I have some thoughts on the proposed return of The L Word and most of them are not particularly good. I want to preface this by saying I know that the show was enormously important to lots of people and I don’t want to take that away. I also know that it was a welcome shift in a post Queer as Folk world for a show to focus so exclusively and explicitly on female sexuality and same sex desire. I don’t want to write a polemic on something that made queer female experience visible in a way which provided enormous support for some viewers. The show talked openly about many aspects of female sexuality, it challenged heteronormative relationship constructs and addressed political issues of its time, such as the U.S. military’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy. However, I have some serious reservations about the handling of bisexuality and trans experience in the show and in this piece I revisit and expand upon some thoughts I touched on an earlier piece What About the 'B' Word? about bivisibility in mainstream television.
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Where queer female relationships might have flourished in recent shows, they have instead been marred by controversy. Popular CW show The 100 left fans outraged after the much-loved Clarke and Lexa pairing became canon, only for Lexa to be killed off immediately. The understandable disappointment with that relationship arc contributes to discussions on queerbaiting, the persistent dangers of being a queer woman on television and deeply troublesome purity driven sex narratives which see terrible harm befall female characters who dare to enjoy sexual intimacy. The 100 showrunner Jason Rothenberg issued an apology, three weeks after airing the episode with Lexa’s death, noting a lack of sensitivity to the way LGBTQ+ identity suffers at the hands of consistently stereotypical or negative media portrayal. Although shows like Pretty Little Liars have queer female characters, the investment in romanticising the predatory male and the infuriating use of trans identity for shock value left me weary and despite the centrality of its all-female cast, Pretty Little Liars doesn't occupy the same kind of space as shows such as Queer as Folk, Looking, Sense8, EastSiders and The L Word. Yes, there are a handful of shows which are doing great things, but they are few and far between.
If you watch The L Word now, you might wonder how anyone could have perceived it as groundbreaking, but they did and it was. It resisted a homogeneous depiction of queer female experience, from the sex scenes themselves to the level of interest different characters displayed in having sex in the first place and the fact many of the storylines had nothing whatsoever to do with sex. Written by women for women, it gave queer women a space in prime time television which gave critically important access to queer female experience. Although the US Queer as Folk gave us Melanie and Lindsay, the stories in that show were really predominantly focused on gay male experience. Although I use the term ‘queer women’ to describe the characters in The L Word, there was, however, little that actually felt queer in the broadest sense. The show doesn’t really grapple with the possible spectrum of queer female identity, in that it invests almost exclusively in cis-gendered lesbian experience and for the most part depicts very conventionally attractive femme characters. On the one hand, The L Word avoids perpetuating stereotypical ideas of performative queerness, but the fact a show about lesbians does little to explore butch identity, non-binary gender, trans women experiencing same sex desire and so on, are all notable omissions. With the exception of the more androgynous Shane and the minor character of Ivan, the representation of female masculinities is sparse and this misses very important conversations happening in these communities. Orange is the New Black’s Lea DeLaria has spoken out in detail about the stigma experienced by butch lesbians today, and to erase a historically important part of lesbian cultural identity in a show about lesbians feels like a strange choice.
The L Word also wasn't very good at working beyond the binary. In The L Word bisexuality was consistently held up as something not to be trusted. A transitionary stepping stone which was mocked, belittled and erased. I don’t want to watch a show that embraces the queer music I love and the empowering premise of stories exclusively focused on women and their desire for other women and find no place for myself in the narrative. The L Word may have been revolutionary, but as a bisexual viewer I had no place on the march. To the contrary, watching The L Word as a bisexual was a deeply painful and upsetting experience in many ways. I wanted to love the show but at so many points I just found myself being excluded or erased from the storylines. Taking a step back, I wonder if perhaps The L Word sought to bring out the very real distrust of bisexuality that bi+ people find themselves confronted with both in and out of LGBT spaces – to acknowledge that being part of LGBT communities doesn’t always come with a progressive understanding of broad LGBT issues beyond one’s own experience. That’s an accurate and compelling approach, but one which I fear might give the show too much credit. Those nuanced discussions never really took place on the show, there was no affirmation of bisexual identity and no characters embraced the label with any sense of pride, ownership or activism which might have driven those kinds of discussions. Instead bisexuality was a label those characters who demonstrated any kind of fluidity sought to cast off as something shameful, something not quite queer enough.
Move the conversation on from bisexuality to gender, and the situation is just as depressing. The depiction of trans characters in The L Word was a total mess. The depiction of gender more broadly is a total mess. The inability to meaningfully grapple with sexuality and fluidity in the context of trans experience was a total mess. The story of Ivan Aycock, the drag king, offers some scope for non-binary gender identity (the character is happy with she or he pronouns although never uses non-gendered pronouns) but although I’ve seen conflicting thoughts on this storyline, I found the whole thing disengaging and didn’t feel any sense of the story arc grappling with gender fluidity in a meaningful sense. Instead the stage production of drag became the means of seduction for Ivan’s straight, female love interest, Kit. When Kit actually sees Ivan’s biological features it’s positioned as a shocking reveal – as if Ivan has been lying – a damaging repetition of a familiar ‘lying trans character’ trope which is used time and again in mainstream television for sensational impact. Ivan then disappears, returning only briefly for one episode. The opportunity to explore Ivan in more depth, not to mention the opportunity to explore queer sexualities in a society where gender is less rigidly defined, were missed.
The treatment of the character of Max, who is introduced to the show as Moira, was painful to watch. The way the FTM transition was depicted demonstrated a lack of research and the treatment of Max by those around him becomes extremely difficult viewing. As with bisexuality, I question whether the show wanted to do something to address transphobia within LGBT community spaces which have their own hierarchies of privilege. However, I found the creative arc and the time invested in his character made him feel like an afterthought which makes me struggle to feel charitable about the thinking behind the repeated cruelty and transphobia exhibited within the show’s dialogue. The L Word also experiences many issues with stereotyping or failing to fully represent racial diversity, despite attempts to do so. Sula Malina has written extensively on intersectionality and Bette’s failed empathy in The L Word.
I think there can be a danger in calls for wholly positive representation and optimistic queerness that erase lived experiences of grief, loss, isolation and oppression which are all important to capture in a show which deals with LGBT themes. There is also a danger of envisioning a post-queer world in which everything is easy, everyone is very understanding and groups of people intersect with an automatic understanding of different experiences and identities. When The L Word was first released it did some wonderful things and offered a world which wasn’t sanitised or uncomplicated. However, I think observing biphobia, transphobia and a failure to fully grapple with issues of race and intersectionality, does not equate to a call for unrelenting optimism. I would be very happy to see an LGBT show explore biphobia and transphobia which is still rampant in a meaningful and painful way. I simply ask that a show which should have more understanding of these issues seeks to deal with the harm caused by continued oppression, marginalisation and erasure instead of perpetuating ideas which reinforce negative stereotypes.
My primary hope is that the creators take on board the multiple pieces online about these topics and think about some of the discourse in the context of the new series. Although we’re little more than a decade on from the first episode of The L Word, the world has changed enormously. Young viewers are increasingly aware of non-binary identities and trans characters are very slowly finding their way into mainstream television in roles which resist tropes of trans villainy or dishonesty. I will keep my fingers crossed that The L Word will engage with some of these issues, and that it will do so in a manner which invites writers and consultants who share those character identities to tell their own stories in a way which brings an authenticity of experience to a show which has so much potential.