Rainbow Crew is an ongoing interview series which celebrates the best LGBTQ+ representation on TV. Each instalment showcases talent working on both sides of the camera, including queer creatives and allies to the community.
Next up, we're speaking to Amber Benson about her game-changing role on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.
That's true for more reasons than I could ever list here, but when Buffy said this to Dawn, younger me also found these words strangely comforting. Being a teenager is never easy, no matter who you are, or where you come from, but it's safe to say that all the loneliness everyone feels is amplified even more when you're queer. And hearing someone else acknowledge that on screen shifted something inside of me.
Buffy didn't choose to be a Slayer, just like I didn't choose to be gay, but there's a strength to be drawn from being different and embracing what makes you special. Of course, that's easier said than done. For the longest time, I fought to deny this part of myself with even more strength than Buffy battling another apocalypse.
But then something magical happened. A new character called Tara Maclay appeared on the show and for perhaps the first time ever, I saw my own shy, queer insecurities reflected directly back at me on screen.
Looking back at her first day, Amber Benson recalls walking onto the 'Hush' set in season four and coming across the Gentlemen on wheeled platforms:
"Someone was pulling them, and they just couldn’t get it to work right. So for two hours, it was everyone trying to get the Gentlemen to float properly [laughs]. I was like, 'What have I walked into?'"
It's fitting that in an episode where people lost the power to speak, Tara's debut ended up giving a voice to countless queer viewers watching at home. As her role gradually became more prominent, this shy young character shifted the show — and TV as a whole — towards something more inclusive, and that was thanks in large part to her relationship with Willow.
Sure, there had been other LGBTQ+ romances on TV before, but it's safe to say seeing Tara and Willow fall in love saved more lives than even Buffy herself ever could. Almost twenty years on, Benson tells me that both she and co-star Alyson Hannigan "feel honoured" still by how fans react to their story:
"I’m so lucky," says Amber. "It’s the thing I’m most proud of as an actor. I look back at Buffy, and I’m like: we did something that wasn’t just television. I think that was a beautiful thing. I think it changed the landscape a bit."
Before Willow fell under Tara's spell, TV was pretty much a full-on Hellmouth when it came to any kind of positive queer representation. Sure, some important strides were made in the '90s, but they often came at a cost.
Shows like Friends often reinforced cringeworthy stereotypes, and even when Ellen Degeneres came out in her sitcom, the subsequent backlash led to its eventual cancellation.
Readers who grew up during this time will recall that queer characters were even rarer in genre TV. Looking back, Xena and Gabrielle must have slipped a disc carrying the whole queer fantasy fandom on their shoulders.
And then Tara arrived. Just by proudly loving Willow on TV, Amber's character told fans that; "If you find somebody to love, it doesn’t matter what your gender or sexual orientation is. If you find somebody, you’re lucky. That’s a beautiful, wonderful thing, and everyone should have that opportunity."
Back in the early noughties, it was still rare to see two women share this kind of affection on screen; "You just didn’t see that." So while Tara and Willow's relationship was groundbreaking for a number of reasons, Benson admits the network was still "very very wary" about showing the physicality of their love.
"Standards and practices were like, 'Hmmm. No. We don’t want them touching. We don’t want them kissing', which I always thought was kind of absurd, because you have a show where people are having sex on gravestones. Really? You can’t have two women just holding hands? [laughs] I don’t understand. It seems a little hypocritical there, guys?"
Benson and her co-star Alyson Hannigan were naturally both "very upset" about this. "We felt it was disrespectful to the relationship, how they were censoring things on the show." However, it's important to remember that Tara's relationship with Willow still made an impact regardless, just by virtue of existing:
"One of the guys in the art department came over to us, and he was gay. He was like, 'Look, in the grand scheme of things, yes, it would be awesome if you could show the physical aspects of the relationship. But what’s important is that you guys are going into people’s houses every week, and introducing them to a wonderful, loving relationship – two people that just both happen to identify as female, who are together, and love each other. You’re changing people’s perceptions.'"
At a time when queer people were almost non-existent on screen, even a censored version of this relationship still mattered. Just ask 14 year old me. And that made it even more special when the network did finally relent and start to show the physical aspects of Tara's love for Willow.
"To be in bed together, and to kiss, and to hold each other, and to hold hands. I think all of that was really important and really necessary."
As the relationship evolved, Tara grew too. Benson recalls how her character started out "very shy, very insecure," at first. "We really worked on portraying that in a physical way. She’s almost holding herself. She was so hunched, and almost protecting herself. And by the end, she was standing straight, and her stammer had mostly gone away. She was very integrated into the Scooby Gang."
When Giles left in season six, Tara became "the moral centre of the group," and Benson thinks "that could only have happened because Tara took that journey from a shy, insecure person, to a loved human. The relationship changed her."
That's what real love does. It changes you for the better. But when you're a young queer kid living in a small town somewhere, it's easy to start thinking you'll never find love like that. Most queer storylines back then punished LGBTQ+ characters for daring to be themselves, or just neutered them completely.
And it's also worth noting that when Buffy first aired, stigmas surrounding AIDS were still prevalent, which led many queer teens to wonder if they would even survive long enough to experience the love they deserve. But by showing Tara and Willow physically enjoy their relationship on screen, it taught young people like myself that we too were worthy of love.
The best example of this can be found in 'Once More With Feeling', otherwise known as 'That wacky Broadway nightmare' or 'The Best Buffy Episode Of All Time™'. As a now integral part of the Scooby Gang, Amber's character was given her own song called 'Under Your Spell' where she sang of how Willow's love helped set her free.
"I heard that song, and I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I got the best song on the whole album!" Benson laughs. And for what it's worth, she's not wrong either. "I love everybody’s songs, but my song is a magical, little song. People listen to that song at their wedding. They play that song when they walk down the aisle ."
But what these couples might not realise is 'Under Your Spell' is also a rather "naughty song." Even over Zoom, it's clear how much Benson loves that aspect of the song, and she even sings a couple of these double entendres to me, like "Spread beneath my willow tree" and "You make me come… plete".
Younger me would have lost his mind hearing Amber sing what was basically the soundtrack to my youth, and honestly, even now, I had trouble containing my excitement.
However, it's also important to recognise how these little moments actually celebrated queer sex pre-watershed at a time when most TV shows failed to even acknowledge its existence.
Amber says filming the musical was her biggest highlight on the show, even if it was "probably the most intense thing" to shoot. And that's saying a lot given how Benson's time on Buffy came to an end.
Countless words have been written about Tara's death and perhaps even more tears have been shed since 'Seeing Red' first aired in 2002. Looking back on that episode, Benson remembers "everyone was very emotional" on set:
"We had a cake. It said “RIP Tara”. There was a little gravestone. I cried. Sarah [Michelle Gellar] cried. My last stuff was with Sarah. It was very, very emotional. You can’t work with a group of people for three years, and not feel like they’re your family."
For many watching back home, Tara was their "family" too, which is why fans were so devastated by how her story came to an end. As traumatised viewers might recall, Tara was killed by a stray bullet just after she and Willow had finally got back together, cutting their reconciliation short.
Outrage ensued amidst a wave of frustration and sadness. Not only did fans love the character dearly, but many felt that Tara's death was actually some form of punishment because of the queer love scene that preceded it.
Speaking about the moment she found out Tara's fate, Benson remembers Joss Whedon taking her aside while filming season five's finale:
"He was like, 'Hey! Guess what? It’s so exciting! We’re going to kill your character!'"
"I was like, 'Oh… oh, yes…. That sounds… awesome… yeah.'" [laughs]
However, as time went on, it became clear that Whedon's excitement for this might have faded somewhat. Amber tells us that Joss "kept putting it off," and in fact, Tara's death was actually supposed to happen at the beginning of season six.
"He just kept pushing it further back. It kept getting pushed further and further down the line [laughs]. I think there was a part of him that didn’t really want to do it."
But what does Amber think about it all now? No one was affected by this decision more than Benson herself, but she doesn't bear any ill will towards Joss and the writing team. In fact, Amber even defends their choices, although she believes hindsight would have helped them "find a different way to deal with Tara’s death."
"I feel like Joss did such a beautiful job with her," says Benson. "I truly believe that if he had understood the impact of Tara's death, Joss would never have done it that way. He’s not vindictive or hurtful."
According to Amber, Joss was looking at this decision "from a story point of view", planning Tara's fate to support Willow's addiction storyline:
"How do we get Willow to become dark Willow? Well, she has to lose the most important thing in her life. It’s her lover, her person... What Joss was trying to do was really impactful and beautiful. I just think how it happened was a little intense, and there could have been a better way had we all had a conversation about it."
Despite there being a general "lack of thoughtfulness" on TV back then, Amber maintains that the intention was never to "screw" with people. "If we were doing this now, I guarantee you, Joss would be super-aware of the conversation around 'Bury Your Gays'".
Since leaving Buffy, Benson has become a prolific writer with multiple books to her name. One story in particular, The Witches of Echo Park, may even follow in Buffy's footsteps and make the move to TV. A pilot has already been written, and Amber plans to work behind the scenes as showrunner alongside her friend Mo Perkins.
Given her success as an author, I was keen to know if Amber would have handled Tara's story differently if she'd been involved in the writers room all those years ago.
"I understood why it needed to happen," Benson reflects. "And looking back, there was probably a better way to do it. A way to maybe not kill her. Maybe sending her to another universe. Who knows? There’s all kinds of ways to get rid of somebody for a while."
Amber jokes that "Buffy’s died like five times," so it would have been easy to 'kill' Tara without really killing her. While there was some talk of bringing her character back in the final season, Benson says the dates conflicted with another job, and in hindsight, she feels that this was for the best.
Joss planned for The First to take Tara's form, torturing the friends she left behind on Earth, but Amber didn't want her character to return as a villain. "I think that would have been hard for people... If the show had gone on, we could have gone a different way to bring her back. Kind of like what they did in the comics. I thought that was really lovely."
These comic book cameos were mostly flashbacks, but Amber has a perfect idea for how Tara's life could have continued if she'd survived:
"I picture her being a very cosy lady. I think she would be that mum that was very invested in Dawn. Like, 'What’s going on with Dawn? Dawn’s moving to Los Angeles to go to UCLA? Guess what, Willow? We’re moving to Los Angeles, so we can be near Dawn!"
"She’d be that kind of mum. She’d totally be into macramé, probably with a scrapbook."
Despite everything that's happened, it's comforting to imagine Tara living out the rest of her days in domestic bliss. After all, "We could talk all we want about Tara’s death, and how awful it was, but the fact that she existed, that that relationship existed, transcends all of that."
And Amber's right. The hardest thing in this world is to live in it, but characters like Tara and Willow help make life a little bit easier to bear, especially for young queer people who might feel alone and unseen. Buffy was a hero we can all aspire to be, but so was Tara. In her own way, she saved the world too.
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