Ten years ago this Sunday, Showtime premiered the first ever television series focused on lesbian life and relationships. The L Word boasted star power from lead Jennifer Beals, legendary actress Pam Grier and the Murmurs‘ frontwoman Leisha Hailey. Behind-the-scenes were Guinevere Turner and Rose Troche of Go Fish, a popular lesbian film from the ’90s, and on the success of Queer as Folk and Sex and the City, premium cable networks were pushing the boundaries of the kinds of sexuality they would dare to show on their late night programming.
The pilot episode of The L Word introduced us to characters that we had not seen on TV. Up until 2004 queer-identified female characters were part of larger ensembles (ER), featured players in only one or very few episodes (L.A. Law) and frequently the only gay woman on the show, outside of their prospective partner/love interest. The L Word revolved around several queer-identified women (mostly lesbian, one bisexual), and they were each well-defined, three dimensional characters. If you watched the show, you saw them develop further through romances, heartaches, new friendships, protests, and other facets of life that, although often glamorized, showed that we are not all one and the same.
Creator Ilene Chaiken has been the subject of much contempt for the way some storylines played out over the years, as well as some of the very white casting choices. But it is undeniable that The L Word has been a major influence on how queer women are written on television (and film, too). The dialogue they had and discussions they spurred were only part of our secret subculture, and now they are solidified as part of culture at large. Jokes about “the lesbian urge to merge,” moving trucks and turkey basters being brought on second dates and “nipple confidence” were light-hearted fun next to the very real plot-points of keeping closeted (Dana), redefining your sexuality (Jenny) and finding a way past LBD and into motherhood (Bette and Tina). And these were just the issues brought up in the first episode.
Throughout six seasons many more subjects were broached, and some viewers jumped ship when they thought the show itself had jumped the shark. But for those who stuck with the only lesbian ensemble show on television, they share in a piece of our culture that can be referenced in most gay girl clubs with at least one knowing smile and nod. The L Word‘s couplings iinspired some fans first foray into shipping (Tibette, Shenny, Sharmen), and others first inkling that they might be attracted to women. Having a show on national television (and later international TV) that showed bold, strong, beautiful women that lived their lives openly gay illustrated that that kind of life was a possibility. You might not be Helena rich or Marina beautiful, but you could find people like you out there, people who didn’t judge you for who you love.
Where Bette and Tina left off, shows like The Fosters pick up. Loving biracial mothers of children that maintain their own relationship outside of their parental duties. The tongue-in-cheek lesbian humor translates directly into every episode of Orange is the New Black. The confident cool of Shane can be seen in Kalinda on The Good Wife. The L Word was the reason that South of Nowhere, Exes & Ohs, Lip Service, and, of course, The Real L Word were ever in existence. What they didn’t do perfectly we can seek to build upon, which has been done on the aforementioned shows and others, but what we’re missing from our small screens in 2014 is another show largely about gay women.
HBO has created Looking, a show about gay men that premieres January 19, 14 years after Queer as Folk came to America. And while networks have greenlit shows with lesbian characters this year, none have made it past pilot season thus far. Instead creators have brought these kinds of stories to the web, and it’s almost been an embarrassment of riches in the internet realm. (There truly is something for everyone, it’s just a matter of finding it.)
But there’s no reason why we don’t deserve another show about women who identify as other than straight. The L Word was a moderate ratings success, staying on air for six seasons, a good run by most anyone’s standards. So where is our next L Word? Is Orange our offering? It has many queer women characters but where is the show about our lives in the real world? Some might say The L Word didn’t even accomplish that, but it was about as close as we’ve come. To queer women behind the show, the ones who wrote and produced and some who starred: We need you now, more than ever. Ten years is a long time. What we have will never be enough.