Thursday, September 6, 2018

Witches, Cowboys, and Burying the Trope that Buried Decades of TV’s Gay Characters [Contributor: Melanie]

I’m not really of the mind that we need to crucify older media for its lack of foresight or the era that it appeared in (the exceptions to that being something obviously racist or otherwise hateful, of course). We can certainly look at it and critique ourselves and the way we continue to engage with it. The media can’t change, but we can. And while I’ve been a staunch supporter of Joss Whedon’s choices when it came to Buffy the Vampire Slayer — specifically Tara and Willow's relationship — experiences with recent media make it look, for lack of a less brutal term, pretty bad.

Wynonna Earp is a show that owes so much to Buffy that you could simply replace “revenants” with “vampires” and “heir” with “Slayer” and you’d essentially have yourself a Buffy sequel set in the Canadian Rockies (to be fair, there are vampires this season so here we are). It’s not a bad thing. After all, some of the best work out there came from directors and writers obsessing over something and finding places to improve it. And there are more nuanced similarities that are, either by purpose or simply organically, undoing some of the frustrating turns and missteps of the past.

Know Your (Gay) History 

Tara and Willow were among the first lesbian relationships on TV — and the first on a major network that included it as a main story instead of a punchline (looking at you, Friends). Willow meets Tara Maclay after the heart-wrenching break up with her high school sweetheart. Tara is the only other person in the Wiccan group at Sunnydale U who seems to take the concept and practice of witchcraft as seriously as Willow. They form a close friendship and then, largely off-camera and mainly implied to us and other characters, they begin a romantic relationship. It shocks and confuses their friends before it becomes a staple of their world and (I cringe as I use this term) normalizes the relationship.

For almost three seasons they’re in static happy land. And then comes season six — effectively Willow's big season — where Joss Whedon seemed to realize he could utilize his once-progressive female relationship for fridging and plot purposes. As Willow’s addiction to magic grows, Tara offers Willow consequences and refuses to enable her by breaking things off. Tara and Willow rekindle their relationship when Willow’s effectively able to stay “sober.” Tara gets main cast billing for the first time in her three years on the show, and all seems right with the world.

But then dead lesbian syndrome comes blistering through the Summers’ front window in the form of a crappy pistol shot from a misogynistic a-hole. 

Tara was not the first martyr of this trope, but she retroactively became the poster child for it (after Joss Whedon purposefully lead the audience to believe she was joining the cast as a long-term main character, only to have her fatally struck in a freak accident by the end of the same episode). Tara drops dead. Love story over. It’s angled as a way to justify the anger and rage Willow goes through. Despite Joss Whedon’s (perceived) best efforts, it was part of a larger cultural history of unfairly representing gay characters and then finding excuses to kill them off.

Several queer female characters have suffered a similar fate, with a lot more clumsiness involved. In fact, an entire convention was founded as a way to bring awareness to the presence and popularity of queer, female-driven media after a particularly viral response in 2016. And then there’s Wayhaught (which, you’ll note, came away with Gold in our shipping category for the Golden Trio Awards).

To give context on how popular this pairing is: before I actually sat down and watched Wynonna Earp, I legitimately thought one of these women was the title character because they were the only two characters I ever saw in pictures, recaps, and fanwork. As it turned out, they weren’t the titular character but were a large reason the show took off and maintained a steady following and steady ratings. I can say that with certainty. Emily Andras and her writing team managed to handle a complex queer relationship — with all associated tragedies and high points — without cheating the audience, insulting viewers’ intelligence, or robbing the show of its representation.

Connected at the Hip 

Like Tara, Officer Haught enters the show as a love interest. For a while, she is only contextualized by Waverly’s role and plot lines, though she has the functionality of being a cop, allowing the writers to bring her in through different ways and give her minor storylines. In season two, she’s expanded and given room to breathe a bit. She and Waverly work through the kinks of the post-honeymoon phase and go through (perhaps) even a mini break-up before Nicole is on the receiving end of a fatal wound that kicks Waverly in the pants.

Not only is this different from Tara and Willow’s situation because Nicole didn’t actually die, but it lacks the aftertaste of fridging. Why is this? Well for one, both Waverly and Nicole are agents in the situation. Rather than Tara being victimized by bad luck for the sake of Willow’s arc, Nicole is injured during a scuffle helping Waverly, who was, in turn, protecting her. It’s a fight scene choreographed to hand the action off between them. Nicole was just unlucky.

But in Whedon’s narrative, it had to be Tara because she was disposable. This, of course, makes one nervous to see Katherine Barrell with a main cast credit, but Emily Andras seems aware of her audience’s anxiety (in a big wink to the audience back in season one, Nicole was shot only to reveal she was wearing a bulletproof vest, ba dum tss). Nicole now has her own stories, she recently appeared in her own episode, with Waverly largely sidelined. She’s got her own Tragic Backstory™, her own arc, and her own position of leadership in town.

Witches and Angels 

There is another factor here as well: Tara and Willow’s sexuality and relationship was played against the backdrop of their practice as witches. Sure, the 90s saw a revival in witchcraft with neopaganism in the mainstream, but that doesn’t erase the centuries of persecution of witches. (Fun fact: it’s believed that the root of evil connotations with witchcraft can be traced back to what essentially amounts to a medieval big pharma smear campaign against rural medicine women). Sure, there’s some take-back-the-night energy in having Willow and Tara part of the reclamation of witchcraft, but it also induces a bit of an eyeroll because of course the two gay chicks are witches, right?

Wynonna Earp takes the opposite stance. While Waverly wrestles in much of season two believing she’s actually demonic in origin, it turns out that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Waverly’s real father wasn’t a demon or the drunken Ward Earp, but an “honest-to-God angel.” And while we don’t know the full extent of Nicole’s connection to our Big Bad (some have speculated a familial connection between her and the demon Bulshar), we can at least say that Waverly Earp is perhaps subverting one of the oldest tropes in the book: gays are evil.

Avoiding getting deep into religion here, if this story comes to fruition, it has a chance to be one of the most well-orchestrated, positive movements for queer characters. Between the predatory lesbian motif and depraved gays trope, gay characters are almost always outsiders — people with a streak of villainy, or outright dangerous to our protagonists. (And, of course, there is the constant rhetoric around where some elements believe homosexuals go when they die.) Emily Andras, however, has created a queer character who is, quite literally, holier than thou, and described as “coming out of the light” on the day she was born.

It’s a subversion we shouldn’t sleep on.

Defining Your Own Normal

It’s a phrase we hear a lot when it comes to any form of queer relationship: normalizing it. And it means different things to different people, but ultimately gets down to creating situations where the relationship feels real and is treated on the same level as the “baseline” relationships. It can, obviously, cause some bad tastes in some people's’ mouths.

For Tara and Willow, there was not a huge sense of this. The two talked about witchcraft, argued about magic, and discussed demons and vampires. Just as we didn’t get to see their relationship outside the context of each other, we also didn’t get to see their relationship outside of the context of their supernatural activities and the mythology of their world. No fights about dinner or doing the dishes. But Wayhaught finds themselves fighting about very normal things: Nicole’s job and how it interacts with Waverly’s, dishonesty with each other, angry drunk texts and minor bouts of infidelity (still yikesing over that one, tbh), and there was that comically awkward moment where Waverly thought Nicole was proposing at their dinner party — oh no, it was just that demonic ring you were bending down to pick up, okay.

They interact, argue, and have intimate moments as you expect couples to do so.

Even Waverly’s journey into her own sexuality wasn’t heavily focused on, likely thanks to writers actually listening to queer audiences when they say they’re ready to move beyond coming out stories. Waverly’s realization of her feelings for Nicole comes on the tail of an arc about getting out and beyond her lifelong role as the girl next door who “tailors herself to the people around her.” She leaves her crappy high-school sweetheart boyfriend, quits her dead end job as a bartender, and — to cap off her burst of freedom — very calmly walks into the police station, shuts the blinds of the sheriff’s office, closes the door, kisses Officer Haught, and that’s that. There’s no long, drawn-out discussion about identity or a speech about a confused childhood. She simply realized that life is funky — and maybe compulsive heteronormativity was part of the world she was living in that was safe but unreal. A relationship with Nicole was simply part of breaking free from the big lie she’d been hiding in her entire life.

Let’s See How Far We’ve Come; Let’s See How Far We’ll Go

The lesson here is that Tara and Willow was a great stepping stone, and a great moment in TV history that needed to happen. And it didn’t have to be perfect, even if the TV that followed invoked some of its worst components as well as its best. But what Emily Andras and the writing team at Wynonna Earp have created is perhaps the best modern representation of a queer female pairing — in the middle of a show about cowboys killing zombie demons. They’re a power couple, they’ve got their own relationship rollercoasters, no one’s dead, and they’re real characters on equal terms.


Post a Comment