Tasha, “The L Word,” and Black Butch Lesbians in Film and Television

 
 

From day one, The L Word has made a concerted effort to include characters from different ethnic and racial backgrounds, and this season is no different. In addition to a new Latina character, Papi (Janina Gavankar), Showtime's lesbian drama has introduced Tasha Williams (Rose Rollins), a young, African-American G.I. in the United States military.

Tasha has quickly become a fan favorite, but she is more than a hot lesbian who happens to be black. Tasha joins the ranks of the few butch lesbians ever depicted in film and television — and the even fewer who are black women.

Tasha is quite unlike the other African-American characters on The L Word, Bette Porter (Jennifer Beals) and Kit Porter (Pam Grier), who hail from upper-middle-class backgrounds and work white-collar jobs. Tasha has a butch swagger and has seen combat in Iraq. She is unsmiling and guarded.

In one of Tasha's first appearances on the show, Alice, the bubbly, blond radio host who emerges as Tasha's love interest, notes that Tasha seems "angry." Shane and the rest of the crew agree. Angry, aloof, young and black — this isn't the most expected combination of attributes for a character coming into the West Hollywood scene.

Black butch lesbians are seen so rarely on television and in movies that mainstream society simply may not know what to make of them. In Debra Wilson's 2005 documentary on black butch women, Butch Mystique, several of the women interviewed report feeling as though they are regularly perceived not as black women, but as black men. The women are aware that they are followed around in stores by employees, treated more harshly by police officers, and looked at with fear in women's public restrooms.

If Tasha is being perceived in the way these women would be perceived, an element of fear and racism must be introduced to the show to realistically illustrate this aspect of daily life for black butch lesbians. A woman like Tasha — especially with a white woman such as Alice on her arm — would draw some stares or even acts of violence in real life.

The L Word has taken a bold step in creating an interracial relationship between Tasha and Alice. As Omayra Zaragoza Cruz points out on Popmatters.com, Hollywood's hesitance to pair black male actors with white female actors harks back to D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915), which established the stereotype of black men being "sexually out of control" — in short, the "black buck." By extension, this stereotype also affects butch black lesbians who may be seen as black men.

Even today, television shows and movies never haphazardly pair black men and white women together unless the plot is dependent on racial tensions; Save the Last Dance (2001) and Guess Who (2005) are prime examples. But black men are also rarely paired with black women due to fear that the film would lose its mainstream appeal and become railroaded as a "black movie." Perhaps The L Word would have become "too black" if Tasha had been paired with half-black main character Bette.

Interestingly, The L Word is not executive producer Ilene Chaiken's first foray into the sticky territory of race and class. In the early 1990s, she was a producer on the now-classic show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air starring Will Smith, who has since become a global superstar.

Smith commented on the issue when he was promoting his 2005 film Hitch, in which his character falls for a woman played by Latina actress Eva Mendes, telling the Birmingham Post: "There's sort of an accepted myth that if you have two black actors, a male and a female, in the lead of a romantic comedy, that people around the world don't want to see it. We spend $50-something million making this movie and the studio would think that was tough on their investment. So the idea of a black actor and a white actress comes up — that'll work around the world, but it's a problem in the U.S."

In Episode 7 on this season of The L Word, "Lesson Number One," Alice brushed off Tasha's mention of her race by jokingly asking her, "Are you black?" Making light of Tasha's race is either a hopeful statement in the way of colorblindness or an extremely disappointing tactic meant to write race out of the way.

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