Tara (played by Amber Benson) developed a strong following among
lesbian and bisexual Buffy fans. Besides the fact that Tara was gay,
fans were drawn to her because of her shy, humble, and introverted personality,
which contrasted sharply with the more outgoing personalities of the other female
characters on Buffy.
Not all Buffy fans liked her, of course — many viewers
found her passive or whiney — but overall, most found Tara's sweet
nature to add an interesting dynamic to the Buffy mix.
Although it was revealed later that Tara's death had long
been planned as a catalyst to push Willow over to the dark side, most fans were
caught off-guard when she was killed at the end of Season Six.
Buffy producers Joss Whedon and Marti Noxon had anticipated
the usual number of complaints that follow the death of any regular character
on a TV series, but they were wholly unprepared for the depth of anger expressed
by many fans after Tara's death. They were also clearly unaware of how this
storyline played into what is commonly referred to as the "Dead/Evil Lesbian
Cliche," a phrase coined to describe the pattern in which lesbian and bisexual
characters in movies and film are routinely killed off or made evil.
Willow did indeed become evil in the wake of Tara's death, and was barely stopped by her friends from destroying the world at the end of Season Six. When the final season began, Willow was still in mourning over Tara and afraid to use magic for fear it would seduce her to the dark side again.
But in the middle of the final season, Willow met Kennedy (played by Iyari Limon), a lesbian slayer-in-training who was almost the polar opposite of Tara: aggressive, self-confidant, and comfortable with her sexuality. Kennedy more than Willow or Tara tended to inspire extreme reactions in fans; some saw her as a spoiled brat, others saw her as a young woman who wasn't afraid to go after what she wanted.
Kennedy pursued Willow quite aggressively from the moment they met, and although Willow was initially caught off-guard and even dismayed and by her directness, Willow was eventually won over by Kennedy and the two women developed a relationship. (Almost everyone — even Kennedy fans — agreed that it was far too soon after Tara's death for Willow to be in a relationship, but extended periods of mourning tend to make for boring television.)
When the series finally ended with the destruction of the Hellmouth and the town of Sunnydale along with it, Willow and Kennedy were among the survivors and still happily together.
In its last few years, the series achieved a number of milestones for lesbians on television, both in terms of physical displays of affection between lesbians and (more importantly) the normalizing of lesbians and lesbian relationships.
Willow's relationship with Tara was (and still is) the longest-running
lesbian relationship on network television (2.5 seasons), and the pair developed
a dedicated following among lesbian and bisexual fans who felt overjoyed to
finally see aspects of their lives and their relationships reflected back through
Willow and Tara's.
It is probably not an overstatement to say that Willow and Tara
enjoyed a more loyal and dedicated fan base than any other lesbian couple on
Willow and Tara's initial courtship period in Season Four was extremely chaste, however, especially when paired with explicit sex scenes between the heterosexual characters on the show. By Whedon's own admission, this was due to restrictions imposed on the show by the WB, who worried it would be too controversial.
By the beginning of Season Six, Buffy had switched networks to UPN, and began making up for lost time; by the end of the series, images of lesbians kissing were no longer a rarity on the show. The musical episode "Once More With Feeling" included scenes of Willow and Tara proclaiming their love for one another through song, along with a metaphorical sex scene, and in the controversial episode "Seeing Red," Willow and Tara were shown naked in bed together post-sex — something which had never been shown on network television before.
Buffy pushed the envelope of sexual expression between women even further, however, in one of the last episodes of the series, "Touched," when it showed Willow and Kennedy in the first lesbian sex scene on network television.