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Girls' Night Out
On Buffy and ER, wallflowers slowly bloom into lesbianism.

by Emily Nussbaum

Tuesday night, Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Willow Rosenberg finally kissed her girlfriend. Kerry and Kim exchanged apartment keys in ER's emergency room last Thursday. It's sweeps week, the week when television shows pull out all the stops, and something extraordinary is taking place — but it's not being advertised.
Instead, this has happened as gradually as water coming to a boil: penny-flat, then big heavy bubbles sweeping up from the bottom of the pot. It's a cultural shift that has been hard to celebrate, perhaps because it doesn't seem like as a controversy (and that itself is an achievement.)

It doesn't even seem like an event. Instead, TV has finally gotten something right: lesbian relationships mixed into the narrative the way they're mixed into the world, where they're simultaneously a big deal and no big deal at all.
On ER and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, long-term female characters — a tough, autonomous forty-ish doctor on the former, a lovably nerdish eighteen-year-old college freshman on the latter — have fallen in love with women. Each relationship built slowly, with eye contact, coded and complex flirtation, and an initial secrecy. The involvements were just as notable for what they weren't as what they were: they weren't experiments, joke kisses or gimmick-gropes, the characters weren't sassy neighbors, saintly victims or wisecracking one-episode lesson-teachers. Instead, the two romantic plots had odd lumps and fault-lines, like the lives of the other characters. And the arcs were primarily about the women's own emotions, not the reactions of their straight friends. Viewers were forced to identify with the woman falling in love. And the relationships stuck.
Of course, these days, there are a million ways to get queer material on TV. Will & Grace: screwball slapstick. Queer As Folk: all-gay soap. Oz: pervy taboo-buster. Survivor: triumph of the evil queen. Poor Ellen Degeneres got the universal pie in the face — managing to be all at once too gay, not gay enough, too political, not political enough, and supposedly unfunny — but her sitcom paved the way for gay characters on just about every sitcom. There was that strange year or two when the "straight characters mistaken for gay!" plot swept like a brushfire through pretty much every show on the tube, leaving in its wake actual gay characters who stuck around to simply be funny, as on Spin City and Frasier.
But there's something distinctive about what's happened with Willow and Kerry. Since these are long-term characters coming out on dramas (and yes, you unbelievers, Buffy is a drama — a comic Goth action romance drama), the characters' emotional lives are treated as weighty, significant. And the audience is already deeply invested, and identified, with both characters. That loyalty carried over when their romantic lives altered. For homophobic viewers, it triggered the kind of out-of-control emotional reaction that occurs when friends come out: internet newsgroups were flooded with panic and revulsed horror. On the official Buffy board, freaked-out Willow lovers demanded that the plot be revealed as an evil spell, or that the two girls prove to be nothing more than really, really good friends. (Although some good-natured petitioners went in the other direction, demanding a "tasteful shower scene.") There were similar responses among ER fans vilifying Kerry's girlfriend for supposedly "seducing" her onto the softball team.

One could argue that the slow-motion quality of these plots has de-sexed them: Where are the graphic makeout scenes, the gothic passion, the hair-tearing? But to my mind, that's been the particular narrative gift of these two plots, a clever way of swerving around the dangerous trope of the "television breakthrough," à la L.A. Law's experimental smooch of the '80s, and more recently the rather repulsive supermodel-mashing of Ally McBeal By the time these couples got together officially, the audience was dying for them to do so. It's the triumph of the shy girls, the ones who get in under the radar.

Certainly, Buffy treated Willow and Tara's love story excrutiatingly slowly, at first presenting Willow's increasing magical powers, in all their confusion and danger, as a metaphor for her growing access to her own sexual feelings. Even when the two were officially involved, the show featured only the faintest of physical contact (holding hands, snuggling) — although they did make their relationship explicit in their words. (Recently, in typical Buffy-speak, Willow referred to the two of them as "lesbian, gay-type lovers.") The spells the pair performed (tearing the petals off a rose, "anchoring" one another during a sweaty fugue state) were erotic in the classic Gothic Buffy style — but there was no actual kiss shown on screen until last night, when it was slipped in without fanfare or promos, as an organic part of an otherwise very serious episode about Buffy's mother's death. Was the WB, or creator Joss Whedon, enforcing a sexual double standard? Well, yes. But to my eyes, it was also, especially in the context of a "teen" show, a subversive achievement, a way of sneaking something genuinely radical into the mix under the radar, where it was nobody's experiment, ratings-grabber or eye-candy. It's harder for advertisers to co-opt something that builds so organically — to make it into a "very special episode," nothing more than a lesson or a male fantasy.

Meanwhile, on ER, Kerry was struggling more explicitly with her attraction to a woman. While Buffy's creators had much of Willow and Tara's relationship take place off-screen — their "actual" first kiss took place after Willow blew out a candle, leaving the two of them in (choose your interpretation) darkness or privacy — Kerry got to have one of those "but wait, she kissed back!" messes that are what real life sex is all about. A prickly figure who began as a villain, Kerry was a heretofore straight woman who "never even considered" a lesbian relationship, when she found herself attracted to a new friend, much as Willow did. They flirted, her friend smooched her, she ran in fear (I'm straight!), then became the pursuer. It's the first time television has ever showed in detail the denial, the push-and-pull, the fear of exposure, of an adult woman who suddenly has to face her own homophobia en route to coming out. And as with Willow's story, the story been woven into the other plots in a notably nuanced manner, with small erotic touches the most prominent ones, skillfully enacted and filmed: Kerry dreamily raising her face to the shower spray the day after she and Kim sleep together, touching her own face as she remembers the night before, asking Kim to blow-dry her hair in front of her so she can watch. (If magic is the metaphor on Buffy, Kerry seems notably into bathroom play.)

By next year, perhaps, a gay kiss on television won't have to negotiate the risk of too much subtlety (in the case of Willow) or the potential for melodrama. But until then, there's a Catch-22 that can't be avoided: public lesbians have a history of both invisibility and too much visibility, complete exclusion and Howard Stern. Like activists who both run for office and protest in front of the legislature, shows like Buffy and ER manage somehow to be both in-your-face and disarmingly sly. The fact that the networks have barely promoted these plotlines could stem from a million motives, good, bad and neutral. Maybe it's because they're hesitant about backlash; maybe it's because neither Kerry nor Willow is a stereotypical "babe" (another good/bad aspect, depending on how one looks at it); maybe it's because the plots moved too irregularly to provide a big-bang lesbo-palooza. But either way, it seems to have offered the writers an unusual amount of leeway for both realism and romance. And for viewers, that's the best outcome of all.

  Emily is a recovering academic, a contributing editor at Lingua Franca magazine, an ex-activist and a semi-poet. She has written for the New York Times Magazine, Village Voice, New York Observer, Discover and ArtForum.

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