I suspect it’s all about perspective. As a Los Angeles resident who regularly spots neighbors/co-workers/acquaintances on reality shows (and wonders why they do it), I find the women and the "scene" to be familiar, even predictable.
Watching the show with friends, the most dramatic moments for them didn’t involve Whitney’s revolving bedroom door or Rose’s loutish treatment of her girlfriend. They were just worried that they might have inadvertently ended up in a background shot of a bar scene. (So far, two episodes in, they seemed to have eluded the cameras.) But if you don’t live in Los Angeles, and the "characters" aren’t a part of your everyday scenery, you might just find the show fascinating. Maybe not terribly "real," but interesting nonetheless.
I sent preview clips of the show to my mother, who likes reality television, just to get a different perspective (someone who isn’t gay and doesn’t live in Los Angeles). She said she’d watch the show based on the teaser clip alone because it looked "like lots of partying and fun." She added, "The girls are all beautiful, I guess because LA is all about beautiful, thin women." Her reaction is probably not unique, and I’m willing to bet a lot of straight viewers tune in to see the fun, the partying and the beautiful (and thin) women.
And, of course, the sex.
But will the show ever transcend sex? I wondered about this as I watched a preview clip for upcoming episodes in which Whitney is shown strapping on a dildo then climbing into bed with a girl (who appeared to be drunk) and having sex with her. I’m no prude, but I have to admit that it was a literal jaw-dropping moment for me. I actually heard myself saying aloud, "Oh no…" as the camera zoomed in on Whitney climbing on top of her conquest. I couldn’t help but wonder if that level of "reality" is necessary to tell Whitney’s story, and if she would one day regret its inclusion in the show. And would we see something that graphic if it were a heterosexual reality show on cable television? I simply don’t believe that any of the Real Housewives would ever be shown actually having sex, even if they did reside on Showtime instead of Bravo.
The scene drove home the point that, ultimately, The Real L Word is a reality show, and its stars are privy to all the same opportunities and liabilities that go along with the genre. Some of them may use the show as a springboard for bigger things, like The View‘s Elisabeth Hasselbeck (who got her start as a contestant on Survivor) or Bethenny Frankel (who hops from one reality show to the next). Others may end up feeling exploited by the experience, or find that the get-famous-quick scheme of the reality world backfires and turns them into pop culture punch lines (Spencer and Heidi of The Hills) that are reviled more than revered. It’s a crap shoot, and we may just find that "equality" for lesbians means being just as vulnerable to caricature, exploitation or idolatry as our straight counterparts when it comes to the world of reality television.
The Real L Word airs this Sunday on Showtime at 10 pm ET.We’ll be doing both a live Tweetup and a live blog when the show premieres, and we’d like you to join the conversation. On Twitter, we’ll be using the hashtag #realLwordAE, and we’ll post the liveblog right here on AfterEllen.com 10 minutes before the show starts, containing screencaps, comments from readers and staff, and other musings about the show as it unfolds.