Enemy is example after example of behavior that expresses little more than self-interest. Time after time, Mutant Enemy has appeared willing and eager to take credit for doing good but has refused to take responsibility for doing harm. Time after time, they have demonstrated hypocrisy and callous disregard for their viewers. They claim to produce what the viewers need, but it always appears to be more in line with what Mutant Enemy needs instead.

And so in conclusion, I come full-circle and return to my title. No, the killing of Tara was not an act of homophobia, but that doesn't make it right. Through proper handling of the Willow/Tara storyline, Joss Whedon could have attained greatness as a pioneer and visionary in modern society, but instead he traded that in for the imagined self-importance of his own ego - and we have all been diminished because of it.