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Bette's Biracial Experience

Just as lesbians tune in to 'The L Word' to see themselves in prime time, biracial Americans are avidly watching Jennifer Beals' nuanced portrayal of a biracial character.
 
 
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Imagine my surprise two years ago when I started watching "The L Word" and came face to face with myself in the form of Bette Porter, Jennifer Beals' haltingly beautiful, couture-wearing, museum-directing lesbian character. While I don't fit any part of that description, both Beals and the character of Bette are biracial, and in that regard, she is far and away the best representation of me ever portrayed on screen. Just as lesbians have tuned in for three seasons to see themselves in prime time, biracial Americans are keeping up with "The L Word" to follow Bette's story -- our story -- each week as Bette's triumphs and setbacks add up to a real and affirming portrait of a community that has infrequently had a voice in popular culture.

A lot of the credit has to go to Beals, whose own resume invites parallels to her character's story. Beals' overnight stardom after 1983's "Flashdance" made her the sex symbol of the moment, in part because it was not yet widely known to her pre-multicultural audience that she was a colored gal. Her turn in the spotlight was short-lived as the film industry failed to capitalize on her looks and talent, seemingly because her background presented casting problems. Anchoring the cast of "The L Word," she has found the signature role of her career, bringing a personal and public biracial sensibility to a biracial character who has at times been the focus of the show, cast aside and resurrected over three seasons.

In one sense biracial and multiracial people are all over the pop landscape, from Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward to rapper Dena Cali. But biracial characters on TV and in films usually have their stories told as a one-dimensional stereotype of the confused mulatto/mestizo/hapa, whose inability to bridge the racial divide leads to being hopelessly victimized by one half of their ancestry and becoming the lonely mascot to the other half.

Over three seasons, Bette has progressively developed into an ever more complex, three-dimensional composite of the biracial experience. Her reality brings us face to face with the realization that, despite a life lived with best efforts to nimbly toggle between one group and another, carrying the banner only for one's individuality, in the end biracial folks must ultimately let race matter as a means of self-preservation.

In "The L Word's" early episodes, Bette appeared as the most untouchable of the characters. She was "above it all" in every way. But she has found that the only effective way to move through her life is to place her biracial background in the foreground in order to maintain a position of strength. For a narrative like this to deconstruct race -- to be able to ultimately come around to the hopeful conclusion that "race doesn't matter" -- it first has to construct race by establishing that it contains an understanding of the reality that a biracial individual straddles the dotted lines that separate the races.

Alongside Bette's wounded streak is also a strong vein of defiance. Despite her membership in a mostly white, upmarket lesbian sorority, she consciously maintains a connection with her African-American heritage -- the side of herself that assimilates but is not subsumed. By the flip side of the same token, she resists society's dictum that she is to be circumscribed by the "one-drop" construct -- a philosophical American reality, but one that serves everyone's purposes except hers.

Early in the show, Bette's philosophical spat with an African-American woman in her family therapy group led to her biracial "outing." Much in the way that coming out is a defining moment for gays, lesbians and bisexuals, the moment when a biracial person stakes claim to her racial identity, she bestows herself with self-determination. Last season, Bette found shelter and strength by reconnecting with her African-American family in caring for her dying father (Ossie Davis). Unlike many past portrayals, this biracial character's nonwhite family is a foundation for her sense of self.

As Sunday's finale approaches, Bette's fight for custody of daughter Angelica (Olivia Windbiel) is essentially a fight for her own life. On one level, "The L Word" makes its race-neutral case that in gay and lesbian families, the nonbiological parent is just as much a child's mom or dad as the biological parent. But the show also affirms the truth that biracial people occupy a certain cultural space that binds them together. Angelica has a kinship with Bette that she doesn't have with Tina (her white, biological mother), even though she has Tina's genes and none of Bette's. It's a source of Bette's pride as a parent but also of her anxiety over how her daughter will be brought up in a world that is increasingly made up of designer colors but still deals with race only in terms of primary colors.

"Tina may have given birth to her," Bette said in a recent episode, "but really, Angelica is the mirror of me. I know what she's going to experience as a biracial girl growing up in a divisive world … I'm the one who's going to be able to give her a sense of belonging … I do not want my daughter growing up in a house where she feels like an outsider because everyone else is white … She's going to get that enough as it is in the world at large, and I know -- I know what that feels like."

Beals echoed these thoughts about her role in a January 2006 interview in The Advocate , saying, "I fully accept and enjoy who I am, but it was important to me to have that represented for a young girl who perhaps hadn't seen herself represented before."

If there is a single defining characteristic that biracial and multiracial people share, it may be a certain sixth-and-a-half sense when it comes to divining meaning in everyday interactions with others. Bette felt a tremor in the force when her friend Dana (Erin Daniels) died. When she defended butch Moira's (Daniela Sea) lack of femininity because "she comes from a place where, you know, you have to define yourself as either/or," Bette knew what she was talking about. This power of perception is possessed by many biracial people, but not always effectively harnessed. "The L Word" has captured the nuance of the biracial vibe very well, and as the first character in recent memory to be depicted as having this power, Bette Porter has, in her own way, become the first biracial American superhero.

David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to PopMatters and the Charlotte edition of Creative Loafing .