I have known about and been somewhat aware of The L Word for some time now. I haven’t watched it religiously over the past few years—partly because I wasn’t living in California, and mostly because I have never had the money to pay for Showtime. But I had my mandatory crush on the show (Shane, though now, I’m leaning more towards Helena) and I knew enough to talk about it with friends. If you are a gay gal, you almost know about The L Word by osmosis—you just know.
But this year is different. I have friends with Showtime (read: money), and On Demand makes just about anything possible. Sunday night is a big TV night for me anyway—I am a cartoon freak, so I tune into The Simpsons and Family Guy. But when ten o’clock rolls around, the channel is changed to Showtime and I await my hour of lesbian drama.
For those of you who don’t know, The L Word is a show about lesbians, their lives, their loves, and their friends. It’s really the only show of its kind. It is set in super trendy West Hollywood and revolves around a group of friends—kind of like a lesbian 90210 or Sex and the City. The women have very different jobs (hairdresser, writer, artist, trust-fund baby, Web designer, limo driver, coffee shop owner) and desires (to have kids, to be a player, to sing, to love, to cause trouble), but the show centers around their commonalities—a group of women living and loving in Los Angeles.
The “star” of the show is Jennifer Beals, whom you might remember from a little flick called Flashdance. She has traded in the leg warmers for the power suits that her character Bette needs to navigate in the world of high art. Another main character is Bette’s straight sister, Kit, who is played by Pam Grier, the star of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. Other notables include Leisha Hailey (Alice), the former lead singer of The Murmurs, and Laurel Holloman (Tina), who played the lead role in The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love.
The L Word is very big in San Francisco. Each Sunday night, at least five girl bars show it on their big screen TVs, and the lesbians flock to the viewings the way frat boys flock to the keg. I guess I got sucked in. I hate jumping onto any bandwagon, and I really don’t live my life as gay as some people do—most of my friends are straight, and I am not a vegetarian, nor do I wear Birkenstocks—well, not anymore. But let me tell you, I am really glad this bandwagon stopped by my place. The L Word has been a nice addition to my consciousness, and I would much rather have my drama on the screen than in my bed.
Sure, it’s great to see some relationships on TV that actually reflect my life. It’s also pretty cool to see a storyline where a female is transitioning to being a male—you don’t get that on the OC. And I will admit that I enjoy seeing two women having sex on the screen, since the only other girl-on-girl action is in porn films made by guys with two very straight females with long fingernails doing things I would never even think of doing to another person.
Imagine never seeing your reality reflected on TV—it sucks. Growing up in Virginia, I didn’t even know what gay was until I read about it in a book at nineteen. Sure, it’s out there more now, but there are still frightened gay kids living all over the world who never see their thoughts or dreams or desires reflected anywhere—shows like this really do have a purpose. Most laymen and experts agree that gays make up about 10 percent of the population, but according to research from the ’90s to the present, gay kids are two to three times more likely to commit suicide than their straight counterparts, comprising 30 percent of all youth suicides.
Imagine how much things can change if you just see a little part of yourself in the world and have some of your feelings validated—believe me, it makes an enormous difference. Just reading about “gay” was enough for me to come out of the closet because it showed me that I was not alone and that other people felt the way that I do. I can’t even imagine how awesome it would have been to have watched something like The L Word while I was growing up and feeling like an alien, but not knowing why.
The L Word has always been “the lesbian show” on TV, but this year, it seems to have transcended that little box. It’s out in the mainstream media winning awards, and all that good stuff. But I think the most exciting thing about this season, and why you should start watching it, is the addition of two new characters and some captivating and timely storylines.
This season, two highly respected actresses joined the cast of The L Word, and are creating quite a scene. Cybill Shepherd and Marlee Matlin—maybe you have heard of them? Shepherd plays Phyllis, a well-respected university dean, wife, and mother who unexpectedly comes out as a lesbian to her colleague, Bette. Phyllis falls in love with one of Bette’s friends, and clings to the new community as her old life begins to crumble around her. Last week, her husband ended up sitting in bed, having a drink with four lesbians, while they tried to explain to him what was going on with his wife. Have you ever seen that on TV before? Shepherd’s character and presence have brought a new feel to the show—one that is honest and difficult. Can you imagine coming out in your fifties?
Marlee Matlin has brought a unique dimension to the show—her character is deaf (of course), which is distinctive in itself. But her character also busts through traditional notions of monogamy. I don’t know if most of you know what the majority of the lesbian community is like, but monogamy is usually paramount. There are countless jokes about women jumping into monogamous relationships very quickly, most of them involving a U-Haul, but that’s another story.
Matlin’s character does not believe in monogamy, and the ensuing discussion of that topic is quite refreshing. Most people never talk about this kind of stuff, and Matlin’s presence in general is causing new dialogue. She has a gay guy who speaks for her, she smokes pot, she is a rebellious artist, and she has been ignored in academic meetings because of being deaf. What other TV shows are even broaching these topics? And, as a side note, I have never seen a hotter sex scene than the first one between Matlin and Beals’ character. It sounds kind of silly, but it feels really good to have such awesome actresses bring their skills to this show. It brings a certain level of legitimacy to our community that these gifted people are applying their talent to lesbian stories. And these actresses are pretty much all straight—there are only two actresses on the show who are actually gay (try to guess without looking it up!).
The storylines have also moved up a notch. There is a woman (Tasha)—who served in Iraq, who is haunted by flashbacks, and who happens to be black—dating a pretty silly white girl. A fan favorite, Shane, has always been a player with no heart, but she is touched by the arrival of her little brother, and moved to be responsible and to show her feelings for the first time on the show. There is a straight couple who is dealing with infidelity, and a former girlfriend who left her partner for a man. There is the transsexual character (Max), who is “coming out” at his job. There is a real “playa” type (Papi) who is falling for a straight woman who is inspiring her to change her ways. The show is not just about lesbians, it is about how our lives connect with and are affected by our relationships with everyone in our worlds.
I used to think of The L Word as a “gay” show, and I would watch it for the same reason I would watch Queer as Folk or Will and Grace—to see some gay people, hear some gay jokes, and to see some of my reality on TV. In the past, The L Word was a gay show that happened to be about women. But now, with all of the cast additions and deep, provocative storylines, I think that The L Word has matured into a show about women, most of whom just happen to be gay.
And that’s a big difference. When Ellen goes from “lesbian comedian” to comedian, Brokeback Mountain goes from a “gay movie” to a moving love story, and Melissa Etheridge goes from “lesbian singer” to Academy Award winning songwriter, it shows that society is focusing more on talent than on sexual orientation, which is the way it should be. The L Word is a really good show that just happens to be about lesbians. Give it a whirl—I bet that you’ll like it.