Is the "L Word" Feminist?

There have been a lot of shout-outs to feminism on the "L Word", albeit not a consistent feminist politics that will please everyone.

OK, so I admit it: The L Word is one of my guilty pleasures and I will be more than a little sad to see it go.

Showtime's breakout lesbian TV drama, set in Los Angeles and starring an ensemble cast of gorgeous, femme women, is about to roll out its sixth and final season, and fan forums are sparking with speculation. Will Bette (Jennifer Beals) and Tina (Laurel Holloman), the "perfect" lesbian couple, stay together? Will Shane (Kate Moennig), the lesbian lothario, be converted to the joys of monogamy? Will the formerly bisexual Alice (Leisha Hailey), now a TV celebrity, and Tasha (Rose Rollins), the Iraq vet who was don't-ask-don't-tell'd from the military, split up now that Alice has eyes for another woman? And what of Max (Daniela Sea), the female-to-male transgender character who may or may not go through a full transition? Then there's Jenny (Mia Kirshner) -- will there be anything redeeming in this last season about Jenny, the character viewers have most loved to hate?

These are the kinds of questions that tap into how The L Word, and indeed all TV dramas, hook their audiences and, like it or not, reveal how voyeuristic we are. Turns out lots of us like to watch this sort of visual gossip. And, it turns out, lots of us -- no matter whom we sleep with -- like to watch lesbians. In fact, here in North America, we have a less-than-distinguished tradition of turning the act of watching lesbians into high ratings. As media critic Virginia Heffernan has noted in The New York Times, women kissing women has been a consistent "sweeps week" tactic since 1991.

But this is precisely what The L Word isn't doing. It's not exploiting women's sexuality for straight pleasure, which in some sense is what its straight big sister, Sex and the City, did. Showtime even tried to connect the two by advertising The L Word with the slogan "Same Sex, Different City," but the differences between the shows are far more notable than the similarities. The L Word broke new ground in its focus on women who love women, who live with women and orient their intimate and daily lives around women. Yes, there are men on The L Word, and there are heterosexual relationships, but they are never the center of the action or dialogue for very long. This women-centered focus makes it very different from not only Sex and the City but almost every other TV drama or sitcom, even those with predominantly female casts such as The Golden Girls.

Given this unique focus on women's relationships, it's no surprise that some of us have mulled over the question of the F word in The L Word. I'm still holding out for an episode where the whole cast wears "This is what a feminist looks like" T-shirts -- although I did hear the Ms. Foundation for Women mentioned, and it was actually followed by cheering! In truth, there have been a lot of shout-outs to feminism, notwithstanding how successfully these scenes have been handled. To name only a few, there was the Gloria Steinem guest appearance in season two, which offered an embarrassingly didactic lesson for those not up on their herstory (on the table was the question of whether all lesbians are feminists and whether women who sleep with men could still be feminists). Then there was the beginning of season four, where Bette's half-sister Kit (Pam Grier) dealt with an unexpected pregnancy just as she started menopause. Kit decides to terminate, and arrangements are made by her supportive male partner, but much to her shock she is subjected to unconscionable harassment at the clinic she goes to -- which is actually an anti-abortion front. That's a nod to a very long-standing feminist issue (see "Dangerous Masquerade," Fall 2008) and it's hard to see why they went here if not as an homage.

Yet the stand-out feminist moment for me revolved around Jenny in season two. Mark, a wannabe filmmaker, moves in with Jenny and Shane and, unbeknownst to them, turns out to be as interested in lesbians' lives as we viewers are: He has gone so far as to hide video cameras all over the house to record the "secret lives of lesbians" -- imagine that! Eventually the cameras are discovered and the women express their sense of violation. In a shamefaced apology, Mark says: "When I moved in here I was the type of guy who was capable of doing shit like this, but I am not that guy anymore. …[Y]ou and Shane have made me a better man."

Jenny responds with a speech that still makes me punch the air: "Oh, fuck off, Mark! It's not my job to make you a better man and I don't give a shit if I've made you a better man. It's not a fucking woman's job to be consumed and invaded and spat out so that some fucking man can evolve."

The uncompromising force of Jenny's response speaks well to the broader question of how The L Word has tackled women's issues, but given that this is a show primarily about lesbians, we might ask: Where exactly is the lesbian feminism?

I think the show is actually remarkable in the way it touches on an array of issues that bear on lesbian existence: biracial relationships, lesbians who return to men, lesbian adoption and co-parenting, lesbian "divorces" from marriages that the state doesn't even recognize, gays in the military, etc. But the place where The L Word has most consistently focused its LGBT feminist energy is around the transgender issue. From the first season on, the show has invested in questions about trans-inclusion, initially through a drag-king character Kit falls for and then through Max, who's introduced in the series as a woman lover of Jenny's. If rumors are anything to go by, one of the primary story arcs of the final season will revolve around Max and his ongoing transition, so again we will see transgenderism as a core question at the heart of this lesbian community.

For the most part, though, The L Word doesn't wear its politics on its sleeve, and actually it can't. This is television after all, and being the first show of its kind The L Word has had a lot of people to please. Even the trans issue will qualify as feminism for some and not for others. But it's worth remembering that the very structure of dramatic television tends to reverse the feminist maxim that the personal is political. On dramatic TV, what matters most is always the personal -- the relationships, who lives and who dies, who sleeps with whom, who cheats on whom. If politics is your passion, you will have to find it by reading between the lines, and there won't be too many T-shirts to guide your way. In all fairness, however, The L Word, unlike a lot of television, has left us with a lot of lines to read between. Here's hoping that the final episode of season six doesn't close the book on the ongoing representation of complex lesbian lives on television, because along with it will go a remarkably consistent representation of feminist issues -- if not of a feminist politics that will please everyone.

The full text of this article appears in the Winter issue ofMs., available on newsstands or by joining the Ms. community.

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