Before this summer, I’d never seen a single episode of The L Word. I wasn’t actively avoiding it, I’d just never gotten around to watching. I’ve never owned a TV and during the mid ’00s I was far too busy being a hormonal and sexually repressed teenager at an all-girls Catholic high school entrenched in writing Harry Potter slash fic to realize that a.) I was gay, and b.) The L Word was a show that was on TV for five years.
However, thanks to the magic of Netflix (this post is not sponsored by Netflix), I’m now revisiting all the gay TV I missed during my formative years spent trying really hard to be a straight person. With no TV. Before Netflix was a thing. Dark days, indeed. Mostly, I just wanted to be a real person and not feel weird at parties and be able to take the Buzzfeed quizzes. (P.S. I’m Alice.) Mostly, MOSTLY, I wanted in on the Shane references. So, I started fresh and from the beginning: Season 1, episode one of The L Word. I may be EXTREMELY late to the party, but in a post-Ruby Rose world, Shane still matters a lot.
They really don’t make lesbian TV, or TV lesbians, like they used to. Between the low-rise cargo pants, fringey haircuts, and flare jeans (FLARE JEANS, what a time to be alive), you can practically reach out and touch the earth-toned corduroy fabric of the 00s. After my eyes became adjusted to the novelty of Bette’s blindingly beautiful pantsuits and Jenny’s blunt-cut bangs, a few things became abundantly clear.
First, The L Word can’t decide if bisexuals are, like, a thing. Second, this show apparently takes place in a universe where masculine of center and butch women don’t exist and by some miracle neither do bras, and lastly, Shane is hot. She is acutely, painfully hot, and unapologetically sexual. She’s supposed to be. She seems vaguely guilty about the sheer number of hookups she’s racked up, and seems mildly conflicted about what that means for her. Still, she’s no one’s “gal pal.” Also important, she’s a lesbian character who doesn’t die.
There she is, episode after episode, having herself some premium grade lesbian sex. Before Alex and Piper had angry sex in a prison library and used a garbage bag as a makeshift dental dam, Shane was the precursor. In the context of a story that revolves primarily around the exterior fluff of a predominantly white, affluent, and stereotypically West Hollywood existence, Shane provides some of the few moments that actually matter, like the way she made practically everyone around her question their sexuality both on the show and off.
Ruby Rose isn’t the first palatably androgynous person to make both straight women and queers go batshit insane. Yes, the stuff about Ruby Rose making straight women “go gay” is exhausting, annoying, and misguided as hell and probably comes from the kind of straight person who bogarts pride parades and thinks All Lives Matter™, but Ruby Rose, and before her Shane (and Angelina Jolie, etc.) seemed to make people think they might not be 100% straight, and it sucks that’s queerness is being commodified as a trend, but I support any and all genuine thoughts of tasting the rainbow.
Going from The L Word’s highly choreographed, male gazey and mood-lit topless makeouts to garbage bag dental dams looks like progress, and it feels like progress, because it is, but only to a point. Shane’s essential butchiness gets completely washed down, processed and packaged in a way that made her appealing by making her attractive to straight audiences, not unlike Stella on Orange Is The New Black, and like Stella, she’s less of a character and more of a concept. With few exceptions, it can still be a challenge to find a queer character on TV that says I’m queer, and this isn’t for you.
Shane’s not the be all and end all of lesbians on TV, but the fact that she was there, that she happened, still matters for queer representation on TV. Without her feathered lob and leather chokers, lesbian TV would be a sad and lonely place.