These past three years have been rough, to say the least. The Trump administration, which campaigned on behalf of anything to get votes, notably ran as both a voice for the religious right and for, as they put it, “the LGBTs.” You know, like that time he was holding the rainbow flag upside down, with a sharpie-d (and aggressively off-center) message: “LGBTs for Trump”.
While most of us weren’t fooled by this awkward display of solidarity, it is troubling to note how effective this bumbling administration has been at rolling back protections for LGBT people—protections that have been decades in the making. A lot of this progress has been attributed to queer representation in the media, which has served as a medium to introduce and normalize queer characters to the public consciousness.
Of course, what is lost by trying to reach across heteronormative divides is the nuance and the authenticity of characters for the sake of making them more palatable to the public. One show that is coming back helped generate a new wave of media for the consumption of queer people. “The L Word” is coming back as “The L Word: Generation Q” at a time when queer narratives are needed most.
“The L Word” premiered on Showtime from 2004 to 2009, and was the first show of its kind created by and for queer women. Ilene Chaiken was the executive producer, writer and director of the series that centered around the love and friendship of lesbian and bisexual women, inspired by her own life. This, in many ways, was also a disadvantage to the show because of her limited perspective and ability to accurately represent the lives of genderqueer, trans and people of color within the community.
I watched the series online once it had already stopped airing on Project Free TV. It was tough finding active links that would have the complete episodes, but they were everything my loudly questioning self needed. The show transported me away from a lot of the uncertainty I felt about my identity.
The show’s effortlessly glamorous mood was so refreshing to see outside of the only lesbian tropes (i.e living on the fringe of society, being killed off or, whoops, being cured and no longer straight) of other TV shows and movies that, although were terrible in most respects, were consumed due to the rarity of representation. This show was groundbreaking for centering queer women going after what they wanted and taking charge of their careers. I remember wanting to be a part of this community, but given the way the show was not written for QTPOC, I don’t know if I would want to be.
“The L Word” was a rollercoaster, and in true thrill fashion those sweet highs were also followed by some deep lows. These huge letdowns were reflected in how isolated characters who were not white or femme were belittled and not integrated within the central group, like the show’s treatment of androgynous character, drag king Ivan Aycock, or trans character Max Sweeny.
Ivan makes a brief appearance on the show as Kit Porter’s potential love interest. Bette Porter, (her half sister, and core member of the L word group) teases her sister Kit for her interest in Ivan because Kit is not a lesbian. Kit accidentally sees Ivan without their binder, and she and Ivan’s relationship quickly sours from there. Ivan is abruptly written off of the show, only to be replaced by the only other masculine-presenting character, Moira, who transitions as Max Sweeny. While he and Jenny (one of the central characters of group) are together, he begins taking testosterone and is portrayed as dramatically angry and hypersexual. Although Max and Jenny don’t end up staying together, in true queer fashion, they remain friends.
What follows is the group’s continual questioning of Max’s decision to transition and their exclusion of him from the group. Max is shown struggling in all dimensions of his life, from experiencing workplace discrimination to dating and having to hide his identity. It is really telling that the show’s writers could not create a hyper-glamourous life for him while it did so for the other characters—or even build in some empathy for Max, as the central characters were considered to be his friends. Instead, he is subjected to covert and overt gender essentialist points of view that are frankly disturbing to watch, especially when the show was so progressive on many other fronts.
The show also did a terrible job of accurately representing the diversity of Los Angeles in both the cast and extras. The show overrepresented cis, white, upper-middle-class women who never seemed to worry about finances. While it’s great to see women thriving, it is not representative of the very real gender and sexual orientation wage gap that impacts the finances of queer people, who on average make less than their straight counterparts. This is a result (whether intentional or not) of the perspectives and experiences of the writers as privileged white cis women. These limitations are harmful when they are massively consumed and are as popular as “The L Word.” These negative narratives seep into the psyches of the very people they were written to represent.
The show’s handful of women of color were written to move the plots forward for other white characters. Carmen de la Pica Morales was a rebound for Shane (moody heartthrob with the libido of an energizer bunny) after Shane was heartbroken by Cherie, her sugar momma who bought her a hair salon—wow, talk about great head. Carmen basically waits for Shane to come around to dating her. That’s it. That’s her whole character. Once they finally are together Carmen naturally tries to fit in with the rest of the group. However, she is pretty much seen as an outsider—that is, until Max comes along. Carmen uses transphobic rhetoric to scapegoat Max and get accepted by the rest of the group. This works to temporarily bring them together, but she remains an outsider and an afterthought within the show.
Papi, another Latinx character, is hypersexualized from the beginning and has the emotional depth of a vibrator. She is introduced to the group when Alice Pieszecki’s chart, an analog (and in later seasons digital) diagram that connects women who’ve slept together, creating a web of connectivity. Alice tracks Papi because she’s beaten Shane’s high score of sexual partners. Papi is used as a device to introduce Alice to Tasha Williams, who later becomes her girlfriend.
Tasha has the most developed character arc of the women of color on the show. She is a Black woman who comes from a family of veterans, and is motivated to serve out of a sense of duty to the U.S. However, because she is serving in the army when the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy was enforced, a moderate stance that allowed gay and lesbian people to serve and receive army benefits so long as they did not disclose or make their sexuality public. Tasha was outed by another officer and threatened with a dishonorable discharge, triggering Tasha to leave the army. Alice and Tasha eventually split off after realizing that without the added layer of having to sneak around, they had very little in common.
When I think of what “The L Word” got right and what it got wrong, a lot of it is due to the constraints of time and people. In the early aughts, there was some digital advancement, but nowhere near the robust and dynamic information sources that have helped bring a consensus to language and understanding of varied queer experiences. Today, we have a much broader database of user-generated content that put to words, in real-time, what people in those communities are experiencing and how they would craft that narrative.
This lack of information was apparent in the writing of this show’s characters. The decision-makers and writers of the show were asserting their creative license on things that they didn’t know. This made for a disjointed universe when others had clearer objectives and character development. This misrepresentation also had real-world implications because it reinforced destructive narratives that are touted by TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism) along with racist and classist constructs that continue to oppress marginalized groups within the LGBT community.
Although “The L Word” has been far from perfect, there hasn’t been any comparable shows that have followed its place. It is from this sapphic vacuum that “The L Word: Generation Q” emerged. In an interview with Trish Bendix with NBC news, Chaiken said “of course there have been some great shows, but … we’re still largely absent in the representation of our lives. … We pop up as single characters but there’s very little that talks about our lives in a holistic way or as community or as culture, and I think there’s a lot more to say.”
While there is huge anticipation for the new season of this show, there is also a lot of warranted hesitancy about how it is going to move forward in an inclusive and accurate way. Love her or hate her, “The L Word: Generation Q” airs Sunday, Dec. 8 on Showtime. In the Bay Area, Jolene’s—a queer bar in San Francisco—is hosting a watch party on both Sunday and Monday night alongside over 40 global watch parties slated to happen.