Could this be the last word for `The L Word’?

[11 January 2008]

By Lydia Martin

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Visit just about any Web site dedicated to discussing and dissecting “The L Word” (its fifth season premiered Sunday on Showtime), and you’ll find posters debating whether power dyke Bette should dump famous artist Jodi and get back together with movie producer Tina. And whether Tina should move on or go back to Bette, who, after all, is her baby’s other mother.

In 2004, when the groundbreaking series featuring mostly straight, mostly feminine actresses playing lesbians began, there was plenty of criticism from the lesbian community about the show’s glam portrayals, which seemed to sweep under the carpet the truth about Everylesbian.

Everylesbian, the argument went, doesn’t look like Jennifer Beals (Bette). Like anybody else, lesbians come in all shapes and sizes. Some, perhaps still borrowing from the politics of the 1970s, consciously say no to gender-dictated embellishments.

“Well, the truth is, I don’t wear such fabulous clothes in my real life,” says Laurel Holloman, who plays Tina and is married to a man. “I can’t walk in the high heels that Tina walks in.”

Some lesbians griped that the actresses, who relentlessly get it on in gorgeous pairs and trios, were cast to appeal to men. But going into what may be the skin-flashing melodrama’s final season, nobody is clamoring for middle-American authenticity anymore. Audiences have moved beyond politics and now just beg for Bette and Tina to hook up again. And again. They want their lipstick-on-lipstick love scenes, even if they’re not into lipstick themselves.

“I feel like less of a chump now when I’m trying to convey the sexuality,” Beals says. `I used to think, `Oh my God, am I doing this right?’ I figured everybody was saying, `This girl is so straight; there is no way she can play a gay woman.’ But after five seasons, I feel I have earned some credibility.”

As the first television show to tell the story of out, urban lesbians, “The L Word” has helped empower real gay women who had never before seen their lives so positively reflected in the media. And it has helped pave the way for more gay programming, including “Exes & Ohs.” A comedy series about a group of lesbian friends who hang out in a Seattle coffee house, it was launched last year by Logo, the gay and lesbian television network introduced by MTV Networks in 2005. (Logo has not decided if it will renew the series but later this year will air the first two seasons of “The L Word,” cleaned up to meet basic cable standards.)

But for all its positives, The L Word has imposed a mainstream-friendly, if unrealistic, lesbian image: super-feminine and stilettoed is popping up more than it should in lesbian projects, some observers say.

“Where has the butch gone in film? That has been the argument lately,” says Carol Coombes, director of the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. “‘The L Word’ has done so many positive things, but it has established a look. On the show there was one character who started out butch, but then became a (transsexual). All the other characters are femme. Even when they’re trying to play butch, they’re very glamorous, like Shane. Of course, there are plenty of feminine lesbians in the world. But go to the New Moon (bar) in Wilton Manors. There are plenty of women there in jeans and flannel shirts drinking beer. The mullet is still around.”

The femme has always been overrepresented in films, says Jaime Babbit, a lesbian film and television director whose credits include the 2007 indie film “Itty Bitty Titty Committee” and a couple of episodes of “The L Word,” including the new season’s second episode.

“I think in general, even before there was `The L Word,’ some lesbians were more accepted. Men have the most power and the control of the purse strings, which is why there have always been more femmes in movies,” Babbit says. “‘Itty Bitty Titty Committee’ was about punk-rock lesbians, which I think was a nice antidote. If there were five or 10 TV shows about lesbians, poor Ilene Chaiken (“L Word” creator and executive producer) wouldn’t have to be called on to represent all lesbians in the world.”

But Chaiken stands by her glamour girls.

“As a filmmaker, you have to present the image that tells your story. I think `The L Word’ is aspirational and positive - and true, by the way. There are gay women laced throughout our culture who are as successful and as fabulous as the characters on `The L Word.’”

Whether or not the characters are too straight-looking or too rich, “The L Word” has helped the lesbian community make strides toward self-acceptance and greater political power, says Kate Kendell, executive director of the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights.

“It’s been great to have a show that at least is in the ballpark in terms if how real lesbians live their lives,” Kendell says. “In five years, the show has had enormous cultural significance. You just have to listen to Latino and African-American leaders and how they bemoan the absence of enough actors of color in TV and films. To be represented is to gain legitimacy.”

Plus, is it really so wrong to have some sugar-coated, girl-on-girl fun on TV? Even Kendell gets into the Bette and Tina fray. “I think Bette and Tina are bad for each other. I don’t get the spark. I know there are people who desperately want them to get back together. But I think they’re a yawner as a couple. I think Bette and Jodi (Marlee Matlin) seem better matched.”

So will it be JoBette or TiBette?

“Bette and Tina just have incredible chemistry together,” admits Chaiken who, since season one, has gotten endless flak for breaking up the one couple on the show that seemed to have a happy, long-term relationship. “We knew we had to find ways for them to engage this season, whatever happens in the end.”

Chaiken can’t help but tease, but she also doesn’t want to spoil the season for a zealous fan base that trolls various Web sites, including (a sort of for lesbians operated by Showtime, Chaiken and several of the show’s actresses) to beg for a TiBette reunion.

Even the actresses who play the roles have implored Chaiken to get them back together.

“Jennifer and I were so touched by all the little videos on that people make about Bette and Tina,” Holloman says. `I was like, `Come on Ilene, they have to work it out.’ But she’s right. If we had no drama, nobody would have wanted to watch us. It would have been us taking care of our baby and eating popcorn in front of the TV. I think season five is a perfect bookend to season one.”

So far, Showtime is not saying whether this season is the end. But, `because of the writers’ strike, this could be the last year,” Holloman says. “My guess is if we’re lucky, we’ll get another season,”

Says Chaiken: `Putting the writers’ strike aside, I would like to go another season. And there’s a good chance of that. It always depends on how the audience responds.”

Clearly, this year Showtime is banking on fans’ tuning in for a TiBette fix. But, Beals cautions, none of the hoopla, not even the cable and Internet promos that offer a glimpse of TiBette in a liplock, confirms that the couple will ride off into the sunset together.

“First, Bette and Tina would have to deal with everything that made them fall apart,” Beals says. “But it is nice to see them together in their friendship. They’re less combative, more at ease with one another. You kind of get a sense of what it must have been like for them before the storm.”

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