This week, the last season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has finally been released on DVD, to the delight and sorrow of Buffy fans everywhere. Besides capping off a memorable series, this DVD also reminds us of how much things have changed for lesbians on network TV in a year and a half.
A drama about a group of teenagers–led by Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar)–who battle evil forces in their small California town, Buffy became a cult hit soon after its debut in 1997 on fledgling network the WB. Buffy’s friend and sidekick Willow (Alyson Hannigan) eventually came out as a witch, and in Season 4, as a lesbian when she fell in love with fellow college student Tara (Amber Benson). When Tara died tragically in Season 6, Willow went on a murderous rampage that almost ended the world; in Season 7, Willow began a relationship with Slayer-in-Training Kennedy (Iyari Limon), with whom she is now living happily with in Brazil, according to statements made on the spin-off series Angel.
From a lesbian visibility standpoint, Buffy achieved several firsts, a few of which occurred in Season 7 (including the first lesbian sex scene on network TV). The interactions between Willow and Kennedy comprise a few of the best moments in the final season, like this conversation between Willow and Kennedy during their first date (“The Killer in Me”):
WILLOW: All right, I’ll stay for one drink, then I’m going home.
KENNEDY: OK. One drink. I can work with that. Let’s start with the easy stuff. How long have you known? That you’re gay.
WILLOW: Wait. That’s easy? (fidgets) And you just assume that I’m—I’m gay. I mean, presume much?
KENNEDY: (grins) OK. How long have you enjoyed having sex with women?
WILLOW: (taken aback) Hey! (Kennedy chuckles) What you think you have some special lesbidar or something?
KENNEDY: OK, you know there’s a better word for that, right? (Willow sips her drink) You really haven’t been getting out there much, have you?
WILLOW: Well, I just—can you always tell just—just by looking at someone?
KENNEDY: No. No, of course not. That wouldn’t be any fun. The fun part is the process of—of getting to know a girl. It’s like—it’s like flirting in code. It’s using body language and laughing at the right jokes and—and looking into her eyes and knowing she’s still whispering to you, even when she’s not saying a word. And that sense that if you can just touch her just once everything will be OK for both of you. That’s how you can tell. (sits back, grins) Or if she’s really hot, you just get her drunk—see if she comes on to you.
WILLOW: Three years ago. That’s when I knew. And it wasn’t women, it was woman. Just one.
KENNEDY: Lucky woman. (smiles)
Besides offering a rare moment of levity in a mostly serious season, this is the series’s most explicit conversation about lesbian sexuality.
While fans will disagree on their favorite and least favorite moments of the season, some of my favorite scenes in Season 7 include the flashback to Anya’s mortal life as Aud (“Selfless”), the return of Faith (Eliza Dushku) (“Dirty Girls”), and the scenes in the finale when Spike (James Marsters) sacrifices himself for the world, and Willow saves everyone. And of course, there is the brief but memorable sex scene between Willow and Kennedy (“Touched”).
Willow and Kennedy are also featured in one of the worst moments in the season when Willow goes to kiss Kennedy after their date, and turns into the evil Warren. Other less-than-stellar scenes in Season 7 are Faith sleeping with Principal Wood (“Touched”), Xander (Nicholas Brendan) losing an eye (“Dirty Girls”), and Anya (Emma Caulfield) dying in the finale.
Many viewers were disenchanted with the Willow-Kennedy pairing out of frustration with Tara’s death, or a dislike of Kennedy; since the show ended when they’d only been together a few months, their relationship was clearly less serious than Willow and Tara’s. But even if the relationship felt forced or less-than, re-watching Willow and Kennedy’s relationship unfold makes the paucity of three-dimensional lesbian characters and relationships on network TV today all the more glaring. When the series ended in May, 2003, we knew lesbian visibility on TV would suffer, but since then, there hasn’t even been a hint of a lesbian character like Willow anywhere on network TV, let alone a lesbian relationship like Willow’s with Tara or Kennedy. All we have now is barely-there Kerry Weaver on ER and the-dingoes-ate-my-baby-and-hijacked-my-storyline Bianca on All My Children, neither of which have romantic relationships or storylines that don’t revolve around motherhood.
So while I’m going to enjoy watching the final season of Buffy again on DVD, it makes me long for the days when lesbian and bisexual women could watch network television and find an interesting, likeable, well-developed lesbian character like Willow–because almost two years later, there still isn’t a character lesbians can relate to better than a witch who almost destroyed the world.