The L Word was a show that came on TV at a time when women-loving women (wlws) sorely lacked representation in media. It was something the wlw community bonded over and it became part of our collective viewing experience, even part of our vocabulary. It popularized terms such as “gold star” and “Shane.” It not only reflected wlw culture, it had a large impact on it. Unfortunately, that impact was not always positive.
The recent news that The L Word is getting rebooted has mostly been met with joy in wlw circles. This is entirely justified. At a time when wlws are getting more representation but it’s not always good and our concerns are often brushed aside by creators, the thought of this show about wlws by wlws is refreshing. Plus, there’s the whole nostalgia side of things. And to be fair, the show had its upsides. There were occasional bright moments like the gay weed brownies and the gay/straight mixer, and there was the adorable pure relationship between Dana and the “soup chef.” If nothing else, the show existed, and that was huge.
It’s hard to explain to someone just coming of age now how important The L Word was in the mid-2000s, how valuable it was to see characters and stories we could relate to represented onscreen. As someone who was just coming of age and coming out at the time, it made me feel validated. I watched it and mindlessly absorbed its messages, same as anyone else. I get why we did this, but now we as a community have to go back and do the hard work of unpacking how the show influenced us.
Though the excitement over the reboot is understandable, we really need to think critically about the impact the show had and how dated its messages are. We as a community are only starting to recover from some of the problems The L Word caused. Unless the show is willing to right a lot of wrongs, a reboot is quite frankly the last thing we need right now. Here are some reasons why.
It’s biphobic af.
It would have been problematic had The L Word not portrayed any biphobia, because that would have been ignoring a huge problem. But far from addressing said problem, the show was full of anti-bisexual rhetoric and there was nary a rebuttal. The only lesbian I remember calling the group out on their biphobia was Papi. As Gretchen astutely pointed out in our discussion of The 100, presenting one point of view without another conflicting one gives the impression you agree with said opinion and think the audience should too. Even if that’s not what you mean.
I loved Dana Fairbanks. She was basically me other than the fact that she grew up a privileged rich kid. But she set the bar high (meaning low, very low) in the first episode by telling Alice to “make up [her] mind” and leave out the “gory bisexual details.” Jeez, how many times have I heard some version of this conversation? It’s demeaning and insulting and only widens the rift between lesbians and bisexual women.
“Christ, Alice, when are you gonna make up your mind between dick and pussy? And spare us the gory bisexual details, please.”—Dana
The biphobia didn’t get any better from there. Dana teased Alice about it a lot, but she wasn’t the only one. Alice’s bisexuality was often played for laughs too, like her relationship with Lisa the Lesbian Man. At least they didn’t portray her as the promiscuous one in the group. Small blessings.
Then there was the whole debacle over Tina’s relationship with Henry. This storyline was actually very interesting, at least to me. It made some great comical moments possible, such as the gay/straight mixer a.k.a. the most awkward party ever. More importantly, this subplot reflected on what could happen (does happen) when a woman who identifies as a lesbian gets involved with a man. To be honest, it’s not far off from what happens when a bisexual woman gets involved with a man either. And lesbians, I gotta say, we suck.
There is definitely a reason behind the defensive shunning reaction that happens, which I’ll address in the next section. But making membership in the friendship group contingent on a lack of relations with men is seriously problematic. We’re an oppressed community, not a club. We should all be supporting each other. But this is not what happens. When I first came out and started to make connections in the lesbian community, I got the message that biphobia was not only acceptable, it was expected. Encouraged, even. In some circles, it felt like a requirement. Because apparently we are not divided enough as it is.
“‘Elyse’ clung to the bisexual label not out of any genuine affection for men; she clung to it out of pure fashion desperation.”—Alice, quoting Jenny’s thinly veiled autobiography
Art imitates life, and life imitates art. It wasn’t wrong to depict this situation on the show, because it’s something our community deals with in real life. But TV shows are in a position to influence how we view and process difficult situations. Ultimately, The L Word failed to influence us to change. And by reflecting our culture back to us as it was, it only encouraged and normalized biphobic behavior.
It promoted lesbian purity culture.
Tied closely to biphobia, lesbian purity culture is the idea that any woman who has ever had sex with a man has been defiled and is somehow less of a lesbian. It not only alienates late bloomers, it makes women who identify most with the term “lesbian” but are somewhat attracted to men afraid to explore or open up about their identities for fear of being shunned. In short, it’s a form of identity policing, which never turns out well.
To be fair, there is this unrelenting idea out there that lesbians just need to find the right man. Between that and the phenomenon of barsexuals making out with girls for attention but going home with guys, lesbian purity culture is at least somewhat a reaction to lived experiences. Because we are an oppressed group and we want our identities to be taken seriously, we have a tendency to distance ourselves from people who appear to undermine that.
However, society is acknowledging more and more that sexuality is fluid and many people do not fall at the extremes of the Kinsey scale. Lesbian purity culture pushes back against this liberation, trapping women who are unsure of themselves in one box or another. For lots of us, the queer community is the first place we felt accepted. If that acceptance feels contingent on suppressing one’s curiosity, for many of us that feels like a small price to pay. Especially for those of us who lack supportive families.
The L Word didn’t actually say women who have slept with men cannot be lesbians, though it did bring the term “gold star” into our collective vocabulary. Maybe it was already in use, but I only started to hear it after it was mentioned in the show. It’s not a term that explicitly shuns late bloomers or those who have experimented with men, but it does rank them below those of us who haven’t. It implies that they are less than.
More problematic was the group’s treatment of Tina while she was dating Henry, as mentioned above. The most obvious incident was when they didn’t want her to play on their basketball team. It was a pretty salient metaphor for not wanting her to “play for our team,” intended or not. Now, it’s not like no fair points were made in that discussion on the court. Tina calling lesbianism a political identity was total BS, and it’s true what Jenny said about how wlws dating men enjoy some privileges because they pass as straight. But how was that reason to not let her play? Alice actually identified as bi, and she set up the whole game.
“We fight our whole lives not to get judged by who we sleep with, and that is exactly what you guys are doing to Tina.”—Papi
Part of why categorizing someone’s sexuality is so difficult is because our behavior doesn’t always match our fantasies. And there’s the extra complication of sexual versus romantic attraction. It can be difficult enough to figure out where you fit in, so maybe we shouldn’t worry so much about categorizing other people. I know it can feel like a betrayal if a lesbian-identified woman has a thing with a guy, but guess what? It’s about her, not about you. And let’s be real, here. If straight women get to casually fool around with other women here and there and still claim to be straight, I think we should be afforded the same leeway to explore what we may or may not like.
Some people might say broadening the term “lesbian” is a form of bisexual erasure. It’s a fair point, but what about women who skew mostly gay and feel that “lesbian” better describes them? Someone who’s a Kinsey 5, for instance, and rarely if ever actually does anything with men? You get comments about how you’re not really bisexual (like Alice) if you say you’re bi. But if you say you’re a lesbian, you get called out if you do get involved with a man (like Tina). Unfortunately, there isn’t much space in our community for people who don’t fit nicely into either of those identities. But there should be.
It perpetuated the Bury Your Gays and Suffering Bisexual tropes.
If any members of a privileged majority decide to include minority characters in their stories, they have a responsibility to tell those stories in ways that do no harm. This is something we have discussed often on this site. However, members of minorities are not exempt from this rule, either. If anything, wlws should hold ourselves to higher standards when telling stories about wlws, because we know better.
Everyone thinks their show is the exception, the one that has a great and creative new way to tell the story of the dead lesbian. Everyone thinks they are somehow justified due to the context of the show. To an extent, I can agree. In a show where lots of people die, I am less likely to be upset because it fits the world.
But what gave Ilene Chaiken and her writers’ room the right to kill off Dana Fairbanks? This was not a show where we expected characters to die. We didn’t sign up for more dead lesbians. I know they wanted to bring awareness to breast cancer, which is fine. But survivability rates are high, and the show should have reflected that, especially because the creators are wlws. They should have known better. They did know better.
Part and parcel with the Dead Lesbians trope (a narrower slice of Bury Your Gays) comes the Suffering Bisexual trope. Oftentimes when a lesbian character is killed off, she has a bisexual love interest who then has to deal with her grief onscreen. Alice and Dana were not technically an item at the time that Dana died, but they were on the verge of getting back together. And Alice definitely had the strongest reaction to Dana’s death. Thankfully, she didn’t run off to find comfort in the arms of a man (part of the trope), but she did hook up with Dana’s other ex, Lara the “soup chef.” It was a bit eye-rolly, but understandable. Alice’s grief broke my heart, and I can’t even imagine viewing it as a bisexual who always see herself in this trope.
And then, of course, there’s Jenny Schecter. I feel like she is almost an exception to the trope because a large portion of the fan base was literally asking the writers to kill her off. Also, we didn’t lose her from our screens because of her death. That’s part of the problem with the trope, how it torpedos our representation. No, with Jenny we instead had to spend the whole final season seeing why everyone on the show wanted to kill her. Arguably, that was worse. Pssst, Ilene, the viewers wanted her dead so they didn’t have to see her anymore.
I actually liked and related to Jenny early in the show. I understood her angst, and though she was incredibly pretentious I related to her struggles as a writer. But as her character evolved she turned into nothing more than entertainment, a malicious trainwreck I couldn’t help but watch in awe and disgust. (Shout out to Sounder and the vagina wig!) In the end, I wasn’t affected by her death at all. I doubt many people really were. Still, add one more to the Dead Lesbians tally that should have sat at zero.
It popularized problematic tropes in femslash.
The stereotype of predatory queers is a huge problem for our community. It is behind a lot of the anti-queer rhetoric spouted in religious circles and on Fox News. Similar to the problem with the Bury Your Gays trope, this is something the writers should have considered before including Marina’s seduction of Jenny. At least they handled it relatively well, showing it from all angles and presenting different opinions of it within the group. But it did perpetuate the negative stereotype. A more insidious effect, however, is that it precipitated a rise in the predatory wlw trope in femslash.
I would think this is a trope we would not want to play into, given how harmful the stereotype is. Is this the image of ourselves we want to project? Do we want to spread the idea that it is okay to seduce straight women in relationships with men? Maybe it became so popular in femslash because we all have these deep-seated fantasies of being seduced by Marina now. Which, fair enough. And Imagine Me & You definitely had a part to play in this too. Look, I get that femslash is about our own fantasies, not how we want the world to see us. But once again, art imitates life and life imitates art. It’s not exactly a healthy fantasy to fixate on or reproduce in the real world.
Speaking of unhealthy fantasies, yikes. The femslash trope stemming from The L Word that really concerns me is violent dubcon. It took me a long time to figure out that this came from The L Word, actually. And it would be hypocritical of me not to admit that I ended up writing something along these lines once. I fixed the dubious consent aspect before publication, once I caught it. But still, it made me wonder why there was this trope of angry sex in femslash and why it appealed to me, to us.
Not long ago, I was thinking about The L Word and realized this stems from the Bette/Tina sex scene in the season 1 finale. That scene is dubcon at best, sexual assault at worst. Though Tina eventually got into it and took her anger out on Bette sexually, she initially refused but was overpowered by Bette.
I think if that scene had aired this year rather than in 2004, it would have seen a lot more pushback. The writers probably would have thought better of it, anyway. But since it aired so long ago, it’s still lurking in our collective subconsciousness as something that’s hot and maybe even romantic. Sure, angry sex can be hot. But it’s not necessarily something we should aspire to. I think if we all experienced it in real life, lots of us would be disappointed. Like all kinks, it’s not for everyone.
The most idolized characters were terrible human beings.
I’m not talking about Jenny Schecter here. Jenny was horrible in many ways, but at least she embraced her villainous side and was okay with being the bad guy. More importantly, the audience saw her for the villain she (sometimes) was. However, there were two characters in particular who were awful but rarely got called out for their behavior by the fans, even if another character dared criticize them. They were perpetual favorites, and god knows any wlw will go to war for her favorite character. Especially if said character is insanely attractive, as both of these women were.
I could write a whole article about the problems Shane’s character caused in our community, but I will try to keep this brief. How many of us in our mid-twenties or older remember that period of time when every young wlw was trying to be Shane? Not just the iconic clothing and hairstyles, but the personality and attitude. This is commonly referred to as The Shane Effect. It used to just be guys who followed the “girls like a-holes” philosophy, but Shane made this a thing among wlws. Because everyone loved Shane and Shane got all the girls, suddenly a bunch of us were trying to emulate her withholding and emotionally unavailable game. It was so unhealthy, and it took away one of the advantages we usually get from dating women: more easily understanding each other and being able to talk about our feelings.
“Don’t cry. I hate it when girls cry.”—Shane to Lacey
That’s not to say Shane never got any pushback. But the criticisms against her were never taken seriously. Lacey had a point in season 1 when she was trying to call Shane out on her behavior, but she did it in a creepy stalker kind of way and it was only played for laughs. The worst consequence Shane ever had to face was Carmen throwing pizza at her and spraying her with a fire extinguisher. Because she’s so hot. Ha ha.
Shane was shown to have a tender heart, and she did seem to fall in love with someone about once per season. Maybe that’s why the characters and the fans continually let her get away with this BS, because she was “good at heart” and she cared about the people she hurt. No cognitive dissonance there whatsoever. She was totally woobified (thanks to Kori for introducing me to that term that perfectly describes Shane’s unearned adulation).
The most unforgivable of her sins was leaving Carmen de la Pica Morales at the altar with the most pathetic of excuses, one that absolved her of any responsibility by implying she couldn’t help herself. But don’t forget, she cheated on Carmen before that, then also cheated on Paige. Shane cheated on Paige for apparently no reason whatsoever, though I suspect that it was a subconscious form of self-sabotage because she wasn’t actually ready to commit. After all, there was no altar to leave Paige at. As for Carmen, Shane cheated on her because she saw her flirting with other people while working as a DJ. Either it was meant to be revenge or Shane was self-medicating with sex. I tend to think it was the latter.
“She said that she doesn’t expect you to forgive her. She’s not proud of this, it’s just who she is.”—Alice to Carmen, after Shane left Carmen at the altar
This is the other major problem with Shane. She’d had so much sex with so many people that it no longer held much emotional weight for her, yet she had a tendency to self-medicate with sex. I’m not judging; it can be a valid strategy for some people. The problem is that Shane was such an idolized character, young wlws tended to follow in her footsteps even when her actions were self-sabotaging and unhealthy.
And for the most part, the show didn’t address how her behavior may not only be hurting other people, but herself. Her scene with the priest in confession tapped into that a little, but overall there wasn’t enough emphasis on how Shane was not a happy person and her behavior was not making her any happier. If there had been, maybe more young wlws would have thought twice before trying to emulate her.
Bette had her own foray into the world of infidelity, after spending most of season 1 being all high and mighty about monogamy. At least, unlike Shane, she had to face the consequences of her actions. But she ended up behaving like (and getting treated like) the victim anyway. While I can empathize with being sorry and feeling like no one would hear her apology, that was her problem and she made it everyone else’s. And though she did receive some pushback from the other characters over the affair, it felt to me as though the show was still portraying her as the most sympathetic one in the situation. Everyone I knew felt sorry for her, including me, so it worked.
What really bothered me about Bette, however, was her blatant disregard for other people and their feelings. When Alice pointed out that she could relate to Tina after the affair because Bette could be a little cruel, Bette got defensive and said Alice shouldn’t have had hurt feelings because they’d only been dating six weeks when she broke things off. She was cantankerous about going to therapy with Tina to prepare to be parents, belittling Tina’s feelings on the matter. Meanwhile, she had this tendency to thoughtlessly vent all her feelings to Tina, expecting her to do the emotional labor without even asking how Tina was or if she wanted to hear it. Thankfully she eventually realized that was a bad habit and tried to curb it, which I appreciate.
Perhaps the thing that bothered me most was how verbally abusive Bette was toward her assistant on many, many occasions. I feel like the audience was supposed to find the situation amusing. After all, it was a queer woman of color yelling and cussing at a straight(?) white man. Yay? I mean, as someone who grew up poor and had to endure verbal abuse from snooty rich ladies at crappy customer service jobs, I wasn’t inclined to take Bette’s side even if she was a lesbian. It made me extremely uncomfortable.
“Fuck you, James! Just fuck you!”—Bette
Bette really was the embodiment of rich privilege on the show, even more so than Dana. Her remarks about their housekeeper Sonia (whom you can bet was a Latina) drove that home. Saying they needn’t bother to clean up after a party because Sonia was coming the next day, or noting how dirty it was under the bed and saying they needed to tell Sonia to clean under there. Perhaps I am biased, being a poor person who has worked as a housekeeper, but this drove me up the wall. In general the show revolved around rich (and mostly white) women, and it normalized rich person attitudes. Namely, disrespecting and showing no courtesy to poorer people. Shane notwithstanding, of course, because she was hot.
Now, I realize we need characters who are morally ambiguous and have flaws. I appreciate characters like that! What I didn’t appreciate was how The L Word ignored these women’s flaws and even touted them as strengths. Bette was a power lesbian, so all her arrogance, bullying, and self-centeredness were justified. And Shane had a tragic backstory and just wanted to have fun, so that made it okay to leave a trail of broken hearts in her wake and accept no responsibility for it. Even if The L Word was not meaning to imply those things, that is how it came across.
It sent young wlws all the wrong messages.
This is the crux of my argument. The L Word gave us the representation we so desperately needed, and it told our stories. Unfortunately, it was guilty of irresponsible storytelling. I tend to be very Watsonian in the way I view shows. That is, I prefer to get absorbed in the world of the story and judge it by that world’s standards, rather than examining it from the outside and looking at how it reflects and affects the real world. But as a member of this community who got to witness the damage this show caused firsthand, it’s something I can’t ignore in retrospect.
At a time when it held the ear of pretty much the entire wlw community, The L Word implicitly sent a bunch of unhealthy messages to these women, many of whom were young and impressionable. It implied that biphobia and identity policing were okay and even justified. It implied that it was okay to go after straight women in relationships because hey, they might turn out to be queer after all! Perhaps most damaging, it implied to a whole generation of young wlws that it was desirable to be emotionally distant and unfaithful, as long as you were attractive.
It’s totally possible the creators didn’t mean to say some of those things, though others I’m pretty sure they did (read: biphobia). The thing is, when you hold cultural sway, you need to be careful. People will read into the media you put out there and use it to prop up their existing biases. Shows are at their best when they make you think and challenge your prejudices. And The L Word failed to do that.
This is why I say we do not need a reboot. I fear it would do more harm than good. Do we really want to pass this set of effed up values on to yet another generation of young wlws? I understand the place The L Word and its characters hold in many of our hearts. But if these are the messages it sends, maybe we should let it stay in the past and view it with a critical eye as a product of its time.
Actually, possibly the best thing The L Word could do is reboot and fix these problems. I issue this challenge to the creators: show us some growth in the characters and the way they view the world. Show Shane and Bette taking some responsibility for their actions and not treating other people like garbage. Show the bisexual characters and their identities being treated with respect. Make consent part of the narrative in the sex scenes and stress its importance. More shows now are addressing issues such as these, and it makes The L Word feel even more dated in its outlook.
But if it could right these wrongs, that’s a reboot I’d want to see.
Images Courtesy of Showtime