Latina Characters on “The L Word”

Many queer women hailed The
L Word
when it made its debut for its glamorous, upscale representation of
contemporary lesbians. But although the show has expanded the repertoire of
lesbian and bisexual roles, The L Word’s representation of Latinas has often reflected the same
uninformed approach that makes lesbians wince when their lives are portrayed on
film and in television.

Both recurring Latina characters on the show, Carmen Morales
(Sarah Shahi) and Eva "Papi" Torres (Janina Gavankar), have been
based on enduring stereotypes. Moreover, neither character was played by a Latina actor. Prior to
the appearance of either character, however, there was a coded reference to Latina identity during
Season 1 in the peripheral character of Ivan Aycock (Kelly Lynch).

As many LGBT viewers understand,
sometimes mainstream stories include subtextual meanings that can be
interpreted only by those with insider knowledge. These coded communications
don’t only target lesbians and gays; they can speak to other groups as well.

Ivan Aycock is an Anglo drag
king who takes a shine to Kit Porter (Pam Grier), Bette Porter’s straight
sister. Ivan was embraced by many lesbians in the butch-femme and transgender
communities for representing an overtly masculine image of women. Although The
L Word
is often seen as an antidote to the stereotype of the mannish dyke,
to these subgroups masculine images of women were something to be prized, not
rejected.

The L Word‘s story lines have often intersected with the art world,
and Ivan’s character may reference a
famous 1991 series of portraits titled Being
and Having
, taken by lesbian photographer Catherine Opie. Being and Having plays on the
differences between "being" and "having" an identity by
documenting women who have assumed the names and visual characteristics of men
of various ethnicities.

Like several of the women in
these photos, Ivan’s drag stylings imitate a version of Hispanic macho
identity, indicated by pompadoured hair, the wearing of gang colors and a
passion for vintage cars.

Ivan’s complex gender and
racial identity on The L Word seems to encourage a more nuanced and
playful understanding of what identity means to people. What is seen as
negative to one person may be positive to another, in the same way that what
constitutes masculine and feminine behavior is subject to interpretation.

But a flexible identity can
also stimulate crisis. For instance, when the heterosexual Kit finds herself
becoming increasingly attracted to Ivan, Kit’s sense of her own sexual identity
begins to fall apart.

In many ways, Ivan was a test
case for The L Word in two areas:
gender and ethnicity. In later seasons an overtly transgender story line was
introduced via the character of Max, and Latina
characters were also introduced. In fact, a Latina character, Papi, once again challenges
Kit’s sexual identity in Season 4.

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