How “Buffy” Changed the World of Lesbians on Television

 
 

Iyari Limon as KennedyThe
character of Kennedy challenged convention as well, as she became only the second
regular Latina lesbian character on TV (the first was Lisa Vidal's character
on ER) and the first lesbian
"action hero"
on television. She was also one of the only regular
lesbian characters on television whom we didn't see in the tentative, struggling-with-her-sexuality
phase.

Kennedy was refreshingly out and proud from the moment she was
introduced, an image we still rarely see on network TV.

Willow, along with Dr. Kerry Weaver on ER, is also one of the longest-running lesbian characters on network television (3.5 seasons). Although Weaver will surpass this record when she returns on ER next season, Willow has had far more screen time devoted to her and her relationships than Weaver will probably ever have (if last season on ER was any indication).

But perhaps Buffy's greatest contribution to lesbian
visibility was to expose viewers over a long period of time to the lives of
three very different women who were all lesbians.

By sharing the joys and sorrows of these characters, viewers grew
accustomed to seeing lesbians as a regular part of the series rather than as
just a novelty in a special "lesbian episode" designed to spike the
ratings. Furthermore, television portrayals of lesbians are few and far between
in general, and to have three fully fleshed-out lesbian characters on one series
is almost unheard of.

The series wasn't afraid to expose the flaws of its lesbian characters, either, as they did with Willow: we saw her at her best (sacrificing herself for her friends) and at her worst (flaying a man alive). In this way Buffy humanized its lesbian characters and didn't fall into the trap of making them too perfect — yet all three characters remained likeable, or at least sympathetic.

Of course, Buffy wasn’t perfect, and Joss Whedon has
been criticized for some of his decisions over the years.

Many fans felt that killing Tara off, for example, and subsequently
turning Willow evil reinforced the dead/evil lesbian cliche to such a degree
that it canceled out all other positive contributions the show made to lesbian
visibility.

I disagree, because I believe the Buffy writers were
treating Tara just like the other characters on the show (since main characters
frequently die on Buffy, as Anya did in the finale). But nonetheless, they should
have thought through Tara's murder a little better, and perhaps handled
that storyline differently, even if Tara still ultimately had to die to drive
Willow's character development.

Willow's relationship with Kennedy also felt rushed, which strained its credibility somewhat. On the other hand, no one wanted to see Willow end up sad and alone at the end of the series, and the writers didn't have much time to work with with the end of the series approaching.

The decision to make Willow a lesbian instead of bisexual was problematic, as well, since Willow was clearly attracted to her boyfriend Oz in high school. It would have been more realistic and more groundbreaking if Willow had come out as bisexual (since that is never done on television), or at least had a discussion with Tara or Buffy about whether she was bisexual or a lesbian, instead of just pretending bisexuality didn't even exist.

But these are minor complaints about a series that overall has
done more for lesbian visibility on television than any other show since Ellen
came out in 1997.

We might argue within the gay community about the good or bad
of a specific storyline or character on Buffy, but I am grateful the
series gave us so much rich material to argue over in the first place.

Many of us, however, probably won't truly appreciate the extent of Buffy's contribution until a few years from now, when we're back to settling for only the occasional lesbian character on network TV. We are already seeing the impact of Buffy's departure in next season's lineup: there are only two regular lesbian characters on primetime network TV so far for the entire 2003-2004 season (Weaver on ER and a bisexual ex-wife on the new sitcom Two and a Half Men) and neither are likely to get much screen time.

In losing Buffy, we lost some of the best (and only)
lesbian characters on network TV, and we're not likely to see anything like
it again anytime soon.

But Buffy has normalized and de-sensitized lesbian relationships
to such an extent that network television will never be the same. Individual
series may revert back to old practices of ignoring or stereotyping lesbians
and lesbian relationships, but network television as a whole will never be able
to stuff the lesbian genie back into the bottle and pretend that lesbians don't
exist.

Buffy's contribution to lesbian visibility on television
can perhaps be summed up best through its own dialogue in the last few moments
of the series: "We saved the world!" Dawn said, to which Willow replied
"We changed the world."

Thank you, Buffy, for changing the world of television into a better place for women of all sexual orientations.

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