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The L Word

Cast: Jennifer Beals, Erin Daniels, Pam Grier, Leisha Hailey, Laurel Holloman, Mia Kirshner, Eric Lively, Katherine Moennig, Sarah Shahi, Rachel Shelley
Regular airtime: Sundays, 10pm ET

(Showtime)

Review [18.Jan.2009]
Review [22.Jan.2007]
Review [10.Jan.2007]
Review [1.Feb.2006]

Self-exploration

But here’s a jimmy joke about your mama that you might not like: I heard she was the ‘Frisco dyke.
—Snoop Doggy Dogg, “Fuck Wit’ Dre Day” (1992)


I respect that she’s your woman… I guess I’ll dream about the two of you.
—Slim Daddy (Snoop Dogg), The L Word (2004)


In the early ‘90s, U.S. popular culture was just starting to figure out gays and lesbians. Shifting away from stereotypical side characters, gay and lesbian sexual orientation was portrayed in complex plots; gay and lesbian characters were more accepted, even fashionable. It is a testament to this evolution that Snoop Dogg not only appeared on The L Word last year, but that it drew hardly any attention. Today, it seems only natural that a celebrity who has built an image as a connoisseur of female sexiness would want to get down with the show.


Lesbian chic is not new on TV. In music videos, women steal glances at each other, touch each other, even pour chocolate syrup on each other. In the wake of Ellen and Buffy‘s Willow, Hollywood wants to exploit the demand for lesbians. This past season on The O.C., Marissa (Mischa Barton) dated another girl for several episodes. And, parodying the trend, Fat Actress’ Quinn (Kelly Preston) strategically kissed Kirstie (Alley) in front of a crowd of paparazzi, hoping to be “caught.”


The L Word gained attention for its bold sex scenes, campy attitudes, and unapologetic libidos. Most reviews of the show touch on the fact that the main characters are exceptionally attractive in the conventional, femme, fashion-forward sense. This has led to questions concerning the show’s lesbian themes: are they just an excuse for Showtime to display women getting it on in primetime. In response, executive producer Ilene Chaiken told the New York Times, “Some of these scenes may be perceived as calculated. They weren’t. I do want to move people on some deep level,” but at the same time, “I am making serialized melodrama. I’m not a cultural missionary.”


Season Two offered another response, introducing a storyline following Mark (Eric Lively), Jenny (Mia Kirshner) and Shane’s (Katherine Moennig) new roommate. A low-rent filmmaker, Mark sets up hidden cameras all over their house in order to get footage of the women’s daily lives, including sex. He started out as a weasely pervert and wound up a conflicted outsider. While standing in for The L Word‘s non-lesbian audience, Mark also represents the people who make the show, everyone from the network executives to the cast and crew; he’s a mirror held up to the show and its fans at the same time. The L Word‘s West Hollywood lesbians aren’t totally realistic, and Mark’s work-in-progress isn’t either. Viewers are invited to despise Mark for pandering to voyeurism, but every week, those viewers are also watching images much like the ones he makes.


Mark thus became a means to showcase and preempt critiques about the show’s titillations. He was the occasion for lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek moments, as when Jenny asks Mark why he’s fascinated by Shane, and he says, “I’m gonna try to put my finger on it.” When he tapes an introduction for his movie (“You’re probably wondering if I’ve hit it yet. Well, the thing is, they’re two real lesbians, or else I would’ve. But don’t worry, I’m still gonna try”), he’s not just talking to his fictional audience, he’s a version of the The L Word‘s writers talking to their audience.


The season included more serious moments too, when The L Word criticized those who unambiguously exploit the straight male lesbian fantasy. In a meeting with his producer, Mark tries to sell his idea: “What’s great about this project is it’s not just about sex. These women, they have a way of life, a culture of their own, and it’s revelatory, it’s… anthropological. If we just do this right, this could so easily be at Sundance.” The producer isn’t impressed: “Yeah, yeah. Where’s the fucking pussy?”


Although there is probably someone in L.A. just like Mark—art house aesthetic on the outside masking a Joe Francis attitude on the inside—he never seems completely believable. By the time Jenny confronts him, he’s gone through a metamorphosis. No longer interested in making a quick buck off of straight men looking for “reality” lesbian programming, he now wants to uncover the intricacies of lesbian culture. He’s more of a construct than a composite, a metaphor who too easily evolves from huckster to introspective guy while watching his own recordings of Shane on his iMac. Think Sex, Lies, and Videotape: Mark turns from Peter Gallagher to James Spader in the span of a few episodes.


AfterEllen.com’s Candace Moore has argued that The L Word may have short-changed its fans by replacing Season One’s more nuanced straight male character with one who makes the show more blunt and didactic in Season Two. She writes, “Tim (Eric Mabius) was understood as noble, even as he wasn’t perfect—his anger over Jenny’s betrayal was certainly reasonable and didn’t come from a particularly homophobic or misguided space.” Tim may have been more representative of young, urban straight men in 2005. He had a comfortable relationship with the lesbian couple next door. He was curious about, even supportive of, all of the lesbian couplings going on around him. It was only when Jenny’s self-exploration invaded what he thought was his own territory that he became self-conscious and somewhat hostile. In all his scenes, Tim conveyed the sense that he wanted to do the right thing, but didn’t know exactly what that was.


Does The L Word change anything? Or does it perpetuate the straight male fantasies it purports to parody and complicate? The answer seems to be both. The L Word can create long, sensual sex scenes, and explore lesbian sexuality as an integral part of its plotlines. At the same time, the titillating scenes draw viewers—gay and straight, male and female.


Lesbians in particular want to see themselves portrayed on screen, follow their favorite characters’ stories from week to week, and see women with Hollywood-pretty faces and hot bodies having great sex. In 1994, The L Word‘s co-executive producer Rose Troche and executive script consultant Guinevere Turner made the independent film Go Fish. It was part romantic comedy, part lesbian media manifesto, and turned out to be a precursor to this series. Their vision was unequivocally articulated in the film by Kia (T. Wendy McMillan): “What would you rather our collective lesbian image be? Hot, passionate, say-yes-to-sex dykes or touchy-feely, soft-focus sisters of the woodlands? I mean, I think it’s important that we acknowledge women that are comfortable with their sexual selves, especially lesbians.”

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