In Classic Gay TV, Louis Peitzman looks at classic and new-classic gay-themed episodes of television. Was this a major step forward in LGBT representation or a cringeworthy relic of the past?
Series: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Episode: “Family” (Season 5, episode 6)
Original Air Date: November 7, 2000
Plot Points: The episode begins with Willow and Tara in Willow’s dorm room, struggling to find the balance between doing magic and doing snuggles. It’s Tara’s birthday, and no one outside of Willow knows what to get her, because no one really knows Tara at all. Buffy and Xander admit that while their best friend’s girlfriend is very nice, she’s still a mystery to them. And they’re anxious when Willow reminds them about the birthday party she has planned, even though they want to show Tara a good time.
But Tara has problems of her own: her family is in town, and they want to take Tara back home with them. Her cousin Beth calls Tara a “selfish bitch” for staying. Tara doesn’t want to go back — aside from having to leave Willow, she’d return to her crappy old life of being treated like a slave by her father and brother. After her dad confronts her about her continued interest in magic, Tara casts a spell to hide her demon side.
The unintentional result is a much harder showdown with a group of Lei-Ach demons, rendered invisible by Tara’s spell. Tara’s father arrives and tells the Scooby Gang about the Maclay family secret: when the women reach a certain age, they become evil demons. Spike’s not buying it, though — he punches Tara, activating his can’t-harm-humans chip, which proves she’s not a demon at all. The demon lie is just something the Maclay men have used to keep their women subservient. Tara decides to stay with her chosen family, and she and Willow share a birthday dance, complete with levitation.
What Makes It Gay: The relationship between Willow and Tara is obviously romantic, but up until Season 5’s “The Body” the couple never even kissed. Instead, we got a lot of episodes with subtext, none clearer than “Family.” The Maclay’s fear of demons is a fear of strong, independent women — women who, like Tara, don’t need men. There’s also a focus on choosing one’s family instead of settling for biological relatives, an important facet of the queer community.
How Does It Hold Up: The Willow/Tara relationship is one of TV’s most famous lesbian pairings, which is why it’s surprising that Buffy kept it affection-free for so long. All that side, “Family” is still an important step forward for the couple — this is the episode in which Tara fully asserts herself, and it continues to resonate with anyone who has been forced to find a new family after being cast out by the one she was raised with. “Family” does harken back to a time when LGBT representation was less overt, but it’s a strong entry into the genre overall.
Willow: “It’s fine, I don’t need to be snuggled.”
“You don’t care the slightest bitty bit about your family, do you? Your dad’s been worried sick about you every day since you’ve been gone. There’s a house that needs taking care of. Donny and your dad having to do for themselves while you’re down here living God knows what kind of lifestyle!” (Beth)
“There’s no demon in there. It’s just a family legend, am I right? Just a bit of spin to keep the ladies in line? You’re a piece of work.” (Spike)
Tara: “I was just afraid that if you saw the kind of people I came from, you wouldn’t wanna be anywhere near me.”
Willow: “See, that’s where you’re a dummy. I think about what you grew up with, and then I look at what you are — it makes me proud. It makes me love you more.”
Tara: “Every time I’m– even when I’m at my worst, you always make me feel special. How do you do that?”
Louis Peitzman is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, spending most of his time as the weekend editor at Gawker and a contributor to WitStream and TV.com. He’s a little bit Dorothy, a little bit Blanche. You can follow him on Twitter.