Class on “The L Word”

MoiraBette with Angelica

Few American television shows have engaged with issues of class, partly due to the common misperception that the United States is a classless society, but also because television tends to show idealized families and social groups and generally avoids controversy in order to draw advertisers.

Characters on a given television show tend to hail from the same class or economic background. On prime-time soaps like Dynasty, for example, they are all wealthy or upper-class, or on a comedy like Everybody Loves Raymond, everyone comes from an acceptable working-class background.

When characters of different class backgrounds interact on a television show, it is often likely to occur on a crime drama, or as a matter of romantic interest (for example, the boy from the wrong side of the tracks falls for an upper middle-class girl on a show like The O.C.).

But from its beginnings in 2004, The L Word has been different. Los Angeles, where The L Word is set, is a sprawling, mixed-class urban area in which grinding poverty is effectively separated from extremely wealthy enclaves by freeway systems that divide the city into different class zones, a dual economic system split into a wage-based formal economy and a labor-based informal economy, and racism compounded by a large number of recent immigrants.

The characters of The L Word, however, who mostly live in the upper-middle-class gay bubble of West Hollywood, rarely if ever encounter these complexities. Instead, the lesbians on The L Word seem to live in a rose-hued melting pot of different cultures and classes, implying that a shared lesbian identity transcends class and race.

From the show’s beginning, the lead character, Bette Porter (Jennifer Beals) has been a somewhat atypical African-American lesbian. The daughter of a man who had connections to both Bill Clinton and Gloria Steinem (as revealed in the last episode of Season 2), Bette lives in a beautiful West Hollywood bungalow (complete with swimming pool and expensive works of art) and works as a highly paid museum director.

Bette’s social circle includes women from a variety of classes, but their different backgrounds rarely make an impact on their social lives. Among the wealthiest, most upper-class of Bette’s friends is tennis star Dana Fairbanks (Erin Daniels), who hails from a rich white Republican family in Orange County. Bette’s ex-girlfriend, Alice (Leisha Hailey), seems to effortlessly make a living as a freelance writer and radio host.

The former street kid, Shane (Katherine Moennig), has successfully gone from being a drug-addicted prostitute to an edgy hairstylist who no longer seems to struggle to pay the rent.

Carmen (Sarah Shahi), who was only a lowly production assistant and part-time DJ in Season 2, has become an in-demand Los Angeles DJ who is now invited to spin at celebrity parties. And Bette Porter’s sister, Kit (Pam Grier), a former pop star who fell on hard times and alcoholism, has kicked the habit and become the successful owner of the Planet, a coffee shop-cum-lesbian-nightclub that comes complete with its own top-shelf chef.

But in Season 3, this idealistic melting-pot of classes has shown signs of leaking.

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