Struggles over identity—the incommensurability of labels with the messy complexities of any individual, and the fluidity of intersecting self-images—are common on The L Word. Without such complication, it would be easy to dismiss the series as superficial lipstick lesbian soap opera or thinly disguised straight-male fantasy. But there’s much more at stake here, socially and politically. I would suggest that some progressive potentials are being circulated underneath the show’s glammed-up veneer.
The life trajectory of Max (Daniela Sea) is one such site that troubles normative expectations—of what constitutes a “lesbian,” or even a “lesbian-themed TV show.” A transman introduced pre-trans-conscious, or at least before he was out as trans, in Season Three, Max is currently working to accept himself as trans, to keep up the process of transitioning, and to rectify his new self with his tight-knit group of lesbian gal pals, especially Jenny (Mia Kirshner), his erstwhile love interest. Jenny’s more secure, at least in her conviction of herself as some sort of “pure” lesbian (psychologically, she’s a bit of a train wreck), and she rejects Max’s attempts to maintain their relationship, telling him, ” You identify as a heterosexual man, and want me to identify as a heterosexual woman and be your girlfriend. I identify as a lesbian who likes to fuck girls. And you’re not a girl.”
Jenny isn’t quite as brutal as this might suggest; she is supportive of Max and his transitioning and the two remain roommates. Still, Max accepts, or at least resigns himself to, Jenny’s sexual rejection as his body and behavior change. If he’s not quite be a “lesbian” anymore, neither can Max fully occupy the position of “straight man,” which became clearer (to us and to him) after he accepted a date with his boss’ daughter. After a few mostly chaste dates, Brooke (Chelsea Hobbs) invited Max to a pool party at her house. As her friends frolicked in the hot California sun in and around the pool, Max steadfastly “manned” the grill, sweating profusely. Brooke slid up to him and tried to coax him out of his shirt and into the pool. Max balked at exposing his trans body, and made up a lame, on the spot, excuse about how susceptible he is to ear infections since his high school swimming days. An easy occupation of identity and secure self-knowledge is never available for Max, and his negotiations of his lesbian/trans/straight man identities give The L Word some real depth.
Other struggles give the show political spark. The continuing relationship meltdown between Bette (Jennifer Beals) and Tina (Laurel Holloman) took a drastic turn at the end of last season, which saw Bette steal away with the couple’s daughter after Tina, as Bette accused her, returned to the “safety of suburban heterosexuality” and the two battled over custody. This battle was tidied up, more than a bit too conveniently, in the Season Four premiere. Legal arbitrator Joyce Wischnia (Jane Lynch) reminded the couple that it would be better if they figured something out amicably rather than drag the case of a bi-racial lesbian couple’s custody battle over their bi-racial daughter through the courts and media; it would, Joyce insisted, become a public and political spectacle. Indeed. It was actually a bit disappointing that the show didn’t give this topic a little more play, in light of real world controversies and contentions over lesbian custodial rights.
The L Word has given a bit more time to the aftermath of Bette and Tina’s relationship, and the question of whether the girls can all remain friends after what felt like, to Bette and several others, Tina’s betrayal. Tina is adamant that they can all still get along, and in the episode “Lassoed,” she and hubby Henry (Steven Eckholdt) threw “a mixer for our gay and our straight friends.” The “mixer” was a disaster; the straight guys ogled the hot lesbians, and the straight girls checked them out with a mixture of astonishment and desire, as if these women were some alien species.
Most stereotypically, and problematic for the show’s potential progressivism, is that the party scene established that straight and lesbian/gay are two worlds very far apart. During a game of “Celebrity,” teams were constructed along the lesbian/straight divide. The straights, upon getting the lesbians’ clues (it’s a kind of $20,000 Pyramid game), had never even heard of “celebrities” like Kathleen Hannah, and balked at the girls’ assertion that Lily Tomlin is gay. For their part, the lesbians were just as clueless, and couldn’t even imagine who Terrell Owens is. Straights and lesbians don’t have the same frames of reference, their cultural icons are totally different, and they barely seem to speak the same language. While this message is rather retrograde, in the context of the show’s ongoing identity crises, what is important is Tina’s realization of her own precarious position within and between these two cultures and contexts. In this regard, The L Word raises the difficult position of bisexual women and men in both queer and straight worlds.
A similar negotiation of cultural space and one’s positioning within such spaces (by oneself or by others) has been introduced in season four in the character of Phyllis Kroller (Cybill Shepherd). Chancellor of the university where Bette has been made dean of the new art department, Phyllis confides in her that, after 23 years marriage and two children, she is finally been able to admit to herself and others that she is a lesbian. The “late-life-lesbian” is not an uncommon figure in queer cultures, perhaps less so in the relatively less hostile US cultural climate today than in the past, and The L Word‘s inclusion of this storyline adds another wrinkle of identity trouble.
In “Lassoed,” we watched Phyllis’ first foray into lesbian life, as she attended a rodeo-themed party at Kit’s (Pam Grier) coffeehouse/nightclub, The Planet. Phyllis skirted the edge of the crowd, protective drink in hand, and surveyed the goings on, including the chaps and cowboy-hatted dancers hosing each other down. Scared and excited, Phyllis became a symbol of what’s best and most complex about The L Word, that a secure sense of identity is never easy, never monolithic, it’s often troubling and scary, but just as often and at the same time, playing with and discovering new identities is pleasurable and liberating. You go girl!
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