For some lesbians, watching the first season of The L Word felt a little like Jane Goodall observing chimpanzees in the wild: we saw similarities between us and the characters on the show, sure, but we definitely weren’t the same species. Not all of us are as thin, as idle, as lipstick as these characters; these women don’t accurately reflect the spectrum of lesbianism. Where are the true butches, for example? Where are the bois? Smart critiques have been made calling for the show to be more visually inclusive, more literally representative of lesbians. And this is understandable—The L Word is, after all, one of the few all-female ensemble casts and the first lesbian series on television. There’s a lot at stake.
Yet, while The L Word visually represents only a single slice of the lesbian population, it doesn’t damage lesbian visibility in the way those who criticize the show imply. The characters on the show aren’t meant to be literal embodiments of all lesbians, but caricatures of lesbian stereotypes, playful exaggerations of lesbian extremes: Bette (Jennifer Beals) is the type-A breadwinner; Tina (Laurel Holloman), the fertile housewife; Shane (Katherine Moennig), the sensitive stud; Dana (Erin Daniels), the dyke tennis player; Alice (Leisha Hailey), the quirky bisexual; Ivan (Kelly Lynch), the gentlemanly gender-bender.
These essentializing exaggerations—these distillations of each woman down to one overriding, campy trait—make it nearly impossible to read these characters literally. Instead of a direct representation of lesbians, The L Word loosens up the ideas of what is “lesbian,” and plays with dyke stereotypes to create a positive niche in primetime television that’s more inclusive than not. In fact, by using camp—the idea of highly stylized representations, of over-the-top humor, of fabulousness—The L Word creates an effective representation of “lesbian” for queer and non-queer viewers alike. Camp is used on The L Word throughout the season in various situations, but also in three major tropes, which I identify as the Lesbian Look, Dyke Drama, and the Connie Conspiracy. Because of the campiness of the show, The L Word can be seen as a positive move toward lesbian visibility.
Camp is everywhere in the first season of The L Word. Consider the most literal examples of camp in the karaoke performance of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” in Kit’s video shoot with Snoop Dogg’s character “Slim Daddy,” in the drag king show at the Planet. These scenes are key in considering the series as a playful interpretation of real life. Likewise, the writers use common lesbian tropes to reflect and speak to real lesbians.
Take Dana’s relationship with her cat, Mr. Piddles: the stereotype is that lesbians are exceedingly bonded with their pets (of which they often have many). When Mr. Piddles dies, the L Word writers play this up by having Dana organize a funeral and bury him in a mahogany kitty-coffin. Not only is this a clever way to further Dana’s character, but a twisted representation of a classic lesbian stereotype.
Or consider the way The L Word plays with the straight male fantasy of having sex with lesbians: Jenny (Mia Kirshner) describes seeing Shane and another girl have sex during foreplay; Slim Daddy (Snoop Dogg) wonders out loud how hot Candace (Ion Overman) and Bette would be together; Bette and Tina bring a stranger home, trying to impregnate Tina. The show uses these tropes and others—prison sex (Bette and Candace), lesbian rape (Bette and Tina and, more complexly, Alice and Lisa)—to carve out a viable visibility for a lesbian audiences.
In addition to camping up these classic tropes, L Word writers use campy terms familiar to lesbian audiences like “gay-dar,” “stud,” “stone,” “Lesbian Bed Death,” and others. Harrison (Landy Cannon), Dana’s beard for tennis-related events, puts a new twist on the stale joke. He says, “It used to be, ‘What do lesbians bring on a second date?’ A moving van. Now it’s ‘What do lesbians bring on a second date?’ A turkey baster.”
And Bette, in uncharacteristic silliness, delivers a classic, equally familiar line during a conversation with Peggy Peabody (Holland Taylor):
PEGGY PEABODY: I was a lesbian in 1974.
BETTE: Just 1974?
PEGGY: Just 1974. That was all I needed.
BETTE: Well, you know, that is what we refer to as a “has-bian.”
Lesbian audiences will easily recognize this term for a woman who temporarily self-identifies as a lesbian, and then begins to sleep with men. With this campy moment and many others, The L Word works to acknowledge lesbian stereotypes and reshape them through camp to create a positive visibility for lesbians on primetime television.