Get Yer Unreal Lesbians Here
I first saw the poster at the bus stop. "Same Sex Different City." Initial thought -- smart, clever. Upon closer look I saw some of the most gorgeously made up and Lara Flynn Boyle-skinny women. I didnt know whether to be titillated or disgusted, I guess I was both. I realized that the first lesbian show on TV couldnt have regular-looking lesbians on it -- everybody has to look better than 99.99 percent of the American public. Thats what TV is about nowadays.
Optimistically, I had hoped that "The L Word" would have been exempt from that rule; its supposed to be more than just another tawdry soap opera. The series was created, produced and the pilot was written by a credentialed lesbian, Ilene Chaiken, and directed by another, Rose Troche. And its supposed to be the first show that reflects the lives of lesbians in America, who have not yet had a show to call their own. But its not. Its a soap opera, but its a lesbian soap opera. So for every negative thing I say, remember that this is the first show of its kind and hopefully the next one will be better, and the one after that will be better still.
You have to give props to Showtime for producing "Queer as Folk" and now "The L Word." They spent a lot of money promoting this show. The media hype around the show has been crazy. Magazine covers. Premiere parties. Youd think they had discovered something new. They tried to make these women seem like rock stars. I heard they even sent the stars on a lesbian cruise during premiere week. I couldnt believe the press materials that I was sent by Showtime. So glossy. So expensive. So unlesbian. The pink materials with the actresses posed was ringed with many different L words -- lush, lashes, lyrical, lofty, looking, loose, latent. One word that was very hard to find was the word "lesbian." It seemed as though they were trying to make The L Word stand for just about everything except lesbian.
Showtime is smart. Lesbians are starting to catch up to gay guys as a market segment (even though women still make less money to the dollar than men), and the world is getting more comfortable with queer people in general. I mean if "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" can be a hit on "Must See Thursday" (though it airs after the gayest show on TV, "Will & Grace"), we must all be ready to see some dykes.
To watch the pilot I got myself invited to one of the "L Word" parties that were happening across the country to celebrate the launch of the series. My friend Esther took me along to a nice lesbian couples coop in Brooklyn where 20 lesbians and one gay man settled down with some fondue in anticipation of seeing lesbians on screen. It was a very cool group. There were teachers, event planners, dancers, actors and bi-sexual women in politics. Everyone was excited, to say the least. The evening did not start out well as the show kicked off with a commercial for a Brittany Spears concert. The boos died down when Marianne Faithfulls luscious voice welcomed us to the world of "The L Word."
Jennifer Beals, the 1980s Flashdance icon, is one half of the couple at the heart of the show. As Bette Porter, the director of the California Arts Center, she is in seven-year relationship with Tina Kennard, played by Laurel Holloman. They decide that in order to save their relationship they are going to have a baby and Tina quits her job as a movie development executive in order to prepare herself to get pregnant. Really? How many lesbians can afford to do that? It get even stupider when they go to a therapist to the stars who is kind enough to tell them what they already know, that their sex life sucks.
When Tina interprets something the therapist says with the phrase, "the lesbian urge to merge," we shriek in dismay. Its only 15 minutes into the show and the cliches are already running rampant. The first episode also focuses heavily on the straight couple who live next door to Bette and Tina. Tim, (Eric Mabius) the hot young swim coach, who wears wife-beater shirts all the time and his brooding writer girlfriend, Jenny (Mia Kirshner), who moves from the Midwest to be with him. And thanks to them, you see less girl-on-girl action than boy-on-girl action -- a directorial choice that pisses off my fellow Brooklynites. There was so much straight sex in this episode that it seemed to be made for frat boys or to make straight people feel comfortable. Inevitably. however, the straight girl falls for one of lesbians -- Marina (Karina Lombard) fondly remembered as Tom Cruises one night stand in The Firm. When straight girl kisses the lesbian she runs home, cries and gives her boyfriend a guilt-ridden blow job. And when she has hot lesbian sex with Marina and then crawls into bed with Tim, the boyfriend says "you smell different" and he likes the "other" smell better.
I was about to dismiss the series as a straight persons fantasy of what a lesbian would be, when I remembered that lesbians made this show. Im sure that it was politically difficult for the creators to deal with network executives, but did they have to play into every scary stereotype out there? Straight people are already afraid that lesbians are going to corrupt their daughters and bring them over to the other side. But I guess its okay if they look as beautiful as the women do on "The L Word" cause they really only play lesbians on TV.
The women hang out in the lesbian clique and the local hangout The Planet owned by Marina. Others in the group include the bi-sexual magazine writer Alice (Leisha Hailey) who writes top ten lists and stories on vaginal rejuvenation for LA Magazine. Her most ambitious project that spans several episodes is a six degrees of separation type chart for lesbian relationships. There is the closeted professional tennis player Dana (Erin Daniels) who cant come out for fear of losing her sponsors. One of the rare good moments comes when Alice tells her that she is going to "pickle in her self loathing homophobia." We also have the resident slut hairdresser Shane (Katherine Moenning), oozing ambiguous sexuality. Moenning said she modeled her character after Warren Beattys character in Shampoo. They all seem to hang out at The Planet like the Friends characters hang out at Central Perk. At the beginning of Friends I had the same question I have of these women -- dont you ever have to go to work?
On the periphery is Pam Griers character, Kit, the one woman of color and also the woman who is truly a walking disaster. Shes estranged from her half-sister Bette, and the rest of her family. We first meet her as she is being pulled over for a suspected DUI and gets caught with a suspended license. But what really bothered me is that there were no dykes on the show. There is so much diversity of women in the lesbian community and yet there was no diversity in the type of lesbian on this show.
I dont want to give the impression that there are not many redeeming things about The L Word. Just the fact that I can sit and be critical about a show that is wholly focused on lesbian lives is fantastic. The other plus was the sexy girls. Granted most of them are straight, but honestly they did cast some hot chicks and they has some good sex scenes that made me smile and thank the goddess for Showtime. I was one of those people who was excited about "Queer As Folk" but was immediately turned off. It felt like I was watching gay porn. Finally, I love hearing a line like "bush confidence" on television, knowing that it does not refer to George Bush and but to how vaginas can be life changing for some questioning young woman out in the world.
I later solicited the opinions of my friends, some straight but mostly gay. Most of the emails were negative especially from the women of color. A bi-racial couple said it was the worst thing they had ever seen. Their response came back in capital letters, almost a scream. But storyline about Bette and Tina having a baby drew the biggest reactions. Some said the whole "lesbians having babies" is so played out, but one person was especially mortified by the way that Bette and Tina conducted their search for a sperm donor. When lesbians and gay men decide to have babies it is a very long and difficult decision that takes a lot of planning. When Bette and Tina brought home a straight guy to steal his sperm not only was it repulsive it was completely unsafe -- ever heard of HIV?
I really wanted to like this show. All I can do is continue to watch, and hope that the show gets some courage, because no matter how you cut it, the show is revolutionary -- a show about gay women.