“Revisiting the L Word and Its Portrayals of Character Types” by Gemma Simon

When The L Word came out in 2004 – pun intended – I was excited. Excited because as a young woman who had just stepped out of the closest herself and who had the fortune of living in a diverse, inclusive, and liberal community, I was savouring every minute of life as I could finally celebrate who I was (and still am) and revel in the myriad wonders of LGBTQ culture and know I would be welcome. Even though it took me a grand total of 10 years to finally jump on the bandwagon and immerse myself in the chaotic drama of the West Hollywood lesbian/bisexual posse (thank you, Netflix!) I followed The L Word with a critical fervour, eager to read the responses from both niche communities and mainstream audiences.

And over the course of 10 years, the sheer amount of content devoted to The L Word could merit enough writing to make a whole other season. Having read much of the critiques before embarking on Season One, as well as having watched other lesbian dramas like Lip Service and Orange is the New Black (which isn’t exclusively lesbian but has a considerable amount of great lesbian content), I myself have felt a little critical while watching the show. I agree with inconsistencies of character, random plot twists and a lack of representation, although creator Ilene Chaiken herself stated that entertainment isn’t always obligated to bear moral burdens. Yet this seems contradictory given that by its very nature, The L Word simply had to deal with some mode of representation – yet this was mostly portrayed in the controversies over edgy art exhibitions managed by curator/dean/art lover Bette Porter. While other issues were brought to the table like transphobia and workplace discrimination as well as the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy then still prevalent in the US military, overall, Los Angeles was painted as perhaps more of an open gay paradise than it truly is.

Personally, I have always felt torn about critiques, partly because I believe it’s difficult to please everyone. Some argue that the show white-washed Bette and Kit Porter, the African American women of the show. Others argued that despite being lesbians, heteronormativity seemed to be the lifestyle which was aspired to in terms of needing to be in a relationship, with a house and children. I did feel as though some aspects of the plot didn’t touch on issues as much as I thought they should have – Kit Porter’s alcoholism and Shame McCutcheon’s substance abuse problems were both topics for which are still highly stigmatized in different contexts for different reasons, and I felt that more of an emotional exploration was needed. Not because back stories have to be explicit – it’s important to leave something to the viewers’ imaginations – but I felt that these issues were slightly glossed over, while Jenny’s sexual abuse was explored much more in depth. I found both Shane and Kit equally deserving of a more detailed history, and one which demanded a bit more credibility than disjointed flashbacks or Jenny’s surreal dream sequences.

Opening Doors

But what a lot of critics have granted The L Word is that the show’s opened a lot of doors. And while I have yet to see another program as big hit the networks, I think it has enabled a deeper and more intuitive representation of women, especially gay women, in popular media – sure, the lives of the LA lesbians might be over-glamorized and dramatic, but they had their problems too, and had enough dimensions to make the show interesting; as a consequence, other shows aren’t as hesitant in drawing on characters from the LGBTQ community, perhaps.

But like most members of the LGBTQ community, I still want to see more diversity and originality, and on reflection, I don’t think The L Word truly capitalized on this. There were times I enjoyed its comedic allure and eroticism, and yes, I gloated at the parodying of heterosexual, homophobic yuppie life, but I can’t say that I felt that I would have “belonged” to that particular group of LGBTQ women, despite how wonderful some of them were. Sometimes, I felt that their struggles were far removed from my own as well as those of my own friends. And while the show certainly carried feminist overtones – even enjoying a guest appearance by Gloria Steinem – once again, I felt a sense of exclusiveness, that women of colour, women from different backgrounds, and women of a different income might not be entirely present within that specific circle. Maybe this is because the writers of The L Word felt that the show was already crossing enough boundaries, but here is the quip I have for every program or film I like, but find lacking – it definitely had the potential, so why didn’t it explore certain issues further? Why couldn’t it have felt more “real”?

Reality is overrated, of course, and suspending our disbelief is a practice which we all apply to a lot of different forms of entertainment. And while there are certainly many things about the show I would change, it’s still interesting to see how much things have changed just in the past decade alone – not only in terms of media, but our own social progress as well. At the end of the day, I can accept the critiques, but am glad that the show aired for six seasons.

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