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

 
 

Many people still believe that America is not yet ready to see a relationship of this nature — particularly between a black man and a white woman — on the TV screens of their living rooms. Outside of this season's Heroes, which includes a relationship between black character D.L. Hawkins (Leonard Roberts) and white character Niki Sanders (Ali Larter), very few prime-time shows cross this color line. A more common tactic is to introduce a relationship between two people of different minority backgrounds, such as Dr. Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) and Dr. Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington) on Grey's Anatomy.

Are the mostly lesbian viewers of The L Word somehow more advanced in the realm of interracial dating than the rest of the country? While one can argue that lesbians often have to come together and be each other's family when their families of origin aren't supportive, it is naive to assume that lesbians have achieved the proverbial melting pot faster and more efficiently than the rest of the country.

Look no further for confirmation of this than The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (1995) starring Laurel Holloman, The L Word's Tina, alongside Soul Food's Nicole Ari Parker. Holloman plays a young, butch white lesbian who shares a fiery fling with Parker, the stuck-up, ultra-femme black girl. Holloman's character is a working-class student, while Parker seems to come right out of the movie Clueless, driving a brand new Range Rover and living in a mansion.

The portrayal of race in Incredibly True Adventure is obviously reversed and exaggerated, possibly in hope that the missing dialogue about race is not noticed. "It's the big pink elephant in the middle of the room," writes Samiya Bashir in her essay "Fear of a Black Lesbian Planet." It made the film fall flat.

Bashir feels that issues of race are often glossed over in lesbian communities. She continues: "Black lesbians trying to find out who we are both as women of color and as lesbians find the invisible wall we bump up against while trying to find access into the lesbian community even harder to bear. White women may feel equally bruised by a situation where they don't feel they are being exclusionary at all."

In Episode 8 of this season of The L Word, "Lexington and Concord," Tasha says to Alice, "You and I live in different worlds." Alice understands this and tells Tasha she is not a portal for her. Apparently their worlds collide at the Planet, but where is Tasha's world exactly? The world where young blacks enlist in the army and are shipped to Iraq because they have no other choices? Not everyone has the luxury of seamlessly entering an exclusive, practically all-white safe haven for lesbians after all.

Young black lesbians have almost no visible representation in the media, even though the world they live in, the communities they are a part of, and the things they see and hear each day deserve to be publicly validated. As poet Essex Hemphill stated, "it makes a difference." Whether or not The L Word intended to take on this task, its writers are now bestowed with the honor — and burden — of creating a responsible and fulfilling micro-representation of black lesbian life.

In one of the only preceding roles of a black butch woman on screen, rapper Queen Latifah played Cleo in the film Set It Off (1996). In yet another Los Angeles community, out butch lesbian Cleo finds herself broke, out of options and willing to resort to a life of crime to make ends meet. Her posse is a group of three straight black women who make no bones about her sexuality or gender expression, and a black girlfriend for Cleo even materializes in some scenes.

The film showcases a desperate reality for some of the "angry" black youth out there, but it includes lesbians as part of that reality, an important moment of realization that yes, black lesbians do exist. Even in dismal and unfortunate situations, they are members of the posse, too.

Latifah could have taken the acclaim she received from this picture as a vantage point to similarly affirm that black lesbians also exist in the world at large. In the hip-hop community at the time, Latifah was a star: Her message would have reached millions. But Latifah, who has been widely rumored to be a lesbian, has never confirmed or denied the rumors.

But where Latifah dropped the ball, Tasha picks it up. This season, by "shootin' a little b-ball" with it or getting "into a little fight" and Alice getting a bit scared, The L Word's viewers have been given a glimpse into a playground they aren't used to seeing. Let's hope that other shows will follow suit and not allow Tasha to be the last black butch lesbian on television.

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