When Showtime announced the revival of its popular, LGBTQ-centred series The L Word earlier this year, the press release was met with mixed reactions. The show originally aired in 2004, and was the first to focus entirely on the lesbian and LGBTQ community in Los Angeles. It set out to change the personal narrative of TV’s LGBTQ characters and, from an early 2000s viewpoint, it may have succeeded in paving the way towards diversity and the depiction of lesbian relationships. Unfortunately, it failed on many counts to represent the audience it was supposedly relating its stories to. Rather than being captured from a female gaze, The L Word still very much fetishised its characters to attract a wider – in other words, heterosexual male – audience.
In its pilot episode, we are introduced to Jenny Schecter (Mia Kirshner), a boding, Midwestern writer who has obviously never been exposed to Hollywood’s lavish scene and the LGBTQ community within. She moves to LA to be with her fiancé Tim (Eric Mabius), but soon finds herself fascinated by their next-door neighbours, Bette (Jennifer Beals) and Tina (Laurel Holloman), a career-driven, biracial couple in the throes of starting their own family.
Tina and Bette’s social circle mainly consists of openly lesbian and bisexual women including Alice (Leisha Hailey), Shane (Katherine Moennig) and Marina (Karina Lombard). On her first night in LA, Jenny plays peeping-tom when Shane and one of her latest conquests use Bette and Tina’s pool for a steamy sex session. Excited by the voyeuristic experience, she relays everything she has seen to Tim as a means of foreplay – Shane’s sex-life has essentially become a visual for the straight couple to get off on.
While The L Word does attempt to offer an authentic depiction of lesbian women and their Hollywoodian lifestyles, it does not dare to venture outside of the mainstream’s, heteronormative comfort zone – the mainstream being predominantly white and heterosexual. Whereas Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black embraces its butch character Boo (Lea DeLaria) in all her complexities, The L Word awkwardly side-stepped the gender binary by never fully allowing its lesbian characters to own identities that veered from the cis-femme “norm”.
In early episodes, it seemed Shane was intended to fulfil the butch role, but her identity rested mainly on her at times masculine clothing and androgynous appearance, not her actual character. When Moira (Daniela Sea) joined the show in its third season, the topic was touched upon when she freely assumed Shane too identifies as butch – an assumption Shane and her then-girlfriend Carmen (Sarah Shahi) ridiculed. But the writers did not allow Moira to own her butch character either and, instead, we saw Moira transitioning into Max, and embracing life as a FTM transgender man.
Max’s storyline isn’t the only one to – perhaps inadvertently – suggest that gender cannot be fluid. Ivan (Kelly Lynch), a genderqueer drag king introduced in season one, is equally problematic. The character is only regarded as butch when dressed in full drag – offstage, series developers did their best to highlight Ivan’s femininity by ways of long blonde hair and other femme features. Throughout the series, many a conversation points to its main characters viewing the butch identity as a form of role play rather than an actual identity, and as Max’s story progresses, it is pointed out just how transphobic and close-minded the LGBTQ community can be towards the non-binary. While this may be a reality in many LGBTQ communities, The L World reinforced these attitudes rather than explore them, leaving viewers – and the show’s non-binary characters – to feel as though no world exists outside of the either/or.
Although the show was way ahead of its time in its open depiction of LGBTQ characters, relationships and issues, its inability to celebrate characters on all sides of the gender spectrum proved its lack of diversity. The same is very much true for its black and Latinx characters. Kit (Pam Grier) Tasha (Rose Rollins), Carmen and Papi’s (Janina Gavankar) storylines were mainly based on stereotypes. Whereas Bette’s ambiguous racial features allow her to move through a white world relatively easily, Kit and Tasha are often portrayed as angry, irrational and emotionally unstable, and usually rely on their Caucasian counterparts to “rescue” them.
Similarly, Carmen and Papi were confined to their cultural stereotypes, with Papi priding herself in the role of the smooth-talking player and Carmen’s double-life as a closeted-lesbian in front of her strictly catholic family. These narratives suggest that, while the series pushed the boundaries of its time in one way, it still conformed to the mainstream masses – Showtime clearly did not trust its audience to relate to characters other than those who fit the white, attractive, femme lesbian norm. Therefore, it often feels as though the show focuses more on reaching the mainstream masses rather than the criminally underrepresented minority groups it is supposedly representing.
As is the case with most TV shows, The L Word buys into mainstream beauty standards and only ever presents characters who fit the criteria. Bar a few exceptions – namely Kit, Phyllis (Cybill Shepherd) and Joyce (Jane Lynch) – every character is young, beautiful, and thin, and their sexual encounters enjoy plenty of screen-time that may even be considered explicit. The exceptions do not. Kit and Phyllis, who are middle-aged and voluptuous, both have interesting, important storylines, but their sexualities are not permitted to be viewed in the same light as their younger, skinnier counterparts. Had the show indeed been told from the female, or even the queer gaze, the definition of beauty would not have relied on appearance, age or gender, but diversity – body, gender, ethnic and otherwise.
The L Word remains a ground-breaking series – no other show has come close to exploring the lesbian experience on this profound a level. But with a revival in the works, the show’s writing room should be as diverse as the new series.
Published 22 Sep 2017
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