Latina Characters on “The L Word”

on

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.