The L Word: It's a Phase
|Sometimes it seems all minority groups are forced to plod through the same phases when it comes to American film and television. First, you're nowhere to be found onscreen; next, you're still nowhere to be found, except when a rare bit of subtext rears its head. Then, suddenly, you're thereright onscreen!but it's only one of you, and you're there for comic (often racist or heterosexist) relief. You're Butterfly McQueen in Gone with the Wind; you're Apu on The Simpsons; you're Mickey Rooney's character in Breakfast at Tiffany's; you're the slight, super-fey gay guy plucking your brows and mincing your way through any number of films and TV shows. To some extent, lesbians have been denied this phase (there's nothing funny about not sleeping with men). Instead of comic relief, gaygirls get to be token vixensor token villains, like Agnes Moorhead's character in Rebecca.
Thenboom!you're a sympathetic, fully-fleshed-out character on a drama: say, E.R. Viewers who have nothing in common with you begin to care about youat least, someone vaguely like you. Awareness levels are raised, milliliter by milliliter. Even liter by liter, in the case of exceptional characters like All My Children's Bianca Montgomery, who was not only The Lesbian but also the moral conscience and, forgive the soap pun, guiding light of Pine Valley.
Asian-Americans have been stuck in this phase for a long time (producers, take note). But with the return of The L Word this season, lesbians have solidly moved on up to the phase known as It's All Us, Baby. There's a Show About Lesbians on TV! All lesbians, all the time! Andif message boards and letters to lesbian magazines are any indicationthere's only one thing to do once you reach this phase: complain.
Complain. "Real lesbians don't look like that," "Most of the actresses are straight," "The writing stinks," "I hate Jenny." While I can't help with that final gripeJenny, after G.W. Bush, is my least favorite TV personalityI'd like to respond to the first three. So, with no further ado, here's How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The L Word.
Take complaint #1: Real lesbians don't look like that. First: this is TV, ladies. Do the straight parents you know look like the ones on The O.C.? Second: Portia de Rossi, Jodie Foster, Guinevere Turner, Tammy Lynn Michaels, Alexandra Hedison, Greta Garbo, Kelli Carpenter O'Donnell, Francesca Gregorini... Third: I understand, honestly. I myself prefer girls who look more like Jake Gyllenhaal than they do Maggie. But there really are (in addition to the abovementioned) a lot of lipstick lesbos out thereand the show concerns high-profile dykes in a hip city, girls a lot less likely to look like your suburban softball leaguers. Why can't they just throw in one suburban softball leaguer, you ask? It's been my experience that lesbians with radically different aesthetics don't mix that often. You go to one club, everyone's in rugby shirts on Saturday night. Another club, heels and black lace. So, ironically, the group of friends presented on The L Word IS more realistic than one might've thought. Just like us, they tend to keep to their own kind. (That said, I admit I'm grateful for the variety the soft-butch Robin and transgendered Ivan are providing this season.)
Complaint #2: Most of the actresses are straight. This is a valid beef, one I had about Queer As Folk when it premiered (and one Asian-Americans became famous for making when Miss Saigon was cast with non-Asians). Hal Sparks drove me mad when he said that he hated having to kiss men onscreen: how many men have queer actresses had to kiss over the decades? Not even the blunt truths that Portia would rather star on Arrested Development and Guinevere prefers to write, not act in, The L Word made me feel better about the mostly-straight cast. Then I learned that straight Laurel Holloman"Tina" on the showis the same woman who played Randy Dean, the young, vulnerable, amazing butch babydyke in 1995's The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love. If a straight actress can play gay that movingly, I ain't gonna be the one to stop her. Besides, it's kind of a hoot to see the chick from Flashdance play a lesbian (never mind that her straight, welding-warrior character in that movie far out-butches her current character, Bette). And the screen chemistry between straight actress Erin Daniels (as Dana) and gay actress Leisha Hailey (as Alice) is both undeniable and utterly hot.
Complaint #3: The writing stinks. While it's true that the writing on The L Word never delves quite as deep as the writing on other pay-cable shows like Huff, Carnivale, and Six Feet Under, it's also true that those shows aren't saddled with the burden of having to represent a historically under-represented community in as much fullness as possible. As viewers, we want The L Word to cover the gamut of lesbian experience: we've been waiting forever to see ourselves on TV. That the writers have managed to touch on artificial insemination, questioning one's sexuality, transgenderism, coming out to one's parents, coming out on the job, adopting children, nonmonogamy, infidelity, the loss of one's family's acceptance, GLBT legal issues, the LPGA, and, last but not least, dyke drama in ways that feel natural and unforced is quite a coup. Someday, maybe they'll get around to softball (and not-so-soft butches). But even if not, I'll be watching...except when Jenny comes on, of course. That's premium peeing and popcorn-popping time.
Emily Lloyd is a regular columnist for Letters and can be reached via her blog, poesygalore.blogspot.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 2 March 11, 2005