Too Much Otherness: Femininity on “The L Word”



It has been much repeated in the press that creator and executive producer Ilene Chaiken had to pitch The L Word to Showtime for several years before she finally got the green light. But less has been written about the monumental task she faced after that: creating a successful lesbian series when there not only had never been a show almost entirely about lesbians before, but rarely even a show in which almost all of the lead characters were women.

But Chaiken and her team of writers and directors pulled it off and the series earned a second-season renewal only days after its first episode premiered in January — an achievement that is partly attributable to the fact that The L Word didn’t show the full diversity of the gay community and didn’t challenge gender norms very much.

From the beginning, Showtime emphasized the similarity of the gay women on The L Word to their heterosexual counterparts, as illustrated in The L Word‘s marketing slogan (“Same Sex. Different City.”) which sought to draw comparisons to the hit mostly-heterosexual show Sex and the City.

Promos for The L Word featured a montage of sensual scenes set to sexy music featuring conventionally attractive women interacting with one another in various sexual and non-sexual ways which seemed designed to attract both gay and straight viewers. It worked on the mainstream media, too, who eagerly ran cover stories featuring the women of The L Word.

The cast also smartly featured a mix of actresses with gay fan bases (Laurel Holloman from her role in the indie teen lesbian flick The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in LoveLeisha Hailey from her real-life role as k.d. lang‘s girlfriend for several years, and Katherine Moennig from her androgynous role in the WB’s short-lived series Young Americans) and broader ones (Jennifer Beals from Flashdance, Pam Grier from Foxy Brown, and Mia Kirshner from 24 and Exotica).

If the series had been packaged to more accurately represent the lesbian community in all its glorious gender-bending variety, we would have enjoyed it for a few weeks — only to see it yanked from the schedule or limited to a one-season run because it didn’t draw a big enough audience (even with the lipstick lesbians, The L Word still only averaged around 1 million viewers per episode).

In today’s television environment, where new shows often only have a few episodes to prove they can gain an audience and there are dozens of potential shows vying for every time slot, creating a well-written series with solid actors isn’t enough to ensure success anymore (as we’ve seen with the premature deaths of many an excellent series, like Relativity, Once and Again, and Wonderfalls).

Unfortunately, in such a crowded marketplace, how you package and market a series is almost as important as the content of the series itself.

And if ever there was a series that had to be packaged just right in order to succeed, it was The L Word: a show that featured characters to whom few Americans could easily relate engaging in sexual activity that had never been shown on television before and matter-of-factly discussing topics that are considered controversial at best, offensive and profane at worst.

This might not have mattered if The L Word only needed to appeal to lesbians, but it needed to draw a broader audience outside the gay community in order to succeed.

Given all the obstacles the L Word had to tackle on top of the ones that every new show faces, is it any wonder that the characters on the series were generally written to conform to traditional norms of femininity?

In The L Word pilot when Tina (Laurel Holloman) and her partner Bette (Jennifer Beals) are discussing whether to use a black donor in their quest to get pregnant, Tina expresses concern that two lesbians choosing to have a biracial baby is “a lot of otherness to put on one child.” While Tina’s statement is debatable, to ask The L Word to reflect the full diversity of the lesbian community when it already has so many hurdles to jump just to survive is too much otherness to put on one show.

Besides the occasional guest appearance by lesbians like Lea DeLaria or Candace Gingrich, there have been no real butch characters on television in the past ten years. There have been a few lesbian characters in the past that have embodied more masculine traits, like ER‘s Sandy Lopez (Lisa Vidal) or The Wire’s Det. Greggs (Sonja Sohn), but these women still have long hair.

Then there are the lesbian or bisexual women with short hair, like AMC‘s Lena (Olga Sosnovoska) or Sophie on That 80’s Show, but their clothes and makeup firmly mark them as feminine.

Ellen DeGeneres is one of the only successful actresses who has been able to get away with having short hair while not wearing dresses and makeup (both in real life and in her sitcoms), but even she has feminized her image in the last few years. As Ellen discovered when she submitted to a series of makeovers shortly after her new talk show launched, Americans prefer their women–gay and straight–to adhere to traditional notions of femininity.

This preference is sexist, limiting, and a denial of reality, of course, and it’s important that television begin to diversify how women and lesbians are portrayed; butch women and others who don’t conform to convention do not deserve to continue to languish in television obscurity.

To ask The L Word not only to challenge the invisibility of lesbian and bisexual women on TV, however, but also the way women have been represented on television for fifty years, is asking too much if you want the series to last longer than a few minutes.

And although the The L Word does feature a cast of Beautiful People, the show has pushed the envelope in other ways — by introducing Americans to bisexuality, for example, which has always been a major taboo on television, and by introducing the gender-bending drag king character Ivan (Kelly Lynch).

But The L Word‘s biggest achievement is simply in improving the visibility of lesbian and bisexual women on television by leaps and bounds, which will make it that much easier to challenge traditional concepts of gender and appearance in the future–just as early television shows with women in non-traditional roles (like Mary Tyler Moore and Cagney and Lacey) that were stereotypical in many other ways have helped to pave the way for The L Word.

A few years from now, when The L Word has or or two seasons under its belt and Americans have gotten more accustomed to seeing lesbian and bisexual women on television, I fully expect Chaiken and crew to push the envelope further and start including more butch lesbians and transgendered characters — and if they don’t, we have every right to be disappointed and upset.

But to attack The L Word for not taking on butch visibility in its first season is to ask it to run before it has learned to crawl — and to impede our long-term progress for a quick and temporary fix.

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