Monday, November 10, 2008

The L Word: Cult Classic or Male Fantasy?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

I indulged in a little down time this weekend, and watched a couple episodes of The L Word, a show which I adored when I was in high school. If you haven't had the pleasure of watching it, the show is about a small and extremely insular community of lesbians, and a few of their straight friends, in West Hollywood, Los Angeles. Like the women on Sex and the City, they dress well, have lots of relationship drama, rely on their friends to deal with said drama, and have large amounts of disposable income (although they never seem to work). Unlike Sex and the City, however, the show deals with gay and feminist issues – there are several transgendered characters who deal with the consequences of prejudice in relationships and in the workplace, and the show's writers are careful to extend their social commentary beyond the glamour of the art world and film industry, which is where the show is initially centered.

Tasha (Rose Rollins), a lesbian woman in the army, is forced to question her conception of civic duty when her relationship with her girlfriend, Alice (Leisha Hailey), is discovered, and she is court-martialed. Another character, Dana (Erin Daniels), an athlete, discovers the marketability of her sexuality, and how quickly lesbianism can become a celebrity's quirk or eccentricity, rather than a legitimate part of her identity. Bette (Jennifer Beals), a museum curator, allows the show to spotlight literal artistic representations of femininity and queerness, and gives the writers an opportunity to self-consciously discuss the boundaries between pornography and the artistic (a line which the show itself threatens to cross). And the show addresses the way that lesbianism is trivialized into the expression of male fantasy, most notably when Shane (Katherine Moennig) and Jenny (Mia Kirshner), discover that their new roommate has installed secret cameras throughout the house, and attempting to turn their sexual escapades into an "artistic" project (although we are also supposed to sympathize with him when he so kindly refuses to sell the tapes to a porn distributor).

The show has something of a cult following, because it is so unafraid to address these issues. But at the same time, it has several glaring oversights which shocked me when watching it for the second time. The most obvious flaw is the cast of stunningly beautiful women, clad in glamorous and expensive clothes. The cast is easily divided into the stereotypes of "butch" and "femme", and don't deviate from heteronormative roles, even in nontraditional relationships (and in fact, most of the women fall into the "lipstick lesbian" category, which tallies more closely with traditional feminine ideals and male fantasies). In its attempts to depict lesbianism as a glamorous, soap opera-worthy lifestyle, the show violently rejects all possibility of drawing an accurate picture of the gay community.

The intense focus on sex, to the point where some legitimately classify the show as soft-core porn, also detracts from many of the issues that the writers want to address. One episode, where a group of the women visit a lesbian strip club, distressed me particularly. Tina (Laurel Holloman), admits that her only lesbian lover was Bette, her partner of eight years, who recently cheated on her with a carpenter (the class tensions in the show emerge, and disappear, with this character). Tina isn't really the strip club type, but her friends insist that she take her mind off the heartbreak of Bette's affair by getting a lap dance. "Don't worry," says Alice to Tina, who is appalled by the club, "you'll find one you like." In this scene, the strippers are as much a commodity as the secretaries on Mad Men, a show which deliberately satirizes the unbalanced gender relations of the 1960s – but here, there is no irony, or at least none that is deliberate. The fact that all of the women are lesbians is supposed to make the scene groundbreaking. The writers want me to admire them for pushing the envelope – but I was instead disgusted by their willingness to pander to patriarchal and heteronormative desires.

Is it better for women to objectify women? Can The L Word, because it deals with transgendered, gay and feminist issues more blatantly than any other show on television, get away with putting women's bodies on display as eagerly as Playboy? As the show progresses, it turns into so much of a soap opera that many of the key issues are obscured. Although it touches lightly on many hot-button issues, in the end we are more concerned with who has slept with whom and whether Shane will finally settle down. The final straw for me was an intensely glamorized sex scene between Shane and her latest girlfriend, Paige (played by lesbian actress Kristanna Loken), during the fifth season. The scene is intercut with images of Paige in a housewife's dress, unbuttoning Shane's white collared shirt, blatantly enacting the most obvious and damaging of gender stereotypes. Because The L Word is first a soap opera, it can't deal with these complex issues in a complex way. In bringing them into the mainstream, it sacrifices substance for glitz, transforming women who could have been real people into bubbling socialites. This doesn't mean that the show isn't entertaining – as a soap opera, it's one of the best I've seen- but to classify it as a groundbreaking work is mistaken. I sympathize with the writers' intentions, but inevitably, The L Word goes only skin deep.

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