The L Word continues to be a subject of discussion even after its last episode aired on the 8th of March, 2009. While the intricacies of the plot are hard to explain, in general, the show follows the lives of a group of queer women and their friends and family living in Los Angeles, California. To make this piece an easier read, the main members of the group are Bette, Tina, Alice, Dana, Shane, and Jenny.
While the show has been hailed as a pinnacle for the representation of primarily queer women, it also has its detractors. The main criticism levelled against The L Word is that it caters to the male gaze.
To take a detour, the theory of the male gaze as proposed by Laura Mulvey states that women characters in visual media are created from the point of view of the heterosexual man and are therefore considered to be passive objects of male desire. A review of The L Word by Ginia Bellafante in the New York Times calls the show a “Sapphic Playboy fantasia”. I too am of a similar opinion.
the women of The L Word are all conventionally attractive, fitting into the mould of the femme queer woman.
I was introduced to The L Word by queer media I was voraciously consuming at the time, such as Autostraddle and After Ellen. There were also several blogs on Tumblr explaining why it was important for every queer woman to watch the show – so in the summer between junior college and university, I binged (before it became cool) all six seasons.
My initial reaction could only be described as wonder – The L Word had given me my first image of a lesbian. However, I was a naive 17-year-old and it was only later that I discovered the complexities of good representation and how problematic The L Word actually is.
Let’s begin with how The L Word was marketed. Most of the press images for the show depict the main cast in various stages of undress, often in a sexual embrace with one-another. It is important to note that the women of The L Word are all conventionally attractive, fitting into the mould of the femme queer woman and could easily pass off as heterosexual.
Even the androgynous member of the group, Shane, is feminized in the press material. As mentioned in an article titled ‘Showtime shows ban “butch” – Does The L Word love lesbians?’ published in The Oberlin Review, these characters pose no threat to heteronormativity and the gender binary because of their overtly feminine nature. These women are, therefore, readily fetishized.
Also Read: The #LforLove Project: The Lesbian Is Not Just A Body
Voyeurism plays a central role in the narrative of The L Word. The frequent sex scenes, sometimes filmed through coloured windows, glass doors, or the gaps between a fence, often border on softcore porn. In fact, the story begins with an act of voyeurism wherein Jenny peers through her fence to watch Shane have sex with a blonde woman in a pool.
Another act of voyeurism occurs in season two – a character named Mark Wayland, who fashions himself as a documentary filmmaker, moves in with Shane and Jenny and places several cameras around the house in order to capture his roommates having sex. Nothing screams the idea that lesbian relationships are meant for male consumption more.
To draw in the male audience, Tina goes onto have a relationship with a man in the third season. Her overwhelming desire for men, shown in multiple scenes in which she is aggressively making out with a male employee or posting an advertisement on the Internet that reads “dyke w/baby seeks real man for good fuck...”, is explained in season 4 as being a product of the deep humiliation she felt after being cheated on by her partner.
This explanation makes no sense narratively because a short while after being cheated on by Bette, Tina finds herself in a romantic relationship with Helena Peabody. Tina asserts her identity as a lesbian, even while being with Henry; an assertion that continues to be a source of great confusion for me. The message being given out is clear – it is possible for the male to have his way with a lesbian and that such women are not impervious to heterosexual advances. Thus, the male ego is gratified.
The L Word viewed the interaction between femme and butch lesbians as a type of heterosexual role-play.
The L Word was deeply criticised for its representative strategies, particularly for its lack of characters on the genderqueer spectrum. To counter these criticisms, the show introduced a character named Max Sweeney in season three. Max was supposed to be both a butch woman and a trans man, resulting in a disastrous portrayal of both. The character only served to reinforce old stereotypes such as the idea that all butch lesbians are or desire to be men and that those who identify as trans are traitors to their own gender.
The L Word viewed the interaction between femme and butch lesbians as a type of heterosexual role-play, a theme also prevalent in Shane’s relationships. It’s telling that the most androgynous and close to butch lesbian of the group is the most sexually aggressive and almost every sex scene with a strap-on features her. These instances only serve to show how The L Word does not challenge conventional notions of gender and sexuality, choosing to pander to heterosexual audiences.
To quote Winnie Mccroy, “we should challenge ourselves to demand more from those who claim to be speaking for us”. There is no doubt that even in 2018, the queer community thirsts for representation, for well-written and complex characters. To this day, The L Word is described as ahead of its time because stories involving queer individuals were almost non-existent in 2004 when the show debuted.
However, The L Word was hardly committed to portraying the realities of queer women and tackling important issues such as healthcare, domestic partnerships and having children. Even Tina’s pregnancy was fetishized during her relationship with Helena, the latter being deeply attracted to pregnant women leading to a hot romp in the sheets between the two. The real lesbian is silenced and the characters are reduced to fodder for male fantasy.
Also Read: Representation Of Lesbian, Bisexual And Trans Women In Popular Media
Featured Image Credit: Hulu
It wasn’t perfect but it was one of the earlier representations of lesbian sexuality in mainstream TV and it helped many of us come out and have a sense of connection with a wider world of lesbianism.
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